Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How did I get here? Me and the Sandman

When I try figuring out exactly how I ended up writing about heartbroken werewolves and mushroom gods, I can trace the course of this rather odd career choice through twists and turns to two major influences: Neil Gaiman, who wrote the Sandman comics, and my mom, who took the Sandman comics away from me.

Before I wade in, though, I should explain that there are actually two Sandmen in the comic book world. One Sandman’s real name is William Baker. He is a man made of sand. A supervillan with all the powers of sand is pretty much as useless as he sounds, except to point out the kinds of goofy stories I was enthralled with when I was thirteen.

By that time, most of my friends had given up comic books for basketball and french kissing. Honestly, my tendency to get lost in fantasy worlds was starting to become a concern for my parents. But my love of comics and cartoons continued unabashed, to the point that I had–seriously–a framed picture of Captain America on my dresser.

Anyway, when I was thirteen, William Baker briefly turned good and had his own mini-series. That was the book I went into the comic shop to buy. By some divine accident, though, I walked out with a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman instead.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has thousands of names. He is the god of dreams and the source for every story ever told. He has existed almost since the dawn of time. He has near-infinite powers but serious problems with his siblings, the personifications of destiny, death destruction, desire, despair and delirium.

To sum it up: I was in over my head.

The issue I happened to buy was a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, which I’d never heard before. It told about his journey to the land of the dead, showed him being torn apart by the Maenads, and then his head floating down the river still singing beautiful songs.

An aside: I was reading Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection the day my boss at the ambulance company called and told me I was fired. The Einstein Intersection is a great piece of experimental sci-fi which splices Orpheus’s journey with a futuristic adventure and nonfiction journal entries Delany wrote during his own trip to Greece. I’d never been fired before and wasn’t sure what to do, so I hung up and started reading again. After about thirty minutes, I thought to myself, Well, if you ever want to take a shot at writing your own book, now’s the time to do it. What does it mean that the Orpheus myth appeared at two critical points on my way to become a writer? Only the gods know.

But back to age thirteen: When my mom found Sandman, she sort of freaked. Censoring didn’t come naturally to her. She gave me Twain, Kipling, and Vonnegut, but the pictures disturbed her, for instance this naked and blood-drenched Maenad kissing Orpheus’ severed head, which removed from its mythological context, is pretty twisted.

And also remember I was still pie-eyed enough to think a guy who turned into sand was way cool. (Once, William Baker got caught in an explosion, and the extreme heat turned his body into glass. A man made out of shattered glass is more menacing than a man made out of sand but still lame.) My mom made a judgement call. Sadly for all those puppies I might have nursed back to health as Kristopher Reisz, veterinarian, it was a call that turned me from a spooked by Gaiman’s world to obsessed.

My brother Sean, three years older than me and with infinitely better taste, got interested in Sandman soon after. Swiping his graphic novel versions, I devoured them. Gaiman used his King of Dreams to tell stories about stories. Besides Orpheus, Sandman was the first time I encountered Midsummer Night’s Dream; the kitsune legends; and the original, not-very-nice version of Little Red Riding Hood. And the fact that it was all a little forbidden just added an extra veil of mystery to these truths disguised as myths disguised as truths, to the raw alchemy of storytelling.

There’s no going back now, though. My youthful social awkwardness has bloomed into a nice curmudgeonly streak. I’ve made up some stories of my own, and even been paid for a few. Still, all those kittens I would have bandaged and bottle-fed... sometimes I hear them meowing in my dreams.

(Cross-posted from my blog.)

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