Notes Written in the Sand: Neil Gaiman, Leslie Klinger and ‘The Annotated Sandman’

In his 1995 afterword to The Kindly Ones, the longest of Neil Gaiman’s individual Sandman collections, the author joked that the book was heavy enough “to stun a burglar”. It seemed funny at the time, but Gaiman clearly never envisioned Leslie Klinger’s The Annotated Sandman, nor the heft that would accompany it. In this first of four volumes, Klinger has delivered a gorgeous reproduction of the first 20 issues of Gaiman’s most famous comic book series. Printed on oversized, quality paper with detailed annotations in the margins, the book is one of the most impressive editions of a comic book ever published. It’s also, with all due respect to The Kindly Ones, heavy enough to bludgeon most poor burglars beyond recognition.

While Gaiman may be more familiar to readers as the Newberry Medal-winning author of The Graveyard Book and the adult novel, American Gods, he first made his reputation in comics. Gaiman, along with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, led the legendary “British Invasion” of American comic books in the ’80s that redefined the role of the modern comic book writer. Gaiman’s Sandman remains his comics masterpiece and one of the most important and influential comics ever published.

Conceived originally as a horror series, The Sandman quickly emerged as something more, branching into urban fantasy, literary history, modernist fairy tale, and revisionist mythology. And with that expansion, Gaiman also expanded the audience for mainstream comics in ways that no one, not even Alan Moore, had accomplished. Any Sandman reader quickly realizes that Gaiman is comfortable drawing equally from such disparate sources as African folklore, Shakespeare, Aleister Crowley, Roy Orbison, Jack Kirby, serial killers, Greek mythology, Dante, and the Bible. No wonder Norman Mailer famously pronounced The Sandman a “comic strip for intellectuals”.

In addition to the broad range of allusions and sources, Gaiman’s non-linear approach to the narrative can sometimes pose challenges. The series takes readers through the kingdom of dreams, and Gaiman, like a magnificently deranged Gnostic tour guide, spends as much time off-road, exploring the diversions, back roads, dives, and alleyways of his story, as he spends on the main highway, collecting data for a never-to-be-published Fodor’s Guide to the Dream World. Given the many turns and twists of the story as well as the many obscure allusions, it’s easy for readers to feel like they might be missing something.

Enter Leslie Klinger. As with his lavishly annotated editions of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Klinger has gone through these first, pivotal 20 issues of The Sandman and highlighted many of the references and allusions. Some of these are expected. In the famous issue where Gaiman recreates the debut of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we get the anticipated notes on historical characters like Richard Burbage, Will Kempe, and Hamnet. But Klinger doesn’t just go for the obvious. He also forces the reader to stop throughout the series and consider the significance of geographic locations like “Wych Cross” and casually dropped names like “Nimrod”. He also refuses to let any of the countless song lyrics pass without noting not only the source, but also Gaiman’s intentional deviations from the established lyrics. The book almost demands that readers begin compiling their own Sandman playlists.

Klinger even finds a number of instances where Gaiman’s story fits into the DC universe of superheroes. Many of these are so subtle as to barely register—a background television advertises a soap opera that, as Klinger dutifully notes, once starred Supergirl’s alter ego. Even though most of these superhero references are irrelevant, they make wonderful Easter eggs for the geekishly inclined.

The Annotated Sandman‘s weaknesses are mostly tied to its form and function. Due to the book’s size and weight, it’s not an ideal “reading copy” or replacement for the earlier editions of the series. All burglar bludgeoning aside, the book is not something you can easily carry through an airport or flip through on the subway. It’s also worth noting that the comics are reproduced in greyscale. However, the book compensates with quality paper and a wide, charcoal grey margin for each page. The art still looks striking, and the lack of color actually seems to complement Mike Dringenberg’s style in particular.

The other limitation of the book is that these annotations are just that—notes—not literary commentary. Rather than trying to “explain” the narrative and literary significance of things, Klinger is playing the Clark Kent reporter role here—tracing down obscure references, geographic details, and cultural history. As a result, even though he includes many, many notes, not every page requires or contains annotations. Even so, he still infuses the notes with a clear sense of voice and style, lacing his observations at times with a touch of humor not found in most straightforward reference works.

Most enlightening, however, are the excerpts from Gaiman’s original scripts. Carefully selected by Klinger, the passages Gaiman wrote for his artists—often described as letters instead of instructions—show off the young writer who consistently approached each script as if it were the most important thing he would ever write, detailing for the artist his goals for the story and the themes he was trying to establish. Many of the things Klinger includes here offer no practical drawing instructions for the artists, but instead show the young writer struggling, sometimes mightily, with the limits of his own experience and skill.

Take, for instance, this excerpt from his script for the penultimate issue of The Doll’s House, the most ambitious story arc in this volume: “You know, when you’re writing a novel, there’s a point a few chapters away from the end when you hit rock bottom. You don’t know how it ends, any more, and you’re not sure if it’s worth it anyway, and suddenly you can’t remember why any of it seemed like it could possibly work”. With a tone that hints at both fatigue and resignation, Gaiman adds, “I think that when I finish the Doll’s House I’ll do some short stories. No continuing plotlines. No continuing characters”.

Passages like this one really make The Annotated Sandman shine, and they tap into a big part of Gaiman’s appeal as a writer—his openness and transparency. At times his Twitter feed actually feels like a post-modern autobiography, fostering a sense of community and intimacy with his readers. The wonder of Klinger’s The Annotated Sandman is that it feels like we have, somehow, perhaps in a dream, been following the tousle-haired author along a beach, and, as he crouches down, we are able to peer over his shoulder, reading his notes in the sand.

RATING 9 / 10