Dear Mr. Gaiman: Why I Can't Re-Read Sandman
First of all, Mr. Gaiman, happy late birthday. And thanks for all the stuff. All the great stuff. Your work was there for me when I was growing up, and there’s even more still coming, stuff that’s here for me now as a grown-up. A grown-up who ate mini Snickers for breakfast. And a second lunch.
Now that we’ve got the warm fuzzies out of the way, I’m sorry, Mr. Gaiman, but I don’t think I can ever re-read Sandman.
In the 90’s, I was a teenager. I was sullen and unhappy, and I loved comics. Which made me the perfect audience for DC’s Vertigo line of dark, grown-up stories that paired nicely with The Crow soundtrack on cassette. Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Doom Patrol, 100 Bullets. And, of course, Sandman.
Sandman was already a well-established, highly-praised comic by the time I got to it. See, I grew up in a cow town. A literal cow town. We’re home to one of the largest beef producers in the world. Which didn’t lend itself to a bustling metropolis with comic shops that carried stuff like Sandman.
I picked up the first Sandman trade on a trip to Mile High Comics in Denver. A couple times a year, I’d save money from whatever terrible job I was working (McDonald’s, mowing lawns, washing dishes) and pick up a stack of trade paperbacks. And when it came to Sandman, I was hooked.
Sandman was packed with memorable moments. There’s the moment when Lucifer quits hell like I quit working at Wal-Mart. Just “Enough of this bullshit,” and a walkout.
There’s the moment this scary dude took off his glasses to reveal an image that would haunt me for...well, I’ll let you know when it stops.
Then there’s a whole slew of stories that were smaller, quieter, and by my estimation, better. Like the story of a man offered immortality. Just this regular dude who Morpheus, King of Dream, meets with every 100 years.
Sandman has it all, in my memory. And that’s the way I’d like it to stay.
My brother had a deep love of Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan when we were younger, comics about an outlaw journalist, sort of a Hunter S. Thompson of the future, whose most recognizable feature was his RIDICULOUS number of tattoos. Take note, kids, this was an outrageous amount of tattoos in the late 90’s, before every person pushing a stroller had both arms sleeved.
My brother re-read Transmetropolitan a few years ago. He called me, totally deflated. It wasn’t everything he remembered. It wasn’t even very good. This thing he loved as a kid, this madcap romp through the future where journalists fight The Man by injecting drugs into the corners of their eyes and then type like mad while sitting on a toilet, it just didn’t work anymore.
When my brother re-read, he replaced this memory of beloved comics with something else that wasn’t as good: Knowledge. Details. A revisionist, adult’s view on a formative piece of art.
I have this story about trying to recapture magic. Because sometimes it works. Sometimes you re-read something from childhood, and it gives you the ability to appreciate something in a different way.
But there are also times you try and re-create an experience and it doesn’t work.
There was this time my girlfriend Cassie and I had a date at a gas station. Well, okay, it wasn’t planned that way. We were headed to a coffee shop, and we didn’t make it inside because I was just that slothful. We sat in the car, facing the gas station, and we watched. The gas station was busy, and we started to get involved with the characters. Someone who spent 20 minutes filling a tank. A woman who pulled in, put no more than 50-cents of gas in her giant SUV and pulled out. “What are they doing?” “What do you think this guy’s house looks like?” “Where is that lady going on 50-cents of gas?”
This became a classic date for us. One we laughed about because it was ridiculous, but it was fun.
[Cassie, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that our classic dates are not at a fancy restaurant where I call ahead and learn how to say the stuff on the menu so I don’t embarrass you. Also, I’m sorry that this letter is mostly an apology to a writer of comics books who I’ll probably never meet as opposed to being a letter to you.]
We tried to replicate our gas station date. We brought food this time, and we sat and watched. And it wasn’t the same. Maybe it was a slower day at the gas station. Maybe there just isn’t that much magic in sitting and watching a gas station. I know, it sounds unlikely, but maybe the gas station isn't a super magical date locale.
Whatever it was, we couldn’t recapture it. And whatever it was, it was better when we had the memory of the time it worked. The mystery of it. The memory of discovery and random chance.
Let me be clear, I think Sandman is great. I think it’s probably BETTER than I remember. It’s probably better than sitting at a gas station. I think if I re-read it, I would enjoy it more than I did the first time around. Let me also be clear, I don’t think memory is always more important than knowledge.
But when it comes to Sandman, I don’t know if I’m willing to take a risk. Because those memories mean a lot.
My memories of Sandman are less issue-by-issue specific, more how it felt overall. How grown-up I felt when I read them. How many little, different, magical stories the series opened up for me. How I made the trip from Cow Town to Denver, bought the books, and then stayed up late reading them. Then woke up early the next morning, skipped breakfast to read them again.
I’m not willing to risk those memories. It’s cowardly, and I accept that. If anything’s up to the task, it’s Sandman, but that doesn’t matter.
The memories I have, the way I felt…
I loved those Sandman books, but I love my memories of those books more.
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