Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sandman, Male & Female Stories

I'm on my (semi)annual reading of the Sandman. I own the 10-book series (which I bought off ebay) and there's a fascinating balance between books 4 & 5 - Season of Mists vs. A Game of You. I love Mists, and I used to hate Game, until I read the background in the Sandman Companion, and Neil Gaiman (NG) revealed that Mists is a masculine tale and Game is feminine:
HB: I've heard you refer to various collections as "male" or "female." Could you talk a bit about that?

NG: Sandman was always designed to move from male stories to female stories. Preludes & Nocturnes is a guy's tale - it has a male hero, the Sandman, who triumphs over various difficult challenges. The next book, The Doll's House, is fundamentally Rose Walker's tale, and it deals with women, relationships, and the tearing down of walls. The following book, Season of Mists, is again a Sandman story, in which Dream uses his courage and wits to deal with a problem of diplomacy. And then there's A Game of You ,which is about women, fantasy, and identity. (TSC p117)
What I find amazing about this is that he accurately describes my subconscious reactions to each book - I didn't articulate why I liked one over the other, I just did (and I *hated* Game). Now I see that (a) this was intentional by the author, and (b) it wasn't because one book was 'better written' than the other - although that can happen with authors, especially the limited ones - but with Gaiman it was purposefully a different type of story, and that it resonates with different needs and tastes; (c) I'm relieved, in some homophobic way, that I am, even subconsciously, very male. Sorry, but that's how it is.

Gaiman, in Game, elaborates on the difference between Male and Female fantasy, in the words of the antagonist, The Cuckoo (p125-126, bracketed material to clarify]:
"Little boys have fantasies in which they're faster or smarter or able to fly. Where they hide their faces in secret identities and listen to people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds. Pathetic bespectacled rejected [Peter Parker] is secretly [Spiderman]. Gawky, bespectacled, unloved [Clark Kent] is really [Superman]. Yes? ...

Now, little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies. Much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses, lost princesses from distant lands. And one day the king and queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and they'll be happy for ever and ever.
Now this was another mind-blowing insight because it rings true - at least for me as a masculine man of the male persuasion (to paraphrase my man Dave Barry). And knowing what I've seen from 'female' stories, this also rings true (witness the plot of "The Princess Diaries" for corn's sake).

And once you take that dichotomy in mind, many stories can be analyzed. In fact, that's one reason why Harry Potter is so successful - because it combines both story-lines: he's a bespectacled outcast with amazing powers who's also the secret "Chosen One."

Note, I thought it was also Gaiman who described the male/female narrative dichotomy by claiming that the quintessential female story is "Alice in Wonderland" - because it's about person who is the only one who knows what's going on in a crazy world, and the male story is "Hamlet." I can't find this quote in my book from Gaiman, or online (is this it?) And I may just have imagined it.

The Sandman: Jewish Art?

Just another note, I have been thinking about patterns in Jewish art, especially in science fiction and fantasy (where the Jewish contribution, especially in comics, has been substantial). Is The Sandman a good example of Jewish-influenced art? Well, on one side, yes, because Gaiman mentions his feelings of solitude and strangeness that drove him to literary research and observation, a hallmark of artists - especially those in narratives - came from being Jewish in "C of E" boarding schools:
HB: ...What effect did religion have on you when you were young?

NG: I'd say the most important factor was my growing up as a Jewish kid in a Church of England school.... because it made me feel like an outsider. In a sense, it made me view everything as myth. (TSC p105)
However, the world he created is polytheistic and pagan - different from the monotheistic/dualistic world I expect from the modern Jewish identity (think Superman and Kafka). Then again, Gaiman has delved in Zohar and Aggadata - which is super-duper-crazy-pagan.

The difference is in the sense of justice and morality - monotheism claims a universal truth and thus an immutable definition of right and wrong. The right/wrong scale may be defined in opposition to a human scale (e.g. Kafka) but a universal system lends itself to satire, criticism, and I'd say even logic (a system that depends on order, right, wrong). Paganism, on the other hand, describes a world that is a chaos of unrelated oppositional forces. Nothing need make sense and there's definitely no right and wrong, only power and endurance.

One of the hallmarks of horror is to delve into paganism - to have an undercurrent of meaninglessness to existence (Lovecraft was excellent in this genre). An irritant of Gaiman's Sandman world, for me, is that there is no powerful cosmic good - especially via the protagonist who is evil in familiar yet inhuman ways. Human evil often comes from a descent into the animal - a single-minded drive to satisfy desires. That type of evil is exemplified, in the series, by the Incarnation "Desire" (simple enough) - a concept that is Freudian and very very Jewish.

"Dream"s evil comes from powerful indifference and while it's not as renowned or infamous as bestial evil, close observers of the world see it as, theologically and philosophically, more damaging. In my mundane existence, I rarely come across the bestial evil - the thieves, murderers etc. But I do see indifference to suffering - and not abstract suffering (ironically people are good about Saving The Whales or Saving the Earth) but real concrete, immediate, suffering.

I have enough faith in Gaiman to believe that he recognizes that.

Updated Links
  1. Neil Gaiman's Official Website
  2. Sandman FAQ
  3. The Annotated Sandman [Link Updated]
  4. The Wake
  5. The Dreaming : Neil Gaiman
Top pic from here of Gaiman's bookshelf. Second pic from here of a collage of Jewish superheroes.


Pierre Sogol said...

I like you. you say nice things about Sandman. I've only just started reading it, so many years after people read it. Like a homeschooler who finally knows a bit of what he doesn't know, I now understand why I never understood everyone I thought I understood. I'm adding you to my blog/link roll.

JC said...

Thanks dude.