Ever since its debut in 1989, Neil Gaiman’s ambitious comic book series “The Sandman” has inspired readers to argue for the artistic merits of its medium. Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore, the fans proclaimed. Comics are literature, too.
“The Sandman’s” 75-issue publishing run told the tales of a dysfunctional and immortal group of brothers and sisters, collectively known as the Endless. Each of the siblings in Gaiman’s modern-day mythology quietly ruled over some aspect of mortal life, although the existence of the Endless was known to few. The star of these fantasy stories was the moody, raven-haired one known as Dream, because he ruled over the realm of dreams. Gaiman’s imaginative series employed a succession of artists to illustrate his reality-bending ideas, with stories that hopped from one cosmic realm to another, more “Twilight Zone” than “Spider-Man.”
The series concluded in 1996, but its popularity appears to have endured. In 2006, Vertigo released a set of collector’s editions known as “The Absolute Sandman,” in which the comic book’s psychedelic artwork got a retouch and a fresh set of colors. Now the same publisher has launched another collector’s edition of the comic books that established Gaiman as a geek icon. This latest version eschews color and provides an academic, line-by-line analysis of the sort usually reserved for the classics. Few works, certainly few comic books, could bear this level of scrutiny.
Volume 1 of “The Annotated Sandman” reproduces the pages of the first 20 issues of the comic book in black and white. While the lack of color is a disappointment at first glance, this volume’s target fan already has the color editions, surely. What’s new here is the thick margins of text on each side of the original comic, devoted to decoding Gaiman’s literary allusions and adding context for some of his stories. Each page is the size of a vinyl LP record, and the whole thing weighs in at six pounds. This is a hefty tome that practically demands its own table, and three more like it are on the way.
I first read “The Sandman,” once upon a time, figuring that I was catching most of Gaiman’s literary and pop-cultural references. Boy, was I wrong. “The Sandman” mixed and mashed bits from mythology, literature, film and, naturally, other comic books. On one page, the reader learns, Gaiman is quoting from a documentary about the punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Another page features lines “from the apocryphal Gospel according to the Coptic Thomas.”
Gaiman’s mash-up style was always a little distracting. He sometimes came off like an insecure college sophomore home on break, determined to show off to everyone that he’d read a little Freud. The shock with this edition, for the casual fan, is learning that Gaiman has read every other book in the library and dropped them into the mix, too.
Much of the fun of the new collection comes from getting a look at passages from some of Gaiman’s original, pre-illustration scripts, which provide a behind-the-scenes look at how this comic was created. In some places, Gaiman rambles along, giving his artist collaborators the backstory to some minor character who quickly shuffles on and off his stage. In other places, he tries to flog his illustrators to new heights, as when he requests a portrait of a cat “so beautifully drawn that professional cat artists all over America will break their pencils.” I doubt that any cat artist’s pencils were harmed, but I love Gaiman’s enthusiasm. To fans, this is endearing stuff.
“The Annotated Sandman” won’t end any argument over whether comic books can be a literary medium. For all the literary sound bites that Gaiman sneaked in, “The Sandman” stands up after all these years because it presents an original, fascinating world, and not because of any highfalutin name-dropping. Newcomers would be better off with one of the more portable editions of these comics, but for the serious fan with cash and shelf space to spare, here’s another incarnation.
Musgrove is a former tech columnist and reporter for The Washington Post.