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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

"We don't remember our myth anymore," Amos says. "And what is myth? It's just truth that has happened and that we've forgotten, but that's still happening now." Gaiman's reconstruction of comic book myths has wound up something very different from Batman or Superman. Dream may be the most morally neutral comic book hero ever, defined neither by righteous revenge nor nihilistic fury nor messianic purpose, creating nightmares as easily as reveries because, in the Dreaming, there has to be both. "The Sandman" is not about heroism or justice or redemption; Amos thinks it's about "wholeness," about fragmented, busted-up people finding their common bond and becoming cohesive. But given the melancholy that pervades the book, it is also about loss. A sense of loss has gripped the comic from the beginning, when Dream lost his freedom within the prison of that English cellar. Ever since, it's been one loss after another: loss of faith, loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of certainty, loss of identity, loss of the past, loss of the soul, loss of our dreams every time we wake, with Dream the agent of all our life's losses, until Death transacts the last and greatest loss of all.

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Almost from the beginning of "The Sandman," there were rumors the end was near. By Issue 20 Gaiman began suggesting in interviews that he would be finished with the story by Issue 40, "and then as I got on I said, 'Well, it isn't going to be done by 40,' and then I said, 'Well, probably 50.' And then, when we got into the early 50s, I started saying, 'Well, if we're still going by issue 70, I'll be very surprised.' "

He finally killed Dream in Issue 69, with so little theatrics one had to read it twice to realize it happened. "I think I knew all along I was going to kill him off, but I didn't know if I would have the guts when I got there. So I built escape holes and trap doors. All through the structure of 'Sandman' there are dozens of trap doors, to get me out of it if that really wasn't where I wanted to be when I got there." It was Gaiman's idea that DC Comics simply discontinue "The Sandman" when he was finished. Gaiman doesn't legally own the character; some version or other of the Sandman dates back to the 1940s, having gone through three or four incarnations before Gaiman created his. At first the company flatly rejected the proposal, before acceding to Gaiman's wishes. No one in the business can recall something like this ever happening: a major company making a purely artistic decision that will lose it money. "When someone has created such an outstanding and phenomenal piece of work as Neil," says DC executive editor Karen Berger, "it would be counterproductive for us to just say the hell with you and we're going to do whatever we want."

In other words, it apparently occurred to DC, that Gaiman himself is a potentially more valuable commodity than "The Sandman" will ever be. At the annual Comics Convention in San Diego in July, the line of people who brought their posters and books and comics for him to sign snaked through the cavernous convention hall out into the lobby; scheduled to last an hour, the signing was still going on after two, when Gaiman finally had to tear himself away for another commitment. At an event called "Spotlight on Neil Gaiman," with the aplomb and command of a brilliant monologuist, he regaled a standing-room-only, turn-away crowd for 90 minutes with Tales of Gaiman. These included the story of his first comics job, offered him by a guy in a bar who claimed to own a company that Gaiman finally discovered months later didn't exist; and his encounter, at the age of 15, with the stunned school career counselor who could only greet the boy's announcement that he wanted to write comics with the reply: "Have you ever considered accountancy?" For his convention performance Gaiman dressed in his customary black, though the leather jacket and the shades came off soon enough, and he laughed as much as everyone else when the first question from the audience was, "When you look in your closet in the morning, how many colors do you see?"

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