Rants and Reviews. Mostly just BS and Affiliate Links.
April 12, 2019
Though I had another book in mind to lead off this little series of essays, I never got around to re-rereading it. I was spurred to re-read the Sandman by a sale on all the digital editions, saving me from pulling the worn trades off the shelf.
Sandman’s original run was from 1989-1996. I picked up near the end of the run, getting a smattering of issues. Eventually scraping and saving for a copy for the first trade, Preludes and Nocturnes. Sandman followed on from Anne Rice, Neuromancer, and Nine Inch Nails in the slow cultivation of my awkward teenage goth years.
The entire Vertigo imprint was a starting lineup of badass writers: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Matt Wagner, Ed Brubaker, Brian K Vaughn and more I probably forgot. Every one of these writers was transformative to the medium in some way, taking their freedom from the weirdness of Vertigo back to the superhero books that still dominate the market.
That said, this is the series that made Neil Gaiman my favorite writer. It wasn’t the book that made me think I could be a writer, but it was the book that made me want to be a writer. In my eighth grade notes writing long-form scripts full of derivative characters and even worse plots. Though I had read the entire series, it was done in doses as I bought the trades. I finished my initial read through fifteen or so years ago, the trades and supplements still hold considerable real estate on my bookshelf.
The initial question when revisiting any piece of gateway counterculture is: “Does it hold up?” While most of 90’s mall goth culture has aged about as well as a gallon of milk in a hot car, Sandman is still great. That said, it’s influence was far beyond that little corner of middle American bullshit, so that shouldn’t be surprising. It won a World Fantasy Award, letting everyone know that comics were serious business again. (A funny thought in a culture overwhelmed with superheroes from January to October every year.)
If you only know serious literary man Neil Gaiman, you might have read American Gods. Sandman shares a lot of thematic elements about the power of belief and the multiverse of pantheons. Rather than a desultory gang of aging gods, we follow Dream of Endless. He isn't a god, which is reiterated several times throughout the series. The Endless are the glue of the universe, here when the place was switched on and will be here to tidy up after it’s gone.
Dream starts the first issue in the hands of an English mystic in the vein of Alister Crowley, who wanted to capture Death. Re-reading the series, it's amazing how many threads are put in place in just the first few issues.These threads run through each of the stories and tie together in the climax of The Kindly Ones. There are five additional trades Gaiman wrote playing in this universe, but it is amazing how well plotted the original ten trades are.
When the series finally wraps, Gaiman manages to pull in everything from Shakespeare to Baghdad’s golden age. We see Dream as he appears to cats. His appearance is malleable enough that he changes to fit the dreamer but is still immediately recognizable as Dream. We also get to meet each of his seven siblings. Probably the most beloved is Death, recast a cheery goth who loves everyone. Though Delirium, Destiny, Desire, Despair, and the long lost Destruction are all given their own threads and moments in the spotlight.
Re-reading this now, as a more well-read adult, this is a dense text with plenty of references that I missed as a teenager. What central, not only to the Sandman but Gaiman’s entire career, is a love of stories. A library full of all the novels people never wrote but only dreamt about is a recurring setting.
It’s what I have always loved about him as a writer, he’s pushing you to join him. Even if you never make a dime, find the way to tell your stories. This stance is perfectly exemplified by his “Make Good Art Speech” embedded at the top of this article.
The two Death trades are self-contained stories. The first is the story of the one day a century that Death lives as a mortal. The second is a more supernatural story revolving around a couple of characters from the first book. The Book Of Endless is an anthology book pairing Gaiman with different artists to tell a story about each of the seven Endless. Sandman Overture acts as a prequel of sorts but is told in a way that plays at making the original ten books a ring cycle. The final book in the series I read is the amazing The Dream Hunters.
Neil Gaiman weaving different bits of Japanese folklore into an original tale featuring the Sandman is interesting enough. It’s a prose book though, each page of text is paired with a painting by Final Fantasy artist, Yoshitaka Amano. There is a newer comic form, but get the original the art is gorgeous. Some of the familiar faces from the Dreaming show up here in unique forms for the Japanese tradition.
It’s hard to think of how radical Sandman was, let alone the rest of Vertigo. This was the height of Marvel, Image, Valiant, and DC doing grim and gritty heroes with swords, guns, and tons of pouches. There were chrome variant covers everywhere, things were so gimmicky they even killed Superman. Well, the industry hasn't really stopped chasing that last gimmick. The cast of characters is radically diverse, something Vertigo did better than most publishers. (I know it’s an imprint, but it had a much different editorial voice from DC proper.)
Fifteen trades is a big investment of both time and money. That said, this is a classic. You’ll find deep and engaging mythology that challenges you to go searching for references. Comics is just another pantheon to draw from as Gaiman ties them all together under the Sandman banner, and creates a world worth going back to again and again. It’ll be a few years before I go back to the Sandman again, but I expect I’ll find more that I missed. Take a bet on the first trade, and you'll be hooked.
Rants and Reviews. Mostly just BS and Affiliate Links.