In 1895, the daily newspaper The New York World launched the first United States of America comic strip, ‘The Yellow Kid,’ with the ambition to increase the sales of the paper. Fortunately, the uncanny popularity of the comic strip was the springboard of future publications as press barons realised the potential of the comic strips as a marketing tool.
‘The Yellow Kid,’ however, was not the first comic strip in the United States of America.
In 1837, the New York newspaper Brother Jonathan had its employees translate a Swiss comic called ‘Histoire de M. Vieux Bois,’ which is credited as the very first comic book in the world.
Rudolphe Töpffer’s work became known in the United States of America as ‘The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck.’
Translation played a crucial role back then: because of it, Americans met a new medium for communication. Although this new way of communication was established through a European work (at a time when Americans closed themselves to the world), and translation helped Americans adapt it to meet their own needs.
From the launch of ‘The Yellow Kid’ up to today, comic books have been heavily tied to the United States of America society. The first comic books to be published were essentially humorous so as to reach people of all ages. However, behind the comedy of the funniest (as comic books became known at the time of ‘The Yellow Kid’) political goals were hidden. ‘The Yellow Kid,’ for instance, mirrored the “rudeness, slap-stick style cruelty, and overall sensationalism” personality of the average American of the late 1800s. Moreover, comic books have long been used to keep the status quo. Jeff Williams concludes in his article ‘Comics: a tool of subversion?’ that most “comics are more likely to be propagandistic in favour of the current dominant hegemony;” thus, leaving the subversive role to be played by few independent comic books.
By playing either the role of giving people sheer entertainment or meeting political agendas, American comic books have been part of pop culture for over a century. The connection to society accounts for the gradual evolutionary changes that the comic book industry has undergone. Most comics have changed so much since the early years that some publications are now even branded literature. For example, ‘The Sandman’ (1989), by Neil Gaiman is among the best comic book stories in literary history. Even literature writers and critics all around the world have praised Neil Gaiman’s powerful storytelling.
‘The Sandman’ and other United States of America comic books have gone beyond the borders, reaching the entire world. The first United States of America comic books landed in Brazil in 1979, through the publishing house Editora Abril. It is due to the work of translators that this fraction of American pop culture has conversed with the Brazilian comic book industry. It should be worth mentioning why translation matters: translation narrows the gap between cultures, allowing people to comprehend one another better. Through translated works, people get to enrich their knowledge of the world. They might even improve their works in their own mother tongue (with a new set of eyes). Just imagine the influence of comic books in cartoons and, more presently, live-action films on a worldwide scale.
Regarding Neil Gaiman, he was born in Hampshire, in the United Kingdom. During his childhood he read the works of Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Edgar Allan Poe and Ursula Kroeber Le Guin — all of these definitely influenced Neil Gaiman’s future productions because they were great writers of fantasies.
Neil Gaiman began his career by writing biographies: “I was very, very good at taking a voice that already existed and parodying or pastiching it.” Then he wrote his first comic books, the miniseries ‘Black Orchid’ (1989), with artist David McKean, under Vertigo Comics (one of DC Comics’ imprint).
Two years later, Karen Berger, an editor at DC Comics, gave him a telephone call and asked him to write a monthly series. Neil Gaiman chose to reimagine a character from the mid-1070s, the Sandman: “Looking back, the process of coming up with the Lord of Dreams seems less like an act of creation than one of sculpture: as if he were already waiting, grave and patient, inside a block of white marble, and all I needed to do was chip away everything that was not him. An initial image, before I even knew who he was: a man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell, waiting until his captors passed away, willing to wait until the room he was in crumbled to dust; deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes: Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”
One year later the series was launched; it became a commercial success, and popular among mature readers. Indeed, Neil Gaiman’s talents have gone beyond the boards of comic books. He has written dozens of books for both young readers (‘The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish,’ ‘M is for Magic,’ and ‘Coraline’) and adults (‘Neverwhere,’ ‘Stardust,’ and ultimately; ‘American Gods’). Some of his works have been adapted to the screens: ‘Stardust’ (2007) and ‘Mirromask’ (2005) became movies; and ‘Neverwhere’ (2005), a television series. His book ‘Coraline’ became an animated feature film in 2009; his book ‘The Graveyard Book’ is in stage of production to be an animation.
As Neil Gaiman said, the story of ‘The Sandman’ is about Dream, the personified incarnation of all dreams and nightmares. Morpheus, as Dream is also known, is one of the Endless — a family of seven siblings that embody different aspects of the universe. One of his sisters is probably as much loved by fans as Morpheus himself: Death, the embodiment of death and life. Her charismatic figure has charmed fans of the series worldwide. His other siblings are Delirium, Destruction, Destiny, Desire and Despair.
The story begins with some cultists trying to capture Death in order to gain immortality. They fail to capture her, imprisoning Morpheus instead. They steal Dream’s tools of power and seal him inside a bubble of glass. Morpheus awaits patiently for seventy years until one day he fools those who imprison him and escapes. After escaping, he plunges the head of the cult into an endless series of nightmares.
The first volume of ‘The Sandman’ is solely about the escape of Morpheus and how he managed to retrieve his tools of power. During his journey, he meets famous characters from other magazines. New characters are also introduced.
Lucifer and his sister Death are examples of new characters that appealed the readers so much that they gained their own self-entitled series years later. The other volumes tell Dream’s life, lovers and challenges; his relationship with his siblings; his duties as Lord of the Dreaming.
The world of ‘The Sandman’ is without a doubt fantastic and otherworldly. Morpheus travels throughout the Dreaming (how the world of dreams is called), which has no defined shape, changing according to its inhabitants and Morpheus’ desires.
Morpheus also goes to Hell, to his siblings’ realms and even to the end of the world, yet Dream is no hero. He is simply a creature of incredible power whose life is a turmoil of joy and sadness. He encounters some foes during his journeys; he also meets old and new friends. He is the sort of character that simply goes on living, trying to survive the hardships of life.
The final chapters of ‘The Sandman’ are definitely touching and surprising. It is no tale of a hero who ends up triumphantly defeating a great enemy. It is a story of a living being, who walks many paths, rediscovering his own true self at the end of each story arc.
‘The Sandman’ has characteristics of both horror and dark fantasy genres. Morpheus is a survivor like many characters of horror stories. His fate is definitely unpredictable to readers.
The world’s presented are magical — a feature of dark fantasies. Some stories may horrify you. In addition, unlike dark fantasies, the ending is not what everyone expects. There is fear, pain, sadness and death. Moreover, there is no hero.