The OF Blog: Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comic series perhaps is his most famous work; it certainly now is the one that resonates most with me. Before I begin discussing what elements of this work that I enjoyed most, permit me to preface this with a personal story in which Dream plays a minor, yet important role:

Almost two years ago, around the beginning of May 2007, I was in a situation in some aspects similar to the one I am facing now, with an uncertain job future and some bitterness lingering from how the last job ended. I remember vaguely being quite demonstrative with a very close female friend of mine and I think I had said a few hurtful things to her on MSN Messenger at the time.

Fast forward to the end of June of that year. Still slightly down, although I had found a summer school teaching position and had some hopes for getting a position in an urban area nearby (I did, but that was a near-disaster), I was still a bit down about everything. Went and checked my mailbox. There was a letter there, with a May 4, 2007 post stamp, that somehow had been delayed in arriving until then. It had been mailed from Serbia, where this said female friend lives. I guess the USPS screwed up somehow in delivering it, but whatever. I opened it and began to read. Below is what I read:

Inside was a quote from the opening scene in Neil Gaiman's sixth The Sandman tradeback volume, Fables & Reflections. While familiar with Gaiman's latter works, I had not yet begun reading his most famous comics series, so reading these words at just the right time (there are "right" times and "wrong" times for most anything, right?) led me to begin exploring this work, despite having a long-standing aversion to the graphic novel format at the time. I have never looked back since, either in the reading, or even in my attitude toward certain career frustrations. But enough about me; this is but preface.

When I began reading the series in 2007, one of the first things that I noticed was how Gaiman conceived his titular character. Dream/Morpheus/The Sandman, etc. is one of seven anthropomorphic entities known as the Endless. Captured by ritual magic in England during World War I, Dream is locked away for over 70 years. When he finally manages to escape, he emerges into a world that has changed greatly during his captivity. Dream struggles to deal not just with the external changes (to his realm, the Dreaming, and elsewhere in a setting that pulls in elements of the DC Comics universe), but even more importantly, with the internal changes that he has undergone during his captivity. It is Dream's confrontation with the question of how does a truly "endless" representation of a vital substance such as dreams deal with the possibility of change? Can such an aspect of living existence manage to change, or does that aspect have to be shattered and created anew for change truly to occur?

This is what captured my attention from the first volume, Preludes & Nocturnes. While each volume has its own serial plot, from Dream's searching for his lost artefacts to confronting a dream vortex to dealing with Lucifer's abandonment of Hell to the final events of the series, each volume revolves around Dream's changing relationships with his brethren and with his former lovers. The Dream who sends Nada to spend 10,000 years in Hell is not the Dream who broods over Larissa's departure in Brief Lives. He is not the entity by the end of the series that uncreates the worst of his Nightmares or the one that gives the son of his captor the curse of eternal waking in its beginning. There is something going on with Dream, something that feels so human, yet while all the while Dream's problems and his very nature are hardly anything human.

Dreaming is a vital activity for the living, human and non-human alike. From replaying past events in altered form to creating possibilities that spark human invention, dreaming is one of the most precious things we have, even if most of us fail to remember more than a few fleeting bits upon awakening. Who hasn't dreamed of becoming the best in a certain field, of rising to become a famous benefactor for all humanity? Who hasn't conceived in dreams of solutions to horrible problems...or faced guilt for callous deeds? As Prospero said in Shakespeare's The Tempest (incidentally, Shakespeare appears in several guises in this series), "We are such stuff
as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep." And in The Sandman, the various ways in which dreams influence us are demonstrated to great effect.

What Gaiman has done with this series is to meld two powerful meta-narratives, one concerning a tragic character who attempts (and often fails) to overcome his "fatal flaw," the other focusing on how powerful and pervasive of a force dreams are in human lives and, perhaps even more importantly, in their stories. Readers can choose either or both narratives to be the focal point of their thoughts and reactions; I did both. After all, sometimes one needs to remember that in dreams, sometimes one can fly after failing and falling. That certainly was the message I took from that passage I received in the mail.

The ending to the series, The Kindly Ones and The Wake, blends these two meta-narratives together in a powerful concoction. As Dream has to confront his own self-guilt and the terrible power of the Kindly Ones, so to does the reader have to deal with the awakening from dreams. What happens when dreams have led us to a certain destination? What are the tangled webs that are woven not of lies and deceit, but rather of hopes and dreams? What happens when we become ensnared in them - do we fall and keep falling, or is there a change that takes place in our lives by the very act of dreaming of something different than what we currently possess? Those are the questions that occurred to me as I read on and discovered the answer to Dream's inability to change as much as he needed to...or rather, what happens, as the Keeper of Secrets reveals, when a point of view changes.

It is for these very fundamental human issues that Gaiman addresses in rather creative ways (when he's not reminding us of how ancient these questions about dreams and lives have been and how others from Milton to Shakespeare to Chesterton to all others around and behind them have dealt with such) that I suspect The Sandman will continue to be one of the more important literary creations of the past century. It is, of course, as dream depths, leaving the reader to discover just how far down one can fall before emerging out of it.


dacole said...

Well that clinches that then. Buying this. If it is something you enjoy that much then I know I will love it. Watchmen and now Sandman I think you are turning me into a comic reader larry ;). Have you looked into Preacher any? That is supposed to be good as well from what I have heard though it is different than either of these. (note it does take liberties with catholic doctrine)

Sorry to here about the job situation. Education can be tough, so many people in it for the wrong reasons who don't treat it well or work hard at it. Keep up the good fight! Way to many people with a substandard education in the US. You teach them to read and I'll teach them science ok?

Lsrry said...

Thanks for the kind words, but I am not too worried about the job situation, since I have a very good shot of getting my old job back that I had for part of last year. That one would allow me to teach more and that'll be for the good.

As for Preacher, no I haven't read it yet, but I might in the near future. I blame my recent turn to graphic novels on two people, one of them an author, the other a soon-to-be arts school graduate. I guess I owe each of them quite a bit, huh?

RobB said...

Very good overview, especially how you were able encapsulate the series in such a relatively small post.

My wife gave me The Prince of Stories and I've been reading a chapter a night. Very interesting look at some things surrounding the stories about which I was unaware.

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