Writers rarely achieve true celebrity. The documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously depicts a rare case: an author whose persona is closer to a rock star than an academic. In the film, we watch Neil Gaiman navigate his final signing tour in the United States and the UK, where he meets thousands upon thousands of fans and offers them thoughtful advice, hugs, and self-deprecating anecdotes. He develops immense pain in his signing hand, and he soaks his wrist and elbow in a bucket full of ice water every night (a technique he picked up from a massage therapist in Seattle). He is exhausted and tries not to show it. His thumbnail falls off.
To make sense of this fame, Dream Dangerously spends plenty of time showing how and why so many people have been moved by Gaiman’s work. We learn about his background as a comic-book writer and how devoted fans followed him from project to project, from graphic novel to novel to film, until each of his projects achieved cult and mainstream success. The darkness in his vast body of work—the creepy universality he creates that resonates in a deep, secret part of a reader’s psyche—is highlighted, and Gaiman jokes (almost proudly, like a father who has raised children perfectly in his image) that all his fans look like they might commit suicide at any moment.
But the bulk of the documentary is not about the work itself but about how that work affects readers, viewers, fans, and friends. They see Gaiman—we see Gaiman—as a faultless, principled man, born without self-doubt. He takes great pleasure in telling the story of when he was a struggling young writer and turned down a gig for Penthouse because his moral compass wouldn’t allow it. He is full of conviction and creativity, and over and over in the course of the film we see him give everything, from his body to his sanity, to the people who support him. His following feeds him.
But the truth is, writers aren’t really meant to be in the public eye. They do their work in isolation; even if they’re successful, they aren’t usually famous or instantly recognizable. They write alone and live below the radar. Gaiman clearly gets a kick out of being adored, but ultimately it’s not a sacrifice for his art—his art is the sacrifice. When he talks about his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, he says that she goes on tour to do what she loves—performing. “I’m not a signer, I’m not an anecdoter,” he sighs. After he signs his last book, he’s relieved. “I’m about to retire from being a public figure and go back to being a writer.”