And then there was Sandman.
I don’t just mean in terms of all the comics discussed in this meme, either. I mean that there were all the other comics in the world… and then there was Sandman. My comics reading history divides neatly into Before Sandman and After Sandman, as clear and obvious a watershed moment as you could ever find. After all, if I weren’t the comics fan that I am, my life would be very different; and I wouldn’t be the comics fan that I am if it weren’t for Sandman.
I was dimly aware of it long before reading it, of course. And I suppose there must have been an inkling that it was meant to be something special by virtue of the fact that, when my Dad sold his somewhat epic comics collection some time when I was too young to have yet read the likes of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and all the other “best bits”, he held on to his first edition Sandman trades (although he did flog whatever single issues he’d accumulated before switching to buying it in that form). So the books were always kicking around, waiting to be read – and indeed, I’d dipped my toe into it on occasion, having at some point at an earlier age read both the “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “August” stories. But by the time I was 15, I knew enough about comics to know that I really should be reading the series in full. I figured I was old enough and intelligent enough – and without much ceremony, I dug out my dad’s copy of Preludes & Nocturnes and started reading.
The impact on me was immediate and profound. I pretty much wouldn’t talk about anything else for the next year or so. Gaiman became, instantly and without question, my favourite writer across all and any media (and despite some iffy comics work since, his novels and short stories are enough to keep him in that place for me). I started wearing black more, not because I was a goth or a mosher or anything, but because he did and his characters did. I called myself “Somniator” – having worked out that it was Latin for “Dreamer” – on my early forays into the internet (“Morpheus” would have been simpler, but The Matrix had just come out, and I didn’t want people to think I was naming myself after that). I brought the trade paperbacks into school, making my English teacher read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and my Latin teacher read “August”. And most crucially, from that point on, I was lost – I was irrevocably and forever an evangelistic Comics Reader.
I’ve since re-read the series so many times I can recite it almost beat-for-beat, and yet it still offers a fresh thrill whenever I go back to it every year or so. It was the series that taught me exactly what comics were capable of; that they really could be astonishing works of searing literary merit – a point I’d return to in essays both at A-Level and later for an Oxford thesis. It broadened my awareness of a vast array of visual styles, with The Kindly Ones in particular teaching me that the most brilliant art didn’t necessarily have to be the most perfectly realistic. It led me to an entire new world of comics to explore – from direct spinoffs, to other characters (such as John Constantine) who happened to show up in its pages, to series that were simply inspired by what Sandman had done with the form, and which owed their very existence to its success. It is simply the greatest and most brilliantly-told story in comics – and, further, in just about any form of literature for a very long time. It’s funny, sad, scary, profound, educational, perceptive, literary, moving, warm, chilling, epic, and utterly without peer.
For me at least, Sandman is the comic that stood up and shouted “This, this is what comics are supposed to be for”. It’s fair to say that I doubt any other comic I read will ever actually live up to the standard it set, and so perhaps in that way its strength is also a weakness (when you’ve read it, can anything else compete?) But even so, I can’t hold that against it – comics is a great medium and a great artform, perhaps the one I love more than any other; and it’s because of reading Sandman that I was able to make that wonderful discovery.