It’s not a new notion (in fact creator Neil Gaiman himself pointed it out years ago) that The Sandman was a writer’s comic. Not that it was exclusively by a writer for writers, but it came from a very writerly sensibility the words were the thing, the visuals sometimes merely a mechanism to move the words along. Indeed, it wasn’t until very late in the game (one-shots like Charles Vess’ work on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or P. Craig Russel’s “Ramadan” aside) that The Sandman seemed interested in marrying story to art, resulting in Marc Hempel’s wondrous art for the penultimate story arc, The Kindly Ones, and Michael Zulli’s deft line work for The Sandman‘s end, The Wake. When Gaiman shelved the series, he left DC Comics with the lucrative franchise of its setting, The Dreaming, as a playground for writers and, secondarily, for illustrators. And what a playground it was, with hazy edges, lots of dark paths from which to stray, and enough literary allusions and metaphysical mojo to fuel countless spin-offs. With The Dreaming, Caitlin R. Kiernan quickly set up shop between The House of Mysteries and The House of Secrets, showing a good bit of inspired imagination in the process. A few others have passed through the landscape as well, the most recent being Bill Willingham, whose first walk through The Dreaming was the recent Merv Pumpkinhead: Agent of DREAM, a wry and funny takeoff on the James Bond genre.
His newest spin on Gaiman’s mythos is Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Dreams but were Afraid to Ask, the flagship issue in Vertigo’s new “The Sandman Presents” line. The nod to Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex… is obvious, and the book’s tone is what you’d therefore expect. Willingham pairs with a handful of artists on gently satirical looks at our most common questions about dreams a conceit to which pretty much any reader should be able to relate. Dreams are universal, everyone has them, and, with some variation in details, we tend to have the same kinds. It’s exactly the kind of archetypal wellspring that Gaiman was drinking from all those years.
Willingham likewise adopts a writer-centric view of the forces at play in our subconscious, but from a more pedestrian and beleaguered standpoint. He portrays the creative forces toiling away behind the scenes of our dreams, and they’re neither archetypal nor noble. He paints The Dreaming as a power-broker’s paradise, with scripts and instructions being delivered by REM Ex to places like Night Sweats, The Institute of Tossing and Turning, and local theater guilds. Each individual’s dream is handled by a case manager, the dreams themselves populated by good-natured actors and clock punchers with starry-eyed fantasies of making it big in this thinly veiled version of Hollywood. Or Madison Avenue. Or Silicon Valley. Or any other environment where timetables and budgets battle with the creative muse. With Everything You Always Wanted to Know…, it seems that Willingham’s pursuing two goals: to let some air out of the vaunted Sandman mythos and to sling some ink at artistic pretension. He’s moderately successful on both counts. In “What Causes Nightmares?”, Willingham spotlights a piece of petty revenge that catches a man’s dreams (and ultimately his sanity) in the middle. “What Causes Recurring Dreams?” finds Merv Pumpkinhead delivering overdue scripts, losing them in the process, and telling the confused players that they have to repeat last week’s performances. “Why Are So Many Dreams Sexual in Nature?” finds Pumpkinhead in the process of recruiting a waitress for an erotic dream production company. It’s a world of frequent mishaps, professional underachieving, and ego battles - a far cry from the humbly accepted royal decrees of Gaiman’s or even Kiernan’s worlds. This is all well and good, and fun for what it is; Willingham takes on the role of satirist and he’s not expected to pay too much heed to any unspoken rules of conduct The Dreaming usually might impose on its creators. But this is rich territory, in terms of skewering both the seriousness that often afflicts The Dreaming as well as the trials of trying to be creative in our culture, and one might reasonably expect his treatment to have more bite or depth.
The only pieces that truly succeed are “Why Aren’t You Supposed to Wake a Sleepwalker?”, a slapstick piece in which a host of lesser dream beings are let loose in a suburban home, resulting in a scene that rivals any biker party. There’s also a nice trio of stories involving the faerie Nuala’s first shot at directing a dream - she becomes a beret-clad tyrant intent on symbolism and meaning. She spouts self-important nonsense like “the man with no face represents the increasing depersonalization of our dreamer’s culture. The thirty-seven sets of Siamese twin lesbian ballet-dancing zombie nuns in the chicken suits represents the need to find love amidst chaos.” She also insists, in what may be a sly swipe at Steven Spielberg, that the entire dream be filmed in black and white, except for a single little girl in a red coat. Such cutting moments are few, though. Willingham shows a good feel for The Dreaming’s regular characters, and his treatment is no less valid than anyone else’s. But, if he intends to use The Dreaming as a means to skewer the marriage of art and commerce or even to take pot shots at ego-fueled artistes, then he punches with kid gloves. His view of The Dreaming is a good bit sunnier than Tim Burton’s portrayal of civil service in Beetlejuice, although cut from the same cloth. As for his indictments of fame-seeking, covering your tail, and favoritism, he lacks the effortless acidity of someone like Joe Queenan. Still, Everything You Always Wanted to Know… is a fun read, even if it does fade soon after you put it down, much like waking from a dream.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sandman/