Ask any God, Demigod, or divine manifestation, and they'll all tell you the same thing: The tough part is the omnipresence. Neil Gaiman knows this better than any of them, especially today. Because today, the 42-year-old author must complete an epic labor: He must make it from one end of San Diego's Comic-Con International to the other without being, as he puts it, ''loved to death.''
That's harder than it sounds. At comic-book conventions, the faithful are VERY faithful -- frighteningly so, unless you're accustomed to seeing grown men dressed as wood elves and Wookiees. And at this particular convention, the world's largest, the faithful are also legion: 75,000 are in attendance. Gaiman's devotees -- who skew young, female, and Goth, but also include middle-class families and seniors in wheelchairs -- know his trademark leather jacket and his black anemone of hair on sight, and just a glimpse won't do. Some fly around the country just to bask in his presence. Others -- like Tori Amos -- are content with friendship. Still others -- like Robert Zemeckis and Harvey Weinstein -- just like being in business with the guy. And a select few want his name permanently etched on their bodies. (Gaiman once signed a man's arm, only to see him return a few hours later with the autograph freshly tattooed, the i's dotted with beads of blood.) The fervor isn't entirely unwarranted: Gaiman has given them all something to believe in.
Specifically, he's given them ''The Sandman,'' first published by DC Comics (owned by EW parent company Time Warner) in 1988, brought to an end in 1996, and which has haunted bookstores in 10 graphic novels ever since. It was one of the first comics to find a large female readership: Gaiman claims it was ''sexually transmitted'' as boyfriends gave it to their girlfriends to show them that comics were for grown-ups, too. ''Sandman'' was among the first to include an array of substantive gay characters. And it's the only comic book ever to win a prose-fiction prize (the 1991 World Fantasy award for short story).
''Sandman'' attempts to explain the jagged joys and arbitrary horrors of human life thusly: The cosmos is run by a dysfunctional family. (Now it all makes sense, doesn't it?) They're the Endless -- not gods, exactly, but ineluctable aspects of existence, personified: lonely Dream; cheerful Death; stolid Destiny; treacherous, androgynous Desire; morbidly obese Despair; on-the-lam Destruction; and batty, punky Delirium (who was once Delight, but you know how that goes).
Gaiman probably could have started a church on his ''Sandman'' following. But, bless him, the guy loves story more than scripture. His restless imagination forged on to create the apocalyptic comedy ''Good Omens'' (coauthored with Terry Pratchett), the New York Times best-seller ''American Gods,'' and the Hugo award-winning children's book ''Coraline,'' not to mention scores of short stories, poems, audio plays, and the BBC TV miniseries-turned-novel, ''Neverwhere.'' He has also just released a best-selling children's book, ''The Wolves in the Walls.'' And that's not even touching the half-dozen Gaiman-related projects currently slouching towards Hollywood. But what has his acolytes rejoicing is ''The Sandman: Endless Nights'' -- a new 160-page hardcover graphic novel that marks Gaiman's first real return to Sandman since he ended the series seven years ago.
Gives some credence to the whole omnipresence thing. Not to mention the whole universal adoration thing. ''Neil is the kind of man who inspires other people, myself included, with strong feelings of affection, even love,'' says Michael Chabon, author of ''The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.'' ''He is big-souled. And, also, really, really cute.''
But not overly cute, Amos is quick to point out. ''Neil the writer can be a nice guy -- but he's quite dangerous,'' says the singer, who was one of Gaiman's inspirations for the manic Delirium. ''I think the nice guy is a cover so the writer can be protected from the public, and the public from the writer.''
But there's precious little protection going on today at Comic-Con: The throng is closing in, and while Gaiman's spirit may be willing, his flesh is dog-tired and desperately in need of sushi. Concluding an address to an auditorium of a thousand fans, he must be escorted from the room by a small militia of Klingons (the Hell's Angels of comic-book conventions). He's whisked briskly down the hall to an autograph table, where a thousand more supplicants are lined up. But along the way, he takes a moment to contemplate Death. In the world of Sandman -- and the world of Gaiman -- this is actually a pleasant thing, as Death of the Endless is an adorable chalk-white, black-clad Goth girl.
''Hello, you look wonderful!'' he exclaims, posing for a picture with a fan dressed as the Undiscover'd Country From Whose Bourn No Traveler Returns. Death giggles, but does not blush. Of course, a mainstream observer could dismiss all of this as cult adulation. But how big does a cult have to get before it becomes bona fide religion?