Some Quick Thoughts on The Sandman
Every now and again you’ll read something that makes you wish you’d taken a course in the classics, gone to bible study classes, and made sure you never missed Shakespeare in the park. It’s the kind of thing reading Joyce always does to me; God he makes himself look so bloody clever (for better or worse). The Sandman is one of those things in a way that no other comic I’ve ever read has been, but it does it in a way that doesn’t remind you of an undergraduate scratching his pimples.
Gaiman does a fantastical thing with his writing that, as far as I can tell (I’ve read Good Omens and some of his Batman stories and that’s it for my prior experience with Gaiman), is his main method. He has this knowledge of all these disparate storytelling traditions and mythologies and he synthesises them all together into something new and exciting. The story that exemplifies this, and I think the standout in all of The Sandman, takes place in the run of issues collected in Season of Mists. Dream ventures to hell to try and recover the soul of a woman he wronged a long time ago. Arriving in hell, he finds that Lucifer is in the process of stacking chairs and turning out the lights, and Lucifer gifts Dream the key to hell, making him the new lord. The knowledge that Dream has become the owner of a prime piece of real estate in the planes draws the attention of various gods and beings, among them Anubis, Odin, and a couple of angels sent from heaven to observe. Gaiman does a wonderful job elucidating their claims and extrapolating out rivalries and disagreements that these rival pantheons of mythical beings might have, and he comes up with a really wonderful twist on just what it means to reign in hell.
Another standout for me was the issue included in Dream Country that posits a backstory for the creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gaiman doesn’t just mess with mythology, he messes with the real world too, and he chooses points to do it that have just enough real, factual meat on them to make them believable, but just vague enough to allow him the room to come up with his own magical history that is really delightful to watch unfold. In this case, Dream commissioned Shakespeare to write the play as a kind of gift to the very folk of faerie that are portrayed in the play, and it is one of two Shakespeare plays commissioned by Dream. I love it when writers do things like this, and Gaiman evidently had the reading to continually flex his intellectual muscle and remake the world and our imaginations in his image.
I don’t read graphic novels often and I write about them even less often, but I’m aware I need to at least mention the art. It is consistently fantastic. It is weird and psychedelic enough to truly convey that we are dealing with realms that are not our own without being an unreadable mess. There are also some wonderfully horrific images throughout the run. A standout is a demon with mouths for nipples. In fact, mouths come up a lot. The Corinthian is a highlight whenever he appears and he never gets less horrifying. Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Matt Wagner, Stan Woch, Bryan Talbot, Shawn McManus, Duncan Eagleson, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell, Alec Stevens, Mike Allred, Shea Anton Pensa, Gary Amaro, Marc Hempel, Glyn Dillon, Dean Ormston, Teddy Kristiansen, Richard Case, and Jon J Muth do a great job. There are more personnel but the names will be longer than this little piece, I just don’t talk about graphic novels very often and didn’t want to just talk about the writer. You can find a list of personnel here.
I did read Overture after reading the ten volumes of the main run of The Sandman. I found the ideas intriguing but it felt less grounded, if that’s possible. I am very happy we get some acknowledgement of just where the endless came from. The art was again fantastic; even more colourful and riotous, in a few instances hard to follow, but hey. It’s a journey through time and dimensions and all that.
I am sad I put off reading The Sandman for so long but I am kinda glad at the same time. A lot of it would have gone over my head when I was younger and looking at “Best Graphic Novels Ever” lists and going “Oh ok I’ll read everything by Alan Moore then.” I strongly suspect The Sandman will make for a lovely re-read in ten or so years time; hopefully when I have a bit more of the encyclopaedic reading I suspect Gaiman has.