On Neil Gaiman in The Sandman Papers
By Leroy Douresseaux
June 12, 2006 - 15:58
Writer(s): Neil Gaiman
Mr. Charlie hasn’t featured a column about Neil Gaiman, and there is a new book that offers an opportunity to rectify that. Mr. Charlie #87 presents THE SANDMAN PAPERS [Fantagraphics Books; 224 pp., B&W paperback; $18.95; ISBN: 1-56097-748-5], in stores June 14, 2006, so this is really a column about a book about Neil Gaiman, although Gaiman does provide the introduction for The Sandman Papers. It’s a companion piece to a book Fantagraphics published last, Hanging Out with the Dream King: Conversations with Neil Gaiman and His Collaborators [$17.95; ISBN: 156097617-9], in which editor Joseph McCabe talked with Neil Gaiman and the various writers, artists, editors, and musicians who have worked with Gaiman in some capacity, as well as a few friends and associates. The Sandman Papers is a collection of scholarly essays about Gaiman’s work, in particularly The Sandman.
If you don’t know, Gaiman’s most famous work is The Sandman, a fantasy based comic book series published by DC Comics from the late 1980’s to the mid-90’s for 75 issues, including a special and some spin-off projects. The Sandman wasn’t just any fantasy comic book. Gaiman used the series and the lead character (Morpheus the Dream King) to tell the kind of stories he wanted and that encompassed many genres and drew from sources that included myths and legends that spanned the world’s religions and ethnicities. Sometimes, Morpheus, as the lead, barely played a part in particular storyline. Gaiman also found time to deal with various social issues – some of them taboo (transsexuals and lesbians), and ultimately the series was never really only about one thing or one particular character. DC eventually collected The Sandman comics into 10 books (published at various times in both hardcover and soft cover editions) and two volumes collecting the Death spin-off mini-series.
While The Sandman comic book series certainly caught the attention of buyers who purchased their comics in Direct Market comic book shops, it also came to the attention of people who didn’t usually read comics. Not only were those fans the serious readers of the comics form – aficionados, students, historians, critics, etc. – but also women, especially those who read science fiction and fantasy novels, who were discovering Gaiman’s groundbreaking series through word of mouth and the positive reviews that occasionally showed up in non-comics related publications. Before long, The Sandman had made it to the college classroom. In fact, the new readers and the university teachers that were embracing Gaiman’s writing were themselves writing scholarly essays about the wonderful series Gaiman and his collaborators had unleashed upon the world.
For The Sandman Papers, editor Joe Sanders, a professor emeritus at Lakeland Community College in Ohio, gathered a collection of short critical/scholarly essays about this complex and rewarding comic book. The book contains 12 essays of criticism, exploration, appreciation, and history – a wide enough range to please all levels of Sandman and Gaiman enthusiasts. Sanders has wisely compiled essays that will not turn off the non-academic, general comic book readership, but will also interest people who like the kind of academic reading they’d get in a university setting. That’s appropriate because as comics essayist and columnist Steven Grant recently commented, The Sandman was practically written for college students.
Sanders obviously has an essay included in this volume, “Of Stories and Storytellers in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” which examines the creation and the text of The Sandman #19, a tale entitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Another Joe Sanders, Joe Sutliff Sanders (also a professor) examines The Sandman spin-off mini-series, Death: The Time of Your Life, in an essay that discusses the use of lesbian language and the lesbian community in the series. In “A Game of You – Yes, You,” David Bratman writes on how Gaiman creates characters as real as the readers – as real as you and me.
Lest you think that this is all egghead stuff, the volume’s opening essay, B. Keith Murphy’s “The Origin of The Sandman,” deftly weaves a history of genre and pulp fiction that not only makes an argument for all the culture that might have influenced Gaiman’s work, but also pretty much explains why British writers approach American superhero and other mainstream comics concepts the way they do. Murphy starts with the heyday of the Gothic novel (1760-1820) and the Penny Dreadful. He shows how the British discovered the American superhero comic when American G.I.’s brought them over to England where they were stationed during World War II. When EC titles like Haunt of Fear were banned in the 1950’s, according to Murphy, new comics like Beano and Dandy appeared, comics with a subversive streak. Whereas American comic books were morality plays that espoused the virtue of authority, Brit comics were often anti-authority, Murphy writes.
When Alan Moore opened the door for British comic book writers in the mid-1980’s and changed the landscape of mainstream American comics with his work on Swamp Thing, fellow Brits like Neil Gaiman arrived through the door Moore opened for them and created comics with a different take on traditional American superheroes. Much of this either directly or indirectly played a part in the origin of The Sandman. It’s riveting stuff, and Murphy’s essay is an example of the adventures in scholarship that await Sandman fans, from the hardcore to the mildly interested (like me).
Having books like The Sandman Papers in which people take comic books seriously enough to writer seriously about them is a good thing. We don’t all have to agree with the subject matter or the text either by design or by philosophy and theory, but it’s still good to have The Sandman Papers. Hopefully more people will look at this and perhaps think of Eightball, Love & Rockets, and Yummy Fur in a similar manner, at least enough to get books together about these and other great comics.
The Sandman Papers, like all of their titles, are available for order directly from the publisher's website, www.fantagraphics.com
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