This is a graphic novel I’ve been meaning to read for a while now because… Neil Gaiman. I mean, we can all agree that his work is pretty amazing, right? And this is no exception. Now, I know that this isn’t exactly the newest graphic novel so I’m a little late to the party but in my defense, the party had been over for almost ten years by the time I was born so… yeah. Anyway, onto the review!
WARNING: I am assuming that you have read this graphic novel. If you haven’t. please don’t get mad at me for giving some of the plot away. Just go read it and come back after you’re finished–I won’t be offended.
This is, ultimately, a story about stories. It follows the life of Morpheus (or Dream) as he journeys through dreams and recounts past adventures. Throughout there are encounters with mythological creatures, and big names from history and popular media.
I could go through all of these allusions and explain them but that would be more of a history lesson than a review so instead, I’m going to focus on the framework of the book.
Here’s an idea: The Sandman is actually an epic poem. Not necessarily in the literal sense since it isn’t actually written in verse or have any rhymes–except for that part when Morpheus has a rap battle with that demon to get his helmet back. That’s not just me trying to be funny, it’s an actually part of the plot:
Instead of rhyming words, I want to convince you that images can rhyme. A weird idea, yes, but hear me out. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at what an epic is.
Epic? What’s That?
Considering the series was originally released in 75 issues over seven years, I think the lengthy part is covered.
While the story does touch on events from the distant past–we’re dealing primarily with gods here–the bulk of the narrative takes place in the 20th century. However, it does skip through a lot of time very quickly, seeing multiple characters’ entire lives within a single section, which adds to the feeling of scope.
Every epic needs a hero–hero in the ancient meaning of the word which does not necessarily mean they are moral–and that hero needs to go on a quest or do something that shapes the world they live in. Here’s a video that quickly goes over the Hero’s Journey:
The main plot involves Morpheus traveling across Earth and different dimensions in order to find magic items that were stolen from him at the beginning of the story. This means that, even though he is a god, he spends most of the story without his full strength–which in turn leaves him open to failing.
There are other extraordinary humans that pop-up throughout:
In turn, some of these humans, along with Morpheus’ magical tools, shape the very fabric of reality, only to have Morpheus show up and try to put everything back to normal again. So far, it’s looking pretty convincing that this comic is in fact an epic poem. However, you’re probably thinking “but it doesn’t rhyme! Poems have to rhyme!” Okay, okay, time to roll up my sleeves and get persuasive.
How Do Comics Work Anyway?
About now some of you might be rolling your eyes at me because, “it’s just a comic book! How complicated can it be?” Well, poor, naive reader, there’s actually a lot that goes into making a comic. Here’s a little video that talks about what comics are and a little about how they work:
One of the points that stood out to me in this video was the point about words being “juxtaposed sequential static images” too even though this is what we usually think of as comics or film. So how far can we push this connection with words? Here’s an image from the comic that uses space to show the progression of time:
Real basic: read from left to right and time passes from one panel to the next storyboard style. But this effect only works because the panels are similar to each other (kind of like when words rhyme? I’m just saying). This is how most comics are laid out. However, it’s when this technique is broken that really interesting and memorable scenes happen:
Still read left to right, top to bottom, but the images are no longer square and, while the panels are arranged sequentially and are still similar enough for the reader to follow what’s happening, there is a more thematic feel to the way the scene is presented. This breaking of rules draws the reader’s attention to this specific page and the events that are taking place–the thematic elements help to make a scene that is composed of Morpheus’ thoughts, and little action, seem grandiose.
Poems also break rules when they want to draw attention to a specific part of the work. If there’s a strict measure, they’ll make a line or stanza fall out of rhythm to make it stand out.
Breaking the Rhythm
In an article by Daniel Mertin Goodbrey, he explores the idea that:
[a]rrangments in space can also be used in the establishment of symmetries, visual rhymes, and other motifsGoodbrey, 187
In poetry, a visual rhyme is when two words are spelled the same but pronounced differently (ex., cough and though). Therefore, even written poetry doesn’t always rhyme verbally but instead relies on visual similarities.
However, in this modern world where websites like Webtoon exist, the way images can be displayed has evolved. Even though most webcomics operate in basically the same way as print comics do, there are exceptions to this rule.
For one, webcomics are no longer restricted to the dimensions and limited space of the printed page–in theory, panels of any shape can be arranged in any ordering without being limited by their medium.
For an example of this, I recommend The First World, but please note that this comic has MATURE CONTENT and STROBING IMAGES.
There’s a thin line between a comic/text and animation/audio: the reader’s control of time–readers get to choose the pace at which they go through the story/content. With movies and audio, the pacing is chosen by the creator but with text-based media and comics the reader gets to chose when to turn the page and how quickly their eyes move across the page. However, how that page is laid out is a decision made by the creator.
Reader, I introduce you to the infinite canvas webcomic! For an example of this being used to it’s fullest I direct you to A Duck has an Adventure which is kind of like a chose-your-own-adventure game that incorporates comic book elements. Plus you get to play as a duck!
Maybe we’ve veered off course a bit but I did go on a grand voyage and had to fight the undead so maybe there’s a bit of the epic in this too? However, I do think my visual rhymes theory starts to fall apart here. While the panels are similar and it’s easy to follow what’s happening while you’re in control, how do you know where to start just by looking at the above image?
I think this has a lot to do with the blurred lines between comics and animation, or games, or apps–at what point does it stop being a comic given that, thanks to technology, there are very few limitations on the creators? I’m really not sure but I find it fascinating that no matter which medium we’re using, telling stories hasn’t changed all that much since the time of Homer.
“A Duck Has An Adventure.” A Duck Has An Adventure, E-Merl.com, 2012, e-merl.com/stuff/duckadv.html.
“Epic Poetry.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_poetry.
Gaiman, Neil, and Sam Kieth. Preludes & Nocturnes. Vol. 1, DC Comics, 1989.
Homer. The Odyssey. 2nd ed., Project Gutenberg, 2013, Librivox.org, librivox.org/the-odyssey-by-homer/.
Howell, Emily Nicole. “Odysseus Deconstructed: Crossing the Threshold into Critical Thinking.” English Journal 102, no. 1 (2012): 61–66.
Hume, K. “Neil Gaimans Sandman as Mythic Romance.” Genre, vol. 46, no. 3, 2013, pp. 345–365., doi:10.1215/00166928-2345542.
Goodbrey, Daniel Merlin. “Digital Comics – New Tools and Tropes.” Studies in Comics, vol. 4, no. 1, 2013, pp. 185–197., doi:10.1386/stic.4.1.185_1.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
“The Sandman (Vertigo).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sandman_(Vertigo).
YouTube, Dan Koch, 5 Dec. 2016, youtu.be/C8EQ5pGke4c.