Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth by Stephen Rauch

Comic fans tend to have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to their favorite medium’s place in mainstream culture. “Comics are art,” they say, “just as legitimate as novels, TV, and movies!” Of course, comics are art, just as anything a person creates can be considered art. What they really mean by this insistence is that comics are, or are capable of being, high art. It is more of a value judgment than anything. Movies are “art”, but there are a lot of bad ones. There are a lot of bad comics available as well, but what defenders of the medium are saying is that there are intelligent, well-written comics worthy of your attention.

The problem with this claim, which is quite truthful, is that it does nothing to convince anyone; instead, it comes across as self-defense, a justification for why an adult spends money on flimsy little booklets usually filled with spandex-clad heroes. It often is. Even worse is when someone compares comics to another art form, usually film. The recent surge in comic book based films, some of which are quite good, has encouraged this comparison. The argument usually points out the similarities, claiming that comics are just paper movies, employing many of the same visual and narrative techniques as cinema. Some of this is true, but it begs the question: why read a movie when you can just watch one?

No, the way to truly get comics to be taken seriously as “art” is not to scream it at the top of your lungs to anyone who will listen. Instead, just take it for granted; treat them the way any other art is treated: examine and discuss them in thoughtful, insightful, rational, and critical ways, and always, always on their own terms. While comics criticism often shows at pop culture conferences, panels usually aren’t concerned with examining the work in itself. There is, however, a growing amount of critical work on comics coming out of graduate literature programs and appearing in print, including Rauch’s In Search of the Modern Myth, a book tracing Neil Gaiman’s seminal Sandman series as an exercise in contemporary mythmaking.

Rauch’s work begins by stating what he sees as a problem: the loss of the “sacred” or the “spiritual” in the modern world. By this he means the failure of traditional sources of meaning (namely religion) to provide solace to the individual in a highly rational, scientific, and technological world. Rauch’s thesis is that Gaiman attempted, perhaps knowingly, perhaps subconsciously, to create a modern myth capable of replacing or augmenting the old order, and the result is The Sandman, a 75-issue series, plus spin-offs, about Morpheus, the king of dreams. Primarily drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, and to a lesser extent Carl Jung and a handful of other religious, psychological, and cultural thinkers, Rauch details the ways that Gaiman’s work functions as a myth, including tracing traditional mythological elements (such as the hero’s journey, death, good vs. evil) and establishing a model social order.

Rauch is most convincing when he draws connections between Sandman and traditional myth, using Campbell as the bridge. For example, his discussion of the hero’s journey and how Gaiman has modified it was insightful, revealing a side of the series that I had never noticed. Another interesting chapter examines the social function of myth, and how Gaiman’s work expands the traditional social order to include marginalized groups.

While Rauch’s discussion of marginalized groups is an effective bit of cultural criticism, other times his views on society are perhaps a bit simplified, or lack evidence. For example, he doesn’t do enough to support his claim about the loss of the sacred, and I don’t know that I agree that it is a problem even if he is correct. Isn’t the triumph of the Enlightenment that it brings the sacred and the mythic into our lives, rather than attributing it to mysterious, distant, and impossible beings? Of course, it seems ultimately that Rauch says that Gaiman does just that with his myth — he makes it human.

Other criticisms of Rauch’s book are minor, but bear mentioning. Rauch focuses primarily on the narrative of Sandman and largely ignores the visual half of comics, the artwork. Of course, this could be because of limited space. Structurally, some parts are a bit choppy, as we read a section about Campbell, then one about Gaiman, rather than the two being interwoven. In fact, at times Search is as much a book about Campbell as it is about Gaiman, and I am not sure if that was the intention. In addition, it sometimes veers close to hero worship. Clearly Rauch regards Campbell and Gaiman highly, but critical aspect of the work would benefit from excision or dampening of the overtly complimentary passages; this would resolve the tension between the academic style of some parts and the more review-ish quality of others. Finally, when discussing myth and archetypes, surely Claude Levi-Strauss merits mention along with Campbell and Jung, but again this might be due to space restrictions rather than an overt omission.

Despite these issues, Rauch’s work succeeds as an insightful look at an important work in contemporary comics. Most importantly, Rauch takes The Sandman on its own terms, as a comic book, not as a paper movie, or as a piece of disposable pop culture. Hopefully, In Search of the Modern Myth heralds a growing trend toward the serious sort of comic book criticism that has been lacking in academic circles.