Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 37 (Sandman)

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It is in some ways difficult to quite articulate why Neil Gaiman is good. Clearly he is. Even if I wasn’t fond of his writing, and I am, I’m not the sort of critic who is going to try to reject the volume of acclaim that Gaiman’s work has gathered. (Heck, I’ve contributed to it.) But despite all of this it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what it is about him that makes him so substantial and important.

He is not so much the first of the British Invasion comics writers as he is the middle of them. The forefather, Alan Moore, had made the jump to DC some years before. His arrival coincided with Jamie Delano’s and Grant Morrison's, with a later wave still to come consisting of Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and, finally, Warren Ellis and Mark Millar whose British careers didn’t even start until after Gaiman had broken out in the US. In this regard he is, by and large, typical of the style. He’s probably the most successful of them, although Millar’s savvy in making creator-owned comics with the intention of having them turned into films needs some acknowledgment, and Grant Morrison seems perpetually on the brink of some film breakout or another. But much of this comes down to his skill at the business of writing - Gaiman is adept at working different media and at catering to a loyal fanbase. (Indeed, I’d argue that very little of what he’s written since American Gods has been as good as the highlights of his pre-American Gods career, largely because after the success of American Gods he started writing primarily for his built-in audience and not pushing himself)

Much of what constitutes Gaiman’s style is borrowed from Alan Moore, and the comparison does Gaiman few favors. Moore’s work is more complex and enlivening, and almost any time they’ve shared the same genre and approach I’d argue that Gaiman comes off as the poor imitation, turning out a slightly more populist version of the same techniques. But even here the line of argument contorts oddly. Yes, Gaiman comes off as the Alan Moore protege that he, as a matter of empirical fact, is. But on the other hand, some of Gaiman’s early work, most particularly his first collaboration with Dave McKean, Violent Cases, prefigures Moore’s work in the 90s just as much as Swamp Thing prefigures Sandman.

A cynical approach would suggest that Gaiman’s major innovation was his realization that goths and geeks had a significant overlap that nobody was marketing adequately too. Indeed, even a less cynical approach might acknowledge this - it’s something that Doctor Who was sniffing the edges of in the latter days of the Cartmel era - as a significant move. Indeed, there’s a book to be written about the transformation of geek culture in the early 1990s, and though the episodes themselves had too small an audience to be a major part of that, the Cartmel era was certainly in step with it. The move to turn “geek culture” from a designated set of signifiers (D20s, Spock Ears, computers) into a broader part of culture such that we are all geeks now, and geekiness is more a way of interacting with narrative than a genre as such. Gaiman, by pitching fantasy straight at the goth crowd, was moving forward decisively with the idea that Doctor Who was working with in stories like The Happiness Patrol or Survival, where the series seemed to muse that subcultures are at least partially interchangeable.

There is, however, more to Gaiman than just the realization that portraying Death as a goth manic pixie dream girl was a surefire success. He, more than anyone before him, figured out how to do metafiction that isn’t smug. He’s certainly not the first genre writer to do metafictional stuff, and he’s not even the first one to do it well, but he is the first to make a career out of telling stories about storytelling. And if you’re going to pick a singular thing that is why Gaiman is so acclaimed, this is it.

Sandman, in this regard, is blatant in a way that nobody could get away with anymore. Its basic conceit, that there are some transcendent beings called the Endless, is paper thin. That they only embody concepts beginning with D makes it all the more ridiculous, creating a wholly arbitrary list of seven concepts (Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delerium-Who-Used-To-Be-Delight). The main character being Dream, and thus a literal embodiment of, well, dreams and stories is such an uncomplicated bid to get away with telling metafictional stories that nobody could get away with anything remotely like it anymore. Even comics coming out today that unambiguously owe a massive debt to Sandman - Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables, for instance - come nowhere close to a premise that’s just “so there’s this guy, and he’s the literal embodiment of dreams.”

This, then, speaks to the extent of Gaiman’s influence. The fact that he could slip a premise that is, in hindsight, such an untroubled attempt to say “I’m going to do some Neil Gaimany stuff” past a discerning editor shows just how fresh Gaiman’s approach was. But if the premise is too thin to possibly get approved today, it’s also not entirely clear from it what the appeal is. The literal embodiment of dreams who looks like Peter Murphy. So what, honestly?

Well, here we get to the clever bit. Most metafictional stuff works from a narrative out to metafiction. So you start with characters who are in a “normal” type of story, then have them express metafictional awareness. (c.f. Moonlighting, to pick an example out of the air) Sandman, on the other hand, works exactly backwards. It starts from a big metafictional premise and then, given a set of characters who are explicitly and self-awarely archetypal, proceeds to tell perfectly ordinary stories about them. Sandman’s premise may be hugely metafictional, but its overall plot is as straightforward an Aristotelean tragedy as can be executed.

The effect of this is a reckless and almost giddy escalation of the increasing “epic” stakes that have been plaguing genre fiction, including Doctor Who, for decades now. Gaiman doesn’t bring the obsession with the epic to an end by any measure, but he certainly brings the concept of escalating stakes in terms of epics. You can even pinpoint the exact story he does it in: Seasons of Mist. Because the premise “Lucifer decides to close Hell down and give the key of it to the Lord of Dreams, who then gets visited by several pantheons of gods bidding for control of it” is pretty much it in terms of increasingly epic storytelling. You’re done. You’re not going to get a more preposterously ambitious plot than that.

Of course, what Seasons of Mist is really about is a man realizing that he was very, very mean to an ex-girlfriend, trying to apologize, and finding out that atoning for his past is more complex than he gave it credit for. And that’s Gaiman’s real cleverness. He sets up a premise that gives massive mythic weight to absolutely every detail of the world, and then proceeds to tell small stories about family betrayals and jealous exes. One of his biggest tricks in doing this is the use of the metafiction as a constraint for his characters. Dream may be a terrifyingly powerful embodiment of a primal concept of the universe, but he’s never just unleashed and shown to be powerful. Instead he’s constantly depicted as being bound by various rules, laws, and duties. The lesser characters are similarly constrained, their archetypal natures explicitly shaping what they can do. His characters constantly bump against the limits of their natures, but very few - only Lucifer and Destruction, really - ever rebel against them, and in both cases that rebellion is itself a part of their nature.

The result is a comic that consists of small stories taking place amidst the detritus of older epics. This is certainly similar to the reinventions of existing texts that, say Alan Moore or Ben Aaronovitch have been at for years. But Gaiman takes it further. He doesn’t just reinvent old texts and tell different sorts of stories in the rubble of their deconstructed signifiers. He tells stories that are about the very existence of signifiers and old stories. His stories are about storytelling, and by extension about their own power. In this regard, then, the observation that he’s a major influence on Paul Cornell seems almost too obvious to be worth pointing out.

It’s worth looking at an example. Since any comics writer worth their salt can hit single issue stories out of the park without blinking, let’s take one of his singles from around the period we’re talking about in Doctor Who - Sandman #38’s “The Hunt,” cover dated June of 1992, and thus, in practice, out the same month as Cat’s Cradle: Warhead. Like a lot of Gaiman’s Sandman stories, the issue employs a frame story so that there is a literal act of storytelling within it. (Gaiman eventually takes this to dizzying ends in his World’s End storyline, in which, counting the comic itself, there are momentarily seven distinct and nested acts of storytelling going on at once. It’s in issue #55, if you want to go looking.) As a result, two stories are going on in parallel. In one, a Russian grandfather tells his granddaughter a story of the old country. The other is a fairly traditional Russian fairy tale, ordered in proper Proppian fashion, in which Dream makes a brief appearance.

Crucially, the stories are intermeshed. Neither the folk tale nor the interaction of the grandfather and granddaughter are particularly lively on their own, but the interplay of the two stories is full of meaning and significance. Within the fairy tale is a moment of interesting elision. At one point the protagonist of the fairy tale has the opportunity to meet a beautiful noblewoman he’s been dreaming of all story, but upon seeing her in her bed decides simply to return the locket of hers he’s treasured and leave without further interaction. The grandfather tells this, and then focuses on the reaction of Dream and another regular Sandman character, Lucien, to that turn of events, saying that “when Lucien asked Vassily about the Duke’s daughter he shook his head and said nothing. But the Lord of Dreams knew that wishes are sometimes best left ungranted; and he did not need to ask.” But two pages later it is revealed that Vassily, the protagonist of the story, is in fact the grandfather himself. His story elided what it was that he saw and felt when he saw the Duke’s daughter, even as the grandfather points out that this is what the story was really about.

This is a very typical Sandman theme, where how a story is told and what is and isn’t included in it is the overt focus of the narrative. (Another story, in issue #40, takes this theme of secrets and mysteries even further, leading to one of Gaiman’s most quoted maxims, “it’s the mystery that endures, not the explanation.”) On a broad level “The Hunt” is a story about why we tell stories and what their roles are (the grandfather/granddaughter story is, broadly speaking, a debate about the fairy tale’s relevance), but it’s made up of smaller, more normal stories.

A more virtuoso approach to this comes in the arc A Game of You, a six-issue storyline in which Dream appears on just twenty pages out of a hundred-and-forty-four. In this regard A Game of You prefigures some of the New Adventures’ marginalizings of the Doctor, telling a story about the space around a main character instead of about the main character as such. But more significant is the way in which A Game of You takes its central ideas - a young woman’s old childhood dreams - and turns them into a dark and heartbreaking story. Again, the overall tone is in part about stories, and endings, and the question of when a story is past being useful. It’s a story about the death of the childhood dreamworld itself, but again, all the events make up a straightforward enough story in their own right. It’s not a story whose central “theme” is a metaphor for growing up and losing your childhood fantasies. It’s a story that is actually, straightforwardly about childhood fantasies. The material components of the narrative are what the narrative is about.

The final thing we should note about Gaiman’s style is his propensity for throwing the “show don’t tell” maxim out the window at strategically opportune moments. This is a trick he inherits from Alan Moore’s deft narration, but Gaiman hones the technique into a particularly effective trick that became, for better or for worse, one of his most enduring influences. It’s now standard practice for genre stories to just blithely declare big thematic concepts without attempts at subtlety - the outright declaration, for instance, that “the Doctor is worth the monsters” in The Girl in the Fireplace, for instance.

Again, it’s worth looking at how Gaiman himself uses this technique. Let’s use the first chapter of Seasons of Mist, There’s a three-page section of the issue in which each of the Endless (save for Destruction) gets a few paragraphs of prose description. Some bits of these descriptions are suitably show-don’t-tell, revealing details of characters through nice, proper objective correlatives. Of Despair, Gaiman writes: “Many years ago, a sect in what is now Afghanistan declared her a goddess, and proclaimed all empty rooms her sacred places. The sect, whose members called themselves The Unforgiven, persisted for two years, until its last adherent finally killed himself, having survived the other members by almost seven months.” This would raise no eyebrows with a creative writing teacher save perhaps concern about melodrama. Much is revealed about Despair, but obliquely.

Compare to Desire: “Desire is of medium height. It is unlikely that any portrait will ever do Desire justice, since to see her (or him) is to love him (or her), - passionately, painfully, to the exclusion of all else… Never a possession, always the possessor, with skin as pale as smoke, and eyes tawny and sharp as yellow wine: Desire is everything you have ever wanted. Whoever you are. Whatever you are. Everything.” You’ll not be getting away with that one in a creative writing seminar.

And yet these passages are among the most quoted bits of Sandman. Clearly they work. Why? The first thing to note is that even though he’s just expositing, Gaiman is working with a poetic lilt. Up until the word “passionately” the line parses in almost perfect iambs, with an extra beat at the ends of sentences (which is common in poetry). The use of alliteration and assonance together for “passionately, painfully” is similarly deft, as is the switch to a dactylic/trochaic rhythm for those words, creating a point of emphasis at that turn. Note also that “never a possession, always the possessor” splits into two phrases with identical cadence. Then we’re back to iambs for “with skin as pale as smoke, and eyes,” before a quick insertion of a trochee for “tawny,” creating a point of emphasis again right around the word sharp, so that the content and rhythm feed off of each other. This is very sharp, controlled writing, with a rhetorical structure that’s elevating itself so that the declarative content carries extra weight.

And, of course, there’s the mildly archaic tone - the slight overqualification of “it is unlikely that any portrait,” or the use of “tawny.” You can get away with telling if you break out a more poetic register to do it with. (And this is something both Moffat and Davies are meticulous in when they use this trick.) The result is an added power to the narrative - the ability to have its themes and implications hit har and directly, instead of being oblique.

The result is a compelling sort of story. It’s at once populist and literary - dense and full of implications, but wearing all of them on its sleeve. It provides a new way of playing with existing tropes, using them as a jumping off point to tell new stories that are in a large part about the impact of the old ones. And obviously I don’t want to go too far down the road of talking about how this approach can apply to Doctor Who because, well, in 2011 it was applied to Doctor Who and we’ll get there. And, heck, we’ll get to Neverwhere soon enough.

More important, for now, is the basic fact that Gaiman was a massive influence on anyone writing sci-fi or fantasy in the 90s. It’s blatantly obvious that most of the New Adventures writers had read him, with Paul Cornell being both the most blatant and the most skillful at adopting his style and techniques. The aggressive and explicit reconceptualizing of the Doctor, the focus on stories that are overtly about who the Doctor is and what the implications of his actions are, the defaulting to giving him big, mythic forces to fight, and even, in the end, the New Adventures’ basic assumption that to tell real and challenging stories requires being for “mature audiences” all owe a debt to Sandman, whose run coincided almost exactly with the New Adventures, starting in the final year of the classic series and ending the same year as the TV Movie. As much as the Hammer Horror films were to the Hinchcliffe era and Quatermass and Doomwatch were to the Letts era, Sandman is the overt and clear model for this era of Doctor Who.

Comments

Eric Gimlin 5 years, 1 month ago

Pretty sure Morrison and Gaiman hit the US at almost the same time; Animal Man was 9/88 and Sandman was 1/89; and I think (but cannot firmly recall) that Black Orchid started shortly before Sandman. I remember some discussion at the time that it was convenient since we didn't need to get into arguments over which was the best new book of the year. And it was, if memory serves, their joint arrival that heralded the start of the British Invasion of writers- Alan Moore was pretty much on his own for several years. I would also put Milligan in with them, Shade started in 1990. It really was a wonderful few years to be reading comics; my store owner got me started soon enough that I actually had to track down early issues of Sandman because it had not been collected yet.

None of which detracts from your basic points, of course. This was just one of the only points in my life where I somehow got turned onto a meaningful creative wave early and share it with others rather than coming in late to the game.

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

An enjoyable read; thanks again.

One thing that's a source of pleasure for me in Sandman is the important of the 'little people'. Dream is the central character but not the main character (although I realise that this is a semantic point, and just how I feel about the stories). It's repeatedly made clear that the ordinary folk have significant stories to tell, whereas the immortals just noodle about and don't really matter. Dream makes this explicit at the end of Three Septembers And A January.

Compare this to the portrayal of the Doctor as a 'lonely god' adored by all the lucky 'insects' he blesses with an encounter with him. Your write-up of Warhead convinces me that I was absolutely right in avoiding the New Adventures as missing the joy of the show.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, Gaiman and Morrison were actually signed up on the same trip, when Karen Berger and Dick Giordano visited the UK to try to find more people a bit like Alan Moore -- they'd actually already signed up a few of the 2000AD people, like Alan Grant and John Wagner, a year or two before.

Morrison seems like he *should* have come first, because he had several years of UK comics behind him at that point, whereas Gaiman was pretty much a total newbie.

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Archeology of the Future 5 years, 1 month ago

I have to admit that Gaiman gets on my wick often and that I found huge swathes of Sandman hugely boring. Gaiman the myth maker reminds me of a more self aware Garth Merenghi.

I actually loved the beginning of the the Sandman comics where they were still part of the DC universe and Gaiman was having to make something from the pieces that were already given rather than being able to define the gameboard from himself.

One of the things that I loved about Moore's Swamp Thing was that it happened in DC continuity and brought back and revisited old characters with a revisionist twist. I see more of that in the New Adventures than I do Gaiman. Moore had/has a particular talent for picking up other's ideas and finding new potentials in them. It's claimed that Gaiman has magical quality, but for me at least, he doesn;t open up imagination as much as fill the space inside you that should be Neverland with a series of preproduced, intricate and dainty edificies that look like Neverland but are somehow hollow.

For me there is something too confection-like about Gaiman. He always puts me in mind of steampunk, a load of useless imagination candy glued onto a really very ordinary object.

But it's confection with decadence, I think. I've never felt that Gaiman is particularly transgressive.

I suppose Gaiman for me feels like a writer who is good at the craft aspects of writing. He makes stories that look and feel like stories. He creates narrative depth and narrative versimilitude that feels as it should. The thing is I find that cloying. It's like he's the virtuoso McCartney, always trilling and riffing on his technical brilliance but never quite, for me at least, never quite escaping from craft.

I was thinking about that in terms of craft based art versus conceptual art. For me Gaiman is concerned with leaving you with a mental cast created by him to carry around with you as if they were yours rather than, as conceptual art does, trying to set off the change of thinking that leaves you carrying around an idea that eventually might be possessed and transformed by you.

I suppose Neil Gaiman makes me feel left out of the narratives that he makes, which seems to the opposite to what most people feel about him and his writing.

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Archeology of the Future 5 years, 1 month ago

The sentence above should read "But it's confection withOUT decadence" meaning that, somehow, I think Neil Gaiman's imagination is too well adjusted, to craft based, to ever feel threatening or chaotic. There's no intellectual mess in Gaiman's worlds, no ambivalences or blindspots. He's a master crafts person. There doesn;t seem to be anything in Sandman that he hasn't nailed down completely so that it is as he intends it to be.

So the changing artists and the constraints of monthly comics must have really irked him.

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Kit 5 years, 1 month ago

Milligan had effectively, sort of, been in US comics for as long as Moore, too - Eclipse had done Strange Days and Johnny Nemo series from 1984, and Vortex published Paradax in 1987.

"...and Mark Millar whose British careers didn’t even start until after Gaiman had broken out in the US"

Depending on how you measure "broken out" (which I wouldn't put before the Rolling Stone Hot Issue in mid-late 1990), this is unfair to Millar too: Saviour (on Trident) #1 came out only a couple of months after Trident (also on Trident) #1 contained Gaiman's second ever (maybe? certainly one of his only, ever, to this day*) UK-published comics work.

But you're very good on Sandman here, Phil, and I look forward to considering the connections as I read more of the New Adventures.

*the third one I can think of included one of the leads of Saviour as a main character...

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Kit 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh, and: personally I'd rate Anansi Boys as by far his best novel since Good Omens, not least because it's written with a casual, humourous voice, rather than the usual half-portentous/half-wondrous tone. (It is even better in the audiobook, which is also the best anything Lenny Henry has done since before Good Omens came out.)

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 1 month ago

Black Orchid began exactly one month prior to The Sandman, in December 1988. So, to be fair, Morrison was already writing for DC when Gaiman's first published piece was release. By a whopping three months, sure, given that Morrison's first comic (Animal Man #1) was released in September 1988, but technically speaking....

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C. 5 years, 1 month ago

I join the chorus that say Morrison and Gaiman were essentially synchronous---I recall Animal Man, Sandman and Black Orchid arriving at the shops basically at the same time. It also felt like a changing of the guard---Moore was wrapping up Swamp Thing, V and Miracleman and (it seemed at the time) abandoning comics.

Agree that Sandman is essential to the transformation of "geek culture" into a slightly more respectable subculture, like indie rock fandom. I'd go further and say Sandman single-handedly mainstreamed comics--I recall several awful condescending articles in mags like Rolling stone or Newsweek that basically said "here's a comic book girls can read". A less sexist way of putting would be that Sandman was a comic suited for a broader set of subcultures: SF/fantasy fans, goth music fans, academics, etc. could all enjoy it. & the book collections, with their Dave McKean covers, also helped sell them as "high end comics" for lack of a better phrase.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

My bad, yes - I had for some reason mentally pegged Sandman as starting considerably later in 1989 than it in fact did. I've amended the post.

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C. 5 years, 1 month ago

y'know I'd also class Jamie Delano with "later wave" of Gaiman/Morrison, time-wise. I know Delano had been writing British comics for years, but his first American presence was the John Constantine book, which came out in 1988, if I remember. This is drawing from fading memory, but Delano also seemed like another potential successor to Moore at time, in great part because Moore had created Constantine and essentially handed him off to "Hellblazer."

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Jesse 5 years, 1 month ago

"...counting the comic itself, there are momentarily seven distinct and nested acts of storytelling going on at once..."

If you've never seen this movie, I recommend it very, very highly.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

Personally, I'd say that to say Gaiman is ripping off Alan Moore (which, to be fair, you didn't) isn't accurate. I'd say that there's three primary strains of British Invasion comics: the Moore, the Gaiman, and the Morrison. (One can also argue for a fourth stream, occupied primarily by Garth Ennis and Mark Millar, but that's more based in the pre-existing tropes of the American mainstream taken to their cynical extreme.) (Also, to me, Morrison post-Animal Man/Doom Patrol and pre-JLA did feel like a Moore ripoff and then changed tactics drastically - completely for the better, I'd say.) (Warren Ellis is off doing his own thing.) (Man I love parentheses.)

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

Also, first, you are completely right about the metafictional aspect; second, I'd say that, as reckless inflations of epic-ness go, Crisis on Infinite Earths takes the cake. (But then, Season of Mists actually succeeded in what it was trying to do.)

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

Crisis on Infinite Earths is ultimately just an other "the universe! It's in peril!" story. Yes, the universe is actually a multiverse, but that's just the same thing only a bit bigger. I think the sheer metaphysical scope of Season of Mists edges it out. "The Devil quits" just has a sort of audaciousness that "the universe is in trouble again, it must be Wednesday" never can.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 1 month ago

*Had* they done a universe-in-peril story prior to Crisis, though? I can't think of one... Also, in Crisis, the universe was actually destroyed, which is a fairly impressive upping of the stakes.

AFTER that, of course, there were threats against the universe every week, but I don't think there'd been any prior to it in superhero comics.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

Also: Wow, I just realized how much I use that reversal of "show, don't tell". Sheesh.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

Um... adored? Lucky? Blessed? Methinks you're misreading the whole "lonely god" thing.

(And now I'm imagining the Doctor as Destruction...)

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

I'd definitely say that Season of Mists actually feels like it has a greater scale. But execution is something you can still top; for pure conceptual stakes, Crisis is basically as far as you can go. (And it's basically the last time you could go there and not have it be a damp squib if you didn't get the feel right; see also The Stolen Earth/Journey's End.)

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daibhid-c 5 years, 1 month ago

You've just made me realise something that I'm amazed never occured to me before:

1989: Neil Gaiman starts writing Sandman, which as you say above, establishes a big metafictional premise to tell ordinary stories, and is also about the power of storytelling itself.

1990: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett write Good Omens.

1991: Terry Pratchett writes "Witches Abroad", which introduces the concept of "narrative causality" in its opening pages, then uses it to tell a story about estranged sisters, one of whom is "feeding people to stories".

Narative causality, especially as it's developed in later books, is different enough from what Gaiman does that I don't think Sir Terry "got the idea" from him in a direct sense, but it does suggest their minds were on more parallel tracks than I realised.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 1 month ago

That's definitely a tension in the conceptions of the Doctor in the Davies era, John, but I wouldn't say it's the only one. That sense comes out in stories like Love and Monsters, and the televised version of Human Nature. But it co-exists with the narrative focus on the Doctor's close friendships with his companions, their social circles, and recurring guest characters, how those relationships change him, and how he changes them.

What you write about the "lonely god" image corresponds to what I wrote in the comment space Monday about Warhead. A conception of the Doctor as entirely godlike would cut him off from the friendships that are the best aspects of his character. A novel like Warhead is in danger of doing this, but in a little while, we're going to hit Love and War, which shows that the New Adventures understood this danger just as much as Davies does. If he really is a god, then he can't be lonely, because gods don't need friends. His problem is that sometimes, he has to act like a god, which costs him his friends. That, to me, is the central drama of the NAs.

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

I agree there's more to Who than the 'lonely god' business.

Adam, Love And Monsters and Human Nature did the topic very well (although I agree with RTD that the Doctor shouldn't have had anything at all to do with the defeat of the Abzorbaloff).

Ununnilium, there was a heavy element of wryness intended in my tone. (It seems making 'hmmm' noises while I'm writing doesn't really come across in the text.) I find all the "fire and ice and the heart of the sun" wittering quite tiresome. Although Jonathan Morris adding "...and Kid Creole and the Coconuts and the smile on the little baby Jesus" to it makes it many times better.

(The Doctor as Destruction isn't a bad reading, actually.)

I suppose I'm not interested in stories about the Doctor. I want him to be a window that leads me on to other tales, but I'm not interested in exploring him at all. The Sandman stories are about the ordinary people rather than yet another chapter in a literally endless squabble between superbeings.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

I would suggest that Sandman is closer to a sort of As Above, So Below alchemical logic. The series' overall arc, after all, is about how Dream's refusal to change and his bad dating habits eventually seals his death. I think the main point comes in the final issue, where Shakespeare and Ben Jonson argue, and Jonson boasts of all the things he's done and the experiences he's had, and how this makes him a better playwright, proclaiming "I have met all sorts of people... from the lowest to the most high. Thus, I understand them." And Shakespeare replies, "I would have thought that all one needs to understand people is to be a person. And I have that honor."

Which is to say that the epic stories of superbeings and the toil of the ordinary people are, in Gaiman's rendition, part and parcel of the same story.

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David Anderson 5 years, 1 month ago

I wonder if I'm the only person who in some place deep down inside thinks of Gaiman primarily as that guy who collaborated with Pratchett on Good Omens?

If you have a series about a main character who is basically a cosmic personification then the Sandman model is the only way I know of to do it that's worked over that length of time. I don't think that you could do Doctor Who on television for that length of time in that way. You need more narrative continuity between episodes than there's this mysterious figure who affects people's lives (and occasionally has stories of his own) for a television series. (Unless someone's successfully revised The Twilight Zone without me noticing.)

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David Anderson 5 years, 1 month ago

Neal Stephenson, since we were on that subject, gets away with it a lot as well. 'Gets away with it' is wrong; sometimes telling just is more interesting to the reader than showing.

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Jesse 5 years, 1 month ago

I wonder if I'm the only person who in some place deep down inside thinks of Gaiman primarily as that guy who collaborated with Pratchett on Good Omens?

Not at all. I don't have anything close to a full feeling for Gaiman's work: I've read two novels, one graphic novel, one children's book, just a single issue of Sandman, and various blog posts and tweets, along with watching "The Doctor's Wife" and the movie version of Coraline. And Good Omens is just head and shoulders above the rest. To my taste only Coraline comes close to being as good, and I'm not sure it makes sense to assign him primary authorship of that. (Then again, I'm not sure it makes sense to assign him primary authorship of Good Omens either.)

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David Anderson 5 years, 1 month ago

It's more that Dream decides, consciously or unconsciously, that in order to change as much as he wants to he has to seek destruction first.
Several characters comment that he has changed after his imprisonment. In terms of story it's a bit of a Robert Holmes epic: every after issue one is endgame.
(Also, black Dream at least thinks that the relation between black Dream and white Dream is far closer to regeneration than to replacement.)

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

David, you'll be astonished - astonished!* - to learn that I do actually think you can tell unrelated stories with only occasional narrative links. It's what the bulk of Doctor Who is like, after all. And every so often, it's all bunged out and started again. Yes, I'm one of those people who really isn't that fussed about seeing old monsters or what-have-you for their own sake again. (Although the Macra did make me smile. And I'd have loved seeing Gareth Roberts's proposed Mrs. Meglos too.)

*NB: You may not actually be astonished.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

Metafiction was running full-tilt through the culture - at least, the British culture - at that point, it seems.

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encyclops 5 years, 1 month ago

I picked up issue #5 of the Brief Lives storyline in a comic shop when it had just come out and was hooked immediately. I had no idea what was going on and I was utterly fascinated; at the time I'd never read anything like it. I adore Sandman. I think Gaiman's novels are uneven (love American Gods and Anansi Boys, think Coraline and Neverwhere and the Graveyard thing were OK, can't stand Stardust) and I like almost none of his short stories, but Sandman is unassailable in my view.

To my mind, Gaiman differs from Moore, Morrison, Delano, Millar, Ellis, and Milligan in that his stories are generally not unpleasant in a confrontational way. Okay, people gouge out their eyes or have them eaten a lot, but Gaiman generally is not out to write straight horror (Delano), unsettle you politically (Moore, Ellis), freak your shit out (Morrison, Milligan), or scream "fuck you" constantly (Millar). That's not a criticism of Gaiman, nor of any of those writers (I like them all, though I'm not a huge Garth Ennis fan -- forgot to list him); it's just that they wanted to get under your skin and Gaiman just wanted to get into your heart. I can see good reasons to prefer either intention depending on who you are and what you like and what mood you're in, but it's hard to argue that the latter isn't going to have the wider appeal.

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David Anderson 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm not talking about story arcs here. Classic Doctor Who, like most early episodic tv, is picaresque: the episodes may not have anything in common but they're all linked by the main characters. The writer doesn't have to do any work introducing the TARDIS crew or getting us to care about them every episode. And, since The Time Meddler, or possibly even The Rescue, the Doctor has been the point of continuity in the TARDIS crew.
A television series that worked like the Sandman standalones would be one in which every episode had the structure of Blink. And that's a different kettle of fish. (You can't have Steven Moffat writing for pre-fame Carey Mulligan every episode.)

Phil has said before that the people back in the eighties who wanted Doctor Who to be more like Star Trek got what they wanted: Doctor Who ended up like Star Trek cancelled. I think the same would go for making Doctor Who more like Sapphire and Steel. (For what it's worth, I think the McCoy - Ace years on television got the balance right, but that may be the 'my Doctor' effect.)

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storiteller 5 years, 1 month ago

The sentence above should read "But it's confection withOUT decadence" meaning that, somehow, I think Neil Gaiman's imagination is too well adjusted, to craft based, to ever feel threatening or chaotic.

A certain level of looseness is something that I find both charming and unfilmable about American Gods, at least in the "author's preferred text"/10th anniversary version, which is 12,000 words longer than the original. There's a middle section where Gaiman is just enjoying a bit of a ramble that has strong thematic resonance with the rest of the book but has its own little plot going on. I would highly recommend seeking out that version.

I think that in terms of influence in general, Gaiman should also get more credit for moving from "respectable SF/comics writer" of whom there were so very few already into young adult fiction. There are a lot of respected YA authors and a lot of YA authors that did SF, but it was still a big risk. I think you're seeing a lot more modern crossover between those two areas now than you would have if he never written Coraline.

The one thing that I wish this post addressed was how Doctor Who influenced Gaiman's work, not just the other way around. He's obviously a huge fan, unlike many of the other writers/producers covered in the Pop Between Realities entries. But perhaps we'll get to that when Phil covers The Doctor's Wife?

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 1 month ago

That's much of what the Neverwhere entry will be, actually - end of December.

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encyclops 5 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, while showing is usually the stronger choice, creative writing professors don't know everything.

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Nick Smale 5 years, 1 month ago

Having seen the acclaim for Sandman, I bought the first volume. But, not having read a comic since "The Beano" in childhood, the sheer complexity of the visual grammar defeated me. I think I'd expected it to be a little like a subtitled film (which I've never had any problem with) but the relationship between image and text was so much more complex and opaque, required so much concentration to process, that reading it felt like very hard work, and I gave up after around twenty pages...

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John Callaghan 5 years, 1 month ago

Oh, the first volume isn't the best by any means, Nick! It really gets going from a little bit later on. Try Fables And Reflections if you're still up for it. Or, in fact, any of the other volumes.

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Nick Smale 5 years, 1 month ago

I think I was maybe a bit ambitious in trying to read the most acclaimed, sophisticated adult "graphic novel" when I'd only had experience of the most rudimentary child's comic; going from a vague memory of The Beano to Sandman was like trying to jump directly from Ladybird learn-to-read books to James Joyce.

The basics of the grammar of the thing eluded me; half the time I couldn't figure out what order I was supposed to read the panels in. I wasn't sure how to 'pace' myself, either; was I supposed to examine the artwork in detail, as you might if you were standing in an art gallery taking in a painting? That seemed to take an inordinate amount of time. Or was I supposed to rush through, giving each image just a glance, a 24th-of-a-second like a movie frame?

I suspect that before trying to tackle the supreme heights of The Sandman, I should have got some experience in trying to tackle lesser comic peaks; got my Gladwellian 10,000 hours in, and built my comic-reading skills on something less challenging.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 1 month ago

I'm afraid Sandman is hardly "the most sophisticated, acclaimed 'graphic novel'" -- in comics terms it's closer to a good middlebrow bestseller, like a Stephen King book or something.

That's not a criticism of your comics-literacy, incidentally, but rather of the lack of good introductory comics. Sandman just assumes a familiarity with the storytelling conventions of 1980s superhero comics, and if you don't understand those you will be lost.

Probably the best comic to start with would be Watchmen. It's actually a more complex work than Sandman, and you wouldn't get anything like all of it on first reading (if nothing else, there's the whole problem of unfamiliarity with superhero genre conventions), but you'd get *something*, and it's generally considered one of the best. It also doesn't have the specific difficulties you mention -- it's told as a straight nine panels per page, reading the top three left-to-right, then the middle, then the botton, in the same order every page.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 1 month ago

As for pacing, as a first approximation, assume every panel is roughly a beat, if you see what I mean. As you become more used to reading comics, you'll find that you slow down or speed up naturally with the flow of the story.

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Carey 5 years, 1 month ago

I think it very telling that the three "crossover" works of the eighties (Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus) all adhered to a rigid panel to page structure meaning that non-comics readers had little problems understanding the "language" of reading comics.

Like other posters above, I feel Gaiman to be a tad overrated-- he's brilliant at technique but sacrifices heart. Except, and it's here that I believe the parallels with his writing Doctor Who are closest) when writing short stories and for children. Because in both these forms he doesn't talk down or fall into self indulgent storytelling. In another parallel (which undermines the point of this blog, unfortunately) Sandman fails to cohere as a 75 chapter story, but individual stories within that larger narrative it features stories that really do deserve praise. Issue two is probably the earliest example of this: Moore took two old DC horror characters and made them interesting (although Sergio Argonas deserves credit for making them funny in Plop) but it was Gaiman gave them heart.

Finally, regarding the timings of various comics, it really is hard to believe that one month (July 1990) could feature the release of the second issue of Moore's Big Numbers Doom Patrol 34 (the glorious "Brain and Monsieur Mallah issue); Sandman 17 (the Calliope issue); and Shade the Changing Man issue 1, and be followed a month later by Animal Man 26. It really was a good time for ground breaking comics.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

To be fair, creative writing professors are about teaching the rules. Only when you know them can you effectively break them.

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Ununnilium 5 years, 1 month ago

See, I think Gaiman is overrated - but still really really good.

"Probably the best comic to start with would be Watchmen."

Saying that, in learning comics literacy, you should start with Watchmen because Sandman is too hard is like saying you should start reading with Pratchett because Tolkien is too hard. While one is easier than the other, you will still miss a lot.

Actually, for a good comics literacy primer for someone who's not into superheroes, I'd recommend a good full-page webcomic. Specific examples I'd recommend to anyone: Gunnerkrigg Court ( http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/index2.php ), Lackadaisy ( http://www.lackadaisycats.com/index.php ), and The Adventures of Dr. McNinja ( http://drmcninja.com/ ).

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Stephen 5 years, 1 month ago

*Had* they done a universe-in-peril story prior to Crisis, though? I can't think of one... Also, in Crisis, the universe was actually destroyed, which is a fairly impressive upping of the stakes.

AFTER that, of course, there were threats against the universe every week, but I don't think there'd been any prior to it in superhero comics.


The Phoenix Saga probably counts as a universe-in-peril story (the M'Kraan crystal is said to be capable of destroying the universe, and at one point it blinks everything out of existence for about a second). So Crisis wasn't the first one to turn up in a superhero comic. Though it was probably the first one that DC did.

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C. 5 years, 1 month ago

comics literacy primer? good question:

any of the classic Love and Rockets books.
Maus.
H. Cruise's Stuck Rubber Baby.
Paul Chadwick's Concrete. Not the most sublime of works, but very easy to get into, and visually coherent and easy to follow.
the early Dave Sim: High Society in particular. Just stop them from reading after, say, Jaka's Story.

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Froborr 4 years, 6 months ago

Rereading this because I was rereading the entry on Genesis of the Daleks, and it got me thinking about the Dream Lord, and well... maybe it's just because it's *too* obvious, but... Lord of Dreams. Dream Lord. Shaper of Stories. Master of the Land of Fiction. Is Morpheus the Doctor?

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