Recurring Dream: an anniversary re-reading of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The new Weird Tales #352 features an exclusive interview with bestselling fantasy author Neil Gaiman. This fall saw the release of Gaiman’s new novel The Graveyard Book, and January 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of his comic-book masterpiece The Sandman — so will spend the next two weeks revisiting The Sandman in “Recurring Dream,” a daily retrospective column by correspondent Eric San Juan. Take it away, Eric…

It may sound melodramatic, but The Sandman changed my life. No, not in an after-school-special, inspired-me-to-join-the-Foreign-Legion kind of way. But it sparked something in me. A new understanding and appreciation of something I had long cherished, but didn’t necessarily take pride in: comic books.

A childhood love I continued to enjoy into adulthood, comics were filled with fun adventures, great characters, and boundless imagination. All wonderful things, to be sure — but as with so many young fans, there eventually came a time when comics and I no longer saw eye to eye. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a dreadful time for the medium; the shelves were littered with the worst sort of empty-headed rubbish, and I, being a young man who fancied himself worthy of reading something with a bit more smarts, began drifting from the four-color pages.

Comics and I parted ways.

No one who grows to love the medium, though, ever truly abandons it. It’s just one of those things, like Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Pop Rocks, and lawn darts: you know it’s no good for you, but damnit, who cares? So by the time the late 1990s were upon me I found myself wondering what was happening in the world of comics. Wondering what I had missed. Wondering if maybe, just maybe, I could rekindle the love affair.

It turns out I had missed a whole lot. There was this thing called The Sandman, apparently, that had very quietly become one of the most critically acclaimed comics of all time. I completely missed the boat! Just as I had left, this guy Neil Gaiman had come along and given the medium something remarkable.

So I figured I’d give it a shot — I’d try out a few books, see how I might feel about yielding once again to their garish delights. I bought Preludes and Nocturnes, the first Sandman collection.

…and the next several volumes quickly followed. It was a revelation. Comics could do this? They could be this? I knew the medium was capable of great things — after all, my mind had been blown in the ’80s by Watchmen, Frank Miller’s incredible Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Born Again, and Dave Sim’s Cerebus — but those had seemed like fleeting aberrations. Flukes. Surely no creator could be allowed to sustain such genius. I mean, these were comics, meant to be disposable. Fun but unimportant. Yet here I was, reading an epic work for the ages. Sandman spanned seven years and 75 issues (subsequently collected into ten novel-sized stories), growing in mythic grandeur with each new piece. I would never look at comics — what they were, are, and can be — the same way again.

I still don’t. I expect more from my comics these days. I expect good writing and smart stories and something more meaningful than Guy beats up Other Guy. I’ve developed a deep love for the nature of the medium; the things it can accomplish and the unique ways in which it can tell stories. I am no longer the same reader I was, and I owe that to Sandman.

It’s been a decade since I was first exposed to the series, and 20 years since The Sandman #1 was first published. With four gorgeous new Absolute Sandman hardcover collections sitting on my shelves, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit this series. How would it hold up? Would I still hold it in such high esteem? I’ve read a lot of really great comics since I first discovered Sandman, after all. I like to think I’ve become a more discerning reader. Would Neil Gaiman’s amazing series still read like it was working on an entirely different level, given all the comics and graphic novels I’ve read since?

As you’ll see over the course of this 10-part retrospective, the answer is yes. A resounding yes. Sandman remains a high-water mark not just for the comic medium, but for fantasy literature in general. It is every bit as vital today as it was 20 years ago when it first began publication.

I hope you enjoy reading along as I again plunge back into the world of Dream, Desire, Delirium, Death, and the rest of the Endless. Even better, take the plunge with me and re-read Gaiman’s masterpiece. You’ll be glad you did.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

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