I recently read Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. Highlights of this excellent selection of short prose include Chivalry, Foreign Parts, The White Road, and the masterful poem Nicholas Was... (which inspired this). Of particular note is the story Murder Mysteries which is astonishingly good. It treats the Christian mythology of angels and seraphs with the same respect and depth as Gaiman did the various polytheistic mythologies in his novel American Gods.
The brilliance of Murder Mysteries led me down a path, guided by Wikipedia, towards Gaiman’s 75 issue comic book series, The Sandman. It took me a while to get into The Sandman because I am not fond of the medium: why tell a story across many pages and many months when it could just as easily be told in a single piece of prose? But when I really got into the series I began to appreciate the story, the art, and realised that American Gods is not Gaiman’s magnum opus: The Sandman is.
The plot of the series has been summed up by Gaiman as “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” That may be the plot but it is not the story. The story is one of gods and kings, paupers and princes, Destiny and choices, life and Death, beauty and humanity, and ultimately stories themselves. The story is long, varied, and weaved with many strands. It’s a story about life and existence itself told (ironically enough considering the next paragraph) in a strikingly human way: no showy monologues, just characters interacting and reacting, occasionally offering up profound statements and beautiful combinations of words but mostly being human and being vaguely real. It’s also a story about stories: the peculiar tragedy of the Lord of Dreams, the master of stories who discovers his own story amidst the naked flux of existence. Stories within stories within stories – particularly in the story-arc Worlds’ End.
One of the greatest features of the series is Gaiman’s characteristic knowledge of ancient mythology. Odin, Lucifer, Bast, Cain & Abel, The Furies, King Auberon of the Faeries, Beelzebub, Orpheus, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Loki and hundreds of other entities from myriad pantheons and mythologies are all involved making the series a glorious celebration of ancient story-telling. There are also historical characters from William Shakespeare to the Emperor of the United States. It’s wonderful to see characters so deeply engrained in our cultural consciousness leap into life and participate in the most epic of stories. It feels like Gaiman’s way of paying homage to the story-tellers who came before him and to the craft he has devoted his life to. One theme of the series is responsibility and it’s clear in the reading that Gaiman feels a responsibility to the story-telling tradition, to his characters, and to the neglected pantheons of old.
The comic wouldn’t be the same without the often outstanding artwork. Most of my favourite artwork was in the short stories scattered throughout the series which showed a nice variety of artistic talent: Dream Country, Fables and Reflections, and Worlds’ End. Michael Zulli’s art in The Wake is magnificent; beautiful and transient. The art in the series’ coda Endless Nights is also of a very high quality – the bizarre madnesses of Barron Storey and Bill Sienkiewicz, and the more subdued art of Frank Quitely and Miguelanxo Prado. Dave McKean’s covers throughout the entire series are excellent but then again he’s a very good artist (he collaborated again with Gaiman on the film MirrorMask which, although it has been a few years, I remember as being not especially memorable).
As in any great rambling story about life, there’s no single lesson to take away from The Sandman. There’s a number of thoughts peppered throughout and one feels better for having read it but, appropriately enough, once the comic is over and the pages are closed, the story begins to feel like a dream upon waking: you can remember that it was important, maybe the most important thing you’ve ever heard, but the details begin to fade and soon disappear entirely. Finally you’re left grasping at odd concepts and images that, in the dim light of morning, suddenly have new meaning: responsibility, change, death, stories, dreaming...