BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, Jones III, Bachalo, Zulli, Parkhouse, Jones, Vess, Doran, and McKean’s (2006) Absolute Sandman (volume 1)

22 October 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

Neil Gaiman : Alan Moore :: Nine Inch Nails : Skinny Puppy.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Gaiman, Kieth, Dringenberg, Jones III, Bachalo, Zulli, Parkhouse, Jones, Vess, Doran, and McKean’s (2006)[2] Absolute Sandman (volume 1)

In case you were imprisoned in the 1990s and missed it:

THE SANDMAN, written by New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman, was the most acclaimed comic book title of the 1990s. A rich blend of modern myth and dark fantasy in which contemporary fiction, historical drama and legend are seamlessly interwoven, THE SANDMAN is also widely considered one of the most original and artistically ambitious series of the modern age. By the time it concluded in 1996, it had made significant contributions to the artistic maturity of comic books and become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right.

I find that something consistently rubs me the wrong way with Gaiman’s writing—a wrongness usually spectacularly offset by the work of the illustrators involved. And if one may find any writer of comics or graphic novels who most consistently proves the maxim “the illustrations have more importance than the story” one could hardly think of a better example than Gaiman.

I don’t mean that he writes the worst stories that get elevated by compelling art—lots of schlock can’t get rescued by excellent art, and whatever’s rotten in the Denmark of Gaiman’s writing only very occasionally involves schlock.

I should add, I’ve gone out of my way lately to read more of Gaiman’s work precisely to see if it continuously irks me as it has previously (it does) and then to try to get at the root of why. And I realize as well that his enormous fan base (if sales mean anything) adore him in these and those ways, but just as the memory of losing your virginity to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t mean that Jimmy Page therefore stands as the greatest guitarist ever, the emotional attachment to Sandman or other works by Gaiman doesn’t signal his warrant as more than actual exhibits.

One of the things that struck me, working my way through the 20 episodes in this book: very little happens over the course of 612 pages. Eventfulness, of course, transpires at times, but as event connects to event, it ultimately doesn’t build to much. Here, for instance, Dream spends several instalments just retrieving his three artefacts of power. Afterwards, he even mopes that he has nothing left to do. Indeed.

This exposes the fact that much of Gaiman’s narrative exists simply to fill some stipulated number of pages. Needing to supply 25 pages per title and ten titles over the course of whatever, he winds up providing what ultimately amounts to filler—typically gorgeously illustrated filler, but still filler.

I do find he has a knack for psychopathology and cruelty, though in the world of fiction (as also in the real world) narratives and solutions that riff on the deployment of violence, however artfully or vulgarly accomplished, from the most banal murder to any systematic genocide, always represent a path of least resistance. To say again, while taking this path of least resistance always can most readily occur—just as we might always resort to “nigger” when insulting a person of colour or “faggot” when insulting someone not heteronormatively aligned—the stylishness with which one resorts to this might vary greatly, but it remains the easiest and laziest of resorts, compared to more artful insults or (even more radically) a more cooperative solution to some narrative or problem.

By contrast, for instance, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing articulates an amazing solution when he elects to “talk” to the plants, who would destroy the world. Ironically, this solution involves far less stress, strain, and effort than anything any other superhero might try to devise to solve such a threat;[3] diplomacy proves simpler than violence (war). But this counterfactual to Gaiman’s resort to psychopathic violence points more to his gratuitous duration of it.

In general, Gaiman seems to have nothing to say; he simply moves characters in the canon around to fill up the pages. An overstatement, though not much of one—it seems like he mails it in, or just sees some idle way to shuffle the pieces around.[4] The obvious and striking comparison of this with Moore’s work makes Gaiman’s seem all the more pre-fab and unsatisfying. Whatever one thinks of any particular work by Moore, filler and mailing it in seem never at issue.

Certainly, in Gaiman and McKean’s (1995)[5] The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr Punch: A Romance, perhaps because of being liberated from any length requirement or obligation to make Batman appear for no good reason at all, he manages to tell a story unmarked by what makes Sandman seem ultimately such a waste of time. But we might still wonder how Sandman managed to achieve the success it did.

One effect of the culture wars in the Nineties in the United States entailed a culture-wide extension of relativism. To put it too succinctly, any ground of truth receded to such an extent that almost literally the only “truth” that anyone would accept as a ground centred on affective intensity; the rise of “extreme” as an adjective (extreme sports, extreme daily devotionals for men, extreme Doritos, extreme oatmeal—these are not satirical examples) signals how “affective intensity” becomes the only compelling or recognizable ground of truth, in a social sense. The further increase of anti-intellectualism, the erosion of argument that the Internet hastened at breakneck speed, media centralization into six gigacorporations, and the vast network of smoke and mirrors to provide endless “spin” on even the most inconsequential “fact” laid the groundwork for an animal mode of human existence where “life” comes to consist principally, if not solely, of moments of intense experience.

This phenomenon does not remain confined only to the graphic novel. Watch an action movie from thirty years ago and it seems now at simply a conventional drama’s pace In music, guitarist Jeff Loomis regularly piles more riffs (and quicker shifts between them) in one song than in entire metal albums of yore. Nor does this point to something like Toffler’s (1970)[6] Future Shock. In Toffler’s imagining of shorter and shorter generation gaps, he still assumed that each generation would generate some “collective knowledge”; a knowledge that the next generation, even if born only two years later, could no longer recognize as knowledge. Instead, imagery and event flashes by, presented with maximum emphasis, only to disappear without a trace: US news exemplifies this now, to a surreal degree.

Thus, the narrative aimlessness of Sandman (by design or by accident) reflects the Zeitgeist for when it appeared. It lingers in a narrative zone that implicitly has scope, concerning itself with creatures (the Endless) who transcend even gods in their purviews and powers, thus automatically leveraging something of intensity. And, of course, the art literally captures the spectacle of the spectacular.

Some degree of narrative arc sort of adheres, but only because the human creature automatically tries to make sense of sequences.[7] Mind you, a serial format as a genre tends to beg sequence of the sort we see in films or novels; rather like a book’s chapter, each instalment more or less demands the typical beginning, middle, and end. And in comics, as some people encountered for the first time watching TV’s X-Files, we often have some on-going major arc, inter-cut with one-offs.

Sandman has this, except that the normal disjointedness of the genre breaks down even further, not simply within episodes themselves, but even at the level of frames. Something like a sub-sequence appears that seems not very convincingly attached to what came before or after—except that the reader supplies the necessary sequence (sense-making). And this too perhaps added to the lustre of the title during an era when all semblance of any collective understanding outside of that kind of individualism Jung described half a century prior as pathological individualism. Leaving it more to the reader to determine the sense of the story perhaps marshals more investment in the experience of reading the story, rather than for the qualities (yay or nay) for the story itself. The “whoa-awesome” but transient intensity of the experience not only gets taken as unquestionably real—in a world-sea of claimed experiences and spin that seem ever vanishingly removed from establishing credibility at all—but it also invests the ego specifically in that particular object (as the source of the experience). And thus gets created the fan boy, to the delight of neoliberal capitalism.

Thus, rather like the experience of (male?) orgasm, which features maximal intensity but also a curious lack of body memory about it—so that one of necessity gets driven to re-experience another orgasm—the disconnected but locally intense experiences Sandman sets up to pursue buying the instalment, as the only way to have an unquestionably real experience again. That this seems masturbatory and that Sandman seems (pointlessly) masturbatory comes as little surprise then. Nor that Gaiman seems to practice this; as he wrote about pornography in response to Moore and Gebbie’s (2006)[8] Lost Girls, “It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined. Lost Girls, however, is all about consequences” (from here).

Sandman not so much, and nowhere all about consequences.

When Gaiman accesses more conventional material (as in Mr Punch) or the Midsummer Night’s Dream installment of Sandman his work (notwithstanding more fantastic art) more enables the sense-making capacity of the reader familiar with those pre-existing texts. The same holds (or should) for his dips into the comics canon, but not only should credit for making connections devolve to the reader, not the writer, a qualitative difference obtains between the sense made vis-à-vis Punch and Judy or Shakespeare and a comics universe. The latter, in a most general way, implicate a culture-wide and historical participation; every articulation within the comics canon implicates an only limited, specialised, and non-historical (but still sequential) participation.

Or to put it more plainly, it means less (socially speaking) in comics than in the life of culture. At this point in history, this sort of phenomenon shows itself more and more to exaggeration, as people’s personal investments in the vicissitudes of TV series belie more cultural loyalty than voting or community life. Just as one might say that the band Nine Inch Nails took everything authentic in the band Skinny Puppy and turned it inside out so that only a spectacular and vacuous shell remained, so Gaiman does for Moore’s accomplishment in comic narrative.

We needn’t punish the messenger for the message he delivers, but only rather for delivering it at all.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Gaiman, N., Kieth, S., Dringenberg, M., Jones III, M., Bachalo, C., Zulli, M., Parkhouse, S., Jones, K., Vess, C., Doran, C., & McKean, D. (2006). The absolute sandman. (vol. 1). New York, NY: DC Comics., pp. 1–612.

[3] In fact, no one comes up with a suitable solution.

[4] If anything galls me particularly about this, it comes up when I think of the degree of hard work all of the artists put into the title. It seems to scant their effort, however much they got paid for the work.

[5] Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (1995). The tragical comedy or comical tragedy of Mr Punch: a romance. 1st paperback ed. New York, N.Y.: Vertigo/DC Comics, pp. 1–96.

[6] Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. Amereon Ltd., New York

[7] In this respect, the subtitle of Gaiman and McKean’s (1992) Signal to Noise, “how do you make sense of your life” takes this theme in a kind of literal sense.

[8] Moore, A., Gebbie, M., & Klein, M. (2006). Lost girls. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf

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