Leading Questions: Recommending Sandman

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 19, 2015.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why on Earth would anyone recommend a newbie start with Sandman?

Mark, are we going to have to have a conversation about using this column to plug your own work? I’m not going to complain this time though because your essay on “Preludes & Nocturnes”, the first volume of Sandman, this week really got me thinking about this topic. Sandman is a giant in the world of Western comics, looming over readers, critics, and publishers with its reputation and success casting an enormous shadow. When discussing the most influential comics in the Western world, Sandman isn’t far behind Maus or Watchmen (the obvious ones people who haven’t read many comics will most commonly use to try and snag some cred).

That sort of reputation has led to the series have a widespread presence in classrooms, recommendation lists, and scholarly examinations of the medium. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to a comic store that didn’t carry it. I rarely see a (collegiate) syllabus that doesn’t include it. I hear about it all the time, especially now that Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III have completed their prequel/sequel Sandman: Overture. Amazon has already called that newest story the best comic of 2015 (it’s not, but who expects Amazon to expend any effort on the topic?). Sandman is too big to be ignored, but that doesn’t make it too big to fail.

As you pointed out in your essay on “Preludes & Nocturnes”, the first seven issues of the series are rough. And, oh boy, are they rough. I decided to reread those issues after finishing what you wrote and before writing this, and was shocked at how much the rose-tinted glasses of time had affected my memories of these comics. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them bad. Even the incredibly dry history lesson of a first issue is significantly better than all but one of Vertigo’s newest roundup of first issues (Twilight Children being the exception and coming from two of the industries best). But those issues still are not great or, in a few cases, even good. I don’t want to dive into the flaws of Sandman #1-7, you already did that well and it’s not what you’re asking about, but they have plenty.

All of this particular prelude helps explain why somebody, even somebody with the resources and experience or an educator, might recommend Sandman to a new comics reader. If you want to introduce someone to something new, you should probably start strong, right? Why go with anything short of the best when trying to make an impression?

That question comes from a place of good intentions, but it’s also incredibly wrong headed.

If you want to show someone how much fun driving can be, you don’t stick them in a Formula 1 racer. If you want to convince someone how impactful movies can be, you don’t put on Battleship Potemkin. If you want to make someone a lifelong comics reader, you don’t hand them Sandman.

“Preludes & Nocturnes” only compounds the problems of giving a newbie this particular series. It’s the comic at its absolute weakest, both in terms of art and writing. Even at its best Sandman is hardly an inviting comic. The first time I encountered Sandman and read the series fourth volume, “Season of Mists”, I was only 13 years old. Even back then I had been reading lots of comics for a few months, collecting Suicide Squad and diving into other notable works like Watchmen (which holds up great) and Arkham Asylum (which only looks good to a pretentious 13 year old). I understood how comics worked and was craving ones that challenged me as a reader. So finding one of the absolute best Sandman stories at this point turned out pretty well, and probably helps explain why I’m still such a fan of the series. But would I ever give even “Season of Mists” to someone truly new to the medium? Hell no.

Even at its best Sandman is dense with a complex mythology and art that embodies what Vertigo was at its start (very, very brown). If you’re trying to figure out how to read a page or track speech bubbles, Sandman isn’t going to hold your hand. This isn’t advocating for simple or reductive comics, but it is possible for truly great comics to be literary (the appellation most commonly used with Sandman), display the unique strengths of the comics medium, and be easily understood. I bring a few comics with me to be added to the library when I teach Watchmen at a high school each year. Comics like Daytripper, Runaways, and We3 have all helped capture the interest of smart young students. They’ve also proven to be far more accessible than the volume of Sandman, they also have in the classroom.

So why do so many people continue to push Sandman as one of, if not THE, first comics that new comics readers should be? It’s not because it’s best choice. Even amongst the limited crowd of comics given plenty of mainstream credibility, it’s probably the toughest nut to crack. So I think the reason for its selection doesn’t have so much to do with its quality as a choice, for better (“Season of Mist”) or worse (“Preludes & Nocturnes”). I think the reason it continues to be recommended to new comics readers is simply the fact that it is one of the very few comics to receive mainstream acceptance as a literary work.

At this point the recommendation and use of Sandman ceases to be about Sandman and starts to be about something else altogether: the ego of the comics community or lack thereof.

We spend our time together chatting in real life, on social media, and here at Comics Bulletin steeped in comics culture. It pervades not all, but many of our waking hours, which may lead us to forget how much of a niche the medium still is in America. Not only is it a fairly young medium, only growing to prominence over the course of the past century, but one whose audience is still very small. Film, a medium just as young has become the most popular form of storytelling, and even more nubile video games are competing for that spot. Meanwhile, comics readers are measured not in millions, but thousands. It has resulted in a serious case of small man syndrome.

We may not be stuck on the question of whether comics are art or if they present literary qualities. The answer to that is a resounding, “no duh.” But plenty of publications (e.g. The New York Times) still stuff their headlines with inane phrases like “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and “Biff! Bang! Pow!” It’s an uneducated and inexperienced perspective on the medium, but it’s a point where lots of outsiders seem to be stuck. As a result many comics fans feel a need to prove themselves and the medium they care about.

When introducing comics to a new reader, the question of where to begin isn’t focused on what the best possible introduction to the medium might be, but what is most likely to prove that comics are serious stuff. Having a serious literary talent like Neil Gaiman and a renowned title like Sandman seems like a much better answer to that second question than something like Runaways, even if the latter is far more likely to transform a high school student into a lifelong comics reader.

Recommending Sandman to a newbie probably has a lot more to do with the recommender than the newbie. It’s a recommendation that comes with a need to prove itself and reflects popular opinion, even if that popular opinion is being handed down from places that don’t much care for comics. That’s too bad because one of the most important ways in which the medium is growing is through word of mouth. Handing out copies of favorite comics like Saga and Ms. Marvel is attracting more readers than any list of important comics like Sandman might. Recommendations are like gifts; they are best when given purely for someone else’s benefit.

None of this is to say that Sandman isn’t important or that it lacks merit. The final issue of “Preludes & Nocturnes” titled “The Sound of Her Wings” is very powerful stuff and an issue I would happily hand to some newbies as an early recommendation. It’s definitely a series that any longtime comics reader should at least sample, given its historical influence and the literary merit of its best stories. The problem with recommending Sandman isn’t recommending Sandman, but recommending it right at the start. Just like any other medium, from film to literature to video games, there are good starting points in comics and important works that fans should eventually discover. Being able to discern the difference between those two will help new readers and comics fans who want to share this incredible form of storytelling.

In the meanwhile, new readers trucking through “Preludes & Nocturnes” will at least get to read about J’onn J’onzz and Scott Free eating Oreos at 4am, and that’s pretty neat.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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