The Sandman feels now like a modern classic, one of the first and best recognised graphic novels, influencing how comics are seen and how fantasy is written. It ran for 75 issues from 1989 to 1996, and in the four-volume special release, academic and fan Leslie S Klinger adds depth and further layers to Gaiman’s incredible world. Shakespeare, myth, Greek tragedy, the whole world of comics; there is so much reference and pastiche and borrowing Klinger contributes to this other world of knowledge.
Many moons ago, a friend bought me The Annotated Sandman: Volume One for my birthday. I had never read Gaiman before, wasn’t really into ‘fantasy’, the only graphic novel I had read was The Complete Maus, but it struck him as something I would like. How totally, completely right he was. Not only did I completely adore this stunning, detailed, smart, layered story of the Sandman, but it drew me into the whole incredible world of Gaiman. The Sandman – specifically, Klinger’s annotated editions of the graphic novels – was my introduction to the mind of this author; the smarts, the funnies, the sheer level of knowledge, the twisted plots, the respect for his artform. Since then, I’ve been buying the annotated volumes as they are released; this is the third out of four, covering issues # 40 – 56.
The Sandman is the world Dream – Morpheus, King of the Dreaming – changing name and appearance depending on where in time and who he is seeing him. He is one of seven siblings of The Endless, incomprehensibly powerful beings, older and greater than gods: Destiny, the eldest sister Death, Dream himself, the beguilingly androgynous Desire, Despair, Delirium – who was once Delight, and Destruction who turned his back on his duties. There is so much in this family alone: the siblings born in the order humanity realises them; each a master of their own realm, separate to their existence but brought in from chaos by them; older and bigger than our own planet can even fathom; governed by their own codes and power.
It’s hard to talk about plot here. This volume covers a massive 16 issues, and across the whole series Gaiman manages massive story arcs as well as smaller individual tales. It feels like a concerto starring – or perhaps conducted by – Dream, supported by the rest of The Endless. Every face in every frame has a role, a part, and their own moment or backstory. One larger story in this volume is about the lost little brother, Destruction, and how he abandoned his duties and realm. Dream helps Delirium on her distracted, stubborn journey across worlds and times to find Destruction, who when we first finally formally meet him looks terrifyingly like Brian Blessed. And we know, thanks to Klinger’s annotations, that this was in fact a note by Gaiman in the script to the illustrators and letterers.
And it’s here that Klinger’s annotations really become worthwhile. He adds notes from the process, reminds you of previous appearances and plot points, and delves into the massive scope of Gaiman’s references. In his introduction, Klinger talks through the bookshelf this volume required:
…on it reside books on funeral customs of the world and the history of freemasonry, Robert Graves’s ‘The Greek Myths’, a treatise on folklore of the Bible, a copy of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, a volume of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and a complete run of the original ‘Prez’ comics. (Fortunately, I already owned a wealth of Victoria references, and the Internet can supply data on trivia like the monuments of Baghdad and the date of Freddie Mercury’s death.)
Reading The Annotated Sandman series also revealed to me the collaboration inherent in comic and graphic novel works. Gaiman writes the script – it’s his story, his characters – but the illustrators bring it to life, the letterers give each Endless sibling a distinct style. Frames break as characters interject; double page spreads of incredible artistry burst open as the script moves through an epic stage; background references and cheeky nods are incidentally added throughout; each artist has their own style while still making lead characters instantly recognisable; sometimes taking cues from Gaiman’s script (as noted by Klinger), sometimes ad-libbing on their own.
And with these artists, Gaiman shows his mastery for his form. He respects words and writing and stories, borrowing and remembering stories as old as humanity, and works with other artists to create something bigger than himself. There is too much here to begin to grasp, each issue requiring re-reading, reviewing the pages, tearing along with the story and going back over the artistry. And with Klinger’s annotated edition, you’re given a hand to step in to this massive, awesome world.