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All the Comics in the World: Sandman
By Shaenon K. Garrity
Thursday January 13, 2011 06:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
I just reread Neil Gaiman's Sandman for the first time since high school, something I'd dreaded doing for years. It was the new editions of the first two volumes that got me started, with the totally re-colored art. I was amazed not just by how much better the comic looked with the new colors, but how much more clearly and enjoyably it read. Cartoonists, never overlook color. It's part of the story. Even if you work in black and white, that choice is part of the story. Anyway, Sandman looks a lot better when it's less puce.

I dreaded rereading Sandman because it was the comic that got me hooked on comic books, when I was a nerdy teenager who hung out with the goths and followed them to Kent State coffeehouses on Friday nights, and there was no way it could possibly live up to my memories. The Dark Knight Returns didn't; the art's still amazing, but all of Batman's monologues now sound like they're about butt sex, and the fact that I can't read them without giggling indicates that I've somehow gotten more juvenile since I was sixteen.

I didn't think Sandman would stand the test of time, especially after I'd spent a decade and a half drinking deep from the mighty beard of Gaiman's guru, Alan Moore, and other creators from Escape magazine, that 1980s cartooning group sometimes called the British Invasion: Eddie Campbell, Dave McKean, Glenn Dakin (a favorite of one of my own gurus, Tom Hart), James Robinson. Gaiman is the most popular of that loose knot of creators, but also one of the less challenging: while Campbell squiggles wittily down his own navel into the beery back restrooms of the subconscious and Moore uses his magic powers to speak in an impenetrable language composed entirely of referents, like Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra (I'm still that nerdy teenager at heart), Gaiman does crowd-friendly riffs on Lucy Clifford and James Branch Cabell, which seems downright prime-time by comparison.

But, as it turns out, Sandman really is a darn good comic book.

The plot is the least important part of Sandman, a nice change from most comic books, and it's only on this rereading that I think I can follow its thin thread from start to finish. Boiled down from 75 issues: Morpheus, the ancient supernatural being who rules the realm of Dream, or maybe Story, and takes the physical form of a mopey guy in black, is imprisoned by Crowley-type black magicians for 70 years. He emerges somewhat changed, although he refuses to admit it, and is inspired to free people he himself has imprisoned over the millennia, starting with an old girlfriend he condemned to Hell (in its own way, Sandman contains as much naked wish-fulfillment as any superhero comic) and culminating in his son Orpheus. In the end—spoilers, spoilers, spoilers—Morpheus faces the choice between freeing himself from his own dream kingdom or dying. He chooses the latter, elegantly engineering his own execution at the hands of the mythological Furies. (His choice is contrasted with that of his brother Destruction, who abandoned his realm and now spends his time on little acts of creation. Would Dream, as a free man, have gone off to live in reality?)

Liberty or death: it's a choice that speaks to teenage theatricality, to the hot hormonal pressure-cooker of adolescence where it feels like it really has to be one or the other, and now. But it would be nice, as a teenager, if you could be cool about it, all classy and high-mannered and dispassionate, and also have really nice cheekbones. And that's the appeal of Sandman, at the core.

But what makes it a good comic, and rereading it I do think it's a very good comic, is the rich, expansive universe Gaiman builds around that core. At various points in its seven-year run, Sandman is a gruesome horror comic (one of my most unfortunate moments in high school came when my mother decided to have a look at what I was reading and happened to pick up the face-skinning issue, and boy did I wish I could have been cool and dispassionate then), high fantasy, historical fiction, urban fantasy from back when it meant Charles de Lint rather than Laurell K. Hamilton, magical realism, fairy tale, road-trip buddy comedy, and whatever it is when Death shows up, which is Awesome. The individual plotlines are handled as diffidently as the main arc, frequently fizzling out in some kind of deus ex machina—literally so in "Season of Mists," when God Himself steps in to resolve the dispute that has engrossed the characters for the entire storyline.

But if the destination is sometimes less than satisfying, it's always a colorful journey. By the end of the comic Gaiman has created an enormous cast, constantly hinting at elaborate backstories for each and every member. We never, by the end, find out much about Bast. Or the Queen of Faerie, what her whole relationship with Morpheus was. Or the old man with one swan's wing, though I always assumed he was the unfortunate final brother from the fairy tale "The Twelve Swans." Or all the previous ravens. Or what happened to Eblis O'Shaughnessy, afterwards. Or why Delight became Delirium, or when the first Despair died.

Before I became a teenager, when I was just as nerdy but a little less gloomy and a lot less concerned with staying cool, my favorite book was Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, another story about storytelling. The movie version, key to any complete 1980s childhood, only covers the first half of this strange and dreamlike children's book. In the second half, young hero Bastian Balthazar Bux builds a universe from his imagination, only to be barred from leaving it until he finishes.

"The Water asks you," Falkor translated, "whether you completed all the stories you began in Fantastica."

"No," said Bastian. "None of them really."

Falkor listened awhile. His face took on a worried look.

"In that case, it says, the white snake won't let you through. You must go back to Fantastica and finish them all."

"All the stories?" Bastian stammered. "Then I'll never be able to go back. Then it's all been for nothing."

But mysteries and secrets are worth something, and the untold stories are some of the best ones, or else I wouldn't have read and reread Ende's book under the covers through so many school nights. And in the end Bastian is allowed to leave, provided he inspires someone else.

I wanted to fit something about the art of Sandman into all this. I wanted to talk about how extraordinarily lucky Gaiman was in the artists with whom he was paired for the series, beginning to end. I wanted to mention the hurried gotta-meet-the-deadline inking job that destroyed an entire issue of Jill Thompson's lovely pencils, and that when I was younger I thought the single issue drawn by Teddy Kristiansen was the most beautiful comic book ever drawn. I was going to do this clever thing where I looped back around to the coloring by contrasting the smeared lines and muddy 1980s color of the early issues with the advances in printing technology illustrated by the final story arc, shot directly from Michael Zulli's feathery pencils and tinted with delicate pastel color.

But on reflection, I think I should end on storytelling and dreams. So that is another story and shall be told another time.

Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.

All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010



Anonymous_3962 (1 year ago)
I reread Sandman almost every year, it's amazing considering how many comics have fell out of my favor in the latest years (yes, Oh my goddess! I am looking at you) sandman is still my favorite.
stephendg123 (2 years ago)
I feel the same when talking about Gaimans other comics and that kinda sucks when you look back and see how great and vast Sandman was. I've read the trades for years just randomly picking one out of the closet and find it incredible how they seem as relevant today as they did way back then. Be easy on Fables though. I honestly think it too is a great book with a great storyline. Biggest difference is its more action based than fantasy and that's not a bad thing.
Shaenon (2 years ago)
Yes, but you're less taken with *everything,* Noah.
To be honest, one of the reasons I dreaded rereading Sandman was that I haven't been blown away by anything else Gaiman has written; I've enjoyed some of his novels and other comics, but not to the point that they made a huge impression. But rereading Sandman, I got sucked into the whole elaborate universe and all the stories-within-stories. It made me feel fully justified in being underwhelmed by Fables.
Nobody but me ever writes like me. You can't hold it against them.
NoahB (2 years ago)
I was much less taken with Sandman on rereading than you were...but this is a lovely piece. The dark knight butt monologues and eddie campbell burrowing down his own navel into the restroom of the subconscious — if Neil Gaiman had ever written anything like that, he'd be a better writer.

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