Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Review - The Sandman

I recently read Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. Highlights of this excellent selection of short prose include Chivalry, Foreign Parts, The White Road, and the masterful poem Nicholas Was... (which inspired this). Of particular note is the story Murder Mysteries which is astonishingly good. It treats the Christian mythology of angels and seraphs with the same respect and depth as Gaiman did the various polytheistic mythologies in his novel American Gods.

The brilliance of Murder Mysteries led me down a path, guided by Wikipedia, towards Gaiman’s 75 issue comic book series, The Sandman. It took me a while to get into The Sandman because I am not fond of the medium: why tell a story across many pages and many months when it could just as easily be told in a single piece of prose? But when I really got into the series I began to appreciate the story, the art, and realised that American Gods is not Gaiman’s magnum opus: The Sandman is.

The plot of the series has been summed up by Gaiman as “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” That may be the plot but it is not the story. The story is one of gods and kings, paupers and princes, Destiny and choices, life and Death, beauty and humanity, and ultimately stories themselves. The story is long, varied, and weaved with many strands. It’s a story about life and existence itself told (ironically enough considering the next paragraph) in a strikingly human way: no showy monologues, just characters interacting and reacting, occasionally offering up profound statements and beautiful combinations of words but mostly being human and being vaguely real. It’s also a story about stories: the peculiar tragedy of the Lord of Dreams, the master of stories who discovers his own story amidst the naked flux of existence. Stories within stories within stories – particularly in the story-arc Worlds’ End.

One of the greatest features of the series is Gaiman’s characteristic knowledge of ancient mythology. Odin, Lucifer, Bast, Cain & Abel, The Furies, King Auberon of the Faeries, Beelzebub, Orpheus, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Loki and hundreds of other entities from myriad pantheons and mythologies are all involved making the series a glorious celebration of ancient story-telling. There are also historical characters from William Shakespeare to the Emperor of the United States. It’s wonderful to see characters so deeply engrained in our cultural consciousness leap into life and participate in the most epic of stories. It feels like Gaiman’s way of paying homage to the story-tellers who came before him and to the craft he has devoted his life to. One theme of the series is responsibility and it’s clear in the reading that Gaiman feels a responsibility to the story-telling tradition, to his characters, and to the neglected pantheons of old.

The comic wouldn’t be the same without the often outstanding artwork. Most of my favourite artwork was in the short stories scattered throughout the series which showed a nice variety of artistic talent: Dream Country, Fables and Reflections, and Worlds’ End. Michael Zulli’s art in The Wake is magnificent; beautiful and transient. The art in the series’ coda Endless Nights is also of a very high quality – the bizarre madnesses of Barron Storey and Bill Sienkiewicz, and the more subdued art of Frank Quitely and Miguelanxo Prado. Dave McKean’s covers throughout the entire series are excellent but then again he’s a very good artist (he collaborated again with Gaiman on the film MirrorMask which, although it has been a few years, I remember as being not especially memorable).

As in any great rambling story about life, there’s no single lesson to take away from The Sandman. There’s a number of thoughts peppered throughout and one feels better for having read it but, appropriately enough, once the comic is over and the pages are closed, the story begins to feel like a dream upon waking: you can remember that it was important, maybe the most important thing you’ve ever heard, but the details begin to fade and soon disappear entirely. Finally you’re left grasping at odd concepts and images that, in the dim light of morning, suddenly have new meaning: responsibility, change, death, stories, dreaming...

Friday, 19 December 2008

"Merry Christmas to some and to most a good night."

As I tried to work on my dissertation the other day, an idea for a narrative poem kept floating around my head. So, in a desperate act of procrastination, I fleshed it out and wrote it down. Sifting through various magazine's websites, I soon realised that even if I could get it published (need money!) it would not be out in time for Christmas. Thus, as a very crappy Christmas present to the world:


Merry Christmas to some and to most a good night


They came for the Grinches one December night,

In festive garb with smiles aglow.

They found unadorned houses and knocked on the doors,

And dragged the Grinches out into the snow.


Imprisoned in vans, the Grinches glanced at each other,

And asked to the darkness, “What have we in common?”

Some would realise what brought them together.

“‘Tis the season,” the church bells intoned.


They were kept in chains, deep out of sight,

Away from the fun, away from the light.

This month was special and they were dissenters

This year there would be no-one but Santas.


No-one noticed their absence,

As Christmas dawn broke.


No-one idled in bed, no-one refused the mince pies,

No-one stayed home from church, no-one rolled their eyes.


No-one laughed at the Queen, no-one faked their surprise,

No turkey was wasted, no-one questioned the lies.


Angel Clarence was there, and Tiny Tim,

Bing Crosby, Cliff Richard, and Slade.

But there was no Ebenezer, no Pumpkin King,

No Jimmy Stewart, no Gremlins, and no John McClane.


All the cynics were missing,

And no-one complained.

Every house lit up brightly, every hat on a head.

Silence broken by carols, sung from a sled.


A perfect Christmas,

With the Grinches all gone,

A true celebration,

The Santas had won.

Monday, 15 December 2008

"The Sisyphean torment of writing."

Become depressed >

Feel inspired by misery >

Feel compelled to write >

Write >

Feel happy that writing has been produced >

Send off writing (short story, etc.) >

Become happy >

Become content and uncompelled to write >

Produce nothing >

Receive latest writing’s rejection form >

Become depressed >

Feel inspired by misery >

Feel compelled to write >

Write >

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

"The following is pretentious but at least I don't use the word 'insouciance'."

One of the many things that annoys me (aside from not having the time to blog recently) is how the UK radio station, Classic FM (100-102 FM), underestimates its audience. At almost every ad break there’s a station ident promising more of the ‘relaxation station’; there’s always a gentle female voice calmly informing us that we have tuned to the station in order to relax and that some more relaxing classical music is on the way.

There is clearly far more to classical music than relaxation and yet Classic FM persists in this patronising myth that it is a station to gently lull you to sleep, or to listen to in a bath surrounded by candles, or to set the mood at a dinner party. This perception of instrumental music seems to be common to most classical radio stations, at least to the ones on iTunes Radio. Exceptions include Adagio.FM and BBC Radio 3.

I for one don’t listen to classical or otherwise instrumental music for the purposes of relaxation. Right now Strauss’ Don Juan & Don Quixote is blaring out, conjuring evocative landscapes and painting an emotional picture of the errant knight’s soul. But it’s not relaxing: the music jumps all over the place at an un-relaxing Allegro. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is a masterpiece, known even among people who don’t enjoy classical music; its starting four notes is one of the most recognisable note combinations in the world. Is it relaxing? No, it suggests an air of defiance in the face of the torments of life. It is powerful, moving, angry, and requires some level of involvement from the listener. Mozart’s Requiem Mass is disturbing, deliberately evocative of death, manifestly not relaxing, and is brilliant. Even modern classical music is, at its best, antithetical to any form of relaxation: Philip Glass’s brooding minimalism, Hans Zimmer’s dark and stirring soundtracks, and John Williams’ bombastic film music.

There is more to classical music than bare relaxation and the implication that its lack of words somehow indicates less involvement on the part of the listener is patronising and fallacious. Appreciation of the music, a degree of emotional catharsis, pure aesthetic beauty, release from the Wheel of Ixion, that unique sense of an art form which transcends language and other human frailties: these are some of the reasons people listen to instrumental music. Classic FM needs to acknowledge these, read its Schopenhauer, and stop talking down to its listenership.