The fantastic tales of Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's Sandman reveals why he is the most talented heir to the long, rich legacy of fantasy fiction.

Nandini Ramachandran June 01, 2011 17:29:10 IST
The fantastic tales of Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is the internet’s biggest literary celebrity. Everything he does— travel, tweet, write, marry— is instant news, followed avidly by millions of followers. My personal pick for a Gaiman book is Neverwhere, with Good Omens (a collaboration with Terry Pratchett) coming a close second, but that is a story of another day. What catapulted Gaiman to celebrity was his multi-volume Sandman, a comic book that ran for eight years and 75 issues. Compared to the decade long arcs of Batman and Superman, this might seem rather puny, but what is unique about Sandman is its instant identification with Gaiman.

The fantastic tales of Neil Gaiman

In Sandman, it seemed, the world’s mythologies came home to roost. Gaiman took us to Asgard, to the World’s End, into the Midsummer Night’s Dream. Darryl James/Getty Images

It takes a comics nerd to remember that Superman was invented by the duo Siegel and Shuster back in the 1940s. Most of us now think of him as part of the DC universe and leave it at that. Gaiman, on the other hand, retained complete control over his creation, an important transition in the history of comics culture. His characters— gothic Dream, punk Death, vain Desire, insane Delirium— have become icons in their own right, and Sandman set the bar for a new kind of comic series. It was literary, clever, and choc-a-bloc with mythology and in-jokes for fantasy nerds.

In Sandman, it seemed, the world’s mythologies came home to roost. Gaiman took us to Asgard, to the World’s End, into the Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dream’s elder brother Destiny wanders about in a garden of forking paths. In Sandman #50, “Ramadan” we entered the Baghdad of Haroun Al-Rashid’s dreams: And it was in Baghdad, city of cities, city above cities, that the King and his vizier witnessed the only flight of the winged horse, made all of glass, but for his eyes, which were of bone. He introduced us to Lucifer (later spun off into a comic by Mike Carey), to the norse trickster Loki (who turned up again in Gaiman’s American Gods), to the feline goddess Bast. We learn Morpheus— Dream— is quite the ladies’ man, and sired Orpheus with the muse Calliope.

Orpheus, most folk will know, was the musician who went to Hades and back for his wife, Eurydice (and lost her anyway). Orpheus, as we meet him, is a decapitated head, though he remains moony enough to satisfy the myth. Besides, there’s plenty of traffic to and from hell, Gaiman reassures us, and many hells; look, here’s Morpheus heading into the one from Christian myth to retrieve his girl (after condemning her there in the first place, but anyway)

This impression of books talking to each other through the text and art, so prominent in each issue of Sandman, is given away by the title. The original Sandman was a short story by the German gothic writer E.T.A Hoffman, first published in 1817 and anthologised by Italo Calvino in Fantastic Tales. It follows a student called Nathaniel, who is obsessed with the sinister Dr. Coppelius. Picture for yourself, Hoffman asks us, a large man with an immensely big head, a face the colour of yellow ochre, grey bushy eyebrows, from beneath which two piercing, greenish, cat-like eyes glittered, and a prominent Roman nose hanging over his upper lip.

Unlike Gaiman, who has a sly and persistent wit, Hoffman’s story has rare flashes of humour, though they are well worth waiting for. Nathaniel’s practical fiancé, Clara, is awarded the best line in the entire story: Oh, Nathaniel, she proclaims, you exert a fatal influence upon my coffee! The brutish Coppelius, too, is a far cry from the elegant, handsome Morpheus. Yet Hoffman’s story evokes many themes that will become the playbook of modern fantasy: eerie dreamscapes, vivisection, even robot-girls. It is this tradition of horrified fascination with the utterly alien that Gaiman draws upon in his Sandman, and I suppose he felt it was only fair to give credit where it was due.

Dream, for all that his sister Death calls him "utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appalling excuse for an anthropomorphic personification in this or any other plane", is a scary chap every bit as sinister as Coppelius. He might not collect the eyes of children that refuse to sleep, but he can unleash nightmares and sentence estranged lovers to hell. He is, you see, an Endless, so basic the world couldn’t function without him. If he dies, he must be replaced, or the cosmos crumbles. He is so alien, so powerful, so terrifying that he can threaten kings and call it caution. “I will show you horror”, he claims, “in a handful of dust”.

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