Diving into Comics

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I first really got into comics and graphic novels when I lived in Rhode Islandwith P. Before that, I had read the first Sandman graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, as well as some other Sandman comics, which I loved. But buying that first novel was a bit of an odd experience. I went into Joseph-Beth in Lexington, looked around for a while, and then finally asked someone for help. “Oh, we don’t sell comics here,” he explained, brow creased. 

I replied that this was a graphic novel I was looking for, an actual book. He shook his head and shrugged. On my way out the door I stumbled upon a cardboard display that housed what I was looking for. Shaking my head in turn, I vowed to never bother Joseph-Beth with my comic needs again. 

So, I read the Sandman books (more about those in a later column, as they’re some of my all-time favorite books), and also some of the Kabuki line byKentucky writer and artist David Mack. But that was it. The comics shops inLexington weren’t large, and I didn’t feel compelled to venture into reading other lines. Little did I know what a curious and colorful world lay before me. 

P. told me one day that in his wanderings around Rhode Island he had come upon a comics shop inWarwick that had “Going Out of Business” signs posted. They were selling everything in the store for varying percentages off. This was a key point to P., as he absolutely prized bargains. Also, we were both very poor. He assured me that I should check it out with him. 

So I did. And when I got there, my bookworm mentality took over. There were boxes upon boxes of comics I’d never read, at dirt-cheap prices. I would perhaps never find such a treasure trove again (indeed, dear reader, I haven’t). Since Sandman was a Vertigo comic line, an offshoot of D.C. Comics that bore the “Suggested for Mature Readers” label on their covers, I was mostly interested in reading other Vertigo titles. 

Books of Magic

There were two titles that I tunneled through with the aid of this Rhode Island comics shop with the forgotten name. The first is The Books of Magic. Neil Gaiman wrote an intial four-issue run on this title in 1990-91, centering on the young Timothy Hunter, potentially the world’s greatest magician. I was lucky enough to find the original four issues of this, in each of which Tim takes a journey with a member of the Trenchcoat Brigade. These members include John Constantine (who has his own well-established comic line, Hellblazer), the Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult, and Mr. E. After these journeys Tim concludes that he is indeed interested in magic, and will do his best to be a force for good. 

Gaiman’s initial foray into Hunter’s life was so popular that The Books of Magic became a regular comic line in 1994, with John Ney Reiber taking over writing duties, and Peter Gross as the series artist (Gross later both wrote and drew the series himself when Reiber stepped away from it). 

To say that this series is massively complex is an understatement. A powerful motif of the title is that there are many possible Timothy Hunter’s, including a twisted version called Sir Timothy Hunter who is under the sway of the demon Barbatos and uses his formidable powers for petty and cruel ends. Tim spends his youth unsure of his true parentage – is his mother the woman who died in a mysterious car accident, or is she Titania, Queen of the Faeries? (Titania herself is never clear on this point). When Tim runs away from home out of fear he will keep hurting loved ones, Tim’s beloved best friend, Molly, is tricked into Faerie Land while searching for him. Her transformation ultimately leads to their separation. Throughout the series, creatures such as manticores, mermaids, fairies, angels, and demons appear. 

The Books of Magic can be seen as a precursor to the Harry Potter books, and the series makes a strong statement on how difficult it is to deal with power. The comic is sometimes a little too convoluted for its own good, but its ambitious scope and inventive plotlines certainly make it worth checking out. 

The Dreaming

The other Vertigo title I discovered that Rhode Island summer is The Dreaming. This comic series basically takes up the thread that Sandman let go. Its main setting is The Dreaming, the land that Dream/Sandman is king of, and most of its characters were subsidiary characters in Sandman. This includes Cain and Abel, the brothers who first crop up in the DC Universe in the 1960’s as proprietors of the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets; Matthew the raven; the Corinthian; Lucien, the librarian of the Dream library (which includes books never written, only dreamed of); Mervyn Pumpkinhead the janitor; Eve, Cain and Abel’s mother; and the faerie Nuala. 

Many artists and writers contributed to this series, but the main writer became Caitlin R. Kiernan. To my mind, The Dreaming did a great job of elaborating upon the characters initially created (in large part) by Gaiman. Particular storylines, such as the Souvenirs and Dark Rose stories centering on the Corinthian (a serial-killer type with tiny mouths set in his eye-sockets), and the Many Mansions story, on the House of Mystery burning down, stand out to me. In addition, Dave McKean, who created all of the stunning Sandman comic covers, continued his amazing work for The Dreaming

There were inevitable comparisons to Gaiman’s Sandman throughout the course of The Dreaming, which was an undue burden on the series. Kiernan had her own vision, and the land of The Dreaming certainly provided ample storylines with which to play. The comic lasted for 60 issues, and I have every one of them. 

Once I discovered there were so many wonderful comics out there, combining artful plots, iconic characters and powerful artwork, I kept up my exploration of different titles. Comics are one of many inspirations I have found, and in future columns I’ll share more of my explorations with you.



Filed under Comics

3 responses to “Diving into Comics

  1. Dave

    You write excellent reviews. Are you doing 1 posting a month as a goal? Don’t be too hard on booksellers–who can know everything in print?

    • Thanks, Dave! I actually would like to do more than one posting a month – it’s just worked out that way lately. As for my Joseph Beth anecdote, that was mainly to illustrate how times have changed – these days you can find a sizable contingent of graphic novels in most bookstores.

  2. Writerlious

    Love the post, Amy! I’ve never read any graphic novels (other than Wimpy Kid with my middle schooler, which is probably supremely uncool, and doesn’t really count –LOL). Your post makes me wonder what I’m missing, though. “A precursor to Harry Potter” is definitely a good hook (I love HP).

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