by Glen Weldon
Ah, Neil Gaiman's epic comic book series, The Sandman. Today, some twenty years after it first appeared, it still bestrides the comics world like a pasty emo Colossus with Robert Smith's hairdo.
Odds are, if you've got friends who read comics - and I'm talking comics, here, not upmarket, literati-approved graphic novels about war, genocide or narrow-chested indie-music lovers with cheating girlfriends - they've tried to press The Sandman into your hands at some point.
But here's the thing you don't often hear about Gaiman's series, which ran for 75 issues, helped establish and grow the marketplace for comics aimed at adults, and remains one of the most literate, imaginative and intricately plotted accomplishments in long-form comics storytelling out there:
Its barrier-to-entry is remarkably high.
After the jump: The nature of that barrier, and the new book that may just lower it.
The Book's Premise: (Included here in case your circle of friends does not include even a single person who listened to Morrissey.)
Early in the 20th century, one of the universe's oldest and most powerful beings -- Morpheus, the King of Dreams, whose domain technically includes not just your nightly, ohmigod-I'm-naked-on-The-Price-is-Right-and-Drew-Carey's-my-old-algebra-teacher! reveries, but every story humans have ever told each other -- is essentially kidnapped and held prisoner for decades.
Upon his escape, he must reclaim his kingdom, make various amends, and -- here's where the story gets universal -- find some way to get along with his family.
The book's backdrop is the stuff that Myth and Folklore doctoral dissertations are made on: a melting pot of gods, fairies, demons, magicians and monsters.
Sounds All Well and Good. What's So Off-Putting, Then?
The book's most ardent fans, for one thing. You think Twilight people are dedicated? That Claymates exhibit a particular ... zeal? They got nothing on Sandman peeps. Meet one of them in a dark alley, and be prepared for a lecture on how the series' mythopoeic pantheism informs its assertion of a sort of mimetic eschatalogical narrative which defies conventional exegeses. Also: Lacunae!
It's not fair to judge a work by its fanbase, of course, no matter how insistent (and/or overfond of Egyptian eyeliner and deep cuts from the Tori Amos catalog) they may be. But no matter how high your tolerance for all things goth and glamorous, the fact remains that the series took a while to find its feet. To see what all the fuss is about, you'll have to keep your head down and hang in there awhile.
The first story arc, collected in a trade paperback called Preludes and Nocturnes, is dark. Figuratively and literally dark, because The Sandman began its life as a horror comic. Several characters in one early chapter, for example, meet their ends in a graphically violent -- and, for my money, depressing and ugly -- manner that's just as unsettling today as it was back then.
The sketchy and highly stylized art in those initial chapters, by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg, looks like nothing else in comics. That's the good news. The bad news is you'll have a tough time making much of it out, as every page is overlaid in dark, muddy, nigh-impenetrable blues and blacks.
Throughout its run, but especially in the book's early going, Gaiman assiduously endeavored to fit his immensely powerful character into the mainstream superhero universe of DC Comics, with mixed results. If the fights-in-tights set leaves you cold, these passages will seem to you like extended narrative navel-gazing.
Getting to the Good Part
It's not until the series' fourth collection, Season of Mists, that Gaiman lets the horror trappings fall away to reveal the story he's really telling, which is more ambitious in scope than he's led us to believe. Here's where the gods and monsters come in, and here's where The Sandman finds its central question: How can a man (or technically, in this case, the anthropomorphic incarnation of Imagination) grow beyond the man he has always seen himself to be?
As the series continues, it becomes clear that Gaiman has a plan, and that even those early, violent chapters were doing necessary narrative work. And when the book finally reaches the height of its power (in its eighth collection, The Kindly Ones, a sprawling tale in which sinister traps that were set in the book's earliest chapters are finally, wonderfully, horribly sprung), it's a revelation.
Um ... EIGHT Books In?
Yup. But cheer up, bunky. A new hardcover, released in time for The Sandman's 20th anniversary, offers you the chance to take Gaiman's series for a quick spin around the block.
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, written by Gaiman with art by one of comic's most accomplished fabulists, P. Craig Russell, has an oddly circular comic book pedigree.
A few years after he ended the series, Gaiman decided to write a stand-alone Sandman fable set in feudal Japan. That original version wasn't a comic, but a prose novel with illustrations by beloved Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano.
Last year, P. Craig Russell adapted that novel into a 4-issue comic book miniseries. It's this series, newly released in a handsome hardcover, that makes a good introduction to The Sandman's universe for those who've somehow managed to hold out for this long.
There are no serial killers or disquietingly perky incarnations of Death to contend with, here. Just the tale of a fox, and a monk, and their star-crossed encounter with the Dream King's world of spirits and demons. Russell's art is lush, bright and colorful, as unlike the chthonic murk of the series' early chapters as it's possible to be.
Mostly, though, The Dream Hunters offers a chance to sample the real reason we read Gaiman's stuff, which has less to do with his fantastical subject matter than you might think. No, the thing that sets him apart is his singular voice.
A Gaiman story has a tone you remember hearing as a kid: Wry, gentle, just a bit sad. It's the voice of the bedtime story, of the fairy tale, and it's that voice that I (and everyone who's ever told you that you have to read The Sandman) want you to experience for yourself.