Monday, 16 May 2011

Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Neil Gaiman

Rules are made to be broken. I like my previous plan about exploring the comics canon, but the thing is, Neil Gaiman recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who which screened on Saturday. Doctor Who is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, its generally cheaply, if charmingly, made, with an even blend of witty and cheesy banter, and a storyline, unsurprisingly, that seems written for a ten year old. Because it is. But for an overgrown child like myself, its still just FUN, and Gaiman's episode was certainly the most entertaining thing I'd seen in a while. Don't judge me too harshly, its exam time.

But who on earth is Neil Gaiman? Well, as everyone apart from me seems to know, he wrote 'Sandman', a series of comics very, very, loosely based within the DC superhero universe, and which, you might point out, is definitely not in the TCJ's comics canon. Yeah, fine, but its still pretty acclaimed, its been recommended to me by several people, and its my blog. So, in the lovely cuddly aftermath of Doctor Who lets take a look at these here 'Sandman' comics.

It'd be a brave man who summarised this lot in a few hundred words, there's a lot of themes here, (ImageText ran this article on the sexual politics in the comics for instance), but if I had to pick up one constant theme in this lot, it would be that of belief. Gaiman's comics are ostensibly about the anthropomorphic personification of the concept 'Dream', the pantheon of entities which accompany Dream, and the relationships between the two worlds, our world of reality, and the world of myth and representation which Dream inhabits. And these connections are the important bit. In Gaiman's universe its all about perception, humans bind themselves to hell by believing they should be punished, the world can be remade by dreaming, and old gods die (and new ones emerge) through the power of human belief. It generally reminds me of 'The History of God' by Karen Armstrong which I've just finished reading. The point in that book being that throughout history God has become what he was required to be by the people of the place and moment. Our Gods then, are simply extensions of our beliefs and characteristics, and thus in Sandman, Gaiman can use his personifications to look back at humankind and its deeper mysteries.

Its not an original conceit, but Gaiman executes it quite nicely. Unfortunately, he arguably falls afoul of another point raised in Armstrong's book, which is that throughout the history of religion, there has been a tension between the depiction of God as vast, unknown and sublime, and the personification of God with human characteristics. Essentially, the first impulse towards God comes from the sublime, yet people require personification to feel appeal; however by doing so, they lose the essence of what the word 'God' was attempting to describe in the first place.

The problem becomes apparent in Gaiman's works; by anthropomorphising concepts of the human psyche, you essentially simplify and caricature those concepts. You may object that Dream and the rest of Gaiman's pantheon are quite complex characters, yet this misses the point, their personalities are simply human personalities imposed through anthropomorphism onto abstract concepts. That those concepts and their complexities are of interest to art and artists is undeniable, yet any attempt to portray them as characters essentially fails to grasp the enormity of each one. The representations of the characters impose characteristics which should not exist, and remove ones which should. You cannot fully contemplate or philosophise about death when death is a pretty girl in skinny jeans grinning at you. All representation simplifies, but the best representation hints rather than reveals, it allows the reader to muse on a concept and impose their own complexities upon it. Gaiman's approach is by necessity less subtle. 

Gaiman seems to try and address the issue, his human characters frequently express astonishment and amazement at the complexities of Dream and his family, yet this simply creates a greater disparity between that which we see on the page, and what it is we are clearly supposed to see. So the problem remains, the tension between the complexities of life and human experience which Gaiman wants to explore, and the overly simplistic representations on which he relies.

It is no surprise then that 'Sandman' works best when it focuses on the humans themselves, when it tells short parables of experience, such as the man who lives forever and meets Dream every hundred years for a pint and a chat, or the man who is made to believe himself emperor of America, and desires nothing beyond this, despite his life as a street bum. Here, arguably, Gaiman comes closest to transcending his clever quirks of style and representation and making something worthy of inclusion in my canon. But it never comes regularly enough, and seems almost accidental when it does. Ultimately then, just as I wouldn't put 'Doctor Who' in the same category as 'The Wire' in terms of television, I have to admit I can't really place Gaiman alongside the likes of Chris Ware or Alan Moore in terms of comics. TCJ, we, rather worryingly, agree again.

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