Volume 9: The Kindly Ones
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D’Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, Kevin Nowlan and Danny Vozz
Where the grand climax of The Sandman saga is used as an excuse to tackle such slippery questions as: why aren’t there cover versions of comics? What’s the difference between the idea, the plot, the narrative and the story? And is Neil Gaiman the god of storytelling – or merely a lucky fraudster? (Guest starring: Beowulf, Citizen Kane, Winnie the Pooh and M. Night Shyamalan!)
“Most people don’t realise how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement, but a culture that doesn’t value its librarians doesn’t value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we ?”
Yeah. Ok. It’s super-obvious but I don’t care. It’s a good place to start. And gosh darn it – Librarians are super-important aren’t they?
But ok: The Kindly Ones. And wow – we’ve come a long way huh? I mean: we started with Preludes & Nocturnes all the way back on the 5th of May 2014 and now – finally – (after slogging through the highs and lows of the books in between) we’re here with the big climax of the whole thing: The Order of the Phoenix of The Sandman series (that is to say: the longest book).
The stuff that I wanna mention straight off:
First: That Frank McConnell introduction. Oh my days. There’s a part of me that feels like I could easily have written a few thousand words on each of the Sandman introductions and how pretty much all of them managed to rub me up in the wrong way: but I think that this introduction wins the prize for being the worst. I mean – yeah – ok: I do like the definition he throws in at the start about how “Art is whatever makes you proud to be human.” and yeah yeah – I’ll admit that for a few of my teenage years that’s the definition that I liked to pull out of my hat whenever anyone started talking about you know (makes serious face) – “what is art”? “how should we define it”? etc etc etc and blah (actual best definition of art: art is what people call art. And the more people call something art – the more art it becomes). But yeah whatever: that’s what why the introduction is such a piss-take.
Nope. The real reason why I hate the Frank McConnell introduction is because he totally totally spoils the end of The Kindly Ones with absolutely no warning what-so-bloody-ever. “Sorry to bust your bubble, but this is a tragedy…so you should know: blah blah blah.”
I mean – if you’re reading this and you still haven’t read The Kindly Ones: then for goodness sakes: don’t read the introduction before you start reading the book because yeah – without even the politeness of a spoiler warning or a “some readers might want to turn away now” he just ruins it. And seeing how I read the introduction before I started reading The Kindly Ones for the first time: well – it kinda pissed me off. A lot.
Which maybe might have something to do with the fact that The Kindly Ones isn’t my favourite of The Sandman books (I think it’s a toss between A Game of You, World’s End, Brief Lives and – maybe – Seasons of Mists: altho The Wake is pretty good too I seem to remember: but I guess we’ll have to see about that…). I think a big part of that is the artwork which – yeah: ok – kinda grows on me as it goes along – but is too much like reading stained glass, too blocky, with too many sharp angles – and with the unfortunate effect of making Barry Sandman look like a sad and distressed scarecrow (yeah yeah – even more so than usual). I mean – there’s lots of bits of very strong emoting from the characters in this book and it would have been nice if there was an artist who was less felt tip pen and more subtle shadings of pencils: but what can you do huh?
(And oh – here’s an idea that I’ve had for a while: when are we going to get to the stage that people start to re-interpret comic strips? I mean – in theatre people re-stage shows all the time (hey Shakespeare!) so why can’t we have artists pick up a comic script and re-draw it a new style? That would be kinda cool – no? Like: The Sandman draw by Brandon Graham, Frank Miller, and Fiona Staples = I’d buy that for a dollar).
Oh: and last thing to mention: did anyone see this? (“student’s protest over the contents of the graphic novels”): I mean – The Sandman was one of the books mentioned so I thought I’d bring it up to see if anyone had any strong feelings about it. I mean: I remember we discussed this kinda stuff at a Barbican Comic Forum a few months back with a certain member and a copy of Saga: but yeah – I mean: there’s a difference between a book and a comic right? I mean: if you agree that films should have age restrictions on them: then does that mean that a comic book should to? Or are “trigger warnings” a stupid idea?
Anyone who thinks ‘art is whatever makes you proud to be human’ probably hasn’t read very much Robert Crumb.
When I was following ‘The Kindly Ones’ in the comic, I liked the art but it just seemed to go on and on and on for over a year which made me lose interest. I haven’t returned to it since and can’t remember much about it. Come to think of it though, these later arcs of the Sandman are probably some of the first mainstream comics from US publishers when the creators realised they were primarily writing for the collection rather than the people buying it monthly so So I’m looking forward to giving it a reread as it was probably meant to be read. (Although I do have a suspicion I’m going to find Morpheous’s bratty whining more annoying than ever)
Unsurprisingly I have to disagree with you about the introduction ‘spoiling’ The Kindly Ones for you. Were you really surprised? ‘The Dolls House’ has Desire trying to manipulate Dream into spilling family blood because that would bring The Furies down on him, the story with Emperor Norton (who’s name I annoyingly can’t recall right now) has Desire stating ze was going to get Dream killed, ‘Season of Mists’ sets up Lyta and Daniel, and Loki owing Dream a favour, Orpheus has the Kindly Ones in it, Brief Lives has Dream killing his son and we’ve just had Dream’s funeral procession in World’s End, did you really think The Kindly Ones was going to be the long awaited crossover between The Sandman and Steven Universe? It’s more on point to say ignore the introductions because they are generally crap.
I also like Hempel’s art, although massively different from anything else we see in the series, whereas most other artists go for the expressive swoooshes of the dissolve from reality to dream and back again Hempel tends to go for them being distinct but different, and the one being the metaphor for the other. And everyone should read ‘Gregory’, about the adventures of the small boy in the insane asylum and his rat friend who keeps coming back from the dead.
So, the death of Morpheus… Suicide by ancient Greek chthonic force of wrath?
I seem to remember somewhere (it might have been the Sandman Companion) that Gaiman originally thought it was going to be about eight or nine issues long, got to writing the script for issue six and thought ‘hmmm, I’ve barely started the story, I may need to rethink this’. It was somewhere in the middle of this that I caught up with the comics after reading all the other trades and so the last fifteen or so issues of the series coming out over a two or more year period as they just got more and more delayed, I remember getting the issue which promised to have the last scene with Morpheus and Death on the mountaintop, expecting long epic speeches from Morpheus and maybe Death telling him he’s being ridiculous again and instead it’s just “I’m sad and unhappy” and “I know”. When I was 21 I was like “are you f&*(ing kidding me?!”. Now, all this time later I realise it’s the epitome of quality writing 😉
You have to disagree with the introduction ‘spoiling’ The Kindly Ones for you. Were you really surprised?
Erm. Yes. I was really surprised! I mean – I get that there’s lots of things that were building up to it. But I didn’t pick up The Kindly Ones going “oh – I bet this is the book where Dream dies.” (and actually – I’d be kinda surprised if that’s the way most people who didn’t know what was coming approached the book).
Also: well – I get that there’s stuff that leads up to the ending: but that’s true of all endings no? I mean – it’s very rare that you read or watch something where the ending is totally out of the blue: like if you were watching a slow moody thriller about blackmail and adultery and then at the end there was a ufo or something (that is actually a (really really good) film but I won’t spoil it for by telling you which one): I mean – the way that stories work is that there are causes and then there are effects. So of course at the end when someone is like “wow! I didn’t see that effect coming at all!” then you can go: “but yeah there were all these causes…”
Also (sorry Loz) but I think I also have to disagree with the thing that the final Death and Dream conversation is the “epitome of quality writing” I mean – having my little reread this week I think it’s kinda the weakest point of the whole book. But then – I’m not sure if that’s the scene itself or just the whole structure of the Kindly Ones – which is something we’ve kinda touched upon before: basically – how much is Dream a character and how much is he the personification of all dreams everywhere? And are we supposed to react to his death/needlessly convoluted suicide thingie as the death of one or the other or both?
I mean: I’m guessing it’s supposed to work as the first. Dream the character (what the hey: let’s just call him Barry so that it’s clear) dies and it’s supposed to feel bad – right? Right. But I dunno – I guess because there’s all this muddled uncertainty in my head as I read it (namely: what does it mean for Dream die? How can Dream die? What the what and why?) that the whole thing with Barry doesn’t really have a chance to make an impact or something? I dunno.
Plus – to go back to the artwork (is it mainly Marc Hempel? Sorry Marc) yeah – I mean – with all of the blockly lines and whatever (did I say stained glass before? Stained glass is good): there’s this thing that the characters feel less like human creatures and more like abstract representations or – to put it another way: to me it feels more like you’re dealing with Dream the personification and less with Barry – the guy who killed his son.
So erm yeah – I don’t know. For me the most emotionally effecting things was all the Hippolyta “Lyta” Hall stuff (and oh – turns out that she’s actually a DC comics deep cut – I didn’t know that!) (ha – although actually: if she’s only been around since 1983: I guess that’s not that deep…). But yeah: her walk through the city and the traffic light and the snakes and the stuff: that bit was cool.
After having given it a reread for the first time since it came out, my main thoughts are that the massive supporting cast are all far more interesting and less annoying than most of the Endless, I liked the pairing of the Corinthian and Matthew the raven and felt a bit sorry for Nuala. Also a very pleasant surprise to see that elegant Teddy Kristiansen art that I’d forgotten all about.
It was however far too long. Not nearly enough happens in the first half and having characters point out how slowly things seem to be moving is maybe cute if you’ve never seen another author do it before but I just found it plain annoying. It mostly confirms my feeling that the series is some of the best adolescent fiction of our era, (which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty there for everyone else to appreciate) and Gaiman is better than most comic book writers at creating male and female reader identification characters. Probably the most interesting thing about rereading this stuff twenty years down the line is realising just how many people who grew up to produce US tv shows (especially the ones on HBO) clearly read Sandman at a young and influential age.
OK so there are two things I like about the Kindly Ones, and both of them are about Gaiman beating himself up over what he has written.
The first thing is a short scene between Dream and Odin in the middle of the book, and apologies but I do want to put in a quote here:
“You puzzle me, dream-weaver. Are you a spider, who’s spun a web of cunning and deceit and now waits patiently for his prey to come to him; or are you a deer, frozen by the light of a hunter’s flame, as disaster comes towards you?
You’re a deep one. But how deep? What’s illusion? That’s the question…
I am disappointed, somehow. I expected more from you, dream-weaver.”
From the very beginning of these discussions of the series, I’ve gone on at length about how the book appears to be more profound than it actually is (cf. the ‘muddled uncertainty’ Joel mentions above). There is the sensation of profundity, without the content. He’s a deep one, maybe. But how deep? Is it just an illusion? Shouldn’t we have expected more from him? Isn’t there a lingering sense of disappointment?
I take the scene to be a coded mea culpa from Gaiman, not only an admission that he has lost control of the sprawling plot strands in the series (which is what in context the quote above is about), but actually about what the book might mean as a result of that loss of control as well. As Loz’s note about The Kindly Ones being longer than originally envisioned suggests, there is a sense that the series as a whole is being made up as Gaiman goes along – he’s freestying with a character who is on the page supposed to be brooding, rule-bound and responsible. I think The Kindly Ones is partly about Gaiman waking up to his responsibilities as a writer, and finding that’s he’s fallen short.
And this leads me on to the second bit of authorial self-harm in the book. The Sandman’s imperious and cruel treatment of Lyta Hall at the end of The Doll’s House comes back to bite him here. The origin story of the Furies in #62 suggest their revenge is partly motivated by a reaction against the predations of the patriarchy. It is significant that the Sandman is undone not only by Lyta, but by Nuala and Thessaly as well – all women he has patronised and/or ignored. Reading these bits in a meta direction is much harder – I suspect there may be some personal stuff for Gaiman wrapped up in them. But there is a more general sense in which Gaiman is becoming aware of his responsibility as a writer, and his power to ~shape dreams~. As Delirium points out to Dream: he can sway people’s actions and feelings even without intending to. In having the Sandman die by female hands, Gaiman is partly trying to de-romanticise (perhaps de-eroticise?) his hero (and himself?)
Loz shot back at my pet theory that the end of the Sandman is supposed to democratise his ~dream-shaping~ powers by noting that suicide is different to exile. Dream does leave a replacement behind him, but Death’s suggestion that he could have done what Destruction did to the same end perhaps makes the distinction less important than Loz makes out. I still cling on to the theory, taking comfort from the final scene of the Kindly Ones, where the Furies read out their fortune: “you can be me when I am gone”. The Sandman’s (and the author’s) death leaves the space open for new authors shaping their own new stories. Perhaps they’ll do a better job than Gaiman has done.
The Sandman = “the best adolescent fiction of our era”
OUCH! That is such a sick burn. But yeah – I get the feeling that maybe you might be right Tam…
I also like Ilia’s ideas of “authorial self-harm” which sound pretty accurate to me. I particularly like this: “It is significant that the Sandman is undone not only by Lyta, but by Nuala and Thessaly as well – all women he has patronised and/or ignored. Reading these bits in a meta direction is much harder – I suspect there may be some personal stuff for Gaiman wrapped up in them” = oh my god yes! Especially the whole stuff with Barry and Thessaly – I mean: maybe it’s just good writing / maybe it’s just me (us?) reading too much into things: but I did feel a real kinda emotional sting with the bits when they’re talking about their undisclosed past (I mean – omg – what happened with these guys?).
That’s the bit that of The Kindly Ones that feels real and feels like it means something and leaves an emotional mark.But yeah – with the end (always with the endings with me I know) I mean – what does it all mean? Again – this is just me agreeing with Ilia but I think he’s bang on the money when he says that “There is the sensation of profundity, without the content.” which – sorry Neil – might be a good summing of the Sandman as a whole.
There’s a quote from somewhere where Neil Gaiman sums up the entire Sandman in one sentence as: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” But yeah – I mean for me (going back to what I was saying before) the appeal of The Sandman isn’t the Barry part (I mean – seeing how we don’t really know what the ramifications are / who this guy really is – who cares if he changes or dies? I mean – all this “leaving the space open for new stories” sounds cool – but what does it really mean? Was it only with The Sandman that people could write stories? No – of course not: that’s silly) – no the cool part is hearing and seeing everyone else’s stories and dreams. I mean – the best Sandman stories are the ones with very little Sandman / him just skulking around in the background – no? (or is that just me?).
And I think it’s telling that – in terms of emotional impact and making me feel some feels – the end of Worlds’ End with the giant epic ghostly funeral procession felt more like a thing inside me (even if it was just basically like reading “SADNESS” all in caps) rather than Dream and Death’s little mountain top talk.
Is there anyone out there who felt differently?
‘Also (sorry Loz) but I think I also have to disagree with the thing that the final Death and Dream conversation is the “epitome of quality writing” I mean – having my little reread this week I think it’s kinda the weakest point of the whole book.’
You missed my smiley face! I thought it sucks then, I think it sucks now. I think that, at the time, Gaiman had a real problem with writing genuine heartfelt dialogue (look at when Dream meets Nada at the end of ‘Season of Mists’, sure she slaps him and challenges him to send her to hell, but considering the several thousand years of agony and torture she’s endured, he gets away amazingly easily. We don’t see his breakup with Thessaly, just his adolescent reaction. The conversation he has with Orpheus to find out where Destruction is is also passed by.). Gaiman writes very clever stories, he’s good at conjuring up atmosphere with a few words or a direction in the script, I don’t think he’s ever written anything that has greatly moved me.
Which is an object lesson in why the Internet sucks. Meanwhile, my biggest complaint about the introduction is: how can anybody read it, given the hideous font it’s in?
… I remember adoring The Kindly Ones when it came out and I was still buying my issues of Sandman one-by-one off the rack:)
It might be my favorite volume of the comic, and one I’ll hold up as Gaiman’s ability to make something good. Though I think a lot of the credit belongs to the artists. Personally, I adore the artwork, think it some of the best the series featured. It’s technically stronger than most previous issues, and it aims to be less literal, and more iconic and abstract, which I think is a better fit for a comic about dreams and ur-myths. My favorite thing about it is the thematic narrative running through the opening panel of each issue, which might be a simple thing, but impressed the pants off of teenaged me. (Literally.)
Joel, I think people do redo comics all the time. For one thing, have you noticed all those recent movie adaptations? 😉
… But I know what you’re asking, which is why doesn’t someone redraw The Kindly Ones, perhaps in an artistic style you’d prefer. But think about what that would entail. Comics aren’t like plays, in that they don’t have duration, and aren’t performative. It’s an issue of medium specificity. The only way to see a play is to put it on; plays don’t linger. Hence the need for new performances. And the scripts for plays leave many things unspecified. But comics are more like novels or paintings, set down in definitive versions. One could remake one, but it would be like repainting a painting, or rewriting a novel: one would be making an entirely new artwork. (Another crucial difference: all readers see a comic or novel from the same position—the same seat—unlike when one is in a theater, and there are better and worse seats. That entirely changes how one can frame actions. Comics can have compositions in a way plays never can.)
To put it in those Russian Formalist terms I so dearly love: a story (fabula) can be told and retold many ways, and many novels and comics turn out to be at heart variations on the same basic tale. But when you’re reading an actual comic or novel, you’re not reading the story directly, but a particular presentation of a story (syuzhet). … That’s why I think it’s wrong or too simplistic to think of narrative fiction simply as stories; one must think of them as stories presented in particular (and significant) ways. Hence the canard “It’s not what it’s about, but how it is about it.” Tell Beowulf from the point of view of Grendel, and you get Grendel, which is hardly Beowulf. If you focus just on the story, which is often just a series of literal events, you miss a great deal of what makes narrative fiction art (namely its figurative dimension).
So take those opening panels in The Kindly Ones. In each one, some literal action is being depicted. But once you see the thematic conceit that’s driving them, why they’re there and given such prominent placement, you see something more than just, say, an electrical cord going into a manhole, or a spider on its web. That’s essential to the artistry of the comic, and how could someone retell the same basic story without including those panels? And once you grasp that, how could they retell the same story without redrawing every single panel exactly the same way that Hempel et al did?
Obviously this is an argument for some formalist approach (and presumably an argument against that Baraka quote, though I still don’t understand what the man was saying, if he ever even said it). It’s the whole form that gives any individual element in an artwork its value—which is why I was arguing over Twitter that if you want to know what the movie Frank thinks art is, you have to look at how the film presents its own concept of art (which it does). Put another way, it doesn’t matter how Amadeus presented art; it matters how Frank did. They’re different works with different concepts, different arguments. Which is something I argued in the Ghost World thread—that different things will mean different things in different works. Electrical cords and spiderwebs are sometimes literal representations, sometimes something more. The value, the meaning, arises from their depiction within the formal whole of any given artwork.
I think a common problem in our times is the tendency to lend more weight to what an artwork’s about (the story, the fabula), less to how it is about it (the presentation, the syuzhet). I realized this once in a lit class: people would spend whole classes discussing the novels we read without ever once opening the book and citing a passage. It was like we were discussing not the book, but our impressions of the book. And in many other conversations since then, I’ve seen people effectively discuss plot summaries of a given work, rather than issues like composition, editing, irony, point-of-view, symbolism, and so on. And pretty much all of the writing I’ve done online has been a call for increased sensitivity to the latter—for instance, it matters that Frank is from Jon’s point-of-view, not Frank’s, and any analysis of the film has to account for that. (Imagine the film Frank would make about himself.)
Another instance: last week I had a conversation with a friend about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. And the problem with that film, I think, is that Snyder just took the who and the what—the literal dimension of the comic, its story—and put it up on the screen. And I saw a lot of people saying that he treated the comic like a storyboard, and made it some kind of motion comic. But he didn’t; he removed a major part of the comic (presumably because he didn’t understand it). Because I’d argue that the most important element in Watchmen is the interplay between the comic’s events and the pirate comic that the little kid is reading. The two are constantly informing the other—all those panels where we see the art from one, but the words from the other, are crucial to properly reading and understanding Watchmen, and appreciating it as an artwork. One can’t just take the pirate comic out. And when Snyder tried to put it back in, as animated interludes, he did so in precisely the wrong way. It’s obvious to me that he should have had it playing on TVs in the background, and the like.
Returning to the issue of medium specificity. If we adapted The Kindly Ones into a movie, how would we handle those opening panels? Movies don’t have opening panels. Perhaps at the start of every new scene, we’d try including some string-like thing in the frame. But even that wouldn’t really do it, because the strings don’t appear at the start of every scene in the comic, but only in the opening panels. And while most of them are elements of the setting, at least one isn’t—the one with the scissors poised, at the start of Part Eight. Isn’t part of the effect that panel’s abstraction, which lends it a sense of intrusion, menace? And look at the way the scissors are poised there—can always be poised there—frozen, never wavering? How to accomplish that in a film? A non-diegetic static image? … This is why it’s foolish to think of movies based on comics as “panels come to life.” The panels work because they aren’t in motion. And comics panels aren’t storyboards because they aren’t designed and arranged with the same needs as a storyboard—you will see the images in a storyboardsuccessively, and with duration and movement, not concurrently. Again, it all comes back to the presentation, which always comes back to what the medium allows.
Do you think Frank McConnell just made up that Baraka quote? Or misremembered it? I do.
So comics aren’t like plays huh? I mean – I kinda get your point / kinda half think that it doesn’t really elucidate much to all list the differences between the two (so comics are written down, in books, and printed on pages. While plays are performed, on stages, with actors).
Like – I would say that comics are less like novels and paintings: which – ok – are things which can only have (to use your term) “definitive versions” (which is a whole barrel of monkeys just waiting to be opened – but maybe let’s leave that for another time?) and are much more like films and plays (and maybe music/songs?) in that – they start with a script and the script is translated by the artist into artwork (I really don’t like using the term “artist” and “art” and “artwork” but talking about comics and the person who makes the pictures actually seems like the one instance where it doesn’t sound wanky). I mean – just because one version comes first – that doesn’t make it the best. And really: why don’t we have more than one version of a comic or a film? I mean – ok ok – that is a good point about plays not really having any duration apart from the performance: but come on – how cool would it be to see someone do a cover of Pulp Fiction or Avatar? I mean – it seems like something that is slowly happening already. Examples include: Gus Van Saint’s Psycho, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation and other instances of “sweding” from Be Kind Rewind. I mean – all I’m saying is that it would be cool (maybe) if comics started to jump on the band-wagon a little?
(Although there is another part of me that feels like re-making stuff shot for shot is also the death of creativity and part of the reason why Jurassic World is the biggest film in the world: but then you know – it’s all complex innit?)
But then – also: another point – and something that I feel like I only worked out recently: being able to imagine different versions of whatever you’re talking about (comics, films, music, whatever) is kinda the only real way to properly critique/understand something. It’s like: if you can’t convince of alternative versions (this is what I don’t like, this is what I would have changed to make it better) then all you can really do is just accept it how it is. And – man – acceptance of how things are is like the enemy of everything.
But I’m getting distracted because this isn’t the stuff that I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was this distinction of what are story is and what it’s about (is that an ok way to phrase it Adam? Or have I missed something?) Because – I mean – yeah: isn’t that just the distinction between plot and narrative? And also: well – I’d argue that if you tell the story of Beowulf from Grendel’s POV then well – yeah: obviously it’s a different story. The events might be the same – but the narrative is different (and for me (and I think for most people) – narrative is just a different word for story right? (Or do you have a really narrow definition of what a story is? In that it’s just the plot? So many things end up being all about a difference of definition I find…).
‘Narrative,’ says John Gregory Dunne, ‘is not plot.’ And he’s right. Here is how I understand his statement, and what it means when writing a novel.
Plot is what happens. Narrative is what the reader sees and hears of what happens – and how he sees and hears it.
Which – well yeah: is how I’ve kinda thought about it for a few years (I think most probably because of a conversation like this one?) But hey – maybe I’m Beowuf and that’s only my version of it – what’s the Grendel take?
Hi Joel, all,
Not all comics are made the same way. But the operative point is that we don’t consider scripts for comics (or for films, or plays) to be definitive versions (by which I meant something more like “finished” version, not “best” version). The LGNN is currently discussing The Kindly Ones, and I’m assuming everyone here read the published comic, not Hempel’s sketches for it, or Gaiman’s original script. Similarly, when you mention Jurassic World, I assume you’re referring to the film that’s currently playing in theaters, not the screenplay by Jaffa, Silver, Trevorrow, & Connolly. (Incidentally, I am going to see it tonight.) But if you want to see a play, you have to go see a performance. By the very nature of the medium of theater, you have to put it on again—it’s a live art form, unlike comics and films and novels, which are set down in fixed forms that I could read in the mid-90s, then pick up and read again in 2015. (This isn’t to claim there aren’t other differences between comics and films and novels—there are). Meanwhile, the performance of Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed that I saw in 2006 (or was it 2007?) exists now only in my memory (and in the memories of others who saw it that night, like the brilliant author Jeremy M. Davies). If I want to see Alice in Bed again, I’d need to find someone else putting it on, and that would necessarily be a different version of the play than the one I saw roughly ten years ago.
Obviously people can “cover” (or “remake”) novels and comics and films, and I’m not saying it’s good or bad (or cool or not cool) for people to do that. But the reason why it’s more common to find covers in music (and reperformances in theater) is because they are by their very natures more living/performative media. And music recording has become a big thing in its own right, but we still go to concerts, distinguish between live and studio versions of songs, and usually think there is or should be some difference between them. It’s perhaps comparable to how the novel became its own thing apart from oral storytelling once the invention of the printing press allowed storytellers to make stories for the page. The printing press enabled novels like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy; the modern recording studio enabled albums like Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, Loveless, The Downward Spiral. … By way of comics, there isn’t really a live/performative version of the medium, is there? (Maybe mandala sand painting, if it had panels?)
Regarding covers, Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho would seem something else, no? Usually when someone performs a play, they’re taking the plan (the script) for the play, and making their own finished version. Song covers are similar in that one takes the basic structure of the song and gives it a new interpretation—performs it or “finishes” it in a new way. (Again, by “finishing” I just mean that a new version of the artwork exists.) But in the case of Psycho or theRaiders remake, the artists were trying to recreate other artworks, hewing as closely as they could to some other version, which is different I’d argue than most covers. (By this example, to “cover” The Kindly Ones would mean redrawing it panel for panel.)
As for Caro Clarke’s distinction between “plot” and “narrative,” I don’t know it and would have to think about what’s being said there. The distinction I was making (which my gut tells me isn’t the same) is the one traditionally made in formalism—fabula vs. syuzhet. And in this distinction, fabula (story) functions more like “script” above—it’s the basic underlying tale or causal sequence of events. Syuzhet is the presentation or “performance” of that “script”—how the tale gets told. So Alien is arguably a different telling of “three little pigs”—arguably, all slasher films are. (And the industrial medium of film allowed Scott et al to set their version down in a fixed form, which you can view in a theater, or rent on Blu-Ray, or stream.) But that doesn’t mean all slasher films are the same; instead, the artistry lies in how they all present or tell the same basic tale in different ways. So for example, Aliens is largely a retread of Alien, and it re-presents numerous elements from the first film. (Mike Stoklasa, in his recent commentary track for Aliens, ran through a list of dozens of such elements.) But Aliens is hardly a mere copy of Alien—indeed, in my experience, people are often surprised to learn how similar the two films are (as Stoklasa’s companions in the commentary were). (Stoklasa is the Mr. Plinkett Star Wars Prequel guy / one of the persons behind Red Letter Media.)
To bring this back to Sandman in some way, the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, is essentially the same basic tale (fabula) that’s told in The Count of Monte Cristo. But that isn’t to say that what Gaiman et al made (the syuzhet) was identical to the novel by Dumas and Maquet.
I haven’t actually seen Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (and I don’t think I can really be bothered) – especially because well – it seems like one of those pieces of art that’s way more interesting to talk about rather than actually watch (which you should know – I think is v much a bad thing: but then I like to be actually entertained when I watch something so). But yeah – from the things I’ve read about it – it seems that by recreating it as accurately as possible – new meanings emerge. There was something about how in a certain scene having a male and female character say something in a certain way creates a very different meaning in 1998 than it had in 1960 (I’ll leave it for someone else to trawl the internet to find the actual source and words).
But yeah – I guess that’s the interesting thing: even if you just try to recreate something as much as possible: just because you’re coming at it from a different time and you’re different people and a different society and whatever – I mean: things change and the meaning of the art would change.
With the Kindly Ones: I feel like if there was another artist who came in and redid the entire comic panel for panel then – if they were an artist that drew in a more realistic and a less abstract way: then I suggest that the emotional impact of the Kindly Ones would change. I mean I’ve already said this right: but I think for the big climax to work – you need to think of Dream as being more of a person or at least a character with emotions rather than: this abstract embodiment of all Dreams everywhere or whatever. Less Endless more hopeless.
And I guess that ties in with this “Fabula and syuzhet” thing you’ve brought in Adam (ha! I have no idea how I’d even say those words: although for some reason I’m imagining Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri saying them as he does that thing with his fingers (oh man – what’s called? Trying to find a gif of it but nothing is coming up…. oh well).
Reading the Fabula and syuzhet wikipedia page from what I can tell at least – it seems like fabula is another term for the way I was using “plot” before (the things that happen) and syuzhet is the “narrative” (the way the story is told). This is a pretty good example:
the film Citizen Kane starts with the death of the main character, and then tells his life through flashbacks interspersed with a journalist’s present-time investigation of Kane’s life. This is often achieved in film and novels via flashbacks or flash-forwards. Therefore, the fabula of the film is the actual story of Kane’s life the way it happened in chronological order; while the syuzhet is the way the story is told throughout the movie, including flashbacks.
Also – well: maybe you could tell me where I’m going wrong Adam but I don’t really see how Alien is just a different telling of “three little pigs” apart from in the loosest possible sense (There are some characters, a bad thing tries to get them, some of the characters die, at the end the bad thing dies): I mean – I would argue that’s almost totally useless in terms of actually understanding anything about anything. I mean: it’s like when people say that there are only 7 or 3 or 1 basic stories in the world. Sure. And it’s also the case that all photos are exactly the same if you blur them enough. I mean – the cool things about Alien isn’t the fact that there’s a bad thing – it’s the fact that the bad thing attaches itself to your face and lays an egg inside you and then bursts out your chest – and well: I don’t know which version of the three little pigs you’ve been reading Adam: but they left that out of my version “Not by the hair of my chinny chin ooow – my chest… feels like there’s something…. aaaararagrgaARAGAHHHAAGHH!!” (note: that would however be amazing: can someone please make that happen?).
So yeah – Fabula / plot = the things that happen isn’t “the script” – if anything the script is the syuzhet / narrative = the way that the story is told.
Like – I think the fact that you said “the same basic tale” is very telling (no pun intended): would I be correct that your view when you watch something is close to “Oh. Now the bad thing is after the characters.” “Oh my. Now the characters have reached the third act.” “Ah – and now this is the catharsis. Good.”
The reason I say this is because I feel like I’ve met a few people in my travels who do have that sort of view when it comes to stories (maybe you’re one of them maybe you’re not Adam? I dunno – I guess I’ll have to see what you say…): and yeah – I think that this is a perspective that is encouraged by those who like to analysis and understand what stories are and how they work. But well (and maybe this contradicts stuff I’ve said and written elsewhere but what the hey right?) I’m not sure that this is the best tactic. I mean – yeah: Alien and Aliens and The Three Little Pigs all tell us that we’re scared of bad things and we like/respond to stories where the bad thing is out to get us and yeah – that is interesting and is something that should be poked and prodded.
But then I guess that we agree on this – because like you said before: “I think a common problem in our times is the tendency to lend more weight to what an artwork’s about (the story, the fabula), less to how it is about it (the presentation, the syuzhet).” to which – yes yes yes – I wholeheartedly agree. It’s just that we’re coming at the definitions in different ways.
I mean – to re-use your Watchmen and pirate comic example: I would argue that by leaving out Tales of the Black Freighter Snyder was lacking both the fabula AND the syuzhet. I mean – the pirate stuff is the stuff that happens in the story but it’s also a part of how the story is told – no?
But then for me: the main major part of Watchmen (the comic) is that it is totally tied up in lots and lots of cool and interesting ways with how it’s told – the syuzhet. That is to say: the story of the comic is best told as a comic. Because yeah – that’s the way it’s been written / designed. And the mistake that Synder (and the rest of the world really) made was to read the comic and go – oh yeah: this would make a really cool film.
(I totally realise that we should probably do Watchmen as a book on the London Graphic Novel Network at some point – but yeah: I don’t want to be too obvious you know? It’s be like doing a cinema club and choosing Citizen Kane as your first film).
Admit to being curious about how Gaiman / Hempel’s storytelling was able to remove the teenage Adam’s underwear, but maybe I shouldn’t pry…
I may have said this in previous posts, but I find the use of the words ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ quite slippery, and tend to avoid them or use them as synonyms for ‘plot’ – which is for me the most boring constitutive element of comics, films, plays, whatever. My GCSE media studies course taught me to divide all films by plot / character / theme / mise en scene, which I find a useful way to look at most ‘stories’ or ‘narratives’. Plot for me is often just the machinery by which you navigate the interesting stuff, so like Adam I have little patience with a discussion of plot being the be-all-and-end-all of your impression of a comic.
Have to say those Russian terms don’t strike me as that useful either – hats off to Joel for showing that they can be quite slippery as well.
Ha! I was totally gonna mention teenage Adam as well – but couldn’t work out a way to phrase a comment without sounding like a creep. “maybe I shouldn’t pry…” = the best way to let yourself off the hook! (well played Ilia well played…).
I totally didn’t mean to the terms all slippery. If anything I was trying to firm them up and get them all nice and solid – but then maybe I always find using strange new words kinda hard.
In fact thinking about – if I was going to re-define things (go Joel go) I’d say that it’s about information and the way that information is presented. So – Fabula / plot is the things that happen. The informational content. These are the facts. etc. And the syuzhet / narrative / the story = the way that information is doled out and presented. (There: that makes me a little clearer in my mind).
I also wanted to say something about why is it that the end goal for all novels and comics is to end up as a film: as if that’s the highest honour that could possibly be bestowed on anything: but maybe I’ll save that for another time?
The distinction between fabula and syuzhet can be criticized like any other set of terms (and it has been—there’s a vast body of literature doing precisely that). But that doesn’t mean the distinction can;t also be useful. (Also, the Wikipedia page on it is garbage.)
There are formalists who have argued that ultimately there are only some number of basic stories underlying all others. I imagine there’s some truth to that—that one could abstract stories down to some number of basic structural elements or devices, which probably has to do with how the human brain is structured. It seems reasonable that at some point our ability to make and appreciate artworks is constrained by what our brains can imagine. I’ve noticed some of these basic elements and patterns in my own reading and writing. But this isn’t my area and I can’t speak with any authority about it.
It’s also not the point I’m trying to make, which seems to have gotten lost (probably my fault). What I’m saying is that even if all stories have the same basic elements and structures, that doesn’t mean that individual are all the same. Indeed, artworks differ significantly from one another, and that’s what needs explanation. And so the consequence of my argument is that artworks are never identical to (or reducible to) their stories. Story is just one component of any narrative artwork.
[A quick example? The basic structure of three little pigs and the Alien films seems to be A-B-A’, or home-away-home, or safety-danger-safety. In these stories, the characters begin in safety, but are then compelled to leave that safety, where they encounter a monster that kills them one by one. Then the final survivor manages to kill the monster and construct a new safe home (A’—which is different because the character has gone through peril to achieve it). Three little pigs begins with the mother pig dying, and the three pigs having to go make their own houses; the survivor builds a safe house and kills the wolf, and presumably becomes the sire of a new generation. Alien and Aliens both begin and end with Ripley waking up and falling back to sleep. And there would seem to be something deeply psychological to this pattern. We somehow know that these stories are at their end when they return to the beginning. You see that basic trick played over and over again in stories and novels and films, which is why the final shot of films usually echoes or repeats the opening shot in some way. I used to teach this using Elf as an example: it begins with Buddy as a baby in the North Pole, with Papa Elf. Then he leaves and goes on his big adventure in Manhattan. Then he returns with his wife and own baby to the North Pole and Papa Elf. It’s very much like three little pigs in this regard—A to B to A’, and A’ promises a next generation. … But, again, the point isn’t that sharing basic structural elements makes all artworks the same! It’s instead to find something basic or intrinsic to storytelling, like color or paint itself is to painting. What matters, I would argue, is what the artist does with those basic elements—Mark Rothko could do things with paints that I could never accomplish. Another for instance: in writing The Hobbit (“There and Back Again”), Tolkien started in the Shire (A), and made Bilbo leave, and go to a mountain (B), then return home (A’). And he repeated that same basic structure in The Lord of the Rings—indeed, the final line of the whole thing is, “Well, I’m back.” But the two books are hardly identical to one another.]
… To put it another way, the fact that artists can tell the same basic story or stories in apparently infinitely different ways—that people can make Alien and Aliens and more even though those works, at some level, share the same basic structure as three little pigs—implies to me that one must always be deeply sensitive to how any given story was told. This is why, when it comes to discussing and analyzing and evaluating artworks, I have long argued that people should spend more time focusing on how the story was told or presented (syuzhet), less on the basic story itself (fabula). But I have to say that, time and again, I see doing the opposite—discussing artworks as though they are just stories—”X did Y to Z, and then this happened”—independent of how those events were presented or portrayed. I often find discussions of artworks more like discussions on the Wikipedia plot summary of the artwork. (E.g., I’ve suffered through endless conversations about Game of Thrones, and all people ever do is tell me what happens in those books and on that TV show. I’ve never heard anyone even once describe the style in which they’re written or filmed, or how the narrative is structured via POV, or what information is elided, and so on. Maybe I’m just unwise in my choice of dinner companions?)
As for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, I remember liking it very much when it came out. Like you say, Joel, it seemed to me entirely a demonstration of how it wasn’t the same film as the original, which the “shot for shot” conceit throws into sharp relief (although there are moments where GVS changes shots). Indeed, it seemed to me GVS was demonstrating the point Jorge Luis Borges made in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” And I can well understand if people don’t want to watch the GVS Psycho—though I don’t think the film is a work of conceptual art, and is in fact very much meant to be seen—but I don’t think there’s any excuse for not reading the Borges story, or Borges in general.
… Returning to Sandman, I think I’ve finally figured out what’s always irked me about the series. I’ll type it up later and send it, and won’t you all be pleased and delighted? 😉
Veering slightly O/T, but isn’t the Superhero origin story the closest that the comics medium gets to doing a remake? We know that Daddy and Mummy Wayne have to die, Bruce goes off into the Wilderness for forty days and forty nights, comes back and wants to fight the criminals and corrupt officials , makes a balls up of it and decides to dress up in a costume because he’s being completely rational about fighting crime. Is that not a cover version, with spaces to allow the individual writer to scat like they are Joss Stone trying to pick a note to land on?
Lawrence, I think there’s a lot of truth to that! One of the things that depresses me about the “shared universe” approach to telling comics (which to be sure has other charms) is that it allows the origin tale to be done only once, after which continuity endlessly rolls on (just like in the real world). Why can’t I see some other artist’s take on how Batman became Batman, or Iron Man Iron Man? Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe really going to just keep going on, through 2019, through 2028, forevermore, without restarting at some point? I hope not.
OK, without any further ado, here’s the essay it’s taken me twenty years to write: “What I Dislike about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.”
I think I’ve finally figured why reading Sandman always leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Of course if you dearly love The Sandman, I have no desire to ruin your life, so feel free to ignore me! Know too I spoil Gaiman’s 2007 Beowulf film, and four M. Night Shyamalan films (Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water). READ ON ONLY IF YOU DARE.
I should say first that Sandman was very important to me when I first read it in the 90s. I grew up reading superhero comics, and publications like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen piqued my interest as to what else comics could do. Neil Gaiman was waiting for me, as he was for so many people, when I got bored of Uncanny X-Men (which went downhill rapidly after Chris Claremont left the title).
So I really liked Sandman and it definitely had an impact. Looking back now, there’s still a lot about it that’s cool. It showcased how comics could feature a wider variety of art, and how stories could be about something other than action fisticuffs. And as I said in the last Sandman thread, I see now that Gaiman was doing his own take on 1960s Marvel, and anticipating Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League, building a single universe out of various fables and myths and folktales: Titania and Puck could cavort with Loki and Thor, and with Lucifer and the angels, etc. Furthermore, the comic asks intriguing questions about the nature of reality, dreaming, stories. I don’t think it gets all that deep or profound in that regard (though it thinks it’s profound—more about that in a second), but it’s clear that the comic can serve as a stepping stone to more interesting things. That’s what it did for me, and I’m grateful for that.
But having said all that, I think the comic is built on a fundamental pretentiousness, which these days it’s hard for me to overlook. It seems that what Neil Gaiman’s trying to do is to craft an ur-myth, taking all these different stories from across time and place, different cultures, and showing us their metaphysical underpinnings—drawing the curtain back, letting us peek behind the scenes. One might call it Kantian: the everyday world we walk around in, the world of empirical sensations, is but the front end of reality, behind which lies another realm, or network of realms, where all the real action’s going on. Our stories are always but one surface manifestation of a deeper underlying structure. Gaiman is literalizing Kant, literalizing modern psychology; decades before Pixar’s Inside Out, he anthropomorphized the interior of our minds, the universal faculties that all humans share, and turned that into a Vertigo comic. And he’s explored similar concepts in other works, such as the 2007 version of Beowulf that he made with Roger Avary and Robert Zemeckis, which shows us “what really happened.” Beowulf has an affair with Grendel’s Mother, which produces the dragon that Beowulf eventually must confront. And the implication is that Wiglaf ignores Beowulf’s dying request, and doesn’t tell the truth about the affair, instead inventing the lie that would become the epic poem Beowulf.
These ideas are hardly unique to Gaiman, although that isn’t a criticism. It’s a way in which he’s part of the spirit of our times (he was born after Kant, born after the institutionalizing of psychology). I’m not kidding when I compare Sandman to 1960s Marvel comics, which included a fictional version of Marvel Comics; Spider-man and the Thing sometimes swung by the offices to complain about how they were being misrepresented. And over a hundred years ago, Sherlock Holmes was regularly tut-tutting about how Watson routinely misrepresented their cases, making them seem more dramatic and exciting than they were.
In Sandman, we quietly slip backstage, encountering Merv, the man who paints the sky in our dreams, and Lucien, who catalogs every idea for a book that we’ve had, but will never write. It’s a great idea, a terrific concept. But here’s where it goes wrong: Gaiman employs this conceit with such great earnestness, I always get the impression he thinks he’s being profound, telling us something that we don’t know. … No, that’s not quite it. It’s like he’s congratulating us for being there, for slipping behind the curtain, for sharing this insight (which he is providing). I think he believes he really has some special insight into the inner workings of man, and the structure of reality itself, and now he wants to share it with readers—but only those readers who can appreciate such truths, do you happen to know anybody special? The merest of mortals need not apply, for such secret wisdom is in truth a divine madness. Gaiman keeps a lot of how the universe truly works vague and opaque, but it’s not on accident that our POV is closer to Dream’s than it is to, say, Rose’s or Lyta Hall’s. Indeed, when we follow human characters in our world, the point is that we see how they’re being touched and manipulated by metaphysical forces that they never understand. We’re privy to a more omniscient view, and much of the thrill of Sandman is getting to see how everything “really works,” and aren’t we special and clever for seeing that … Maybe this pretentiousness is an inherent risk in telling this type of story? But if so, then why are 60s Marvel comics so charming? Why is Philip K. Dick so charming, and not some insufferable snot I always want to punch?
Sandman has its jokes but they’re always smug jokes—they’re jokes of recognition, wherein the reader recognizes his or her worldview being confirmed by the story they’re reading. “I’m a neoliberal young Westerner reading a comic made for neoliberal young Westerners! Aren’t I clever?” The comic drips with disdain for people who think our world is all there is, and who can’t dance in fairy dreams at midnight, or delight in the magic of a homeless man’s charming madness (total clichés that Gaiman always presents in earnest). But what puts Sandman over the top, I think, is that Gaiman does all this work to present the foundation of all our stories—all stories, across time and space and culture—and depict how at the heart of stories themselves lies the realm of the Dreaming, and who should happen to be its lord? Why—it’s Neil Gaiman! It’s a guy who looks and talks and thinks just like him! Sandman turns out to be a comic in which Neil Gaiman turns out to be the fount of all fiction.
This could be a clever metatextual twist, since Gaiman is of course the The Sandman’s author (although that leaves his collaborators out in the cold—where’s Marc Hempel’s avatar in the Dreaming?). But I don’t think that Gaiman limits himself that way. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that Gaiman is utterly serious in his idea that he’s tapped directly into the wellspring of all narrative invention, and as such shares direct lineage with William Shakespeare and John Milton and whichever authors he most likes, and most wants to be like.
… I’ll relate this to the recent Kraken on M. Night Shyamalan, “Don’t believe the hype?” As we all know, Mr. M. Night likes to cameo in his films (just like Alfred Hitchcock!). And his cameos often suggest deeper, metatextual readings. InSigns, he’s the man who drove the car that killed Mel Gibson’s character’s wife, and thereby inspired his crisis of faith. Of course, being the movie’s writer and director, he’s also the person who designed things such that Gibson could discover how that the aliens could be defeated, and thereby recover his faith, what a coincidence. Meanwhile, water is an element (haha) he borrowed from Unbreakable, where Mr. Glass (an artist) arranges accidents in order to discover whether a superman exists. (Wait, does that make Bruce Willis an alien?) In The Village, Shyamalan is working in the control room for the village, deceiving its inhabitants into forgetting that the larger world exists. In The Lady in the Water, he plays an author destined to write a book that will shake the foundations of the world. I know it’s easy to call him pretentious there, but I’ve always wondered if he didn’t mean “the world of this film,” since it recalls this joke or theme that he’s been exploring across his movies. E.g., I read his cameo in The Village as implying that the film is a metaphor for itself—to get an audience to suspend their disbelief, you have to make them forget the outside world. Of course if Shyamalan thinks he’s really some kind of god, then he’s totally nuts, etc. But I have to wonder if he isn’t playing more with the idea that he’s the god of the films he makes. Which isn’t especially profound or anything, but—well, you know, perhaps it’s maybe charming, or at least sufferable.
But with Neil Gaiman, I get the impression—and again, correct me if I’m wrong—I get the impression that he really does think of himself as a god of storytelling, some special master, not because he’s actually good at storytelling (he’s OK), but because he has a direct line into the secret inner workings of the universe, which only certain very special people have—people who were visited by faeries when they were children. Which can’t be everyone of course, because most people no longer believe in faeries, you know. But that’s because they can’t remember how to see them, the silly fools. What do they do with their senses all day, I wonder? Well, I’ve gotta run—I’m late for tea with Mrs. Madness at the Waterfalls of Whimsy! Toodle-oo!
So that’s what I find impossible to get past when I slip back under the spell of The Sandman, and nothing that Gaiman has done or said since has made it any easier. In sum, I find it deeply distasteful that a bourgeois dude from southern England has put himself (and Tori Amos!) at the center of the human imagination. (Care to speculate on which member of the Endless Amanda Palmer would’ve been, had Gaiman known her then?) Sandman should be read and studied and enjoyed. It should also be retitled: Ethnocentrism: The Comic.
Wow, is that what the kids call a ‘sick burn bra’?
In defence of Neil Gaiman…
A lot of what is happening in The Sandman is a feeling towards what mainstream mature comics would be, lacking knowledge of what to do Gaiman turned to Alan Moore and too a number of pointers from what Moore did with Swamp Thing and applied them to Sandman, more obviously over the first dozen issues and then less after that as he found his own voice. I’ve looked but come up blank on whether Morpheus is in any way a self-portrait, I found nothing on where Gaiman looked for Morpheus’s character and I *think* he credits the artists at the start of creating the comic for designing the look of Morpheus from his own very basic description.
But hey, Grant Morrison is King Mob so…
And isn’t the mashing up of different legends just how we play with our toys anyway? When I was a kid it took three Star Wars figures to take down a He-Man character because those toys were bigger, unless the Transformers or the Millennium Falcon got in on the action. Oh the pathos of leaving Optimus Prime behind on the exploding planet because he was too big to fit in the Millenium Falcon! Sometimes… Sometimes I dream I’m back in the jungle… of Eternia. But anyway, Marvel already had Thor and Hercules being battlin’ bros by this time, so putting different traditions together and seeing how they got on wasn’t new.
I don’t see this ’Gaiman is using this comic to show how much more intelligent and well-read he is than you’ critique, unless you think that all self-expression is hubristic. And if he meets Tori Amos and they get on, then so what? It doesn’t mean her work is any less of a pile of tedious dross.
Adam – your Sandman take-down is absolutely perfect. I mean – it’s taken us nine books: but it feels like the first time that someone has managed to place their finger on the heart of things. Massive yes for “Sandman has its jokes but they’re always smug jokes—they’re jokes of recognition, wherein the reader recognizes his or her worldview being confirmed by the story they’re reading”
I mean – I think that’s totally one point and backs up Tam’s earlier assertion that The Sandman is “the best adolescent fiction of our era” and – for me anyway – is why The Sandman is good is hard to un-reservedly recommend while say – oh I don’t know – Scott Pilgrim is one of the best pieces of art of the 21st Century (which I hope to get into when we do Volume 1 in a few months…): but yeah I guess mainly it comes down to how seriously the different books conduct themselves. There’s a scene in the last season of Louie (which all of you should watch if you haven’t already) which does a lot of things but mainly makes the point that no one should ever think themselves above a fart joke (see also: Louis CK Explains Why Farts Are Funny ;Lol) and yeah – I dunno – to me: having that type of awareness and realisation is what makes things truly good or – to put it another way (if we really have to): what makes things into “proper art.”
And yes a thousands times to “delight in the magic of a homeless man’s charming madness”: I mean – homelessness is a complex issue and it’s bad to make sweeping generalisations etc but the times that I have come into contact with mad homeless people – it hasn’t really been a charming magical experience you know? But The Sandman/Neil Gaiman view of the world is that everything is precious and magical if you look at it in the right way and – ooooh – maybe the crazy homeless people are the ones who can see clearest of us all (thinking also of the homeless woman in A Game of You: I mean – it’s definitely a theme right?).
Without wanting to sound too harsh: it’s basically a posh white kid’s view of the world right? Oh my god – I went to India and it was just the most beautiful place in the world. The people there are way more connected to the world and there’s this real dignity that comes from poverty and they’re all just so connected and – have you seen Slumdog Millionaire? I love that movie…
I disagree with Adam that Neil Gaiman is only “Ok” at storytelling – actually I think that he’s really really bloody great at telling really cool stories. It’s more that – oh dear – mostly he’s only able to tell stories from his own worldview and his worldview is that the world is a lovely magical place and all the jokes are there to make us nod our head in recognition. Which yeah – is cool as far as it goes: but does tend to leave a lot of other stuff out.
This debate is a bit odd, it’s sort of like accussing Dr Seuss’ (wonderful) books of being immature. I think Sandman is brilliant for what it is, although most of it isn’t really for me these days. I remember Gaiman himself saying something years ago that’s always stuck with me about how the first time travel story you read will be one of the best things you ever read, regardless of its literary merit.
Give a teenager Sandman and it will probably engage them AND teach them some history and give them some interesting things to think about, which is a wonderful achievement. If it doesn’t hold up so well for rereading years down the line, well, maybe it wasn’t meant to? And much as I adore puerile fart jokes, I suspect there’s a reason Sandman had a larger proportion of female readers than, say, Preacher.
Finding myself in the weird position of defending Gaiman here. Adam is on point in a lot of what he says, except that Gaiman does end up killing his avatar. There is some critical distance between the author and the protagonist. My impression is that there is a lot of self-immolation involved as the series wraps up, which I actually found quite brave, even (gulp) noble.
Gaiman is enormously frustrating for much of the Sandman, but at least he realises and admits that he is a fraudster at the end. That admission redeemed much of the series for me.
Also: many points deducted from Loz for his opinion on Tori Amos.