In the late 1980’s a new imprint of DC Comics called Vertigo took a chance on a young journalist named Neil Gaiman. Although he had little direct experience in writing comics Vertigo handed Gaiman two titles to create and write: first the limited series Black Orchid and later The Sandman. Gaiman’s approach brought unique stories, complex characters and a postmodern sense in structure and style rarely found in mainstream comics. Alongside a few other writers like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, Gaiman and his Sandman books are responsible for not only the increased acceptance of comics as an art form but also for raising the bar of expectations for the reader.
With these factors it’s not surprising to see a book-length collection of criticism focusing on The Sandman series. But don't come expecting a fanzine collecting odd bits of trivia and rants on the coolness of Morpheus; The Sandman Papers collects twelve essays written by critics, professors and librarians who take their comics, or at least The Sandman, very seriously. Using techniques of literary explication the essays examine Gaiman’s art, covering topics as diverse as the use of folktales, its place and influence upon contemporary fantasy, and postmodern theory. When appropriate, the book includes black and white reproductions of pages from issues of The Sandman to highlight specific critical points. Many of the essays were originally written as papers for various conferences sponsored by organizations like the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, but a small handful are new works written just for the anthology. Despite the very academic and critical approach editor Joe Sanders does an admirable job in keeping the academic language to minimum, making most of the essays accessible to the general reader.
B. Keith Murphy opens the collection with “The Origins of The Sandman”, an effective introduction to both the book and the topic as a whole. Murphy examines the history of both gothic fantasy---everything from Poe to Penny Dreadfuls---and comics, placing The Sandman within the historical context of both trends. Murphy’s admiration of Gaiman does get the better of him at times; despite this one failing, the essay does an admirable job introducing the reader to historical and artistic trends that influenced Gaiman’s writing.
Coming from a bunch of English professors, it’s not surprising that several essays focus on the Sandman’s relationship with Shakespeare. In the series the great bard strikes a deal with Morpheus; in exchange for access to all the dreams and stories of the world to use for his plays Shakespeare must write two plays dealing directly with issues of dreams themselves. A Midsummer Night’s Dream fulfills the first part of Shakespeare’s deal, while his last play the Tempest completes the agreement. Gaiman works in references to the plays and historical facts with his own inventive bits of fantasy and postmodern metafiction, giving readers much to think about in regards to Shakespeare and two of his most famous plays. Four essays focus totally on this one thread, while several others touch on it. Each critic takes a different look at the issues, examining how Gaiman treated Shakespeare as a character, the postmodern mixing of historical fact and fiction, the complicated life of an artist, and other meta-fiction concerns. The variety of approaches here are interesting and fascinating, hinting that there’s probably a whole book on this topic waiting to be written.
Two of the more provocative essays examine The Sandman through a lens of feminist theory. “Illusory Adversaries: Images of Female Power” by K.A. Laity looks at the “Kindly Ones” storyline. In it a mother calls upon the power of the Kindly Ones, one of the many forms of the Furies of Greek Mythology, to kill Morpheus. Although they have the power to challenge and even kill other gods, it becomes obvious to the reader that the Kindly Ones only hold their power because Morpheus and other male power figures allow it. Laity dissects these ideas nicely, but then makes some assumptions that aren’t as fully developed as they could be. Laity challenges Gaiman’s portrayal of women via the Kindly Ones without considering that Gaiman might be making a purposeful statement on women’s power within today’s society. The essay also inexplicably ignores characters like Death and Delirium, characters who are both female and hold power equal to that of Morpheus. In contrast, David Bratman’s “A Game of You-Yes, You” looks at Gaiman’s use of gender roles in the storyline “A Game of You”. In a plot that features strong female characters alongside very femme transsexuals, this tale challenges the ideas of what gender is and can be. Instead of bringing in his own agenda Bratman examines what’s actually on the page and perhaps gets closer to what Gaiman actually intended.
One frequent failing of the book is the almost complete avoidance of discussion of comics as a hybrid art. While narrative is a large factor in comics, other aspects like the artwork, lettering, the style of the panels and gutters all add to the work as a whole. Bender Hy’s book The Sandman Companion examines the creative process behind The Sandman, documenting the enormous influence and direction Gaiman gave to his collaborators for each issue. Gaiman obviously put great thought into the visual side and how it shaped the overall feel for the story. Although Joe Sanders does an expert job explicating nearly everything on the page in his essay "Of Storytellers and Stories In Gaiman and Vess's A Midsummer Night's Dream", most critics focus solely on Gaiman’s narrative elements. By ignoring the visual elements the critics miss a great part of Gaiman's message, not to mention opportunities in reinforcing their perspectives. While some do occasionally reference the visual side of The Sandman they rely quite heavily on Scott McLoud’s book Understanding Comics. While a certainly wonderful book to read when first exploring the art and style of comics, it would have been nice to see the critics themselves make judgements and assertions either on their own or through the use of a variety of sources.
Readers won’t agree with everything these critics have to say. But what they do say showcases the rich thematic content of Gaiman as a writer who not only mastered the medium of comics but managed to push its boundaries. Criticsim is, if nothing else, about raising questions, and all these essays do that well by tackling issues that any fan of Gaiman should find interesting, invigorating and immensely rewarding.