Monday, April 6, 2009

Mr. Sandman

Frequent readers have probably realized this already, and if not, now is as good a time as any to come clean: I am an arrogant bastard. I mean here I am, starting a post about somebody else with a paragraph about myself. Again. With respect to most things I am insecure, but I have tremendous confidence in my creative abilities. It is the very core of my ego, and it has given rise to a terrible involuntary tendency: I immediately deconstruct every story I encounter down to its base premise, and if I find its ingenuity wanting, I am dismissive of it. Even worse, when I encounter works of fiction that genuinely impress, the voices within shriek "If only we thought of this first so you could do it better!" rather than acknowledging obvious virtues and striving to learn from them. Such is the cost of conceit: arrogance preserving ignorance and pride crippling pursuits to realize potential.

The various works of Neil Gaiman have all profoundly invoked this latter response in me. One story in particular filled me with so much covetous energy that my pride finally collapsed under its weight, forcing the revelation that I could learn a lot by earnestly examining what he did differently than I would and why. In every respect, this has been my way with the world; arriving at the simplest solution after walking the weirdest road to get there. The work which led me to this non-epiphany was none other than Gaiman's comic masterpiece: Sandman. I found a phantom mentor in the details of Morpheus's dark odyssey and by the end of the epic, Gaiman had established himself as one of my literary idols. That's him to the right. Isn't he dreamy? Do, do you get it? Because Morpheus is lord of dreams and... God I really should be shot for that one.

My girlfriend Grace has a truly awe-inspiring gift. She can finding missing pieces of peoples' souls in stories they have not read yet. The first volume of Sandman was just one of many life-altering works of fiction she introduced me to.

Unlike most of the stories she showed me, I did not like Sandman at first. Despite forwards and prologues intended to ease readers into the experience, the plot felt disconcertingly vague. Though far from straightforward, the first story arc, where Morpheus Lord of Dreams (left) is freed from decades of imprisonment and attempts to recover his tools is conceptually simple enough, yet I found myself re-reading passages to make sure I got them 'right' as if I would be tested on them. With saintly patience, Grace urged me on to the second volume, and once I hit the 'cereal convention' I was hooked. I finished the remaining nine volumes in a month and a couple associated spin-offs since the summer as well.

Season of Mists (volume four) was where I really went rabid about the series. If you plan on reading the series, I'd suggest you skip this paragraph, because I consider the premise of this volume to be a tremendous spoiler, but if you're planning on giving the series a pass, hopefully the example will change your mind: Circumstances force Morpheus to ask Lucifer for a favor, even though the former had gravely insulted the latter earlier in the story. So Lucifer literally gives him Hell. He releases all the souls imprisoned, and relieves his demonic legions from duty, and leaves Morpehus to deal with a parade of deities and cosmic entities who all want to stake their claim on the underworld. Mythologies from all over the world intertwine at the afterlife, and they all make different case
s for ownership through threats, bribes and appeals for mercy.

The overarching narrative almost always features this sort of blending. Mortals cross into the realm of dreams, and dreams stride into reality. Morpheus frequently meets with his siblings; all personifications of universal constants like Death, Desire and Destiny, (there's a theme here) known as Endless. And these are all based on the primary plot-arc, which Gaiman frequently suspends to indulges his tangential whims. These little detours are exceedingly bizzaire, describing the death-wish of a forgotten DC Comic character who was obscure to begin with, or offering visions of what the world would be like if humans were ruled by cats. Usually these diversions are interesting and breif enough that they don't disturb the story line, though the arc in 'A Game of You' (volume five); where Gaiman tries to make a thoroughly uninteresting character more interesting through casual psychoanalysis and feminist mysticism; is pretty terrible. It's a crystalization of his worst qualities: pretention, thematic vagueness, and strangeness for the sake of strangeness. I know a few of the collected volumes are arranged differently than their publishing order, so that may be a factor.

Once again, the natural fractures of the comic form makes it the perfect media to convey long, complicated, and involving stories. The episodic release schedule makes the narrative breaks seem less arbitrary, and it also slows the pace, creating a greater sense of scale and allowing readers to consider each aspect of the plot more carefully. Even though I consumed the series all at once, my experience of it continues and grows richer
as I discover all the different aspects of folk lore it incorporated. For instance, I had no idea that Gaiman's Corinthian was based on an actual legend about a dream god's eating peoples eyes, but I learned as much through a folklore class the following quarter.

Comics also have pictures, and they play an important part in Sandman. For starters, a lot things which happen in the story simply translate better through visual channels. And while most graphic novels are drawn by a single artist, Morpheus and co. have been drawn by a number of different talents, each bringing their unique touch and art style to the experience. Volumes 9 & 10 display the most impressive range of variation, moving from sharp, almost cubist aesthetics, to detailed watercolor-like style, to traditional comic styles. You might think this would be visually exhausting, but the art remains consistent for a given chapter or story, so it's easy enough to follow. I frequently found myself wondering what interpretations from other artists might look like. All the change also serves to emphasize the elements which remain constant, like character specific speech bubbles. Dream always speaks in white text against a black bubble, fitting for a nocturnal figure, while Delirium's text is squigly and adorned with rainbows.

As much as I want to be the Daniel to Gaiman's Morpheus (alternate links I considered for that were "Psuedo-spoiler", and "Things That Sound Gay"), I can't say I love Gaiman's writing without saying I hate it as well. Part of it is that damn pride I began with. Part of it is that his approach to story telling seems so similar to that I wish to develop, that the difference which remains has been compressed to a needle sharp kernal of not-exactly rightness. It's like an OCD person being confronted with a row of pictures that are all perfectly straight save one, and then telling them they can't correct it. There's more to it than that, but I've left it for the next post. Look back for it soon.


Jackdaw said...

"It's a crystalization of his worst qualities: pretention, thematic vagueness, and strangeness for the sake of strangeness."

>:( Good sir, there is NOTHING wrong with strangeness for the sake of strangeness. It's what makes the world go round.

Sarcasmancer said...

I must confess that tastes have matured considerably where strangeness is concerned, and I have grown fonder of Gaiman's writing as result. I'm not sure I would go so far to say that it makes the world go round, but it certainly adds a lot to the spin.
To be clear, I'm falling back on the young and foolish defense here. While we're on the subject, I don't think Gaiman is thematically vague anymore, either.

That said, there are moments in Sandman (A Game of You) where strangeness reaches a saturation point. Unusual ideas that would normally have more impact get lost in a general haze of surreality. Things are happening, and there may be a reason for them or a relationship between them, but instead of articulating it I'll just make things weirder and you can sort it out for yourself or not.

Part of the problem may be that I read Sandman straight through, one volume after another, when each issue was initially published with some space between. Needless to say, it's a work I'm still digesting.