What I Learned About Writing From: The Sandman Comics
By Debbie Meldrum
I know. I know. There are those of you who are screaming, “Graphic Novels!” If the author of “The Sandman” series, Neil Gaiman, refers to them as comic books, who am I to quibble?
Neil Gaiman has been one of my favorite authors for a while now. I’ve read his novels, children’s books, YA books and short story collections. But I avoided the comic book collections. My experience with comics was limited to “Archie and Jughead,” “Little Lulu” and “Casper.” And those when my age was still in single digits.
Curiosity got the better of me, especially after reading reviews and hearing interviews with Mr. Gaiman about “The Sandman.” I tried to hide the first collection “Preludes and Nocturnes" under a stack of magazines and other books when I bought it at a local bookstore. After all, I was a woman of a certain age buying a comic book. I didn’t want anyone to see. The clerk, however, picked it up and announced, “This is a great series. You’re going to love it.” Red-faced, I snatched the bag from him and left in a hurry.
He was right. The next time I picked up a Sandman book, I didn’t hide it. Not only did I enjoy the series, but I learned a few things about story-telling.
1. How you draw things changes the tone of the story.
Mr. Gaiman collaborated with many different artists over the course of the series. Depending on the style of the drawing, the feel of the story changed. Some were very stylized and the story seemed more sophisticated. In the few that were more whimsically drawn, the stories were lighter in feel even with the same dark subject matter. Although the characters retained the same basic size, shape and coloring, the artistic style of the drawings gave the characters’ personalities a slightly different twist.
The settings changed as well. Again, Dream (our Sandman), lives in The Dreaming. But what we see of his land or other magical realms, or our own world for that matter, effects the story being told. Is the setting dark and shadowy? Or is bright and sunny?
I love a well-defined setting in fiction. I may or may not be successful at drawing my own worlds with words. But I’m working on playing with setting more. What does it do when a happy occasion takes place during a thunderstorm? Can a change in background give a scene more kick?
2. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a nice guy.
Dream isn’t even technically a guy. He’s one of seven siblings, known collectively as The Endless. At the beginning of the series, Dream has been imprisoned by a wizard. After his escape, he sets about atoning for some of the wrongs he’s committed. However, he’s still often thoughtless, stubborn and cruel. When you’ve existed for billions of years, you get used to doing things a certain way.
It’s in the contrasts between Dream and the other characters—some human, many not—that brings out the brilliance of Gaiman’s universe. Dream is often kinder than those around him, even if it’s by accident. Sometimes helping out can be the worst thing you could do for another person.
Could exploring my characters’ dark sides, especially my “good guys”, make them more well-rounded? How could a well-intentioned action create havoc for another character?
3. Mythology is your friend.
Gaiman uses myth a lot in all of his writing but particularly in “The Sandman.” The Greco-Roman pantheon is present, but so are Egyptian, Norse and Asian gods. I suspect that he also makes up myths—or I’m just not as well-versed, which is a distinct possibility. He uses them head on in the comics. Sometimes with a lesser known name applied to a god and always with his own twist, but still addressing the actual myth as it’s come down the ages.
Writers are often told to go to myths for ideas for their stories. Too often, I think, we just take a myth and set it in the here and now with very little change. And we have a lot of books on the shelves, including “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, that take the gods and plunk them down in modern times.
Can I come up with a new way to use mythology in my writing? I don’t know. But I’m sure going to try.
4. Break Those Stereotypes
Death is one of Dream's siblings. What is the picture that just popped into your head? A hooded figure? Perhaps skeletal? Definitely male though. Not in Sandman. Death, in Neil Gaiman's universe, is a cute Goth teen. And it works.
Gaiman shakes things up in other ways as well, taking what we think of as fact and flipping it upside down and backwards. In The Sound of Her Wings, my favorite story from Preludes and Nocturnes, Dream is in our world. He is sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons, and he sees Death. They discuss humans. Death says, "Mostly they aren't too keen to see me. They fear the sunless lands but they enter your realm each night without fear." Dream replies, "And I am far more terrible than you, my sister."
I've been called out by my critique group on stereotypes and cliches in my work. Never intentional, but that doesn't really matter. one of the things I'm working on is really shaking up expectations with my characters.
I'm sure I'll come back to Neil Gaiman in the future. He's an amazing writer, who I've learned many lessons from.
Debbie is a daydreamer. A fact that caused her much grief during her school career but has served her well as a writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Apollo’s Lyre, The SCWP Marathon Anthology, and The S’Peaker. In addition to being a member of PPW, she belongs to Creek Writers Council—a tough but fun critique group.