Wednesday, May 02, 2007

100 Great Pages: Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess's Sandman #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream", p. 13

Ninth of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

One of my concerns when I began this series was that the idea behind it was an inherently distorting mechanism: the criteria for 'great pages' only partly overlap those for great comics, and thus this series would necessarily present a distorted slice of the field -- one that would probably omit many great comics -- even some of my very favorites. One of the ways in which the series would distort, I feared (and fear) is that it would privilege comics with dazzlingly beautiful art -- which is not all great comics.

It's as if one were to make a list of great sentences from novels: some novels would lend themselves far more readily to the notion. I do love novels with dazzling, poetic prose -- prose which simply sings on a phrase-by-phrase level -- novels by writers like Proust, Nabokov, Updike. But writers with clean, clear, but less overtly acrobatic prose can be equally good novelists: Jane Austen is a gorgeous writer, but in a quieter way: one which emphasizes character and incident more than dazzling metaphor. But she's at least as good as Proust, Nabokov and Updike. She just does different things.

As a push-back against this, I want to make sure to try and excerpt pages from comics which have art that is good in a clear, clean, crisp sense rather than in a dazzling-with-effects sense. It should be clear by this point that I love fancy page layouts and the like: but there are other great ways of being a great comics page.* Sometimes the art simply helps to present the words clearly and powerfully, rather than dominating our sense of the work.

Which brings me to Neil Gaiman and Sandman.

Sandman was inarguably influential in the comics field -- building on its immediate predecessor (Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing) to be sure; but nevertheless powerfully influential in all sorts of ways, such as pushing American comics publishers to keep trade paperbacks in print (and put them out in the first place), not to mention its precedent-setting cancellation for artistic rather than commercial reasons.

Despite this, however, I feel like Sandman doesn't get quite as much respect in the comics world as it should. I feel at times as if comics fans are divided between proponents of lit'rary comics (who get nervous at genre, and prefer to scurry to the socially respectable safety of mainstream fiction and memoir)** and proponents of superhero comics (who get nervous without enough tights and fight scenes); Gaiman gets pegged as overhyped by both sides. (The comparative weakness of his recent work for Marvel (1602, at least; I haven't read his Eternals series) hasn't helped.) Thus the introductions to the Sandman trades tend to be by people like Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany and Gene Wolfe, rather than people primarily associated with the comics field. My guess is that you're more likely to hear Gaiman referred to as one of the great writers of recent times at an SF convention than a comics convention.***

But then, Sandman always appealed widely to those who read few other comics. I think it still does. (If I'm wrong about this, incidentally -- and I might well be -- so much the better.)

All of this is a roundabout and probably overly defensive way of saying that I, for one, think of Sandman as one of the great achievements in the graphic novel to date; it feels to me underrated, even by people who take comics very seriously; but I think it is a simply marvelous work.

So let's look at a page.

The page I want to talk about is from issue #19, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- one of the 'short stories' that Gaiman would periodically do in his comic, that is, stories that were complete in and of themselves in the issue, rather than part of a longer story arc. This one you can find collected in the third Sandman trade, Dream Country, or in the recently-released oversized hardback, Absolute Sandman, Volume 1. It tells the story of the first performance of William Shakespeare's play "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- which, in Gaiman's tale, was commissioned by Dream of the Endless, an anthropomorphic personification of the realms of Dream and Story, and which (as part of the commission) was premiered before an audience of Faerie, including the Queen Titania, King Oberlin, Puck (AKA Robin Goodfellow) and the other characters portrayed in the play. (This issue, rather famously (or infamously?), won the World Fantasy Award, inspiring a rule-change to keep comics from winning what some people felt should be a prose-only award; rather like the twenty-second amendment's posthumous revenge on FDR for winning four terms, this particular ex post facto rule change only served to increase the distinction of the object of its spite.)

Page thirteen is from the middle of the story. The top two tiers of the page show a backstage conversation between Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, and Tommy (in a dress: he's playing Helena (this historically accurate, of course: women's roles were played by boys in English plays during Shakespeare's time)). The bottom tier shows two panels of the ongoing performance (lines by Puck and Bottom), and a comment from the real Puck in the audience. Here's what it looks like:

(Click for larger version.)
(That scan, by the way, is from my (comparatively old) copy of Dream Country. In addition to Gaiman & Vess, it was inked by Malcom Jones III, (correction from Neil Gaiman (!) in comments) colored by Steve Oliff and lettered by Todd Klein. The version in Absolute Sandman may have been recolored (although it's not clear that it was; from what Gaiman says here it sounds like only issues #1-18 were recolored), so might look different -- but, as with Absolute Watchmen, Absolute Sandman too pricey for some of us. So what you get here is a scan from the trade paperback. (If anyone out there with a copy of Absolute Sandman and a scanner wants to scan the page & send it to me, I'll post an update...))

One of the things Gaiman does marvelously well is have people tell brief, verbal stories: it happens throughout Sandman (and in his other work too), and it works well here. This page gives us Hamnet's story (and, yes, the name is real: in this case, as in so many others, Gaiman's "history is real history and his myth is real myth" (in the marvelously accurate words from Gene Wolfe's introduction to Fables and Reflections)). Hamnet feels pain at his father's preoccupation:
He's very distant, Tommy. He doesn't seem like he's really there any more. Not really. It's like he's somewhere else. Anything that happens he just makes stories out of it. I'm less real to him than any of the characters in his plays.

Mother says he's change din the last five years. But I don't remember him any other way. Judith -- she's my twin sister -- she once joked that if I died, he'd just write a play about it. "Hamnet."

Mother ordered him to have me for this summer. It's the first time I've seen him for more than a week at a time, that I remember. But we live five days' ride from London, up in Warwickshire, and see him seldom.

All that matters to him... all that matters is the stories.
A simple, powerful version of a familiar complaint (familiar in modern times, at any rate; I'm not sure how anachronistic it is to put it in the mouth and mind of a boy from four hundred years ago, although I have a nagging sense it might be somewhat). Which pleads the question: why is this little story so powerful?

It's all about the context. This story is an ordinary story, but it is juxtaposed to fantastic, extraordinary events. Shakespeare's company is presenting its play to an audience of faeries: an audience of otherworldly, bizarre, frightening beings who appeared through a magic door in the middle of a field. The dream play that they are crafting, it turns out, is about real creatures -- creatures far stranger and more menacing than their portrayal in Shakespeare's play. Yet in the midst of these eldritch events, Hamnet is still feeling -- still able to articulate -- the pain of his father's emotional distance. One common experience in genre literature is to put fantastic things against an ordinary backdrop to magnify their power; here Gaiman does just the reverse.

More context: on some level, we can't help but feel that Tommy's right. Hamnet's father is William Shakespeare -- that's William Fracking Shakespeare, who is not only the greatest writer in the English language but whose name has become, as often as not, a symbol for an abstract Unmatchable Genius as much as it is a symbol for the actual genius of his actual works. Proud of your Shakespearean father? How could you not be!? -- Which again highlights through the extraordinary the power of the ordinary: what boys want from a father is not Unmatchable Genius but love and attention and... well, a good and present father. Shakespeare is a genius; and geniuses pay attention to their work, not their sons.

Of course, this entire page (arguably much of the comic as a whole) is all about people not paying attention to what others are saying. Tommy says that Hamnet must be proud of his father. Although Hamnet seems to listen -- "proud? I guess" -- he then goes on to talk about a wholly different topic: his relationship with his father. He does not, in other words, answer Tommy's question. And then, at the end of Hamnet's story, Tommy returns the favor: he returns to his original theme ("I'd be proud of him, if he were my father") as if he hadn't heard what Hamnet was saying. And, of course, Hamnet's speech is itself all about his father's ignoring him (that, indeed, is the "people not paying attention" which is most likely to engage the average reader's attention). These multiple instances of non-connection, each playing off the other, are yet another context that give Hamnet's story its power (and save it from sentimentality): Hamnet no more pays attention to Tommy than Tommy does to him, or than either does to the actor playing Bottom who comes to get his mask in the midst of Hamnet's speech, or than any of them do to their weird (and wyrd) audience.

And then there's the fact that we see, three pages later, Shakespeare grieve for a death when Dream tells him that Kit Marlowe is dead. Dream says to Shakespeare that he did not realize that the news "would hurt you so"; Shakespeare replies:
You did not realize? No, your kind care not for human lives. Dark stranger, already I have regret our bargain. But come, our night's comedy begins once more.
Shakespeare does grieve, because he is not fully in the world of Story -- the world of Dream -- where pain is taken and made into things of beauty. He's enough in it that he can reverse his pain with the last sentence, and re-focus on the night's comedy; enough in it that he himself is partially one of Dream's kind, who cares not for human lives -- only for stories. But he isn't fully one. And so we suspect that he will, in fact, care deeply for Hamnet's death -- that Hamnet (and his sister Judith) are wrong.

We suspect: although we never quite fully know. There are more stories here than meet the eye, or the ear. (Often the most powerful stories are ones that are just hinted at, ones we are forced to imagine rather than hearing. And that's part of what we get here.) That Shakespeare's historical son, Hamnet Shakespeare, bore some relation to his play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is not an original speculation on Gaiman's part. But he makes us imagine it as a story: the grief, and the grief filtered through the prism of a story to become great art -- to because enjoyment for audiences. Pain distilled to bitter to make a delicious dish. It is not only, as Puck calls it, a magic art, but it is a somewhat sinister one too, as Gaiman is at pains to point out.

This is a story all told off-panel. We don't see Hamnet's death; we don't see Shakespeare's grief or his use of it to write his most famous play. In the final issue of Sandman, when we see Shakespeare again (towards the end of his life), he mentions both his son and his use of experiences in his art -- but not together. Scott McCloud says that a man who dies between panels dies a thousand deaths, and indeed is killed differently by every reader; Hamnet Shakespeare dies, as it were, between panels, in the gutters: readers will tell themselves the story of his death, and it is all the more powerful for the forced necessity of our using our own personal invocation of Dream's art to do it.

Does Shakespeare care? Of course: we even see the pain, at the end of the run, when he asks Dream if Hamnet would have lived had they not made their bargain. He cares very deeply -- and uses that pain to write a play, arguably the best of his plays. It is that dichotomy that this page (and much of this comic) is about -- and that contrast that lends each side its power.

"But we live five days' ride from London, up in Warwickshire, and see him seldom." Those last four words -- "and see him seldom" are beautiful: spare, graceful, just archaic enough to fit the context but not so much so as to be obscure or ostentatious; making (as Marilyn Hacker once said) the reader add all the ugly parts of a sentence. Gaiman writes good prose: the prose on this page isn't straining to be poetic, but even there, there is quiet but unmistakable craft in it.

So far I have been discussing the top two tiers on this tree-tier page. Those tiers are backstage; the seventh and eighth panels return us to the stage: the dialogue here is Shakespeare's, from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, Scene 1. Then, in the final panel, the real Puck -- the menacing Puck of Faerie, not the "merry wanderer of the night" of the play -- gives his judgment: "This is magnificent -- and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?" The answer, of course, is that it is the magic art of story: "a lie that makes us realize the truth", as Picasso put it. But it is an art -- a magic -- that comes with a price beyond that of lying: a distance from life, from friends: a willingness to choose perfection of the work over that of life (quoting Yeats, this time). Here Gaiman and Vess show us -- on a single page -- what is gained (by quoting Shakespeare's actual poetry, showing the reaction of a naturally tough critic) and what is lost (by showing us Hamnet's pain).

One small skillful touch on this page is the use of the asses's head prop to tie to otherwise unconnected (or only thematically connected) parts together. Hamnet begins by cradling the prop, a physical articulation of his loneliness for his father's attention. Then, on the second tier, the actor playing Bottom interrupts the story (not hearing it, not even noticing that Hamnet is telling it: yet another example of people not listening to each other on this page packed full of it) to get the head and (in the background in panel five) puts it on. It's not even quite right to say that he interrupts: Hamnet pays no more attention to him than he to Hamnet, the story goes on with his costuming very much in the background, and the reader is likely to hardly notice the event, caught as we are in Hamnet's tale. But it means that when we switch back to the play -- the scene where Bottom awakes with an asses's head -- the on-stage action is subtly (possibly even unconsciously) but powerfully tied to the tale we just heard. It links all the events as part of a larger scene, links them in time, in space and in theme.

The artwork here is, as I said, not the focus of attention. But it is quite artfully done, presenting Gaiman's words in their best dress. Here is one small example of the skill: note that the panels on the bottom tier are a different shape (smaller & squatter) than the other six, with thicker gutters setting them off from each other and from the higher tiers. It's a small thing -- most readers won't consciously notice it at all -- but it helps differentiate the six panels presenting the part of the story behind the stage from the three panels that have shifted location to on (and in the audience of) the stage. Most likely without the reader's conscious attention, it helps clarify our sense of the movement of the story in an important, skillful way.

Vess's figures are extremely expressive too. Look at Hamnet's posture in panels one and five: the hunch in his back, the way he cradles the asses's head prop (in panel one) or buries his hands in his lap (panel five), all color his words. One of the reasons that Gaiman's simple story is so evocative is precisely these pictures: they lend an air of sadness (not unlike the workings of a good film score) that adds weight and tone to the tale. Hamnet's features, particularly in panels two and three, are individual and expressive. Vess's art is not as flashy as some of the art I've discussed previously in this series, but it is extraordinarily effective and graceful at what it does.

I want to return, however, to the issue of Story -- and I think it should be capitalized, for in the imagination of many fantasy writers (including, I think, Neil Gaiman) Story is an essential, a power almost as real and conscious as Dream in the world of Sandman. (In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (to which Gaiman contributed a few entries), John Clute writes about how awareness of the power of Story is essential to the nature of fantasy (as distinguished from the fantastic); see the entry for "story" and follow the cross-references.) I want to return to it because it ties in to my one criticism of this page (and of Gaiman and Vess's "Midsummer Night's Dream" more generally).

"Story" is a term with a certain resonance and meaning in Gaiman's work (and, judging from interviews and the like, his world more generally): story is, one might say, his term for the craft he practices so well, whether in comics or prose fiction or film or whatever-medium-it-is. Dream is, of course, Prince of Stories, and that identity is as central to his nature and narrative as are literal (REM-sleep-induced) dreams.

But was there ever a great writer of fictive narratives for whom the term seems less apt than Shakespeare? Oh, sure, one can define story to make it fit. But on a basic level Shakespeare seemed to care about everything involved in making a play except stories. His poetry and characters are unmatched, as original as any that have ever been crafted anywhere by anyone; his stories he borrowed from wherever. I find it difficult indeed to imagine thinking of Shakespeare's artistic process as all he cares about is the stories: that may fit a lot of writers -- may, perhaps, fit Neil Gaiman above all -- but Shakespeare? Surely all he cared about was the poetry; the language; the characters; the drama -- the play. If you want to say that poetry and language and characters and drama are story, well then fine. But at the very least it seems like an oddly chosen word in this context: more to the point, it seems like a case of slightly misplaced projection on Gaiman's part.

(I suppose it might be intended as a mistake of Hamnet's, misunderstanding his father even as his father ignores him -- or might anyway be read as such. But I see no sign of this in the text, and it seems to me the word's resonance in the Sandman series as a whole speaks against this.)

I doubt that this matters. In Sandman, historical accuracy is entwined with, well, dreams and stories: that Shakespeare was entranced with story makes a good one, even if it seems a bit odd based on the historical character we know of.

And in this one page, Gaiman gives us what might be a distillate of an entire thread of Sandman: the reality and fiction, the power and pain of Story. Here we see what story costs: Shakespeare is not there for his children; to Hamnet's death, his reaction (we can only assume) is precisely what his daughter Judith jokingly predicted: a play. But it's a great play, a great story: a story that crushes and distills the real to make a purer vintage than it can provide on its own. Puck -- even Puck, a "giggling-dangerous- totally-bloody- psychotic-menace- to-life-and-limb", as we have been told already in this issue, and as we will further see as the series progresses -- testifies to the power of the stories.

Stories are a magic art, an art that can make things more real than reality. In Puck's enjoyment, we see their power. In our enjoyment -- of Shakespeare's words (all the more powerful if we know and love the play, but powerful enough even without that), and of Gaiman's -- we see their power.

And, together, on this page, we see their cost. To make stories, an artist must suck his life dry. Magic is never free of consequences. This page powerfully pairs both the wonder and the pain that are the result.

Update: minor edits for clarity, and one factual correction.

* Some people deny this: some people talk about how, if comics are too wordy, they can't be good comics, since comics are (definitionally) a visual medium. This is (I think) the sort of nonsense that drives Eddie Campbell to vanish from his own books in rage; and on this point I quite agree with him. The R. C. Harvey-ism of judging comics by an artificial (and deliberately simplistic) standard -- how well do art and words work together? -- is just silly. There's a place in comics for comics with brilliant dialogue and art which simply helps present it. (Because why ever not?) Good dialogue can tell a good story just as well as anything else; and there are brilliant novels and films which are -- roughly -- just talking heads, with little else. Why not comics?

** As a long-time fan of self-consciously literary SF, I had a bit of culture clash when I first began reading comics in a serious way again eight or nine years ago. I had thought that people who liked more literarily sophisticated SF and those who liked more literarily sophisticated comics would be natural allies in getting good narrative art that was shunned for silly reasons the attention that it deserved; but I think the dividing lines here are in fact -- counter-intuitively -- deeper than they appear. Oh, sure, SF fans will often read and like Gaiman and Moore. But they don't tend (in my experience) to explore the further reaches of the flowering medium of the graphic novel. And those who try to promote "comics as literature" (or art) tend to do so by distancing themselves from genre fiction (which in comics is dominated by superhero stories). I haven't seen it much remarked on -- I think few people are aware of it -- but there is an interesting culture clash here that I (as a fan of both forms) find frustrating.

*** Yes, of course I know that Delany and Ellison have both done work in comics; I've already discussed Delany's work in an earlier entry in this series, for Pete's sake. But they aren't primarily known as comics writers, but as SF writers (much as Ellison might hate the latter designation).

**** Assuming that the comics blogosphere is representative of the latter, since I haven't actually, y'know, been to any comics conventions.


Neil Gaiman said...

It wasn't inked by Malcolm. That was a typo on the contents page of Dream COuntry that shows up in several editions, more or less randomly.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just a little late, but at the moment, my favorite thing about this post is that the only comment on it so far is by the rather famous author you're discussing!

Stephen said...

Scott: I hope that's due to the irony of that situation (which I find funny, in a self-pitying, 'gee-I-wish-people-would-leave-more-comments' sort of way), and not due to the fact that you didn't otherwise like the post!

Anyway, thanks for reading, and for commenting.

(And while I doubt NG will surf back here for replies, if he does, a major bow to one of my favorite authors. Honored to have you here, sir. Try the chardonnay?)

Anonymous said...

Stephen: Actually, I found the post through his site, which is why I was surprised that more comments hadn't been left. And fear not! I've bookmarked this post in case I ever get enough space in my teaching schedule to teach the course on Sandman I'm toying with offering. Reading your post made me want to rush up to my office, pull all of them off my shelves, and devour them again.

As I plow through American Gods for the first time (I came to Gaiman in an odd way and, it seems, more than a little bit late), your comment that Gaiman puts ordinary events against the backdrop of the fantastic is certainly an accurate one.

Anonymous said...

I knew there was some niggling little reason why the line "all he cares about is the stories" always bothered me. Thanks for pointing it out, and thanks for an insightful post.

Anonymous said...

Ah well interesting. I'm not sure about the whole Shakespeare and story thing. I suspect that there is barely a writer around who isn't trying to manage a flow of words by various methods (editing, slowing down, stopping (writer's block)) into something that people will 'buy into'. Some are better with story, some with characters, etc. But what they -the artists- care about in a general sense, is story. If they didn't, well I think it wouldn't happen.

I saw a typo if you'd like it: find 'hament'.

Thanks for your work.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent task you've set yourself, though 100 as a target is a bit much, given that you have to exempt every title page but one of Eisner's The Spirit.

I think you've pushed the Its Words Not Story too far. The Lambs' TALES wouldn't work at all without all the story stuff of plot, action incident & color etc. It certainly is words but its really Characters WS prized. Characters in their Story (after all, The Sonnets have a story but its the characters, the poet, the youth, the rival poet, the dark lady, Time as Death itself that stand out).

If Neil had had Hamnet say, "He prefers the characters he makes up for his stories over us", now THAT would have made what you say about that pages' interpersonal disconnect just all the more on target. Dream himself in this issue is in a disconnected state (his limited interaction with Titania, another previous lover), Kit's death is a permanent disconnect & foreshadows Hamnets; the fairies themselves are disconnecting from this world; the players are traveling, disconnected from London and so on.

That WE know WS will indeed channel his grief through at least Hamlet (& really Lear too as Cordelia doubles for the twins, one actually lost and the other feared to lose), transforming his son & grief into a Great Character, placing him in the firmament as a "fix'd star who's quality be unknown tho his heighth be taken", would make our hearts skip even more than that panel did if the key phrase was character in story. As there is No Story without Character.

Yes, I'd recommend taking it that way.

Anonymous said...

"But [Jane Austen is] at least as good as Proust, Nabokov and Updike. She just does different things."

Uh... No. She isn't. As good as Updike is easy, since he's crap. As good as Proust... maybe, 'cause he's full of himself and boring, though a brilliant writer. But Nabokov? Are you out of your skull?!

Other than that I like your blog, but seriously, that's just a terrible call on your part. Read Pnin and Pride and Prejudice consecutively to test your theory.

jeereg said...

Stephen: Wanted to say that this is one of the most intelligent and critical analyses of a comic's page (and comics, in general), that I've read. Congrats.

Also, I wonder about Gaiman's use of "story." It's true that Shakespeare wasn't particularly concerned with plot, but Story is the whole of its composite parts - the characters, the plot, the themes, the setting, etc. That's the way I've always thought of Story, and how, I believe, Gaiman uses it in the later issues of Sandman: look at the stories told about Dream in "The Wake", or look at "The Tempest", in that same trade. They are stories, but their concern is character. In the same way, Shakespeare's plays are stories, though their concern is the characters and, on a grander scale, the human condition.

You can make an argument that Shakespeare is concerned as much with structure, stagecraft, and spatial poetics as he is with his characters, and that he isn't specifically concerned with plot. But that doesn't diminish the fact that his plays, in their purest form, are stories upon the stage.