The Bottled Cities of Neil Gaiman

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

The world is made of stories.

Sandman: Preludes and NocturnesNeil Gaiman taught me that and a lot of other things across 75 issues of Sandman, his magnum opus about the personification of Dream—usually called Morpheus—and the challenges he faced as he was confronted with the need to change.

That’s an oversimplification, because it has to be. Sandman is one of the most layered works in comics, concerning a host of otherworldly characters and what feels like a hundred disparate narrative elements that end up coalescing into a treatise on life and storytelling that is, to this day, the work of fiction that’s affected me the most.

I first read it around the age of fifteen, when I was just starting to explore comics as a medium. I got into some classic Batman stories and went from there, which meant being told almost immediately that I had to read Watchmen and I had to read Sandman.

The former remains to this day one of the most ingeniously constructed literary works I’ve ever encountered, but it’s the latter—far bigger, far more unwieldy, far harder to pass off to curious friends—that really changed my life.

Not immediately. My initial read through made an impact, but I was too young and moving too fast for everything to stick.

It was when I went back a year or two later that made the difference. It was a time when I was really starting to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and I have no doubt Sandman helped me find and feel comfortable with the answers.

The whole series has lessons, about destiny, dreams, and death (and several other metaphysical concepts beginning with “d”), but the most important one for me came in issue 50.

sandman-ramadan“Ramadan,” illustrated by P. Craig Russell, might be the best single issue of a comic I’ve ever encountered, and is certainly the one I consider the most important on a personal level. It’s one of Sandman’s many standalone issues, and tells the story of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, ruler of Baghdad at the mystical height of its splendor. But this kingdom isn’t enough for Harun, who is plagued by the fear of his great city’s impermanence.

So he summons Morpheus (who appears only after Harun threatens to unleash an army of demons upon the world) and proffers a deal with the Lord of the Dreaming: Harun will give him rule over Baghdad on the condition that Morpheus promises to make it last forever.

Morpheus accepts, and suddenly Harun awakens as the ruler of a far less magnificent Baghdad. Gone are the wonders, the magic, the wealth, and his memories of a time when things were better.

But as his guards are escorting him back to the palace, Harun comes across Morpheus once more. The Caliph no longer recognizes the Lord of Dreams, but he becomes enraptured by the object in his possession: Baghdad as it once was, only shrunken down to fit in a bottle, like a ship or, better yet, a genie. Harun, mesmerized, goes on his way.

What was a good story becomes transcendent with a final cut away to a young boy in modern day Baghdad, now ravaged by war, and the discovery that the story we’ve been reading is the same one he’s just been told. The boy asks the meaning of the deal between Harun and Morpheus. How was Baghdad made to last? He doesn’t get his answer, but as he walks home we see it for ourselves, as this poor, wounded boy, his home a warzone, still has his spirits lifted through the Baghdad of old, now the Baghdad of story, which lives on forever in imagination.

The power of storytelling and of belief is a major theme in Neil Gaiman’s work, extending from Sandman to other comics like Marvel 1602 and beyond to his novel American Gods, but never is it crystallized in a more perfect, concise tale than this one issue, which makes it clear that stories, for the sheer impact they can have on our lives, are no less real than reality, and can feel even more so.

And for me the issue is self-demonstrative, as it allowed me to give myself permission to dedicate my life to storytelling in a way I wasn’t comfortable with doing before. I had the sense that I wanted fiction to be a driving force in whatever I ended up pursuing, but I wasn’t sure I could justify it. It didn’t feel important enough until Gaiman showed me that, in fact, there might not be anything else that matters more.

And that’s a lesson I carry with me in everything I do, be it writing stories or writing about them or just living my life, sharing it with people who matter and bottling whatever part of my experiences I can, my own cities to pass on.

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