Neil Gaimans The Sandman was one of comics most finest slice of story-telling. Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing may have created the Vertigo line, but The Sandman defined it.
It also brought about some of the worst aspects of comics. Whilst on one hand it could be witty, daring and exciting, it could, on the other, be pretentious, pompous and slow to reach the point. It was unfortunate that a lot of writers took Gaimans lead in thinking that long and meaningful pauses, high concept with a sprinkling of political correctness and the deconstruction of culture and the human psyche equals high art. Without this belief we would have been spared the horror that was Shade The Changing Man, the early issues of The Invisibles or Jamie Delano’s World Without End. In fact, any so called “worthy” comics.
The Sandman also created something else. It’s quite true that not enough women read comics, and certainly not enough go to comic-book conventions (as opposed to something like Collectormania which we have here in MK. I suspect that this is because movie and TV stars look better than some comic creators, but those who do will inevitably look like a cute, perky Goth girl (no matter their size or age). This is one of The Sandman’s most loved characters, Death.
Death, like her brother Dream and the rest of The Endless (Destiny, Despair, Destruction, Desire and Delirium) are the personifications of their titles and with her first appearance in issue 5 of The Sandman became an instant hit. Here was a Death that few had seen before. Funny, kind, devoted to her responsibilities but willing to bend the rules and always impossibly cute and perky. Everything a brother could ask for in an older sister.
Death grew to be so popular that she also appeared in two of her own mini-series written by Gaiman, Death: High Cost of Living and Death: Time of Your Life (both available from DC Comics). Gaiman eventually finished off The Sandman and graduated to write “proper” novels. Its funny how a lot of comic-book writers profess to love the comic medium, but as soon as they can, they drop it to write their great work. Seems to me that a lot of stigma is still attached to the comic-book writing medium, but writing a book is quite easy as opposed to comics. Try breaking down a chapter of one of your favourite books, that hasn’t been visualized in any other genre, into a comic script. Its quite difficult. I’d love to see what a writer like Pullman could do in the field.
Anyway, I digress. With the anniversary of The Sandman (and Vertigo) upon us, DC have just released the first of the graphics novels to feature the return of The Endless and Gaiman back to the The Sandman universe. Death:At Death’s Door written and drawn by Jill Thompson, published by DC Comics.
The story is a reversal of The Season of Mists tale in The Sandman. In this, Morpheus is given the key to Hell by Lucifer,who quits his job and empties Hell of the Damned. At one point, Morpheus asks his sister Death for advice and instead is told that a whole can of worms has been opened and that the Dead are coming back to life. Its this can of worms that relates Death’s day in the new story as she has to corral up all the wandering dead and deal with the party (literally) from Hell that is taking place in her realm.
Thompson is one of Americas foremost female writer/artists and her switch over the years to a more manga style suits her immensely. Though its still not quite right (a lot of American manga artists would probably agree that its takes a certain something to do manga correctly), the art is quirky, cute and expressionistic without being unclear. The writing is fast moving and funny, moreso when Deaths sisters, Despair and Delirium, turn up to aid her in her mission. Its also not weighed down by the faux-seriousness that overwhelmed The Sandman by its end, and goes back to a time when even Gaimans writing was lean and mean. The whole tale fits Death’s personality to a tee and even the pastiches rise a smile (the Sailor Moon one is the best).
One thing perhaps not fully explained is where the Dead go at the end. They believe that because Hell has been shut and they have atoned for their (mostly self-inflicted) sins they can go onto “the better place”. Some of their stories are quite sad and it’d be a sin if they ended back up with their torments.
Recommended and hopefully the side tale of The Sandman will prompt those who’ve never read it to pick up the whole saga. Available in the manga format, B/W, from all good comic-book shops now, priced £7.50.
As a side note its also worth mentioning Jill Thompsons own series, Scary Godmother. Again done in her manga style, in colour or B/W, over-sized or comic and H/B or soft. This is a perfect way to introduce young children to comics without being patronising, full of power fantasies or scary. 6 year old girls will love it.