Tangled Tales

Caught in the web of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys

5th February 2019

For fans of the scruffy and loveable author Neil Gaiman, right now is a golden age. He is seemingly everywhere — or Neverwhere, perhaps. The film adaption of Coraline turns 10 years old this year, and he is teaching a storytelling masterclass and putting the finishing touches on the newest adaptation of Good Omens staring Michael Sheen and David Tennant.

On top of that, season two of American Gods is just around the corner, so now is the perfect time for the release of the Folio Society‘s beautiful edition of Anansi Boys, featuring illustrations by Francis Vallejo and an introduction by author Nalo Hopkinson.

Illustration ©2019 Francis Vallejo from The Folio Society edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys is a spin-off from Gaiman’s mega-hit American Gods and follows the story of Charlie and Spider, the children of African trickster spirit — and scene stealer — Mr Nancy, in the wake of their fanciful father’s death. The Boys have to deal with the legacy of their father, the enemies he made his African tales, and one another.

Mr Nancy is an unforgettable character in the American Gods novel and, while frustratingly brief, his portrayal by Orlando Jones in the TV show is colourful, compelling and occasionally creepy. But Vallejo, working in a visual medium, had to forgo being influenced by the silver screen version. “I knew Anansi was a character in that show, and I did not want to be influenced by those existing creative decisions.”

By avoiding the visuals created by the show, Vallejo could instead focus on his own interpretation of the book. “I knew the book existed, but I had not read it. Of course, my first task was to read it. Then I read it again and took voracious notes. I supplemented this with internet research including fan forum theories, Gaiman interviews and the history of Anansi tales. Later in the process, I hired three actors and models to play Anansi, Charlie and Spider, and worked with a costume designer to curate their outfits.”

Vallejo describes his process as similar to that of American illustration legend Norman Rockwell.  This really comes through in his colour pages, and that Rockwell inspiration adds a stylised realism to the fantasy-realism that Gaiman so often works in, while his black and white illustrations have a quality of Nate Powell or Fabio Moon, with an easy and playful formality. A bit like Mr Nancy.

Illustration ©2019 Francis Vallejo from The Folio Society edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

Vallejo’s greatest success on Anansi Boys is the cover and slipcase of the book, a chaotic blend of Afrofuturism inspired illustration and media use that betrays just how considered its design is. For Vallejo, even pulling the book from its case became a method telling the tale of the arach-kids.

“The slipcase — represented by Anansi — surrounds and envelops the book (the boys each given a side of the book) similar to how a father envelops his children with his influence. The way the book is pulled from the slipcase is similar to how Anansi and the boy’s mother birth/create the boys. Even when they seemingly escape their father, meaning the book has been pulled from the slipcase, they are still enveloped by their father Anansi, represented by the green webbing on the fore-edge.”

For Vallejo, it wasn’t just a matter of delicately handling art. While the family relationship is a central theme to the book,  the role of race and identity was vital. The threads of his stories stretch out to London, America and the Caribbean, but Mr Nancy’s tale — that is Anansi’s tale — is at its heart, African.

It is important for there to be more diverse characters in literature and science fiction specifically

Literature legend goes that Gaiman had the idea for Anansi Boys after a conversation with Brummie funny man, Lenny Henry, who had spotted a lack of black characters in fantasy. Vallejo kept this in mind as he began work. “I was and am aware that this is a book about primarily black characters written and illustrated by non-black creators. It is important for there to be more diverse characters in literature and science fiction specifically. Hopefully, through extensive research and genuine consideration on both of our parts, that comes through in this project.”

Nalo Hopkinson, who provided the introduction for this edition, is a Jamaican-born Canadian science fiction and fantasy writer whose works often focus on Afro-Caribbean folklore and history — who recently wrote comics in Gaiman’s Sandman Universe — helped Gaiman with developing the language of his Caribbean characters alongside Henry.

This consideration alone makes the book a more authentically Anglo and Afro-Caribbean which, for Hopkinson “incrementally shifts industry practice in a more positive direction”.

His characters weren’t people who happened to be black. Neil had written his characters like people; people who are products of their cultural backgrounds

That said, a white author bumbling blindly around in a culture they don’t understand and without guidance is almost certainly a recipe for disaster. Some non-black readers could pour through the book without even realising that the vast majority of the characters are not white. That can say more about the reader and our culture than it does the author. Thankfully, as Hopkinson points out, not only did Gaiman seek out guidance, he was skilled enough to traverse such dangerous grounds when the experience of others failed him.

“Ask any 10 people who share the same background how something is done or said in their culture,” writes Hopkinson, “and you’ll probably get three contradicting answers. Cultures are not monolithic. They are created by living, variable people, so cultures themselves are variable. Writers have to figure out what to do with [that] data.”

Where language doesn’t quite align or culture appears inconsistent, fantasy can take over. A world where an African Spider-God spun his webs in more than folktales, catching mortals and families in his schemes, doesn’t necessarily have to match our own. But as fantastic as Mr Nancy’s stories and the world can be, Gaiman still had to fill it with real people, as Hopkinson puts it: “He treated the overwhelming black cast of characters like people.

Illustration ©2019 Francis Vallejo from The Folio Society edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

“His characters weren’t people who happened to be black. Neil had written his characters like people; people who are products of their cultural backgrounds. The novel’s roots are right there on the page, in the cultural elements those roots generate.

“It is clear that Mr Nancy is based in black-African and African-diasporic lore. It’s signified on pretty much every sensory level… In that area of the novel [Caribbean identity], I perceived delightful grace notes, many of them folded seamlessly and unmarked into the story. Neil put a meal of smoked mackerel and green banana into a fantasy novel!”

In a world where fantasy so often is just short white people, hairy white people or elegant white people eating magic bread, luncheon meat on hikes or huge roasts at terrible weddings, smoked mackerel and green banana might be the perfect metaphor for Anansi Boys. Enjoyable and familiar to some, and a yet undiscovered exploration into an experience you didn’t even know you were missing.

The Folio Society edition of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, introduced by Nalo Hopkinson and illustrated by Francis Vallejo, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

Featured Image Illustration ©2019 Francis Vallejo from The Folio Society edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

5th February 2019