Neil Gaiman is one of those rare triple-threats of the publishing industry – he is an accomplished New York Times bestselling novelist, a successful author of children’s books as well as one of the most lauded comics writers in the industry. Though his canon in this latter medium is rife with excellent recent material (the “Eternals,” for example, or the miniseries “1602” that Brenna discussed last week), it’s difficult to avoid his much celebrated Sandman series as the defining triumph of Gaiman’s career. Sandman speaks to us because of the universalities that it evokes through its central characters of the Endless: anthropomorphic constructs of the features that define us as a species. Gaiman uses Sandman as a vehicle for his lofty ideas, drawing equally on literary allusion, conventions of horror and fantasy as well as classical mythology in order to drive his storytelling, keeping the eponymous character often in the background to pursue interests that are peripheral to the concerns of the central narrative. The result is that, by the close of Sandman’s run, Gaiman offers his readers a fictional universe that is nearly beyond comparison in its depth, and his tone gives the work a feeling of timelessness – it is often easy to lose oneself in the high-minded abstractions that the Sandman evokes. However, these aspects of his work only take shape in his later volumes, as in his opening collection, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” we see a very different Gaiman than the confident visionary that he is often described as.
Prior to Sandman, Gaiman had only written one other mainstream comic book: “Black Orchid,” a prestige format, three-issue miniseries, which he wrote with his then-recent collaborator Dave McKean (who would later paint all of the covers for Sandman’s seventy-five issue run). British-born Gaiman has admitted, however, that he was apprehensive about beginning a career in writing US comics, unsure of his ability to write superheroes or even work within North American culture in crafting his narratives; as he notes in an interview, he was part of a “generation in the UK who’d grown up reading DC comics from a bizarre perspective. In America, those comics were perceived without irony; in England, they were like postcards from another world. The idea of a place that looked like New York, the idea of fire hydrants and pizzerias, was just as strange to us as the idea that anyone would wear a cape and fly over them” (qtd in Bender 21). It is largely because of this that Gaiman elected to work with the least known of DC’s cast of characters, concentrating more on his focus of fantasy and mythology by requesting the Phantom Stranger and the Demon. Thankfully for us, even these characters were reserved for more well-known authors, and Gaiman was rejected and left with reinventing a little-known character from the Golden Age for his first attempt at a monthly book.
These first issues of the Sandman, for a reader familiar with the DC universe, show great trepidation in entering such a large universe with demanding expectations. Though he has mentioned in later interviews that he enjoyed working with Sandman so much because it “freed [him] from the baggage of DC continuity,” (qtd in Bender 24), the consistent (though subtle) references to both contemporary works and current events in the DCU show that Gaiman was quite concerned with positioning himself inside of this larger dynamic, often in a highly self-conscious way. Even the central premise of the story, Morpheus having been trapped by mortal magic for seven decades, stems from the desire to explain why so important a character has not been present in the DCU up until the point that Gaiman constructs him – Gaiman effectively writes Sandman into continuity ostensibly by writing him out of it, explaining away the absence of a significant character he intends to be a major player in future crossovers, a literary trick that his since been replicated by the likes of, among others, Brian Michael Bendis in his highly popular Marvel character the Sentry. Though we now think of Sandman as having kickstarted DC’s Vertigo imprint through a confident construction of an entirely new universe, Gaiman was actually catering to the conventions of the superhero comic and attempting to fabricate a place in it for both himself as well as his creation.
This happens at several other points in Preludes and Nocturnes, notably in the guest role that John Constantine plays, a character that Gaiman borrowed from Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing.” On breaking into an office to find Morpheus’ lost pouch of sand, Constantine encounters a run of texts in a drawer, one of which is titled “Crisis.” (90) This nod, lost to readers of the reprinted graphic novel, was a direct reference to the changing nature of the DCU at the time and the company’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” The following issue, Gaiman incorporates Etrigan, a DC character who he’d been told in his early dealings with DC that he wasn’t allowed to write for because he didn’t have a large enough name in the industry at that point. His inclusion of the character, to one familiar with Gaiman’s history with DC, shows that the writer was bent on asserting himself as a strong voice within the American comics market very early on in his career.
Moreover, in the later issues of Preludes and Nocturnes, Gaiman shoehorns in more mainstream DC characters in the then-recently revamped Justice League, making brief mention of the restructuring of the team due to the events spinning out of “Crisis.” Interestingly, Gaiman shows Martian Manhunter’s familiarity with the Sandman even though other DC characters do not know who he is – the Manhunter, one of the most powerful characters in the DCU with a long running history, drops to his knees in fealty to Gaiman’s creation (146). This is quite clearly Gaiman’s attempt at giving his Sandman some credibility in the DCU, highlighting the import of his characters only a few issues in to his new series even though, as readers, we’re just being introduced to them now. While the story of Sandman takes front and centre in these early issues, in the subtext and nuances one can see the workings of a fledgling artist attempting to establish himself in a marketplace that is quite cloistered and bent on nepotism – it is notoriously difficult to get a start in the comics publishing industry (particularly with the big two) without first knowing someone who has already achieved success.
We can see elements of this nepotism at work in the early issues of Sandman as well. Gaiman’s partner, Dave McKean, had been assigned the role of artist for Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum” hardcover graphic novel in order to build up a reputation for the release of Gaiman and McKean’s “Black Orchid” miniseries, released in tandem with the first few issues of the Sandman. McKean, as new to the American comics market as Gaiman, needed all the promotion that he could get, and Gaiman was happy to contribute to the cause – the final three issues of Preludes and Nocturnes feature Arkham as an important setting for the events of his story, as Doctor Destiny escapes from the madhouse and is eventually brought back there for punishment. The illustrations and text draw particular attention to the Asylum itself at multiple points in the narrative (209). Featuring Arkham in this way not only allowed Gaiman to support a friend and a fellow UK unknown, it also contributed to Gaiman’s own success as McKean had signed on to do all of Gaiman’s covers for Sandman: an attempt at cross pollination that proved to be very effective for both of them.
Though the Sandman proved to be a very important and highly studied series over its seven-year run, in its beginnings, a reader who is familiar with the workings of the DCU at the time and the machinations (and sometimes ostracizing qualities) of the American publishing industry giants can see the underlying forceful attempts of a new author struggling to make a name for himself in a challenging new milieu. One could argue, as Gaiman sometimes hints at himself, that this entire first run had far less to do with crafting an interesting story than it did openly establishing Gaiman as a new voice in the comics market, a feat accomplished through narrative trickery and inclusion of references that incorporate his work into the larger universe of familiar characters and summer events. Though Gaiman is now considered a force unto himself in both universes offered by the big two publishers, a look at his less auspicious beginnings and early forays into the industry show that he is not only a talented writer but an adept marketer of his and his friends’ work, eager to make a name for himself in whichever artistic field he decides to participate in.
Bender, Hy. “The Sandman Companion.” New York: Vertigo, 1999. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. “The Sandman Volume One: Preludes and Nocturnes.” New York: Vertigo, 1991. Print.