I remember a day. I used to run with a dollar bill up to Mr. Branton’s store in Dothan, Alabama, back in a pure and innocent time. I was in a hurry to buy the latest comics the first of every month. Doctor Strange. Captain America. The Incredible Hulk. Enemy Ace. At 12 cents each, I could buy eight of them … and I would read The Fantastic Four, my favorite, cover-to-cover before I got home.
Who knew it was such an insidious and corrupting medium? I say this because in the years between WWII and the advent of the anti-hero—James Dean and Elvis and Jackson Pollock and Bird and all those rebels with a cause—a great scare went across America over the comic book. In the mid-1950s, comics may have been America’s most popular entertainment … and their garish and outrageous content appealed specially to teens—the gawky, suggestible, space aliens of our species.
The lurid comic titles produced by publishers like William Gaines at EC comics, the man who later launched MAD magazine, drove conservative America crazy. Shepherds scrambled to protect their flocks. We had comic book burnings, angry sermons from ministers, speeches from self-righteous pre-McCarthyite politicos and, in general, the first manifestations of what would twenty years later come to be known as The Generation Gap.
All this is to say that in some strange way, comic books have often been the burning spear point of our culture. Comics pioneered, took chances. Comics tested themes and introduced heroes that infused the rest of our culture like the garlic in a stew. (To my own taste, you can never have too much garlic.)
So it is now, today. In the world of comics—I include here the graphic novel, those comics on steroids—it’s a new golden age, a time when the influence of the medium is as strong as it’s ever been. Look at the last two decades’ most popular movies—Avatar, Spider Man, Iron Man, Batman, Superman, X-Men. Comics brought to cinema, all. Look at the art—both Andy Warhol’s soup can and the pop art of Roy Liechtenstein had comic DNA. In these days of time famine and visual obsession, the quick-read graphic novel and Japanese-influenced manga are as hot as anything in our book stores. And the medium is making a cultural imprint. Look at Persepolis. Look at Maus. Check out the brilliant work of the Hernandez Brothers.
But the rock star of the comic world remains a Brit who lives in Minnesota. His name is Neil Gaiman. He has the Midas touch.
Gaiman is a novelist and a wordsmith in many other forms, but he made his literary bones with the Sandman comic series. Begun in 1989, the 82-issue comic book series tells the story of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and the intersection of that immortal with our world and with other mythic figures—his hot babe sister Death, for example, and his other hot-babe sister, Despair. Morpheus ranges through cultures, through time, through worlds both real and mythic. Through dreams too, of course. Only the imagination limits Sandman’s adventures.
And Gaiman is the man for imagination. The Sandman series offers episodes in which Shakespeare and his players in Elizabethan England perform the fairy-infested A Midsummer Night’s Dream … before a host of actual fairy folk. Gaiman puts us in a nondescript hotel at a convention of serial killers, the deadliest, most twisted folk on the planet. He writes of a time when cats are the dominant life form, pouncing on human beings like so many hairless chipmunks. He sends Sandman to Hell, to bicker with Satan and ultimately to best him.
Mostly, though, Gaiman sends us with Morpheus on a hero’s journey, a quest. It’s easy to follow the gothic-looking young immortal with the punk spikes and stars in his eyes. You pull for Sandman. Someone in the world of dreams has taken something from him—something fantastically valuable. And, episode by episode, the onion skin peels away, in lusciously drawn and inked panels, spinning Gaiman’s dreamed-up saga.
Remember Rod Serling, who wrote many of The Twilight Zone tales back in the 1960s? Gaiman’s work has a similar playfulness, horror, style. Like Serling, the story’s the thing for Gaiman. At a time when so many authors indulge in what we call meta-fiction—writing about writing, your basic literary navel-gazing—here’s Gaiman in an old-fashioned mode-made-new that puts the story ahead of all else. He loves mythology, bringing to us old archetypal stories and heroes of yore like Apollo pulling the sun across the sky.
Gaiman has been called, in fact, the Shakespeare of comics, and he’s given widespread credit for bringing new credibility to the form. If he seems bloody and a little sophomoric at times, that’s okay. Plenty of us love blood and sophomores.
Wherever you fall on the Gaiman scale, he attempts vital and inventive work that’s worth a look.
And I promise you this. Never mind the title: If you keep the Sandman by your pillow, it will keep you up at night.