Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source: http://www.chrisbachalo.net/gallery-miscellaneous.html

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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The Training of a Wizard – Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic

Note of Edit:  Apparently, when this auto-posted, it went with an incomplete draft instead of the full post… how… marvelous.  Apologies… this post is now complete.

What can I say about Neil Gaiman that I haven’t said before?  The man is a towering genius of literature, most especially in the fantasy genre.  His horror\fantasy\mostly uncatagorizable series Sandman is the series that launched an entire sub-section of DC Comics (its Vertigo line, home to those series that appear outside of DC’s regular continuity, including Y The Last Man, Fables, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer starring erstwhile wizard John Constantine).

I feel that comic writing is generally where Gaiman performs best, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy his novels… or his poetry… or his non-fiction.  I do.  I just really, REALLY enjoy his comic book writing.

The Books of Magic
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: John Bolton (issue 1), Scott Hampton (issue 2), Charles Vess (issue 3), and Paul Johnson (issue 4).
Letterer: Todd Klein
DC Comics

 April 14, 1993
200 pages

Books of Magic preceded the creation of the Vertigo imprint and features DC Comics regulars, such as Constantine and The Phantom Stranger, yet the collected trade paperback is Vertigo.

As if that makes sense.

Yes, yes… Sandman and Swamp Thing were both originally DC Comics published and are now Vertigo… And yes, now Swamp Thing and John Constantine have shown up in standard DC Comics continuity again (oh the humanity and confusion), but… dammit, this is a DC related comic that deals with magic within the DC world… so why is this not a DC comic?  OK, I’m thinking too much again.

Back to the comic at hand!

Books of Magic stars both our main character, the bespectacled Timothy Hunter, and a group known colloquially as The Trenchcoat Brigade, John Constantine, Mister E, The Phantom Stranger, and Doctor Occult.  Guess what fashion item they all sport?

Timothy Hunter is of interest to the DC Universe as a whole because of his potential.  In the future, there will be a great war of magicians and Timothy could well be the reason for a “good guy” victory (though as the book will show us, good and evil aren’t always as black and white as they seem… and wow how trite was that statement?  I do not apologize, I do not backspace).

And… let us get your burning question out of the way.  Yes, this story has similarities to a certain other British wizard coming of age story, but no JK Rowling didn’t take, steal, embezzle, or in any way lift the idea for Harry Potter.  In all likelihood, as Gaiman himself has stated in interviews, they both pulled their influence from authors like TH White, thus the similarities in ideas.

Or, to quote Gaiman, “[I] wasn’t the first writer to create a young wizard with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school.”

Anyway…  The Brigade appear to Timothy and tell him about his possible future.  He agrees to come with the after they turn his yo-yo into a snow white owl (I KNOW! I KNOW!) and each of the four takes him on a journey into magic.

Issue 1, entitled “The Invisible Labyrinth,” is illustrated by John Bolton, whose eldest son was the visual model for Timothy Hunter.  Bolton’s photorealistic style works well as it establishes the main setting (“real world” London in the late 80s\early 90s), but also manages to convey a lot of beauty as The Phantom Stranger takes young Timothy on a trip through the past… from The Creation, to The Fall, and so on, touching on magic users throughout time including Merlin and DC Comics mainstay Jason Blood (a human attached to a demon named Etrigan who has shown up in as diverse titles as Sandman, Swamp Thing, Green Lantern, and Batman).  

Basically, the point of this issue is to show Timothy, as well as the reader, the various levels of magic and mysticism from the DC Universe past.  Wizards, angels, demons, monstrous creatures… these all co-exist side by side in DC Comics.

Issue 2, “The Shadow World” gives Timothy his proper introduction to the wizard John Constantine.  Yes, that awful movie starring Keanu Reeves was based on the character, but… he’s much better than that.  Constantine is a relic from a past age.  He was a a punk rocker once, who dabbled in magic, until tragedy struck at Newcastle (read Hellblazer to learn about that mess) and caused him to become fully involved in the world of magic.

This issue introduces us (or reintroduces us, if we’re longtime readers) to many magic users in modern DC Continuity.  Zatanna, Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood (again, as his connection to Etrigan makes him immortal)… many DC Comics mainstays make appearances.  But the best part of the issue is near the end… Zatanna and Timothy are surrounded by those who would do them harm when suddenly Constantine reappears.  One threat later, they’re walking out of the party unharmed.  Was it a bluff?  Or is Constantine really that bad ass?  Both, probably.

Scott Hampton’s artwork is great and shows how well Gaiman works with his collaborators.  The painted style gives the whole issue a softer look, which fits well with all the slight of hand (and real magic) performed by Constantine.  The art is also delightfully creepy and otherworldly once the characters arrive at the party in the penultimate scene.

Issue 3, “The Land of Summer’s Twilight” is by far the best issue in the mini-series.  Illustrated by Charles Vess (the same man who penciled the fantastic 19th issue of The Sandman), this storyline takes us deeper into the adjoining universes connected to the main DC one.  Much of the time is spent in The Faerie, an area Gaiman and Vess revisit in Stardust (also a movie… and an unillustrated novel… but first it was an illustrated novel published by DC Comics).

So what interest does The Faerie have in the DC Universe?  Well… from what I can tell, much of it was introduced by way of Gaiman’s Sandman series.  So Gaiman is being self-referential through much of this issue (as is Vess… many of the character models are remarkably similar to his stellar art in Sandman #19).  Throughout, Timothy and Dr Occult (and the female side of his coin, Rose) meet Titania, Baba Yaga, and various shades of pixies, nixies, and talking animals.  But there’s a very special cameo that is probably the reason I think so highly of this issue.  I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say fans of Gaiman will be quite happy.

Issue 4, “The Road To Nowhere” completes our journey by (finally) giving us our villain and taking Timothy and Mister E from the present day, all the way to the end of time.  Literally, the end of time.  And what do you find at the end of time?  Another awesome (is somewhat more obvious) cameo.  But a great moment just the same.

I can’t really say too much about this without delving into greater spoilers, but… this issue is what sets up the series that would follow (for an additional 75 issues, no less).  In it, we discover a possible future for Timothy, many possible futures for the DC Universe, and we see what happens when Gaiman gets playful with the  idea of the distant, distant future.

The art in this issue is done by Paul Johnson and is my least favorite in the bunch.  It isn’t bad by any stretch (and Johnson has worked on another fun series The Invisibles which is written by another member of the British Comic Invasion, Grant Morrison), but it doesn’t have the appeal of Charles Vess’ Faerie, or Scott Hampton’s more horror-themed visuals.  But given that he draws one of my favorite DC Characters very well… I won’t complain.

So after all these adventures… what does Timothy discover?  What does he decide?  Does he stay on as a magician?  Does he go back to his boring life of yo-yos and skateboards?  You’ll have to read to find out.

But that said… will you want to?  I first read this approximately… a year ago… I was lost.  I had minor knowledge of some of the characters (The Phantom Stranger, Constantine) and little to no knowledge of most of the side characters (The Deadman, Jason Blood) and so a lot of it was confusing.  If you aren’t a big comic reader, or a big Neil Gaiman fan, I’ll tell you right off… this will not make you either.

But if you love Gaiman’s past work (especially Sandman or his attempt at retrofitting all the “vegetable” based DC characters in Black Orchid) you’ll like it.  No doubt.  And if you like the more magical, mystical side of the DC Universe (or if  you’ve read a bunch of Hellblazer) this has a lot of appeal.

But beyond that… You’ll be either lost, bored, or possibly both.  The writing, art, and references are aimed at hardcore comic fans and, despite the excellent story and illustrations, if you don’t have the knowledge you won’t be able to appreciate this as much.

If I were to suggest you start anywhere, I’d say Sandman.  You see Gaiman deftly weave a story over 70+ issues and he’s definitely at the height of his literary prowess.  In fact, for under $50, you can even pick up a copy of The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 that contains the first twenty issues (in black and white) with full annotations.  Does that sound like a segue to a future blog post?

Maybe… maybe…  Stay tuned!