A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Neil Gaiman has been popping into view quite a lot recently. His twisted children’s tale Coraline is making it to the big screen this Friday; in the last few years, he has published another children’s novel, The Graveyard Book (2008), seen his book Stardust become a film (2007), co-written the screenplays for the a recent film adaptation of Beowulf (2007) and the original film MirrorMask (2005), and brought out Anansi Boys (2005), the more-or-less sequel to American Gods. Everything is, in fact, coming up Gaiman.
It is therefore – especially in light of his current involvement with film – kind of interesting to travel back a couple of decades and take a look at a work of his that many consider unfilmable. Between 1989 and 1996, Gaiman, in conjunction with numerous artists, brought out the 75-issue comic series The Sandman, which was later published as ten trade paperbacks. Anyone who doesn’t quite believe that Neil Gaiman’s imagination is considerably larger than the whole world should consider giving The Sandman a try. Even people who are incurably suspicious of the comics form may find something rewarding in this intricate, tangled story about stories.
Sandman involves many interwoven plots, but at root, it follows seven siblings, the Endless, who are anthropomorphic personifications effectively created by the collective unconscious. Blind Destiny knows but will not move to prevent the paths of events; Death, bucking stereotype, is a quirky, optimistic Goth girl who loves Mary Poppins; Dream (the Sandman of the title) rules the imagination, while the androgynous Desire enslaves it and Desire’s twin Despair watches it die; Delirium (once Delight) makes a strange sense out of her own madness. The seventh sibling, Destruction, has abandoned his post. The story centres on Dream, who throughout the story becomes unwittingly subject to each of his siblings in turn. Though the comics start off in an episodic manner, they gradually solidify into what is almost a classical tragedy as Dream confronts the great oxymoron of his own personality: his seeming inability, as the patron of the unreal and the imagined, to change.
The idea of the rigidity of the human imagination, its resistance to real change and adherence to familiar rules and patterns even in the face of its own destruction, is the hub around which the many subplots of The Sandman revolve. Dream embodies this rigidity, while all around him the stories ebb and flow, constantly shifting and constantly remaining the same. Much of the interest of the work lies in the stubborn, somewhat naive Dream, whose mastery of the world of dream and nightmare is made more complex by his own bizarre lack of imagination. Dream’s talents take him into the imaginations of others, but he himself often seems unable to dream, and this inability leads him inexorably towards the breaking point: the moment at which he has to change if he wants to keep existing. The question of whether or not he can change becomes the crux of the later books in the series.
While Dream is the story’s unmoving core, the supporting characters weave themselves around him in an intricate dance of horror and romance, mythology and history. Several of them start off as comic relief before being swept up in the frame tragedy; in fact, in many respects, The Sandman is quite a funny series. The cartoonish brothers Cain and Abel act out their own base tale over and over again as Cain continually kills off Abel in various inventive ways; medieval commoner Hob Gadling rashly declares that he refuses to die and finds himself living on indefinitely (though he stops for a drink with Dream once a century); the Norse thunder-god Thor turns up at Dream’s palace as part of a delegation, gets drunk, hits on everyone in sight, and suffers through a god-sized hangover the next morning. Even when the tragedy begins to take hold, the humour remains (a highlight is perhaps the perpetually dotty Delirium’s meandering farewell to her soon-to-be-dead nephew in the seventh volume, Brief Lives). Dream’s rigidity allows the stories and their characters to move freely. A multitude of elements flow together in a sea of change held in place, oddly, by permanence.
The many different artists of the Sandman series actually help cement this impression. From volume to volume and sometimes from issue to issue, the styles shift, occasionally radically. Dream appears in some stories in almost photorealistic form and in others stylised, angular, unreal. The crucial volume The Kindly Ones uses mainly a flat, jagged style that becomes almost Picasso-like at times as reality frays around the characters and Dream’s carefully constructed world slowly and inevitably collapses. Brief Lives, which precedes it and which features Delirium in a prominent role, echoes her constantly shifting nature with delicate images that occasionally seem mere sketches, on the verge of falling apart and blowing away. In the meantime, the stories–eventually swept up into one story–hold the art styles together, providing them, again, with an unmoving core around which to weave themselves. Dream’s realm of story once more shows itself imbued with both permanence and change.
If Neil Gaiman ever opens up his twisted mind to public viewing, I expect I’ll buy a ticket. A trip through the pages of The Sandman is probably the next best thing.
The Sandman series is published by Titan Books, both as individual volumes or as a boxset, ISBN: 978-1845763565.
(Sharon Robinson will be reviewing Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – The Graphic Novel on Vulpes Libris tomorrow.)