“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – T.S. Elliot
The year is 1989 and Neil Gaiman is about to create a comic that resonates with generations. Comics are a blank landscape of limitless potential and Gaiman has realized where the most potent of all that potential comes from: dreams.
The series ran for 75 issues, making a ton of spinoff series, and now, in 2013/2014, on the 25th anniversary of the comic, we are treated to a prequel called Sandman: Overture. Recently I had a friend from overseas come visit me in San Francisco. In a mad scramble to figure out things for us to do, I stumbled across something I never imagined I would lay my eyes on in my life: a museum was having a limited viewing of original art from The Sandman series. I was so beyond excited to go to this, as was my friend, that we couldn’t believe our luck. This is my experience of laying my eyes on one of my favorite series of all time. I recall my first read through of the series, then my 2nd, 3rd, and after seeing this art I’m on my 4th with my own personal collection of the comic instead of digital or TPB’s this time around. This is my account of visiting this amazing museum and seeing this illustrious art.
My friend and I begin our day by binging on donuts for breakfast down the street from our hotel after our first night hanging in the city. We have our day planned out and it begins with a trip to the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum.
From there we walk across stretches of dilapidated buildings, homeless and all other manner of painfully socially awkward situations that you want to avoid at all cost, and yet this whole journey (and every journey we took in the city) felt like a trip to Mordor. As we cross from the bad part of the city to the more touristy, people filled sections, things begin to become more jovial. While we talk about the endless comics we’ve read and recommend things to each other, I am adamant about recommending The Sandman to my friend, who has yet to read it (Matt, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ve started Sandman by now!) As we walk street after street ,we finally make it to our destination: an innocuous little building off Mission Street that at first glance looks like a comic store, but when you enter, is so much more than meets the eye.
As we enter the museum I can feel my endorphins kick in and the anticipation and excitement overtake me as I await what I’m about to see for the first time ever. We walk up to the counter, grab a little advertisement card as a keepsake and pay our $8 to get in. Yes, that’s right, it was only $8 to see some of the richest art from one of the most prolific comics ever. I was overjoyed at what was about to take place.
As I walk through the entryway into the viewing area, my boots echoing in the hollow sounding halls, everything is quiet and the lights are dim, only illuminating the art on the walls. I pass the hall with Sam and Twitch art, pass the Calvin & Hobbes section and walk straight to the area that calls to me, the holy grail of comic book art, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. This section it holds pages to the entire 1st issue of the comic, as well as many, many others throughout the illustrious series that I’ll get to and describe.
As I stare, enamored with every page framed on the wall, everything seems surreal. There’s no way I’m actually looking at these pieces of comic history encapsulated in these dimly lit walls. I cant help but be entranced by the first page of the first issue. I stare at it intently, dissecting every section of it, seeing every mark and mistake being overwhelmingly surprised at how big this page actually is in real life. At how every dialogue bubble is actually glued on after the fact, where there was a missing or removed bubble that left a hole in the page and how some pieces of the art are glued on the same way to the page making it look like a puzzle or collage that was fine tuned to create this grandly innocuous opening page of a seminal comic. I quickly move on to something else equally prolific: Neil’s original typed pages for the pitch of The Sandman. The first 8 pages of the script are encased in glass for everyone to read, and so I do. Seeing how one of the greatest writers pitched and wrote the first issue of the comic was truly inspiring to say the least and left me with my jaw on the floor at the sheer amount of history I was seeing with my jaded eyes.
There is so much art from The Sandman all in this section of the museum that I feel like a kid with A.D.D jumping from every framed page or cover that resides on the walls. I try to read the entire first issue off the wall, all 40 pages of it. From there, sporadically, I walk and just stare at every page there is to be seen, from the first appearance of Death to Dave McKean’s amazing covers and original Sandman art, the most amazing being one iconic image of the face of Dream where half of his face looks like stained glass. Every single piece of that is like a mosaic, all glued or cut into the piece of art, and seeing that with my eyes gives a whole new depth to that piece of art that truly can't be quantified through print. It is something you have to see with your own eyes.
As I stroll effortlessly throughout the museum, each piece of art or cover flows seamlessly in sequential order with each other. Every milestone from the series is present: Dream getting his revenge on his captors, meeting with Death, going to hell to retrieve his armor and stone, and of course (spoilers) the death of Dream, the grand finale of one of the greatest comics to ever be printed and written. Everything makes me feel quite overwhelmed with all that I had seen so far, so much so that I feel I’m not even doing it justice by writing about it. It truly is something you should see with your own eyes. The final thing that is perfectly encapsulating of the series was original art from J.H. Williams III for Sandman: Overture. All of his covers for the series are on the walls, and seeing the insane detail of his work is awe inspiring, especially for the 1st issue cover, with all the detail in the flowers that seamlessly flowed into Dream and his suit. The surrealist looking house that Dream takes the form of for the soon to be released 2nd issue is there, and there is even a cover for the 3rd issue that has a large warning sign asking visitors not to take a picture as it has not been released by DC Comics yet. I begrudgingly obliged and didn’t take a photo, but it looks amazing, I will tell you that.
I stared at everything in the museum for what seemed like decades because I had never witnessed anything like this in my life, much less from one of my favorite series ever. My friend and I left completely in awe of what we had just seen for a mere $8 price tag. Every piece of art was on loan from Gaiman, Williams III, McKean, and Dringenberg’s personal collections respectively, as well as private collectors who had put them on loan, and I am thankful for every one of them doing so. Here’s to another 25 years of The Sandman!
A little after note: we found out after the fact when we left that Mike Dringenberg had been at the museum the night before, and we were kicking ourselves for missing that event. But still, equally, we were grateful for getting to see these amazing pieces of comic book history and will never forget this experience. Oh and if you’ve never read The Sandman, I don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life and you should go read it immediately!