There are works that I love. That I think are perfect and magical and wonderful and move me every time I watch, read or even think about them. They are the cornerstones of my ideas about art and what it’s supposed to be able to do.
Then there are a few – only a few – works that have completely defined who I am (or at least, who I want to be) as an artist. They answered some kind of lingering, unspoken question within me about what kind of art I want to create, and the way I want my own works to feel. If I had to list them right now, I could only think of a half dozen or so. If I tried harder, I’d be surprised if I broke ten. They aren’t the best things I’ve ever seen. They’re just the most important.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is one of them.
I’m not sure it’s the best comic story ever told. I’m sure you could end up in a vigorous debate defending it at such, at least, but I could think of a handful of others than deserve the crown just as much. But there isn’t a single other work in the medium that hit me harder, that defined my view of comics more than Sandman. When I think about wanting to write comics, I think about Sandman.
What’s most interesting about Sandman to me is that it’s so unsure of itself at its outset. It’s clear that Gaiman understands his hero, Dream, and the fatal flaw that will be his undoing. That’s the very core of Sandman, and Gaiman certainly had that down. As for the texture of the story, it takes most of its first arc – “Preludes and Nocturnes” – to really coalesce. And it’s the texture that hit me the most. There’s something extra-magical about that to me; that its greatest success was something it discovered along the way. If that isn’t the power of telling an episodic tale, I don’t know what is.
Sandman is the story of Dream, one of the Endless. He doesn’t control dreams so much as personify them; like all of his brothers and sisters, he is a cosmic force that serves as the heart of his domain. It is a tragedy in the classical sense; we are given a hero who is so hamstrung by a character flaw, and so unable or unwilling to change that he is doomed to fail because of it. That’s what Sandman is really giving us. The fall of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams.
When we join Dream, we don’t realize that, though. Yet the success of “Preludes and Nocturnes” is in the way it carefully gives us a hero utterly unwilling to allow himself to change who has, without realizing it, begun to change. Though the Endless are powerful, they are not omnipotent, and Dream accidentally allows himself to be captured by a mortal. He stays in that captivity for years before finally escaping and taking vengeance upon his captor. In fact, it is his punishment of Alexander, the mortal who had held him for decades, that gives us a look at the kind of man Morpheus was. Cold, cruel and unfeeling. The kind of being that could send a woman to hell for refusing him. For all eternity. And never look back. That is who Dream was, and who he believes himself still to be.
From that point, Sandman meanders through tales both personal and epic. There are single issue stories on topics as diverse as a sultan of Baghdad who gives his city at its height over to Dream so that it can exist forever in some form to whimsical fluff like the story of the Emperor of America. Or how about the one where Augustus Caeser goes out dressed as a beggar once a year and muses on how to set the boundaries of his empire for all time in defiance of his uncle’s will? Or the one where there’s a story of someone telling a story where someone tells a story? And those are just the one offs, that give us the flavor of what the Lord of Dreams is all about.
Sandman is everything a long-form story should be. It grows in the telling, becoming something grander and more meaningful as it continues. What begins as the focused story of Morpheus spreads out into one about his family – the other Endless, like Death and Despair and Delirium who was once Delight – and the mortals his path has crossed – such as Rose Walker and Lyta Hall. And then it turns into something else entirely. A story about stories. A tale about the dreams and hopes and desires that make us want to put words down on paper, or paint on canvas.
Sandman gives us a peek at any angle of stories and dreams Gaiman can think of, even when they seem to have nothing to do with the story or even its main character. There are large sections of Sandman where Morpheus is barely present or absent altogether. And it works. It’s necessary. It’s the reason the story is so amazingly good.
Then, somewhere about halfway through, it explodes into brilliance. The sort of brilliance that only exists in stories that are getting published as you go, forcing you to live with decisions you’ve already made and find a way to wave them together into something that works. I’m not saying Gaiman had no plan. I’m sure he did. But the way those plans get executed when half of the ship is already out of port is very different than when you can go back to the beginning and make things line up.
The moment of brilliant explosion is “Brief Lives”, where Dream goes on a reluctant journey to find his brother Destruction who had abdicated his duties long ago. Destruction is the very opposite of Dream; even when it would be better for everyone around him, Dream simply cannot turn away from his responsibilities. Destruction is foreign to him. The sibling who offended the entire clan by thumbing his nose at the family business. And yet, in Destruction may lie Morpheus’ only hope for happiness.
And underneath all that? “Brief Lives” is about death, and how we deal with it and how random and unfeeling it be. We see human who has been in most respects immortal finally face death and his final thought was something like “Not yet!” Its musings on death and loss and acceptance and forgiveness hit me in such a personal place that Sandman became more than excellent writing to me.
By the time we reach the story’s climax in “The Kindly Ones” we’ve come to know Morpheus better than we’d expect to know some immortal embodiment of a cosmic force. We really care about him, and as the choices he’s made since his escape start to close in on him we hope fervently that he can accept the person he’s become and just frakking change.
In fact, “The Kindly Ones” is another one of those things that only happens in really good episodic stories, where all those tangents and digressions that seemed neat but inconsequential can add up to something much more. Would we accept the odd little side story of the escape of Loki and Dream’s offer to allow him freedom as long as Loki remembered that he owed Morpheus something if this had been a novel? I don’t know, but in a story broken up into nice chunks we take it in and allow it to pass away, expecting it never to return. And we’re fine with that.
And then when, as it does in “The Kindly Ones”, it returns full force, we get a chance for that surprise/delight that stories strive desperately for. When one of the forces arrayed against Morpheus turns out to be Loki, and when his reason is simply that he can’t stand owing anyone anything, we feel like this big tapestry has come together better than it seemed it could. All of “The Kindly Ones” is like that, pulling together tiny strands that were just thematic grace notes way back when and revealing them to be the point of the whole damn story.
It leads us all to a quiet moment between Dream and Death on a cliff, where Dream accepts that he’s either going to have to change or die. And he chooses.
There are a thousand other little things in Sandman that I couldn’t possibly cover that made this so important to me. The way each of the Endless not only embody their domains, but come off as actual characters in the process. The beautiful relationships you can find in unlikely places, like between Morpheus and his raven Matthew. The way the mortals are important even after they stopped mattering to the story, like Rose Walker and her tiny moment of heartbreak in the middle of the big honking epic of “The Kindly Ones.” Or Delirium, who was so genius of a character that she’s tainted comics with pale likenesses ever since.
When I write fantasy, I want it to feel in my readers like Sandman felt to me. When I write episodic stories, I want to have that planned/unplanned magic that seemed to be the engine of Gaiman’s work. When I think of comics, I want to feel the way I did when I was reading Sandman, even though I never have since. Sandman is the very definition of what great storytelling should look like, even if that’s not how it looks to everyone else.
Sandman changed how I look at my own writing. Kudos, Mr. Gaiman.