Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Sandman

Literature. Odd the way we label everything and then, not content with the label applied subdivide the thing adding yet further labels. 

Literature. The reading of books, the reading of words that make up books. We all know what makes a good story. It really is as plain as the nose on your face. Of course, in reality, it is all a matter of taste. One person's being quite different to another's.

Literature. Enid Blyton? Albert Camus? Cormac McCarthy? Alan Moore? M.C Beaton? Who really says what is good literature or what is bad literature? 

Literature. Not the stuff of comic books apparently so they invented yet another label which they called a Graphic Novel.  This gave the genre added gravitas or so it seems. Possibly it is just more bullshit.

Literature. What is it? It is heartache and striving. It is a human struggle against the odds. It is grim realism. It is romance, it is humour, it is horror, it is science fiction,  it is surrealism. It is...

It is 1956. Carmine Infantino has just drawn the updated version of D.C.Comics, The Flash. It is to be a landmark publication which introduces the Silver Age of comics which in turn re-introduces superheroes to the comic buying public. It reignites the fortunes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and also Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Green Arrow before giving the breath of creativity to Stan Lee and his nascent Marvel Comics Group. 

The Flash's stories were science fiction based as were Superman's. Another DC hero who appealed to me at that time was The Atom. These superheroes, among many others, were the stuff of my childhood but a threat to the D.C world of ubermensch was about to arrive in the shape of Marvel.

Where D.C had published stories with a cerebral quality Marvel was graphic action and no one better personified Marvel than Jack 'King' Kirby. His balletic violence leapt out of the page at you be it Thor, Captain America or The Fantastic Four.  

The next few decades, the sixties through the seventies right up until the early eighties, Marvel ruled supreme. Their kick 'em down, full-on action heroes had DC, if not pinned to the ropes, definitely losing on points.

Along came Dave Sims, Jaime and Gilberto Hernandez, Frank Miller and of course, Alan Moore. They, this gaggle of creatives, along with many others, shifted focus. Not only were superhero stories given a dramatic boost courtesy of Miller's '"The Dark Night Returns," Moore's "Marvelman,"  his "Swamp Thing" revamp and of course "Watchmen." The mainstream remained true to its superhero tradition but suddenly a darker element, courtesy of Miller and Moore, took the genre to an adult readership. 

Officially, this 'Bronze Age of comics, is set between 1970 and 1985. Personally, I disagree. Miller's debut with  Marvels "Daredevil" number 158 in 1979 was a potential starter. Okay, so the seeds of the Bronze Age revolution may have been planted some nine years before but the reality of that change didn't start until the closing of that decade. It could be argued, and I think there is merit in it, that Will Eisner's "A Contract With God," lay the way for both the Bronze Age and the graphic novel tag that grew out of that publication. Anyway, this is all moot. The Bronze Age came and went leaving in its wake what is now called the "Dark Age." Too bloody dark by half if you ask me. I much prefer the "Modern Age" appellation.

With this move to more adult themes came a change in the publisher's fortunes. DC returned, possibly pushing Marvel into second place. This was largely thanks to those two gents previously mentioned, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. That said, there was another, a Brit who, along with a bevy of fellow Brits, formed what was a wave of creative talent that elbowed its way into American comic creation. That man was Neil Gaiman and the series he created was SANDMAN.

Gaiman created a dark world filled with monstrous events defined by a rich array of characters. If Frank Miller embodied the spirit of graphic storytelling with his art, freezing frames, allowing the pictures to tell the tale and Alan Moore brought a new level of literary sensibility to the comic medium, then Gaiman introduced a multi-layered, literary work that took the comic book to yet another height. 

We had witnessed how "Watchmen" with its alignment to character development along with a mature plot had not only reinvented the superhero genre but attained literary status. Now here was Gaiman doing the same thing with his "Sandman" series.

That first story, a little toe in the water, a tempter of what was to come. Artwork by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg reminding me of all those macabre tales that EC Comics used to publish. A dim world, charcoal etched onto carbon. The despicable mind of Roderick Burgess who, with his knowledge of black magic, entraps Dream, or Morpheus as he is also known. The entrapment lasts decades giving Dream a deep longing for revenge and, food? Neat the way Neil Gaiman spins a yarn that is horror mixed with ironic humour.

As with Alan Moore, when writing both "Marvelman" and "V for Vendetta," Gaiman doesn't find his voice until comic number eight, "The Sound of her Wings." In this chapter, we meet for the first time Dream's sister, Death. What a cracker. That doesn't mean all that went before was sub-standard, it certainly wasn't, but chapter eight defined the course Gaiman had set for the series.

The horror was horrific and nowhere better delineated than when we meet the Corinthian. Here we have an eyeball muncher; a creature created by Dream to visit our dreams then turn them into nightmares. Having been imprisoned so long Morpheus's creations, many of them anyway, have broken out of Dreams world and entered our own. So it is with Corinthian. When we first meet this creepy character we are engaged by his charm, by his looks, he is, after all, a handsome cove, a man who gays and straights admire especially women, yet we are aware something sinister lies beneath his exterior. 

As the story is told so we encounter like- minded individuals who attend a conference for homicidal maniacs. This again shows us the dark humour inherent in "Sandman" and illustrates perfectly how well Neil Gaiman adds tension only to have a safety valve prepared by which said tension is momentarily released.  

When the horror is finally unleashed Gaiman doesn't illustrate it graphically but leaves obvious signs of what is occurring which allows our imaginations to do the footwork. Nonetheless, what happens is both bloody and violent in the extreme.

But there was more to "The Sandman" than just horror. More than just black humour. Gaiman invents a mythology, a pantheon, as good as any historical set of gods or demi-gods. Morpheus isn't alone in this fiction, he has family and not just the aforementioned sister, Death either, there are others. 

Gaiman invented The Endless, a fictional family who are older, and possibly more powerful, than gods.  The Endless are a dysfunctional family who represents all the elements of the universe. There are Dream and Death of whom I have spoken, then there is Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destiny. 

When we dip our toes into the dark waters of Sandman's world, with all its tactile gruesomeness that attaches itself to your mind like tacky treacle, we also find a pantheon whose divinity strikes a desperate chord amongst our mortal sensibilities. They too have their issues, their problems, their petty jealousies. 

The endless have been around as long as the ideas they represent. They are older than gods, older than time for time is a man invention, older than worlds or spinning galaxies. No one knows how old they are although Destruction states in 'Brief Lives,' that he remembers a time some ten billion years ago and since he is the fourth eldest with Destiny, Death and Dream all older than him then goodness only knows how long the Endless have existed, 

There are those who suggest Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' is better than the much vaunted 'Watchmen.' I think the comparison is stupid, the two are totally different. Both are good, in fact, both are better than good. I find they have the same appeal for me as re-reading Orwell, Murakami, or any other great writer. 

Such invention is remarkable. Possibly Neil Gaiman's best work and that is saying something considering 'American Gods.' The one thing I do know is that 'The Sandman' is pure fantasy. There are some out there who dismiss fantasy as being puerile. there are others who rename it much in the same way comics are now graphic novels so fantasy is called by a few magic realism. Literature's roots are firmly embedded in fantasy as for me 'The Sandman' is among the best of them.

"...Neil Gaiman's work on the series is considered legendary for a reason. This story, in its entirety, is every bit as good as Watchmen and of equal (if not greater) literary merit. Were I to list the 100 best single comic-book issues I have ever read, three would come from this collection. Whether you have read The Sandman before or are a first timer, this is the one book you need to buy this fall. The stories within are magnificent and the care taken in reproducing Gaiman's work is the same you'd expect for any great work of literature." 

Harry Goldstein


Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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