PBS has a show called Arthur about slice-of-life adventures that several children have; one Arthur episode had Neil Gaiman as a guest star. He not only signed copies of Instructions but also gave a free copy of the Coraline comic adaptation to one of the Arthur cast members, Sue Ellen, as an example of a graphic novel.
“Why didn’t he give her a copy of Sandman or Violent Cases?” I thought after watching the episode multiple times. “Oh, right. Not exactly family friendly.”
Neil’s work and I go back at least twelve years. Our middle school and high school had a huge volume on the history of DC Comics, and the page on Vertigo and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stood out to my eleven-year-old self. I found the page of art fascinating, more so with the strange art style and the summaries of the various stories. More so, I found it fascinating that Neil chose to end a comic when Superman and Batman had been running since the 1930s. I decided to request the volumes from the library and read them for myself as a high school student.
Here is the catch: Sandman is not a child-friendly comic. The first volume alone has a man tormented for eternity for keeping the King of Dreams imprisoned after his father captures the latter, several people murdered gruesomely in a diner, and a woman impregnated during a “sleeping sickness”. The second volume was even more violent, featuring a serial killer convention and a vortex that could destroy the world. A Game of You was the only volume that tested my patience, because it promised an epic hero quest of chosen ones coming from our world into a fantastic one to save it, and instead a very depressing reality check occurred.
I read Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes in the early morning before the sun came up, finding it morbidly fascinating. The violent images, including one where a woman gouges her eyes out under a madman’s compulsory spell, stayed with me. Yet I kept reading, because something in the storytelling appealed to me, of characters making sense of an absurd world with unfair gods and entities, and where death happened so randomly even when Death herself didn’t make a cameo. The titular character talked of metaphysical things such as being a mere plaything for mortals, merely being “dolls,” and about having to change. I found the story “Calliope” also morbidly fascinating since it sparked one of the largest cliché stories about writers capturing and raping muses for ideas. At some point I outlined a graphic novel of a writer with ideas treating a muse in distress much more kindly, with Sandman homages, and realized I couldn’t write it because I lacked the drawing ability to render full panels and abstract art.
My family started realizing I wasn’t reading child-friendly comics, however. My brother insisted on skimming Volume 6 and returned it to the library because it featured French revolutionaries using decapitated corpses as marionettes for live performances. I tried checking it out a second time, and failed to get past his scrutiny. Many years later, I was able to finish the series while reading the versions that my college campus had, as an undergraduate student. I was also able to reread A Game of You and attempt to comprehend why a typical hero’s quest failed in that volume, when story narratives demanded that the quest would succeed.
Despite reading Sandman as an adult and understanding it better, I don’t understand the story completely. People have written annotations online, and drafted entire papers around analyzing each comic art. Even with that information, I cannot fully grasp the implications of having a sailor named Jim hear the story of an unfaithful Indian queen and comment on the double standard, while seeing fantastic sea serpents in the great ocean, or of Morpheus refusing to let his son die even when the latter exists as a severed head on a guarded island. That makes the rereading more special.
At some point, Neil realized that children and teenagers were reading his adult works and asking their parents awkward questions. For that reason he gave permission to adapt his children’s novel Coraline into a graphic novel, and to put his SFW stories into a collection called M is for Magic. For the readers that were still young in the early 2000s as well as their parents, this was a good thing. For the readers like me who were entering adulthood, however, the reality couldn’t be far more different. The new books were pretty amazing, as were the graphic novel adaptations, but we were already corrupted. In addition we could apply more thought to Sandman to understand the spark that we craved while reading it, to the concept of gods that refuse to change, and how death ultimately influences life.