Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Review: The Sandman Papers

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.



Tripp said...

On a couple of occasions I've seen this book in the comic section of big box bookstores contemplating a purchase.

In college I focused a lot on critical analysis and the idea of an anthology of Sandman criticism really intrigued me. There's not enough academic work done on comics, but it's starting to gain some momentum in the ivory tower of higher-level education.

One of the reasons literary scholars don't tackle the visual aspect of comics is that isn't their strong suit, they rely more on the narrative and textual analysis more than what's in the frame.

Academics avoid their weaknesses and focus on their strengths. It would have been interesting to find an art historian or someone in a visual field tackling that aspect of Sandman in this book.

Angeline said...

I agree. I also think that, often, academics have encountered comics like Sandman through it having been recommended to them as "literature, but in comic form!", and may not realise how much of a comic's significance is to be drawn from immersing yourself as much in the art as in the text.

People unused to reading comics often read and relate to them differently - I remember handing my mum (fond of Victorian literature and endlessly searching for good modern novels) the first issue of Marvel's Origin miniseries, since the all-painted nature of it, the style of the paintings, and the concept and atmosphere of the story struck me as right up her street. I noticed that she skipped from one speech bubble to the next and paid very little attention to the art. Viewed like this, foreshadowing, irony and other things expressed visually in comics may be missed.

So, unlike someone who comes to comics from the point of view of having grown up with them and in the comic fan milieu which values and compares the work of the various artists, they may not realise that comic art is a form with its own conventions and shorthand.

I liken it to the way a modern person without any training in art history views a centuries-old painting: I remember reading an article about all the little symbols hidden in the painting of a family's children. Almost every object in the room, and every detail of the childrens' placement in the image in relation to each other and to their surroundings, turned out to have meaning that would have been understood by someone viewing it from within its own historical and cultural setting. This child had died in infancy; that one was the heir to the family fortune. And these things were expressed in details like, for instance, a child reaching for a piece of fruit from a basket.

Granted, the non-verbal cues in comics have more in common with cinema than cyphers, and I would hate what I've said here to be misinterpreted as suggesting that I think only some elite fandom ought to be allowed near comics because they'd understand them so much better. Hell, I want the opposite. I want to be able to read Sandman on the train and have there be good odds of the passenger opposite me recognising it and also being into it, as might happen with a bestselling novel.

But I do find it interesting that some aspects of the visual language of comics being overlooked might have a substantial effect on how they're interpreted.

Finally, thanks to the original poster for your review - I'll certainly be buying the book when I can afford it!

Hebdomeros said...

Thank you both for the kind comments. I really enjoyed your thoughts. I know a lot of good places to look to for reviews, but not really any for in depth criticism. Most of the books out there on comics are either how to draw them or how to understand them (ie Scott McCloud again). I'm hoping this book is a trend towards some actual book-length criticism. There are a number of writers and artists who deserve a full treatment.