Wonder Woman Origins: Where to Start?

I’ve fallen into a deep dark hole of DC comics today and I can’t seem to find my way out. Yesterday I released the abstracts for LGBTQIA+ Fantastika Graphics digital symposium, including my own which I posted here. Although merely days ago I cautioned against writing a conference abstract without knowing some details of your plan/structure, I rarely follow my own advice. 🤷🏽‍♀️ So here I am, trying to figure out where to start my research with Wonder Woman’s origin story.

There are two general versions and they are in oppositions to each other. One is extremely feminist, centering on a parthenogenetic birth (a birth without requiring male interaction) and a matriarchal society spreading the message of peace and enlightenment. The other not only requires male interaction for Wonder Woman to be created but also changes the Amazonian society to make them more aggressive, and more often than not, a group of man-haters. This view is the opposite side of the feminist spectrum, a view presented by male authors who completely misunderstand feminism itself. LGBTQIA+ phobias also get mixed in here (with the idea that a woman would only want to be with another woman because they both hate men). It’s a disturbing and complicated history as each reboot clearly reveals the author’s own views on feminism.

That being said, I still have no idea where to start. Which comic runs should I focus on? The 1940s’ golden age? The 1950s’ silver age? The 1960s’ bronze age? The 1980s’ Crisis on Infinite Earth series which plays with parallel universes? The 1987 reboot which follows it? The 2005/6 reboots? The 2011 one? 2016? The 2017/2020 film adaptations?

I suddenly remember why I’ve avoided looking at Marvel or DC characters for so long. But the longer I put it off, the more “catching up” I’ll have to do. And I thought being an epic fantasy scholar resulted in too heavy a reading list.

The University 811: Lessons in Abstract

Continuing the blog series on university tips that I started here, today we’re going to talk about writing abstract. I’ve said it before (here, here, and here), and I’ll say it again, first and foremost for any piece of writing you need to identify your objectives and your audience(s). This is especially important for abstract-writing. In most cases, your objective will be “I want to have my piece of research accepted.” Regardless of what the objective of your research is, the purpose of the abstract is the sales pitch for that research. Since that objective, acceptance, hinges on external factors, your audience, you can see why it’s absolutely imperative to consider your audience.

If you’re writing a conference abstract, then your audience will be first reviewed and approved by conference organisers or a reviewing committee. Have the CFP (call for papers) at hand when you write your abstract. Does the CFP posed any questions they hope to answer? Are there any specific areas or themes that the CFP particularly highlights? Are there any keywords that leap out at you? What is the subject of the theme of the conference itself? What is the background of the people hosting the conference? Who are the keynotes and what are their contributions to the field? You’re not setting out to answer these questions in your abstract, but you should hold them in your mind as you write. You want to frame your abstract so that it’s an obvious fit for the conference. The worst conference abstracts I’ve seen (and I’ve organised 10 conferences so far) are ones which do not match the theme or purpose of the conference. You want your abstract to tell the organisers that you have something meaningful to add to the discussions that they’ve created a space for.

The second audience to consider for a conference abstract are the attendees of the conference. Once your abstract is accepted by the conference committee, it will likely be published in the conference programme itself (either printed or online). Often, there may be several panels occurring at the same time and attendees will have to choose between two or more panels to decide which one to attend. So you want to write your abstract in a way that is appealing to conference delegates with the aim of getting them to come see your presentation. Again, consider the audience’s background and the conference theme. This assessment will allow you to moderate the tone and jargon in your abstract. For instance, I recently presented a paper at a postcolonial conference. As I work on fantasy fiction, I needed to present my abstract in a way that in understandable and approachable to literature scholars who may be unfamiliar with fantasy criticism, or with the fantasy genre itself. If I were to write the abstract for a fantasy conference, then I would need to frame the research in a different way, perhaps highlighting postcolonial elements that a group of fantasy scholars may be unfamiliar with. If I were to write an abstract for a postcolonial fantasy conference, then, again, I’d need to re-frame the abstract accordingly. In each case, your abstract situates your work in relation to the field, but identifying the field itself depends largely on the theme of the conference. While in all three examples, I’m pitching an abstract to literature scholars, there are subsections within this field that I need to consider, categories within the field which are distinct from each other. If you’re writing an abstract to accompany an article submission, then the same ideas apply. i.e. What is the theme and aims of the journal? Who is the audience? How does your work fit within this field?

The difference between conference and article abstracts (IMHO) is tone and tense. Conference papers usually present a small portion of your research. In most cases, this research is in some stage of development, i.e. you may be nearly done or just starting, but generally you have acquired some data and are presenting your initial findings and analysis. Occasionally, you may present at a conference after the research is done and you’re nearly ready to publish (or have published). In this case, the conference paper operates as a summary of your findings and conclusions, inviting the audience to read the full published text. Alternatively, you may be presenting at a conference before the research has even begun; in this case, you would be outlining your plans and methodologies and what you hope to accomplish. All of these scenarios are perfectly acceptable if you treat conferences as a way to test your ideas and get informal feedback from your peers no matter what stage of research your at. (Even if you’re done, you may want to consider directions for your next project, or how to expand the work further.) Thus, your tone and tense-choices may differ depending on the stage. If you’re at an earlier stage, you will likely use more conditional language, stating what you hope to accomplish or plan to do. But your abstract should still be written in a way that makes it apparent that you have considered a rough outline for your conference paper. The second worse conference abstracts I’ve seen are vague ones that summarizes the topic or discusses the importance of it, but tells me nothing about the presenter’s argument and/or methodology. (Check out my blog on the ‘so what’ factor, to tackle that issue further.) In many of these cases, (especially in the humanities) these abstracts are written before the presenter has put any major thought into what they hope to accomplish. Now, while it is entirely possible to write your conference paper on the train ride to the conference, if you’re submitting your abstract to a competitive programme, you may want to avoid statements in your abstract that makes it apparent that you haven’t done any of the work yet.

In contrast, article abstracts are written for research that is ready to be published. Like conference papers, it may only be a small portion of your larger project, but that piece is ready to be publicly disseminated. So your abstract must clearly outline your arguments, your methodologies, and the steps you’ve taken to reach your conclusions. Ideally (and this is only my opinion as journal editor; other editors may prefer other approaches), I prefer abstracts that read as a mini-outline of the project, operating almost as a set of guideposts to your reader. Putting myself in the position of reader, when I’m researching a topic I appreciate abstracts that tell me exactly what the article will do as it helps me decide if the work is applicable to my own research or not. Reading a vague abstract – or one overly complicated with complex language and technical jargon – makes me unwilling to do the work of procuring a copy of the text and reading it.

There’s another type of abstract that doesn’t get talked about often when discussing abstracts, the proposal abstract for grant applications. As there are a number of varying grant types and funding bodies, it’s difficult to summarise audience expectations here. But, in most cases, treat your audience as an educated general audience – i.e they may not have much experience with your particular field, but they will be highly educated, so either avoid using any jargon or concepts that are specific to your field or explain them if you have the space to do so. The key thing to keep in mind for grant applications is that you’re asking someone outside of your field to invest a lot of money into you and your project. So, while above I advise that you don’t dedicate too much time explaining the importance of the project, here you need to make sure that you have one or two sentences which clearly and strongly states your case. The difference in approaches, again, is due to your audience. In conference or article abstracts, you’re pitching your abstract to a scholar related to your field (in my case, another literature scholar); they’ll likely understand the importance of you work within that field. But with grant applications, it’s entirely possible that the review committee may have no experience in your field at all. For instance, while my own funding application focuses on literature, my readers and reviewers may have experiences in a completely different area of the humanities (sociology, history, etc). While these types of abstracts are generally shorter than conference or article-abstracts, you want to use your abstract as a pitch that invites your reader to continue reading the rest of your proposal.

Whether you’re writing an abstract for a conference, an article, or a funding proposal, in all of these cases, the abstract is the ‘first impression’ that you’re presenting to other scholars; so make it a good one. And good luck!

The University 411/811: The ‘So What’ Factor

Continuing the series of student tips that I started here, today we’re going to be talking about research projects. You might need to turn in a research paper or presentation as part of your grade. While as a former university instructor I’ve seen plenty of students struggle to articulate their argument, I want to re-assure you that you’re not alone. It’s part of the process and I still see it as editor when we receive submissions for Fantastika Journal (and – indeed – in my own work!). You can’t – and shouldn’t – approach your research with a pre-planned argument. Even if you’re studying in the humanities, you should start with a hypothesis to test. But the hypothesis should be meaningful.

One of the main problem I’ve seen is when students/researchers struggle to distinguish their topic statement from a thesis statement. What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example from my own life. This November I (through Fantastika Journal) will be hosting a digital symposium on LGBTQIA+ narratives. The topic is important of course, but I also want to make sure that we’re making significant contributions to this discussion. So I’ve struggled for ages to come up with my own paper ideas. If you were following along with fantastikapress on twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen that there are hundreds of LGBTQIA+ Fantastika graphics (the symposium’s focusing on graphic forms). So, for the humanities, a topic can be any combo of theme plus text. “Non-binary identities in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman“. “Transphobia in Futurama’s ‘Bend Her’ episode” “Censorship in the dubbed Sailor Moon”. These are all examples of topics. When someone asks you what you’re research is about, you can respond with “I’m looking at non-binary identities in Sandman“. But if someone asks you what are you arguing, you should not make the same statement: “I am arguing that there are depictions of non-binary characters in Sandman.” Of course there is. That’s not an argument. Most informed people (in this case, readers of the graphic novels), will not argue with this statement. As I’ve mentioned when I outlined the thought process for my own PhD proposal, even if an educated person does object to the statement (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. Don’t set out to pick a fight as your central objective.

So how can we turn a topic statement (‘I’m looking at LGBTQIA+ in Sandman”) into a thesis statement?

One of the ways to do this is to ask yourself “so what?” What are you hoping to achieve by researching this topic? What does your research tell us about LGBTQIA+ or Sandman? Be sure to consider the audience carefully when you ask this question. Let’s say you answer the ‘so what?’ question with the following: “It’s important to bring attention to these representations.” Agreed. But who’s your target audience for your research? Are you making this argument to other students and instructors? Or is your research directed to the industry (writers and creators), or maybe to audiences of these works? Think carefully about what information and pre-conceived notions your audience has and how your new research will fit into this. If your target audience is inclined to agree with you, then you haven’t answered the ‘so what’ successfully.

If you’re a postgraduate student, you may also want to consider your audience in terms of different specialities, especially if you’re planning on submitting an article for publication. If you’re setting out to research LGBTQIA+ narratives in Sandman your “so what” answer will depend on the topic of the journal. Is it a Fantasy-specific journal? A journal dedicated to graphic novels? The top journal in English literature? A journal dedicated to LGBTQIA+? Consider how your research will add substantially to that field. A paper that looks at the impact of Sandman for a Fantasy journal will be entirely different from one that focuses on graphics novels. Your topic stays the same (non-binary in Sandman) but you must adapt your argument and hypothesis to answer the ‘so what?’ pertinent to each field.

As I said above, don’t worry if you don’t have an argument when you begin your research. It’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) to start with “I’ve noticed x and I find it interesting.” But keep in mind that it’s just a place to start your research. Don’t stop there. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ until you’ve found an answer that contributes meaningfully to the field and doesn’t just make white noise.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion of tackling the research process with a look at abstract-writing. Until then, take care!

The Doll’s House

Continuing my Sandman re-read which I started here, as I’m focusing on themes of portraits, I’m skipping right to the end of Volume 2 The Doll’s House. The volume is bracketed at the beginning (following the prologue) and the end with depictions of the same portraits, but rendered with both subtle and obvious differences.

As I described for the start of the volume, we see a portrait of Desire in statue form followed by a depiction of Desire’s Gallery. At the end of the volume, this order is reversed as we see first Dream’s Gallery and then Desire’s statue on the final page.

The Gallery is a space in each of the Endless’s Realm. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their Gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The Gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Dream’s Gallery is made up of the same framed portraits as Desire’s but the frame has changed; Each symbol is framed with a highly ornamental golden frame. As well, although the colour tones are similar to Desire’s Gallery, small changes make the space slightly less alien, as the pictures are clearly arranged as framed pieces on the wall instead of a disturbing doubling effect where they also appear to be comic panels.

The portrait of Desire is also slightly less alien. There’s no mistaking it for a portrait of a human – the eyes are whited out, with no pupils or irises. But the colour pallet and setting has changed. In the first, the setting is immediately recognizable as a realm of the Endless with a background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon, an image that would not occur in the natural world. Here, Desire’s portrait is set on a clear sky blue with a rolling tan landscape. Likewise, while the first depiction of the statue is done in cold colours, hinting at a metallic or marble hard and enduring medium, the depiction here hints of yellows and tans, a dusty, sandy substance that seems it will crumble away. It matches the final messages of the volume as Dream tells Desire:

We of the endless are the servants of the living–we are NOT their masters. WE exist because they know, deep in their hearts, that we exist. When the last living thing has left the universe, then our task will be done. We do not manipulate them. If anything, they manipulate us. We are their toys. Their dolls, if you will.

Neil Gaiman, The Doll House

Rather than being supreme and mighty beings, the Endless living at the whimsy and service of of the humans. In this light, the Endless Realms are just another “doll house”; tucked away in a decorative shell until their service is required. Desire demonstrates this with their flippery, pondering their existence in one moment, and in the next moment “smiles and forgets, for Desire is a creature of the moment.” Desire’s whimsy reinforces the idea that they are a doll themselves, a creature unable to maintain sustained thought when not being “played with”. In this light, we can re-examine the sculpture of Desire. While the dimensions of the first suggested an immense and powerful being, the sculpture of Desire here is a blank, empty doll.

Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).

Sandman Issue 13: Snapshots of Humanity

I love issue 13 of The Sandman. In “Men of Good Fortune” we take a break from the main narrative of volume 2 Doll’s House; a much needed reprieve before the rollercoaster of horror we’ll face in issue 14. Instead we see snippets of a White Horse tavern in England where every hundred years Dream meets with Robert Gadling, a man who simply refuses to die. Each time we are treated to a change in scenery as, even though it’s the same tavern, over the course of some 600 years, the tavern changes with the time, along with its customers, their fashions and aesthetics. The background dialogue from the tavern customers also tell of us the continued political strifes and struggles that the everyman has to face – the latest being “Thatcher’s bloody poll tax”. So while my re-reading of Sandman has focused on portraits, the issue operates as a series of portraits in itself.

That being said, there IS one illustrated portrait within the issue: a miniature painting of Robert Gadling’s wife and new born son, which Robert shows to Dream with evident pride stating, “this is what I always dreamed heaven would be like, way back. It’s safe to walk the streets, enough food, and good wine. Life is so rich.”

When next we see Robert a 100 years later, nearly thrown out of the tavern for looking like a homeless drunkard, it’s clear life hasn’t treated him so well. His wife died in childbirth, his son in a tavern brawl, and Robert was set upon by angry villagers suspicious of his immortality and charging him of witchcraft. Robert pawned the portraiture of his family 40 years ago for food, and tells Dream, “I hated every second of the last eighty years. Every bloody second.” But when Dream asks if he wishes to die, Robert responds, “Are you crazy? […] I got so much to live for.” It’s an odd but striking sentiment. Homeless, with a dead wife and son. What can he possibly have to live for? Although the fact that he pawned their portrait might indicate that he didn’t value their lives too highly. But I wonder… I wonder if he pawned their portraits so he WOULDN’T dwell on their memories. So that he could move on and keep living, instead of being haunted by their pictures. How else would a man keep living 600+ years through sheer will alone?

And it also makes me wonder, who would have that drive, to keep living, keep surviving, despite all else? Robert’s been through so many ups and downs and he doesn’t seem to resent a second of living. I doubt I would have the same stamina.

In the next installment of my Sandman re-read I discuss Volume 3 Dream Country. Until then, take care!

Sandman Issue 11: Of Happier Days

Continuing the Sandman re-read that I started here, since I’m focusing only on portraits there’s only a small one to talk about issue 11, so we’ll keep it short today. (And, to be honest, I am having a tough day. So apologies in advance if this piece doesn’t have my usual energy.)

In issue 11 we see Rose (who we met in the last issue) who has newly arrived in Florida looking for her younger brother who she hasn’t seen in 7 years, since he was 5 years old. Her investigation – or rather, her private eye’s investigation – has come back with a news clippings of her father’s death and am image of her grandfather and Jed from 4 years ago. Rose has never met her grandfather but adds (in a letter to her mum): “wish I’d met him: he sounds like a nice old guy. Looked like Santa Claus in oilskins”. The accompanying picture is of grandfather and grandson standing together in front of a lighthouse. Grandfather has his hand on Jed’s shoulder and they’re both grinning, clearly happy. A small but loving family. I suspect the happy picture is what leads to Rose to later make an incredibly naive deduction. The P.I. finally find Jed, living with the father’s cousin on a farm: “These farmers are claiming $800 a month for him, from the state. So at least they’ll be taking good care of him.” Oh Rose. The readers, having seen several pages from Jed’s point-of-view, knows exactly the standard of care that the $800/month is getting him: a cold floor in a dank and dark basement with a single blanket and a corner of the wall to pee in.

Meanwhile, Dream has his spy Matthew steal a picture of Jed as he needs to “see him to find him.” Once he does, he realizes that Jed has been severed from the Dreaming, unable to enter the Dream World as a human. This act is against Dream’s laws and he is ANGRY. Stay tuned to find out if Jed’s caretakers get meted out the justice they so rightly deserve when Dream deals with his own law breakers.

From the last page of issue 11 of Sandman

Click here if you want to see my next post in the Sandman read-along.

Sandman Issue 10: An Introduction to the Gallery

Continuing the Sandman re-read that I began here, today we get our first glimpse of the gallery; a personal, private gallery, housed in each of the Endless’s Fortresses. We’ll later learn that there are 7 Endless “siblings.” We were introduced to two of them in volume 1: Dream, of course, along with his older sister Death. Issue 10 opens with another Endless sibling, Desire, introduced by means of a visual portrait on the first page of the issue. As I discussed last time, the portrait is cold, alienlike. Portraits, of course, show us the artist’s representation of the qualities of the person. I’ve been musing on Desire’s portrait for the last 24 hours. The concept of desire, for me, evokes ideas of heat and passion, fire and colour and energy. But Desire here is cold, detached. It is perhaps a more appropriate depiction of Desire than the image in my head. Desire does not equate to passion. Passion seems to suggest a depth of feeling brought about by connection. One fuels the flames of passion by constantly feeding it, nurturing it, sustaining it. Desire here seems to indicate an intense longing for something without doing the work to achieve it. It suggests a fickle feeling that passes once one’s attention is diverted.

Given this assessment, the design of Desire’s gallery is suitable with their person. The gallery of the Endless is a personal space in each of their fortresses. But instead of being lined with famous artwork, the gallery contains “portraits” of each of the Endless siblings. When one of the Endless wish to communicate with a sibling, they stand in their gallery in front of the appropriate portrait with their sigil or symbol in hand to evoke and summon the sibling. The gallery then also operates as a portal space, where Endless can cross into each other’s realms by invitation. Desire’s gallery is.. cold. Reminiscent of a real world art gallery, in some ways… wide open spaces, large art pieces dominating the room with little context or curation. But the room is dark, threatening. Splashes of red add small marks of colour. The gallery pieces are placed in a uniform line on a nearly black wall.

Desire’s Gallery in Issue 10 of The Sandman

The image is cleverly depicted like the squares of a panel in a comic or graphic novel. But in fact this is the way the gallery is exhibited: simple but powerful images on a canvas of white hanging on black. The simplicity is stark and cutting, much like Desire themselves. This is not a space that invites its viewers to linger.

That feeling of uneasiness increases as Desire summons their sibling, their twin, Despair, and the two discuss Desire’s plots against their elder brother Dream. Given that Dream has firmly been established as the protagonist of the series at this point combined with the memories of the events of the last volume, the reader is left with a quiet foreboding that a trap has been set for Dream, one that might be just as horrifying as his last set of challenges. Hopefully he will emerge from this next trial will less collateral damages.

Click here if you want to see the next post on my Sandman read-along.

Sandman Issue 10: Portrait of Desire

Since I’m focusing on portraits for my Sandman re-read, we’re skipping past the rest of volume 1 (which I started here) and heading straight to issue 10. Volume 2 The Doll’s House is where the motif of portraits become interesting, especially in just the first few pages. We’ll talk about the first one today: a full page portrait of Desire on the first page of the issue:

Sandman Issue 10 page 1, portrait of Desire

How do you read a graphic novel? With full page spreads like these I take more time to examine the illustration before reading the text, let it sink into me like I’m in an art gallery. (With panels I need to read the text first for direction before I fully appreciate the image.) This image puts us into the realm of the Endless right away: the background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon; white teeth gleaming, an uncomfortable oddity to the rest of the face and torso which is in shadows; gleaming red eyes; and a nebula of red not-stars around a planet-like heart.

The narration tells us that there is only one thing in the realm of Desire: this fortress, shaped in a giant “statue of Desire him-, her-, it-self”. An immense statue towering alone on a blanket of emptiness. The narration also identies the statue as a portrait “complete in all the details, built from the fancy of Desire out of blood, and flesh, and bone, and skin.” There is something cold about the statue, the dark blue tones echoing of cold marble or slate. The notion that it’s made of blood and flesh and bones and skins is slightly alarming. … did Desire dream it up? Is that what the text means with “fancy”? Or did Desire somehow acquire these materials to craft their self-portrait? … given the events of the last volume, perhaps it’s best not to ask.

The fortress/ self-portrait is called The Threshold. “Desire has always lived on the edge.” The text pairs nicely with the image as again we’re drawn to examine it; the background gives us a sense of that edge, an empty vastness marked off neatly with borders. The next page continues this theme as the fortress has “empty, echoing veins, like tunnels. You will walk them until you grow old and die without once retracing your steps.” Finally we’re drawn to the centre of the image, the heart itself, which seems almost to pulse. “There was only one place in the cathedral of its body to make its home. Desire lives in the heart.” While in most cases, the phrase “Desire lives in the heart” might be written off as sentimental muck appropriate for a greeting card, here the image is sublime again: something grand and terrifying. This affect is supported with the reference to a Cathedral, another large, echoing cavern which makes its audience feel humbled and awed in the face of something part divine, part alien. The first installation of volume 2 (following the prologue) thus begins with a firm reminder that the Endless are not human nor gods, but something else inexplicable. Something frightening.

Click here to see the second part of the Issue 10 read-along.

Sandman Issue 3: “Dream a Little Dream of Me,”

Continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here, in issue 3, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” we are treated to a portrait on the very first page. We see a suburban house and someone lying on the bed. The bed is in complete shadows, stark dark shading juxtaposing the lightness of the room. Only a hand is shown. The accompanying text describes decay: “Her hair comes out in clumps“; “Her skin is flaking“, “the ragged nails rip her skin when she scratches” (bold font part of original text). The narration draws the reader to assume that the text is referring to the person lying in the bed. “She’s counting to a hundred,” the narration says, alongside another text box (presented in different colours and typography) in which someone is counting. The narrative text continues: “Will she dissolve it in her mouth? Breathe it? Rub it into her skin”. The accompanying picture shows a hand reaching to bag sitting on the nightstand, open, with white power spilling from its opening. On the bedside table is a framed photo of a grinning woman, with a certificate of some sort in her hands. The woman is pretty. The picture is smashed. Lines of broken glass mar her face. And yet, the photo continues to sit on the small bedside table despite this damage.

When we turn the page, we see a shot of an alarm clock radio: “… for all of you crumblies out there, here’s one from the vaults. A real rave from the grave.” Was the narration not actually a description of the scene, but instead the DJ narrating a short section of prose before playing their next song? Our new protagonist, John Constantine, begins: “Have you ever have one of those days when something just seems to be trying to tell you somebody?” What an odd question. Flipped around like that. Instead of “somebody trying to tell you something.”  Throughout the next few panels, we see that John is haunted. By snippets of music. By dreams and nightmare. Something trying to tell him somebody. Madd Hattie, who is 247 years old, warns him that Morpheus, the Sandman, is back. John dismisses it as a fairy story.

John Constantine is another DC original with his own series, Hellblazer (although you might be more familiar with him through the film or television adaptations, especially the Keanu Reeves 2005 film and the 13 episode cancelled series produced by NBC from 2014-2015). Constantine is a sorcerer, a working-class detective, and an occultist who regularly converses with angels and demons alike.

Morpheus aka Sandman aka Dream catches up with John 3 days later, in pursuit of a leather pouch full of sand. John thinks its in storage, but after 2 hours of searching finds nothing except an old photo. It’s a picture of John with a girl. The one from the bedside table? The portrait triggers John’s memory, and so we follow the trail of crumbs (in photo form) to find Dream’s leather pouch. Again, we see the picture John has found as he and Dream are in a taxi cab: “Everyone shuts up, and Chas jolts us up the motorway. Our visitor melts into the back seat shadows. And I remember Rachel. Amazing Rachel. Junkie Rachel.” Junkie Rachel who ran out on him and stole his stuff to pawn for junkie money.

When John Constantine and Dream find Rachel, the readers are shown the same scene from the first page: a bedside table with a framed portrait, pouch on table, the rest of the room in dark impenetrable shadows. We’re shown Rachel on the next page, nearly a full spread, naked, decaying, a living corpse. At the bottom of the page John lights a cigarette, an obvious attempt to regain his balance. “Jesus. Rachel. Jesus.” Next to this panel is the photograph of the two of them again. Like with the photograph of John Dee in the last issue, the portrait here is of a past nearly forgotten, of a life and identity that can never come to be again. But while in issue 2, the new image of John Dee haunts the reader, warning of the possibilities of the future, here the haunting gives a small sense of closure. Dream gives Rachel a happy dream before she dies, of herself restored, healthy and beautiful again. “She knows he’s waiting for her,” John, the love she ran out on. By doing so, Dream restores the reality of the picture, creating a dream space that doesn’t haunt but instead allows John Constantine to move forward and walk away from this image of the past. It ends the issue on an odd optimistic note: although Dream is on his way to Hell, John walks away singing “Mister Sandman” in good cheer.