Sandman Issue 2: “Imperfect Hosts” and an Imperfect Being

Today I’m continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here. There’s only one major portrait in issue 2, “Imperfect Hosts,” but it’s a good one. The first panel on that page introduces us to a building with the following placard in front: “Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.” Are your alarm bells going off? What does the Lord of Dreams have to do with Batman and the Justice League?

Next we have an old woman, Mrs Ethel Dee, looking for her son who she hasn’t seen in a decade. The son in question is John Dee – the same name of an actual historical figure, court astronomer for Elizabeth I before leaving to pursue his passions in occult scholarship. If you’ve been following along with the dramas of the Order of Ancient Mysteries from issue 1, Ruthven Sykes, the order’s second-in-command, disappeared with the Order’s treasures, money, and Ethel Cripes, the Magus’s mistress. (The text is bolded in the script as well.) Ethel Cripes walks out on Sykes 6 years later. “She took the demon’s gift with her,” an amulet that was keeping Sykes safe.

To return to the present Mrs Ethel Dee and her missing son, Mrs Dee is armed with a photograph of the son in question, a black and white portrait of a handsome man with a chiseled square jaw and a hint of a smile on his lip. “This is my son, John Dee. I believe he’s imprisoned under his “nom-de-crime” of Doctor Destiny.” Further alarm bells should be ringing by now. Even if you’re not familiar with every single super villain in the DC or Marvel Universe, you’re probably aware that any Super Villain with a “Doctor” title, followed by an abstract noun are the worst super villains of all. (… Rest assured that my own Doc Fantasy title does not mean that I’m a super villain myself…). In the DC Universe, Doctor Destiny’s super powers is the ability to manipulate dreams. Gaiman here provides a neat retcon for the source of his powers, one that becomes a defining feature of Doctor Destiny’s character.

Arkham confirms that Doctor Destiny is indeed a patient there and Mrs Dee is led down to the bowels of the Asylum where Dee is kept locked up from society; he is too dangerous to be let out of his cell for any purpose, the guide tells her, stating: “He no longer sleeps, or dreams– in the normal sense of the word… and physically, he’s quite debilitated.” The ambiguity of this comment is intriguing. How can a man who – from the sounds of it – has wasted away be so dangerous? OR, is he dangerous because he no longer sleeps, is no longer, quite normal… or human.

Finally we are shown Dee himself: gaping mouth with broken and lost teeth; his face seems to be melting away as flecks of fluid drip from his ears, his mouth, his hands; and his eyes…. his eyes are not right, seemingly at once to be bulging and also set deep within his face; the shapes are odd, angular and pointed at the apex, and rounded at the bottom; and the colour is a soft sickly yellow with a small bead for pupils and no irises. Is this the same man… the same creature as the handsome figure in Ethel’s photograph? Instead of being haunted by the past (as the portrait in the first issue), the portrait here is of an identity long dead and forgotten; it bears no resemblance at all to the living present. Instead, it is the living creature that haunts the reader: not the echoes of the past and what he once was long ago, but instead the possible dread of a future in which John Dee escapes his cell. This isn’t the last we see of the character in Sandman of course, and for those of you re-reading the series, you know where Doctor Destiny ends up. But I won’t spoil it for those of who you are reading it for the first time.

Depiction of Doctor Destiny from JLA Classified #32 (March 2007) i.e NOT from Sandman

If you want to see the next post in my Sandman read-along, click here.

Entering the Sandman Universe, Issue 1 – “Sleep of the Just”

I’m starting a new research project today – beginning with a re-read of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I thought I’d blog about as a read along. I’m particularly interested in how many different forms of pictures are illustrated within the graphic novel. (And if you have any recommendations for examples of other picture-in-graphic novel depictions, please let me know.) My thesis is that these in-text pictures operate as a type of haunting on the characters, as their past or familiar relationships loom over them as a specter that prevents them from living properly. As I was reading the first volume today, it was nice to see that my thesis was confirmed so quickly within the first issue (and I look forward to see how it develops as the series continues).

“Sleep of the Just,” the first issue of Gaiman’s Sandman collected in Volume 1 Preludes and Nocturnes, begins with Roderick Burgess, a member of a secret occult society, and his attempt to capture and trap Death itself. The spell fails… sorta. The titular page presents a captured entity, sprawled in the middle of the circle with a black cloak wrapped around them in a way that suggests oozing blood and bodily fluids. The creature is alien-like and monstrous, bearing a mask in a shape that is reminiscent of Ripley Scott’s Aliens. Burgess announces that they’ve failed; they haven’t captured Death, but another entity.

But how does he know that? How does he take one look at Dream – as it is Dream that Burgess has captured, and not Death – and recognize him immediately for who he is? Is there a picture of Dream? If so, how did that picture come to be? Fastforward a decade and Burgess’s son, Alex, finds a picture in another grimoire, the Paginiarum Fulvarum, and recognizes that the captured creature is “Kinge of Dreames.” So there IS a picture – a tattered hand-drawn sketch shoved between the pages of the Paginarum. It also seems that Burgess Sr hasn’t come across the picture himself, using only Dream’s accoutrements (his helm, pouch, and ruby) to recognize him. But now we have further questions; namely who drew this picture and how did they meet Dream?

After his father passes, Alex hands over the reigns of the business to a personal assistant and dedicates all of his energies into an obsession with his father: “He wrote a memoir about his father; writes letters to newspapers defending his father’s reputation; is editing a volume of his father’s letters” (bold emphasis taken from the text). As the text suggests that his father’s life consumes Alex, the image accompanying it is of a portrait of Richard Burgess staring at the reader, overlooking Alex as he works at his study head down, face partially obscured by quill. I use the word consumption deliberately as “fulvarum” is likely derived from the Latin to burn, and the way which Alex interacts with both his father’s memory and the grimmore suggests this burning consumption. For instance, as it is now 1970, the quill he employs is not necessary, but one assumes is part of Alex’s obsession with his father’s magical activities. The next panel reveals that Alex then “slashed his father’s portrait with a knife”; the accompanying illustration only of a shadow of a man with a knife in hand, framed by the torn remains of the portrait (also in shadows). The third panel then states that “Alex will no longer read books on magic. Except for one. […] And he only reads one page of that book…” The close-up in the next panel then further draws attention to the fact that the picture of Dream is clearly not part of the original text; the colouring of the page is a lighter tan than the grimoire, the page is smaller, and shadowing suggests that the page is loose-leaf. Alex’s obsession, then, has turned from his father to Dream itself.

Given this obsession, the ending of the issue is particularly fitting. I won’t reveal it because of spoilers, but I will say this: it’s too bad that l Burgess Sr dies before he could receive his own just desserts.

Click here if you want to see the next post in my Sandman readalong

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

A very, VERY badly sketched rendition of the outfit. I really can't draw.

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

On Master Craftsmen Jeff Smith (A Dissection of Bone Vol 1)

Jeff Smith’s Bone has all the ingredients for a good adventure: humour, romance, mystery; and a dragon, of course. Given all of these delightful qualities, I can’t believe I waited nearly 25 years to read it!!

Cover of Writing With Quiet Hands: How to Shape Your Writing to Resonate with Readers - by Paula Munier

But, in a way, I’m glad I waited until now to read Bone Vol 1 (published in 1995!). It accidentally gave me the opportunity to read Writing with Quiet Hands (2015) by Paula Munier first. Accidentally, because I did not think I’d be using her advice to examine and dissect someone’s else’s work. Munier, as a writer, editor, and literary agent, certainly approaches the art of writing – and selling your writing – from every angle possible. In one section she details the 3 levels of “story questions”:

  • the macro question – the *big question* that drives the plot
  • the meso questions – questions that drive every scene
  • the micro questions – questions that are scattered throughout sentences and paragraphs at every opportunity.

Reading Bone for the first time with Munier’s ideas on my mind, it becomes quickly obvious that Smith is a master of the micro questions. Every page has you asking questions, drawing you in to keep reading until you’ve found the answers. As a graphic novel, this is done on both the visual and verbal level.

Let’s take a look at the cover, for example:

Cover of Bone Volume 1: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith

Although the adage “don’t judge a book by the cover” is often true, I don’t think this idea applies to graphic novels. Smith’s illustration does an admirable job of capturing the qualities of his protagonist. We immediately get the idea that the main character looks affable; the rounded features, the side smile, the hint of a blush, all give an overall impression of a “nice-guy” type. An innocent type. Not naive; But the type that looks like he’ll be taken advantage of because of his good-naturedness. And then you have these ominous eyes peering at the character from the shadows, barely visible except for the white of his eyes. So before you’ve even picked up the book to read, Smith has you asking “who is this guy, and is he going to be okay??”

At this point in the narrative (i.e. the cover), we know nothing about the character. We assume he’s the central protagonist. But we don’t know what he’s doing with a dusty old map or where he’s going. We don’t know what his name is, or any other identifiers about him (career, etc). We’re not even sure it’s a he; this is an (obviously biased) assumption made on our part, because we’re also not sure what he is. Is he meant to be human? Some alien or fantasy creature?

Think about that for a second. Despite knowing nothing about this character, Smith still has the audience wondering if the protagonist is going to be okay simply by looking at the cover. Is that not master craftsmanship?

Smith’s microquestions continue on every page. We jump in in media res, the first panel depicts three characters sweating in a desert. The first line reads: “still no sign of the townspeople,” followed by a second character’s response: “Hey! Ya hear that, Phoney? Th’ coast is clear!” From this brief exchange, the audience immediately wonders “who are these guys, and why are they running from the townspeople?” These questions lead to more questions as we learn that the three Bones (Phoney, Smiley, and Fone) are lost in the desert without water. They are ‘off the map’ in uncharted territories. (Literally, as they are caring around a map that no longer shows their location.) This information leads to questions about the world they’re in. Where are they? Why are parts of this world uncharted?

But before we can properly even ask these questions, the Bones are chased by a swarm of locusts (where did the locusts come from??), and get separated from one another. As we follow the journey of Fone Bone as he gets progressively more lost, more questions arise. Chiefly, where the heck is he?? And, as ominous eyes peer at him from the shadow, we continue to ask “is he going to be okay?”

These questions drive the story forward. As you’re never really sure what exactly is going on, or even the rules of the world that Fone Bone finds himself in, the reader is made to ask on every page “is Fone Bone safe?”. But while this macroquestion should have resulted in a tense, suspensful narrative, Bone volume 1 remains firmly in the realms of a fun adventure. With the rounded lines and almost cartoonish artwork, combined with dialogue that is punctuated by humour and emotion, Smith creates a story that is engaging and fun to read, but one that maintains a forward momentum on each page, drawing the reader to keep reading. I can’t wait to read the later volumes (already on my Christmas list) along with the recently announced televised adaptation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the volume, but, a Special Request: Please don’t post spoilers of later volumes in the comments. I still need to read them myself!