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Hey, Mr. Sandman

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m not the fastest fanboy in the world. I don’t usually follow the trends. For instance, I actually didn’t like the first Matrix movie all that much, in spite of the fact that I loved Bound, which was the first movie the Wachowski Brothers directed. It wasn’t until much later that I developed more respect for Neo’s first adventure. I was a fan of Steve Niles back in the early days, but mostly because I was a fan of Clive Barker’s and I liked what Niles was doing with his stuff.

So, you’ll have to forgive me when I tell you that I didn’t read The Sandman during its first run. Instead, my initial exposure to Neil Gaiman came about because of his work with Alice Cooper (another artist I admire). When I found out that Cooper was a big enough fan of Gaiman to collaborate on a record together, I decided it was time to see what this guy was all about.

Truth be told, I like Gaiman’s The Last Temptation. It follows a lot of well-worn paths, to be sure, but isn’t that kind of familiarity -- that sense of déjà vu -- a big part of what the story is about? It feels like something we’ve heard and it looks like something we’ve seen, but there’s something different, something wrong.

I bring all this up because I think this is one of Gaiman’s great strengths as a writer. Indeed, this use of familiarity is a great strength of many popular writers. If you venture too far beyond the pale, you risk alienating a lot of readers and limiting yourself to a cult audience. To be sure, this has its pleasures also, but the potential for big success is made more remote by such an approach.

But really successful writers don’t just rely on familiarity. They wouldn’t be successful if they did. Instead, they walk a fine line between familiarity and innovation. They recognize the need for familiarity (to help sell your story to people who have never heard of you) and they know when to bring on the innovation (once they’ve got you hooked so they can surprise you with what a good storyteller they are).

Gaiman’s young adult novel Coraline is another example of how he makes this work. It’s a fairly typical kid’s story set-up (young girl moves into new house and discovers an alternate universe next door; the tradition stretches back at least as far as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). But Gaiman innovates just enough to get his version airborne.

The Sandman, too, followed this exact same path to success. In the very first issue, on the first two pages, we find both. But let’s look at how expertly Gaiman uses them.

Panel one gives us a wide shot with the legend: “June 6th, 1916. Wych Cross, England.” With but two simple strokes, Gaiman answers two questions of exposition: where and when. But what he does so cleverly is empower his exposition with even more information than is present on the page. By telling us we are at “Wych Cross,” he tells us immediately what kind of story we are about to read -- at least I hope none of you think you’re in for a romance. And by placing us in England in the early 1900s, he immediately calls to mind Aleister Crowley and his mad doings. That this is Gaiman’s conscious intent becomes quite clear later when Roderick Burgess says his rival is named “Aleister.” These few strokes together -- seven words in all -- combine to create a remarkably real environment for his story.

At the bottom of page 2, Burgess holds out the “Magdalene Grimoire,” a book of magic whose heritage is obviously the same as Lovecraft’s fabled Necronomicon. Again, by using this plot device, Gaiman plays our sense of familiarity to his favor. He’s fairly certain readers of such stories as The Sandman are familiar with these other stories and so a lot of exposition can simply be eliminated. He uses innovation in giving the book a name of his own invention. This frees him from the rules and baggage that would be attached to something he borrowed whole from another story.

Perhaps even more importantly, Gaiman wastes no time in telling us exactly what is at stake in his story. In the same panel as the one in which the Magdalene Grimoire is introduced, Burgess says, quite simply, “We can hold the ceremony at the next full moon and then no one need ever die again.”

A lesser writer, I think, would likely have spent much more time getting to this same place, worrying about bringing in all sorts of characters and other unnecessaries. Gaiman isn’t interested in that. He wants to get to the important part of the story -- when the ceremony goes wrong and dream is captured instead of death (a fine example of a major reversal if I do say so myself).

I hope you see how much you can get from something as simple as two pages of good writing. I said before that Gaiman’s got the career he does because he dedicated himself to writing anything and everything. He’s also got the career he does because he knows how to make every page count.

What’s your favorite Gaiman moment? Hop over to the forum and tell us about it. Until next time, keep writing.

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