Comics You Should Be Thankful For: Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg

I meant to get this out pre-Halloween, but I was all weird sorts of crazy-pants during the time home from work during the hurricane. Basically I accomplished nothing. I went to an amazing wedding, but in terms of feeling like I did something towards my goal of becoming a working writer? No, I did not do that.

But I re-read some Sandman comics, and while I was going to tie them into a Halloween/Horror theme, I will instead create a new theme for November that is Thanksgiving-specific. I’ll call it “Comics You Should Be Thankful For!” Because you should be goddamn grateful that these amazing comic books exist.

So, for our first installment: The Sandman. This is a series that people often present as a gateway comic to people who don’t read comics. It is a great comic for that. It blends fantasy, horror, and a smidge of super heroics. It is also about stories. But there are also people who don’t give a crap about ANY OF THAT. Do not recommend it to them. This is for your friends who LOVE TO READ. Not your friends who read to pass the time while traveling. Sandman is for people who want to get lost in a world not their own. For those who want to visit the worlds of Tolkien, Rowling, King or Lee and Kirby, because they’ve been there so many times through reading that they know they’re real. It’s for people who get lost in dreams and nightmares. And for those who let their imaginations run wild (like Hulkamania). If any of those things ring true to yourself, or someone you know, then you should read Sandman if you haven’t already.

As I mentioned, I was going for a horror-themed post, so I selected the issues “24 Hour Diner” and “The Collectors” to re-read. They did not disappoint. These are stories about monsters. Each is an intermingling of the real-life monsters and the ones that we imagine in order to either warn others of the real ones, or to take away some of their power. Both stories are written by Neil Gaiman (who created and wrote the entire series) and drawn by Mike Dringenberg (who drew many of the early issues and is credited as co-creator on the series). One of the selling points of The Sandman is that any of it’s trade paperbacks can stand on their own. This is also true of many of the individual issues. Would it help to read more of the series to enjoy “24 Hour Diner” or “The Collectors”? Yes. But they also work as stand-alone stories.

“24 Hour Diner” is about the inhabitants of a diner who are used as playthings for a man with the power to control them. A waitress, a trucker, a young woman anticipating reconciliation with her girlfriend, a young man waiting for an interview, and a long-term couple who hate each other are manipulated by Doctor Destiny into revealing themselves, while also playing the roles he’s picked for them. He can do so through the use of a magical gem, but he’s not any different from a crazy person that has taken a group of people hostage of a confined area. Gaiman’s narration provides insight into all of the character’s points of view, making it all the more scary as each loses control over their own will.

Dringenberg’s art blends dark fantasy and reality, making great use of negative space and shadows, helping the reader to believe that such an event could be sprung upon them at any moment. His framing in the above panel also proves the horror rule of “sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s truly scary,” but helps you to see what you’re imagining a little better with the blood dripping down the frame.

“The Collectors,” while just as dark as “24 Hour Diner,” blends in a bit of humor. It’s built on the premise that serial killers get together for conventions to discuss their trade. The chairman tells a reaping/raping joke; there’s a panel for women serial killers…it’s like the US Weekly “Stars…they’re just like US” of serial killing. Gaiman and Dringenberg introduce a number of distinct killers in 22 pages, some getting only a panel to half a page of introduction, but they paint some pretty vivid pictures.

Each killer is introduced differently, but every one has at least one single panel of their true self, colored entirely in shades of red and black as they pose over their victim. Artist and writer are truly in sync here, presenting both the mundane public personas with humor while revealing the horrific true faces of these men and women.

Ultimately though, the authors strip away the facade. Both the one presented to the reader that they’re “just like you and me,” and the one the killers tell themselves, that “they are the heroes of their own stories.” Morpheus, the titular Sandman, the personification of Dream, reclaims a rogue nightmare, while making sure that the serial killers of the world will never sleep again.

I recently read a disturbing, yet well-written book called The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum. In the afterward, Ketchum writes of his disgust for the monsters of real life. The serial killers. The torturers. The people who willfully inflict pain on others and find justification in it. Both the book, and Ketchum’s afterward which expressed a desire to de-power these people reminded me of “The Collectors,” and the attempt of Gaiman’s Morpheus to take away the power of the killers. Because we can’t deny or stop these people from existing, but we can try and take away their reason to. Or at least hope to identify them better through these stories. Or something.

I don’t know. But I know that these are damn good comics. I’ve read and owned The Sandman in two formats, both in trade paperbacks, and in deluxe hardcovers. The hardcovers are beautiful, but if you’re trying out this series for the first time, you’re probably better off on Comixology, or by picking out a volume for $10 on Amazon. 

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