Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Sandman #19: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by Charles Vess
1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Short Fiction

Cover by Dave McKean
1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Artist

No, I didn't typo that award.

Despite the fact that I was a comic reader at the time and I was making somewhat regular trips to my local comic book store "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was the first time I heard about Sandman. Since it was the early 90's there wasn't same level of nerd support network around; I wasn't reading the fan press so I just wasn't aware of the book's existence. Then there was a newspaper article about this comic book that won an award for prose and the uproar that surrounded it.

Let's get a plot synopsis out of the way first. Dream made a deal with a minor playwright who had only written one particularly bad play titled "Two Gentlemen of Verona". In exchange for penning two plays about dreams the writer will gain phenomenal skill and immortality through his words. This issue picks up with that writer leading his theater company to a meadow where they will put on the initial performance of the first play for their patron. Their patron also happens to bring along with him the people the play is about.

The preamble to this award is that it wasn't the first time something strange happened. The Dark Knight Returns garnered ballots for Hugo nomination across multiple categories. To resolve this in the Hugo awards structure they placed it as an art book in the non-fiction category. This is what lead to Watchmen's Hugo award in the one off "other" category. So in the late eighties the cross over between SF fans and comic fans was starting to blur things together. This came to a head at the World Fantasy Convention.

Gaiman was not some unknown comic book writer to the panel that selected this issue of Sandman for the award. That year he was also nominated in the novel category along with Terry Pratchett for Good Omens (Thomas the Rhymer and Only Begotten Daughter tied for the award that year). So Sandman's nomination was a surprise but it wasn't completely out of the blue. Of course everyone thought it was an interesting gesture that wouldn't go anywhere.

When the awards were announced things exploded and battle lines were drawn. On one side were the comic fans who said that they were finally vindicated that comics could be mature and a medium for great storytelling. The opposition were outraged at the idea that a funny book could hold the same significance as something created by a "real writer". That's when fuel was added to the fire by changing the World Fantasy Award rules so that a comic could not win again.

Obviously I don't have much sympathy for those people who denied that a comic book could be well written but at the same time I think the committee that sets the rules for the World Fantasy Awards was right. The medium is part of the work and while it may come across as spiteful (many people have interpreted it that way) changing the rules limit the category to prose was the right thing to do based on the scope of their awards. And it wasn't as though they hated comics; Moebius won the best artist award a few years later for his comics work and Vess won a second World Fantasy Award for himself a few years after that. There may have been some appeasement in the rule change but since it occurred the day after the award ceremony I'm sure it was something in consideration immediately after Sandman was nominated. What it comes down to is that a comic book and a short story are too different for direct comparisons to be made fairly.

Moving past the controversy the World Fantasy Award did go to one of the best issues of the series. Throughout Sandman Gaiman's short stories were more effective than his long ones. It may be my love of Shakespeare speaking (I've actually seen "Two Gentlemen of Verona" performed; it's like an Elizabethan playwright doing a bad parody of what Shakespeare would become) but I adore this issue. The poetic balance of Shakespeare burning brightly at the height of his career while losing touch with his family and the fairies about to leave the world behind only to stop to catch a show on their way out leaves an impression. Even if you don't like Shakespeare Gaiman avoids becoming too entangled in the words of the play itself and instead relies on a Greek chorus of goblins who comment on the action. It's the story of a strange, magical night; exactly the kind of thing that fits the tone of Sandman.

As for myself, the newspaper article made me award of comic's existence for the first time but it would be another a while before I started reading it. I read the earlier trade paperbacks first and because of the lead time between the issue and the award it wasn't until over twenty issues later that I was buying the comics. Still it was the World Fantasy Award that let me know that Sandman was out there and it was something I'd have to read at some point.