Thee Comic Column #41: Re-Reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

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At the time I began reading Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus The Sandman it was a very influential book for me. I’d cut my comic book teeth reading Larry Hama’s GIJOE, then Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, then various other Marvel titles that I bought irregularly – looking back on my reading habits I can’t quite wrap my head around what exactly my criteria was for reading. I’d buy Batman here and there, but never consistently. Same with the three Spiderman titles at the time. Same with a bunch of other stuff. Then Image came along and I swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker for a time. I read Spawn loyally, and picked at a few other titles. It wasn’t until I was introduced to ‘mature’ comics that my fandom received the voltage that allowed me to understand just how great comics could be in a literary or cinematic sense. This was no doubt how my love of the medium transcended the ‘growing out of it’ that seemed to eventually affect a lot of the other comic readers I knew. See, as much as I have a love for the superhero books of my youth, I get how people grow out of that stuff. But the other stuff, the literature – that you don’t grow out of.

My senior year in high school I had a friend named Brad who came and went within about a year, but who truly affected my tastes. He lent me Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. He lent me James O’Barr’s The Crow. And he talked me into buying issue #57 of The Sandman. From there I was in love.

So I hadn’t read Gaiman’s masterpiece from the start – in fact I came on late, with the penultimate storyline The Kindly Ones. From there I read monthly through to the end and went back and picked up the first three trades (which were, I believe, the only ones in collections at the time – the turn around wasn’t as fast then as comics was still a predominantly ‘monthly’ medium). In the pages of these books I found characters and stories that were unlike anything I’d seen in comics before. I also found something that dovetailed nicely with my deepening love of the music I was getting into by reverse engineering my love of Industrial Music. Bands like Joy Division and The Cure were huge influences on me at the time (still are) and these comics – especially The Sandman – seemed cut from the same mold. And with Sandman it wouldn’t be until years later when I fell head over heels in love with The Smiths that I developed my theory that a lot of those Vertigo comics from the late 80’s and early 90’s go so nicely with the music of these bands because the writers/artists had perhaps been listening to those bands a lot at the time – possibly even during the hours they spent creating the books – so that what you get on the back end as a consumer is a sort of magical transduction: the music goes in the artist’s ears, comes out through their hands via pen or keyboard, and then flows back into you as the reader. Reading to the same music that was used to create something (if that is indeed what is happening) adds a massive harmonic layer to the experience – it’s hard to tally in words but suffice it to say it’s an engulfing and deeply affecting experience.

Now, this is all the sort of thing that can never really go beyond pure speculation, but it’s a feeling I have in my heart and right or wrong, I’m pretty sure I’m at least coming close to the mark here. Things like the Joy Division graphics on Judy’s jacket in Preludes and Nocturnes’ “24 Hours” or the uncanny harmonic that Season of Mists Chapter 4 (the introduction of the ‘deadboy detective’) strikes with The Smiths’ classic The Headmaster Ritual seem tiny bursts of proof for an otherwise elaborate theory. Still, we define our reality, and I’m sticking to this theory as part of mine until I’m proven wrong.

But despite this love of the Sandman that I had read, I never did go back and read all the issues that I hadn’t read. Oh, I’ve attempted it a few times over the years, but usually either money or time prevented me from acquiring the missing trades, all of which have been re-printed and re-mastered at least twice since. Then a couple of months ago I decided to go back and re-read another Vertigo classic, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and this ended up sparking me to finally take the plunge and dive into back into The Sandman concurrently.

I was not ready for what I found. Take about ‘harmonic experiences’.

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was another book I got into late and never read all of. So this year for my birthday my wife tracked down the trades I was missing for that and once I started them I was absolutely fascinated to see how many threads or ideas I recognized from The Sandman had begun in Swamp Thing.

There’s the obvious one – Matthew the Raven being a later incarnation of Abigail’s former husband Matthew. But then in Swamp Thing #44 there’s both the Bogeyman (mentioned in Sandman #14 “The Collectors” when the Corinthian tells new friend Flay-By-Night, “The Bogeyman is dead, doctor. He drowned in Louisiana, three years ago,” directly referencing Swamp Thing #44, an issue in which said Bogeyman mentions knowledge of serial killer gatherings (“I know guys like that all over the country. They move from state to state, meeting up occasionally, trading stories…”) that doubtless inspired the “Cereal Convention” in the aforementioned issue of Sandman.

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This is indeed very interesting in that Swamp Thing is largely acknowledged as the book that birthed Vertigo, and Sandman was kind of the book that Moore’s title passed the torch to after his run on it ended. And it very much is from Sandman that quite a few memorable Vertigo titles spun off of: Death, Lucifer, The Dreaming, The Corinthian, The Deadboy Detectives. Re-reading and finishing Sandman in a straight shot was a heady visit to someplace I thought I knew really well with a whole lot of new insight, and most importantly it was fun!

There are so many charming little nuances to Sandman. The surface level stuff is amazing, but it’s the lace on the curtains – so to speak – that really endears it. Dream’s journey with his sister Delirium to find their missing brother is both funny in a mis-matched, 80’s buddy movie way but it is also stark and intense. His subsequent refusal to follow Delirium in a quest to find her talking dog Barnaby is then also fantastically charming, what with his assigning the Borghal Rantipole to help her so he can avoid doing so (granted, he had more pressing matters at the time…)

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And what of Lyta Hall and her evolution from minor supporting character to a large factor in Morpheus’ undoing? Or Seasons of Mists’ grandiose storyline – I mean, Lucifer quits hell? BRILLIANT! Doubly brilliant for the sheer audacity of it’s eloquently-handled blasphemy. Then there’s the feeling I get when I stop to compare Sam Keith’s thick, molten imagery and truly horrifying take on Doctor Destiny with Jill Thompson’s more classical, minimalist art. Doll’s House is always a pleasure (I’ve read this one the most) for the way it so successfully fuses 80’s new wave/punk pastiche into the tone of a horror film the way so many movies of that era tried and failed to do (specifically, despite its varied degrees of successes, Hellraiser franchise I’m looking at you). And The Kindly Ones will probably always be my favorite due to the overall tone created by Marc Hemphill’s art and the way it so perfectly walks the line of bringing out the series’ fantasy-elements without ever falling into the trap of  becoming too fantastical, tempered as it is by shades of the gothic, the horrific and even cartoon-like imagery that all help to create something totally unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

It was announced last year that Neil Gaiman will be returning to the Dream King Morpheus, to tell the story that leads into the original series. I’m really looking forward to this, especially after spending so much time hanging out in the Dreaming of late. That new book should be available in the fall, although to my knowledge there has not been a specific release date announced yet.


Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!


Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

2 Responses to Thee Comic Column #41: Re-Reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
  1. […] outlandish possibility. In keeping with theories I’ve written about fairly extensively in Thee...
  2. [...] I wrote about in this column at the time, this past spring I re-read the original Sandman in preparation...

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