Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Sandman: An Appreciation Roundtable

Noah Berlatsky over at Hooded Utilitarian, is holding a round table discussion of whether The Sandman series holds up over time, and with the second such column today by , I wanted to jump into the frey with a couple comments. Not that i have any reason to defend the series, but out of desire to, as someone who was there buying the sereies as it happened, throw in my two cents.
The consistent refrain in recent years is that The Sandman as a whole doesn’t hold up. This would suggest that The Sandman represented some high watermark at the time among the comics “cognoscenti” but I don’t remember it ever actually achieving such adulation among readers with a restricted diet of men in tights. I could be mistaken of course. Its reputation among the comics agnostic was and is immense, a fact which was perpetually enshrined by Gaiman’s honoring with the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for his tale with Charles Vess in The Sandman #19 ("A Midsummer Night's Dream")
The short and quick answer to the series achieving such adulation is that the boys who like men in thights weren't the ones buying the series whatsoever. Women, ignored, hate and feared by boys in comic shops everywhere, were the ones who bought Sandman. Goth girls suddenly had someone to cosplay, none of the major conflicts were settled with punches, there were gay and lesbians among the straights and there were good and bad people and pathetic people and good people who did bad things when they were angry. They were, by a long shot, the most diverse cast in comics period.

And there was horror and it was dark and the Anne Rice devotees and the mothers of the girls who are now reading Twilight were sucked in. And it wasn't the people buying Jim Lee's X-Men for the most part at all.

Noah makes a long point about Gaiman's idea of Love in the series, which, considering how the entire series is essentially about relationships, is a fairly key point. And I think that he misses the point with his analysis. Quoted in part below:

In "A Game of You" the cuckoo casts a love spell by talking; in "Brief Lives" Desire does more or less the same thing. That seems to be how Gaiman sees love; a verbal whammy that comes out of nowhere to make a clever point or set up a clever scene, rather than as an actual relationship which is maybe worth exploring in its own right. Destruction accuses Orpheus of loving the idea of Eurydice more than the actual person...but is that really Orpheus' failing? Or is it Gaiman's?

Just as the point of your life is not that you can fall in love, which seems to be the main point of Hollywood's current "rigid women" plotlines (can you fall in love? do you have the right to?), but what happens after? There are consequences to relationships and those ripples of the decisions that you make will ripple long after you do. The scene with Desire is not aobut anything other than the aftermath of "LOVE". Gaiman moves around the usual scenes of relationships to show us how some of the best decisions made out of love and passion can reflect in unusual and sometimes cruel ways. Freed from the code, we could have characters that could have sex if they wished in ways that didn't make them terrible people. Hazel's old girlfriend has fantasy make up sex with Hazel in the 24 Hour diner issue and it doesn't make here a "bad person". The Sandman who Brute and Blob are living with in the isolated section of Jed's dream is living a lie, but its a lie that allows him more time with his wife and unborn child. Its not a healthy choice, but one made out of love and ignorance in equal measure.

How many of us whave had short, intense relationships with people and the aftermath of the relationship ends up affecting our lives for years when the relationship itself lasted only months or weeks? Showing the short and passionate relationship Dream has with Thessaly makes less sense, but showing the effect of that upon the rest of the universe makes a lot of sense story-wise. Gaiman's idea of love isn't the antiseptic "movie kiss roll credits" version, but the "realistic, unromantic where do we go from here?" version. Gaiman resists sex as an easy sell in or solution to problems.

Given the serial nature of the series, there are bound to be issues where the art isn't a match for the writing. There were a number of artists that i might not have picked for the series, but many that i would have. You have to deal with the episodic nature of the work and take it with a grain of salt in that respect.

Personally, I give the first story arc a wide berth, as Keith's art was truly unsuited for where the series went. It is the 24 Hour Diner issue that brings in Dringenberg and Jones and the finding of the voice and look for the series. The Doll's House story, while loose, is excellent and almost works. The Dream Country and Season's of Mists are excellent, and almost perfect in tone and art. (Save for the horrendous inking job that Dringenberg has to suffer on the final issue of Seasons).
For me, Morpheus and his sister, Death, have always remained cyphers and plot devices meant to push forward the narrative and communicate simple homilies - characters for which I have never felt any real warmth or affection.
And this again is an interesting reading of the series which missed a bit of point with them. Dream fully understands that, for all his power and free will, he and the rest of the Endless are there because WE CREATE THEM, and not the otherway around. He understands that as part of the myth he has both power and will and yet is caught by being part of the myth, and his responsiblities tie his hands quite cleverly. He is the narrative, but he is one of the only characters to understand that, and he actually spends a hell of a lot of time bemoaning his fate at that. Gaiman is at this best on plot and narrative, but many of his simple homilies are both heartfelt and appropriate, so we need to excuse them their place in the narrative.

Some other time: a discussion of the second half the series, which is a lot more problematic than the first half, as well as the secondary characters that shine.

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