Wednesday, July 29, 2015


::sad trombone::
I consider it a blessing if I get an opportunity, once a year, to chip away a little bit at the legacy of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I like to provide a little balance in a world of ceaseless praise. It's a mitzvah, I do it for you.

Sandman remains one of the most celebrated comics in history, and with good reason frankly - its virtues are multitude and its reputation isn't wholly unearned. It's also a book which connected with a lot of contemporary critics (and readers) during their late high school and early college years, when every little thing is infused with an almost celestial importance, and that has resulted in a blanket unwillingness to ever address the book's assorted flaws, shortcomings, petty indulgences and occasional stink. No book has ever been given quite the free pass Sandman has - not Watchmen, not Dark Knight Returns, not Maus, nuthin'.

One of these much-forgiven storylines is actually one of the stronger stories - Sandman vol.1 No.20 ("Facade" October 1990). Much like many of the better stories in the Sandman series, it's a single-issue aside focusing on a character we've only just met (for the most part) and enjoys a surfeit of the otherwise intolerable title character and his endlessly annoying family members, if only for the most part. Don't yell at me about it, yell at Neil Gaiman, who made the main characters of his book the least interesting characters in his book. I had nothing to do with it, he didn't even ask me.

The issue in question has two significant problems, neither of which bother to pop their head above water until the story is almost over. The first of these is that it was allegedly written as a grudge...

Well are YOU in LUCK!
Gaiman was reportedly frustrated with the use of his character Death (You might know her better as the Siouxsie Sioux-Lookin' Girl Who Can't Shut Up) in the superhero book Captain Atom which, as Gaiman put it, got the character wrong. Shuffling her up with other personifications of Death in the DC Universe, the interpretation allowed for each of these aspects to enjoy an equal amount of time in the limelight, which you might imagine is a nice way to resolve an apparent potential issue with having fifteen different incarnations of death running around and is a nice way to honor the contributions of the creators who all share the toys in the this big, long-running, universe-spanning toybox.

Nuh uh, replied Gaiman, insisting that his Death was the only Death and those other guys would bow before her when the time came for them to die. It's odd to imagine Gaiman becoming upset at another creator harmlessly appropriating and slightly reinterpreting his character (in a book which wasn't part of the Sandman canon, by the way, so conceivably there's no harm done) since that's the essence of Sandman in a nutshell.

By issue twenty, Sandman had made reference to or use of a host of characters from DC's horror comics, the 1940s original Sandman, the 1970s revival of Sandman and the 1980s Infinity Inc characters, old Justice League foe Doctor Destiny, the then-current Justice League itself, John Constantine, the Demon Etrigan, Batman villain The Scarecrow, the Fourth World saga, a handful of concepts previously launched by Alan Moore and, oh yeah, William Shakespeare and half the characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And with half of these characters, they were essentially reinvented from the ground up. With the exception of John Constantine and whatever else he borrowed from Moore, there's no straight line between the last incarnation of the vast majority of these characters before Gaiman appropriated them and after - they're essentially all-new and unique to the pages in Sandman.

Such is the case, for instance, with the star of this particular story; Urania Blackwell, aka Element Woman, a secret agent who'd endured a mystic transformation to acquire the power to change her body into any element. The character had debuted in Bob Haney's and Ramona Fradon's Metamorpho as a female counterpart to the hero and addition to the already-extant romantic triangle enjoyed by Metamorpho, his beloved Sapphire Stagg and the hulking prehistoric manservant Java.

Brash, brave, headstrong and proactive in her original appearances, by the time Blackwell appeared in Sandman she was broken, despondent, lonely and shellshocked. Desperate for human contact, she jumped at the sound of the telephone and chain-smoked in her locked apartment, dreaming of killing herself. What point Gaiman was hoping to make with this liberal borrowing and reinvention is unclear - perhaps he'd had one of his put in the hospital, so he put one of theirs into the morgue. It's tough to say.

But Gaiman's story for Blackwell is compelling, and sorrowful, and desperate. As with the best tales, you root for the character, especially as Blackwell sits upon her unmade bed and wishes she could die.

Which leads me to the second problem with this story, in that it's routinely promoted as an anti-suicide tale. It might have ended up being one, had Sandman's never-shtum sister not happened to be wandering by Urania's unlocked door at that moment. Popping in, ostensibly to give Urania a shoulder to cry on, it doesn't take Death long to just start talking about herself.

What intolerable bullshit.

Here's the actual purpose of the story, as Death gives a rambling and unnecessary speech about how she's the number one, all-star, dyed-in-the-wool, accept-no-substitutes, NFL Superdeath now with added death in Deathberry and Extra Sour Deathberry flavors. All-Death, twenty-four hours a death, seven deaths a week. We bring good things to death. Then she does her signature Death-Crotch-Chop move and puts mousetraps down just in case Cary Bates came sniffing around again.

Having said her piece with three pages still to go in the book, this is where this issue turns from a potentially anti-suicide story to a straight-up pro-killing-yourself story. Taking some pity on Urania, Death starts giving her some great advice on how she can end her life. I mean, Death just sat and listened to all of Urania's problems, she knows exactly how lonely, unhappy and despondent the poor woman is ... the least she can do is encourage her to end her life.

Plus she acts super-put-out about 
the whole "assisted suicide"
business like it wasn't her idea
in the first place.
Why not? It's established that Urania will only live another 2000 years if left to her own devices, and is possessed of powers which grant her access to the entire world and even spheres beyond, where she'll never experience the same sunrise twice, and can witness equally the wonders of the highest peaks of the world and the deepest canyons of the Marianas Trench. She's really one of literally hundreds of super-people on the planet who have crazy faces in one fashion or another, plus her male counterpart found love easily enough, so really the whole world is open to her, or so any other writer might've thought. On the other hand, suggests Death, maybe she could also die real easy for no reason?

So Death encourages Urania to kill herself, gives her complete instructions, and then watches as she straight up dies (For extra larfs, Urania kicks it by making an appeal to Ra, god of the sun or - as Death points out - only ONE of the gods of the sun. Okay, we can have multiple gods of the sun, but a special someone will throw a shitfit if there's more than one aspect of Death, got it, very clear).

I'm pretty sure this is the only comic ever where one of the main characters convinces someone to kill themselves and it isn't a Punisher book. Further complicating the story's status as a suicide prevention tool is that it actually solves all of Urania's problems. She has no friends, she has no confidence, she thinks she's horribly ugly, she's depressed and she believes she'll never be loved.

Well, those problems are solved now! She never looked as happy as when the sun was murdering her! Plus she didn't leave any loved ones behind to grieve, so that's fortunate! Thanks Sandman! Thanks Neil Gaiman! Thanks Sandman's irritating sister Death!

I hate to imagine what he would have done with the suicide scene in All-Star Superman. "Your doctor really was held up, Reagan. know" ::shoves her off the building::


Norman Rafferty said...

THANK YOU. You are totally right about Sandman getting a free pass. The indulgences of this comic set the tone for so many other Vertigo comics, which would be so much bloviating navel-gazes ending in something sooooooooooo deep.

markdep said...

I could never read an entire issue of Sandman without passing out in the middle and awakening with my head on the pages next to a puddle of drool. The Librarians were not pleased.

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