The stuff that dreams are made of

It’s easy to scoff at authors who complain about their book tours: oh, your publisher pays to fly you around the country to visit bookstores and meet people who are excited to see you? How horrible for you.

But in the new documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, the perils of a signing tour feel very visceral. In the span of three months, Gaiman estimates he has signed an average of three books for 50,000 individuals who have come to his events. He’s headlined nearly an event a day in that time. His thumbnail has fallen off because he’s signed so many books. He has to dip his hand and elbow into a bucket of ice water periodically because it’s the only thing that helps alleviate the pain caused by the repetitive stress of autographing books. Gaiman demonstrates a unique problem in the world of literature: he’s just too popular.

Dream Dangerously, which opens at the Grand Illusion Cinemas tomorrow and plays there through the 14th, follows Gaiman around what he claims to be his very last book signing tour ever. It’s a tour diary counting down to the final event, and along the way director Patrick Meany lays out a brief overview of Gaiman’s career, from his early journalism to his sudden success with the Sandman comic and his wildly popular novels.

It must be said that the first twenty minutes or so of Dream Dangerously is, to put it bluntly, not very good. We see endless oversaturated shots of Gaiman fans in line as Gaiman talks about writing in the clichéd language that elevates the craft to some kind of sorcery: all Gaiman ever wanted to do was to write, he always loved reading, the stories sometimes feel like they’re pouring through him as though he’s a conduit. That sort of thing. It’s rough going.

But once the film gets comfortable with its own rhythms, everything improves. Meany incorporates interviews with a wide variety of subjects — Patton Oswalt, DC Comics editors Karen Berger and Shelly Bond, comics writers Grant Morrison and G. Willow Wilson, the late Terry Pratchett — to intelligently and enthusiastically explain Gaiman’s impact on the world. Through the use of original comics pages and some animation to fill out the biographical sequences, the film comfortably handles exposition. Some of the interviewees actually do some decent literary criticism of Gaiman’s work, particularly in the stretch devoted to Sandman.

Ultimately, Dream Dangerously feels like an authorized biography: it is not really interested in asking hard questions of Gaiman, or suggesting that any of his books are anything less than genius. But as a look inside the final tour of one of the most popular writers on the planet, the film offers plenty of interesting details for Gaiman fans to soak up. Like those rockumentaries that fawn a little too much over their subjects, Dream Dangerously offers special access to Gaiman’s fans in exchange for a credulous tone that only hints at the negativity around the edges. For most fans, that’s an easy bargain to make.