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Drawn Back Into Dreaming: Spotlight on Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman'

Brett Mobley
All artwork from Sandman #6, "24 Hours."

Why would Neil Gaiman return to the proverbial scene of the crime, the scene of his greatest, grandest, longest-running comics success, the Sandman?

When @NeilHimself announced his return to Sandman at the San Deigo Comic Con in 2012, I, like many others -- including Forbes and Wired -- shuddered a little with excitement. Gaiman’s announcement at the ComicCon was perhaps more poetic, gentle, and interesting than any announcement I’ve ever seen. He explained in a video address to the con-goers that his inspiration for “Before Sandman” initially evolved from one panel in Brief Lives, in issue #47 of the original series. That panel, showing Destiny flipping through his book, reads “The Dream King is returning in triumph of a kind from a far galaxy, tired beyond reckoning, and tried beyond all endurance. His triumph is short lived. From the darkness, old voices call to him, and he awakes in a glass prison in a deep cellar.”

This was where Sandman began, with Dream trapped by Burgess, who intended to capture Death. “When I finished writing The Sandman,” Gaiman goes on, “there was one tale still untold: the story of what had happened to Morpheus to allow him to be so easily captured in The Sandman #1… I'm delighted, and nervous, that that story is finally going to be told.” Before Sandman, which is to be released this November, on the 25th anniversary of Sandman #1, marks Gaiman’s first return to the series since the 2003 graphic novel Endless Nights. When I heard the news, I immediately began rereading Sandman in rapt anticipation, and, most recently, I have picked up: both annotated volumes, which are perhaps the coolest coffee table books ever; the Sandman Companion, by Hy Bender; and the Sandman Papers, a collection of scholarly essays focusing on the series. To put it concisely: I am trying to read everything there is about or in context of Sandman.

If you haven’t picked up the annotated volumes of Sandman, you should. These two gorgeous editions collect 39 issues of Sandman and possess the most astounding marginalia by Leslie Klinger. Reading the annotations to Sandman is like reading a study bible’s notes; they reproduce the most obscure and interesting facts and lend a deeper, richer understanding of each passage. Reading the annotations along with the comic has given me some special insight into the series; I feel empowered by the knowledge gleaned about all the literature, biblical, musical, and internal references.

Nevertheless, reading these gargantuan, black and white texts, as an adult, has helped me better appreciate what Sandman is really about. As Bender explains in the Sandman Companion, it is about “peering beneath the surface of things, and recognizing the importance of dream, myth and the transcendent in our lives.” Sandman is about, Bender continues, “stories—where they come from and how they shape us.” I came to agree with Bender after reading the first arc Preludes & Nocturnes, particularly the perhaps infamous issue #6 “24 Hours.”

In “24 Hours” Gaiman explores what it is like to, as he put it in an interview, “break all the rules.” In this story, a diner full of patrons are tortured to death over 24 hours by Dr. Destiny, who uses Dream’s ruby to power his ability to warp minds. Personally, after reading this comic, I had to take a break of sorts from Sandman. Gaiman explores the most base and terrifying group dynamics and the most obscene glimpses into the mind of the power-hungry. The comic is a bleak look at dreams and, via Dee, the maniacal depths of a god-complex; however, it also possesses an essay on storytelling—and that is how it breaks the rules the most egregiously. Page 4 begins “All Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories—if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.” As Gaiman tells Bender in the Companion, “That is a major theme in Sandman—you get happy endings only by stopping at a certain point.” This essay and realization on Gaiman’s part are what set Sandman apart. It’s not that Gaiman weaves tales about cats’ dreams and Shakespeare; it’s not even that Morpheus is a non-superhero, thin and pale and dark, concerned only with maintaining the dream. It’s that Sandman is a space for storytelling.

Comics, for the most part, create inspirational heroes that follow a rough hero’s journey through out their arcs. They use the space and time of the comic inhabited by a hero to tell story; however, Sandman creates a hero that inhabits the space and time of story. I would argue that this revolutionary approach to comicbook storytelling—the inverse of the inspirational hero’s journey, the broad myth-making of Sandman as opposed to the more narrow singular hero myth—has altered how we think about comicbooks. "Its not the content one should look at," says Samuel Delany, "it’s the intensity and the vividness with which the form of a medium disseminates the experience of the medium itself." For me, Sandman comes to represent a rhetoric of comics that is mythopoetic in function. “I made the Sandman as old as the universe,” Gaiman explains to Bender, “because that gave me all of time and all of space to play with. And I made him the incarnations of dreams and stories because that game me a framework for telling virtually any kind of tale.”

In Sandman Gaiman, tells such a wide variety of tales that I feel like not reading the annotated volumes’ plethora of notes will cause readers to miss things. Obviously, this doesn’t and didn’t hurt its popularity or sales; however, I think reading these annotations has given me much to ponder on. As a writer, Gaiman has done much to explore the mythopoetic process—particularly in books like American Gods and Anansi Boys. I wonder why he would return to Sandman Gaiman has explained that he feels like he ultimately failed at completing Sandman because he has thus far been unable to tell the tale of Morpheus’ draining triumph that lead him to be ensnared by Burgess. He’s also expressed that he will right a sequel to American Gods, featuring a more intense focus on the New Gods. So what is it about his metafiction that draws him back? Why can't he seem to escape the orbits of his previous creations?

The answer is probably very personal, and I hesitate to speculate, however, in his commencement speech at the University of the Arts in 2012 revealed something of a hint. He told the graduating class that he didn’t think of his journey to writing as a career because that “implies a career plan… the nearest thing I had was a list….” This list was of things he wanted to write, “an adult novel, a children’s book, a comic, a movie, an audio recording, write an episode of Dr. Who and so on.” This tells me that Gaiman is a writer who is primarily concerned with storytelling. He has always wanted to tell as many stories as he can. Returning to Sandman then, makes a certain amount of sense. This is a story that pre-dates his greatest work of metafiction, a story about Story.

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