I Will If You Will

Book Club: Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman: Dream Country,' Part One

Cover of Sandman: Dream Country

hide captionCover of Sandman: Dream Country

Vertigo Comics

The occasional Monkey See I Will If You Will Book Club has reconvened to read Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Dream Country. This week, we read "Calliope," the first of the four stories in the book.

Our main discussion will take place in the comments to this post, but I decided to start by exchanging a few thoughts with our comics blogger, Glen Weldon, who is massively more experienced in this medium than I am. Head to the comments to share your thoughts about "Calliope."

To: Glen

From: Linda

So...that is a disturbing story. Before we get to the mechanics of the form, which we can do next, I kind of have to get this part off my chest.

I don't mean to be all "the patriarchy freaks me out," but I have to say, that is a REALLY unsettling thing to read, woman-wise. Not only because it's got rape and sex slavery, but because this woman lived — well, all the women live — in a universe where if they are captured according to an established set of rules, they have NO CHOICE but to submit to rape and sex slavery until the guy decides to let them go. In other words, it would be one thing if she were imprisoned by actual force, but it's another that she's imprisoned by her own recognition of social (socio...sociomythical?) authority saying, "He got you with the garlic flowers, so tough darts, sister."

I want to be perfectly clear: I'm not accusing Gaiman of being a sexist; I think this is all done consciously. If she were in chains, it would be just a horror story. But because she's in...you know, rules instead, it's even weirder. It's no accident that the baddie says, "I bound her with ... certain rituals." Bound by rituals — that's a new, and more than a little freaky, concept. It just...bothers me, in a way I'm sure it's meant to.

Of course, you have the writer's fascination with writing, which is where the tale has a bit of the Stephen King about it. There are moments when it jolted me out of the story a tad — the line about genre fiction winning the Booker Prize, while funny, may be a leeeeettle on the nose — but overall, I think he caught the desperation of the blank page pretty well.

I'm not sure who gets it worse in this story: women or writers. INTRIGUING.

To: Linda

From: Glen

Yep: Creepy, dark and rapey, right out of the gate. "Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!"

It's intentionally disturbing, of course: Gaiman establishes — with an admirable economy that all comics writers should aspire to — that the business with the capturing and the binding and the holy moly is something new, something Erasmus Fry threw into the equation, a corruption of The Way Things Are Meant To Be.

Because classically — er Classically — Muses are wooed; they are complicit in the creation of art, they choose the person they inspire and they move on of their own volition. (See: Calliope and Homer, Sharon Stone and Albert Brooks, Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino, Chris Evans' pectoral muscles and me.) (COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, LEFT PECTORAL MUSCLE, LEFT PECTORAL MUSCLE.)

In fantasy, there are Rules, and characters literally live or die by them. In this story, the ancient Rules get circumvented (creepy old dude BURNED GIRLFRIEND'S SCROLL), and, for a while at least, the Universe just ... looks on. Because it, and everyone in it, is bound by those same rules.

Rules, and the repercussions of futzing with them, is pretty much what Gaiman's exploring throughout the whole series (which: read it). In earlier chapters of the story, we see Morpheus himself get trapped in much the same way Calliope does, here; later in the story ... well. Rules get broken, at Great Cost.

As on-the-nose as some of the book party/promotion stuff is, I love that Gaiman writes somebody asking "Where do you get your ideas?" Because I've never been to a reading where that question doesn't get asked, and I love that Gaiman, with this story, wrote an answer.

To: Glen

From: Linda

You'd never see anyone except a writer, I don't think, explore the idea of "having ideas" as quite so potentially fraught. It's very darkly funny, when he starts babbling about shark's teeth soup.

So about the script. One of the things I thought was really interesting was that his imagining of the splash page with the first rendering of Calliope diverged, I thought, from what they wound up with. He envisioned it being, it seemed, heartbreaking and pitiful, and what they got, while she's not sexy exactly, is considerably more graceful in appearance than that, I would argue. She's skinny, but there's a weird elegance to it. When you look at it closely, you see the weird angle of the wrist — in fact, the arms are a little hard to decipher — and the sinewy calves and the haunted eye, but there's a sort of classically beautiful thing going on with the sway of the back and the curve of her legs. I mean, you could pose like that on America's Next Top Model.

More generally, I was just fascinated by the process of trying to make something so visual when you're not doing the visual yourself. It's like trying to do a sculpture when you can only describe how you want it made. I know from writing that I'm constantly stepping back to look at the product: What do I have? How does it look? I'm testing it, trying to get a look at it, and the idea of creating as he does there, where it's like, "Do this, kind of, and it should be sort of like this, and I envision this," where you have to go to the next bit without seeing the last bit ... it just strikes me as a crazily iterative, mind-bending process. You have to have a HELL of a lot of faith in the specificity of your vision and the people you're working with to proceed that way.

To: Linda

From: Glen

Right — that's one reason prose writers who make the jump to comics often produce such tiresome, text-heavy work — they're not willing to let go of their precious words and allow the artist to shoulder the storytelling.

Side note: Comics writing has changed a lot from the days of Stan Lee and the Marvel bullpen, when Smilin' Stan used to call artist Jack Kirby into his office, describe the story he wanted to tell in broad strokes, ("I got it, Jack! Aunt May gets sick!"), and send Kirby off to draw it. When Kirby was done, Stan'd look it over and write the captions and dialogue to fit what Kirby had come up with, even if was different than what he'd described.

And as Gaiman mentioned, not every writer produces scripts as detailed as this. And some writers are much more proscriptive about things like layout. But I'm glad we're starting on this, and comparing the script to the finished product, because it's a good way to demonstrate how much thought goes into the art. As I said, if you're not used to reading comics, your eye tends to lunge from word-ballon to word-balloon, and you can miss a lot of detail.

I picked up on the disconnect between Gaiman's script and Jones' art, too. (Jones has made a name for himself doing creepy, expressionist takes on heroes — he took a muscley character called Deadman (ghost acrobat; never mind) and turned him into a ... dead man, a skeleton in a circus costume; when he draws Batman, he gives him crazy-long ears and a cape that behaves like a particularly sinister mist.)

Gaiman notes that Jones drew Calliope freakishly thin on that splash page, but editor Karen Berger thought it too disturbing, and asked the inker to throw some flesh on her bones. Also interesting: the decorous Gaiman suggests merely indicating the rape; but Jones decided to depict it on-panel, at a time when such things .... weren't done. Later, on several occasions, Gaiman suggests drawing her in a coat, and Jones instead keeps her naked. Now, sure, maybe he just likes drawing nekkid ladies, but I strongly suspect we're seeing an example of an artist confident in his ability to make the reader squirm, and running with it.

Speaking of squirming: One thing you should know about the series is that Morpheus (The Sandman)'s physical appearance keeps changing. Certain things stay the same (tall and thin; hollow eyes; white skin; black word balloons), but he looks different to different people, depending on their cultural context, and that's what the artist depicts. (Madoc, for example, is evidently a big Smiths fan.)

To: Glen

From: Linda

Okay, a couple of technical questions, and then we'll throw it to the commenters. Consider these "brave noob world" inquiries (oh, quiet).

I am intrigued by the fact that one person draws in pencil, another person goes over the pencil in ink, and then another person does the color. I am NOT SAYING these things don't all require skill, but I'm surprised that they've segregated out into different tasks, particularly the pencil and ink stuff. I mean, obviously, the inker isn't just tracing over the pencil like they're trying to get into art school by copying the picture of the duck or whatever. Can you enlighten me any about these different arts and what happens if one of them isn't done as well as it should be, and what the contribution of the ink person is as opposed to the pencil person?

I was also intrigued by the discussion in the script of where the ad pages go. Do you generally find that writers make an effort to work around the ad pages by, for instance, taking a breath in the story where the ad page goes? Is it just a matter of acknowledging that two pages will or will not be opposite each other?

And finally, that hairball is super-gross.

To: Linda

From: Glen

RE: Hairball. I wrote a piece for the blog a while back about how many words kids learn from comics. I was in college when this issue came out, and thought the thrill of learning new words was behind me, and BAM: trichinobezoar!

Lots and lots to say about pencilling vs. inking, too much to do it justice here, but basically: Pencilling is where the action is laid out, and the pace of a given page is established. Some pencillers do very rough sketches, some produce finely detailed work you'd look at and consider "finished." But they aren't, yet: It's the inker's job to literally delineate what's going on in the pencils, to establish mood (with shadows, for example) and to direct the reader's eye. A too-heavy inked line over a delicate pencil can obliterate detail, while an inker who simply reproduces every pencilled line can make a work seem sketchy and unfinished.

And oh, yeah: Writers and artists are VERY aware of the format, and use it to help their storytelling. They'll know where the ads go, and write around them, in case they want to build tension or do a two-page spread of, say, folks in spandex grimacing at one another amid the rubble of some public works project. Robert Kirkman, who writes The Walking Dead and Invincible, likes to greet his readers on an issue's final page with some game-changing, horrible image that hollows us out and makes us pine for the next issue.

I was interested to see Gaiman acknowledging not merely the ads, which present their own challenges, but the fact that the issue will likely get collected in a trade paperback, which poses an entirely different set of logistical challenges. Planning that out must be like playing 3-D chess.

But with hairballs.

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