Comic books don’t get much respect from the general reading public, with the exceptions of your Art Spiegelman’s Maus and your Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and if you run in dorkier circles, then your decades-old classics like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I was never into comic books growing up: the ones I saw were all your standard Batmans and X-Mens and when I tried to read one it referenced like 100 issues of strange back-story I’d never read, offered little to think about, and then just ended after like 5 minutes of reading. I got a lot more out of reading normal books. Superheroes might be cool, but even as a kid I could tell they just weren’t as smart and interesting as your Giver or your Ender’s Game.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s amazing Saga got me to read a “graphic novel” again a few months ago. Over the years, I’d given a chance to graphic novels that seemed up my alley like Blankets and Empire State, but I was always disappointed at the ultimately bland experience that I got. Not so with Saga.
I have literally cheered Saga on the train, a crazy person applauding a book in his seat, although there are enough crazy people on the train that everyone politely looks away (it was the scene in Chapter 14 where Sophie discusses how she feels she is inside after her childhood abuse and Lying Cat responds). The best way I can still describe it is that you don’t have to make any excuses for K-Vaughan: his writing is as intelligent and precise and affecting (and correctly-spelled) as any novel’s, and his story is full of imagination and irreverence and heart.
So when I wanted more of the same I decided to pick up Neil Gaiman’s new Sandman issue, even though I’m not a Gaiman fan. I find his arrogance and oh-so-dark coolness kind of lame, but I know that he can write, and that’s the kind of grudging respect that can sell your books. A new Sandman issue is a big deal because the last one was in the mid-90s, when the series was assumed to be over. Having never read any of them, I first made a run to Half-Price Books where I picked up a few used volumes. I didn’t know any of the details and I just read what random volumes were available, but I figure this is as good a newcomer’s introduction as any.
I wasn’t disappointed when it comes to quality of writing. The dots and dashes are all where they belong, and the eloquent exposition in some of them is downright impressive, as I had been told. The plots and themes were interesting enough to keep my attention: morally ambiguous and pensive. A lot of late-80s, early-90s aesthetic was also on display, with its big hair and dark makeup, as well as that verbosely musing edgy darkness you’d expect from a series about death and dreams. Each issue stood on its own, lending the feel of a short-story collection with connected themes.
The new issue, starting a story arc called “Overture” ditches the Gen-X vibe for a more modern and glossy art that richly conveys cross-dimensional night and ancient books of destiny and such. Unlike the previous issues I had read, it does not stand alone but seems to set up an introduction to a large new story that will develop issue by issue, planting mysterious seeds of plot and character. This is one of the weaknesses of serial-issue storytelling to me, because I’ve never wanted to read a story a few pages at a time and then wait, losing the thread and investment in between. Still, quality of writing is what keeps me coming back to any story, even if I am not Wow’d, and Neil does provide that.
I also picked up an unrelated, amazingly clever and offensive one-shot story called “Our Love is Real” by Sam Humphries and Steven Sanders that I’d recommend to anyone who is intrigued by the opening line “It was after one of the vegisexual riots.” Your $3.99 will be well-spent learning what the future is all about. And because my review of Sandman was as much about that, comics in general, and Saga, I offer the caveat that fantasy just never tripped my trigger inherently, as much as dystopia and/or young messy love in hostile worlds.