Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – The best story you may never read
The subject line makes it clear that the best story I have read this year was in the form of a comic book. Surprisingly, it is not the usual superhero comic that I read week in and week out. Spider-Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, X-Factor, and even Young Liars are great reads but pale in comparison to a series that is fast approaching 10 years since its last properly published issue. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman started in 1989, but non-comic book readers became aware of his work through other sources. Stardust, Mirror Mask, Coraline, American Gods, and even his popular adaptation of Princess Mononoke all pale in comparison to his story about Dream, the anthropomorphized personification of the abstract, and his unpredictable family.
It takes a bit of determination to get into the series, unfortunately. The first set of issues, as collected in the first graphic novel, are easily the worst of the series. Gaiman readily admits that he had not found his voice with the book until issue 8 (which, incidentally, marked the first appearance of the even more popular character, Death), and it shows. The stories are just a series of gritty urban fantasies focusing on Dream’s attempt to get back his stolen swag. Until I read the last couple of volumes, I would have recommended skipping the first novel entirely. Then it all fell into place. Dream’s story of being captured for 70 years and then pissing off people and demons while recollecting his items are all part of the plan. But whose plan?
The copout answer is Neil Gaiman’s plan. The truth is, he knew exactly where he was going from issue #1. While the series went nearly twice as long as he intended (79 instead of 40 issues), he kept a firm grip on exactly where it went. Just about everything, and everyone, comes into play in some way by the end of the series. Such control over the elements of a story shows a certain mastery unparalleled by most storytellers, regardless of the fiction’s form. It is no wonder that he broke new ground and won the World Fantasy Award, causing the stuffy awards people to change the rules so that no comic could ever win again. But this highlights the greatest problem The Sandman has ever seen and probably why many fiction connoisseurs have not read the series: there is an unnecessary condescension toward the comic book medium.
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Quoting tends to bother me. It is a pleasant shortcut for people who cannot find their own words. I also do not tend to enjoy the work of C.S. Lewis – OK, I just did not enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. However, in his book On Three Ways of Writing for Children, Lewis lets out an amazing statement that I carry with myself as a badge of honor regarding true maturity. He says:
Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence….When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
This coincides with a sentiment often found in this blog: Stop letting people make your decisions for you. What you enjoy is what you enjoy, after all. Just because the medium is not what you are told is high art does not mean great stories, or simply great art, cannot be found there. The Sandman is a great and increasingly easy to use example.
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Aside from the amazingly tight and well told story, what makes The Sandman so great are the amazing characters and the strong mythology. Fortunately, these two things overlap because the most major characters are the mythology of the series. Dream is a member of the Endless, the seven abstracts that make life, the universe, and everything. Dream is the third child of the universe, following his older brother Destiny and sister Death. Destiny was born when the universe came to be, providing a direction for all toward the ultimate end of all time. Death appeared with the first sign of life, and in most situations all beings, be they human like creatures or the personifications of stars or planets, only see her twice – she tells you a secret upon the beginning of your being and comes to collect you at your end. The remaining members of Dream’s family are the ever plotting Desire (an androgynous being that takes the form of something you want so bad), the downtrodden but well meaning Despair, the prodigal Destruction, and the every flighty and whimsical Delerium – who used to be Delight until she strayed from Destiny’s garden path and found something she should not have seen. (Regardless, this was foreseen by Destiny, so he did nothing to stop it.)
Each character has an appropriate idiosyncrasy, causing trouble but serving his or her (or its) role more than properly. My personal favorite, whose primary appearance is in volume 7, would have to be Destruction. Destruction abandoned his post as an Endless eons ago to wander the worlds and find something new. His theory, which has been proven more than correct, is that the concept will continue even if the member of the Endless is not controlling things from his/her/its domain. Destruction also theorizes that the Endless are more than what their names suggest they are. Not only do they embody the explicit abstract but also the opposite. So Destruction leaves his domain because he is tired of destruction and wants to create. The character appears in volume 7 as a wandering hobo who paints horrible pictures, writes terrible poetry, and cooks food that is as tasteless as critics who dismiss comic books and animation as merely children’s affairs. (My words, not Gaiman’s.) Moreover he delivers an important message to Dream, to Gaiman, and to all readers: it is of course difficult but always possible to change and be, if not more than what you are, something different. Too often people get caught up in their pasts and how other people define them. Through Destruction people can break down who they are and create a new identity.
These personifications made the mythology seem incredibly realized to me. Everything is run by the Endless, who are temperamental and flighty. While they give the impression of being constants, they are anything but. As a person who exists in the real world, or at least I like to think I am, I see that these things are fairly inconstant. The Endless embody the necessary both-and mentality that makes life unpredictable and complex. Sometimes I wonder why the Endless have not been adopted as a real world religion.
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The Sandman, for the most part, has only really found success in circles of comic book fans who believe that the medium should be recognized as literature (especially literature that reflects the outlook of culture at large) as well as circles who worship Neil Gaiman. Fortunately, through Gaiman’s success as a writer of various forms, the entire run of graphic novels have seen continual reprint through the last decade – including more recent high quality and hard bound editions. The Sandman is also being considered for a television series, with Supernatural‘s Eric Kripke attached in some creative capacity. It is uncertain to me whether Kripke’s involvement will prove to be a bust or boom for the eventual outcome, but media on screens is the current language of culture. If a television series, whether accurate in spirit or story or even not, gets even one more person to read the books; then that will be enough. I cannot promise that reading The Sandman will change your life, but I believe I can promise that reading it might change your perception of supposed low art.