|Neil Gaiman: The Sandman|
Superhero comics have never gone beyond this (that I know of), and probably can't; but Big Comics has, in the form of Gaiman's Sandman. And it only worked because DC gave Gaiman control over his creation, and freed him from the house rules. Though they retained copyright, which may mean that Sandman will end up fighting druglords too.
I don't mean Dave McKean's covers, which are marvelous. They're constructed as much as drawn, and the're not so much illustrations as suggestions of something buried and menacing.
But inside, it's mostly too eighties-Big-Comics... busy, well worked, but neither highly competent nor particularly imaginative; and awfully colored. The garish flat colors look as bad as any superhero comic... worse, since newsprint takes the bite out of the superguys.
The gods that appear in Season of Mists typify the problem. On the one hand, the depiction of Odin and Thor beats the hell out of any of Marvel's versions but Simonson's: Odin is spooky, Thor is impossibly, comically muscular and stupid. On the other hand, the depiction of the Egyptian gods is like a scribble on the wall compared with those of Enki Bilal.
Another example from the same book is the city of the angels, which comes out looking like a silver tea set, with matching angels in Italianate draperies. If only an artist with the skill of a Moebius or a Méziéres or a Schuiten had worked on this.
There are high points, of course. Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III in the last chapters of Preludes and Nocturnes and the entirety of The Doll's House rise to the level of graphic ingenuity that makes the book really shine. Michael Zulli's work in The Wake is spectacular. I like Jill Thompson's sure, simple art in Brief Lives; and the art in World's End (by various artists) is varied and distinctive.
Gaiman is an excellent writer-- if you're not sure of that, try his Neverwhere, an original, quirky, and very satisfying fantasy, in which London coexists with a ghostly underworld, full of horror and magic, and the fatal temptation to explain everything is resisted.
He is erudite on many levels-- Sandman is filled with references and homages to everything from Shakespeare to Lovecraft, from Marco Polo to G.K. Chesterton, from Robert Graves to Narnia, from Cerebus to a few decades of DC. (The Annotated Sandman dissects all of this in loving detail.)
And he's a marvelous storyteller-- few writers, in fact, could pull off one of his throwaway chapters, the story of an author who gets too many ideas.
He easily reaches the level of Simonson's Thor-- revitalizing and reimagining a mass of received material-- but his real gift is in the invention of a new mythology-- almost a new religion-- centering on Morpheus, the Sandman of the title, who turns out to be one of the seven 'Endless'-- deities who watch over the affairs of conscious beings, and on the side form the universe's oldest dysfunctional family.
Morpheus's own portfolio is Dream; everyone who dreams (or, broadly, tells stories) visits his realm. This gives Gaiman a wide latitude; he can offer anything from contemporary dark fantasy to retellings of ancient myths.
In the first volume Dream finds himself imprisoned (by a "hedge-magicking occultist") for seventy years; then escapes and works to reconstitute his dominion. Gaiman spins a series of gothic horror tales, ending in the truly disturbing "24 hours", building them into an epic of loss and recovery.
And then, just when you think you've got Gaiman's number, it's all turned on its head. Morpheus turns out to have an older sister, Death... who bawls him out for being selfish and not realizing that she'd be worried sick about him. It's a moment of humor, but also of sudden fascination: the palette has suddenly deepened.
Death is not the grim old guy with the sickle; she's a perky goth chick with a rather sweet nature. Her job is to attend the death of every living thing, and escort it to... whatever's next; several destinations seem to be possible. She's perhaps Gaiman's neatest creation: here he shows that he has not only the rare gift of making old myths live again, but the even rarer gift of being able to throw out the old myths and create new ones in their place: in this case, imagining a Death you'd actually like to meet.
On the other hand, a story about cats is rather self-indulgent (Jim Woodring's big, brutal Big Red is ten times more convincing on the inner life of animals); and some of the story arcs suffer from the basic problem of the superhero books, as well as Astérix: the main character has become so powerful that he is never really in danger, and the emotional temperature drops. Morpheus visits Hell, for instance, and Lucifer utters elaborate threats-- but nothing really comes of them; what we expected to be a trick turns out simply to be a diplomatic scuffle among the gods.
The short book Death: The Time of Your Life is a disappointment. It focusses on a lesbian singer whose personal life is going to pieces, and the deaths that break in on her; the moral is more or less that Fame is a whore. But, well, the couple gets back together again, Foxglove gives up on fame, and everything is hunky-dory. It makes no sense. Whatever made Foxglove chase after fame has not been resolved, nor has anything been done to heal her relationship problems.
And the role of Death is really a cheat. An ominous choice is set up... and then dissipated; the required sacrifice is performed not by the principals but by an assistant (virtually crying "banzai!"). The metaphysical thread has been lost. Death could conceivably be a good thing (especially if it isn't an ending but a transition), but I can't buy Death as a sort of tidyer-up of a few chosen people's temporal lives.
A Game of You is more ambitious, and its faults are more interesting. Here Gaiman takes a minor scene from an earlier book-- a vapid girl who dreams of being a princess-- and turns it into a rather dark fantasy; the girl's imagined, Narnia-like land is threatened by the sinister forces of the Cuckoo, and seems to be losing. It's enlivened by some well-imagined characters-- Wanda, Thessaly, Wilkinson, even George, whose best scenes are all posthumous.
Unfortunately, its center is never as interesting as the periphery. The princess is too confused and learns too little; the fantasy land is little explored; and the story of the Cuckoo is basically resolved only by a deus ex machina. And like Iain M. Banks in Against a Dark Background, Gaiman relies a little too much on the shock value of killing off his secondary characters.
There's a discussion of the difference between boys' and girls' fantasy-- interesting, but unfortunately left at the level of pop psychology; nor is there much consideration of what happens to our fantasies as we grow up. (A side note: it's interesting that A.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series contains the elements (Gaiman tells us are) characteristic of both boys' and girls' fantasies.)
In various stories, the necessity to stick Morpheus into everything becomes annoying. It's rather like Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night-- a lovable overstuffed attic of a book, but structurally ruined by the book's hero, Harriet Vane, having to yield her place in the center of the plot to the series's hero, Lord Peter.
Morpheus starts out selfish and even cruel; over the course of the centuries (like Cerebus, he's a slow learner) he achieves somewhat more maturity, until... well, until, you could say, he racks up more maturity than he can handle.
He's at his best, I think, when instead of fulminating gothishly, he's forced to interact with the other characters-- Death; one or another of his old flames; his mercurial younger brother/sister Desire; his psychedelic youngest sister Delirium; even his pet raven, Matthew.
The other main attraction is Gaiman's bemused, quirky, cluttered worldview. None of the various quests that make up Sandman's story arcs goes according to plan. No one seems to have an ultimate handle on things, and there's room in the universe for a little of everything: the grotesque, the wondrous, the pathetic, the humorous.
What? You don't want to drop $200 on the whole series? Here's brief descriptions and evaluations of each book.