Gaiman’s universe is divided into a crowd of further universes, like folds in a paper fan, and the Endless can materialize in and out among them at will. That’s very comfortable; it suits me down to the ground. The characters can go anywhere, travel through any sort of story, change their surroundings like turning a knob. Not only are they superheroes, they’re media consumers; so am I. Go deeper and there’s a more embarrassing source of attraction. The Endless’s fundamental power is that they matter. Wherever they go, they count, and most often anybody else in the same panel counts for less. (The Endless are aware of this, as shown by Dream’s easy way with a high horse and Death’s ambling among the confused.) Superheroes beat each other up; Gaiman’s superbeings see who can matter the hardest. At their crudest, these contests are expressed through staredowns and well-seasoned rebukes. But what underlies the encounters is mana; to use Gaiman language, what underlies them is the fundamental stuff of mattering. [We have no idea what this stuff is, neither in the series or in real life.] Why some people have more self-possession than others is hard to pin down; so is why the universe cares so much about the Endless. After age eleven, fistfights are a lot rarer than simple contests in outfacing each other, in self-possession. If you’re nine years old and want to matter more, you’ll think of superhuman muscles. Past that age you’ll be thinking of other types of advantage, such as a superhuman source of mattering.
Morpheus Strip: Post-modern something
by Tom Crippen
It looks like most of what I have to say will be in the Comments threads to Noah’s post, so go here if you’re curious. More important you’ll find Noah’s thoughts on Sandman, and over here is an illuminating discussion by the distinguished Ng Suat Tong.
In this post I’ll add a paragraph from an article about Gaiman that I did for TCJ (namely “My Gaiman Decade,” issue 273, January 2006). And I will add a one-liner that I took out for some reason. It goes like this: Gaiman is so temperamentally averse to big systems of thought that his idea of a cosmology is alliteration (Dream, Destruction, Death. etc.).
The TCJ article was about why I liked Sandman so much and why I felt let down by the series. A lot of me, me, me, which I think was an honest way to approach the subject. For a little while the series had somehow got into the center of my life, and I wanted to figure out why. But I put some ideas in there too, and the paragraph below has a couple.
For instance, wish fulfillment. Here are two secret little payoffs that I got from the series, and I suspect they’re hooks for other people too:
I stuck in the bracketed sentence, the one about “We have no idea what this stuff is,” because I still wonder if that section of the extract really makes its point. Ah well.
I’m going to break down the paragraph and expand on individual points.
1) “Gaiman’s universe is divided into a crowd of further universes … and the Endless can materialize in and out among them at will … travel through any sort of story, change their surroundings like turning a knob. Not only are they superheroes, they’re media consumers …”
Kind of meta, I guess. These days most of us spend most of our lives being media consumers. Sandman is the only property I can think of whose characters act out a deluxe, all-power-is-in-your-hands version of same. Wotta hook!
A related point. As I read it, around about the early ’70s genre entertainment fans realized they could just pile all their favorite genres into any single work. Underlying the innovation was the idea that a story didn’t really have to take place anywhere, not even Middle Earth. The idea of a solid world was gone; instead there were just entertainment tropes, with nothing needed to house them but the ready-to-hand sf concept of billowing and necessarily undefined dimensions rolling one into the other. The Man-Thing story that introduced Howard the Duck is the first example I can think of. The two issues had everything: pirates, space men, dragons, funny animals. If I recall right, Gerber shanghaied the idea of the multiverse, pioneered by Michael Moorcock, and refitted it from an assortment of sword-and-sorcery worlds into the broader sort of assemblage I have in mind.
It was part of Gerber’s sad life progress that, having wandered onto this rich territory, he then wandered off it again. Dave Sim took up the idea in the late 1970s, and he didn’t even need dimensions: pretty soon he was having superheroes pop up in Conan-land with no explanation, and eventually Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway too. Terry Pratchett joined in during the ’80s with Discworld, again shoving disparate genre tropes into a place that didn’t really have to be any place. In the late ’80s Sandman came along and Gaiman hauled dimensions back into play as an explanation. To tie in with the paragraph just above: though all these works have settings that are less places than entertainment-trope warehouses, only Sandman simulates the all-powerful-media-consumer experience because the Endless get to flicker in and out pretty much anywhere they want to go. The people in the other series generally have to walk.
2) “After age eleven, fistfights are a lot rarer than simple contests … in self-possession. If you’re nine years old and want to matter more, you’ll think of superhuman muscles. Past that age you’ll be thinking of other types of advantage, such as a superhuman source of mattering.”
I guess this in line with David Riesman and inner directed/outer directed. I say “guess” because I’ve never read Riesman, he admitted casually. But a muscles superhero gets his way thru straightforward physical instrumentality: he hits something and then it is no longer standing up, it’s lying down. The Endless, on the other hand, have a lot of big moments that rely just on how one person reacts to another, and these exchanges tend to be a matter of who can out-crust the other. It’s a bit like CSI, if you’ve seen that. Every damn episode has a moment where some poor guy has to swallow his gum and shift his gaze, look down and away in shame as a detective stares at him, and often enough these guys aren’t that important to the story. The episodes still make time for them because those moments are money shots. The audience loves the sight of a poor sap wilting in front of another because those are the moments people chase in their daily lives at the office.
Put the two ideas together and you get, I don’t know, post-modern something. Physical reality downplayed, agreed-upon social realities played up. But to tell the truth, I’ve been up a long time and now I’m going to bed.