Titles: The Sandman, Volumes 2-4 (The Doll’s House, Dream Country, Season of Mists)
Author: Neil Gaiman. Many other people worked on this, and their work is important, but I can’t possibly list them all and don’t feel comfortable picking and choosing, so see the series’s Wikipedia page for more about them…
LC Call Number: PN6728 .S26 G35
Years ago, back in my adjunct days, I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, to read on the bus as I shuttled between campuses. This was early in the semester, with no papers to grade yet, so that time on the bus was temporarily mine. It’s a very diverse collection of stories, including fantasy, horror, stories that read a little bit like fantasy and a little bit like personal anecdote, and even some poetry. Some were whimsical, some were serious, and some were just odd. I liked some of them better than others, but on the whole, I enjoyed the collection very much, and over the years, I kept coming back to Gaiman, until I’d read all his novels and both his short story collections. He still has quite a bit of other work I haven’t read, of course,* and, delightfully, he keeps writing more, but the major thing I hadn’t read was Sandman.
I don’t read graphic novels, or I hadn’t. It’s not that I had anything against them; actually, I’m all for the proliferation of different media in which stories can be told. I just hadn’t read any, and I found them a little intimidating. A lot of people say the opposite, but I’m an extremely text-oriented person. Example: it was only about five years ago that I realized I should pay attention to what movies look like instead of just converting their dialogue into a script in my head and reading it. So it didn’t seem like graphic novels would be a good match for me. But I was interested in reading Sandman, and eventually succeeded in receiving Preludes and Nocturnes as a gift. I was a little surprised how much I liked it, but still it took me a while to get the next three volumes in the series. I finally did, though, and a few days ago, I finished reading up to this point.
I must admit that I feel terribly greedy when it comes to these books. I just want to take them away with me into a corner and consume them, page by page, like persimmon cookies. And then, possibly, I want to do it again. It’s that kind of addictive. Additionally, at this point, I should probably stop pretending that I am too sophisticated a reader for this to happen to me. Heh. It’s a great thing, really—after all, sophistication has its price. In any case, I stopped when I’d read all the books that I had, and on the whole, I think that’s a good thing. I’ll leave the rest for a while, so that I retain this feeling that there’s more and I can dip back into it when I get a chance.
In any case, I think part of this feeling of immersion came from the format. As I say, images are an unfamiliar way for me to get information. It feels a little… left-handed, for lack of a better term.** It’s a type of reading I’m not used to doing and for which I need to use a different part of my brain, in addition to the parts I usually use. I’m reminded a little bit of the intensity of watching Pan’s Labyrinth with subtitles; I could understand most of the spoken dialogue, but of course I was also reading the subtitles, and at the same time, I was assigning a verbal narrative to the action, so I was getting all the information in the movie in several different ways, and also the movie was both terrifying and fantastic. The amount of attention demanded was so high that it was bound to be an immersive experience. Sandman is similar. I read it slowly, making sure I looked carefully at the images as well as reading the text. At first, this felt like cheating—getting information from illustrations!—but the art in a graphic novel is not an illustration. It is part of the text. It really rewards this sort of reading, too. The edition I read of Dream Country includes a script for “Calliope,” that is, the text that Gaiman provided to the artist, Kelley Jones. At one point, Dream shows up to tell an author that he is wrong to hold a Muse as prisoner, and he’s described in some detail, ending with the line:
He is not pleased… Imagine a parent, or a cop, waiting for you to come home.
…and that was, actually, exactly what I’d thought when I saw it. So, there, I can read graphic novels.
So that’s what it’s like to read Sandman. I can’t, at this point, get as analytic with it as I usually do in my posts. Perhaps later. But I can list a few things that I noticed, or things that I loved, which I can at least gesture toward…
I love how the story appears at first to be a relatively uncomplicated one—just some slightly connected stories about Dream and his attempts to reclaim what he had lost during his imprisonment—but upon reading further, everything turns out to be connected and it’s a much bigger story than it at first appears. When the story of Nada is told at the beginning of The Doll’s House, we’ve already seen her, and we know, or suspect, approximately how true it is (and yet we are still shocked, somehow). Rose Walker being friends with Judy from Preludes and Nocturnes. Morpheus escaping his imprisonment just in time to see Hob. When you come at it sideways the way this story does, there’s a certain pleasure in discovering that things hold together, in a way there isn’t when a story is told more straightforwardly. I feel sure I’ll see Charles Rowland again…
I love how, when I began to form objections or questions, they are answered, as if they’d already been there and were only waiting for me to notice them. I wondered, throughout much of Dream Country, why Dream would help Calliope and not Nada—and at the beginning of Seasons of Mists, Death and Desire bring this up with him.
I love how much of it is little allusions to everything in the world. I certainly don’t get all the references. I’m not a comics fan (as one might have guessed from my comments above!), so I don’t know a thing about John Constantine. Similarly, the Chesterton references went over my head (should I do something about this?). But then there’s the use of Shakespeare, there’s the invocation of Milton for the Hell storyline, there’s Calliope and the little reference to Orpheus and so on. And then there’s the fact that Dream looks oddly like Robert Smith of the Cure—at least, sometimes he does.
I love the fact that the only rape joke I’ve noticed in the series so far is put in the mouth of a serial killer speaking to a room of serial killers. (and that’s everything that needs to be said about rape jokes, you know.)
I love the character of Dream and the fact that, although he’s mostly sympathetic, we don’t entirely approve of him. He’s clever and serious and usually just. When he shows up, it is very often at a moment in which we will be pleased to see horrible characters get their comeuppance. At the same time, he is vengeful, perhaps too vengeful, and the things he does to people worry us. Really, I felt no sympathy for Ric Madoc, but what happens to him is disturbing enough that I was relieved when Calliope called a halt to it. I am still concerned about Alexander Burgess, much as he may have deserved his fate. Dream is also a world-class sulker and terribly impressed with himself. Sometimes we are impressed with him, too. Sometimes not. When Dream tells him what she thinks of his behavior over Nada, I was tempted to be charmed by Dream’s gallantry, and by how quick he is to take her seriously. At the same time, I was exasperated by his need to be told this, ten thousand years later.
I love Death, too, but it’s almost impossible not to. And I love the fact that this book gives me an opportunity for the following reflection:
You know things have gotten weird when Death needs to wear running shoes.
Oh, there’s more, but I think this is all I can articulate for now…
*For instance, did you know he wrote an episode of Babylon 5? I didn’t, until I saw it! It was just like a Neil Gaiman short story!
**That is, for me, my right hand is the dominant one, so things that require this sort of perspective shift are like using my left hand. If you are left-handed, then right-handed would be a better term for this feeling. If you’re ambidextrous, then I’d need a different analogy.