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Review of The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, ed. Joe Sanders

By Aaron Kashtan
Sanders, Joe. The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology. Introduction by Neil Gaiman. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006.

Much like a night’s worth of dreams or The Sandman itself, Joe Sanders’s edited collection The Sandman Papers is an uneven mixture of heterogeneous elements. The book as a whole can’t decide whether it’s intended for fans or academics, and the individual papers run the gamut from trivial fluff to well-researched, conscientious scholarship. The result is a work which, in general, is of little use to scholars and will likely be boring to fans, but which is partially redeemed by occasional flashes of brilliance.

The book’s schizophrenic perspective is evident immediately from Neil Gaiman’s introduction (which comes close to damning the book with faint praise), in which he notes: “I’ve always had a healthy respect for academia […] I’m always particularly delighted by academic attention to comics” (iv). Yet on the very next page, we find Sanders explaining what an academic paper is, on the assumption that the reader doesn’t know already. This indecision between academic and fannish criticism is reflected in many of the papers, whose avowed academic intention is often called into question by their tendency to praise the text at the expense of criticizing it. In his close reading of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for example, Sanders’s stated purpose is “to show some of the ways Gaiman and Vess together made the story work and also to consider what Gaiman was trying to say that utilized the comics medium so thoroughly and so well” (26). Sanders certainly does no more than this. His paper is a straightforward, mechanical explanation of the surface meanings of the story, and the readings he draws from it – for example, that Gaiman “shows the Sandman in the same familiar human predicament as Shakespeare” (35) – seem obvious enough that most readers would likely be able to figure them out without help. (Sanders’s second essay in the book, a comparative reading of The Sandman and Mr. Punch, is similarly boring. Furthermore, I wonder why Sanders chose to publish a second paper written by himself, instead of a paper written by someone else.)

Joan Gordon’s essay on framing in “The Tempest” is similarly boring; for example, she does not develop her discussion of Gaiman’s relationship to his fans, except by repeatedly stating that such a relationship exists. Renata Sancken’s paper on Orientalism in “Ramadan” and K.A. Laity’s paper on “A Game of You” suffer from a similar lack of appeal. Even though they bring in outside theoretical sources (Edward Said and Hélène Cixous respectively), neither author uses her theoretical text as an external perspective that sheds unexpected light on the story. Instead, Said and Cixous become mere sources for out-of-context quotations that sound like validations of Neil Gaiman’s achievements. When Laity discusses the antinomy between Gaiman’s writing and Marc Hempel’s artwork, in terms of their representation of the degree of power permitted to female characters, Laity is on to something truly interesting, but the paper ends before she has time to flesh this out. Sancken invokes Said only to show how “Ramadan” illustrates the essential similarity of Western and Oriental people. Therefore she both misses the whole point of Said’s theories and dodges the crucial question raised by her invocation of Said, in that she neglects to consider how Gaiman’s inclusionist message is problematized by the fact that it originates with a white Western writer. This basic lack of adventurousness also characterizes Leonora Soledad Sousa e Paula’s comparative study of Borges and The Sandman: Sousa e Paula merely declares that there exists a basis for such a comparison, and then does nothing of any interest with it.

These essays fail to appeal to either of the book’s target audiences. Not only are they too basic to be of use to scholars, but a non-scholarly reader would probably learn more from rereading the original stories than from reading these essays. At a more fundamental level, these four essays reflect the book’s overly sympathetic attitude toward Gaiman. The authors make the unstated assumption that, when Gaiman wrote The Sandman, he knew what he was doing and did it successfully. Their basic purpose, therefore, is merely to state what Gaiman intended to do and how he did it – that is, to celebrate Gaiman’s achievement. This in itself is fine, but it seems to have led the authors to shy away from criticism that might have exposed flaws or aporias in the text. Needless to say, this is a fundamentally uncritical attitude, and it reinforces the impression that The Sandman Papers is a work of fan scholarship disguised as academic scholarship (an impression which is reinforced by the fact that Gaiman himself wrote the introduction).

Luckily, this isn’t the end of the story, because the book also features a number of essays that use unexpected outside perspectives to develop insights the reader might otherwise have missed. For example, although David Bratman’s discussion of fan reactions to A Game of You is not really a scholarly paper, Bratman has a strong grasp of fannish science fiction criticism and uses this perspective to produce a well-reasoned argument in favor of the story. Unfortunately, this paper again left me wanting more. Bratman explains why, contrary to the opinion of some fans, AGOY is not a sexist text. But he stops short of discussing why fans perceived it as sexist, which, to my mind, is the more intriguing question. Nonetheless, Bratman’s paper at least has a coherent perspective and a non-trivial argument, unlike the other papers in the first section. Similarly, Lyra McMullen’s study of Dream’s Asian costumes is plagued by a poor prose style and a series of poorly substantiated, reductionist arguments. However, McMullen’s expert knowledge of costuming is clear, and when she sticks to discussing the costumes themselves and their immediate significance, her essay is often fascinating. A third essay that falls into this category is Sanders and Stacie Hanes’s collaborative study of witches in Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Sanders’s criticism is as vapid as ever, and the paper reads like two papers stapled together, as the conclusion compares the two authors’ portrayals of witches in only a vacuous way (e.g. “[D]espite the differences in how Pratchett and Gaiman picture the effects of the Triple Goddess, both writers have discovered and used the myth in creating impressive, memorable fiction” [168]). However, if we ignore Sanders’s half of the paper, Hanes’s half can stand alone as a fascinating work of Pratchett criticism. I can’t judge the quality of Hanes’s reading because I have yet to read Pratchett’s Witches novels, but she certainly made me want to read them.

The book reaches its apex with two essays that demonstrate extensive research and sharp critical insight. Alan Levitan’s close reading of Gaiman’s Shakespeare stories benefits from his decades of experience as a Shakespearean scholar. Through his exhaustive explanation of Gaiman’s references to the Bard, he reveals much that would escape the non-expert, thereby deepening the reader’s appreciation of Gaiman’s achievement. This essay also benefits from Levitan’s impartial perspective as a newcomer both to Gaiman’s text and to comics criticism. The essay by Joe Sutliff Sanders (no relation to the other Joe Sanders) is the only one in the book, besides Hanes’s half-essay, that meets professional standards of scholarship. Sutliff Sanders makes substantive use of current research in linguistics to construct a non-obvious reading of Gaiman’s views of lesbian identity. I would have liked to see more attention paid to Chris Bachalo’s images in addition to Gaiman’s words, but in comparison with the other essays’ flaws, this is a minor criticism indeed, and Sutliff Sanders’s perhaps unprecedented application of linguistics research to comics suggests paths that future researchers might follow. Moreover, his essay achieves the feat of being both useful and accessible, in that he avoids jargon and explains his advanced concepts in terms appropriate for the casual reader.

Unfortunately, the brilliance of these two essays merely indicates the extent to which this book represents a missed opportunity. The more scholarly essays in the book are not only of potential use to scholars, but do an excellent job of making scholarly concepts intelligible to fans. I found myself wishing that all the papers in the book had been constructed on this model. Sanders might have taken his cue from Open Court Books’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, which presents advanced philosophical concepts to non-specialist audiences by applying them to subjects that such audiences are already interested in. If Sanders had not been so eager to present his book as a scholarly edited collection, which it really isn’t, then he might have succeeded in creating a work that appealed to Sandman fans while being useful to professional comics scholars. Instead, he produced a work that is generally useless for scholars and boring for casual readers, although it includes isolated papers that will fascinate both audiences. Anyone who seeks to unite the realms of academic and fannish comics scholarship, or to present academic comics theory to mass audiences, would do well to learn from Sanders’ mistakes.

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