Death: The High Cost of Living, Neil Gaiman

For a quick interlude between new books, I paused and reread Death: The High Cost of Living.  Neil Gaiman has written two graphic novels about Death, and this one’s the one that’s actually about Death.  Although Death: The Time of Your Life is also very, very good.  In this one, we get the story of how Death becomes a human once every century, for one day.  This time, she meets a bored, slightly suicidal kid called Sexton Furnival, and they go around town looking for fun.  They look for the heart of an old, old woman called Mad Hettie, and they see the very first gig of a singer called Foxglove (singing, incidentally, the Flash Girls’ “Sonnet in the Dark” under a different title, about which I was briefly outraged before I remembered that Neil Gaiman wrote the lyrics for “Sonnet in the Dark” so can hardly be accused of plagiarism), and they have some trouble with a crazy man called the Eremite who wants to keep Death captive.

This is one of the first graphic novels I ever read – actually, I believe I read it before I read the Sandman – and it’s a good way to ease yourself into graphic novels.  It’s well-illustrated, and it’s a sweet story.

Taller Tales, Bill Willingham

A graphic novel experiment here.  I have an incredibly hard time reading graphic novel series that are not all of a piece; i.e., that are not written by one writer all the way through.  They feel fragmented.  I don’t read superhero comics for this reason.  I loved Sandman and Fables, and there are many good graphic novels in this world, but I generally find that the people who created the characters tend to be the ones who are able to capture their voices.  So I thought, hey, you know, this doesn’t have to be the case.  I thought, I will read Taller Tales, which is by an author I like, and the characters of which were created by an author I like; and then I will see how that goes.

I have seen how it goes.  I stand by my previously-held opinion about authors and the characters they create.  I vote against it.  Sorry, Bill Willingham.  You have many lovely qualities, and were it not for the fact that I am both very busy with work and rendered guilty by the piles of unread books in my house, I would go back through and reread the entire Fables series although I only finished reading it for the first time a month ago.

The first story is the exact kind of story I don’t like, with the John-Smith-like hero narrating all about how clever he is and how much girls love him.  I don’t like it when it’s serious and I don’t like it when it’s tongue-in-cheek.  It’s called Merv: Agent of D.R.E.A.M., and Merv tells a story about his heroic adventures on behalf of the Dreaming.  The second story was rather sweet – a little apprentice to Lucian (the librarian) goes around collecting books – but nothing much happened in it.  Then the third story was a good bit longer, all about Thessaly tracking down some people who tried to kill her.  And the last story was just a collection of short shorts answering silly questions about dreams.  (Mostly harmless.)

None of these wowed me.  They didn’t tell any exciting stories, so much as take characters and settings from the Dreaming and play around with them a little bit without doing anything new.  I think it would have been more interesting to see another side of the characters – though I’m sure if he had done that, I’d have bitched about him not staying true to the originals.  Although I enjoyed the story about Thessaly, none of these were really quite the characters I remember and love from the Sandman.  I think the reason I enjoyed the Thessaly story more is that I never liked Thessaly to start with, and I liked her less when she made it all rainy by breaking Dream’s heart.  Even with the Thessaly story, I didn’t think he got her quite right.  I believe this is a function of the way that a reader (me) interacts with the characters she reads about, rather than being a problem with Bill Willingham’s reading of the Sandman characters.

What Taller Tales has caused me to think about: The idea of “engaging” with a set of characters suggests an interaction between the characters as written and your own imagination.  Do you have to identify with some aspect of the characters in order to be able to give that piece of yourself to them that’s necessary for this “engagement” thing to happen?  Are there fast and dirty ways to get a reader to engage with a character or set of characters?  Maybe by doing the rags-to-riches thing?  By making them sympathetic in unpleasant circumstances?  By making them Susan Boyle?  (Love her so much.)

Season of Mists, Neil Gaiman

Aw, Season of Mists is great.  I like it so much.  It makes me nostalgic for Past Jenny, who was young and dumb and had yet to discover most of her now-favorite films and music and TV shows (including, of course, the other six volumes of Sandman).  Oh, wow, that’s really, really true.  I hadn’t discovered Joss Whedon yet, or The Office, or Doctor Who; I hadn’t yet seen any of my current five desert island DVDs (fifth series of Buffy, MirrorMask, Empire Records, Angels in America, and Before Sunrise); I didn’t know the Decembrists, the Shins, Neko Case – I’m amazed at Past Jenny.  What did Past Jenny do to pass the time?  Sheesh.

Anyway – wow, I’m just amazed at how many awesome things I have discovered since I left high school – anyway, this is the fourth Sandman book, and it starts out with Dream’s family getting together and sniping at each other until Dream finally decides that it was unfair of him to condemn his ex-lover to hell forever, just because she didn’t want to be his queen.  So off he goes, to fight the hordes of hell and get her back – it’s so Dream – and when he gets there, Lucifer has decided to shut down hell.  He gives the key to Dream, and takes himself off; and suddenly Dream is the center of attention from every deity and supernatural power ever, because they all want Hell.

I really don’t like the story where all the dead people come back to the public school.  I seem to recall someone telling me that Neil Gaiman went to Whitgift, in Croydon – it has peacocks and wallabies and flamingos (hee hee hee), but I am beginning to wonder whether it was possibly COMPLETELY SCARRING.  British public schools sound awful.  And not-public schools don’t seem to be any better.

Neil Gaiman’s obsession with gods, which will come to a head in, no surprises, American Gods, is all too evident here.  You have the Egyptian pantheon, a delegation from the faerie, the Norse lot of Odin, Thor, and Loki, angels from heaven in a supervisory capacity, and demons from hell; they all have things to offer Dream.  Neil Gaiman’s obviously having fun with all of them, and it is fun – Thor’s hitting on Bast, and two of the hell demons are having an affair, and a sinisterly lettered little girl from the hordes of chaos giggles when someone gets made into sausages.  It’s fun, and it wraps up tidily at the end.  Except for the bit about Loki.  That’s going to turn out worse than you think.

I am trying to decide whether I want to read A Game of You.  I have to be in the mood for A Game of You, and I’m not sure I am in the mood for it.

Dream Country, Neil Gaiman

Evidently the stress of writing a nice coherent plot in The Doll’s House proved temporarily too much for Neil Gaiman, and he took a break to write some single-issue self-contained stories.  And these are some damn good stories.  Except I don’t like “Façade”.  I remember not liking it so um, I sort of skipped it this time.  I know!  I could read “24 Hours” but not “Façade”?  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

No, actually, I know exactly why I did that.  Lately I’ve been getting ready for bed around eight, then lying in bed reading for several hours.  I collect three or four books that I might feel like reading, climb up onto my bed (it’s a loft bed, so once I’m up there, I’m generally too lazy to come down before morning), and read until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.  And last night, when I was reading Dream Country, I had Season of Mists sitting enticingly on the pillow.  So when I got to “Façade”, I just couldn’t stand the idea that there was this one story – a story I don’t even like – standing between me and the first issue of Season of Mists, probably my favorite single issue from a complete storyline (as compared with the self-contained stories), because I love it when the Endless all get together and hang out (though I hate how Delirium is drawn in this one).

Now I feel guilty.  I will probably go back and read “Façade” this evening, out of guilt.

Anyway, the other three stories are very, very good.  I like “Calliope” the best.  It’s not that I don’t like the other two – I do – but I just like “Calliope” way the best.  “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a smidge too – I don’t know, I think it takes itself a tiny bit too seriously, considering how whimsical a story it is.  And “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is gorgeous and delightful, and no wonder it won a prize, but I am not in love with Sandman’s treatment of Shakespeare.  I love Shakespeare.  AND HE WAS NOT FRANCIS BACON AND HE DID NOT MAKE A DEAL WITH DREAM AND HE WAS A GENIUS BY HIMSELF OKAY?

Calm down, Jenny.

Anyway, I think “Calliope” is great.  I adore the brief one-panel vignettes you see of Richard Madoc – chatting up a girl at a party and telling her he does consider himself a feminist writer – then going home to the woman he’s keeping prisoner so he can be a genius.  And as well, this story casts Dream in a better light than we’ve really seen him.  His last two encounters with women haven’t been nice: condemning Nada to hell forever and ditching Lyta Hall all pregnant and despairing.  I’m always glad to see him being helpful to Calliope and screwing up Madoc’s life permanently – though without the vindictiveness I would have expected.  (This is change on his part.  Watch how it will remain a theme.)

Next up: Season of Mists.  I love Season of Mists.  It was my favorite for a few weeks in June 2004, and although I now like other volumes better, this one still holds a special place in my heart.

Possibly the nicest dream I have ever had

I dreamed that I was at Barack Obama’s inauguration with the Endless.  IT WAS AWESOME.  It was so good that I turned off my alarm twice in order to carry on having the dream.  (I never turn off my alarm.)  I was very chummy with all of the Endless, except that Dream didn’t really want to chat.  This led me to wonder whether I was one of the Endless.  I didn’t see Despair or Desire, so I was probably one of those two, if I was anyone.  Destruction was ridiculously huge, but very friendly.  Destiny was surprisingly forthcoming with information about the future; Delirium was surprisingly fun to hang out with; and Death was just as lovely as you might expect, and she let me borrow her hat.  I have never enjoyed a dream this much in my memory.  It was completely disappointing to wake up and discover it was just a dream.

The Doll’s House, Neil Gaiman

Ooh, this volume is spookier than I remember.  It’s a bit hard to explain the plot, which is intricately linked to other storylines, but in short, it’s about a girl called Rose, who is looking for her little brother.  A number of other people are milling around: G.K. Chesterton, a woman who’s been pregnant for several years, a serial killer with teeth in his eyes, women with enormous spider collections, and that makes it interesting.  Still, essentially it’s all about Rose.  She has multicolored hair and numerous connections to the previous volume.  She is also a vortex, which means that she can break down the walls between everybody’s dreams.  In case this does not sound alarming, Neil Gaiman makes it really, really disturbing.  Like, much more so than the serial killer convention.  (To me – but I’m very attached to my dreams.  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  How disturbing do you find that scene where all of her flatmates’ dreams start melting into each other?  Particularly with Barbie and Ken?)

When I first started writing this review, I was going to say that two of the issues included in this volume don’t really go well with the rest of the book, but then I realized that was nonsense.  They both go very very well, “Tales in the Sand” and “Men of Good Fortune”, because they give you a really vivid sense of Dream’s mercilessness and isolation, and how both of those things can play into what’s going to happen in the rest of this volume.  As well as what’s going to happen at the end of the series, which – hey – is pretty impressive.

Gilbert is such a wonderful part of The Doll’s House.  I love Gilbert.  I think it is so nice of Neil Gaiman to have given his fictional G.K. Chesterton the chance to really actually rescue a damsel in distress, which G.K. Chesterton seems to have greatly wanted to do.  G.K. Chesterton charms me.  I would say that G.K. Chesterton accounts for a higher percentage of the quotations in my commonplace book than any other author – funny how I don’t own a single thing he wrote.  But he’s delightful here.

Still not the best, but Neil Gaiman is clearly finding his voice.  The theme of storytelling that runs through the Sandman continues to be developed here.  Neil Gaiman is always good with that theme.  Hm, and so is Martine Leavitt.  Creating yourself by the story you have about yourself.  That’s a good theme.  When it is handled well in a book, I nearly always like that book.  Maybe always always.  I’ll have to think more about this.

Preludes and Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

Riot’s blog, Burning Leaves, reminded me yesterday of how much I love the Sandman.  I went into the hallway and gazed admiringly at my very nice Sandman poster.  I just now went to find a small picture of it on the internet, so I could link to it, and I couldn’t find one anywhere.  I couldn’t even find one for sale on eBay.  So I’m glad I have this one, and if I had batteries in my camera I would take a picture of it and post it here.  It reminds me of when my love for Sandman was new.

I actually read The Doll’s House first.  I bought it from Bongs & Noodles, and the check-out guy said, “You read the first one, right?” and I said, “Well, y’all don’t have it.  Do I really need to read the first one first?  I can’t start with this one?” and you could see him trying to decide whether it was more important to him to tell the truth or to sell books.  He eventually said, “Yeah.  You really have to read the first one first.”  I didn’t.  You really have to read the first one first.  Or at least, you have to read the first one before the second one.  In the end I gave up on the whole Sandman for a while, then decided that I was going to damn well read them and I was going to damn well like them, and I bought all ten volumes with my high school graduation money.

Preludes and Nocturnes is not Neil Gaiman’s best work, but it is still pretty good.  I was thinking while I was reading it – damn, Neil Gaiman is good at coming up with incantations.  The spell they say to summon Death, while ineffective, is an excellent spell

I give you a coin I made from a stone. I give you a song I stole from the dirt.  I give you a knife from under the hills, and a stick that I stuck through a dead man’s eye.  I give you a claw I ripped from a rat.  I give you a name, and the name is lost.  I give you blood from out of my vein, and a feather I pulled from an angel’s wing.  I call you with names of my lord, of my lord.  I summon with poison and summon with pain.  I open the way and I open the gates.

How good’s that?  It’s evocative, and it scans.

At this point in the comic’s life, it was still mostly horror.  Particularly “24 Hours”.  Generally when I am reading Preludes and Nocturnes, I start reading “24 Hours”, and I get to the part where the waitress is considering her philosophy of storytelling.  She says that every story ends in death if you keep going long enough; and the trick is to know when to stop.  I usually consider this to be Neil Gaiman’s way of telling me that he doesn’t mind if I skip “24 Hours”, so I do.  This time, I was in a completist mood, and I read it.  It is well unsettling.  Feel free to skip it.  I will tell you what happens: Everybody dies in nasty ways, and at the end Dream shows up in a bad mood.

However, “The Sound of Her Wings” – I say unoriginally – makes up for any flaws in the foregoing seven issues.  Death is a delightful character, of whom we just never see enough.  I like it when she throws bread at him and talks about Mary Poppins.  Thanks to my wonderful sister Anna, I have this in a single issue, which I fetched down from my bookshelf and read.  I love having single issues of the Sandman.  Looking at the ones I have flashes me back to this little used comics & books shop on Portobello Market Road, which I visited almost every day of July 2005.  I was living in Notting Hill that month, so it was close by.  (On Pembridge Gardens, a street that was very easy to get to from the Notting Hill Tube Station, but it took me an hour and a half with two suitcases, because I made a wrong turn and every street within a ten-mile radius was called Pembridge something, and Londoners are crap at giving directions.  All except for this one street-cleaner, and at the time I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, though in retrospect I realize that he was giving me perfect directions.)  I wanted to buy all the issues because of the extreme beauty of Dave McKean’s covers.  I spent so much money at that shop.

If I could draw, I would want to be able to draw like Dave McKean.  I have recently decided to take King of Hearts off of my desert island five movies, and substitute MirrorMask.  Definitely.  If you haven’t seen it, see it.  It’s charming.  Especially the end.