Disconnected Tales: Contrasting Ken Liu’s Original and Translated Works

While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.

Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.

As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.

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Image from npr.org

The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.

A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.

Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.

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Image from twitter.com/ShimmerProgram

In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.

Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.

Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

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No Ghost, Just Shell

Scarlett Johanson
image source: imgur.com

The speculative community has been nurturing a climate of social equity in the past few years. From the removal of statuettes depicting the openly racist H.P. Lovecraft from the World Fantasy Awards, to Cixin Liu winning the Best Novel Award at the 2015 Hugo Awards (the first Asian novelist to do so),  it is clear that mind-sets are changing.

However, with each step forward, there is always a step back.

Major Motoko
image source: myanimelist.com

When I heard that Hollywood was casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaptation of the manga Ghost in the Shell, I knew there was going to be trouble. Ever since the news was released, many fans have criticized the studio’s decision to cast Johansson in the role of an Asian character. Hollywood’s casting decision goes against the speculative community’s goal of social equity by perpetuating misrepresentation, while also revealing an integral flaw within their understanding of the manga.

Whitewashing is still commonplace among Hollywood films—just think The Last Airbender and Gods of Egypt. Moreover, Paramount and Dreamworks studios’ choices to whitewash their major characters reveals a very common and deep-seated fear: almost every big studio is afraid of losing money on film projects. According to Max Landis, a Hollywood screenwriter who defended the Ghost in the Shell casting decision in a YouTube video, there simply aren’t any A-list Asian actors that would ensure the film’s financial success. Not only is this assumption wrong (fans were hoping that Rinko Kikuchi would get the role), it is offensive, and indicates the industry’s financial motivations for the film above all else. Apparently, offering break-out opportunities for the many Asian-American actors struggling to find work in the industry just doesn’t seem to be an option. While this decision affects the social aspect of the film, it also affects its merit as an adaptation.

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image source: nerdreactor.com

The studios’ selection of the film’s lead, screenwriters, and director indicates an important misunderstanding of the concepts established by its Japanese predecessors. Scarlett Johansson is most well-known for her action-oriented roles in The Avengers films, while screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton) have only ever written action-thrillers. To top it all off, the film’s director is Rupert Sanders, whose only movie is Snow White and The Huntsman. The fact that the director and screenwriters are all inexperienced new members of the industry who have only ever done action films, with action-star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, definitely points to a focus on action over thought.

However, gunfights and action scenes were never the focus of Ghost in the Shell. Of course violence is present, but its use is minimalistic and often only as a last resort. The point of the series has always been about asking questions that challenge the concept of the human condition. What does it mean to be human if your body is entirely prosthetic? Is artificial intelligence humanity’s next evolutionary step? What defines individuality if memories and thoughts can be hacked, deleted, and replaced? These are all questions that the original manga and its anime adaptations successfully tackle, with the cyborg Major Kusanagi being the embodiment of those themes as she is literally a ‘ghost’, or collection of her original memories, within a prosthetic body or ‘shell’. Ghost in the Shell is about questioning the human condition. It is quiet, introspective, and delicate—never loud.

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image source: rogerebert.com

While I have no doubt that a successful live-action adaptation of the manga can be pulled off, Hollywood’s decisions should serve as a warning for most fans to prepare for disappointment. Ghost in the Shell would’ve been a perfect opportunity for an Asian actor to play an intriguing character and to potentially break out into the mainstream. Instead, Hollywood is content to stick to its routine of whitewashing roles, perpetuating cycles of misrepresentation, and creating adaptations which fail to convey the themes of the source material. This film may have the title Ghost in the Shell, but I doubt it will have the heart of its predecessors.

The only good thing that has come out of this controversy has been the response from fans and the wider speculative community as a whole. By forcing Hollywood to recognize that their actions are outdated and harmful, hopefully the industry will be forced to change its behavior in the future. While the outlook of this film may seem bleak, as it is scheduled to be released in 2017, with not enough time for any major changes, perhaps enough time for its studios to at least consider the community’s response.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

Broadening Cultural Horizons in Animation

The Book of Life
Illustration by Sarah Crawley

Only recently has the movie industry begun to move away from making yet another adaptation of Shakespeare or a classical European fairytale such as “Cinderella”. However, even with the upcoming release of Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson, or the recent Macbeth with Michael Fassbender, there’s still a long way to go before other cultures, with their traditions and folktales, get the attention they deserve.

Despite the rather high ratings, Guillermo del Toro’s 2014 animated masterpiece The Book of Life remains in the shadows. One reason might be the fact that it isn’t Disney, but rather Twentieth Century Fox, which released the movie, and the lack of a rather greedy franchise (hello, Frozen) means the movie will reach a smaller audience. So why exactly should one watch it?

The movie begins with a group of troublemaking children who are dropped off at a museum, and are taken by the museum guide, Mary Beth, on an alternative sort of tour. Led into a colourful room filled with sugar skulls and food, they listen to the story of “The Book of Life” and the town of San Angel. According to Mexican folklore, the afterlife is divided into two worlds: the Land of the Remembered, ruled by the beautiful and kind La Muerte, and the Land of the Forgotten, ruled by the cunning and bored Xibalba. On one particular Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday which falls on the second of November annually, they come up to the human world where Xibalba complains of how tired he is of ruling over the gray and dreary Land of the Forgotten. After spotting three children, Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria, the two gods make a wager on which of the two boys will marry Maria. The winner gets to rule the Land of the Remembered.

The idea of gods interfering with human activities is far from new—one only needs to remember the shameless activities of Zeus, or the contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, which arguably led to the Trojan War. It is also unsurprising that a god such as Xibalba, who rules the darker half of the afterlife, feels like he has been deprived of the “fun” position, and so resorts to trickery when he sees that he is about to lose the wager, as Maria loves Manolo rather than Joaquin. At the same time, the movie gives the hero the opportunity of calling the god out on his lie and winning back what he has lost, in this case, for Manolo, his life. It is here that the movie resorts to another familiar but highly relevant topic even today: self-acceptance.

As a Sanchez, Manolo is expected to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a great matador. However, such a lifestyle is far from his mind; he instead declares that he wants to be a guitarista. Joaquin is also shown to be struggling to live up to the shadow of his deceased father, General Mandragor, in protecting the town from the bandit Chakal. He is involved with the second act of trickery that Xibalba perpetrates in order to secure his victory in the wager, in possession of the Medal of Everlasting Life. Of the two men, Manolo receives a much more satisfactory “resolution” to his dilemma when he makes a wager with Xibalba to win back his life, while the viewer is presented with only a couple of minutes near the end where Joaquin mentions his intention of sacrificing himself to save Manolo and the city. Even though the two characters face the same dilemma of having to live up to the standards their families impose upon them, there is still the “favourite” who receives a more complete character development.

Another problem related to character building and a somewhat unevenly paced plotline is the character of Maria. From the beginning the viewer knows that she is not (or at least is not meant to come across as) the damsel in distress—her response to Manolo and Joaquin’s argument over which of them she “belongs to” is that she is her own person and belongs to no one. Even after spending years at a convent in Spain, she shows she hasn’t lost her spark, calling out Joaquin when he begins stereotyping women as having to cook, clean, and be at the beck and call of their husbands. But only twenty or so minutes later, the viewer finds themselves at a scene where Maria admits her love for Manolo, whereas a few scenes back she chastised him for thinking that serenading her would win her over. There is a lot going on plot-wise in the movie, and Maria’s occasional regressions in personality could be considered forgivable if one remembers the movie is only 95 minutes long, and compares it to other popular animated movies which are not without faults (yes Frozen, I’m still talking about you).

The movie’s most redeeming quality, one which I’d argue makes the shortcomings of plot and character even more forgivable, is the animation style. The entire experience is like being surrounded by constant bursts of colour, from the vibrant town of San Angel and the character costumes to the Land of the Remembered with its parade floats and La Muerte’s castle. The most interesting feature, and one which I appreciated most as an artist, is the slight difference in animation style that occurred when the story switched from the modern-day setting of the museum and Mary Beth’s story, to the town of San Angel, to the characters in the afterlife. The inhabitants of San Angel are made to look like wooden dolls, with distinctly wooden-like fingers and “boxy” joints that heighten the folk atmosphere. In the afterlife, characters are instead made to look like skeletons, while their faces are made over with elaborate swirls and flowers that are traditionally found on sugar skulls for Dio de Los Muertos, as well as on the faces of Mexicans as they apply makeup that day. There is a certain sense of genuineness that really shone through in the animation style. Though the movie fell a bit short with the characters and plot, its animation brought to mind the way the imagination would go wild during story time as a child.

The Book of Life is, first and foremost, a love story, intertwined with the message that one must chase after their dreams and carve out a future for themselves, rather than getting stuck within rigid ancestral frameworks. It is no surprise who Maria ends up with in the end, and for someone looking for a movie that is heavier on the cultural aspect, this movie might not be ideal. However, it is worthy of admiration due to the sense of genuineness and good intentions it gives off from start to finish, drawing you in with its colour, humour, and musical experience. At a time when the priority remains making more money and the initial curiosity and magic of animation and film has arguably gone shaky, there are still those like The Book of Life that, though they stumble and mess up occasionally, nonetheless leave you with a smile.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Playground Politics

 The funny books aren’t funny anymore.

By this I mean that, excluding Archie and the odd issue of Squirrel Girl, mainstream comics haven’t been true to their name for years now. Whether you like it or not, gone are the days of the classic ten-cent The Beano and The Dandy your granny used to read down at the corner shop. This is no one’s fault, really, at least no one specific. The heart of this change is within our changing world.

Today in North America, the political world is vibrant and teeming. Not only are we in a time of great political change both in Canada and the United States, but we are also surrounded by numerous and increasingly frequent events and crises that many are all too eager to spin to fit their political viewpoints. From immigration to ISIS to LGBTQ+ rights and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be anything safe from the perusal of daytime news or the mockery of late-night talk shows.

So where do comics fit into all of this?

Author Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña present their answer to this question in the form of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Marvel’s current Captain America title. Here they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as well as building racial tensions, poverty and the shrinking middle class, and, most notably, the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border along with various reactions to it.

This isn’t the first time comics have been used as a platform to address political and societal issues; V for Vendetta and Watchmen did it in the eighties, as did Hellblazer in the late eighties and early nineties, and X-Men has been representing minorities for many years, to name a few. However, Spencer and Acuña’s new effort seems to signal a violent shift towards an even more culturally relevant title.

Captain America: Sam Wilson chooses to rest in the middle of this cultural spotlight, and is not afraid to tackle touchy subjects within its pages. The protagonist and namesake, Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, takes an active stance, frequently confronting the polarization of views towards cultural issues.

“Red and Blue, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, North and South—Feels like we’re constantly at each other’s throats,” he says in the first issue, in which this popular superhero makes himself incredibly unpopular literally overnight by “going partisan” and sharing his personal views on political issues. In the world of the comic, this action leads to the public questioning what role superheroes play in politics; in our world, this spurs our discussion of the political role of comic books.

Fox & Friends’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck believes she has the answer to this discussion.

“Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say,” she declared at the end of a segment focused on Spencer and Acuña’s new book, in which she and her two co-anchors Clayton Morris and Tucker Carlson expressed their extreme displeasure at the message that it attempts to present. The main focus of their disgruntlement was the main antagonists of the first and second issues, the Sons of the Serpent, who are portrayed in the books as American ultra-conservative extremists attempting to repel illegal Mexican immigrants through vigilantism. Though these villains have been a mainstay of Captain America comics since the sixties, acting as a Marvel Universe proxy for the KKK, the crew at Fox & Friends saw them as a display that “now the threat comes from ordinary Americans—probably some of you watching at home!”

It is unsurprising then, in the face of this real world controversy, that Spencer depicts a similar reaction to Sam’s actions in the world of the comic, as he is quickly dubbed “Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America,” by a fictional news organization.

Furthermore, the comic adds another layer of depth to the question by highlighting the previous Captain America’s very reserved stance in the realm of politics, a thought that is echoed once again by Fox & Friends when they comment on how much they liked the older Captain America stories in which he did heroic things like punch Hitler in the face. Is good ol’ Nazi bashing fun not good enough for today’s modern readers?

The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no.”

Punching Nazis, while an enjoyable pastime, was not necessarily “good enough” in the forties when the original Captain America was published, just as it is not necessarily “good enough” now. It is not a matter of whether it was good or bad content, but rather one of cultural relevancy. In a time of war and ten-cent The Beanos and The Dandys, people needed a fun dose of Hitler smacking. Today, when comics and other forms of graphic fiction have the capacity to be instruments of social questioning and change, rather than simple amusements, there is almost a responsibility to make use of the opportunity.

This does not necessarily mean that every comic book creator has to write about politically charged and controversial topics, likely to get them more hate mail than Eisner Awards. It does mean that creators should realize that these opportunities exist, and that using the same old bag of tricks on modern audiences may work about as well as promoting newsprint to a world of social media.

Ultimately, one’s own perception of what graphic fiction should be is vital to deciding what it can be, but in terms of having an influence on politics, it clearly has the ability to at least encourage readers to question their world and culture.

The funny books aren’t funny anymore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

Calling All Storytellers: An Original, Contemporary Fairy Tale, Please!

When I think of fairy tales, I think of mythical creatures, anthropomorphic objects and animals, happy endings, and valuable lessons fully revealed at the end. The ones recorded  by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault have justifiably become classic fairy tales, with great popularity and numerous literary, film, musical, and theatre adaptations. Recently, the musical film Into the Woods, which came out on December 25, 2014, was a crossover adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”. That film was in fact an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which was itself an adaptation of James Lapine’s book of the same name. And that’s just one specific revival of the classic fairy tales.

On the top of my head, within the past decade (give or take a couple of years) these are some of the film adaptations of fairy tales: Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Beastly, the four Shrek films, the three recent Disney princess films, and so many others. And apparently there’s going to be more film adaptations this year, including one of Cinderella and one of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m not too surprised about; these fairy tales are as old as time with practically no copyright laws, and they help today’s storytellers get their creative minds going with at least the basis for a story.

But where are the contemporary fairy tales?

How can there be so many adaptations, but no new, original stories? Surely some brave people have attempted to create fairy tales with new teachings of morality that are relevant to our time. Yes, some of the aforementioned (and other) adaptations of the classic fairy tales may have snuck in an extra moral lesson or two, like Disney’s Frozen with its rejection of the idea of love at first sight. But where are the fairy tales with their own original premises and new, relevant moral lessons?

As you try to think of those fairy tales of our time, keep in mind that fairy tales are short stories. I was almost going to pose the idea of The Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale, after seeing it listed as a fairy tale on Wikipedia (another reason to take Wikipedia’s words with a grain of salt). If you think about it, it does fit the genre, especially since J. R. R. Tolkien’s own definition of ‘fairy stories’ from his 1965 essay “On Fairy-Stories” describes his own literary works so well. But then I remembered that fairy tales are short stories. Oops.

Unfortunately, short stories aren’t taking the world by storm as novels and novellas are doing, so we could have missed those brilliant contemporary fairy tales. The only fairy tale-like short story I can think of on the spot is The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. You know, that princess that teenage girls dressed up as for Halloween in high school. It’s a short story because it’s a children’s picture book, it has fairy tale elements and motifs, and it teaches girls the valuable lesson that women don’t need a man to rescue them because women are capable of helping themselves. It seems like it could be the first of our contemporary fairy tales.

Now all we need are fairy tales with moral teachings on equity and diversity, discovering one’s actual passion(s), integrity in one’s work (to be applicable to any kind of work), making the choice between what’s right and what’s easy (thanks, Rowling, but maybe a short story with that lesson for the children would be best), and on feminist values (because The Paperbag Princess really only made the prince a wimp for comical effect and wouldn’t be proper in relating the genders equally).

I certainly haven’t read all of the fairy tales ever published (yet), so perhaps one of them was progressive for its time. But if not, do you know of any short stories that could be classified as contemporary fairy tales? And is there a valuable teaching pertinent to our time that I missed and should be the moral of a fairy tale? Let me know!

-contributed by Brenda Bongolan

From Panel to Festival: The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is Coming Super Soon!

Frequent readers of this blog are no doubt aware that we at The Spectatorial love comics. And while not all comics are speculative—just as not all comics are about super heroes—some of the finest spec fic out there does indeed exist in the panels of comic books and graphic novels. And many of the best comic books and graphic novels can be found at TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

TCAF is an annual public literary festival that takes place in the Toronto Reference Library. The atrium of the library, a massive space, is transformed into an exhibiting space for comics: big publishers, small presses, and comic book stores. There are also readings, presentations, gallery shows, and much, much more.

Many artists are launching their books at this year’s festival, including Dakota McFadzean, who is releasing a collection of his Dailies helpfully entitled Don’t Get Eaten by Anything. Chip Zdarszy, co-creator of the sci-fi comic Sex Criminals, will also be there, and if you haven’t picked up a copy of that comic yet, now’s an excellent time.

Then there is SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki who c0-created the graphic novel Skim with Mariko Tamaki. Personally, I cannot wait to get my hands on this book! We all know that teenage angst is best portrayed in a school for the mutated and magical. And we all agree that high school would’ve been much more fun if we had had paranormal powers while we were there.

Both traditional print and webcomics are exhibited at TCAF, existing peacefully side-by-side. Webcomic artists bring glorious print editions of the stories that so many people read online. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a favourite of mine (super heroes combined with swords and sorcery charm me every time). I have had the pleasure to meet the creators of many webcomics that I adore—and I have been embarrassingly star-struck every time. Go say hello to Aaron Diaz, of Dresden Codak fame; I promise you will not be half as awkward as I am every year!

But you don’t have to dash off to join the signing lines of famous artists or only talk to the creators whose work you know. Browse around to discover something new! One of the greatest joys of TCAF is the chance to discover a new comic series or graphic novel by simply going over to a display that catches your eye. Artists are generally perfectly happy to tell you anything you want to know about their work, and there’s nothing quite like the spark that lights up in their eyes when you ask: “What’s your comic about?” This moment is unique. Even the most magical bookstore in town (and we have a few) can’t show you the author’s joy at your interest in their book.

Then there’s the people-watching. Comic book nerds tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves—and T-shirts and hats and letter bags and hoodies. You will see a beautiful variety of people: parents with toddlers on their back and comics in hand, art students, bookish types who look like librarians, actual librarians, folks giving a nod to cosplay with a pair of fake ears (usually cat ears), and older folks who probably read the first Sandman comic when it came out in 1989. Everybody you can imagine reads comics. Gaze around you, take in the crowd—and the next time somebody tries to tell you that comics are for kids, you tell them what you saw in that library atrium.

So now that your pulse is racing at the thought of attending TCAF, get thee to the Toronto Reference Library! TCAF is a free public event and only happens once a year. No matter if you can only make it out for one day or both (May 9 and 10), you will find that the wide world of comics will welcome you with open arms.

For more info about TCAF, and the events leading up to the festival weekend, check out their beautiful website.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Sandman : Handful of Dust

sandman shushes me
Image from empireonline.com

 

When a young Neil Gaiman first approached Vertigo comics about The Sandman, he was pitching a simple revival of the 70s series of the same name by Joe Simon and Jack “The King” Kirby. But DC editor Karen Berger insisted that while they keep the name, Gaiman should create a new character.

And thank goodness he did, for otherwise the world would have been robbed of something beautiful. Running from 1989 to 1996, for a total 75 issues collected in 10 volumes, The Sandman managed to create its very own expansive self-contained mythology.

The original artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth fashioned the title character after Gaiman himself. The Sandman, also known as Morpheus or Dream, and by many other names, carries with him an aura of inhumanity. While early issues exist in the DC comic universe with appearances by The Martian Manhunter and John Constantine (hellblazer), the creators quickly realized that Sandman should be a world unto itself, and so that is what it became. Sandman used several different types of stories to keep itself going and to keep it feeling new and alien all the way through to its final issue, but over its run, three types of stories were prevalent.

The Sandman was able to hold on to many overlapping threads throughout its near decade-long run, with characters who appeared in early issues later returning to have their stories told in elaborate detail. This worked well for the first main kind of story that was used. While several volumes are focused on the Sandman himself, there are also a number of stories in which the title character only appears in a minor capacity, and sometimes he fails to appear at all, instead being merely alluded to or referenced by the other characters. These stories were all set in the present and centered on ordinary people who are pulled into problems or adventures that they don’t understand, becoming involved with magic and monsters.

But even when Dream himself didn’t appear, Gaiman never lost focus on what the series was about. Even in these more domestic stories, the focus is on these ordinary people’s dreams, and the effect that dreams can have on the waking world. Whether it be the story of a young woman named Barbie who becomes trapped in her own dreaming, or of a girl named Rose who finds herself with mysterious powers, the underlying idea behind the story is always clear—what is important are the dreams that these characters have, and how these dreams provide a glimpse into the effect that Dream has on the world he inhabits .

The next kind of story that Gaiman used most often involves the various preexisting mythologies that the world has to offer. In The Sandman, the deities from various cultures and mythologies coexist. This allows Dream to engage with different stories from various mythologies, and allows Gaiman to teach the reader about histories and mythologies that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

The Sandman also includes Biblical figures such as Cain and Able, who in the series exist as servants to Dream in his mystical realm. Cain is doomed to always kill his brother and Able is doomed to be endlessly resurrected. The devil himself is a key figure in several volumes, with Dream actually visiting hell to sort out his conflicts with the infamous fallen angel Lucifer. One such conflict is when Lucifer decides to retire and leaves Dream in charge of hell, leading to all sorts of problems .

Dream also has stories with characters cut from Egyptian mythology, such as the cat god Bast, and characters from Norse mythology, such as Thor, Odin, and Loki, with the latter two becoming important figures in The Sandman’s later volumes. The three Fates from ancient Greek mythology also figure, and in the end they become Dream’s most important foes.

sandman family
Image from wikimedia.org

But the third—and probably my personal favorite—kind of narrative that The Sandman employs is historical: the blending of the Sandman’s unique and eerie magic with historical figures and events. This is used to showcase the Kings of Rome and Marco Polo, and, most notably, is used when Morpheus visits the dreams of William Shakespeare, helping to inspire some of the famous playwright’s most beloved works. In issue 19, collected in the third volume Dream Country, Shakespeare’s company puts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Morpheus, with actual Fairy Folk sneaking into production. This issue is the only comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award.My favorite example of this blending of history and fantasy will always be from Volume 6, Fables and Reflections, in which Dream inspires the broken and suicidal Joshua Abraham Norton in the year of 1859 to become the self-proclaimed Emperor of America, a real historical figure who solved social disputes in the city of San Francisco.

The Sandman is an intelligent, unnerving saga that follows an inhuman, monstrous magical figure. It traces his deeds and misdeeds throughout history with his siblings Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, and Death. The Sandman is a unique and beautiful series, and should always be remembered both as one of Gaiman’s crowning achievements and as one of the greatest creations of the comic book medium.

-contributed by Ben Ghan