[hat tip: io9]This week marks the 20th anniversary of the first issue of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's comic book series that (along with anything Alan Moore got his hands on) forever changed comics, allowing them to explore existentialism, sexuality, humanity, horror, history, religion and mythology without aid of muscled men in shiny tights and women with huge breasts and nipples that show through plate mail.
The Sandman also changed me. I came to the series quite late. I was, what, 14? Trying to find myself and my place in the world like everyone that age. I came to the Sandman quite late in its initial run, and quite accidentally.
I was wasting time at the mall and wandered into the comic shop. I didn't read comics. Neither did any of my friends. I had not bought a single comic book in my life. I browsed around and stared/drooled at Dawn and Witchblade covers and posters (I was fourteen, after all), but would have been too embarrassed to buy any of them (and rightfully so: they're dreadful)... But then my eyes were caught by the bizarre and iconic imagery of Dave McKean on the cover of Sandman #64.
This didn't look like anything else in the comic shop. I was intensely curious, so I decided to pick it up. I remember reading it on the bus ride home from the mall, and was awestruck.
My first issue put me halfway though "The Kindly Ones," the series' penultimate storyline, resulting in the title character's death. Handily, this particular issue began with a summary of "The Kindly Ones," so I was slightly less lost than I would have been otherwise... but before the bus dropped me off, I was ready for more.
That weekend, my family was going up to stay at our Cabin for a few days. Knowing this, I stocked up on as many back issues of The Sandman as the comic shop had, which was maybe 5 issues.
I immediately was hooked. The Sandman featured a cast regular people sturggling with birth, death, homosexuality, drug addiction, growing old, AIDS, faith and everything else we humans have to contend with. But among the mere mortals were others: Loki, Death (with a capital D this time), Shakespeare's Puck, The Bibical Cain and Abel, Lucifer (now running a piano bar in downtown Los Angeles), and the eponymous Sandman: Morpheus, the King of Dreams.
I then began consuming, in mass quantities, all of the back issues of Sandman subsequently published in collected editions. The art in the early issues kind of threw me off a bit (very "comic-booky" and very dated), but the story -- the story was too good. The Sandman was, and is, literature. Sure, Batman and Superman appear in a frame or two of an early issue (before it became the backbone of the "mature audiences" DC Vertigo line), but this is the stuff of Shakespeare. I was then, and continue to be, quite the rationalist. Despite numerous attempts, I can't get into mainstream fantasy fiction, and even most sci-fi I find not too my liking (fanboy Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica content on this very blog notwithstanding), but the Sandman helped me to appreciate the fantastic.
After The Sandman ended, not terribly long after I discovered it, I continued to explore the Vertigo line of comics for a time. Many of these were quite good (Transmetropolitan, Hellblazer, House of Secrets) and many quite horrible (anything involving Garth Ennis), though none caught my interest like the Gaiman's magnus opus, with the possible exception of Mike Carey's Lucifer (a spin-off series about the piano bar entrepreneur/former Lord of Hell mentioned above).
I don't really read comics any longer. A friend may lend me something he finds quite good now and then, and there are a few graphic novels I have become quite fond of; but in general, I have been disappointed in most every comic I have read since then. Nothing captured my imagination or my sense of wonder -- in comics or otherwise -- quite like The Sandman.
Thank you Neil Gaiman.
If you're unfamiliar with The Sandman and would like to get your feet wet, you'd do well to dive in with the first collection (Preludes and Nocturnes), but I might recommend A Game of You for first timers instead.