I’ve always been a reader. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a book or two or more in “currently reading” status with another bunch on Mount To-Be-Read. Since the minions came around, a large part of my reading has moved formats to audio books or podcasts, but nevertheless, I still consume a tremendous amount of story on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, high school English did a really good job of making me hate what could be called “literature.” To this day I have an unrelenting distaste for Dickens. It was also in high school that I actually got into trouble for enjoying Beowulf. I could read and understand the story without listening to the teacher fail to explain the importance of meter and rhyme. This, an ancient story carried through the generations by people who couldn’t read, and I got a verbal reprimand for being able to read it. Go figure
Needless to say that eighteen-year-old me couldn’t have given a rat’s ass less about what a bunch of stuffy, puffy-shirted dead people had written, and even less about what the government thought I needed to know about it.
Reading comics is a lot like being a fan of music. There are the bands you know and love, the bands you know and hate, and the bands you know of that you’re pretty sure you’d like but never get around to actually listening to; until you do, and then you have a new favortite band. This is how Sandman happened.
My friends and I all collected comics. At the time, big-name artists like Todd McFarlane were working on big-name books like Spiderman. Batman movies were being made by Tim Burton. And the comic industry knew how to hook you. Superman ran in three titles. Batman fought crime in two. X-Men had two, and Spiderman had four. That’s eleven titles for only four stories, not to mention all the crossovers. And before I lose you to decades-old nerdiness, I’m just pointing this out to show you how hard it was to shift your attention to something new or different.
I’d read about Sandman, and I’d heard that it was good. I’d seen copies of #1 at conventions for upwards of $20 (that’s a lot for a title that had only been out for 2 years). I was curious but not curious enough to bite. At some point there would be a collection or a reprint or something and I’d get around to it.
Then that collection came out. I remember picking it up and my friend looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh yeah, I heard that’s good.” I went home and caught up on the various soap operas that were my superhero comics, then I opened Preludes and Nocturnes. It was, as best as I can describe, beautifully horrifying.
I was instantly hooked, and in that moment, The Sandman changed my life.
It was atmospheric, scary, and thick. As a current fan of way-back 70’s horror comics, I can see how much of an homage it was . At the time, though, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. This comic was raw and brutal and unapologetically disturbing. That’s not to say that it was in any way flagrant or exploitave. Just the opposite. Within the horror was a compelling story and an underlying… somethingness that told me that what I was reading was perhaps one of the most important things I’d ever been shown.
Let me point out that Neil Gaiman is an extremely well-read man. To read his essays and blogs, he reads so much that it’s a wonder he ever has time to actually write anything. That said, he wove that encyclopedic knowledge of the literary world into his contemporary “funny” book about stories and myths. And he did it in a way that was neither obvious nor pretentious, which is an achievement bordering on the miraculous.
As I said, I had been pretty much chased out of academia by daring to read ahead. I was an angry young man who needed the things I read to have meaning. Real meaning, not curriculum/essay/scantron meaning. The Sandman had meaning. It was real. What’s more, it was not just a great story. The Sandman was, in fact, a patchwork of parts of hundreds of other stories; stories that also had meaning or else they wouldn’t have been part of this story. These were the stories I was compelled to find.
Within the series, there are the obvious references and call-outs. Shakespeare plays heavily in the narrative, as do various well-known and some not-so-well-known characters of mythology. These are great, but they are also to be expected in a story about stories and gods. What really got to me, though, were the lesser-known characters, the allusions, the little things that are hidden in plain sight. These are the things that kill me.
Take the title of the first collection, Preludes and Nocturnes. On the surface, it’s merely an eloquent title for the first chapter of a story about the King of dreams. I thought it was a cool choice of words, in fact. How does one come up wth such a perfect title?
In fact, The Preludes and The Nocturnes are two series of works by pianist Frederic Chopin. The former are described as “compositions of an order entirely apart… they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams…” The latter,“romantic character pieces are written in a somewhat melancholy style, with an expressive, dreamy melody over broken-chord accompaniment.”
What a way to title your book, huh? And so I came to love Chopin. I’m listening to him now, in fact.
There were other things. So many other things. A somewhat minor character named Gilbert is a large, bespectacled man who wears an old-fashioned suit and hat and walks with a cane. I never gave it much notice until I ran across a picture of G.K. Chesterton years later. So, of course I had to find out who he was and read all of his books. The title of story arc Season of Mists was gleaned from a poem by John Keats, so Keats became required reading. There are many more, but you get the picture. Here was this ripped-up metal head reading Christopher Marlowe at lunch in the cafeteria and Oscar Wilde at the coffee shop at night.
And it wasn’t just literary authors that I began to truly love. There are entire pantheons of gods and monsters that I’d never seen before that I had to know about. Greek, Roman, Norse, Japanese… these just scratched the surface. My library grew exponentially and almost overnight. Back in those days Half-Price Books hadn’t started separating their old and nostalgic books and upcharging for them. I have many quite old tomes of classic literature, antique books, that I got for literally quarters.
Lest I get so caught up on all the external references and influences that I forget to mention, the story is damn near perfect. In a 75-issue run that spanned nearly ten years, the series reads front-to-back as a single long story. Seemingly insignificant panels in early issues play quite heavily later on in the series. I imagine Gaiman’s office had to look like this all the time:
It is, perhaps, one of the most perfectly-crafted story arcs in comics history.
And speaking of comics, in creating Sandman, Gaiman did something quite special. He resurrected retired characters and gave them a home in The Dreaming (Sandman’s realm). Many of his servants are the hosts of old horror comics from the 70’s. Back then, each title had a narrator that would introduce the stories and then comment on them at the end. By making them a part of The Dreaming, he legitimizes all those schlocky stories of the past. You see, they’re just dreams, brought to you by servants of the King of Dreams. It may not have been real, but it was all true.
From Sandman, I, of course, followed Gaiman and have read (nearly) everything he’s written and even done a few reviews on the site. His books are great but Sandman is his masterpiece. I’ve recently managed to finish collecting the full run of the original montly series and have been reading it again, which is what inspired this post. I’d always known that the series had an effect on me, but I don’t think I realized just how profound that effect had been until the past few days. I can honestly say that without Sandman, I would never have started writing, either stories or songs. I likely would not have been in any of the bands or made the music over the years. And making music is what brought me to the place in the world where I met many of my friends, found a job that turned into a career, and led me to my wife and family.
When I opened that book that day and felt that somethingness that told me that what I was reading was important, I don’t think I could have imagined just how important it really was.