Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium's most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month at Comics College we'll be taking a look at the work of one of the true celebrities in the comics world, Mr. Neil Gaiman, who has been in the news a bit lately, thanks to a certain award-nominated film and a big profile piece in The New Yorker.
Now, Gaiman is an incredibly prolific writer. and his comics output alone is quite impressive. be concerned mainly with his comics work and less so with his novels, screenplays and other material.
Why he's important
His highly successful Sandman series not only showed that other genres -- in this case fantasy and (to an extent) horror -- could be successful. He showed that women could and would in fact read comics in droves when the subject matter interested them. The series alone almost single-handedly created the Vertigo line, no doubt part of the reason the imprint has created so many spin-offs from it.
In many ways, Sandman was the first breakthrough comic, the one that showed the great unwashed that comics could have a literary sensibility, could carry themes deeper than "beat up bad guys" and could reference folklore, mythology, classic literature and not come off as twee or pretentious (though I suppose there are some that would like to debate that last point). At his best, Gaiman's work is layered, rich and rewarding.
Where to start
Sandman is the obvious choice, but where to begin? It's generally acknowledged that the initial storyline isn't very good -- it took a couple of issues for Gaiman to find his footing and Sam Keith -- as excellent an artist as he is in his own right -- wasn't the best fit for the material. That being the case, my recommendation would be to start with one of the short story collections, like Dream Country, which contains the award-winning A Midsummer Night's Dream (and was the story that introduced me to the series as well). The tales in that volume stand on their own well enough that you needn't be familiar with the characters or the overarching plot, and also offer a decent enough sampling to clue you in on whether you'll want to read the rest of the series. (If you need an added incentive, the shorter stories tend to be the high points of the series.) If you find you like what Dream Country has to offer, then feel free to go back and read the rest of the series in the proper order.
If you happen to have the extra $400 lying around, of course, you can purchase the four Absolute Sandman volumes. If that's too prohibitively expensive, though, I would at least recommend waiting for the new paperback editions that Vertigo is putting out this year, as they feature the excellent recoloring job that was the main highlights of the Absolute books.
From there you should read
Assuming you've become a complete Sandman junkie by this point, you can feel free to move on to some of the more apocryphal stories, namely The Dream Hunters, Endless Nights and the two Death mini series -- The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life (both of which are collected in The Absolute Death). The Death stories are pretty solid, though Hunters and Nights are comparatively lackluster (though both feature stellar artists).
For my money, though, Gaiman is at his absolute (no pun intended) best when collaborating with artist Dave McKean. In addition to a number of books and screenplays, together the pair have worked on a trilogy of excellent graphic novels that ranks among the best work either of them has done on their own. Start with Violent Cases, their first, about gangsters and memory (sort of) and then proceed to Signal to Noise, about a dying filmmaker who spins his final film out of his imagination.
But save the best for last with Mr. Punch, which takes some of the themes of the previous two books and whips them into a disturbed and inspired story of the loss of childhood and innocence. It's easily Gaiman's best comics work yet.
McKean and Gaiman also worked on Black Orchid, an early work set most decisively in the DC superhero universe (Lex Luthor is the main heavy here). Still it holds up rather well, and you can see some of the themes Gaiman would later develop more fully tentatively explored here.
Speaking of the DC Universe, there's also the Books of Magic, which takes readers on a tour of the more supernatural elements of the DCU, courtesy of neophyte magician Tim Hunter. This was the "pilot" basically for the eventually ongoing Books of Magic series, and it has the feel of a marketing pitch at times, but it does feature some great work from artists like John Bolton and Charles Vess
Rounding up his initial DC work, Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days collects a number of assorted short stories he did for comics like Swamp Thing, and it includes the quite good Sandman Midnight Theater story he did with Matt Wagner and Teddy Kristiansen.
Stepping away from Gaiman's comics work for a second, and going back to his collaborative efforts with Dave McKean, I can also recommend the two children's books the pair did together -- The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls. Of the two, the latter is my favorite, but either would make for a good introduction to the pair's work for those elementary school age folks in your household.
And, while we're not talking too much about his prose work, I will add that if you find yourself journeying in that direction, you couldn't do much better than by reading Stardust or the suburb American Gods.
One of the few comics by Gaiman that I haven't read is The Last Temptation, a work which hasn't exactly been mentioned as one of his best, perhaps because it was done as a spin-off for an Alice Cooper album. Still, it probably is worth a read, if for the novelty and Michael Zulli art if nothing else.
I have read Gaiman's unfinished take on Miracleman, originally published by Eclipse and long since out of print. Hopefully Marvel and Gaiman will at some point will get the legal go-ahead to finish this story. If you can't wait you can try to dig up the issues, but expect to pay top dollar.
I didn't care much for Gaiman's recent Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader story, but the collected edition does add a few noteworthy Bat-tales, including a great Riddler tale featuring art by Bernie Mireault.
If you're looking to tackle Gaiman from a more scholarly angle, there's Vertigo's Sandman Companion, as well as two books from Fantagraphics: Hanging Out With the Dream King collects interviews with the author's various collaborators, while The Sandman Papers pulls together a variety of critical essays on the seminal series.
As a general rule, I'd suggest avoiding anything Gaiman has done for Marvel. 1602 -- an attempt to place Spider-Man, etc. in the Elizabethan era -- just underscores how thoroughly modern these characters are and how uncomfortable they appear in ruffles and doublets, while The Eternals is the sort of comic that would seem fresh and innovative in 1989, but comes off as rote and tired today. The only reason to read it is to check out John Romita Jr's stellar art.
Next month: Chris Ware