A completely unnecessary piece on Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman”

I had thought about compiling a ranking of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books in the manner of my previous (and gratifyingly popular) China Mieville and Clive Barker top 10s. But if you don’t know Sandman, although they can be read as stand-alone volumes, you’ll get more out of them if you read them in order. So there’s no point (for instance) rating The Wake at number 1 and Preludes and Nocturnes at 10, thus sending a new reader straight off to the end of the entire cycle.

Equally, the world doesn’t need another Sandman re-read or book-by-book review. There are plenty such websites, and good ones too. If you need a synopsis or annotations (and there’s The Annotated Sandman which I don’t own because a) they’re bloody expensive and b) I like not knowing all the references and still being able to make the connections myself) then Google will find one for you in moments.

What this is is a personal reflection – self-indulgent, if you will – on my relationship with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a work of fiction that I rank among the very best, and which for me stands far above anything he has written since (sorry Neil).

An article in Skeleton Crew magazine was my introduction. My friend Will and his brother Sean were huge comic fans: 2000AD, Deadline etc., none of which really appealed to me but that may have just been because I needed a way in. And this – a horror/dark fantasy comic – seemed to be it.

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We loved horror (Will has recently written a superb piece on revisiting 80s horror). FEAR and Skeleton Crew were our monthly updates on what was new. That summer (whose cinematic adventures I have written about elsewhere) saw the publication of James Herbert’s Creed and Stephen King’s Four Past Midnight. There was no new fiction from Clive Barker that year, but there were two tie-ins to his new film Nightbreed.

Not that we only cared for the new: there was a bookshop (Bell, Book and Candle) down the road from our High School which had a decent second-hand section, and a tiny stall in Perth Indoor Market which had a good stock of pulp horror, fantasy and SF: it was where we first stumbled across the remarkable Guy N. Smith and his Crabs books.

As it happens, diagonally opposite this stall was a comic stall and it was here, the Skeleton Crew article fresh in my mind, that I found issue 17 of Sandman (“Calliope”) some time in the summer or autumn of 1990. I bought it and the next three issues as they came out. Why I bought no more after that I couldn’t say; nor did I know at that point that these four comics comprised the entirety of what was later collected as Dream Country. I couldn’t have timed it better.

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The Skeleton Crew piece helped to promote the recent publication of The Doll’s House, arguably the single-most important comic publication in modern times. Not necessarily the best comic (though it is superb), but in terms of what it signified for the industry. Comics, from now on, were not just published and forgotten. They were collected – or even written specifically for paperback publication – and in being collected and released as discreet volumes, their status was raised. They were now graphic novels. Was there snobbery on my part? Was I warming to comics because there was an aura of respectability now? Maybe a little, but it wasn’t just that. I bought other comics for a while – Miracleman (Gaiman again), Third World War, a Nightbreed adaptation. And then a funny thing happened: I went off horror.

1991. Seventeen, heading for my sixth and final year at High School. And beyond that, an ambition to study literature at University.

Literature, not horror. In school, that meant Jane Austen and Emily Bronte; for my dissertation I studied Iain Banks (somehow unaware of The Wasp Factory‘s genre: my definition of horror was perhaps a little narrow). Outside school, things had changed. Dance music and the culture of positivity around it was what interested me: I was reading Kerouac and the Beats, or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The kind of stuff seventeen year-olds should read. A Clockwork Orange. Carlos Castaneda and lots of New Age books – shamanism, Terence McKenna – that I barely recall now and scarcely believe I once devoured. A real mix, which with hindsight was a typical teenage search for something. But no horror (or almost none: Clive Barker’s evolution into dark fantasy meant the messianic Imajica was an essential purchase).

But one slender volume kept being pulled off the shelves. The Sandman, issue 19. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Before I go any further, I should provide a brief intro for those of you unfamiliar with The Sandman. Everyone else can skip to the next paragraph. There are the Endless: neither gods nor superheroes. They are “anthropomorphic personifications”; they are Death, Destiny, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight) and Destruction. They are the ultimate dysfunctional family. The Sandman is Dream, aka Morpheus, Lord Shaper. A pale-faced yet dark, brooding, Pete Murphy / Robert Smith-like figure who is lord of the Dreaming, the realm all entities reach in their sleep. He is not a figure of action: key moments may be expressed by a sentence or a shrug rather than a battle. At the beginning of the series he has been trapped for most of the 20th century. Upon escape, he sets in motion a chain of events that soon becomes inevitable. As Neil Gaiman has written, the story is essentially a seventy-five issue exploration of how someone can adapt, or not. No synopsis can hope to do justice to the sheer inventiveness of this comic. Funny, dark and magical, Gaiman brings in every known folk tradition or legend – and makes some up out of whole cloth – to seamlessly create his universe. You really should read it, but if you struggle with Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume (the most straight-up “horror” of them all, in which the collaborative team were finding their feet) do persevere. I know several people who couldn’t get past it and missed the rich delights of subsequent volumes. And, as threads are woven throughout the series, it bears constant re-reading. There are characters as complex and sympathetic as any novel (my favourite is probably Matthew, the raven). You could lose yourself in The Sandman.

So, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. An issue I bought when it came out, it didn’t affect me as much as either “Calliope” or “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” which preceded it. But it must have seeded something in my mind because I kept returning to it, like an itch, or a scab, or a wobbly tooth. I didn’t know – because I was no longer plugged into the world of genre fiction – that this issue had been the first comic to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story1. What is it about? Well, in issue 13 “Men of Good Fortune”, Dream had taken an unpromising playwright aside for a brief chat. Six issues and four years later, Shakespeare delivers the first of two plays for Dream, which his troupe (featuring genuine historical figures such as Will Kemp, Richard Burbage and the doomed young Hamnet Shakespeare, Will’s son) then premiere by the Long Man of Wilmington for an audience from the realm of Faerie, headed by – yes – the regal and slightly terrifying Oberon and Titania themselves.

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It’s clever – heavy use of dramatic irony in counterpointing lines from the play with scenes from its production – and learned (Kit Marlowe’s murder is mentioned, Dream and Shakespeare talk in iambic pentameter, and the period details are spot-on), and funny: in reaction to Robin Goodfellow’s “I am that merry wanderer of the night” one of the creatures in the crowd, who knows well the Puck’s true nature, retorts “I am that giggling-dangerous-totally-bloody-psychotic-menace-to-life-and-limb, more like it”. It’s also, I realise now, a form of modern folk horror avant-la-lettre. I think one of the things I liked about it, and which I also liked about Barker’s fiction (Weaveworld and Imajica) was the sense of other worlds only just out of our perception, and which might impinge upon our reality.

At some point, presumably one summer, flush with cash from a holiday job I found and bought the next Sandman collection Season of Mists. For many years – a decade or more – this was the only collected volume I owned, and I must have read and re-read it dozens of times, trying to spot the references and pierce its mysteries. Only true works of art can bear that much scrutiny and still reveal new depths.

In this collection, which follows directly from the stand-alone short stories in Dream Country, Dream is handed the keys to Hell. Literally. Gaiman took delight in subverting his readership’s expectations: he had laid subtle traps about the nature of Death before that character appeared in the first truly great episode of the series, the coda to Preludes and Nocturnes, “The Sound of Her Wings”2; likewise Lucifer appears in a misleading demonic silhouette before he’s revealed in all his angelic glory (modelled on David Bowie, a superb decision which since Bowie’s death only gains new strength). Dream must decide which pantheon should take ownership of this prime psychic real estate.

So, I owned two of the storylines: surely I was a committed fan? Well, no. I wasn’t a member of Dundee City Library, nor did the University library stock comics (it may well do now), and these volumes were expensive for a student. Plus, though I suspect there was a comic shop in the back of the Wellgate shopping centre I never went there. And I had a degree to study for. It was another few years – after leaving Uni – that I picked up the thread, only to discover that the series had actually finished. This, also, was unprecedented: comic series did not end, they were passed on to new writers and artists. But Gaiman had known from early on where the strip was going, and to be true to it he had to draw it to a close (which he does beautifully in The Kindly Ones and The Wake, the only comics that can bring a lump to my throat, but don’t head right there first: to get the full emotional weight you’d do best to read from the start).

Not that I knew this. I remember in the early 2000s finding a few volumes – can’t now remember which ones – in my local library in Hertfordshire and realising I had years worth of Sandman to catch up on. Long story short: I bought the remaining volumes over the next few years, even Dream Country for completions’s sake, even though I owned the original comics (and the 15-year anniversary collection Endless Nights: where it’s good it’s very very good and where it isn’t it’s meh).

One aspect of Sandman which has proved entirely baleful is its influence on my own writing. It has inspired several efforts of my own, and none were successful (or even completed, as far as I can recall). This is not Neil Gaiman’s fault. Much as I would love to be able to write such an epic, I really don’t think that’s where whatever strengths I have, lie.

Gaiman announced a whole new mini-series to mark 25 years. I saw him speak about this at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and then Sandman Overture came out. I was both over- and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed: the artwork was like no comic I’d ever seen. Sandman had been illustrated by many artists (again, unusual among comics): Gaiman would decide whose style would best fit a particular storyline and use them, so you have hugely different visual styles: Charles Vess and Marc Hempel, for instance. But J.H. Williams III took Sandman to new visual levels: psychedelic, disorienting, three-dimensional: utterly stunning. But the story did little for me. Intended as a prequel, it shows how Dream had allowed himself to be captured back in the early 20th century, where we find him in issue 1 of Preludes and Nocturnes.

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I found the story all over the place. Now, the artwork – the “panel division” such as exists – is truly all over the place, in a good way. But the story seemed that way too; there seemed loose ends and unresolved themes (not necessarily a bad thing, but it felt strange given the circumstances of this mini-series). Only on the most recent re-reading have I changed my mind. Yes, the storytelling to a degree is all over the place, but the story demands it. And those unresolved threads? They’re resolved, but you’ll need to re-read the rest of the series. Gaiman has done a wonderfully subtle job, with lots of little nods and easter eggs for long-term readers3. There are connections to almost all the other volumes, not just Preludes and Nocturnes. It’s a work by a writer bringing all of his experience to the table. It’s sent me back to the rest of the series for the umpteenth time. Maybe I’ll see you in there sometime.

 

 

1 And last, because they immediately changed the rules to stop a comic ever winning again.

2 Initially collected in the original edition of The Doll’s House.

3 And possibly the best line in the entire series: Dream’s “Am I always like this?” when surrounded by hundreds of different versions of himself.

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