Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Dream from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Top Fantasy Novels: The Sandman

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Sandman is not a fantasy novel.

I was going to write about American Gods, which is a fantasy novel, but I realised everything I liked about it was done better in The Sandman. So, although The Sandman is an urban fantasy horror comic series, I’m going to explain why it’s actually a great fantasy novel.

She’s realised the real problem with stories – if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.

First of all, I’m letting myself count it as novel for of one simple reason: it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. While most comics are spandex-filled soap operas, The Sandman was written with an end in mind. And certainly there are issues and even arcs that don’t feature the central character, Dream. But these feel more like sub-plots and, more often than not, those stories do in fact feed into the finale. The Sandman had a cohesive narrative you don’t often see in comics, but you see all the time in novels.

Only the phoenix rises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.

Say what you like about Neil Gaiman, the man has an ear for poetical prose. Regular readers will have noticed I pepper my reviews with quotes from the text. The Sandman has been the hardest to pick quotes from. It’s beautifully, honestly written, with lines that will make you stop and think and even change the way you see the world. It makes The Sandman very easy to love.

Things need not have happened to be true.

But why is it a great fantasy novel? Well, for starters, the main character is Dream. He’s the living embodiment of, well, dreams. If that’s not enough for you, the setting ranges from modern day Earth to the past, to Hell, to other worlds, to realms like the Dreaming and even worlds in the mind. Still not enough? How about a cast of characters from myth and literature? John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter rub shoulders with Odin and Bast. Robin Goodfellow and Titania mingle with Remiel and Lucifer. Gaiman pulls in mythology and folklore and legend from wherever takes his fancy. He also creates a number of secret histories (a story that reveals an unknown cause or meaning to historical events). It turns out that Dream had a hand in Shakespeare’s genius as well as the fate of Emperor Norton of the United States of America.

I have no liking for prisons, Master Li. Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.

That’s why The Sandman is one of my top fantasy novels. Yes, it’s beautifully written and it’s got a cohesive story quite rare to comics. But it’s an epic far greater if not grander than The Lord of the Rings. It pulls in so much fantasy that it’s almost bursting at the seams. And yet it never feels like a jumble of myths and cameos. Gaiman makes it seem like all the disparate characters and settings were always meant to be part of the same story. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, I can’t recommend it enough. After all, how many fantasy novels are told with pictures?

Five Titles That Will Change Your Opinion of Comics

Last week I had a bit of a rant about how comic books were no good and needed to buck their ideas up. So, to balance the scales, I present to you my Top Five Comics You Should Read Because They’re Really Quite Good You KnowTM.

Dream, drawn here by John Watkiss, is the title character of Neil Gaiman's epic Sandman series1. Sandman (Neil Gamain, various)

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was always going to earn top billing. It ostensibly tells the story of Dream, the titular Sandman, who is the personification of dreams. Gaiman populates his world with so many other characters and stories that he ends up telling a story about the power of dreams and of stories themselves. Stories can range from a convention for serial killers, though the eccentric (and historically accurate) Emperor Norton of the United States to Lucifer giving up his role as the devil. By making his character an immortal embodiment of dreaming, Gaiman gave himself the freedom to tell stories in the present and the past, involving fictional characters as well as figures such as Shakespeare and Marco Polo. This breadth and the depth that Gaiman wrote with kept the series fresh and exciting throughout. Sandman introduced me to comics and is an example of the medium at its best.

Hugo Weaving played V in the film adaptation of V for Vendetta. I kept expecting him to mention Mr Anderson...2. V for Vendetta (Alan Moore, David Lloyd)

A lot of people would put Alan Moore in their top five except they would probably pick Watchmen. V for Vendetta, I feel, is the better choice. It’s set in (what is now) an alternative past ruled by a fascist conservative government and tells the story of Evey Hammond and how she becomes involved with the terrorist V. I wonder if this would ever be published now as V is not only a sympathetic character but, ostensibly, the hero. It’s not always that simple, though, as while the anarchist V seeks to bring down a cruel and brutal fascist government, he does so by blowing things up and killing people. This is not a black and white tale. Yet the shades of grey elevate this to a thought-provoking morality tale. I guarantee that when you read the end, you won’t be certain is Evey has made the right decision. V for Vendetta is the Guardian’s reading club book of the month and happily labelling it smart, relevant and other flattering terms. They’re not wrong.

Humberto Ramos' beautiful artwork combines with Paul Jenkin's deft writing to produce the wonderful Revelations from Dark Horse3. Revelations (Paul Jenkins, Humberto

Dan Brown done right. Charlie Northern is an English detective and a lapsed Catholic who gets drawn into a suicide at the Vatican only, of course, it’s not a suicide. Secret cults, death and treachery abound, all punctuated by Charlie swearing at his cigarettes. Jenkins writes a brilliant character in Charlie Northern, grounding the spectacular tale in stubborn disbelief and brusque but touching honesty. And special mention goes to Humberto Ramos’s art; it’s just beautiful.

Superman: Red Son puts Batman in a bad-ass furry hat.4. Superman: Red Son (Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett)

I’ve written about this title already but I’m happy to recommend it briefly again. Mainstream superhero comics are full of ‘what-if?’ stories but this one is by far and away the best, asking “what if Superman grew up in Soviet Russia?”. Instead of making Superman a pantomime villain, Millar weaves a complicated in which Superman becomes well-intentioned but misguided, rewriting DC history to include a brilliant touch; Batman in a ushanka.

Art Spiegelman writes a harrowing tale of a Holocaust survivor in his graphic novel Maus5. Maus (Art Spiegelman)

Maus appears so far down the list because it seemed too obvious. Comics tend to be about super-powered men beating up other super-powered men, and you can’t get further from that than a Holocaust survivor’s story. Maus, too, has become so readily accepted by mainstream literature that it doesn’t feel much like a comic anymore; it doesn’t carry that social stigma, the furtive nature that comes of being knocked by the establishment. But there’s a very good reason for this: Maus is art, through and through, making masterful use of the comic medium to tell a serious story in a way that prose alone could not. Don’t get put off by the harrowing and depressing elements of Spiegelman’s tale; this is a book that you need to read, even if you never touch a comic ever again.