By Jeff Sensabaugh
It was 1991 and I was about to graduate from college.
I had done well enough, but I had no inkling of what I wanted to do. I had earned a useful degree (chemistry) but I knew that I didn’t want to go into industry. Having no set path, and with the one thing I knew how to do well about to end, I decided to re-up my commitment to academia and applied to graduate school. My grades and my recommendations were good enough and I was accepted to several schools. I decided to go to a school in Chicago; I had been on both coasts – why not explore the Heartland?
Graduate school started well enough. I liked classes and I liked TAing. I liked the people in the department and they liked me, but most of my interactions became school based. Problem sets became the only basis for socializing. I was in a tiny furnished apartment with a foldaway bed with a paper-thin mattress. I ended up just sleeping on the couch most nights. There was a lot of alone time. I programmed my computer; I read papers and books; I settled into routine.
Soon, things started going wrong.
A month into school, the Oakland Hills Fire nearly wiped out my childhood home back in California. My sister, who had been a regular communicant while I was in college, was in college herself now and hating it. And hating everything else. She had broken off all communications with the family and had even spent Christmas vacation with a friend a few blocks away. I was sent as an emissary to deliver some mail and her only words to me were “I don’t want to talk to you.”
I went back to Chicago.
By all standards, it was a mild winter for Chicago but it was still harsh. It was dark a lot and my apartment was either freezing or blisteringly hot due to an outdated radiator. One of my classmates descended into a paranoid depression, and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. The transition from classes to research was not going smoothly and I was starting to realize that perhaps I’d made a mistake in coming here.
My refuge in times of darkness is usually a bookstore, so I began to spend hours in the aisles of the university bookstore. The undergraduate employees didn’t need my sale to pull in a paycheck, so I read mostly undisturbed. One day I sat in the humor/comics section. “Graphic novels” were still a new thing and mixed in with the cartoon books. On a whim I grabbed the first trade paperback of Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
The art was uncomfortable.
Dave McKean’s covers were fascinating but not what I expected in a comic book. I pored over them looking at the details hidden in the Joseph Cornell-like boxes. Unlike the superhero comics I had read as a child, the palette was subdued and the characters seemed oddly distorted. Often they floated in dreamlike backgrounds, and the inking was positively murky.
The first three issues went by quickly. An Alastair Crowley-like magician traps a mystical being –a pale man with weird mask. The pale figure is trapped for years, causing people all around the world to have trouble with their sleep. It turns out that he is Dream, the eternal being in charge of the dream world. He eventually escapes and seeks to recapture all his tools.
This notion of someone trapped against his will spoke to me. There was both identification and wish fulfillment – he’s weak after his imprisonment, but he also has the ability to become a powerful being. Each issue had another leg of his quest; the first two are a struggle but he succeeds. The last part, however, stretched over three issues and went from escapism to someplace darker.
At some point the art changed from Sam Keith’s rounded, softer style to Mike Dringenberg’s more angular, disjointed style. The story moved from more classic horror tales to more modern horror. There was nudity, there was blood, and then there was a lot of blood. People got hurt and people died in the comic books I’d read as a kid, but in Sandman the action didn’t move away from the damaged and broken bodies. The humor that had lightened the earlier issues went away.
I was a bit uncomfortable. I stopped reading and went home. I spent a day or two away from the book, but I couldn’t shake it. So I bundled up, and went back to the university bookstore to finish. I was probably wearing my puffy down jacket with the psych ward tag from a visit to see my classmate. It’s still stuck to the inside of that jacket, which I stopped wearing when I left Chicago.
The second-to-last issue in the book pretty much wraps up all the important action. Dream is restored, some of the damage is repaired, and the main villain is returned to Arkham Asylum. But there is one last issue contained in the Preludes and Nocturnes book.
Here, Dream goes to Central Park to meet someone. He looks exhausted, and so does the art. Dringenberg loved the photocopier a little too much, and many panels look identical. A lot of backgrounds are traced photocopies of pictures of New York, or just photocopies alone.
A woman shows up -- Dream’s sister. She’s a cute goth chick, with a black tank top and big messy hair. Not exactly like my sister, but not too far removed. She asks him what’s going on and he sums up the previous seven issues in a page or so. He says that he feels empty after all the adventures, unable to enjoy his reclaimed power. She’s glad to see him but furious that he hadn’t called for help and that he’s mopey about winning.
At this point I started to cry. The story didn’t exactly match my life, but there were echoes of what I felt. And of what I wanted. I felt empty. I felt disconnected from my family. Here was a sister that was exactly what my sister was not at the time – loving, listening, and pushing Dream to recognize there were ways out of his situation.
It turns out that Dream’s sister is Death and they spent the rest of the issue going on her rounds, picking up souls. Despite the horrible things they see, she remains upbeat and comforting. She is nice. She reminds the souls of what they accomplished in life now that it’s over, rather than how they failed. Seeing her fulfill her job with grace, Dream is comforted and accepts the challenges of returning to his job.
When the book was over, I might have started sobbing quietly. If anyone noticed, nothing was said. Here was the advice I needed from a fictitious sister. I had only meant to read the book and move on, but now I had to buy it. I figure any book that makes you cry deserves to be bought. As I wrote this, I looked at the issue again and cried again.
I tried to keep on in graduate school, but soon realized that I needed to change paths and dropped out. I still haven’t gone back. My sister and I began patching up our differences at the end of that year, and we are closer now than we ever were growing up.
The whole rest of Sandman’s 75 issue run became a meditation on obligations and responsibilities that both tie us together and tear us down. There are some amazing issues in there, and it is a piece of art that I keep turning over in my head. But Issue 8 is still my favorite, for the sister I needed at that moment.