I've sure I've lost half of you already just with the title, but before I go any further let me just get one thing out of the way: I think The Sandman is one of the greatest comics of all time, and I have no problem with it in terms of its execution: artwork, writing, and thematic depth and unity. I couldn't recommend it more.
That being said...
Maybe I've just read one too many of his blog entries where he's talking about his fucking IPod or whatever the shit, but I've had a vague feeling for quite some time that Neil Gaiman really isn't as great a writer as he's supposed to be. I think it started sometime around when I was reading Neverwhere and I thought "Yeah, I mean this is pretty good, it's got that 'I'm English so I'm trying to affect a sly, witty prose style in an understated, urbane fashion so I can appeal to naive American anglophiles taken in by the myth of British cultural sophistication and therefore shift units' vibe and some cool stuff in it, but...but. It was too...bland. I kept waiting for some kind of badass intellectual revelation or closing force of momentum, but it never came. This is embodied perfectly in the protagonist, whose name I can't remember but who seemed to have no distinctive traits other than being pleasant and kind in a vague sort of way, and thus thoroughly dull. I guess Gaiman was trying to give him some kind of moment of heroism or something, but...again, I can't remember the details. Nothing sticks in the mind.
I remember when I was maybe 15, I gave my father Neverwhere because he said he was looking for something to read. At the time I went around talking about how awesome Gaiman was because it was just -the thing to do-, and I remember asking him what he thought of it after he'd read it.
"Hm, yeah." he said.
"I think he's still trying to write a graphic novel." he said, and I couldn't get much more out of him. At the time I wrote it off as "Gaiman is the shit and you just can't see it," but I've come to realize he was right. Gaiman cannot reliably write prose; he is a script-writer at heart. This would become clearer to me when I read American Gods.
When I picked this book up, I figured that my doubts about Gaiman's merits as a writer were largely due to him making the transition from words and images to just words - The Sandman was so good, and Neverwhere wasn't bad, so it was only a matter of time before he got over the transition, and his sophomore book was going to kick ass.
Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. I remember disliking this book from essentially the first line (something about the main character looking 'big enough and don't-fuck-with-me enough' that he wasn't bothered in prison; Gaiman's attempts to make his character seem like a badass American were thoroughly outside of his skill area and thus risible), and even moreso once I realized that its plot was a thinly veiled ripoff of Douglas Adams' The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. However, the book's sheer unoriginality only became more manifest the further I went into it: look, he's using Odin again! Yeah, the same Egyptian gods he had in Season of Mists! Hey, now he's trying to make some kind of cultural comment on America, yay! Look, a completely anticlimactic climax at the end of a plot stuffed with a ridiculous number of convenient coincidences!
And this is the heart of my problem with Gaiman in general: his unoriginality, his fondness for old things. I even remember him saying in an interview somewhere that much of what he was trying to do was adapt and maintain old myths for today's readers. Tending graveyards instead of busting out something new. Old gods, old ideas, old plots.
You don't even have to read his books pretty much - you can infer much of this from just looking at him; there's not many ways to be as trite as wearing all black. A large majority of his fans are even worse; because Gaiman and his work are inherently conventional in a way that suggests the exact opposite, he attracts the kind of followers who think dressing like Death is an original statement. Neil Gaiman is the worst kind of populism, the kind where a readership (and I use the term in its full, pretentious, Marxist Cultural Studies sense, not just the 'Those who read books' kind) is tricked into thinking they're somehow oppositional, hip, or 'under-the-radar' when they are in fact doing nothing but affirming conventions.
If Gaiman hadn't written The Sandman, no one would care about his books. They certainly wouldn't get examined in organs like The New York Times Book Review; at best they'd be seen as just another example of average fantasy fiction: not bad, certainly, although not great: just inoffensive, pleasant, reassuring, entertaining. It's only because comics are perpetually seen as an 'outsider' (and thus cool) artform that he gets anywhere near the kind of accolades he does: caught up in the hype, reviewers and journalists figure anyone who made a great comic (however long ago) must be equally good at prose fiction.
These things become so much clearer when you contrast him with someone like Clive Barker, who is similar in many ways (English, fantasist, concerned with dreams, etc.) while still being strikingly different: when Gaiman uses gods, for example, it's the tried and true pantheon: Odin (over and over again), the Egyptians, Greek mythology, etc. When Barker uses gods, they're ones he's invented out of his own head, and they're usually all the more strange and interesting because of it.
When Barker's at his best, you end up so far inside his mind that you just lose your shit in a sense. I remember reading 'The Hellbound Heart' when I was like twelve or thirteen and just looking up in awe because I couldn't believe that there was actually someone out there in the world who could have thought of some of the shit in it, much less gotten it published. With Gaiman, it's just, "Okay, he's hoping the average reader is culturally ignorant enough to be surprised by the outcome of some Greek myth." Again, you could really see this in American Gods where he's trying so hard to be obscure using these Czechoslovakian gods and whatnot because he pretty much knows his game is up.
I forgot to mention that he stole the "Write Children's Books" idea from Barker as well. But, the reason Gaiman is presently more popular, of course, is because, as mentioned, he's safer. Barker's books are full of authentically fucked up, challenging, original ideas, and while those who write reviews and hand out awards pay lip-service to said ideas, they're not really looking for them, they're merely looking for works which seem to suggest rather than actually contain them, all while churning out the expected pieties and tried-and-true characters and plots.
The only other writer of comparable popularity who pisses me off as much is Chuck Pahlanuik, for many of the same reasons, although also in a different sense. Someone actually said something along the lines of "Chuck Pahlanuik is one of the greatest writers of all time" in one of my classes earlier this year, and I was honest to God five seconds away from punching him in the face. If he had of said Neil Gaiman, I probably would have reacted similarly. Unless he had of been a chick, in which case (s)he would in all likelihood have been dressed up like Death, and I would have just said "WHY ARE YOU DRESSED ALL IN BLACK? DO YOU WORSHIP SATAN OR SOMETHING?" before handing her a copy of The Watchtower, sundry Jack Chick tracts, and my cock.
I don't have that much of a problem with Neil Gaiman. I think he's a good writer, but not extraordinary. I loved Stardust (but hated the epilogue, if the epilogue had never existed, it would've been one of my all-time favourite fantasy books), was slightly disappointed with Neverwhere (it had some cool parts, and cool settings, but yeah, it's kinda bland, can't seem to generate enough emotions for myself, didn't help much when I have a really pessimistic interpretation of the ending too, and despite the fact that everyone I knew convinced me otherwise, I still believe that my interpretation's the more accurate one) and I like most of the short stories in his Smoke And Mirror anthology (the revision of the Snow White story is pretty insane, and others that are kinda haunting too).
But American Gods... that's supposed to be the most critically-acclaimed of Gaiman's novels! It won the Hugo Award (not sure whether he won the World Fantasy Award too or not), yet it was a major letdown for me. I don't know why, maybe because I read this book immediately after getting insanely mindfucked by Umberto Eco's Name of The Rose? I finished American Gods in just a few days, and wondered why the hell were everyone making such a big deal out of it. I like some aspects of the novel, like the appearances of some of the gods, and the quirky relationship between the protagonist Shadow and his dead wife (which I won't elaborate here), but despite the rather interesting setting, the plot itself was just too... meh.
That said, I AM looking forward to his new novel, and I might even want to check out the very critically-acclaimed children stories like Coraline and Wolves In The Wall, along with his award-winning short about a futuristic Sherlock Holmes (I think), but these damned stories better not disappoint me as much as American Gods did.