For the past two weeks I've been participating in a email discussion on the first Sandman book. The entire thing is now up on the London Graphic Novel Network. With the kind permission of Joel, who is organising the venture, I'm posting some of my contributions below. A good deal of very smart stuff has been said during the debate, so if you're interested in the series, you should really go and read the whole thing. If you like an argument and want to join the fray, send an email to the address at the top right.
I like the first volume a great deal, quite a lot more than most of the series, actually. Joel described the books as not being about hard, important real issues, but as soft and beguiling. "Beguiling" is a very apt descriptor, I think, particularly in its negative sense of "to deceive", because a prevailing impression I've had of the series is that it appears to be more than it actually is. Sandman creates the sensation of being profound (something the horribly fawning introductions to the trades encourage further), but I personally find it quite difficult to interrogate. Gaiman is certainly aware that myths and stories are metaphors we use to understand the real hard stuff (as it were), but he often gets lost in them to the point where the allusions fail to add up to a coherent point. He seems to exercise remarkably little control over his writing (the first issue is 40 pages long, almost twice the size of a regular issue). It came as no surprise to me when it was revealed (I think in the published script for 'Calliope') that he had no idea how to end The Doll's House when he started writing it. Sometimes it works (The Doll's House is for my money the best volume of the series), but often it goes horribly wrong (e.g. A Game of You).
So what I like about the first volume is that it is the least "beguiling" of the lot, in that it is the least deceptive and the most rooted in pulp and genre. "Pretentious" is an unfortunately overused word that can scare people from engaging with something that is difficult and worthwhile, but I have no fear in describing The Sandman to be in many parts pretentious properly so called – pretending to offer value it doesn't actually possess. Preludes' great virtue is that it doesn't pretend to be more than it is – it's actually a very good horror comic, possibly containing the most chilling story Gaiman has ever told (Sleep of the Just contains a small but telling nod to Stephen King, and I suspect the diner sequence bears some of his influence). It is also, I think, ably illustrated. I'm always surprised when Sam Kieth gets a drubbing in discussions of The Sandman. I've just reread the first two issues and I think his layouts are striking and the way he embellishes the page is very impressive. Art is always an eye of the beholder deal, but I find his rubbery and caricatured figures really lovely (Kieth has gone on to write and draw his own comics – check out Zero Girl and particularly My Inner Bimbo, which is fantastic). Kieth is certainly let down quite a bit by the colouring, which was terrible even for the standards of the time. The biggest revolution comics have undergone in recent years is digital colouring, and I think the new Sandman trades have had their colours "updated", which will hopefully make the artwork clearer. People may also disparage Kieth's Sandman because he never cracked the character's look in the way Dringenberg did when he took over on pencils, but I definitely think it has its charms, particularly the face Morpheus pulls when he sees his phallic castle in ruins.
The most striking part of 'The Sound of her Wings' is Dream's claim to be far more terrible than Death. In his words, death is a gift – but what is the nature of that gift? The poem Dream recites suggests it has something to do with providing an end to suffering (sickness, war, captivity, uncertainty – in order of obviousness). And the anamorphic personification of Death takes the recently deceased almost literally under her wing. She isn't just Dream's big sister, in a way she is everyone's big sister – a kind of universal guardian angel with invisible wings. Her "function" is to provide comfort to the dying. The thing is, death (small d) isn't always so benign – the example of the comedian showcases death as robbing people of their opportunity to become subjects, and the cot-death showcases the devastation caused by bereavement. It is difficult to interpret either of these things as any kind of 'gift'. Dream's reading of Death's function isn't therefore very satisfying. Is Gaiman purposefully muddying the waters, or is he just confused? Something doesn't cohere.
Dream also has "responsibilities" – he, again almost literally, finds his own wings at the end of the issue (but are they made of sand??). What these responsibilities are is left unclear, and I'm not sure if it's ever conclusively answered (if you have a theory, do let me know!). Whatever they are, they contrast with the purpose that Dream has been pursuing in the previous seven issues. Vengeance has left him feeling "empty", but this new purpose promises a real and lasting fulfillment. If it's anything like Death's, it must involve providing some sort of comfort to people facing the pain and uncertainty of human existence. But as we find out, an inherent aspect of Dream's 'job' is to author nightmares, which sort of do the opposite. Again, there is ambiguity as to what the point of these Endless really is. Is that intentional on Gaiman's part, or is he unsure of what they are really about as well? Do they stand apart like indifferent gods? If so, what "responsibilities" do they have that bind them to somehow serve humanity or the universe?
Personally, I suspect that Gaiman is so steeped in myths and fairy tales that he can quite easily riff on them, raconteur-like, and go with what sounds or feels right, without overly worrying about consistency. If Sandman has a point, it is an attempt to valorize that very particular gift, and I think it develops into an exhortation to the reader to unleash their own story-telling powers, since The Sandman's (and the author's) are so limited. I think this confession lies at the heart of The Kindly Ones, and it's what redeems the series in my eyes, but we'll get to that when we get to that.
Does Gaiman provide a reason as to why caps-lock bold-type 'story' (to borrow Mazin's phrase) is such an integral part of withstanding the pain of existence? Does the argument stand up? Perhaps Gaiman prefers to step back and let the medium be the message. And because Gaiman's off-the-cuff stories lack that weight, perhaps that's why I remain unconvinced.