Four years ago, everything I knew about comics came from Saturday morning cartoons (X-Men, BTAS, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I honestly didn’t read comics. I knew we had a local comic shop, but had never been there. I really wasn’t all that interested in comics as a storytelling medium.
Fast forward to today, and everything has changed. I read and review comics in my spare time. I have a kickass “Non-Compliant” tattoo. Just this afternoon, the mailman dropped off a package containing the complete print edition of long-running webcomic Girls with Slingshots.
What changed in such a short period of time? What jump-started my interest in a medium I previously ignored in favor of longer reads that held my interest for more than half an hour? Someone gave me a copy of Preludes & Nocturnes, the first volume in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I honestly don’t remember who gave it to me or for what occasion. What I do remember is being pleasantly surprised. To me, comic books had always been about superhero stories, because I didn’t read them and pulled everything I knew about them from what I saw on-screen. But Sandman was far from a superhero story. It was fantastical in a way different from the cartoons, drawing on myths, legends, and religions to combine disparate source materials into something wholly unexpected. It told a story—several of them, even—but it wasn’t the story I had anticipated reading.
It was a story of what a comic book is when you stop expecting ’90s cartoons translated directly into print. Dream didn’t wear a costume; Dream simply assumed the form necessary to complete the task at hand. Dream wasn’t an alien or a mutant or a hero; Dream was the incarnation of an archetype, the embodiment of something as old as humanity itself. Dream wasn’t mortal or immortal, really; Dream was Endless.
And Dream wasn’t alone. Dream had a family, although I only really met Death in that first volume. Despair and Destiny got brief shout-outs, but they’re only around for a panel or mention. That said, all I really needed was to meet Death. She is by far one of my favorite incarnations of the archetype: fun, irreverent, compassionate, patient. Further, she brooks no guff from her ridiculously moody older brother, and calls him right out on the way he’s neglecting his duties as the dream lord. I gladly would have read volumes of comics about Death.
Preludes & Nocturnes whispered to me of the potential innate to the medium of comics. It proved my understanding of what comics are was too narrow, that I had been missing out by dismissing an entire storytelling medium. That my preference for words had blinded me to the information that can be communicated through images. That there’s so much beyond superheroes, although those are fun, too.
I consumed Preludes & Nocturnes whole, and then realized I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Morpheus and the dream world. I wanted more of Death, this impossibly compassionate and fascinating incarnation of life’s end, who stood for none of her brother’s shit and reminded him he has a job to do. And after I had more of that, I realized I wanted more comics as a whole.
Sandman led to borrowing the first volume of Fables from an artist friend. Then the second and third. And then recommendations flooded in from other friends. Traditional-style comics, including Bitch Planet, Clean Room, and Saga. Graphic novels, like Delilah Dirk. Webcomics like Sarah’s Scribbles, Fowl Language, and Lunarbaboon. Comics anthologies, such as Dates and Corpus, funded through Kickstarters and published by small companies or individuals. Before long, my Amazon order list looked as though it had been taken over by a comics fiend.
That first rush of endorphin-driven online shopping has worn off some now. I make a point of visiting my local comic shop, from time to time, instead of relying solely on online retailers. My library card gets a good workout courtesy of the librarians’ decision to cultivate a decent catalog of comics. I do read superhero comics—I picked up all but one issue of A-Force’s recent run—but I’ve found they aren’t what I’m really passionate about. I prefer the other stories, the ones less likely to be picked up and run with by the Big Two, especially the ones told by creators who aren’t heard everywhere.
The irony I got to those through a comic with a white bread creative team is not lost on me. Mostly, I think it reflects on how much my life has changed in the short time I’ve been reading comics. I hit my 30s. I got tattoos. I started treatment for depression. I realized how the media I consumed affected me and my mental health. As a result of all that, what I read shifted. I don’t hesitate to set aside something I don’t enjoy. I seek out books, comics, movies, and games centered on characters who aren’t just straight white men and created by people who aren’t just straight white men.
Life is pretty good. And it’s all thanks to Neil Gaiman and Sandman.