Graphic Novel Friday: The Annotated Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Unless you were abducted by aliens decades ago and have only just been deposited back on Earth, you’ve no doubt heard of the iconic Sandman comics series, for which Neil Gaiman is credited as the principle architect. The Sandman, which ended in 1996, is one of the most acclaimed titles in the history of comics. The basic premise, following the adventures of Dream, ruler of the worlds of dream and member of the family Endless, blends myth, dark fantasy, contemporary fiction, and historical drama. One reason for its enduring legacy and popularity must be due to the sheer flexibility of the concept and how that allowed Gaiman’s imagination free rein.
Now Vertigo has released volume 1 of
The Annotated Sandman in an oversized hardcover. Edited (some might say “curated”) by Leslie S. Klinger, this first volume covers issues 1 through 20. Special extras include a preface, an essay entitled “The Context of the Sandman,” and a foreword by Gaiman himself.
In that introduction, Gaiman remembers reading other annotated books like Annotated Alice and The Annotated Hunting of the Snark: “I loved feeling I had been given a key, or a succession of keys. I loved having jokes I had missed pointed out to me. I loved feeling that there had been scholarship and thought put into something, and that I had been made a gift of it….It’s like going around a museum with a knowledgeable guide, someone who can point up into the rafters, where you might not have looked if you were walking around alone, and point out the gargoyles.”
He also notes that from the beginning Sandman was being annotated: “I was being sent copies of the USEnet annotations being assembled by a group mind.”
For The Annotated Sandman,” Gaiman says, “I tried to pretend that I was dead. I’d answer questions or comment or clarify if Les really needed it, or, sometimes, point out if something was just dead wrong. But mostly I felt that the annotations needed to exist apart from me.”
The annotations are wisely placed out to the side of each page, positioned next to the relevant panel where necessary. If you are new to the comic, or wanting to revisit it, you can read the story without the annotations getting in the way. But you’d be missing fascinating observations and information.
For example, early on, the annotations focus on historical context for England in 1916, including some explication of the setting of Wych Cross. There’s an interesting commentary on whether local taxis would have been equipped with taximeters, even though it was invented in 1891. For trainspotters, there’s a bit of a math problem on the same page about the distance a character would have traveled and how long it would have taken him in that era.
The backstory of comics publication is also explored in the annotations, including this note about ad placement: “an ad page appears following this title page: NG clearly knew where ad pages would appear in the issues and often commented on their placement in the scripts. In episodic television, pacing of a story is often dictated by commercial breaks; in good comic book writing, too, recognition of page placements is important to the pacing of the drama and the placing of images.”
Another note reads “It’s unclear why the guard is wearing a surgical mask and cap.” Later on, there’s a reveal that “Do what you wilt, buster,” on a guard’s t-shirt is a joke referring to a principle espoused by Aleister Crowley. A fair number of the annotations reminded me favorably of the director’s commentary on a DVD of a movie. In addition to general information, the annotations also provide specifics on characters’ fictional personas and any historical resonance. There’s a lovely extended note about “Roderick Burgess,” for example, otherwise known as Morris Burgess Brocklesby.
Mistakes are also pointed out including a guard reading It by Stephen King before that novel’s publication and referring to a character as “Barnaby” rather than “Bruce.” We also learn such trivia as “A button-burster…is a low comedian.”
Perhaps most colorful if grotesque are Gaiman’s notes to his artists about the Hellfire Club, providing enough detail to fuel a short story, including “naked men tied up under tables” and a guest “pulling bits off of the face of a beautiful woman” until she “ends up a skull.” Even better, however, Klinger doesn’t feel the need to annotate where there’s nothing much to say, which also provides some relief to the reader wanting to multitask by reading both the comic and the annotations.
Suitable for general readers or completists, The Annotated Sandman reveals just how much work went into the classic comic, and gives valuable insight into a creator’s technique and imagination. The only slight quibble would be that the interior paper is a little too much like newsprint.