Rereading: STARDUST by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Stardust cover
©Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess.

I read this when it first came out as four square-bound comics, and loved it. It’s been my favorite piece of Gaiman prose I didn’t work on ever since, and I loved the illustrations by Vess as well. I saw the film version when it came out, and will buy the DVD when that’s available and watch it again, so this seemed a good time to reread the prose and once more enjoy the pictures, aided by the recent hardcover edition from DC.

Neil and I have some favorite fantasy authors in common, and one is Lord Dunsany, who was a major influence on this book, as Neil has acknowledged. If you’re not familiar with Dunsany, go read some of his short fantasy stories from the early years of the 20th century. I’ll put some links at the end of this article. Dunsany (rhymes with unrainy) also wrote some fine fantasy novels and lots of other entertaining books, but his reputation was made on the early short stories, with good reason. They’re full of inventive ideas and great prose, and paint an overall picture of an inviting fantasy world, the kind most readers would love to visit. H.P. Lovecraft fell under the Dunsany spell, and wrote a number of Dunsanian stories and one novel, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” Elements of Dunsany crept into SANDMAN now and then, especially I think in the issue about the cats (don’t recall which one that was), but other places too. And in STARDUST he used many Dunsanian elements, though of course put his own stamp on them, as any good writer should.

Sometimes after seeing a film, rereading the book is forever a changed experience, but I didn’t find that true in this case. There were moments in the book that made me recall the similar ones in the film, but only momentarily. And there are lots of things in the book that didn’t make it into the film at all. I think this is a case where both can coexist in my head without either troubling the other, which is a good thing. Neil’s prose is playful, inventive, humorous, dramatic, understated, in a word, magical. It’s still my favorite of his books.

Stardust picture

Charles Vess’ vast number of beautifully painted illustrations for the book are, of course, equally important to the project. When the unillustrated version came out, I never for a moment wanted to read it. What’s the point? The two are part and parcel of the whole. Above is my favorite, though it’s hard to choose just one, but I chose it for a reason: it shows the influence of Sidney H. Sime, the illustrator most associated with Lord Dunsany, who provided gray-tone and line art illustrations for many of his early books, and added much to their wonder. Here’s an example:

Sime illustration

Though never reproduced very well, they still have power, and I’m sure Charles would acknowledge Sime’s influence on his work in general, and especially for this book. I have no idea how closely Dunsany worked with Sime, but they seemed very much in synch, just as Neil and Charles are.

The extras in this new hardcover edition are also a delight, and include several new paintings by Charles for moments in the story he didn’t have a chance to illustrate before. Included is this title page for the original proposal:

Stardust Proposal

I hadn’t seen this in a long time. When the book was being produced by DC, I was asked to create a logo and titles based on this piece, and I hadn’t seen it since. Compare it to the first picture in this article to see what I did with it.

This reading I spent more time looking closely at all the pictures in STARDUST, and enjoying all the small details Charles included that I hadn’t noticed before, wanting to read on to find out what happened next. That’s another good reason to reread it.

If you haven’t read STARDUST, I certainly suggest you give it a try. But only the illustrated version! Dunsany and Sime would have been proud, I’m sure.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

3 thoughts on “Rereading: STARDUST by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

  1. David Goldfarb

    There’s quite a lot of Dunsany as e-texts at Project Gutenberg. You don’t get Sime’s illustrations, but it’s free and instantly accessible to anyone reading this.

  2. Todd Post author

    Thanks, David. Personally I don’t enjoy reading fiction online, but it would be a good way to sample a few stories. Most of the modern editions of Dunsany books don’t include the Sime illustrations either, but some do. If you can find the Dover reprints, those do, and are much cheaper than the original illustrated editions. There have been several books about Sime and his work. The one I have is “Sidney H. Sime, Master of Fantasy” by Paul W. Skeeters, also long out of print, but it can probably be found online, and other more recent books certainly can.

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