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Dreamland : When Neil Gaiman Writes the Last Chapter of 'The Sandman' This Fall, the Greatest Epic in the History of Comic Books--Seven Years and 2,000 Pages--Will Come to a Close.

September 03, 1995|Steve Erickson | Steve Erickson's last article for the magazine was "American Weimar," an essay on modern democracy and politics . His latest novel, "Amnesiascope," will be published next spring by Henry Holt and Co

Then the renaissance ended. Looking back, it's surprising how abruptly it ended. Inspiration gave way to the frustration and fury that the best writers and artists felt from dealing with the creative limitations, commercial demands and corporate bureaucracy of the mainstream--which is to say DC and especially Marvel, the monster of the business. Most notably Miller and Moore veered sharply toward the margins, where they would not have to accommodate a market still driven by 14-year-old boys, and where other gonzo geniuses, led principally by the Hernandez Brothers, were waiting. The work they have done there, like Miller's noir "Sin City" and Moore's Jack-the-Ripper saga "From Hell," has been as exhilarating as it is subversive. But on the margins of the business, it remains.

In the late '80s, after other people kicked down the doors, Neil Gaiman happened to wander through. He found he practically had the mainstream to himself, as well as a new market created over the preceding few years that wasn't just 14-year-old boys. The first project that got him attention in America was "Black Orchid," a bold if not entirely successful metaphysical title influenced by "Swamp Thing." After that he went on to "Miracleman" and "Books of Magic," the graphic novels "Violent Cases" and "Mr. Punch," and the particularly fine "Signal to Noise," about a dying filmmaker. As well, he co-authored "Good Omens," one of those novels published from time to time with lots of words and no pictures whatsoever. No one, however, including Gaiman, would contest that "The Sandman" is his masterpiece, and almost immediately he began testing the boundaries of what he could get away with.

"You can sort of see in the earliest stories," points out artist Dave McKean, who has done the fabulously spooky, id-wracked covers for every issue of "Sandman," "that when he first started out there was just this expectation of, Well, I'm doing this thing for this huge company, and this is the sort of thing they usually do, and you can only go so far. And then I think very quickly Neil decided, Well, why? Why shouldn't I just do what I want?"

*

He did what he wanted. If at first Gaiman didn't know exactly what that was, within a year he knew in meticulous detail. A comic book script is not unlike a movie script, except that the writer is also the director, giving directions to the artist that may be loose or specific, depending on the comic and the writer and the artist. Gaiman's scripts, which often run 40 pages or more for a 24-page, 135-panel story, are precise down to describing not just the action in every panel but often how large and dominant the panels are, what's in the foreground and what's in the back, what the overall visual tone of the page is, what the characters look like, and what the juxtapositions are between image and dialogue

While he has breezily broken comic book traditions right and left, writing narratives that spiral back into each other from the proximity of years apart (the seed for the upcoming final issue, number 75, was laid back in number 19), it may be that Gaiman's most daring creation has been the main character himself. Dream is a willfully unlikable master of ceremonies. His brooding mystique not withstanding, he is pompous and morose, harsh and utterly self-absorbed, bound to a code of honor ("the rules," he calls them) as capricious as it is mysterious, and he has all the social tact of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" cranked to maximum volume at a baby shower. His conduct tends toward the extreme. Having banished the love of his life to eternal torment in Hell for nothing worse than simply being wiser than he, he never considered the malice and injustice of his action until thousands of years later, when his sister finally pointed out how rather horrid it all was; at that point he turned the waking and dreaming universe upside down to rectify the matter. Hell, Heaven and everything in between are still sorting out the mess. He has no sense of humor whatsoever; in 69 issues, unless it was with a subtlety that would make Noel Coward look like Sam Kinison, he has never made a joke, let alone a witticism or an aside that might be considered vaguely sardonic.

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