Saturday 26 October 2013

Sandman: Overture and Being Eighteen.

Neil Gaiman returns to comics this coming week with Sandman: Overture. Set before Sandman, it'll tell the story of the events that led to the first volume of the Sandman series that Gaiman made his name with in the nineties. Outside of a book of short stories, it'll be the first time he's gone back to it in a serious way.

Sandman was an incredibly influential series. It was a smart, beautiful series of stories about stories that built together to tell a story of Dream of the Endless, a personification of an idea like the rest of his family, who was unable to change. It was filled with fantastic and beautiful artwork by a number of talented artists, to match the brilliant writing by Gaiman.

It was an enormous hit, and really helped to launch Vertigo Comics, the mature readers imprint from DC. It helped many people to realise that comics could genuinely be an art form, and even taken seriously - and all without involving superheroes (except in the briefest of cameos). It was also a series that appealed to women in a way that the industry at the time didn't really try to. It brought new people into comic shops, and many people fell in love with it.

So why am so I nervous about Gaiman returning to Sandman?

It's because it'll be impossible for me to read it in the way I read it then. Because I read Sandman when I was eighteen, and I'll be reading Sandman: Overture in my thirties.To explain why that's so different, I need to look at who I was when I was eighteen.

It's difficult looking back at yourself sometimes. I didn't yet know who I was, and was casting around trying to work it out. When I look back, it's with a lot of embarrassment. I tend to remember the negatives first.

At eighteen, I was a combination of confidence and anxiety. I was studying acting at university, and was convinced that I had enough talent that I could do whatever I wanted - but I was also eaten up with fear, not least because I appeared to have an ability to precisely annoy just about everyone I was around to a lesser or greater extent.

This was probably partially because I skipped ahead a bit at school (due to a mixture of the time of year I was born and my moving back and forward between England and Ireland), and ended up starting university before I was eighteen. I had a huge chip on my shoulder because was worried that I wouldn't be taken seriously, and ended up trying hard to impress everyone - you can probably guess how well that approach worked. When I stopped trying to fly, I landed with a pretty hard bump.

Going to university meant that I'd moved away from home. I'd spent my teenage years in rural Ireland, and being so close to Leeds felt pretty metropolitan. It felt like a big adventure, and the opportunity to prove myself, but I was also without the immediate support system of my family for the first time, and only saw them a couple of times a year. At times, I felt like I had it all in my stride, but at other times, I felt hopelessly lost. But I was more frightened of never trying than I was of failing.

Also, like many of us, periods of my life are inextricably linked with the relationships that I was in at the time. I got into a relationship that had its positives, but wasn't particularly good for either of us. I didn't know how to make her happy, and that meant that I went through the latter stage of it constantly scared and feeling like I was always doing the wrong thing. And because I'd never been in a relationship before, I had no idea how to deal with that. I had yet to learn to be better at listening and reacting.

And, because I was still that young, I thought that it would work out because of first love, true love and a hundred romantic films. And we both did our best to make it work, which probably made things worse. With the best of intentions at the time, I think it's fair to say that we screwed each other up pretty badly.

I look back on that time with a lot of sadness. I wish I'd been better for her (and I'm sorry I wasn't), and I also wish she'd been better for me, because with what we both put into it, I think we both deserved a better experience. But that's the dangerous thing about serious relationships when you're young - you don't necessarily know how to be good at them. She ended it very shortly after university, which was good because I don't know if I'd have been capable of doing so. It was a painful experience for both of us, which makes the whole period of time a bit of a difficult one to look back on.

I don't have many pictures from the time. I've always tended to avoid being in photographs. I don't like having them taken and I tend to hate seeing pictures of myself, which means that I don't have too many pictures of me at that age. This may have something to do with my three fashion icons from the time being The Crow, WWE superstar Shawn Michaels in his DX days, and Gambit from the X-Men. I'm sure you're all devastated at the lack of evidence of this. You can only begin to imagine how cool I looked, damn it. I was all about the long hair and long coats.

I was scared a lot of the time, but there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in there as well. For the first time in my life, I was being gripped by the possibilities of story-telling, and the complete belief that I could do it, partially because I believed that anyone could do it. We all had stories to tell, and we all had our unique experiences.

Sandman was important for me. It inspired me enormously and exhilarated me, and I wanted to pass on that exhilaration to others. Morpheus was a difficult character - spiky and self-important and rude and outright unpleasant at times, but as you grew to know him, he was such a deeper character than I'd been seen in almost anything else. And his story surrounded so many other stories, and with the overall underlying messages that we all have stories and we all have dreams.

Story-telling is at the root of our communication. We learn to understand each other through stories and we learn to understand how the world works through stories, and then we learn to create and tell our own stories. And when we sleep, our brains tend to make sense of our thoughts by turning them into vague narratives in our dreams.

These were big ideas to grasp, even if I didn't fully understand them at the time. But Sandman took me from wanting to be a performer to wanting to be a story-teller.

As part of my final year's projects, we each had to write and direct a performance of a thirty minute adaptation of something. It could be anything. I chose to combine and adapt two different things - the story of Edmund from King Lear and Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

Loosely based on a story from the comics involving a bet between Dream and his androgynous sibling Desire, I wrote a story which involved the embittered illegitimate son of Gloucester being given the ability to become the man he has always wanted to be, as he then seduces queens, banishes his brother and arranges for his father's murder, before being killed in battle by his returning brother - all watched over by The Endless, who occasionally took on roles within the story (before it all turned out to be a trap by Dream to try to take teach Desire a lesson).

That's how much I loved Sandman, and how much it meant to me - I integrated it into my degree, because there was no story I wanted to interpret more. It opened an eighteen year old's eyes to the wonder and possibilities of the world, and I wanted to share it with everyone, and I wanted to start telling my own stories. Putting on that performance was an acknowledgement and tribute of that.

When I look back at one of the few pictures around of that eighteen year old, I see a kid who was an awkward mixture of confidence and fear, who appeared to have a talent for making life more difficult for himself than he needed to. I'm torn between wanting to give him a hug or a smack. I'd also probably want to apologise to him for not turning out to be the person he wanted to be, although I'd hope that he understood how I eventually became the person he needed to be.

But I'm not him any more. I'll never be him anymore. There are parts of him that I'm glad and relieved to have left behind, and there are parts of him that I am envious of, and that I miss.

It may not matter whether or not Sandman: Overture by a Neil Gaiman in his fifties is better, worse or equal to the Sandman stories that he wrote when he was in his thirties. I'm not reading it as an eighteen year old either way, and that's going to make it a very different experience.

I'm unlikely to have my eyes opened to the world by it in the way that Sandman opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling when I was eighteen. I'm not likely to love it the way I loved Sandman when I was eighteen, because it was new and it was exciting, and I was inspired by it in the way that you get inspired by stuff when you're eighteen.

I'll be reading it at thirty-three and thirty-four, and I'll be older, balder, heavier and hopefully more wise and a bit better at listening and understanding.

So I'm just going to hope that it's good. And if it can make me feel like an eighteen year old with the world in front of him, waiting to hear his stories, even for just a moment, then I'll be delighted, but if it doesn't, I'll still be satisfied with a good story.

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