The image of Dream emerging from his confinement through a vortex in which clouds give way to what look like stylized skulls in Episode I of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is one that reminds us of the difficulties comic book practioners have when confronting the established traditions of the genre.
The “Hill of Skulls” metaphor is one that runs deep in comics. [Turns out it runs deep in a lot of things: check this out. Eds.] It certainly represents the standard metaphors of death, power, and enslavement within the stories in which it appears. However, the metaphor seems especially powerful in comics as a representation of the creative act or, more appropriately, the fears associated with the introduction of the new. As heavily populated with intertextuality as comics are, they are also an emerging medium with space for inventive story-lines and characters. The difficulty for practioners is how to tell the new story without offending the sensibilities of the genre. For such a young medium, comics carry an incredible weight in terms of the genre’s history, expectations, and formal requirements. Every artist draws on a palimpsest of bodies and skulls–historical, literary, and artistic–no matter the subject / story.
Just as Hamlet searches for answers to an ambiguous world in his conversations with Yorick’s skull, the Jester who he “once knew,” comic book authors seem to address their forbears. It’s not a consistently straight-up allusion, but a weighted one that carries with it the pressures of being the antecedent. On the one hand, the skull provides guidance and council, asserting themes, tropes, and formal expectation and on the other hand, the skull (a jester’s after all; shadows of the Yellow Kid) mocks the artist for his derivative approach (as a comic book fan might).
Appearing in The Doll’s House section of Gaiman’s Sandman series, The Corinthian is an apt example of the wrestling comic book artists seem to do with the conventions—loose though they may be—of the genre. The Corinthian’s speech to the Cereal Convention in “The Collectors” is reminiscent of a manifesto on the art of comics, or at the very least, its paradigms for expression—the speech is a metaphor here remember, so don’t let all this talk of killing fool you; comic book artists are all “entrepreneurs in an expanding field.”
The Corinthian’s taste for the “eyes of young boys” further points the alert reader in the direction of metaphors for artistic creativity in the comic book. Comic books are traditionally–and perhaps always will be–hungry for the eyes of young boys. Even a rudimentary scan of comics’ history will reveal the situations upon which the merits of horror / murder / sexual plot-lines were weighed and outlawed for fear of corrupting the eyes of young boys. With that in mind, Dream’s declarations about his intentions for The Corinthian reflect a nervousness with the creative act; an uncertainty about the merits of the creation itself in the face of its purpose. All of which is the classic dialogue between the creator and the creation.
The duality of both being blind and yet seeing clearly is another aspect of The Corinthian that deserves attention given its clear allusion to the role of reader. The willing suspension of disbelief is a universal component of becoming immersed in the kind of story Gaiman is putting forward in Sandman. The parallels between the “dream state” and the “state of reading” are drawn clearly in the tropes of the series, particularly as it continues to unfold. Here, as we read through the dual representation of the anxiety of authorship and the vile actions of a murderer, we are both seeing and suspending–seeing some things clearly while choosing not to see others at all–because the act of interpreting both the storyline and its metaphoric layers requires that we reject one in the service of understanding the other.
In The Doll’s House episode, The Corinthian is represented within a fairly transparent metaphor for the cereal (vis: comic book) convention, as an all-star:
At the same time, the anxiety of authorship emerges as, despite his all-star status, The Corinthian’s credentials are required and must be prominently displayed. The Corinthian–or the metaphor for authorship–is both anonymous and infamous; both friend and potential foe; he is both seen and unseen. At a convention where a large man with a mustache asks, “The Devil? Uh, would that be the Kentucky Devil, or the Oregon Devil? I got both here” (Gaiman 14.4) and one conventioneer exclaims, “The TV version? The TV version butchered it! But I hear you can get it uncut on video in Canada” (Gaiman 14.4), we find the anxiety of the comic book author on full display as The Corinthian in a room full of authorities of the genre. Moreover, there is a deep allusion to the dreamworld itself, which is both “seen” in the sleeping mind, bit “unseen” in the conventions of waking daylight.
As the above suggests however, The Dream seems to assert that a new age is upon us. Another symbolic allusion associated with the comic book genre, that of collecting or, historicization, is itself rejected. In a transformative moment, the true author of dreams emerges to vanquish the impostor (or, perhaps, the traditionalist looking for easy re-imaginings)–exchanging the comfort of daydreams for realities. The Dream’s final words on his creation are, “The next time I make you, you shall not be so flawed and petty, little dream” (Gaiman 14.36). Itself a caveat for a renewed creative / aesthetic paradigm, the soliloquy ties together the numerous symbolic lines let out throughout the course of the narrative. Perhaps an assertion to probe deeper levels of story-telling in the medium, a call to reject conventions in favour of renewal, the end of The Corinthian signals the beginning of something new.
When The Corinthian is “uncreated,” the metaphoric skull re-appears and with it all the allusions–literal, historical, generic–that suggest tensions between the new and the traditional. Gaiman’s Sandman then becomes a commentary on the nature of the creative act as it applies to comic books, with its own generic conventions that are hard to break and its iconographic metaphors that are fluid and individual. The final reading suggests that making comics is about “uncreating” rather than creating, a way out of established conventions and into that liminal somnambulance (please, if you’re a student, do not use the previous phrase, ever) that allows connections to be drawn without the logic or anxiety associated with their connection. The artistic voice awakens to drown.
Gaiman, Neil (writer), Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artists). “The Collectors.” The Sandman: The Doll’s House Part Five #14 New York: Vertigo, 1997.
Gaiman, Neil (writer), Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg (artists). “Sleep of the Just” The Sandman #1. New York: Vertigo, 1989.