Thursday, October 8, 2015

I Missed 'Sandman' - a collection of fractured memories

First, there was the Mature Readers section in the comic book store when I was a kid.

Frank Miller had recently put the dark in "The Dark Knight," while Alan Moore had been busy deconstructing the entire notion of costumed vigilantes in "Watchmen." Wolverine was removed from the PG-rated action of the X-Men and could now be found gouging out people's eyes in his solo series. Sensing a market for darker fare, DC inaugurated their Vertigo imprint. Comics were no longer "kid stuff." Now they were being made for grown ups.

The Mature Section in my comic book store was not really removed in any practical sense from the kid-friendly comics populating the rest of the store. It was basically one thin, but tall, white shelf (whereas the "safe" books were on wire-frame shelves or display cases).

And even though there was no physical line to be crossed, no territory to be breached, make no mistake about it: I did not look at the mature comics. I was a good kid. There was a dot matrix-printed piece of paper which was laminated -- laminated! -- clearly displaying the word "mature" at the top of that white shelf. I respected the intent of the sign and stayed away.

But there they were, conspicuously visible from anywhere in the store. Flipping through back issues of "The Amazing Spider-Man," I'd see them from the corner of my eye whether I wanted to or not. Those weird, creepy, expressionistic covers, all charcoal and sepia, or paper cutout-style cubism. What the hell was supposed to be happening inside those books? All I could do was wonder.

The early '90s were an exciting time for comic books. This was the period when people who happened to have a copy of Action Comics No. 1 in their basements discovered they could sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, DC took it upon themselves to kill Superman, shining a great big spotlight on not only The Man Of Steel himself but the comic book industry as a whole. Comics had grown up. Everything was bagged and boarded. Buying a comic book was an investment in the future.

Except it wasn't. The Death of Superman was hyped as a collector's dream come true. But DC sold so many copies that it was never going to be worth anything.

I'm glad that when I go into a comic store today, the books aren't sold in bags and boards by default. If you're buying a comic book as an investment, because you think it's going to become valuable, you're being cynical. The only reason anybody should ever buy a comic book is because they want to read it. That is what gives it value.

"I can't breathe in here!" said the comic book.
I was at the radio station and, during some down time, my friend Bobby showed me some of the first pages of "Sandman" that I'd ever seen. He had volume one of the trade paperbacks, "Preludes and Nocturnes."

Out of context, I didn't quite understand what I was looking at. There was a guy in a diner, and he seemed to have some sort of telepathic power over everything happening there. On the TV above the counter, a children's puppet show was airing. The sinister man in the diner seemed to concentrate his telepathic abilities on the puppet show, causing the host to demonstrate the "proper" way to cut your wrists in order to effectively kill yourself rather than just "cry for help."

"Isn't that brilliant?" Bobby asked.

It was brilliant, in that life-affirming way with which teenagers tend to regard suicide: less of an action, more of a circumstance they've managed to avoid for another day, like a car accident. Some years later, when you've got a couple friends with scar tissue and another who met with greater success, you take a bit more pause.

Did I mention that I was a co-host of a college radio show while I was still in high school? That's a whole different conversation, but it happened.

So on another night at the station, Bobby was conspiring to get a team of our friends together to dress as The Endless for Halloween. "The Endless," as elaborated in the pages of "Sandman," were a family of ethereal manifestations of universal forces. They were distinct from the gods, as they didn't require human worship in order to exist.

Did I mention that "Sandman" is some deep business?

I was one of the people Bobby was trying to recruit. I forget which of The Endless he wanted me to be, but I'm sure it wasn't flattering; in high school, I was never offered anything flattering. One time, some friends tried to get me to be the Wife of Bath in a video project for Lit class. This would have involved me putting on a dress and sitting in a bathtub. Come to think of it, maybe they weren't really my friends. Anyway.

The one thing I remember about Bobby's master plan was that he wanted our friend Meg to be Death.

"Why Meg?"

"You still haven't read it, have you?" asked Bobby?

I hadn't.

"It'll make sense when you do."

He was right. I didn't read "Sandman" for another eight or so years after that. But when I finally did... yeah, that was good casting. Meg was totally Death - the skin and hair color, if not the height.

Due to general apathy, the Endless theme-costuming didn't happen. But it was a great idea! Of course, I didn't know how great an idea it was at the time, as I still hadn't read the books.

Death - Exploding goth kids' brains since 1989
Looking back now, I think I've pinpointed the exact year when geek culture took over the mainstream: it was 2007. That was the year your parents finally heard of San Diego Comic-Con, VH1 was airing "The World Series of Pop Culture," and Kevin Smith was using the shiny new medium of podcasting to promote the first-ever "Crazy 4 Cult" exhibit at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles. Things like that had been bubbling up for years prior, but 2007 is when they really took hold. The following year, the first "Iron Man" movie would hit, and all bets were off after that.

As for me, I was finally reading "Sandman."

Of course it's great! Of course it is. I knew it was going to be, didn't I? What I didn't know was what it was actually about.

It's not really about guys with psychic powers getting children's TV hosts to commit suicide on air. Well, maybe it was originally. The first collected volume is very much gothic horror, with gargoyles and demons and a variety gooey monsters.

But as the series goes on, it becomes so much more than that. "Sandman" progresses into an exploration of the very nature of storytelling itself. Author Neil Gaiman posits the dream state as the original storytelling medium, thereby casting Sandman/Dream/Morpheus/Oneiros/Shaper/many-other-names as the originator of all stories. Every myth, legend, fantasy, history, and work of art known to humanity is fair game, and Gaiman examines them all. "Sandman" is a contemplative exploration of the human compulsion to tell stories about where we come from, where we're going, and how we cope with everything in between.

And I missed it. There it was, the whole time, on the tall, white, Mature Readers shelf. I could have been there at the time, been a part of this magnificent thing as it was unfolding. But I was a good kid. I stayed away.

When they put the cover of "Ramadan" on the projector screens, I clapped really loud, really hard. It was way too much, as it turned out. I guess I probably embarrassed myself.

But really, it was everyone else in the audience who should have been embarrassed. They had applauded so enthusiastically for everything before this. Now, when the moderator finally presented "Ramadan," the crowd was losing its gusto? Screw you guys! "Ramadan" is arguably the best one-off story in the entire run of "Sandman." It's this beautiful, elegiac piece, perfectly paced, with a stunning, bittersweet conclusion. And what do these people do? They give it the weakest applause of the entire panel.

Part of the blame was Vertigo's. They'd spilled the beans via press release a couple weeks before Comic-Con. Neil Gaiman was returning for one more "Sandman" arc! His first in more than 10 years! So now, instead of a pure 25th anniversary retrospective with a surprise announcement at the end, the audience was just waiting for their first look at new pages. Gaiman deserved better.

The final issue of "Sandman: Overture" came out at the end of last month. I was delighted to finally read a Sandman story as it was unfolding in comic book stores.

Comic book stores don't really have Mature Readers sections anymore. You just read what you want to read, whoever you are. It's probably better that way.