must there be a Sandman?

I am being slightly humorous with the choice of title of course, but I wish to evoke the sense that the politics in this essay have been negotiated before, in a different context. The piece to which I make reference is Eliot S! Maggin’s ‘Must There Be a Superman’, published as Superman #247 in January 1972.

More than the tradition which spans cartoonists the ilk of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Alex Raymond, Robert Crumb and others, comics in popular days seems to reach us across the horizon of four crucial works; Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. While these works are collaborative (the roles of Dave Gibbons or Lynn Varley or the host of artists employed in the Sandman, notably Michael Zulli and Charles Vess should not be discounted), the rejuvenations of these characters, of these properties, does seem to herald the notion of authorship in the comics industry, if not ownership as in the case of Spiegelman. Decisions like those taken by DC, with Miller, Moore and Gaiman, seem to pave the way, at least within the corporate strictures of the industry, for creators’ rights and ownership of properties that sparks public debate in the early nineties.

The value of these experiments in authorship by DC forms a vital part of the history of the American comics industry. The problems underlying the issue of ownership and property rights is eloquently delineated by Joe Kubert, in a 1982 conversation with Will Eisner. Kubert speaks to the psychological elements involved in the industry’s ability to ensure surplus by undermining artists’ attempts at building personal careers. He says: ‘The idea of acquiring rights or obtaining ownership didn’t even dawn on us, because we were so grateful that someone would even buy our stuff, that somebody would actually publish it. I felt when they bought my artwork, they bought everything’.

Handing the properties integral in the three DC books mentioned above will perhaps be recorded as a bold move on the publisher’s part. The properties relate to the full range of DC’s corporate history, and as such describe an historical map of the company. With the Dark Knight Returns, Miller was given scope to re-imagine one of the hallmark DC properties, which in part at least, added to project being the watershed moment it was. Watchmen speaks to DC’s legacy of buying not only other properties, but subsuming whole companies. With the purchase of Carlton Comics’ superhero properties, and the publication of Watchmen, Moore became the first writer employed by DC to work with an entire company’s intellectual property. With Sandman, Gaiman was not only allowed to completely reinvent the Sandman character, but also nearly unrestricted access to the DC universe itself, providing a convincing setting with accumulated history for Gaiman’s own stories.

But for Gaiman, as for readers of comics and observers of the industry, Sandman is more than merely a revamping of staid character. The rejuvenation of dated characters is something of a common trope in the industry, with exemplars ranging as widely as masterfully re-crafted works as Miller’s Daredevil of the late seventies and Moore’s sublime work on Swamp Thing of the early eighties to John Byrne’s remarkable re-imaging of the Superman and Krypton properties of the late eighties.

Gaiman reaches beyond this trope, his unique vision allows Sandman to be executed as a singular project. A complete story told with a beginning, a middle and finally an end that coincides with the termination of the titular character at what DC and other advocates have often billed as being ‘at the height of his popularity’. He is the first comicbook writer to win a World Fantasy Award, an achievement the recalibrates not only the Sandman oeuvre itself, but the entire medium. More than this, Gaiman is the first glimmer, in mainstream (albeit that DC choose to market their pre-Vertigo mature-audience titles as ‘non-mainstream’), of a literate culture within the industry.

Advertising slogans like ‘comics are not for just kids’, and ‘more than just superheroes’, used to market DC in the early nineties were becoming more true, although not necessarily in ways that the publisher had anticipated. The audience demographic was changing, and because of Gaiman’s continuing and mainstream work on Sandman, the medium was wooing a readership that had had until then little or nothing to do with comics.

Populist historiography holds that it was this period rather than any other, and as a result of the work of writers like the aforementioned that, particularly Gaiman, that the so-called mature audience of comics readership was nurtured and developed. This project, for which Gaiman’s Sandman was the most visible if not the most notable supporter, found correspondences with other contemporaneous projects; for example one shared by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud in promoting the comics medium above its various genre, another shared by McCloud and Miller and later Brian Bendis aimed at destabilizing the arbitrary barrier between mainstream and independent comics, a third project, in which McCloud and Trina Robbins and James Robinson collaborate, is that of historiography. What separates Gaiman’s project from all of these is of course the primacy of the Sandman audience; here was a book written specifically for adults, and more than anything it was defined as different by its different audience.

Gaiman’s contribution to his generation is clear, and often depicted as a sudden event, an occurrence that (but for the other authored works of his generation) has no peer or no historicity. The events of the late eighties, are often portrayed as having created themselves in some ways. This could of course not be further from what really happened. While Gaiman’s Sandman and other projects from the late eighties are often spoken of in the same breath as projects around property ownership, creative rights, the comics medium’s true capacities and a medium-wide historiography of the early nineties, these projects are seldom viewed in the light of Phil Seuling and Denis Kitchen’s project which sought to reconstitute the comics audience in the late seventies and early eighties.

Credited with engineering the shift from newsstand sales to direct distribution, Seuling changed the face of the comics industry by creating a specialist marketplace. His annual July 4th New York gathering of comics collectors, fans and critics served as the conceptual model for what would less than a decade later become major conventions like San Diego and Philadelphia. It is changes like these that allow Joe Kubert, in the same conversation with Will Eisner, to comment, ‘…I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience. Our reader 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population… our audience today is heavily fan-oriented. Not too long ago – within the last ten years – if you got a very vociferous letter from a fan and followed his suggestions, you knew that sales were going to drop; fans were in the minority. So, whether fans liked or disliked material really bore very little relationship to what a general audience would accept’. Kubert, as mentioned before, conducted this conversation with Eisner in 1982.

While the contribution to authorship and the general literate quality of comics should not be discounted or devalued in any way, Gaiman often greets us as a genesis-point, within the context of other writers and artists of his own and subsequent generations, but outside of the context of industry promoters and advocates of various sorts. Gaiman is of course, farthest from a genesis; like Jack Kennedy or Axel Rose, he is the front-man for a notable piece of Americana. By 2001, when Erik Larsen comments on the lack of comicbooks for children, or in the winter of the same year, with RC Harvey’s essay ‘When Comics were for Kids’, where Harvey resurrects the history of so-called adult comics as reaching as far back as the 1890s, the change in discourse from adult comics as rare, to adult comics as mainstream should come as no surprise.

Still, what elevates Gaiman from most other mainstream authors, perhaps less so from Miller or Moore, is his unremitting capacity to craft the petty politics of a cast of imaginary characters set in an imaginary world to not only become emblematic of, but also communicate with our own world in real and definite measures. The technical term for this trope, where one work of fiction shows awareness of another is intertextuality. Gaiman is often at his most elegant when he is able to effect exactly this kind of story, of which ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is possibly the clearest example. The story describes the ‘true’ first performance of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, hosted by the King of Dreams for a Faerie audience on the night before its first performance to a human audience at the Globe. Real history entwines with Gaiman’s fiction.

Within the scope of this essay I am more interested in thematic representations (an abstract empire of images, though I hesitate at the word ‘images’) of China. What is China, when it is dreamed of by other cultures? But for a few, brief pages at the end of Seasons of Mist, where Morpheus, the Sandman’s ex-lover is reincarnated in a Hong Kong maternity ward, Gaiman writes only two stories concerning China. In Fables and Reflections’ ‘Soft Places’, a lost Marco Polo wanders from the Desert of Lop into one of the Soft Places of the Dreaming, where past and future, memory and story overlap. He encounters both the man who will share his prison cell years in the future, Rustichello, and the Fiddler’s Green, a garden of the Dreaming who once posed as 19th century writer GK Chesterton. Marco Polo’s final meeting is with the Dream King himself. Wearied and nearly powerless, the Sandman sends the young Marco home.

While seeming far more naturalistic, perhaps even more even-paced, ‘Soft Places’ bends readers’ perceptions of time in much the same way that Moore does in Watchmen, particularly with a chapter like ‘Watchmaker’. While Moore is able to use intertextuality to weave a compelling portrait of a being for whom the future is already a memory, Gaiman on the other hand establishes a story where narrator is segregated from the moment of narration. After meeting a figure from later in his own life, and a denizen of the Dreaming in the ‘present-day’, Marco discovers, along with readers a sense of being lost in history. What is more, Morpheus himself appears achronologically. Not the Morpheus seen at the end of A Game of You (the last ‘present-day’ appearance of Morpheus), but the Morpheus of a few years ago, struggling home after just freeing himself from the captivity detailed in issue one. Even Gaiman’s fictional characters come from different times. Morpheus from the past is curious to know about his own future, asking the young Marco if Fiddler’s Green mentioned his new lover’s name.

In the penultimate issue of The Wake, and of Sandman as a whole, Gaiman returns readers to the Desert of Lop, or perhaps readers are taken there for the first time. Master Li, a chamberlain to three generations of the Qing dynasty, crosses the Desert to live out an exile as prefect of the westernmost imperial province. Exile, rather than execution, is a mercy from an Emperor who recently defeated the White Lotus uprising, among who numbered Master Li’s son. Although it is foolish to waste water on such a journey, Master Li allows some of the drink to a small kitten that he keeps tucked away in his coat sleeve, unbeknownst to his guide. As the kitten sleeps it dreams itself and Master Li into the Soft Places again, where Master Li has two conversations; one with Morpheus some time after his meeting Marco Polo, another with Daniel, the succeeding King of the Dreaming who was instate following Morpheus’s suicide at the end of the Kindly Ones. Master Li narrates the story as an imaginary letter to an old friend, ‘…with perfect brushwork…written on air’.

Along with ‘Ramadan’, ‘Exiles’ is will possibly be remembered as the most visually experimental of Sandman tales. Jon J Muth had foregone the penciling stage to produce whole pages rather than individual panels, a rendering that is evocative of Eisner’s consummate skill at page design. In the Sandman Companion, interviewed by Hy Bender, Gaiman comments ‘…I didn’t create my usual panel breakdowns for [‘Exiles’]. Instead, I just wrote brief descriptions of the action, followed by the text of the captions and dialogue, and let Jon break everything down into panels himself. The only other time I did a Sandman script this way was for issue 50, “Ramadan”’.

A process as described here goes some distance towards fending off the harsher criticisms leveled at Gaiman and Sandman and more broadly leveled at DC/Vertigo – that the imprint had bred a generation of comics writers who excelled as writers but failed to understand the medium. While Gaiman’s scripts may not be as visually characteristic as Brian Bendis’s (whether on Daredevil or Powers or Alias), Gaiman offers up the full resources of a collaborative medium. Bob Callahan, writing in the New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories, said of Stan Lee: ‘…Lee’s most telling accomplishment might well be found in the artists he chose as partners and active cocreators…’. In time a similar generosity could be applied to Neil Gaiman, when understood in his proper historical setting.

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