Before I get started: IT’S JACK KIRBY’S BIRTHDAY! WOO!
OK, OK, I’m good…
So I’m re-reading The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Or, I should say, I’m re-reading the first half. Having never finished it, I could hardly re-read the last bits, could I? Anyway, I just finished volume three, which is the collection that houses the hodgepodge one-shot stories between The Doll’s House and Season of Mists. It’s hard to say if this post qualifies as a “history” post or not. I haven’t yet done much really recent stuff. I’d have to go over the whole archive to be sure, but I think there’s nothing more recent than (the beginning of ) Sandman labeled as a “history” post. But this comic is significant in the development of fantasy as we know it, so let’s call it that and move on, yes?
Specifically it’s important because it reintroduced fantasy to comic books. Of course, superhero comics function on a (spice) mélange of SF and fantasy all the time. A professor once had to point out something most of us were assuming so deep in our bones we couldn’t articulate it: superhero stories all have an agreement with the reader that it’s “science fiction” whether or not anything ever tries to explain anything using science. So even Doctor Strange functions in a sort of science fictional world, if for no other reason than he lives in the same world as Tony Stark. In DC, for instance, a lot of superheroes in the 80s got their powers from the “Gene Bomb,” a device set off by an alien race (I think). There were fantasy elements too, naturally – see Doctor Strange, or Captain Marvel – but Sandman was the first very high profile comic that simply said, “there’s magic. Don’t worry about it. Let it make the sense magic always makes.”
Magic, and fantasy as a genre even, relies on sympathetic magic, on symbolic sensibility. That is, a SF story nominally has to “make sense,” has to be logical or at least naturalized enough to seem that way. A fantasy story can make symbolic sense – zombies can appear because they’re the appropriate symbol for whatever’s going on (see Kelly Link’s zombie story in Magic for Beginners), not because a virus caused them (see also the original versions of Romero’s movies, in which one of the best explanations offered is that “hell is full of sinners” therefore there’s nowhere for the dead to go (oh, and see Survival of the Dead – I think that’s the one, the first-person camera one – for a Stephen King cameo in which he plays a very good crazy preacher talking about the end-times).
Sandman brought that sort of a-logic back to comics, dominated to this day by people who think that even if they don’t have to explain the superpowers, they have to explain everything else. Realism to cover over an inherent discomfort with the fantastic, I would imagine. Neil Gaiman has proven, I think you would agree, that he’s perfectly comfortable with things making the absolute sense of something in a dream, rather than the tenuous sense of something explained to death. So of course the Endless are there. Everyone has those ideas. Therefore, they are there, or rather, here with us. The oddity of The Sandman isn’t that it’s a comic about godlike beings – Jack Kirby did that twenty years beforehand – but that it’s about things more fundamental than gods themselves. Comics like Promethea and Fables, in the wake of Sandman, were able to also posit worlds in which narrative elements and devices were things, characters, and forces, but Gaiman’s work is really where it was (re-)introduced to comics. And it pretty much had to be a comic. The Endless are concretizations of abstractions – Dream, Death, Destiny, so on – and comics concretize, visually, the more abstract, older storytelling media (it has a lot to do with radio and tv, for instance, as well as, obviously, books). To read that there is a character in a room that is somehow also death is one thing (and one marvelous thing, as Terry Pratchett fans can attest), but to see him or her is something else.
It’s fair to ask, at this point, what Sandman brought back from comics to fantasy in general. I could snidely answer “comics” and be done with it, since that’s what I was saying earlier – hey, it’s true, but I am probably incapable of letting an argument be that spare. Gaiman, based on his success with Sandman, got the chance to write novels as well, and those are wonderful too. So we gained in that way. But fantasy, for a while, got a new subculture that was ready for it. Goths might have been into fantasy before, but they were definitely into it after they discovered Sandman. And fantasy needed the boost, honestly. What are we talking about, here, 1990-1? Fantasy fans were very much DnD fans, riding on the rise, contiguous with the rise of Hard SF in the mid- to late-70s, of whatever the hell we’re calling the endless fantasy series. No longer a novel or a trilogy, this brand of fantasy novel hopes to never end. Let’s be charitable and assume it’s not for money – though depending on the author it certainly is. But also that allows writers and readers to investigate a world in a way impossible in nearly any other form. Very widely and sometimes deeply. But fantasy needed some people reared outside the realm of endless novel series and weekly DnD games. It needed Gaiman and the comic book people to show up with their revelation (you know, the one the New Wave writers tried to sell to everyone over a decade beforehand) that startling images clustered around intense characters create a world without ever having to lavish even one pointless paragraph on a mountaintop no one will ever visit. Comics reminded people that twenty two pages is enough.
And yes, I realize the irony of saying that while we’re in the middle of comics that insist on the world or the characters’ endless, permutated relationships. Sigh.