I Will If You Will

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

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'sThe Sandman: Dream Country. This week, we read "Facade," the fourth and final story in the book.

As we get to the end of the book (and as I, on my own time, circle back to the beginning of the series and start reading more of it), our comics blogger Glen Weldon and I exchanged a few thoughts about this story, the portrayal of Death, the iterative nature of superhero stories, and a whole lot more. Fairly clearly, we could have gone on about this all day, as you will see, but we stopped in order to avoid creating a 10,000-word blog post. Now, it's your turn. Hit the comments.

To: Glen

From: Linda

So...I'm not sure I understood it.

At the end, she dissolved. Or something. She ceased to be. It seemed like maybe she HAD died after all, but then Death had said she WASN'T dying, and also said "Better luck next time." So she...shuffled off this mortal coil in a non-dying way? She managed not to die but just to...become dust by looking into the sun?

I really tried, I did. But I am a trifle confused. And by "a trifle," I kind of mean "really really."

With that said, the face falling into the spaghetti was impressively, vividly off-putting. I felt like I was missing something with the friend's story about being pregnant (is that anything except the basic "life goes on while I remain trapped in my blah bling blah" story' (Not that it wasn't sad.)

This one seemed to me to have a little less...grace, I guess, than the others. It seemed more blunt or something, and she's a flatter character to me, kind of uniformly self-pitying, than some of the others.

To: Linda

From: Glen

Boy, death, hunh?

Some people get beaned on the head by a fly ball and slump into their basket of pretzel nuggets. Some pop a blood vessel while tending their Swiss chard. Some quietly succumb to a long and debilitating illness, surrounded by loved ones.

And some get turned to dust by the merciful ancient Egyptian sun god who, years before, bestowed upon them the ability to transform into any element on the periodic table.

Comics!

I wasn't left with any doubt that Element Girl — or as she was known back in the swingin' 60s, "Element Girl, The Chemical Doll!" — is dead.

And, sister, if you think she's a flat character in THIS story, you'd have been SERIOUSLY unimpressed with the emotional and psychological nuance she evinced back when she was introduced in 1965. She crashed soldier-of-fortune Rex Mason's wedding, announced to the assembled that she was "Urania Blackwell, secret agent!" (um....) and revealed that, in her zeal to defeat the evil criminal organization CYCLOPS, she had exposed herself to the same mysterious Egyptian orb that had granted Rex his weird powers. So. But that was 1965, when evil international criminal organizations like SMERSH, THRUSH and KAOS were thick on the ground, and superheroing was altogether a more whiz-bang- whimsical proposition than it is today.

But that's the thing about superhero comics: New characters are always popping up, but precious few manage to stick around for long. Creative teams change and popular sensibilities evolve; a character that's perfectly suited to the era in which she was created might begin to seem outmoded, even silly.

Now as we have discussed many times, to comics fans like me, "silly" isn't a dirty word - it's a reminder that comics are supposed to be ... you know, fun. But there are other comics fans for whom a character's "badassery" is his or her most salient feature; these people will never know the joy that characters like Paste-Pot Pete, Matter-Eater Lad, Batroc the Leaper or the Red Bee — who fought crime with the help of his trained pet bee! Who lived in his belt buckle! And was named Michael! - bring to the rest of us.

During his run on the 1980s series Animal Man, writer Grant Morrison posited a limbo where old comics characters go once writers stop using them. It's easy to imagine Element Girl hanging out in that vast, empty expanse, waiting for a creator to come along and summon her back to the comics page.

Which is what Gaiman did in this story, only to grant her oblivion. Since this comic first appeared, the trope Gaiman employs — the What if Superheroes Existed in the Real World, With Real Hangups? approach — has become much more common. In some ways, as writers became increasingly interested in making their heroes relatable or (shudder) "relevant," it's become the current superhero landscape.

But back then, it was still unusual, and intriguing, for Gaiman to show a superhero having to navigate the mundane world of human interaction, much less suffer from loneliness and depression.

We're squarely back in the dark emotional place of the collection's first story, "Calliope." Urania isn't just contemplating suicide, she's literally begging for it, having made several frustrated attempts. That, I think it's safe to say, was not standard operating procedure, superhero comics-wise, and it's still registers as discomfiting to me.

To: Glen

From: Linda

Right. Having cleared up the question that hung over me when I finished it, which was, "She died ... right?", I can move along.

Yes, her description of being literally unable to kill herself was really disturbing. Can't shoot herself, can't take pills, might wind up dispersed in the ocean but still in some way alive, which is maybe one of the creepiest things I've ever heard. What I noticed about it was the effective conveyance of desperation. Not inactive, lying-around misery, but her active, roiling, vehement desire not to be alive. It's depression, but it's a different version of depression than I think the culture typically conveys, more restless and frustrated. And maybe that's part of the difference between a depressed superhero and a depressed other person.

It's interesting to me that you really have to know her character already in order to understand the fundamentals of what's happening here; in other words, you have to have read more than this book. I mean, this book will give you the fact that she encountered the sun god, but obviously, what you were able to get from the story as someone who knows her history is considerably more extensive than what I was able to glean as someone who didn't.

This is not a complaint in the slightest, but when you realize that comics — not all comics, but a considerable number — do exist in this larger universe that rewards not only familiarity with other works by the same writer, but works by other people who have written about a character, it may help explain why the barrier to entry sometimes does seem pretty high. There's no other way to do it; there's no way to have a broader mythology and go back and re-explain the whole thing for new people every time (this could turn into the Moby Dick of superhero exposition), but it's funny that comics look like very physically slight works in some ways, when they're actually invitations to something frustratingly massive.

As I said, it's not a complaint for three reasons: (1) It makes the stories richer, which is great; (2) writers can do whatever they want; and (3) there's no reason Neil Gaiman should be aiming comics at people who don't read comics typically (like me). But it's a more daunting thing than it appears, and the problem is figuring out where to start. Even if you were trying to study, how would you know you needed to read about Element Girl before you read this? And after you read it, there's no guarantee you're going to pick up on the fact that you now need to go read about Element Girl, because ... who?

It's an interesting problem. And it's not just about being a newbie; I could have read a lot of comics and still been kind of confused about what was going on here if I didn't specifically know this particular character. I've read plenty of book series, but this is more like reading the Xth book in a series in which (1) X is a far greater number than you can ever read, (2) there's no list of the books in the series, and (3) there's no indication of what X is.

To: Linda

From: Glen

Now, see, this is the thing, isn't it?

You'll remember that Grand Comics Poohbah Maggie Thompson repeatedly suggested that I give the non-comics readers out there an Element Girl primer, to help get them oriented. I resisted doing so, for several reasons:

1. I'm sincerely curious to see just how "stand-alone" these stories truly are.

2. I didn't think there was much of anything the new reader needed to know about Element Girl besides what Gaiman covers in the text: "former superhero, can transform into stuff, kinda creepy looking."

3. You have to understand how minor a character Element Girl was, by the time this story appeared. She was never more than a footnote — I'm betting the vast majority of people who were reading the series during its initial run didn't know much more than you did. I mean, I had seen her pop up every now and again in the crowd shots during big summer crossover comics events, but that was it.

So it's interesting to hear your specific barrier-to-entry issues, here. I see, once again, that Maggie was right. Getting that tattooed on my forearm so I don't forget it.

After all, all that stuff about Ra being a god who doesn't realize his war is over, and Death calling Urania a "polymorph" or whatever — that was all Gaiman, taking disparate elements of a crazy-on-the-face-of-it old comic book story for kids ("Mystical whatzis grants superpowers") and weaving it into the intricate universe of gods and demons he was making. It was VERY cool, as a teenager, to see this happening, because even though I didn't know Element Girl, I knew enough about 60s comics to recognize which elements (snerk) Gaiman was using, and which he was creating.

Superheroes do come with dense backstories, which was a big draw for me, as a kid — a whole world of characters and relationships and events for me to chase down, one issue at a time, and devour and discuss. But the thing about superhero comics is how very, very iterative they are. They fight a never-ending battle, and the stories churn on, continually recycling and reconfiguring their backstories, as new creative teams come on and inevitably leave. So a young Glen can memorize, say, the vital statistics of each member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, only to find that hard-won knowledge useless when a new writer comes on board and wipes them from reality. (Note: They came back. Everything always comes back.)

But The Sandman isn't like that: It's a story with a beginning, middle and end, told over the course of 75 issues. Maybe that's why "Facade" struck me as Gaiman's nod toward the grim existential crisis at the heart of the superhero's struggle. It's like Gaiman's saying: We create these characters, but the only character development we ever permit them to experience is gaining their powers. Once their origin story is over, so is their emotional growth, as we proceed to seal them off in a closed loop of fistfights and rallying cries - a spandex Ragnarok. So let's give one of them an actual ending.

If you continue with this series, you'll see how Dream changes — or rather, how he acknowledges his own inability to change, and takes certain steps to, uh, change that. It's awesome.

NOTE: I see we haven't mentioned how Gaiman chooses to characterize Death, which is one of things his fans really ... REAAAALLLLY ... responded to, back in the day. Curious to see what people who are meeting her for the first time today think of her.

To: Glen

From: Linda

I found the characterization of Death intriguing, I guess is how I'd say it.

I mean, look. The decision that was made from a creative standpoint was: Death is hot. Rather than being a rotting old man with a scythe, Death is presented as an object of desire as well as something very vital, rather than something slow-moving and ominous. Obviously, you can read this – and I do – as relative to this story, and to the idea of Death as, in some cases, desirable/desired. Certainly that Death doesn't have to be frightening.

I'm sure there are those who read a sort of "young and beautiful women represent danger/death/destruction" thing into it that was somehow negative, but that strikes me as a superficial way of looking at it.

She also has certain characteristics in common with some of the incarnations of Dream, particularly in "Calliope." In fact, when I first saw her, I thought that might be who she was.

As for the iterative nature of superheroes, it's the nature of all myth, I suppose. All universes that are collaborative between multiple creators over time have to accept that one person can undo the work of another, which is true in comics but also true in folk tales, I suppose. I mean, think about it: I could make Cinderella reject the prince at the last minute. All I'd have to do is tell the story that way, right? When I tell the story, I'm in charge of the story, and Cinderella is mine. I can say, "And then she says, 'You know, tracking me down using an item of clothing I accidentally dropped strikes me as vaguely stalker-ish behavior, and also, I'm not really up for the life of a sheltered princess, so I think I'm going to try online dating." I can do that, and to the kid I tell the story to, that's the story now. And if I have enough descendants, and if they consider themselves a culture, then that's the story as it's told in my culture.

So really, superhero comics are now folk tales, allegations of ownership notwithstanding. They're owned by someone legally, but they're not really owned by anyone culturally.

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