Sandman four is the first issue to really show off the aspect of Neil Gaiman’s storytelling that most entertains me as a reader, and inspires me as a creator.
We are in the middle of Morpheus’ search for his three missing tools. He found the pouch of dream sand last issue, and is venturing, literally, to Hell this issue in search of the demon who has come into possession of his helmet.
Spoilers (if this is your first time reading these Sandman posts, beware, there are always spoilers): he finds the demon.
But first he must venture from the gates of Hell to Lucifer’s headquarters.
At the gate Dream is confronted by an insulting demon, and reacts to the slight like this:
When I first read this story, I think I assumed this was a hint of things to come. So far in the series Sandman hadn’t really fought anything. But since I grew up on Superhero Comics, I “knew” it was eventually coming. Having read the totality of the series, and become accustomed to Gaiman’s work, I now believe this moment to be a planned misdirect. Gaiman uses his reader’s expectations of a fight in Hell to surprise us with the actual contest. Which is not a physical contest, but a riddle game of wordplay and wit.
This subversion of cliche is one of my favorite things about Neil Gaiman (and Joss Whedon, the other huge influence on my comic Tart). Gaiman seems to be able to either notice when he’s venturing into a trope we’ve all seen time and again, and take the road less traveled, or he has the cliche in mind he plans to exploit before he even starts . Either way, it’s that break from the conventional that always gives me the most pleasure when reading one of his stories.
As a writer, it is difficult to stop yourself from falling into cliches. When the first draft is flowing it can sometimes mean you’re being exceptionally creative. It can just as likely mean you are regurgitating stories you’ve read before. I, personally, have to actively work against it. Spoilers to my comic Tart, but the first issue has our lead investigating a kidnapping. I was moving through the story expecting Tart to encounter a malevolent demon who snatched a kid without much more motivation than a tiger snatches a gazelle. But when I got to the point where Tart tracked them down, that felt easy.
I forced myself to stop and think about why a demon, who wouldn’t understand human norms, would go to the trouble of leaving its dimension and grabbing a child. What if they had lost a child of their own and tried to replace it. The kidnapping goes from being an act of cruelty to a misguided act of love.
There is an emotional payoff to our finished product that would not be there if it was just a fight scene (note: I love fight scenes. Issue 3 is all the evidence you need to convince yourself of that. But man, if I can make you feel something… that’s the goal).
I’m not saying it is as cliche-breaking as many of Gaiman or Whedon’s best stories, nor even worthy of being compared to them. What I’m sayin is, it’s a start.
I found out later, by the way, that this choice was what convinced Ludo he wanted to work with me. As he didn’t want to tell a good vs evil, white is white and black is black story. Instead, he wanted to live in the gray.
Later in the week, the true bravery of Gaiman’s storytelling: Making Sandman a colossal dick.
All images Copyright DC Comics. Used within the Fair Use Doctrine.