Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Sandman


       When I decided I was going to review The Sandman, I realized that I'd kind of set myself up for a fall. 

                          It's an incredibly well-known series. You can't really get past that. Every time Neil Gaiman, the book's head writer and creator, even mentions the words "Sandman" and "movie" in the same sentence, the internet blows up with eighty thinkpieces and articles on speculation* about it because it is that well known and that beloved. This is the series that put Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, among others, on the mainstream map. It's the series that gave DC Comics both their depiction of Death and one of the better sex-ed PSAs I've ever read. It is the only comic book ever to win the World Fantasy Award for "Best Short Story" (They changed the rules after "A Midsummer Night's Dream", a standalone about Morpheus and Shakespeare, won. The dicks). Most of the things that could be said about Sandman have already been said in countless introductions, essays, reviews, and of course college essays that people wrote purely for the purpose of being able to read graphic novels to up their grades in English courses**.

                          It's also a work with a huge fanbase, so if I get anything wrong, I feel like I'm under the gun a little. It's kind of the reviewer's curse-- if you love something they love or hate something they hate, then they applaud you for it and say you're doing the right thing. If it's the other way around, well...

Heaven help you.

                          So I suppose I'll start out with this: The Sandman, conceived by Neil Gaiman, isn't one of the best graphic novels I've read, or one of the best works of fantasy I've read, but it's one of the best mythological tragedies I have ever read, and I'll give it that accolade willingly and with great fervor. With The Sandman, Gaiman and his team of writers proved that where most were able to play with existing mythologies and build off of them, they could create new ones. Complex ones. Ones that then spun, as all good mythologies and epics do, into other works and whose elements popped up in regular comics. While this was mainly in the form of Death as a breakout character that now happily occupies most DC Comics universes, and The Dreaming (the land everyone visits when they go to sleep, ruled by Morpheus, the titular Sandman) making it into more "mainstream" comics, it's still significant. On top of that, it's well worth the read. Why? Read on...

"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody-- no matter how dull or boring they are on the outside. Inside them, they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds...Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe."
- Barbie

"When the first living thing existed, I was there waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job will be over. I'll put the chairs on the tables, turn the lights off, and lock the universe when I leave."
- Death
                The Sandman is the story of Dream of the Endless. And with the story of him, it's also the story of a complex and dense mythology involving his six brothers and sisters. The Endless are anthropomorphized concepts, beings beyond even gods (gods can die), each one representing something different: Destiny, Destruction, Death, Desire, Despair, Dream, and Delirium (formerly Delight). The story begins when, through the various machinations of an occult society in an attempt to capture Death and thus gain immortality, Dream is pulled from his kingdom and imprisoned as a kind of curiosity in a basement. The society steals Dream's artifacts of power, eventually trading them to Hell for protection during a schism in their ranks. People all over the world succumb to "sleepy sickness", a condition they gained from being locked in The Dreaming with no one to govern it. For seventy years, Dream waits his captors out, finally gaining his freedom in a moment of weakness and escaping back to his realm. 

 And then begins Dream's revenge.

              But a lot happened in the seventy years Dream was held captive. His artifacts of power are in the hands of dangerous, monstrous entities. His castle is in ruins. Nightmares have found their way free from their confinement and are using the power vacuum as either an excuse to run rampant, or as a springboard to take Dream's place. And while eventually he may defeat the various enemies and villains, still more things are set in motion, none of them pleasant. His brothers and sisters have begun their own plots, plots he is now in the way of. But, strangest of all, after spending seventy years on Earth, Dream is beginning to take on the characteristics of the people he barely interacted with before...

                     What follows is a melancholic meditation on humanity's relationship with its entities, and indeed the relationship of the entities' relationships with humanity. Dream's journey to regain himself and understand where he is in the universe spans all of time, multiple worlds, and even multiple universes as he attempts to fix the numerous issues that sprang up in his absence, and reconcile the deeds he did before he gained a better understanding of the minds he was left in charge of. But unlike last week's offering, Dream is not the single central character. Emerging from the woodwork is a cast whose personal relationships with the Endless form the basis for not just the stories told in Sandman, but indeed all the stories ever written, from the creation of the universe to biblical epics to Greek myth and all points in between and beyond. Notable ones include a soldier who decides he's not going to die-- and then doesn't, because Death has a sense of humor; the Angel Lucifer, who gives up stewardship of Hell and any claim to his angelic nature to run a piano bar in Los Angeles; The Fates, who represent not just themselves, but the same three-in-one entity passed down through the ages; and The Corinthian, a serial killer who haunts peoples' nightmares literally

                       It is these characters who are the lifeblood of the book. After all, stories are what happen to the characters, characters aren't pawns to be moved around in stories, no matter how often people say that all stories are "just things people make up". It's common for writers to, in the process of telling a story, find that the characters no longer move in predictable patterns, but will move in their own strange way. Stephen King had the process change the book he wanted to write not once, but at least three times. But I'm drifting. In essence, it's the characters that make the story and the world the way it is. And Gaiman does a good job with keeping the characters well-rounded and three-dimensional. A big part of The Sandman is establishing that these are people with lives and thoughts and emotions and especially dreams, and even the most offhand, secondary character gets established as if they're a full member of the cast. Because they are. They inhabit the world. I could take pages, reams describing every character I enjoyed and every character who is important to what part of the plot. But I'm not a concordance writer or a fan wiki writer, so what's here will have to do. Gaiman's characters are memorable, all the heroes and villains and antiheroes of a thousand stories, all packed into one twisting and expansive narrative about the nature of The Endless and Humanity and the world they inhabit.

                      The best thing, hands down, about The Sandman is the world it takes place in. Gaiman does a wonderful job on setting up the world piece by piece, story by story, adding to it without going heavy on exposition. And while Gaiman's world uses existing mythologies and comic books as a jumping-off point, it quickly establishes its own mythology starting with "The Sound of Her Wings" and lets that mythology carry itself through the rest of the stories. In essence, the beginning chapters of Sandman, chapters that lean heavily on the DC continuity, can be considered "training wheels". But even with the training wheels on, the book has its own distinct mythology. The first visit to Hell, for instance, is practically steeped in offhand worldbuilding. A character named in the second or third issue of Sandman becomes incredibly significant as the story moves forward, showing up in an ancient myth at the beginning of chapter two of the overall series and then later coming back as a harbinger of destruction. Lucifer's boredom when it comes to Hell is also introduced, though at this point it might be a front for a bigger scheme (Lucifer gets up to a lot of those. As we'll see in the following review). But it plants seeds, seeds that later grow into towering, branching trees as the series goes on. 

                      This also leads into the central theme of The Sandman. While it might nominally be about the Endless, and the series is named after Dream, it's not actually about them. It's about stories. It's meant to be a mythology, a series of epic stories contained in a much larger epic. While each story may tie into the larger plotline (a mythology arc once called "the longest and most convoluted suicide ever written", but we'll get to that), each and every one could easily be their own miniseries or a whole ongoing series-- and some of them even are. And that's how you can tell you've hit on a really dense work: All of the smaller parts of that work-- game, movie, miniseries, whatever-- are technically their own smaller works, and contain the seeds of smaller works inside of them. And most of them are tragic or bittersweet at best, but there's a pretty good reason for that. It's about stories because the stories are about us, and it's a celebration of humanity through the lens of a mythological tragedy about gods and those beyond gods trying to understand what it means to be human and why. 

                       And finally, the book has an amazing amount of humanity and heart. For a work that spends most of its time in horror and dark fantasy, swerving drunkenly along the line between bleak, depressive beats and melancholic but uplifting fairy stories, it's got a very touching core. The overall message seems to be that everyone's screwed if they can't learn understanding, but that same understanding will hurt. Knowledge doesn't come without sacrifice. Love does not come without pain and possibly even loss. You can't get everything you want in your lifetime. You probably won't. Even if you try, you'll find things might elude your grasp, but, and here's the important bits: One, there's no limit on tries. You can keep pursuing things unto your own destruction, and two, most importantly, life would be no good if that weren't true. It isn't a story if there's no conflict, no matter how small. It could be the entirety of the Dreaming being ripped apart, it could be an internal squabble over someone's romantic choices, and all of them are stories. A woman struggling with herself in an apartment. Story. And that's what makes Sandman so human. It understands the peaks and valleys, the depression and the highs, and overall it understands the nature of human imagination and heart and what anyone and everyone is capable of. It's about humans, and centers its humanity in that. 

                      But wait, I told you there was a reason beyond all of these, beyond being a modern mythology quoted to this day, beyond being what it is, didn't I? Okay, this is gonna take a little bit of a crash course on comics history, so here goes:

                       During the Eighties, comics were undergoing something of a "growing up" period. Creators such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison had made a shift to somewhat darker content-- Frank Miller with Sin City, Give Me Liberty, and The Dark Knight Returns; Alan Moore with The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Miracleman, Swamp Thing, and V for Vendetta***; Garth Ennis with his super-satire Hitman; and Grant Morrison with Animal Man and his killer never-been-matched-or-repeated run on Doom Patrol (A must-read for any comics fan). When Karen Berger, an editor at DC who'd worked on a great many comics, decided she wanted to start her own imprint-- a kind of creator-championing publisher offshoot for those who wanted to make comics to read, instead of the kind kept in little plastic bags in basements where they awaited someone to invent eBay-- then eventually Vertigo was born. It was marketed as a more mature imprint, and covered more mature stories. These included Rachel Pollack's best-left-forgotten run on Doom Patrol, Jamie Delano's take on Animal Man (you may notice a trend of people falling on their faces after picking up the ball from where Grant Morrison left it...this works in reverse, too, I've found, but it says something about the man's chops), all subsequent Swamp Thing comics and reboots of previous titles such as Kid Eternity, Black Orchid, and Shade, the Changing Man as new mature comics. This gave Vertigo the frankly warranted reputation of being "DC for grownups" or alternately "DC Dark". 

                           In what could possibly be a sudden "oh god" moment of clarity paired with the sudden realization that hey, a lot of characters died in these more mature books, DC decided to cut off all continuity between the imprint and the main house. Vertigo books would not have any canon continuity with the main run of titles. Despite characters like Poison Ivy and Scarecrow showing up (in Black Orchid and Sandman, respectively), there would be no canon crossovers between books. Period. Basta. And thus, what I call the "Continuity Embargo", or the "DC Embargo" was born. And, as Vertigo spun out its own titles and continuities or rebuilt the continuities available to them, this didn't matter. It's actually a non-issue.

                         So why even bring it up? Well, because of one thing. One shining point in the darkness:

(Death and Lex Luthor bargain)

                         The Sandman ran that fucker like it was the Millennium Falcon and the continuity wall was a blockade. 
                          Even before the Vertigo line was re-absorbed into DC with the cancellation of Hellblazer and the formation of Justice League Dark, Death popped up in regular DC titles. Dream pops up in Green Arrow, in one of its better runs. And these are just some of the examples. The point is, Sandman as a mythology inspired other glimpses and other ideas involving its characters, the same way regular mythologies do. The same way the Greek mythologies worked, and the Norse, and all the others-- hell, were it not for mythological permeation and permutation, there would be no Loki fandom. Let that digest for a second before we move on. And Sandman did it. It did it when there should have been a wall, it did it in direct flaunting of its creator's orders, and in doing so, it crossed the boundary from a comic-- something with rules, something constrained by editors and creators-- and into myth. That's what Sandman is. Myth. And that's why it's worth the time of reading. 

                       However...there are certain odd quirks to it. Neil Gaiman seems to enjoy a higher body count throughout the book than most George RR Martin books. There's also kind of a snarl to it that seems to question religion in some way, as if giving gods human characteristics or human foibles is some kind of a really stupid idea on the part of humanity. I understand that the Endless are different from gods, kind of "better than gods" in a certain sense, but at the same time, they have a lot of the same characteristics of gods. And reminds me of what Neil Gaiman used to do when he was younger. Hungrier. Angrier. Possibly even hangrier. It makes the stuff he's done since, or at least post-American Gods (his first real forcible mainstream success), seem kind of...toned-down? Muted? Complacent? Something like that. Which gives me pains, because while I know Gaiman still has the fire in him, the will to make, I want to see his teeth again and I feel like I haven't. 

                       In the end,  much in the same way Gravity's Rainbow was about everything, The Sandman is about life. It's about life in a very roundabout way, not directly about life, but about the messy, bittersweet nature about life through exploring the messy, bittersweet nature of stories. And no matter how dark The Sandman gets-- and this is a book where sometimes a major character on the lighter side of the morality scale dies and it can be considered a victory for the good guys-- there's hope. There's hope that if people don't come out of this all right, and let's be honest here, the greek-tragedy nature of the mythology pretty much guarantees that very few if any of the people involved will come out all right, they'll come out of it in some kind of shape where they can brush themselves off and hopefully recover from what wounds they do have. Because that's what life truly is for all of us. It can take us to the highest heights, the most brightly-colored portraits, but it'll kick us in the teeth, too. The most frightening sights in the world are right outside your door, but...but it's still strangely haunting and beautiful out there. 

                  And sure, there will be a lot of depressing times, and it's not in any of us to win completely, we're all screwed and in the end we'll have that strangely terrifying visit with the perky black-haired young woman with the ankh necklace, but we have our lives and our tiny worlds. And by pitching this outside of the normal human experience-- the book is, despite point of view, from the point of view of omniscient and omnipresent beings who can't quite grok humanity (even Death, arguably the most empathic character in the series, asks Dream in one of her earlier appearances  "Why are they so terrified of the Sunless Lands when you're infinitely more terrifying than I am?")-- it helps focus in. It puts us in an objective position to better watch humanity. It kicks us in the emotional teeth whenever Dream tries and fails to interact with us while still trying to change and become more understanding of humans. 

                     I mentioned before that outside our front doors is the most terrifying thing we could possibly imagine, but also the most hauntingly beautiful. The Sandman is about the struggle to step out that front door, to understand that either you have to screw up your courage and walk out there, or perish. And that's something we all need. So buy this. The entire series is over, and you can probably find the various editions all over the place. If you haven't read it, you owe it to yourself to read it. If you have read it, you should probably read it again because it's amazing. Either way, you can't go wrong. 
Lucifer by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, et. al

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, and Dave Johnson et. al. 

*And I just improved my SEO by putting those words together. Suck it, clickbaiters, I even play your game with more style than you do. 
** Because I wouldn't know anything about that. Right, professors and teachers who read my essays full of references to Aeon Flux, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and Transmetropolitan?
*** The comic being the definitive version for me. And only followed in definitiveness by David J's album of the same name. The movie is a great movie, but scrubs off all the grime and warts to leave an unsettlingly dark action film, but one nowhere near as dark, twisted, and downright brilliant as the comic. It's funnier, too. 
****Arguably the safest city in the DCU, at least taking Vertigo continuity into consideration

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