The Sandman – Neil Gaiman

Some comics are meant to be read issue-by-issue, month-by-month, at a slow and steady pace. The Sandman was never such a comic, often relying on recurring characters that originally appeared for an instant and then are unseen for years and storylines that spanned many issues, constantly being interrupted with tangential and stand alone tales. The title ended years ago and I thought it was due time to reread the series, from the beginning, over a vastly shorter time than when I had first read them on the monthly schedule. By begging, borrowing, and browbeating, I temporarily acquired the complete trade paperback collection in preparation for this review. The Sandman is an interesting series; few could claim to be more important to the revitalization (however briefly) of the comic genre and yet, as Cej often states: the only difference between Gaiman and his creation is that one is two-dimensional and the other has no depth. The series begins with Preludes & Nocturnes. We are introduced to Morpheus, the Dream King, one of the seven endless (sort of primal forces such as Death and Desire), who is imprisoned by a group of early twentieth century wizards. Upon his eventual escapes, Dream must reclaim his kingdom, vestments of office and correct the troubles his absence has caused. Gaiman handles Dream well, pitting him against adversaries that run the gamut from B villains to the Devil himself. The Sandman goes through a ton of artists over its lifetime and only the amazing covers of Dave McKean redeems them. Some readers feel this start was clunky as Gaiman was finding his footing, but I enjoyed this and it remains a favorite. This was the first time I had ever dealt with a comic character that, while ostensible part of the DC universe, was removed from human or superhuman concerns. In this trade, we also are introduced to Dream’s sister, Death, who will be the poster child for every Goth girl from that moment on and will solidify Gaiman’s place as ruler of the Goth world infinitely more than the equally gothic, annoyingly moody, heroin-chic Morpheus ever did. To this day, no single image brought more women into comics than Death and has allowed Gaiman to spend his life surrounded by hot, black and white bedecked women.

The Doll’s House has Dream continuing to pick up the pieces his absence has caused and he must reclaim dream-beings that have left his realm and caused chaos in ours, mainly to the lives of young Rose Walker, her family and friends. He also has to deal with a potential threat to the dream kingdom that may, in fact, be sponsored by some of his own Endless brethren. Here Gaiman leaves the DC world to stake his own claim and many of the events within are vital to future stories. We also see the beginning of Gaiman’s tendency to relegate his main character of Dream to secondary status in order to focus on developing the personalities of tertiary ones. Again, this was and is quite unusual for comics and makes for interesting reading, especially since many of his characters are females.

One of the shortest of the collections is Dream Country which is nothing but filler issues and while they are often enjoyable, they are equally frustrating for taking us away from the character will wish to see. This foreshadows Gaiman future writing when he will completely abandon his creation except for the occasional guest appearance.

Season of Mists is an anticlimactic tale in which the Lord of Dreams briefly reunites with the remnants of his family and attempts to redeem a wrong by pitting himself against Lucifer of Hell to unexpected and unwelcomed results that usher in much intrigue and some conflict. The problem with this next installment is similar to the style of writing which introduces each chapter and which I attempted to copy in my opening and that is that there is much pomp but every situation ends rather dully. Still, I liked that Dream had to deal with all sorts of myths (Gaiman’s interpretation of them, that it) and DC legends. My main problem is Gaiman’s views on Hell (yes, an author’s views aren’t always reflected in his work, but I’m willing to bet it’s true in this case). For a Jewish man, his belief in the afterlife stinks of both Catholic dogma and two-bit philosophy as unborn babies are condemned to hell as readily as those who only think they should be punished.

Take a domicile where the following resides or holds true: a punk woman, a man who thinks he’s a she, someone connected to the diner from Preludes & Nocturnes, a lesbian couple, bird involvement and two beings connected to the dreaming. No, I’m not recounting The Doll’s House, although Gaiman is running so low on ideas that when he picks up the story of Barbie from that storyline he copies the foundation into A Game of You. Barbara inexplicably becomes Rose, Hal is now Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove stand in for Chantal and Zelda, etc. There are even some crossover themes of a strong female lead going on a quest that relates back to an earlier point in her life and a statement about living life while one can and the potential problems of a collective unconscious. Despite the unoriginality, the tale of “Princess” Barbie verse the oppressive reign of the Cuckoo was gripping. More interesting to me was a side note thrown in by Gaiman. He has Barbie enter a comic book store with a floor that hadn’t been swept “in a decade” and face a repulsive all-boy club. In a documentary I saw last year, Gaiman states that retailers always thank him for bringing women into comic shops and he replies that maybe if you’d sweep the floor they’d return. Gaiman’s contribution to comics isn’t his writing or his characters, it is his desire to reach out and attract an audience that would read comics if given something to relate to. As the Cuckoo explains in A Game of You, girls don’t have the same fantasies of superheroes that boys do and the transgender Wanda makes it clear that blue isn’t always for boys anyway. Many of Gaiman’s characters are female, his protagonist isn’t a traditional superhero and his stories aren’t particularly action/adventure. Still, they sold and sold well, and if the comic genre had leaned from him it might not be the perpetually dieing industry that it is.

Once again we have a collection of filler issues. Fables & Reflections has the honor, however, of having good fillers. The first and last tales, “Three Septembers and a January” and “Ramadan,” respectively are powerful and heartfelt and reflect the higher purpose of dreams. The stories they bookend aren’t as strong although they introduce the important characters of Orpheus and the often hinted at Destruction.

Next is Brief Lives which takes us back to the Sandman plot. Delirium (based on singer Tori Amos) and Dream (always, inescapably, a stand in for Gaiman) go on a quest to find their missing brother, Destruction, to tragic results. Gaiman does a decent job fleshing out the personalities of the three endless (the same can’t be said of the secondary players) and readers are forced to acknowledge—if they haven’t already—that the Endless, with perhaps the exception of Destruction, are real jerks and Dream is the moodiest, lamest of them all. Still, the book is solid and enjoyable, unlike the next one….

I’m sick of Gaiman’s filler sagas and Worlds’ End is the worst. Gaiman hardly bothers to pretend that he’s still writing Sandman stories as he relays stories within stories that, most likely, were ideas he had before he had an outlet. Travelers from all sorts of worlds happen to wander into the inn at worlds' end and pass the time telling each other stories. It’s a decent idea, but if they aren’t going to be crafted like Fables & Reflections, than Gaiman should have stuck with the main plot.

The final volume in The Sandman collection is The Wake. Be aware that everything following is a spoiler so perhaps you might wish to skip this paragraph. Still here? The Wake deals with the aftermath of Morpheus’ death without actually tying up any loose ends. Again, I’m annoyed with Gaiman’s filler issues. Gaiman forces us to pay tribute to his creation (a creation that claims credit for Shakespeare’s works) when the end of his series should inspire reflection on its own merits. There isn’t so much a plot to The Wake as there is a theme that no one, regardless who they may be, is ever stuck in their life. Change is the escapes for everyone, no matter how trapped they may feel. It is a theme that runs throughout the series and it is a good one, even though it would be more convincing coming from a character that wasn’t an immortal to whom death is just a change of viewpoint.

When the dust settles, I have to admit I greatly enjoyed The Sandman. For all its pointless tangents, anticlimactic stories, self-pitting characters and inconsistent art, it was a groundbreaking work that changed the entire comic book world. Well, it could have-should have changed it. Sadly, many of the lessons taught to the industry--that females characters can be heroes without ridiculous anatomies, that the world isn’t always black and white and that not every story needs a caped crusader--in the wake of The Sandman have long been forgotten, or, at least, remembered only in dreams.