Volume 3: Dream Country
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Malcolm Jones III, Robbie Busch and Steve Oliff
Hold on to your hats as we go for a ramble in Dream Country and discover previously unexplored territories. Ornate fountain pens? Check. Barbed cat penises? Check. Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare? Check. Check. Check.
Surely I can not be the only one who read the first story in this (Calliope) and thought of the Simpsons episode where Homer goes to hell? (I just rewatched the clip and when it shows the door to Hell Lab’s “Ironic Punishment Division” I half expected it to cut to whatshisface writing things out with his fingernails). “So, you like donuts, eh? Well, have all the donuts in the world!” – I mean – just replace the word “donuts” with “ideas” and it’s basically the same thing – no?
But then I guess it makes a kinda strange sense that the first story in Dream Country would be about ideas, seeing how all four stories in here are all so seemingly front-loaded by some sort of big idea or whatever. I mean – sometimes you can read a story and it’s just about characters doing a thing or whatever. But every story here is loaded with some big balls-out hooky premise. What if muses really existed? What if cats used to rule the Earth? What if Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed in front of the fairies from a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream? What if you couldn’t die? And I mean – well – yeah: when I was a teenager (yep this again) I used to eat this stuff up with a giant spoon – but going over it now. I don’t know. The first story is a bit Scary Door and seems to be not much more than an in-jokey reply to the “so where do you get your ideas from?” question that is apparently always pissing off writers (although I’ll admit: “I keep a naked woman in my basement” is a pretty good answer). And – oh god – that ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ one is the most insufferable twee thing I think I’ve read like ever. I mean – it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine some spotty teenager writing in a furry purple book that’s also their diary and also their book of poetry. I mean – there were points when it made my toes actually curl inside my shoes. The Midsummer Night’s Dream one is a little bit better – although it is slightly undercut by my suspicion that the only reason Gaiman wrote it is because he wanted to introduce the land of Fairy (or Faerie or whatever) and hell – no-one is going to cuss you if you do it under the cover of Shakespeare right? (Shakespeare being the best and all that).
I haven’t actually got around to reading the last one yet – Façade – and I will admit that I’m kinda scared to do so – seeing how I remember it being really good (and the one story that I used to return to again and again when I was younger) and now – well – I’m scared it won’t be so good / won’t have the same impact / that Ilia will say that actually it doesn’t make any sense and it just kinda falls down. But – well – yes. What did the rest of you think?
Unlike Joel, I could barely remember Façade. OK I remembered the bit in the restaurant. Was Element Girl any kind of significant thing? Or a distant but recognisable player? Was this comics’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moment?
I kinda like the cat story! As goofy as the manimals grooming / being hunted by the giant cats (or are *we* small?) looks now. Mainly for its central idea of retrospective reality change – not only would the world be different, but it would always have been different. Which doesn’t make logical sense (whatever happened, happened – thanks Lost), but has some nice pseudo-mythological daffiness to it (“it was so and it was not so”).
Calliope, I remember even at the time being a bit eye-rolled by the IDEAS! SO MANY IDEAS! A FISH WITH NO EYES YET CAN SEE LAND! HOW THE OLDEST MONKEY IN THE WORLD INVENTED BANANAS! THE STORY OF A TEA-CUP TOLD FROM THE P.O.V. OF THE BEACH IT HAS WASHED UP ON! – it, to me, feels like part of a kind of irksome attitude about what stories are i.e. wacky premises – (as in, a premises that is wacky, not Fun House). You can thank for this a whole library of short-story collections which don’t ever get far beyond their initial idea. Or at the very least you can thank it for the notion that the heights of creativity are down to how high you can make your concepts.
Midsummer Night’s Dream,… Hmmm, MND, the play, has a built-in attractiveness: it’s a comedy, it’s summer, there’s young people being all loved-up. It’s like the original teen summer movie. So as much as Gaiman re-appropriating the story was fun and clever, he was on safe ground. Opening the door to Faery with the chalk giant on the hill is cool, as is the moment where the troupe realise who their audience is. (Although, shouldn’t they have gone Lovecraftily insane? Although, I think that of anyone in any story where something even mildly untoward happens (“I bumped into the same woman twice? ARGH MY MIND”).) The treatment of Puck is fun, though the Hamnet stuff doesn’t seem to have much point other than ‘wouldn’t it be weird if Hamnet only died to become a prize like the Indian Boy in MND?’ Which, ok, cool – but would have been cooler still if in Sandman we also had a retelling of Hamlet the play (Dream as the Ghost?)
Do you reckon Alan Moore saw what Gaiman did with Shakespeare in The Sandman and was like, ha! well I’m going to write the opening of a fake Shakespeare play, also about faerey but an original story, and in verse – so there.
Element Girl was indeed a thing, the distaff female version of Metamorpho IIRC, the Supergirl to his Superman. I think she could change her body to any chemical element which really should mean that she was having a much better life than as presented here. The super-Vietnam vet grimdark of this story alienated me at the time, now I just find it ridiculous.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream won a World Fantasy Award, which so pissed off the people that give out the awards that they immediately changed the rules afterwards so that comics were ineligible for the prize. Now that’s a result! I do like this, with the many levels of the play’s reality being further supplemented with the audience called to watch it, and their complaints about where the fiction doesn’t match up to the reality they remember. This is, for me, one of the standout issues with the art, where the glamour of the situation seems to capture the actors and literally transform them into the characters, the ‘girls’ become ravishing beauties, Bottom gets the head of an ass. I’ve always thought it a shame that Gaiman couldn’t be persuaded to expand on this history of faerie, Titania and Hamnet do appear in his ‘Books of Magic’ miniseries briefly and some of the cast do reappear at various times in The Sandman but it’s never followed up on.
‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ is a punchline story (“whoever heard of cats agreeing to do anything together?”) and not much else. It also shows the difference between Vertigo and DC. In Vertigo comics a cat looses her kittens and almost drowns and she has a vision quest to the Cat of Dreams to find out why. When the same thing happens in a DC Comic the cat gets a power ring and becomes a Red Lantern of rage that can spit plasma hairballs at anyone she doesn’t like. Gaiman would do the quest idea again better in ‘The Dream Hunters’, when the series had finished.
‘Calliope’ is so of its time it hurts. There’s the idea that Morpheus only gets involved because he knows only too well what it’s like to spend the 20th century locked up by some humans but I suppose it’s only the limitations of the monthly format that make it seem as though Gaiman is slightly trivialising the rape issue? No-one, including Calliope, seems to think it’s that bad, it’s more the fact that she doesn’t have her freedom generally. And one might argue that Madoc gets off quite lightly, even if he doesn’t write again he’s got his royalties and a comfy existence, and presumably a plastic surgeon could do something about his hands. But it’s a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits story on paper really.
Ok. So today I (finally) read Façade (oooh – check out the fancy “c”!) and – well yeah – turns out I was worried about nothing as I’m actually quite happy (and surprised) to say that – yeah – this is the point where The Sandman finally gets good (oh – ok then: I mean – that story at the start of the Doll’s House with the two guys in the desert looking for shards of glass is pretty good too – but – well – as good as it is – it is a little slight)
Yeah yeah – Barry himself doesn’t appear anywhere in the story – but hell – maybe he needed to step aside so that Neil could like concentrate on writing – well – a damn fine little tightly wound little clockwork watch of a story (everything in it’s right place: everything there just to trigger a few very select emotions – pity, sadness, despair and then – well – release….)
It would be bad if I said that I actually read Façade when I supposed to be working and shelving books or whatever. But well let’s imagine that was the case: I’m sticking books back on the shelves – filling the graphics and working out if I should put Young Avengers under Y or A when I see Dream Country sticking out at me going: “Oi! You still haven’t read me yet.” So – what the hey: I take it down and think – oh what the hell: I’ll read it now (I mean – it’s only going to take – what? 5 minutes? – and technically – it’s for work right?). And this is the thing – that even if I had read it in the middle of floor with other stuff happening around me and whatever – even then: (I imagine) it’s a story that’s strong enough and loaded enough that it only needs a small window to worm its way in and – well – I mean – I know that this is a bit of a cliché or whatever (but still) it kinda left me chilled a bit like someone had slipped a small chunk of ice into my chest.
Like Loz pointed out (and I don’t know if I knew this before or not but whatever) the Barry Shakespeare story nabbed a World Fantasy Award which is a great one-shot demonstration of everything that is wrong in the world. Because yeah – without wanting to wade into the whole “Comics are more than just about superheroes” debate (which in terms of conversations that are totally played out from years and years of wear and tear and blah and blah and blah is second in my mind only to “Should we call them Graphic Novels or Comic Books?”) – let’s wade into the ‘Comics are more than just about superheroes’ debate (you ready? I mean – you might want to go grab a towel or something….).
But yes – ok: so – we have these things which are called comics (or graphic novels or whatever) and (in this country at least: the Japanese don’t really have this sort of problem) the very large majority of them (it seems) are about superheroes which – yeah yeah – is people in funny costumes going around and fighting each other. And well – this creates all sorts of assumptions and hang-ups so that most people who are into graphic novels (or comic books or whatever) feel compelled to say (and ha! – there’s even people on this email thread right now who’ve said this to me when I’ve first met them): “I’m into comics but I’m not into superheroes.”
I mean – of course this is a total sensible and understandable thing to say – and I totally get why people say it. It’s like if 90% of all food was just sweets and you wanted to talk about steak or whatever then yeah – in such a scenario it would make sense to begin a conversation by saying: “Hi – I really like food but I’m not into sweets” (or whatever – I dunno – make a better example in your head).
There are several things I could say about this – but my main point is this: in a more fair and just world where these kinda hang-ups didn’t exist – it would have been Façade that got the glory instead of Midsummer Night’s Dream…. But (to me) it seems totally endemic to the people that are into comics (I was going to type comics critical industry – but thought that maybe that might sound a little pompous) that they would go – oh wow yeah Shakespeare – yeah everyone loves Shakespeare right? (I mean – god – I defy anyone to come up with a cultural figure who is safer from any sort of criticism at all than Shakespeare – I mean – he’s basically the Jesus of the arts – right? Totally and in every way unassailable. Throughout the years of critical build-up it’s like he’s made from the same stuff they use to make frying pans – non-stick or whatever). So yeah – god – if a comic wants to hitch itself to that band-wagon and be all like “Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare” (which would have been my choice for the title of the issue) – I mean it makes total sense that the World Fantasy Award people would be all like: “oh hey – yeah Shakespeare. Everyone loves Shakespeare right? Let’s give this guy a prize!”
When yeah – when really – they should have been heaping laurels and whatever on the crazy little story that came after. Except – oh no – whoops – it’s about superheroes. And everyone knows superheroes are silly and stupid – right?
So yeah – another of the points I’d like to make: genres and/or subjects and/or whatever are not in themselves good or bad. And (wait for this – because it’s going to blow your mind) – you can tell some really good stories which have superheroes in them. I mean – don’t get me wrong: it is kinda crazy (and kinda a waste) that pretty much every comic out there is superhero superhero superhero (and urg – 95% of all DC and Marvel stuff isn’t worth the time it takes to read) – but gosh darn it – that doesn’t mean that all superhero stories are rubbish and hey check it out – if you’re smart you can use them to tell some really twisty mind-smashy crazy stuff…
I’d admit at this point that I didn’t even realise that the main character of Façade was some Z-List superhero (like Loz says: Element Girl) when I first read but still – man – it was like a punch deep in the guts. I’d perfectly happy to say that yeah – reading it first as a teenager probably helped a whole bunch (I mean – teenagers know what it’s like to be alone, to be stuck inside, to think that life is hopeless, way more than any other demographic – right? Or was that just me?) but yeah – the way that the whole thing kinda unfolds is just so – well – can I say cool? It’s like the set-up for a joke or something: everything there just to tighten the noose just a little bit more…. And then – well – yeah – Death shows up.
I’d really like to know what Ilia thinks of this story as when I was reading it – there was quite a lot of it that seemed to be directly coming back to a lot of the bogus sentiment that cluttered up that one where her and Barry are feeding the pigeons… I mean back then it was all “woo! yay! death is a gift!” – and this is almost like a riposte to that (like it came from two different writers) where this is like: actually death isn’t all fun and games and maybe you should grow up a little…
There’s a great line from Death herself actually where she talks about how she’s not a gift and that she can be terrible (unfortunately I don’t have the book in front of me so I can’t check it but yeah – if you’re read it then you’ll know the bit I’m talking about).
And well yeah there’s just something about the whole thing that just really nicely clicks into place. I was going to say that there’s something about it that puts you really in the mind of Urania Blackwell until I realised oh yeah – well – there’s that really nice (aka disturbing) point of view shot where the mask slips off the face and falls into the spaghetti bolognese – which I guess helps (it puts you in the mind of – because it puts you in the place of).
But well yeah – but then I guess – all I really wanted to say is that: well yeah – it’s a really good story and not in spite of the superhero-ness of it, but because of it. Because yeah – superheroes can be this great thing of the best of us doing the best things and saving the world and blah blah blah – but also because: they’re a freaky concept and – if you use them in the right way / in a smart way – then you can use them to tell freaky stories.
And everyone knows that the freaky stories are the best. Right?
Thanks for the Facade run down Joel. Inspired me to write a little more about why Dream Country is such a mixed bag. OR in fact maybe like a pack of Revels with only really one Malteser out of them all…
So. In Calliope, once again we have the cheesy use of meaningful opening lines: “I don’t have any idea,” which takes on a new sense once you know the ending, with an equally chin-strokey BUH closer “No idea at all.” (“The Circle is complete,” Gaiman mumbles, putting down pen (we all know he uses some ornate fountain pen, right?).)
The spin on what a Muse is or would be ‘in real life’ is ok, I guess. But the whole story is full of false notes. Does a prolific novelist-cum-poet-cum-screenwriter feel culturally plausible for the 80’s/90’s? The story cites Jean Cocteau, but, by then citing Clive Barker, it’s almost admitting that such a figure would for some reason now feel a bit silly (is it because cultural atomisation is now so deeply ingrained?). Well, silly anyway in the manner of Garth ‘based on Clive Barker’ Marenghi: “author, dreamweaver, visionary – plus actor.”
Similarly, though this is possibly a very personal bugbear, but why do novels in other stories always sound so crap? In Gervais/Merchant’s ‘Extras’ they nail the name of the lame play ‘A month of summers’. I can only hope the shit novel titles in Calliope were purposeful…
The EC Horror comics ending of, as Joel put it, ‘you like ideas do ya? Then have all the ideas in the world!’ – I’m trying to get my head around why this would be so bad. The closest analogue is I guess a synapses-on-override experience like LSD, where, so they say, haha, your mind accelerates and gets better (or so it seems) and you become like Calvin when he augments his brain or Homer when he becomes smart: ideas, amazing ideas, solutions, analyses, coming so fast – if only you could record them. BUT, as is commonly known, it’s only overwhelming and unpleasant once those ideas take a dark turn.
It’s as if Gaiman knew this on some level too, which is why he added the body horror of Madoc not having a pen and writing with fingers till they wear down and bleed. Which, nice image: but it’s very having-no-pen-dependent. Like, if he had a pen, or a word processor even, would it have been fine: not that bad?
Moving on to ‘A Dream of a 1000 Cats’… What is it with writers and cats? I feel the culture, as part of our destiny as zombie cat cultists, has forced two constructs together, the independent solitary mysterious cat and the independent solitary mysterious writer. Kindred spirits! What is Writer, if not Cat? Hemingway the cat-lady (“WHO YOU CALLING A CAT-LADY, I WAS A CAT MAN. WANNA FIGHT? WANNA GET DRUNK AND WRESTLE NAKED SOME?). Terry Pratchett’s Death being asked what makes life worth living: “CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE.”
I was trying to find the right part in The Everlasting Man by G K Chesterton, who we know Gaiman was a fan of, where he talks about what wild animals would think of pets, and what animals in general would think about humans (monsters, basically). I wonder if that was the inspiration for when Martin Luther Kat gives her ‘I had a dream’ speech.
[Interlude for Ilya: So yeah Ilya asked me to produce an example of Gaiman’s purple prose: this is a minor example but thought I’d flag it up on the way: “He was a tom-cat. Ragged of ear. Dark of eye. It was my time for love; and he was my choice for lover. Our pleasure in each other, and the consummation of our mutual hunger, was screeched to the heavens, and screamed to the arches of the sky.” It’s almost Mills and Boon. It’s untrue (female cats do get heat, but actual sex is pretty horrific, what with cats’ barbed penises (pull-quote: “Upon withdrawal of a cat’s penis, the spines rake the walls of the female’s vagina.” ); screeched / screamed: lots of writers do this: it’s a combination of confusing writing for speech and so using techniques from rhetoric, in this case alternating synonyms (there’s some fancy word for it which I can’t find), and ‘elegant variation’, where to avoid dreaded repetition, the writer thinks he has to use a synonym to make it sound more elegant, but it’s a false elegance that doesn’t add anything. Oh and ‘arches of the sky’. Do cats think in terms of arches? Wouldn’t ‘screamed to the sky’ be more effective? Well not if you’re trying hard to be Literary and Poetic…]
On to ‘Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare’ (aka Midsummer Night’s Dream)
First off, since when did Shakespeare dislike fart jokes? This is untrue. But perhaps as Joel puts it well, this comes from lots of people’s veneration of Shakespeare as Art Jesus. (Fun fact: theologians debated what Jesus did with his bum – more Kundera: “In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus ‘ate and drank, but did not defecate.’ Shit is a more onerous problem than evil.”). Similarly, it’s like Gaiman thought Shakespeare was too ART to fart. Heh. Fart fart fart. What? Oh, right, Shakespeare.
I’d disagree though a little with Shakespeare being total Art Jesus – or not disagree other than point out that, as with Jesus Jesus, Art Jesus has a particular kind of frequent detractor, which is the iconoclastic, daddy-killing contrarian type: everyone from Tolstoy to your perennial English-grad smart-ass. By no means saying that WS is above criticism. No one should be treated as Jesus. Even Jesus! But the iconoclasts and the iconographers – and Gaiman is in the latter camp – both miss the point on Shakespeare.
So, for example, Sandman talking to Titania, talks about how Shakespeare has proven a ‘willing vehicle for the great stories’. But, I’m going to be pedantic here, Shakespeare’s stories aren’t timeless fable-like eternal Stories. They’re taken from proto-journalism and folk history, Holinshed, etc. People don’t go to Shakespeare for the great stories – once you get past the Massive Ingrained Cultural Bias towards him, the reason for Shakespeare, if any, is, in descending order, the poetry, the psychology, the drama. (as in particular dramatic set-pieces: gouging out an eye! double suicide!). As stories, the plays are baggy as fuck. I’m not saying they’re bad stories. And I’m not saying they’re not important: this isn’t an anti-story comment: But for someone to say ‘ah I love Shakespeare, for the stories!’, or ‘The Tempest is such a great story!’, sounds to me a bit misplaced or odd.
Shakespeare as distracted artist feels a bit cliché too. Hamnet’s complaint about ‘characters being more real than actual people’ etc. I get that it’s setting up Hamnet/Hamlet. But again it seems like a bit obvious (see writers and cats).
I definitely agree that MND got its plaudits because of the residual Shakespeare-aura. But also from the fact that so much of the writing is actually text from the play. It’s like writing a new song, but sampling Beethoven for 3 out of 5 minutes of it. Though, there are at least some quotes which are relevant, and at most a few which have a nice contrast / meaningful interplay either with the image or in reference to the wider Sandman story. So for example (spoilers!) Theseus complaining that he doesn’t want to see the Orpheus death story again – neither does Sandman, mate. (Thanks for bringing it up though Will.) And similarly the (spoilers!) verses about pale companion and melancholy and funerals etc over Sandman’s sad-looking profile: he knows! Already he’s planning it! Also, it’s nice that the overall point of Sandman getting Shakespeare to write MND as a departing gift to the faery folk, to immortalise them where they would have otherwise been forgotten: well, it worked! Here were are talking about Oberon and Titania.
Coming back to an early comment Joel made about how the not-amazing art-work meant more focus (whether this was purposeful or not) went on Gaiman as a writer. I can definitely buy that. It’s a shame though that with dreams being visual (mostly, and for the non-blind) there ought to have been cooler visuals in the series. By this I don’t mean pretty. But striking. Haunting. There’s loads of fumbles in Dream Country instead. The double-page reveal of the cats in the forest, it looks like the cats are stickers that have been put on as an afterthought. Similarly, the reveal of Oberon, Titania and the faery folk coming out of Wendel’s door, should have been a big title page WOW – instead they’re all crowded and under-drawn. Boo Wendy Testerburger. Boo.
The best parts of MND are the funny bits. Here Gaiman relaxes with his veneration. And it’s cool that he finds new comedy in that worst-aging part of Shakespeare: the comedy. So the counterpoint between the ‘farcical’ goings-on in the play and the audience’s reactions. ‘What’s wrong with having a goat head?’ Yuck yuck. Then Puck in the play: “I am that merry wanderer of the night” Audience fairy: “I am that giggling-dangerous-totally-bloody-psychotic-menace-to-life-and-limb, more like it.” The sort of childish giddy excitement of Peaseblossom realising he’s in the play but not looking how he looks, but this being exciting anyway.
So I agree, it’s actually Façade that is the neglected stand-out: the story is all about balance and the turning of the screw. Even the art is better. Death’s ‘sheesh’ expression when her patience is being tested re: Ra. The details of the pain are what makes it: the way a lonely person needs to schedule contact: her phone call to Mulligan, which she does too eagerly and too early, and so, because she didn’t pace herself, she now has to wait longer till she can do again. And her waking up (from dreams!), the way that the daily waking up is the cruellest part of grief / sadness because in sleep you forgot it all, were distracted, were oblivious for 8 hours, and then you wake up from sleep mode and your mind turns on and all the programs are still running. Oh and ‘when I’m radioactive then no one will talk to me’. Yeah, finding the sadness in freakiness and freakiness in sadness: using a superhero trope – radioactivity! – as a way to find new way to demonstrate being an outcast.
This (tokes deeply) is the good shit.
BTW, just so there’s no confusion
This wasn’t me…(below)
So, that would be for Ilia, is my guess
Please don’t mix us up! Thank you
I will try and join in once we are past Gaiman, who is for me more grey or beige than purple: nuff said.
Argh, really sorry mate… Yeah it was for Ilia. sorry again.
I’ll try and respond to everything Mazin said in a bit (wow Mazin – don’t hold back or anything) but just gotta say to Ilya: Gaiman = grey or beige? Youch! Don’t suppose you want to back that up with anything more? Why don’t you rate him? What’s the matter – you don’t have any time for dreams?
I at this point resist posting any Inception-related memes.
“Gaiman = grey or beige? Youch! Don’t suppose you want to back that up with anything more?”
Having said anything at all, I guess by rights I should qualify, even if only slightly:
I find that he takes a great idea for a story or characters (usually somebody else’s, or else a riff on an existing classic) and then executes it in a fairly leaden and pedestrian fashion. It all feels like unrealised potential: something that could be fun to read but, in practice, isn’t. The median level of quality starts appreciably high – competent, at least – but there are no peaks, no swoops or bumps in the ride that follows.
I should declare that, aside from a few choice artistic collaborations – I have, for instance, various works that he’s done over the years with P Craig Russell – I started avoiding his stuff many years ago. Sandman largely passed me by (I found the art poor). I excitedly started picking up Hempel’s run late in the day, only to drop it again once I found that nothing really was happening.
I did quite like the Eternals revival with JRJR except that it didn’t go anywhere. 1602 was a fun quirk. Without the giant shoulders they rest on, though – whether those of world folklorists, Arabian Nights or Kirby – his own contributions remain, for me, relatively empty.
As and when I do try again, I’m left just as cold. Same with the movies, such as Stardust. I simply do not understand the popularity.
It could simply be down to a genre mismatch. The Vertigo imprint was one big yawn for me for as long as it slavishly followed his template and aesthetic – up to and including Fables.
This isn’t meant to be fighting talk. I guess I prefer different strokes. If it really peeves anyone, let’s please just put it down to that.
The other Ilia butting in here to pick at Mazin’s interlude on Gaiman’s prose – if you are right and the cats issue is intended to be a bit quirky and funny, then I imagine Gaiman’s tongue was at least a little in his cheek when he wrote that. I.e. Perhaps the Mills & Boon impression is exactly what he was going for.
Do agree w/ the side-eye at ‘elegant variation’ only because I’ve consciously used this myself and know it to be a cheap trick. Personally can forgive the other stuff you highlight (an ‘unscientific’ rendering of feline coupling, using techniques from rhetoric in the narrative voice – the cat is telling a story, no?).
I suspect some of the cliche expressions and tone of voice being deployed by Gaiman (while making style purists wince) is purposeful. Genre is as much about these verbal tics as it is about stock characters etc. I don’t think Gaiman is trying to be original w/ language (as the modernists were), he’s just mashing together the unoriginal (in that sense at least his work is v. post-modern).
Confess to writing all of this w/ a v. dim memory of the book. Joel’s send for me is registered and I’ll reply as soon as I reread Façade (didn’t make a huge impression on me first time round, tbh).
Lovin Ilya’s brutal Gaiman take-down and curious about which writers / artists have delivered those peaks, swoops and bumps Gaiman is incapable of…
Thanks for the reply Ilia!
Point conceded, I agree with you on my scientific pedantry perhaps missing the point (“And since when could cats talk eh? EH?”).
And also good point well made: yes it may be text and not speech, but the cat is giving a speech, in a text and visual form. Duh. So yeah, makes sense that the cat would be using rhetorical devices.
Similarly, I get your point about tongue-in-cheek, and get why at the medium / genre level you might argue for their being irony to it, but at the text level I need a bit more evidence on the page, so like some of the cats take her seriously, some don’t: what would have been cooler, and given more weight to your point, would be cats also saying ‘by Bastet, she does love her pompous talk!’ etc. That way you exhibit the ambiguity, rather than invite people to read it in at one level up – a reading which I’m not saying is invalid. What I’m saying is, yes there’s nothing to say it’s not tongue in cheek. But I’d need sommit more to make me think it is. But I can admittedly be pedantic about these things.
I think it’s a false dichotomy, though, the idea that there’s genre language, which is unoriginal, and high modernism, which is all fancy: so I’m reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness at the mo: it’s not Nabokov but it’s pretty nicely written. And I’m all for using pulpy linguistic tropes in mashed-up new ways, revelling in their source genre tics: how about this for an opening paragraph, from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion: “The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine kilometers high in a violent sky. Lightning rippled along the horizon. Closer to the ship, occasional vague, reptilian shapes would blunder into the interdiction field, cry out, and then crash away through indigo mists.”
Gaiman’s not Alan Moore (who himself isn’t perfect). No, he’s better when he reins it in, a la Façade: but then we’ll wait till you get to that…
Just to pick up a little on what everyone’s said so far (wish me luck):
Ilya – you mentioned a quite a few different Gaiman things (even the Stardust film which – come on – is only based on a Gaiman book so I don’t think should be allowed to count: I mean – if I asked someone if they’d ever read any Alan Moore and they said that they’d seen the Watchmen film that I’d be forced to reply with a very big: “hurm”) but – interestingly you said that “Sandman largely passed me by.”
I pick up on this not only because – yes yes – the book we’re talking about is The Sandman but also because: well – more than any other writer that I can think of (well – ok maybe Douglas Adams and The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy just popped into my head) Neil Gaiman – as a comic’s writer at least (let’s forget for now his books which don’t have any pictures or his Doctor Who scripts or whatever whatever) is really nothing more than The Sandman. As in – he basically is just The Sandman and everything else is just – I dunno – piddling around (ooh: another example: Tolkien and all his The Lord of the Rings stuff). Or to put it another way (and being a massively stereotypical Londoner) you couldn’t really say that you know what England’s like if you haven’t been to London – you know? And well – yeah – you say that the art is bad: and I very much agree with you on that. But come on: not only is there more to comics than just the art – but also: the art is not so bad as to make the comic unreadable. It’s more like – well – not having a film on DVD and having to do with VHS (and well yeah – we can all agree that VHS has a charm all of it’s own right?).
So – basically – yeah: I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss Gaiman (however crap he can be sometimes I’ll admit) without at least getting your teeth into some small part of The Sandman – and – oooooh look! Season of Mists is just round the corner which is like the perfect place to jump aboard: so what do you say?
Mazin: I think your big epic monster email is the funniest thing I’ve read all week.
YES – Gaiman for defs uses some sort of ornate fountain pen when he writes. On old battered parchment. With Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor playing in the background. YES. All the titles where laugh-out-loud hilarious. Although it did get me wondering about something I will coin now as the Title Paradox (although maybe it’s not that much of a Paradox – I dunno) but the basic idea being: there’s an inverse (is that the right word?) relationship between how stupid a title sounds and how famous it is. That is – if you have a book or a band name or whatever and it becomes famous and everyone knows about it – then it doesn’t sound at all silly because it meshes with the world and just becomes another name for a thing. But – if it’s not famous then whatever title you come up with – it sounds silly. In fact – I’d go further (and maybe be a little clearer) and say that – it’s only through constant wear and use that titles lose their silliness and become normal sounding…. (That makes sense right?) and YES – top marks for “Martin Luther Kat.” (although I’ve gotta say I do think you lose a point for not chucking in at least one link of a Garth Marenghi reading).
And – gosh – this is already all too much (silly me – I was hoping to keep things short). Oh well. I’ll just leave it here.
I gave Sandman my fair shake with the aforementioned Hempel issues back in the day, plus various one offs by Talbot/PCR/others previous to that and after, so I am pretty confident that it is not an opus for me. Like Blur is not my band, but I have bought (and like) some of their singles.
(From this you might also extrapolate that I am artist-led in my comics reading choices: it is far easier for me to stomach a well-drawn comic that is badly or so-so written, than the other way around, although I have done so on occasion.)
Unless Quitely’s drawing Season of Mists, then, I say “thank you, but no thanks”
I don’t see Gaiman’s work elsewhere as a whole other ball game. He has his oeuvre.
Fair point on Stardust – I assumed (wrongly) that it was an original screenplay or in some way his project. Although I dare say he’s had a fairer play on that score than poor ol’ Alan Moore.
Above all, though, I don’t want to be seen as leading this convo off track – nor, more crucially, dismissing it. I was merely answering M Saleem’s question of me and now I’m done and, until such time as the “book of the week” changes, please do continue dissecting Sandman!
Thank you and goodnight, all.
Coming back on a few things after (finally) reading the last two issues.
On Joel’s point: wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few Gaiman followers rate his novels over his comics and so wouldn’t consider Sandman to be the magnum opus. I can’t decide on that, having only read American Gods (which I found utterly forgettable). Personally, my fave G-man products are actually films: the Dave McKean directed Mirrormask, his script for Beowulf (v. clever), his work on the English dub of Princess Mononoke…
Tend to agree with the Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare reservations, though am disposed to be a bit kinder than Mazin on the question of whether Gaiman misses the point of Shakespeare. Seems to me Mazin is equating ‘stories’ with plots, when actually Gaiman may mean something a bit broader. The constituent parts of ‘stories’ could include plot, character, themes, language, and maybe other things as well. If anything, Gaiman’s error is to ascribe a certain archetypal content and mythological force to the plays – which isn’t what makes them distinctive in my view. Instead, I would flip Mazin’s top two Shakespeare talents and suggest he is most innovative when it comes to character – particularly creating personalities that are open to an almost limitless variety of interpretation. His felicity w/ language is a key part of that, but I think there is a reason why he is remembered as a playwright, rather than a poet, first.
Shakespeare’s competing loyalties to creativity and family strike me as less of an insight into the historical Shakespeare and more as an insight into Gaiman himself. My sense is that while Gaiman is a prodigious story-generating machine, there is always a kind of detachment to his writing – his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track (e.g. as Falstaff did Shakespeare). I would go so far as to presume that Gaiman sometimes would find the ephemeral amalgamations of past stories he rattles off so easily ~more~ interesting (or maybe less threatening) than real people. That sounds mean, but actually I think it’s a brave thing to admit, and is a tendency we’re all capable of.
Dream sums up the point of the Shakespeare issue as follows: “things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot”. This sound like bullshit, except the “dust and ashes” gloss on “facts” suggests he is talking about the way stories outlive people, rather than nature or the universe. Fair enough, but then we get to Façade: “mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you”. The sun turns out to be a mask hiding the stories which structure our sense of the world. The protagonist’s apotheosis is triggered by the surfacing of those ‘shadow-truths’ behind the world of empirically-determined facts. Is Dream’s country becoming Plato’s realm of the forms – the hidden structure behind our changeable world? Is Gaiman granting myths a kind of metaphysical power over our lives? Or is it just an internal, psychological switch in perspective that somehow physiologically unlocks the ability to commit suicide. I am more comfortable with the latter reading, though neither is particularly satisfying. Gaiman is always more comfortable dwelling on the awesome power stories have over us, rather than why we tell them or what they might be for.
“My sense is that while Gaiman is a prodigious story-generating machine, there is always a kind of detachment to his writing – his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track.”
Aha! Exactly so – thank you Ilia. I think I might steal and rattle that off next asked
Ilia, very good points – yeah your concept of story captures better what the Sandman means, or what anyone might mean by Shakespeare’s stories. I agree with you about character – I wonder though whether one of the reasons we know WS as a playwright, rather than a poet, apart from his best work being in the former, is that, well plays make the Bard Industry shitloads of money. Yes I’m sure the sales figures on Shakespeare texts, and texts about the texts, are still pretty handsome. But god-knows what the British theatre industry would do without regular ‘radical re-imaginings’ and star-studded history plays (see: Sherlock being the new Hamlet).
Contrary to Ilia and Ilya, re: “his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track” – I’ve never quite got what this stuff means. It reminded me of this:
E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?
My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
I certainly believe in the power of the subconscious, of your back-brain coming up with solutions to creative problems your front brain couldn’t rationally construct or predict. But when it’s focused down to characters as these golem-like life-of-their-own constructs – I don’t know. Ayn Rand (of all people) made a good point that maybe it’s more to do with not being fully conscious of (not having trained yourself, having other ideologies that block you from) why you write the characters the way you do, and because your own motives are semi-willfully inscrutable, you then infer some kinda mystical autonomy, when really it’s all artifice, all your doing, you’re just obscuring it from yourself.
Or, by vitality, do you mean more that the stories are character-led, that the characters are so colourful, fun, exciting, LIFE-Y, that the story happily gets sidetracked on to them?
“Gaiman is always more comfortable dwelling on the awesome power stories have over us, rather than why we tell them or what they might be for.” I thought this was interesting, and I wonder if this will still hold by the end of the series.
I’d also be more comfortable with the latter reading as you are. But couldn’t it be both, and isn’t it more interesting that way?
God dammit. There I am – in the middle (ok – the start) of writing a reply and then – oops you have one new message and (wouldn’t you know it?) Mazin’s come along and basically stolen everything I had to say.
(Shakes fist at sky)
Ok. A few things:
Yes – it’s just been said: (but I’ll say it again) What the hell exactly is this characters knocking authors off-track thing? I mean – yeah – it’s something that writers tend to mention in interviews quite a lot (case in point: I just finished reading Nowhere Men and read this in an interview from off the internet: “There are a couple characters who weren’t meant to be around for very long who kind of surprised me once they were on the page, and I decided they should take on a larger part in the overall story.”) but I mean – maybe I haven’t written enough (ok – fine – any) comic books – but really?
I mean – yeah – ok – I get it – sometimes you have a character and it’s so cool or whatever that you want to embellish and etc. But – isn’t there a conflict between (in the red corner) having fun with characters and (in the blue corner) actually you know – well – telling a story? I like Mazin’s Nabokov quote about characters as “galley slaves” because yeah – that’s the conception that makes the most sense to me. I mean – of course – you want to have a story where the characters seem alive and free to do their own stuff – but doesn’t it have to be done in a way that ends up serving the story? I mean – there’s that bit at the start of Saga (an awesome comic that you really all should read) where – and I’ll say this in a vague way so not to spoil it for the rest of you – where one character kinda runs away from the action for a bit in a way that makes it seem like he’s trying to get out of the story only for – uh oh – more stuff to happen to him in a way that ends up dragging him further in (does that make sense?).
And yeah – this whole red corner hooray for characters thing! just seems to rest upon a misguided conception about what stories are and how best they work – but then maybe that’s just because I’d much rather have a great story with lacklustre characters than the other way around (and yes of course both would be better and – gosh – why do we always have to choose one over the other anyway?) but but but (to use a metaphor that I was branding about at the last Barbican Comic Forum) it’s like thinking that the icing is more important than the cake – you dig?
Also: I’d like to question Ilia’s assertion that Falstaff knocked Shakespeare off-track….. I mean – (as I hope it has been established) I know nothing about Shakespeare – but I’m pretty sure that there are no surviving records of him appearing on Parkinson or doing interviews with Playboy or whatever: so erm – how exactly do we know that he was all like: “Yeah – Falstaff was just supposed to be a minor character – but he took on a life of his own and before I know it – he was everywhere?”
I think Shakespeare was on the first season of The South Bank Show wasn’t he? That’s been going on forever…
On the issue of characters telling their writers what to do it’s probably just poetical, Gaiman came up with the idea of Mr Croup and Mr Vandermar when he was a child but it was only when he came up with the idea of ‘Neverwhere’ that he had a story for them and then he found it difficult to control them once they were in. JM Strazynski had B5 plotted out for years before the cameras started turning but in one case expanded a bit part because the actor did such a good job and in another case found the person he intended to commit a murder just couldn’t and someone he never expected stepped up and said “let me”. In the terrible unpublishable novels I wrote (which are safely hidden in some dank corner of Lucien’s library) I found characters sometimes would just not do what I wanted them to. Maybe Nabokov is a genius-tyrant, I don’t know, I’ve never read any of his work.
As the series goes on we see that Morpheus is fascinated by stories, something about his role as dream being closely allied to imagination. In the last issue of the regular series he talks about giving stories to others because he will have no story himself. It seems an odd position to take and suggests a response to some trauma that we’ve not yet been told of in his past. But ‘AMND’ is the story of a history play of a different court to his made-up histories of Richard II and III, the Henrys, the Kings and Dukes and Moneylenders. It’s all fiction in the end.
“and in another case found the person he intended to commit a murder just couldn’t and someone he never expected stepped up and said “let me”.”
– is that still from Babylon 5? Or something else entirely?
See – for me: I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that most writers (as with most people in most professions) just don’t really know why or what they’re really doing… I mean: Mazin and Ilia were talking about like the “power of stories” but from reading bad comics and bad books and watching bad films and bad TV – it kinda seems a lot of the time that the people making it only know how to do the bit of the iceberg that’s coming out the top of the water and have no idea about all the stuff that’s going on unseen beneath: and I think one of the ways this comes out (maybe) is when they’re all like: oh yeah – my character came alive and got me in a headlock until I relented and promised to give them more screen-time or whatever.
But yeah – I’ll just go back to this thing (saying it again in a different way) – that if you think that a story is just a pedestal for you to display your characters then (sorry) you’re probably doing it wrong.
Interesting, because I worship at the altar of Nabokov, always have…and yes, he is a master of artifice. But then I love his stuff and his characters in a way I don’t/can’t with Gaiman. Maybe because I sense they more often than not don’t originate with Gaiman? Is that then a crucial difference when it comes to moving them around a page, instead of any illusion of free will/happenstance?
(Ayn Rand also sounds on the money. My beloved swears that I AM Howard Roark, but so far I have trouble reading her on that, too)
Eddie Campbell would be good to compare and contrast perhaps – it was his freewheeling approach to standard plot, the allowance of and for sudden left turns, that I reckon made him a mismatch for DC/Vertigo editorial back when he was commissioned to write Hellblazer. In my experience they have always had trouble understanding the truly unexpected (ironic, surely). But he (Campbell)’s also someone who very much whips his characters at the oars of story…
And therefore by extension, if DC/Vertigo, the once and future slaves of Gaiman’s styling found Campbell too unexpected in his plotting, or treatment of signature characters, what does that suggest re: Gaiman?
(I do qualify this by repeating that I don’t really read Gaiman, so that slight – that his plots might be to an extent predictable – may well be unfounded. But yes, that feeling does certainly contribute to my sense of them “plodding”. Fate is inexorable? Never harmed Shakespeare)
Anyone here ever played a pen and paper role-playing game? Maybe a bad idea to admit this, but I have a couple of times while at university. The basic idea is that players design a character with particular attributes, skills and quirks, and then the “Game Master” (I know…) sets out scenarios to which the players have to react. Essentially, one person deals with plot, and the others with character. A writer (or ~storyteller~) is basically doing those two jobs at once. If you think about it in this way, perhaps the tension between character and plot becomes easier to understand. You might have a plan for where your story is going to end up, but if you are making a concerted effort to craft coherent and believable characters, you may find one or more of them may not fully agree with that plan. There’s nothing especially mystical or even subconscious about this process. I suspect it’s a frequent problem for any writer investing a good deal of thought into their characters.
On Joel’s “If you think that a story is just a pedestal for you to display your characters then (sorry) you’re probably doing it wrong” – basically disagree with this on every single level possible. Many pinnacle-of-civilization artifacts are arguably exactly this, including most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
So – what Ilia said: “Many pinnacle-of-civilization artifacts are arguably exactly this, including most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.”
I mean – yeah – ok. Sure. That is true. But (dammit) just because something is “the pinnacle of civilization” or whatever that doesn’t actually mean that it’s any good.
Ok. That’s a pretty contentious thing to say so I will unpack: yes yes it’s proper Capital “A” Art and all the rest of it. But – it’s like Mazin said before: “For someone to say ‘ah I love Shakespeare, for the stories!’, or ‘The Tempest is such a great story!’, sounds to me a bit misplaced or odd.” Because – yeah – oooh. There’s graet character stuff and there is great language stuff and all the rest (or actually – is that it?). I mean – there is totally a reason that people keep trying to make Shakespeare into films (because yes it’s Shakespeare) and also why there are very very very few which are actually worth watching (because – well – Shakespeare isn’t really about the stories).
I mean – to put it this way: the way Shakespare worked is massively of its time (because – well – how could it be otherwise) – but pinnacles of civilization move on (sad face but true) which means that all those old pinnacles where they’re all like character character character – well: they no longer really apply to the modern brain (and man – trying to get into Shakespeare nowadays and enjoy it – it’s like a force of will – you have to make your brain into liking it – like trying to fit a bean bag into a toilet). And – who knows? Most probably in the future humans will enjoy other things in whole other ways – but right now (and still) it’s all about the stories. And if you’re not on board with that – then I’d say (in the nicest way possible) then you’re not really getting what it’s all about.
I get how splitting writer into plotman and characterman sort of resolves the problem, or at least explains the whole feeling of ‘my characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do’ (‘characterman’s characters won’t do what plotman wants them to do’). But they’re still the same person.
A common refrain in writing (and in criticism) is ‘so-and-so just wouldn’t do that’ and yes I agree that fully realised characters imply motives and potentials, so that Luke Skywalker can’t be shoe-horned well into a goes-off-the-rails-becomes-a-skeezy-drug-dealer plot line. But then why not? There’s a story in which that can happen to Luke Skywalker, even. To him of all people.
Characters should be complex enough to be capable of almost anything, most humans are, given enough cause, or opportunity, or if you grind them down enough. There’s a skill to do that and to still make them seem like consistent plausible persons and not shallow fickle bizarro random-creatures.
Joyce said that the reason he chose Ulysses as a model, not Hamlet, not Jesus, is because he was the most like all men, son and father, cowardly and brave, just and vindictive, cerebral and carnal, etc etc, which is why Leopold Bloom is so appealing a character. Characters can be as plastic as you need, you just need to make it psychologically plausible and/or give them in-story relevant reasons for why they would do a thing you might not otherwise have expected them to. Struggling to ‘make’ your character commit a murder? Then maybe, Strazynski via Loz, you haven’t given him enough reason to, maybe that’s what gives this impression of resistance.
That doesn’t mean rewrite all stories to make any character capable of any action in the plot at a given moment – there’ll be times it’s more appropriate or ‘natural’ for one character than another to do thing X. Nor does it mean that no characters should have strong personality traits or patterns of behaviour – in The Sopranos, the characters are complicated and also predictable, static.
But regardless of your theory of creativity, of all the cultural influences that go into a work, your subconscious, your Muses, the only element with any vague ‘control’, (heavy scare quotes / insert your problems of autonomy here) is you. The Sandman is often blind-sided, overestimates, loses control of his projects (see: the Corinthian). But if there’s anything you can learn from him, it’s that when that kind of stuff happens, you just need to get back involved.
On Mazin’s point: what I think you are describing is where you get this tension between plot and character, you can think really hard and modify your character to fit back into the plot. However, an alternative would be to modify the plot, which is what some writers mentioned before say they have done. After all, plots can be infinitely malleable as well. Neither option is necessarily better, not sure if we should privilege one over the other.
On Joel’s point: the ‘modern brain’ (whatever that is) can’t hack characters anymore? I would find that pretty depressing if true, but I’m not sure it is…
It’s ‘a force of will to get into Shakespeare now’? Really? Wow.
Getting into reading Shakespeare is nigh-on impossible and that’s probably what scarred a lot of us as children, I don’t know about you all but our teachers made us read through the plays first before they would deign to show us a filmed version (most often the BBC Shakespeare collection which, for the plays we did, were mostly terrible although if you have the chance watch their ‘Winter’s Tale’ for their hilarious staging of the famous direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’) which was the point at which we would finally understand what was going on.
Partly because he’s the fucking Bard everyone wants to stage his plays (and I wish that some of his contemporaries got even a small shake of the stick in terms of television and film that he has) but I’d recommend ‘The Hollow Crown’ from last year, starring Q, Loki, the Prime Minister that fucked a pig and Simon Peter Gruber amongst many others and also Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ starring ‘the cast of every Joss Whedon TV show’ as easy, approachable and understandable versions of his plays.
And are you really saying character doesn’t matter much any more? I mean, we do have ‘artifact novels’ where it’s all about the place and not the people but they are in a tiny minority. Isn’t one of the most common things said about stories that people don’t like “oh the characters are really boring” rather than “well, the place they are in didn’t appeal”?
So this has been a long time in the writing. Well, the writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, revising, editing and procrastinating. It’s long. Sorry.
For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m Will. I like comics. You may have seen me taking out a huge pile of books at the Barbican Comic Forum or, before that, the Islington Comic Forum. I’ve been going to that about as long as Joel has.
I’ve been reading this thread almost since the beginning, but I haven’t commented for a few reasons: I’ve been busy with work, I’ve been actually a little bit intimidated by all the clever stuff you guys have said and (possibly most importantly) I really, really love The Sandman. I love it like people love their football team or their children and they will forgive every bad or stupid thing they do because of love. You’re not going to get reasoned analysis of why I love it, deep insights or any kind of rounded criticism. Instead, you will probably get a lot of fanboy squeeing.
A few more things: you probably won’t hear much from me about the art, except that I generally like it. The use of colour and especially light and shade is good. I’m mostly interested in words and in ideas, and The Sandman is full of those. I studied English at university and I work as a business writer, so I’m going to look at the text itself a lot.
I first read The Sandman when I was about 18 or 19, and starting to get into the ‘serious comics’ scene. I’d read Watchmen and V for Vendetta and enjoyed them, but The Sandman was one of the first long series of TPBs I decided to collect. My age when I first read it has probably badly coloured my opinions; I was skinny, short, unhappy and basically a proto-goth. The Sandman is manna from heaven to guys (or girls, probably) like that. I’d even bought a ridiculous floor-length leather coat after watching The Matrix and Buffy too many times. It is still two sizes too large for me. But I figured if looking grim and moody worked for Angel, it could work for me (spoilers: it didn’t).
So, that’s my context for The Sandman. I’ll do my best to separate it from the content of the books, and certainly later re-readings have given me new perspectives but, yeah, trigger warning: squeeing.
I’m going to leave the first two trades alone, because you guys have done them pretty effectively. I think it’s generally accepted that the series gets stronger as it moves away from the mainstream DC universe (although stuff like how Martian Manhunter sees Morpheus is very cool). I like Dream Country (and, again, you’re going to have to remind yourself that I like every book in the series, so I say that comparing it to the others, not e.g. Rob Liefeld’s greatest hits) because it deals with stories. The whole series does, actually, and probably, by extension, everything that Gaiman has ever written. He likes stories. I like stories. Good stories are interesting. I particularly like Façade, and I’ll get on to why later.
First up we have Calliope. Now, I know it’s a cliché that you should write what you know and therefore lots of writers end up writing about writing, but I like how Gaiman approaches it. Writers can be cruel, selfish, self-deceiving, all in pursuit of the story. I love the line ‘writers are liars’ because it’s true on several levels for Fry and Madoc. Fry literally lies to Calliope, they both tell stories which are ‘lies’ of a kind and Madoc, rather sickeningly says ‘I… regard myself as a feminist writer’ in spite of the rapes* etc.
I also like the quotation directly before it, ‘put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm 146, apparently). The rest of it applies because the only person who can save Calliope in the end is the nonhuman Morpheus. This is, again, a bit awkward from a feminist perspective, I mean, technically he isn’t a man and she isn’t a woman, but it sure looks that way.
Will’s favourite panels: Calliope half in darkness with the credits, Fry seemingly cosplaying the Joker when he captures her, Morpheus’s eyes burning with rage + ‘be quiet’(squee!), Madoc’s fingers knitted together with the ends bloodied and worn away, Fry’s book abandoned in the house, empty panel second from the end.
I do think we’re supposed to see that Morpheus is starting to change and develop more empathy, which will eventually be his downfall. Certainly he’s nicer to Calliope than he was to Nada. We get more of that in Season of Mists and through the series. It also nicely foreshadows the story of Orpheus and how that ties in to everything else, so that’s cool. Plus bezoars, which I didn’t know about before I read it, and thought didn’t exist until I looked it up. Wacky.
After that, there’s the ‘love it or hate it’ Dream of a Thousand Cats. I like cats. I have two, and, even though I know they’d eat my face if I died, I like to think they love me. In my experience, most people like either dogs or cats (a few like both, and some don’t like animals at all. I like to think of that last group as ‘monsters’). So, I guess, if you like cats, you’ll like this story. Even if you didn’t like the story, if you didn’t feel anything when the tiny unwanted kitten meeps as it goes in the bag, you’re also a monster.
I like the language the cats use. Their metaphors etc. fit well with their worldview. I like that the cat’s story has some parallels with Orpheus’s trip to the underworld in Greek mythology – the river Lethe, being able to hear the dead etc. I like the ‘dreams have their price’ line, by the dragon. It’s a totally Gaiman line – the cat’s dream’s price is to have to tell everyone her dream.
I also love the cat that says ‘I would like to see anyone… persuade a thousand cats to do anything at the same time.’ It’s funny and true and perfectly encapsulates what makes cats and people different.
Will’s favourite panels: ‘meep’, second ‘meep’, the cat’s eyes alone in the dark during her journey, tiny humans stroking a giant kitty, Morpheus-cat and the other cat walking and talking framed by stalactites and stalagmites, the last panel.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favourite Shakespeare comedies. I think a lot of the good bits in The Sandman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream sort of need you to know the play, or at least its general themes. Again, it’s about the power of stories and how they can outlast their authors and subjects, as long as people are still telling them. I don’t know if anyone will be writing about The Sandman in 400 years, but you can understand why Gaiman wanted to pay tribute to and put his own spin on a very old story. There’s a line Morpheus says when Auberon appears – ‘is anything forever?’ It’s clear that the play is an answer to that. Then Robin Goodfellow foreshadows the end of the series, and the role he’ll play in it. Clever stuff.
I love the ‘before the humans’ line because it reminds you of the scale that the Endless work on. I like what Shakespeare says to Kemp at the beginning, ‘just the lines and jests I have writ for you’. I don’t know if that’s a commentary from Gaiman on editorial interference, audience feedback or anything else. Certainly, there’s a more than a touch of the frustrated author about it.
The conversation between Hamnet and Tommy also seems to touch on that theme, as well as explicitly talking about the importance of stories. Robin Goodfellow also gets in on the theme: ‘it never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?’ The art of, well, Art, I guess. Such a great way to put that idea, though. Morpheus covers it even more eloquently later on: ‘Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.’ Definitely channelling the Shakespearean voice there.
During the conversation between Morpheus and Titania, Gaiman comes back to a theme present in Calliope and Dream of a Thousand Cats: ‘the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted.’ Madoc’s desire for ideas is used as an ironic punishment, the cat has to tell everyone she meets about her dream if she wants it to come true and, later, Rainie wanted to be a superhero, and now wishes she weren’t.
That flash of white as the fairies leave earth for the last time will be echoed in The Kindly Ones, but we’ll get to that.
Will’s favourite panels: Morpheus’s first reveal with his cloak blowing in the wind (whatever happened to wearing cloaks? Cloaks are awesome), the sequence of the door in the hill opening and faerie stepping through, the look of shock on the guy playing Theseus’s face when he sees the audience, Titania looking at Morpheus out of the corner of her eye a lot, Peaseblossom being made to shut up, Robin Goodfellow’s Cheshire Cat grin in the second last panel.
Finally, Façade. This is my favourite from this collection. As I said up top, I read a lot of comics, so I knew who Element Girl was (or rather, knew of her, even if I’d never read anything with her in). I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t expect a story of this quality to be written about a character like this. On a personal note, I found this story oddly comforting when my aunt died a few years ago. I used bits of Death’s speech at her wake.
So, immortality is a very Sandman subject. Unlike the other issues in this trade, Façade isn’t about stories. I’d say it accurately captures the feeling of depression. Things like the three-panel transition from morning to night at the end of page three, with Rainie just sitting on the couch are great. Also the line ‘I don’t want any more anything’.
It’s also a story about irony. Lines like ‘put on a brave face’, ‘I’ll have to put my face on’, ‘you can cover up so much’ etc. all subvert their own normalcy. It’s the same with Rainie’s attempt to use flesh for her skin – it all ends up rotting. That’s a cool metaphor for how the person inside is kind of gone.
I’d forgotten that the collection takes its name from what, arguably, is also the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.’ Again, the fairies linger through Shakespeare’s story as the dream the humans dreamed shaped the universe and it can only be unshaped in the same way. The link with Calliope is less explicit, but I guess the fact that Gaiman’s using a muse from Greek myth in his story in the first place is possibly evidence that mythology is still a big part of stories and dreams.
Will’s favourite panels: the half-face ashtray, the three panel transition I mentioned earlier, the look of shock on Rainie’s face when the phone rings – cut in half by the DRIING, Ra in hieroglyph form, Rainie’s face falls into the spaghetti and the look of shame and embarrassment and sorrow on her face afterwards, basically every panel with Death in (if I have a type, she is it. I know that’s weird.), the sun, that last ‘be seeing you’.
Now I’ll address specific points made by others along the way. This isn’t exhaustive, just stuff I wanted to pick up on.
I agree that Gaiman choosing Shakespeare to write about is very loaded. What, I guess would now be called Eisner-bait. But the themes fit well, and, to be honest, he’s already dealt with Biblical stuff with Hell and plenty of classical myth. If you’re going to reference stuff, reference the stuff that’s lasted, right? They go into the older origins of the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the play) in the comic too, so Gaiman’s definitely hanging a lampshade there.
I like Joel’s idea of Façade as a companion piece to The Sound of Her Wings, although I don’t think it’s a direct commentary on it. We see a lot of sides to Death through the series, and I think it’s clearest that, like Dream and the others, she isn’t just any one thing.
I disagree with Mazin’s ‘crappy story titles’. There’s plenty of stuff that’s part of the canon but still has dodgy titles that reference other things (‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’? Really?). I also like some of the pile of ideas (especially the library card for the library of Alexandria), although I remember it being better before I reread it.
Ilia: I love the assessment you did of the ending of Façade and how it relates to the conversation between Titania and Morpheus on 1/6/14. For my part, I’d say that in the universe of The Sandman at least, stories, dreams, belief etc. can shape reality. We see it in Dream of a Thousand Cats and plenty of other times besides.
Re: characters vs. authors. I side with Ilia: if you want characters that are believable and realistic, you can’t force them to do things that go against their established characters. It’s just bad writing. Yet, as an author, you presumably have an idea of where you want the plot to go, so (if you’re any good) you find sensible reasons or different characters to drive it. Also, I play and run lots of roleplaying games (Ilia, hit me up if you ever fancy getting back into it. I promise good stories and no D&D.) If the characters in stories went as far off the rails as player characters seem to inevitably do in games, they’d never even see the intended plot(!)
Joel: I disagree that Shakespeare’s plays haven’t lasted. I mean, in a literal sense, they have, and they’re still being performed and taught, more than much that’s been written before or since. I think they still resonate and (and I’m going to use this word again) have themes that are still important, even if the jokes or the circumstances are no longer as resonant.
So that’s that from me. I’ll keep my analysis of Halo Jones shorter, probably.
*coming back to this to reread it, I agree that the subject of rape is uncomfortably glossed over. Horrible.