[Being a cursory reexamination of The Sandman #1-20 by a non-devotee]
The last time I read the first few issues of The Sandman was sometime in the late 80s as the individual issues were being serialized. I suppose it must say something about my appreciation for the comic that it was one of the few mainstream continuing series which I collected from beginning to end. While my interest in the series waxed and waned even as I was collecting the issues, it was these initial episodes which have stuck with me most over time. My general lack of interest in The Sandman is probably best demonstrated by the fact that I had completely forgotten that Morpheus had died towards the close of Gaiman’s tale until Noah brought it up in his roundtable entry. So little did this series mean to me at that point in time (I say this only in retrospect).
When Noah suggested this roundtable discussion last week, I decided to follow his lead and simply reread some issues of The Sandman to reassess my feelings towards the book. The consistent refrain in recent years is that The Sandman as a whole doesn’t hold up. This would suggest that The Sandman represented some high watermark at the time among the comics “cognoscenti” but I don’t remember it ever actually achieving such adulation among readers with a restricted diet of men in tights. I could be mistaken of course. Its reputation among the comics agnostic was and is immense, a fact which was perpetually enshrined by Gaiman’s honoring with the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for his tale with Charles Vess in The Sandman #19 (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
The most surprising thing about my current reappraisal of The Sandman is how little my impression of these initials issues has changed. I’ve been impressed by the extensive planning involved from the very first issues, now confirmed by a review of Gaiman’s initial Sandman proposal at the back of The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1. He has a good feel for the material and has the right ear for the kind of dialogue required by his characters. These comics are clearly the receptacle into which Gaiman poured a multitude of his ideas. His script for the aforementioned Shakespearean story is precise and well planned, meeting its equal in his collaborator, Charles Vess. We see in these early issues the foundations for the various complexities among The Endless later in the series. The bricks from which Gaiman’s constructs The Sandman fall into place methodically and with great facility throughout these 20 issues. On the other hand, these perceived “virtues” would appear to be among Noah’s chief irritants with regards the series.
Of course, with the passage of time and some personal growth and development in taste, certain ideas have begun to appear more musty. Dr. Destiny’s path of violence and humiliation through The Sandman # 6 (“24 Hours”) no longer seems as viciously violent as it once seemed. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” from The Sandman # 18 now appears much more simplistic and derivative. The damage frequently wrought to Gaiman’s ideas by Mike Dringenberg, Sam Keith and Colleen Doran is even more evident to my eyes than it was before.
Is Gaiman’s depiction of love as leaden and functional as Noah suggests? It’s entirely possible. Yet it must be said that it has never occurred to me to ask for anything more from Gaiman’s series if only because the comic never seemed to be more than a simple yet appealing entertainment. Perhaps this explains why the seemingly inexplicable nature of Nuala’s love for Morpheus and the reasons Noah posits for this seem more than sufficient in my eyes; these seemingly simplistic justifications being the very fabric of fairy tales and myths. Gaiman gifts are for plot and narrative (enlivened by a thorough immersion in his subject matter). Whenever he strays into the realm of heartfelt emotion, he almost always falls flat on his face. The Sandman has never moved me in the way it appears to have moved much of its audience.
Noah’s passion for The Sandman comes through in his piece. He wants more from it even when there is only so much to squeeze from this fruit. Even when he seems to be criticizing Gaiman’s pretentious depictions of repression, what comes through seems more like bitter disappointment with a beauteous love now tarnished. Yet even these grievances seem well worth exploring and reading if only because of the passion I detect beneath them. Similarly, Tom Crippen’s Sandman retrospective (“My Gaiman Decade”) in The Comics Journal #273 is worth reading precisely because he feels so deeply for the work. It reads like a love letter (tinged with regrets) to a high school sweetheart 10 years on.
For me, Morpheus and his sister, Death, have always remained cyphers and plot devices meant to push forward the narrative and communicate simple homilies – characters for which I have never felt any real warmth or affection. What I see in The Sandman is an intricate fireside story informed by fantasies both old and new. There are modern trappings scattered around the series but the overwhelming feeling is that of myth making and all the richness and sparseness this entails. In much the same vein, I remember the Death mini-series more for Chris Bachalo’s depictions of Death than any semblance of characterization. My memory of it after all these years is that it was rather poor reading. It’s a different matter when it comes to Jaime Hernandez’s depiction of Maggie and Hopey in his most recent comics. Maggie’s crushing depression and sense of loss is palpable when she revisits her old haunts in Ghost of Hoppers. Jaime’s chosen path seems almost like an oppressive hand on his characters lives. The situations in Jaime’s stories are meant to advance his characters while the reverse, more often than not, appears to be the case in Gaiman’s comic.
These were never books of immense complexity but simply reasonably well told and plotted comics (two elements in short supply in mainstream comics both then and now) served fitfully and to varying effect by a few of the most respected artists in the field (McKean, Vess, Talbot, Craig Russell and Zulli). It’s still a good deal better than 90% of what you get on primetime television. And that’s the key to its success – accessibility mixed with a not insubstantial helping of intelligence and imagination to tickle the nerves of an audience used to much blander food. The richness in its textural references seem mostly skin deep (at least in these early issues). These reference are rarely integral to a clear understanding of the plot nor are they particularly useful as passageways to even greater insights. Evidently, Gaiman understood his audience well.
When I reread Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun every 5-10 years or so, I still find new things to marvel at and more mysteries to uncover. The series remains a continued source of pleasure for me whenever I find the time to revisit it. With The Sandman, I see an old friend who hasn’t changed much since I last met him over a decade ago – still amusing and entertaining in parts but a little shelf worn (though not drastically so). I remember much about him and of his personality even though he’s faded a bit with time. To spend a few hours in his company isn’t particularly painful.
(1) I recently had the chance to read an article by Matthias Wivel at The Metabunker about Gaiman’s work across all mediums with particular reference to Coraline. Wivel appears to have read most of Gaiman’s works including most if not all of his novels. He is of the opinion that the comics represent Gaiman at the height of his artistry. This would include parts of The Sandman I imagine but also his other works such as Mr. Punch, Signal to Noise and Violent Cases. I wonder if he’s right.
(2) Perhaps it would be of some interest to collectors and admirers of original art that some of the most famous pages and covers from the series can be found on Comics Art Fans (CAF). The cover to The Sandman #1 recently surfaced on CAF and is owned by a prominent art dealer who is also an avid collector.
Update by Noah: As fascist blog overlord promoting gratuitous synergy, I feel it incumbent to add that my initial post in this roundtable on Sandman is here.