The Sand­man stalks his cre­ator’s al­ter ego

Edmonton Journal - - BOOKS - GE­OFF BOUCHER

Even in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion, Bri­tish au­thor Neil Gaiman­some­times­sound­sas if he’s nar­rat­ing somedark­fairy tale — his sen­tences slither across old stone floors or flit on gos­samer wings. He also hap­pens to live in a ram­bling Min­nesota manse that looks, he says, as if it were “drawn by Charles Ad­damson­a­day­he­was­feel­ing par­tic­u­larly mor­bid.”

So it’s no sur­prise that fans of the fan­tasy nov­el­ist have whis­pered for years that Gaiman bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to his sig­na­ture cre­ation, the Sand­man, the spooky comic-book char­ac­ter that de­buted 20 years ago and brought a new lit­er­ary am­bi­tion to the pop medium.

“He’s a lot like me, only with an im­mor­tal’s su­per­pow­ers and no sense of hu­mour of any kind,” Gaiman said. “Hmm. So in fact, he isn’t any­thing like me at all, but he does have very messy hair. That was a great point of cor­re­spon­dence be­tween me and the char­ac­ter. He’s much paler than I am, too.”

Gaiman came up in the comic-book world, but his prow­ess as a sto­ry­teller took him far be­yond its bor­dered pages. His best­selling nov­els Amer­i­can Gods and Anansi Boys helped es­tab­lish his cre­den­tials with the crit­ics, and the sly 1999 fan­tasy Star­dust was adapted to the screen in 2007. His other Hol­ly­wood pur­suits have in­cluded the Robert Zemeckis com­puter-an­i­mated epic Be­owulf (Gaiman co-wrote the script) and the Fe­bru­ary release Co­ra­line, which di­rec­tor Henry Selick ( Tim Bur­ton’s The Night­mare Be­fore Christ­mas) is adapt­ing from Gaiman’s novel for young adults.

But de­spite that ca­reer climb, it is the char­ac­ter of Sand­man that fol­lows most closely at the feet of the 48-year-old Gaiman like some stair­case shadow.

Far from a su­per­hero, Sand­man was a su­per­nat­u­ral lord of dreams, go­ing by sev­eral names, in­clud­ing Drea­mandMor­pheus. In 75monthly is­sues that spanned seven years, the spec­tral be­ing brought read­ers into of­ten night­mar­ish worlds like some cross be­tween Rod Ser­ling and one of the Christ­mas spooks from Dick­ens.

Gaiman said that he came to the premise with a sort of 1,001 Ara­bian Nights mo­ti­va­tion.

“It was an idea of try­ing to take some­thing very lit­er­ally: What would it be like to live in dreams? A lot of that came out of ter­ror. I was a young writer and had never writ­ten any­thing monthly. I needed a story shape that could take me any­where, be­cause my fear was: What if I run out of sto­ries? So I thought: ‘I will have some­body who has ex­isted since the dawn of time, so that gives me the en­tirety of hu­man his­tory to play with for sto­ries.’ ”

One is­sue would delve into the dreams of William Shake­speare, an­other, in­spired by T.S. Eliot, would wan­der through the night vi­sions of cats. There were mys­tic bat­tles and su­per­nat­u­ral show­downs too, but this was clearly a comic book that chal­lenged the genre stereotype­s that were still in full force at that time. Along with the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Art Spiegel­man, Gaiman’s twi­light saga was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment prov­ing the grow­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of comics.

“If you were a bet­ting man, up un­til that point in on­go­ing comics, crit­i­cal suc­cess was com­pletely syn­ony­mous with com­mer­cial fail­ure,” Gaiman said. “The two were so ut­terly hand-in-hand. With Sand­man, we were get­ting the crit­i­cal suc­cess, but we weren’t get­ting the com­mer­cial fail­ure. At is­sue No. 8 we were sell­ing more than any­thing com­pa­ra­ble had sold for 25 years be­fore that.”

Stephen King, Tori Amos and the late Nor­man Mailer were just some of the vo­cal devo­tees of the comics, which have been re­pub­lished now as trade pa­per­back col­lec­tions and even lav­ish hard­cover edi­tions.

One of the more fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of the Sand­man comics was the sup­port­ing cast, which in­cluded Dream’s sib­lings, mag­i­cal in­car­na­tions with oneword names whowere col­lec­tively called the End­less; among them were his beau­ti­ful sis­ter Death (who looks like a Depeche Mode fan), his som­bre brother Des­tiny, his wild-eyed sis­ter Delir­ium, the toad­ish De­spair and so on. Their mo­ti­va­tions and machi­na­tions be­came fas­ci­nat­ing to watch, a chess game played by deities, or a mash-up be­tween The So­pra­nos and a Tarot deck.

“Most char­ac­ters in comics sim­ply didn’t have any fam­i­lies, and it was some­thing I loved. It was some­thing I loved to write about. When I first came out to Amer­ica, peo­ple told me that in The Sand­man I cre­ated a dys­func­tional fam­ily, which was not a phrase I had heard be­fore that in Eng­land,” Gaiman said. “I talked to peo­ple about it, and I re­al­ized that what peo­ple in Amer­ica called ‘a dys­func­tional fam­ily ’ was the same thing that we in Eng­land re­ferred to as ‘ a fam­ily.’ You didn’t see a lot of func­tional ones.”

Gaiman said it’s hard for him to wrap his arms around the en­tire Sand­man epic, a story he doubts he would ever have started if he had known its fi­nal breadth — 2,000 pages and a quar­ter of a mil­lion words.

“I was like some­body who de­cided to hitch­hike from Los An­ge­les to San Fran­cisco — you know the shape of the jour­ney but you don’t know which lit­tle towns you are go­ing to get stuck in or where some­thing is go­ing to break down or where you’re go­ing to be rid­ing on some el­derly fruit truck that can’t make it over 40 miles per hour. You know the shape, but you don’t know the na­ture of the jour­ney. And then there’s al­ways the weather. …”

Vol­ume Four of The Ab­so­lute Sand­man, Ver­tigo/DC Comics, 608 pp., $114, was pub­lished in Novem­ber on the 20th an­niver­sary of the de­but of the Sand­man comic se­ries.

The four vol­umes an­thol­o­gize the en­tire se­ries.

BER­LINER STU­DIO/BEIMAGES

Neil Gaiman in Novem­ber re­leased the full oeu­vre of his Sand­man se­ries, four vol­umes that an­thol­o­gize his char­ac­ter’s ad­ven­tures over the past 20 years.

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