Going Home Again

So... Sandman: Overture?

I was pretty excited when I heard that Neil Gaiman would be returning to Sandman -- Comix Experience has a history with the book, after all -- but I'm also not at all afraid to say I was a smidge nervous.  The last few comics Neil has written have been.... well, they were certainly technically fine (he's a pretty good writer, after all), but they also felt a bit bloodless, and appeared like they had more originated from someone asking Neil to write something than a story that Neil had passionately originated from his own mind and heart.

(There's nothing wrong with that -- that's how most comics are created; but seldom, I think, is that how the best comics are created)

Then there's also the whole "aging act" thing -- you know, how you just love a band or a story or a character or some other thing, but how going back to it isn't nearly as good as you remembered that band was (or, even worse, sometimes, that it is really terrific, but it is just different enough that the mainstream pretty much ignores it.  For example, I really liked Rush's last two albums, but I don't think that any of the "classic rock" stations in the Bay Area really ever played a single track from them, despite playing "Tom Sawyer" 6 times a day.... or Jeff Beck's last record, or... well, you get the point, I guess), and then you start to wonder how much you liked the original in the first place? (you fickle fickle fan)

So, I'm pretty happy to say that I thought Neil's return to Sandman with "Sandman: Overture" was simply terrific -- it had just enough classic strains of what we liked about it before, melded with a writer pretty much at his peak, and with what appears to be a pretty intriguing new twist to go with it.

Yes, there are bits that are going to seem very familiar: "There is a book. A book filled with everything that has every happened, everything that ever will happen. It is heavy, and leather, and chained to his wrist." and so on. You can't stray so far from what worked, after all, and the characters are who they are -- and because this is a prequel you at least think you know where all of the pieces have to come out. But Sandman has always been about stories, and I'd argue that seldom were there a lot of surprises once things were set in place in Sandman because stories have rules -- could "the Kindly Ones" have really gone any other way, from a plot perspective?

But that's from us who loved this with a spoon 25 years (!!) ago -- I think if this is your first time reading this world and these characters, I think you're really going to see why we fell in love all the way back then, because there is an incredible cosmology being formed here (And, actually, "Overture" might solve the problem I always had with starting new readers at v1 -- I always thought "A Doll's House" was the much much better entry point, because there weren't any more bits about how much the Martian Manhunter loved Oreos or whatever, that so dates the first story arc)

But, yeah, for those of us who already were fans, if you're a lapsed comics reader, I entirely think it is worth your while to come back to Sandman -- especially as a periodical reading experience.

In fact, there's a specific physical thing that happens here in the serialized comic book (I've been led to believe that the reason it wasn't described in the solicitations was that Neil wanted it to be a surprise for the reader, so I won't say more than that -- because it was a lovely surprise!) that I strongly believe will be mediocre at best in a collected edition -- and downright dire in a digital version. This first issue at least is very much meant to be a comic book, if you ask me.

If you are a lapsed reader somehow reading this review, I'd like to urge you to try and start up a conversation with the person behind the counter of your local comics store, and ask them about what is happening in comics right now that that's on the same level as Sandman.  Because there really is a lot of wonderful contemporary comics out there that you will delight to discover -- the first one I'll give you for free is "Saga" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples -- my deepest hope would be this brings back many readers from "back in the day" and reintroduces you to the general resplendent wonder that is comic books.

I didn't say anything yet about the art, and that there is because I really don't have the words.  This is the work of J.H. Williams III's career -- and given all of the awesome astonishing comics he has drawn before, that's saying a lot. Stunningly, epically beautiful where the page is at least as important as the panel. Brother can draw.

There are a few weaknesses, sure -- the house ads are a bit jarring when they come; and if you didn't like Sandman back then (and there were many people who didn't), this probably won't change your mind -- about half the issue had a certain level of "read this before" to it (though the verses change), but all of that was extremely minor to me. I thought this was truly EXCELLENT work, and I'm kind of proud to have it on my shelf.

What did you think?



Wait, What? Ep. 94: The Basement Japes

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone App Above: The Farm Fusion Waffle, which is a liege waffle topped with mushroom, spinach, roasted pepper, tomato and marinated chevre, from the Waffle Window, Portland, OR.

Yes, that is one mighty tasty waffle, let me tell you -- although let me be honest, I do not tell you in episode 95, I merely mention it to you now. But!  Trust me, it's darn good.

As for what we do discuss in this episode, join me behind the jump for... show notes!

1:20-3:24: The Basement Japes: an introduction
3:24-13:21: The front page of Time.com and how to get there; Jeff makes Graeme break down the process behind his recent Dark Knight Rises
13:21-22:03: Graeme has recently seen Transformers: Dark of the Moon on Netflix Watch Instantly  and would like to talk about it and a certain amount of contemplation transpires about the quote-unquote charms of Michael Bay.
22:03-32:02: By very sad contrast, Jeff has something to say about Melissa & Joey, which he mistakenly calls "Melissa Loves Joey" THE ENTIRE TIME.  Is Jeff really so damn old he would get the title confused with Joanie Loves Chachi?  The answer, sadly, is yes.  Fortunately, Graeme steers Jeff toward Sex House, instead.  Although that seems like a weird lead-in to mentioning Jarett Kobek's new book, If You Won't Read, Then Why Should I Write? (and yes, I also get that title wrong, too), it actually works quite well, honest.
32:02-32:22: This is the point where we acknowledge that we have not really talked about comics at all, yet.
32:22-34:18: So instead of talking about Transformer movies, we mention Transformers comics and GI Joe comics.  Woo!
34:18-40:51: Well, and so you can't really talk about GI Joe Comics without discussing Top Shelf's Double Barrel, can you? No, of course not.  Trust me when I say we speak glowingly of Double Barrel #2.
40:51-56:04: Jeff's other major comic read of the week was catching up on three weeks of Shonen Jump Alpha. Can Jeff handle jumping into Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal on its ninth chapter?  (Spoiler: no.) The pros and cons of reading a mass of serialized information all at a go also gets a bit of the ol' poke & prod.
55:04-1:00:24: This gets us talking about how jumping on points and story density can work both for and against a story's accessibility with mentions of Morrison's JLA in trade, Mark Waid's interview at the AV Club, and whether Marvel's recap pages work.
1:00:24-1:02:59: Kieron Gillen has his own podcast, DECOMPRESSED.  We haven't listened to it, but we are very excited about it!  Check it out here!
1:02:59-1:14:09: Graeme tallks about Dark Avengers #177 by Jeff Parker and Kev Walker, and Wild Children, the recent Image book by Ales Kot and Riley Rossmo
1:14:09-1:16:28: Graeme picked up the new Eddie Campbell graphic novel, The Lovely Horrible Stuff, digitally (for only five dollars, and you can too, here at the SavCrit Digital Store) and tells us about it.  It sounds quite good.  (I admit it, I've picked it up since and can sign off on Graeme's recommendation.  It really is quite good.)
1:16:28-1:29:00: Other books Graeme discusses:  Action Comics #11,which he likes more than Jeff did, Infernal Man-Thing; and Punk-Rock Jesus.
1:29:00-1:45:38: Were you still wondering why Graeme liked the first volume of the Greg Rucka Punisher trade even though he didn't like the individual issues he tried?  He tells us here, and we get in to a bit of a tussle over the nature of The Punisher, and the differences between Rucka's approach and Ennis's approach.
1:45:36-1:58:34: Does that mean we end up talking about Rucka's run on Elektra and his career at NuMarvel as well as his current webcomic, Lady Sabre?  Why yes, it does!
1:58:34-2:03:32: The end (of the episode) is nigh! Although promising earlier to spoil the hell out of Walking Dead #100, Jeff instead tells the comic book collection bet story from Bleeding Cool.
2:03:32-2:10:24: When we recorded this, Neil Gaiman doing Before Sandman was just a rumor.  Want to know what we thought of the announcement before it was announced?  We talk about it here!
...Oh, and also closing comments, which we are still not very good at doing.
If you've got iTunes, it may have already set the nose of your faithful RSS bloodhound stirring.  Alternately, you are welcome to have a listen to it here, and sniff at it dismissively at your leisure:
Oh, and a word to the wise, we aren't recording this week, which means we won't have an episode for you next week -- I've got a trip lined up for this week, and I realized it would actually benefit my life greatly if we baked this kind of thing into my schedule, so expect us to have one skip week a month from here on out.  (Think of it as an opportunity to catch up.)
As always, we thank you for listening and hope you enjoy!

Almost On-Topic: Jeff Talks Briefly About Morpheus, Obama, and Politics.

The only letter I ever had published in a comic book was in Transmetropolitan. I don't remember the issue but I'm pretty sure it's issue #16, above--this cover of Spider as The Statue of Liberty rings some bells. Somewhere, Ellis had written about the '92 election race that was currently underway, and posited a pretty good theory about who gets to be President. (As I recall, the theory is basically, "Whoever wants it the most, gets it." Clinton, Ellis pointed out, wanted the Presidency in a way Bush I didn't.

I wrote back a response suggesting that, in fact, what we were seeing from Bush was petulance--the speed with which we devoured news media had changed, and what had been some very classic re-election gambits had fallen flat because of it. Consequently, Bush was upset and frustrated by having done everything right and still losing. Because I mentioned Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 of which Ellis is a fan (although is there anyone who reads that book who doesn't become a fan?), and maybe because I laid on the Transmet rah-rah thick at the end (hey, what can I say? I was a fan), Ellis ran the letter.

Last week, getting ready to leave Buenos Aires, I saw this Obama ad that repurposes dialogue from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

Think these two bits of trivia--my letter in a comic book, and a political ad that takes language from a comic book--justify me writing about the Presidential election on a comic book blog? If not, don't follow me after the jump.

I suppose another connection between Presidential campaigns and comic books--superhero books in particular, I'm thinking--is the true and pressing need for character and continuity: just as Marvel and DC must make turn out dozens of stories a year about Batman or Spider-Man and make sure the heroes remain "in character," so too must the people running presidential campaigns create a "character" out of the running politician with which the public can identify (or at least consistently recognize), and tell dozens of stories about that character from one state to the next, from one puff piece to the next, from one debate to the next.

The stories a political campaign tells about a candidate are either variations on one story or smaller stories that reinforce a larger narrative, and while the details of the narrative may vary, but the point of every political narrative is the same: this politician has earned the right to hold the position they're running for, and their experiences will ensure they will represent the people in doing so. Because the point of the narrative is the same for every person running (and every superhero), the creation of character, the public's attachment to this character, and the degree to which the narrative's details resonate with the current concerns of the public, are what allows politicians (and superheroes) to survive and/or thrive in their respective arenas. These things distinguish them.

Consequently, the first move of the opposition is usually to point out areas of contradiction between the created persona and the actual person, pointing to incidents in the politician's past that do not gibe with the current persona; the opposition uses continuity to back up their condemnation of the politician, similar to the way an outraged fanboy might use continuity to condemn a current handling of a superhero as "out of character." If an opponent can't undermine the created persona, they might attack the candidate's narrative by trying to convince the public that their concerns aren't the concerns the narrative addresses.

My letter to Ellis all those years ago talked about how Bush's petulance stemmed from doing all the work to create a narrative for the upcoming election--that of a successful military commander who had led the country into and through a successful military operation--to no avail whatsoever. Unfortunately for Bush, the period of good will created by a small, successful military operation had been drastically reduced by the influence of CNN and the public's exposure to 24 hour news--the exposure meant a story's hook became stale more quickly, and Bush entered the election with the successful gulf war as "old news," and the troubled economy as what people really cared about.

Bush was also frustrated and petulant because the only successful weapon his campaign had against Bill Clinton--Clinton's infidelity--was checked by Bush's own profligate tendencies: the Democrats had info that strongly suggested Bush had continued, at least through his vice-presidency, to keep a mistress, and so the issue of morality never entered into the '92 election.

Bush had been handicapped by both his own indulgence and a change in the culture he couldn't have predicted. No wonder he seemed resentful, angry and dismissive during the '92 campaign, and no wonder he lost. His re-election narrative held no power, and the conflict between his public persona and his private character had left him unable to attack his opponent.

Now, although I'm an Obama man (with some reluctance) and have very little patience for Hillary Clinton, I find the "I Am Hope" ad more than a little depressing, not least because it highlights for me the degree to which Hillary, like Bush I, has had her narrative derailed.

I couldn't tell you for how long Hillary has been planning her campaign (I'm gonna guess it's been at least since '96) but I can tell you it was pretty obvious what her campaign narrative was going to be: her election to president was going to be a historic achievement--not for her, but for the country. Making her the first woman president would show how far the U.S. had come in gender relations. It was going to be an unavoidable sign of a new day in American politics, and it would imply a centuries long struggle between the genders was if not over, then at least at the beginning of its end. The goal from (let's say) '96 on was to acquire enough practical political experience to check the naysayers who would try to derail this narrative as so much glitter and happy hippie smoke.

However, just as Bush I was unprepared for 24 hour news cycle to erode gulf war good will, Hillary was unprepared for Barack Obama to enter the campaign and, essentially, usurp her narrative. Suddenly everything Hillary would've been saying about her campaign was being said by Obama; the only angle she really had was to fall back on was her practical political experience, and attacking Obama's narrative, suggesting that her narrative, not his, was the one that mattered most to the public.

The "I Am Hope" banner ad suggests how well that's going for her. Throw in her own character failings (from what I can tell, Hillary, like many lawyers, reserves her charm and grace for those she believes to be equals and superiors but isn't nearly as good with those serving under her--Washington is supposedly littered with secret service men who'll complain bitterly she turned them into baggage handlers and errand boys, dismissing their job duties as secondary to the chores she assigned them), and Hillary is now in the role of Choronzon, smug demonlord brought low by the prince of dreams. Considering all the years she expected to be playing the Morpheus role, I find it kinda painful, kinda like the way it's painful to watch the worst kid in acting class (who's of course convinced he's the best) see the casting sheet and realize he's not going to be playing the lead.

The Democratic race for the nomination isn't over yet, but it could be very soon. If it ends with Obama taking the nomination, will Hillary be able to re-craft her persona to make a suitable running mate? Will she be able to mesh her narrative with Obama's?

I wish I could take this entry the extra mile and bring Neil Gaiman's Sandman back into all this, but it's been too long since I last read the series and the books aren't nearby. But isn't Sandman about, among other things, the usurpation of narrative? I'm thinking here of the early arcs in particular where stories are never resolved by Morpheus in the way his enemies intend, and frequently open characters to a new understanding of their place in their universe. In Sandman, the loss of one's intended narrative and the revelation of one's true character is usually a beneficial thing. In presidential campaigns, it frequently is not.