Prolegomenon – You should not expect expertise. There are other sources of that, encyclopedias and annotations, websites and Wikipedia entries, oracles and seers. I’m here for an experiment: to see what happens when someone who has only basic experience with comics and graphic novels encounters one of the classics of the field.
Wake up, Sir. We’re here.
The first words. Encased in a bubble, they emanate from a mansion in a panel labeled, “June 6th, 1916, Wych Cross, England.” The foreground of the panel shows gargoyles on stone pillars between the sharp tops of iron fence posts. The mansion is the middle ground of the image, full of blues and browns; the background gives us silhouettes of barren trees and flying birds.
Those first words gain significance throughout “Sleep of the Just”, the first of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories. (There were other Sandmans — E.T.A. Hoffman’s, the Mr. Sandman implored by so many singers to bring them a dream, the DC superhero Wesley Dodds who first appeared in 1939, the later DC Sandman of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from the mid-1970s.) There will be symmetry — this first Sandman story ends with the same view of the mansion (now with deeper blues and more purples) and this dialogue: “…we’re here. It’s all right. So wake up. Please wake up. Please…?”
I keep coming back to that June 6th, 1916 date. It’s so specific that I can’t help wanting to find significance in it. Is The Sandman, I wonder, akin to a Thomas Pynchon novel, where every name and date, every (it seems!) noun contains an allusion, a hint, a clue, a wink? (I hope not. Much as I can admire the extraordinary intellect such construction requires, I don’t find puzzles compelling.) June 6th is most meaningful to me for two things: it is my grandmother’s birthday, and in 1944 it was D-Day. I look on Wikipedia to see if there might be something else, but though there are many events from June 6th throughout history, according to Wikipedia (at least at the moment when I consult it), nothing happened on June 6, 1916.
I’ll go with that, because it relieves me. The date has no obvious meaning, which suggests The Sandman is not an obsessively allusive puzzle, and so I am happy. I can move on, keep reading, not get bogged down in particulars.
The first page of the first Sandman contains seven panels superimposed on one large panel. The large panel shows Dr. John Hathaway, dressed in a blue suit, walking up to the mansion. The reigning colors here are blue and brown, and the background panel is almost equally both, with the bottom half brown (ground) and the top bright blue (sky). This is in sharp contrast to later, much darker pages.
The first five panels zoom in. I wonder if there is a specific term for such an effect in a comic, something other than zoom, which comes from photography and film. I am sure that I will keep falling back on cinematic terms as I write about The Sandman, because I have much more background with film than with any other visual medium, and comics seem to me like elaborate storyboards. I suppose I read them that way, too, converting their images and words in my mind into a movie. This does them a certain disservice, because the arrangement and interaction of panels is not the same as the linear movement of one film frame into the next, or even one film sequence into the next. I force myself to slow down, to look at a page as a page and not a blueprint for movement.
The second page of “Sleep of the Just” at first seems like an abstract painting — yellow, blue, orange, crimson, green. I am aware first of the forms on the page as forms, not forms corresponding to a representation of things. The panels overlap, and a round panel at the top left corner of the page, showing a yellow face inside a gunmetal-blue decoration, could almost be an item in the room depicted in the central panel on the page. We have entered the mansion, and it is disorienting. The clutter of the top two-thirds of the page resolves itself in sharp diagonals at the bottom of the page as Roderick Burgess, Lord Magus, receives the Magdalene Grimoire from Dr. Hathaway. The powers that will shape the rest of the story are about to be unleashed.
Page three offers sturdy rectangular order in opposition to page two’s round chaos, and we meet the four dreamers who will fall into decades of sleep when Roderick Burgess attempts to capture Death and instead imprisons Dream.
The next four pages plunge us into darkness as Alex Burgess watches his father try to kidnap a god. The margins of these pages are decorated with a frame, and when Dream arrives at the summoning, he enters over the frame on the seventh page: borders have been broken.
And now we have our title page, a single panel of Dream (who, on a first read, we assume is Death) in a physical form resembling a particularly hideous sci-fi movie alien. The Art Nouveau type and decorations of the title remind us of the story’s era, for though 1916 is past the heyday of Art Nouveau, the characters are hardly men of their time — their occultism is distinctly antiquarian.
Alternations of light and darkness continue through “Sleep of the Just”, though darkness is most prevalent. The brightest moments come with dreamworlds: on page 11, a 3-panel zoom on the sleeping face of Unity Kincaid, the panel’s colors a muted red (hair, lips), white (skin), and black (outlines, shadows). Brightness returns when Dream escapes from his imprisonment on page 30, his body itself containing the binary: pure black at his back, pure white at his front — the only color he possesses is a blue in his hair. A pastel blue and green light radiates in front of him. The power of this light radiates through the next pages, with pages 31 and 32 containing only a few colors each, and Dream represented as black and white (plus blue in his hair) until he gains clothing. Page 33 brings in more colors as the dreamers wake, and 34 continues the brightness as Alex Burgess sleeps and Dream begins his revenge, but the remaining six pages of the story are as dark as the earlier pages depicting the ritual that trapped Dream. The decorative borders from those pages return, too, though they are never complete — Dream remains between worlds, because his tools have been stolen from him.
We began with five words and then end with thirteen that mostly echo the original five. The path is glimpsed, the story set in motion, the storyteller’s art unleashed as the reader’s new reality, banishing quotidian life to a memory or dream: Wake up. We’re here.