Monday, October 9, 2023

Falling for the Sandman

The impact of The Sandman comic when it was still an ongoing monthly concern really feels like a forgotten dream these days. It is one of those things that has been repackaged so much, reproduced in a breathless array of formats and outright ripped off, that's it's easy to forget what hot shit it actually was, back in the day.

Now your Mum knows who Hob Gadling is, so it's probably not as cool as it once was. But when I first wandered into the world of Morpheus and chums, it felt like the coolest thing I'd ever read.

I came in late in the series - I'd seen the 'handful of dust' advertisement in Sgt Rock comics, but lived absolutely nowhere near any store that sold the series, so didn't start getting it regularly until two-thirds of the way in.

I already knew who Gaiman was, after the local library improbably ended up with a copy of Signal to Noise on the shelves, but the first issue of Sandman I ever actually read was part of a ridiculously awesome haul of cheap DC comics that I bought from the Christhurch Airport bookstore in the early 90s.

As well as a vast number of post-crisis Superman and Armageddon 2001 comics, I got my first taste of Morrison's Doom Patrol, and the last chapter of Season of Mists.

I didn't understand anything, I didn't know who the blonde git on the beach was, or what was going on in the conversation with Nada, or even what was going on in Hell. But the comic had style, and I liked this version of Loki, and how he escaped his eternal punishment. and the dialogue felt so light and effortless, even when talking about the most important of all things.

Halfway through the run of Sandman, there were already a tonne of imitators, and there have only been exponentially more since, but none of them had the wit of Gaiman's writing, none of them had the ambition.

Because that's what I really got from these first taste of Sandman - Gaiman's ambition for the type of story that could be told in the comic format was intoxicating. It was already there, in a small epilogue at the end of a larger tale, and the writer's hunger for something bigger would only become more obvious as the comic went on.

This kind of ambition was all over the place as the 80s turned into the 90s - in all sorts of different comics, in all sorts of genres - but few built up an audience like The Sandman did.   

Ramadan was the first issue I bought new, and I got it regularly from then to the end. I chased down the earlier books, the first trade paperback series I ever got, and I remember the fucking joy of being halfway through A Doll's House and realising there was a hundred pages still to go, because I was enjoying it so much.

I still lived very far away from any kind of bookstore, and it took a couple of years to track down those few books, picking each one up with my tiny minimum wage earnings, whenever I got the chance.

By the time the series came to an end, after the inevitable tragedy of the title character, I finally lived in a town in a comic shop, and got those last six issues from my first local comic shop, spread out over luxurious months - I cared not one bit about delays in some of the final issues, because like being halfway through that trade, I did not want to to be over.

A decade later, when I graduated with a journalism diploma, I came first in class and got a small cash prize, and one of the comics I bought with it - I'd been a poor student all year, and was gagging for some new comics - was the Endless Nights thing, which is still a treasured edition on the shelves.

A few years ago, Sandman came back in a series with a series of gorgeous tableau by JH Williams III, and it wasn't what I expected from a new Sandman comic at all, which is exactly what a new Sandman comic should be. 

Gaiman's work is a lot safer these days, and doesn't have the burning ambition of the younger writer's work, but it still garbs the attention. Now Sandman even a big budget TV show that looks absolutely terrific, and can be disconcertingly faithful to comics written years and years ago. 

But however well it is cast, and no matter how good it looks, the TV show will never capture that original magic for me, when there was nothing else that was really like Sandman in the world, or in any part of the Dreaming.

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