Panel Discussion is a brand new column on Pop Modern, where we’re going to discuss and dissect all types of graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and comic books. If you’re a devoted Superman evangelist, a big fan of Y: The Last Man, or somewhere in between, Panel Discussion is for you.
What better way to kick off our new column on comic books and graphic novels than with the Neil Gaiman classic, Sandman? Equal parts horror, dark comedy, and traditional fantasy, it set the bar for more mature graphic novels in the 80s and 90s. I just finished the first volume recently, “Preludes and Nocturnes”, and I absolutely loved it. However, I don’t know if I’m as excited to read on. Of course I’m going to read on in the future, because there’s nine more volumes of great stories to be told in that universe, but I feel like I got everything I needed to out of what was, in retrospect, a fairly small piece of an overall story.
I found it appropriate to read Sandman before bed every night. The story focuses on the life of the God of Dreams after he is released from a spherical prison that held him for almost half a century. An issue a night meant I had time to appreciate the art, coloring, and writing of each chapter, and immediately going to sleep after reading about the lord of sleep felt right. Every chapter deals with Dream (who goes by several names) recovering one of his stolen tools of the trade. In one chapter, he wins his dream helmet from a demon in Hell after a storytelling battle. In another, he battles through the dreams of all of humanity against a demented doctor who plans to use Dream’s magical amulet to bring about the apocalypse. The unique blend of surreal art and Gaiman’s trademark fantasy wit are what carry the story along.
So if it is so good, why don’t I want to read more? It’s for the same reason I stopped reading Bill Willingham’s Fables after one volume, and the same reason that I prefer collected paperbacks to purchasing individual issues. The way that we read comics directly contributes to a feeling of being lead on. As my eyes dart from panel to panel, word balloon to word balloon, I don’t stop progressing until the story is over. There’s always another bit of story and another frame of art just an eye flicker away. That immediate, hyperactive nature of comics makes appreciating the art very difficult. How can comics creators expect the reader to stop and appreciate the combination of art and visuals if there’s constantly new material to read a few inches to the right? This problem has been slightly alleviated with the introduction of splash pages, which are massive two-page spreads of art that force the reader to stop for a moment and absorb that moment in time. The idea is explored in detail in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn about the techniques creators use to tell stories in comics. But all the splash pages in the world couldn’t get me to keep up with more than a few comics every week. I like to feel like there’s a definitive end to what I’m reading. An open-ended, ambiguous climax like that of Sandman serves the purpose of tying up all loose ends, while also enticing some readers to follow up with the other nine volumes.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reading an incomplete story. I recently finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, which is the fifth of seven planned novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. That’s a perfect example of an incomplete story, but I can wait a few years for that story’s end because of the scope of the series. With such a grand narrative, it takes time to flesh out the world, characters, and do all of that while telling a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. The focus on a single character gives Sandman a much smaller scale, and as I finished the final issue of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, I felt like I read enough about that world. Dream finds all of his tools, and his sister Death takes him on a trip as she does her job all around the world. That feels like an ending to me. There are nine more volumes of Sandman that I could read, but why should I? There are countless issues of Fables for me to read, but why should I if all I wanted to know was who the murderer was? The universe interested me enough to consider reading more, but it was the struggles of the characters in that specific scenario that had me hooked. One of my biggest problems with comic books today is the feeling of being lead on by individual issues. Very few of the average superhero comic issues end definitively, opting to set up a larger story. The bad guy was still alive, the hero suffered a mortal wound, or the giant monster was way bigger than expected. This was the way of things for a while, and although the industry is slowly shifting away from that, it’s still a problem. Some would argue that this is to entice readers to keep reading a series, but it ultimately devalues the individual issues. Instead of making each issue a standalone story, why not deliver a complete slice of a grander universe? Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga does this well, with each issue developing the universe, continuing the story of previous issues, and setting up the next issue without feeling incomplete.
Some of the best stories of all time ended on ambiguous notes, be they films like Chinatown or The Thing, two films whose ambiguous endings actually provided better closure than more explicit climaxes. This applies to all mediums of storytelling, but the shorter form, easily-consumed nature of comics leads to a lot of what I call “carrot on a stick” endings, where closure is replaced with a dramatic end, and the reader is supposed to want to follow up on that end in future issues. No matter how good the art is, no matter how beautiful the writing is, there’s another issue that you have to buy. And for an industry that has been struggling with sales for so long, it’s refreshing to read comics like Sandman that can establish a world, give it depth, and tell a definitive, standalone story. Don’t make the reader feel like they HAVE to keep reading, make them want to.