Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman- Essays on the Comics, Poetry and Prose


Reviewed by: Louise MacAllister

PhD Researcher

University of Exeter

I have been an avid reader of Neil Gaiman’s work since I got drawn into the world of London Below, with the character ‘Door’ reconfiguring the familiar spaces of London through her knowledge of ‘London Below’ and her ability to create portals through this world at will. Having since spent many hours with Gaiman’s American Gods, Death, Other Mother (and Father), and stars landing in the world of Faerie to name but a few, I have become accustomed to Gaiman’s strong female characters, exerting their own agency and shaping the world. Alongside configurations of the world that are both familiar, yet different, Gaiman’s worlds hold strong potential for the subversion of gender. The editors of this collection have sought to draw together a collection of essays that seek to explore feminism in Gaiman’s worlds, through his characters and concepts. The collection is weighted in favour of his graphic novels and comics, a bias that some may find disappointing, but I found works quite well despite my love of Gaiman’s novels.

In the introduction Drucker and Prescott propose that while we can only speculate on Gaiman’s own feminist convictions, there is a “clear trail of affective narrative as (Gaiman) revises one genre and the next, finding ways to reach the marginalised, the questioning, the curious, and those that speak for the ones who can’t” (p8). This affective narrative trail through Gaiman’s worlds is explored as it intersects with feminist concerns.

Following the introduction, the collection begins with Martin’s essay on the fracturing of phallocentric discourse. This chapter is well situated as a broad introduction to the feminist concepts that are explored in their specificities in further chapters, and also to the limitations of a feminist project to be found within Gaiman’s work. Martin introduces the concept of the ‘phallocentric discourse’ in which women are only assigned agency and given meaning through the voices of men, before exploring how Gaiman’s work potentially subverts phallocentric discourse. Yet Martin cautions that although Gaiman may attempt to subvert phallocentric discourse through demonstrating an awareness of the gendered discourse in which he writes, we still “see men assigning, creating and governing the identity of women” (p12). This is evident for example in Death’s day on earth and Black Orchid’s rediscovery. Death is a female character who ‘walks on Earth once a century to better understand those to whom she will be the final visitor’ (Gaiman, 1994), yet Death herself is predominantly inscribed with meaning on her day on Earth by her male companion. Similarly, Black Orchid’s is a superhero who is violently killed in the opening scenes of the graphic novel, with the rest of the story documenting her process of self (re)discovery. In her quest to understand who is, Black Orchid relies on a number of male characters to construct herself understanding.

The collection then has four essays focussed on the Sandman series, before turning to graphic novels outside of Sandman. Later essays explore particular works of Gaiman, such as his Dr Who episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ (Capettini), collaborative work ‘Who Killed Amanda Palmer’ (Miller), or short story ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ (Law). Each of these chapters demonstrating the ways in which Gaiman’s texts, act to subvert and reconfigure traditional gendered meanings within the genres in which they are set. Other essays explore concepts that are covered in a number of Gaiman’s works. For example; Zarzycka considers liminality and empowerment, relating Gaiman’s texts to literary theories in order to question their subversive potential through the use of the liminal, and Russell uses Gaiman’s mother characters as a springboard from which to explore conceptualisations of what it is to be a good mother.

The quality of individual essays are variable, yet avid readers of Gaiman will probably enjoy reading through the whole collection regardless, each essay bringing new insights into the worlds that Gaiman fans immerse themselves within. This is also a useful collection for anyone interested in the intersections of gender and literary theory, in particular those with an interest in graphic novels and texts.

Taken together the collection demonstrates literary possibilities for rewriting gender. While Martin’s opening cautions about the limitations of Gaiman’s work as a feminist  project should not be disregarded, the collection does demonstrate Gaiman’s active re-writing of female agency. Perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Capettini’s chapter on Gaiman’s Dr Who episode in which Gaiman refigures the TARDIS to give her agency and participate in her own history. Gaiman’s texts are shown throughout the collection to revise the genres in which he writes, enabling female agency, and transcending narrowly defined gender roles