Dec 13, 2010

Comics Comparisons: SANDMAN or PREACHER

When I was discovering DC's mature-readers imprint, Vertigo, in 1998, Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, its flagship title, had already been over for a couple of years, and the bestseller of the line at the time was Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's PREACHER. As such, comparisons abounded between the two.

These two comics are nothing alike. But if you have some disposable cash and you want to invest in a long storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, which one should you get? You get to save about $10 with PREACHER since it's a book shorter, and a lot of dollars if you decide to buy all the peripheral SANDMAN spinoffs, but we're talking about pure quality here. Which comic would you love more, and which comic would have characters that will stick with you, like friends, even years after you're done reading it? Or, as would be appropriate for the holiday season, which comic would you get for a loved one?

SANDMAN is a comic about Dream of the Endless. He could be called the Dream-King, the Lord of Dreams, the Shaper of Dreams, or whatever else you decide to give him, but it's simpler than that. He simply IS Dream; his kingdom, The Dreaming, is a part of him and he's a part of it, as are all its inhabitants. So it's quite metaphysical. Dream is one of the seven Endless, beings who have existed since the beginning of time and will continue to exist when life is extinguished. Like Dream, they all have different functions. In order of age, they are Destiny (as any living creature must have a destiny before it is born), Death (as, for one thing to live, it must be capable of dying), Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair (who is Desire's slightly younger twin), and then Delirium. Unlike gods, which need to be believed in to fulfill their function, the Endless simply are.

Clockwise from the guy in the brown robe:
Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Death

As you can tell, it's a very intricate mythology that Gaiman has woven here. It's a storytelling engine that lets him tell stories of any kind - from short stories detailing Dream's encounters with William Shakespeare and Marco Polo to longer stories involving Lucifer giving Dream the key to Hell or a woman named Barbie having a very detailed dream in which she is the princess in a land of talking animals, SANDMAN is a story about stories, with anecdotes being told within anecdotes within other anecdotes. It culminates in SANDMAN Book 9, "The Kindly Ones," in which a lot (not all, as it would be unwieldy and impossible to do) of plot threads are tied together in an exciting anticlimax.

One of the things that you can perhaps fault Gaiman for is, in fact, anticlimax, something he has gone on record as saying that he does prefer to an actual climax. In SANDMAN, as with many other Gaiman works, things are not wrapped up neatly together as they probably would be in a blockbuster story. When you expect fights and explosions, bangs and booms, a lot of the time, you won't get it, and you'll get something else entirely - not what you expected, and perhaps you'll be frustrated at the book for curtailing that expectation, but I've found that it actually will stay with you more than it would have, had Gaiman gone with the obvious route.

PREACHER, on the other hand, is a more straightforward story. Jesse Custer is a small-town preacher who is then bonded to a half-angel/half-demon named Genesis. This bonding gives him the power of "The Word," which lets him coerce anyone to do anything he wants. He dedicates his life to finding God, who, he has discovered, has abandoned his post in Heaven. Jesse is accompanied by his gun-toting ex-girlfriend, Tulip O'Hare, and an Irish vampire named Cassidy.

They're pursued by the Saint of Killers (the patron saint of killers and murderers) and an old cabal called the Grail, led by one Herr Starr, which lives to protect the bloodline of Jesus. The closest thing I can come to describing this story is that it is a supernatural Western, and Jesse Custer is very much a modern-day cowboy, setting out to do the right thing.

There's guns, explosions, sex, and romance in PREACHER, with little to no subtlety whatsoever save for Steve Dillon's human expressions and storytelling. Everything else is driven up to 11, and it's such an incredible balance managed by Dillon and Ennis, that we can move straight from a bloody fight scene to a touching love scene in the span of only a few panels.

If PREACHER tries to be thought-provoking through its religious aspects, I can honestly say that it doesn't achieve that so well as SANDMAN does. SANDMAN is legitimately thought-provoking, as it calls into question various issues such as the role and power of story as well as the nature of responsibility to one's subjects and to one's self. PREACHER's central conceit, on the other hand, of a man trying to find an irresponsible God, would likely be thought-provoking to anyone who has never questioned one's faith, or to someone who is just going through that for the first time. If you read it later on in your life, however, when you've already most likely made peace with it, it does feel slightly immature and, no pun intended, more than a little preachy.

However, where PREACHER does edge out SANDMAN, I think, is in the characters. The character arcs of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are engrossing because they simply ARE engrossing characters. Tulip O'Hare to this day remains one of my favorite female characters in comics, and her relationship with Jesse may well be my favorite romance in comics. They have their flaws - Jesse is a little too "macho" and can't accept the risks of anything happening to Tulip, and Tulip's too independent for that - but there haven't been many relationships in comics where I can legitimately believe that two people love each other in equal measure, and Jesse Custer and Tulip O'Hare are two of them

Along the way, also, Cassidy's past is shown to be less than savory, and it's a long, long road to redemption, and Jesse's morals are, like Superman's, pretty unwavering. He has a very strong moral code, taught to him by his dad - "Don't take no shit off fools, and you judge people by what's in them, not how they look. You gotta be one of the good guys, son, 'cause there's way too many of the bad." - and he sticks to this code so strongly that he gets into big fights over it, including, eventually, against his friend. The resolution is very climactic and very satisfying.

In contrast, SANDMAN's characters are probably just as memorable, but they just don't grab your sympathy as much. This is partly due to the nature of the series - there are so many short stories and so many smaller supporting characters that they do make a mark on you, but they're not around often enough or long enough to make as big a mark on you as Jesse and Tulip or Cassidy would. The inhabitants of the Dreaming are around long enough, but they also aren't developed as fully - Mervyn Pumpkinhead, the palace's carpenter, for instance, functions as comic relief, but not really any more than that.

As for the Endless? They're great characters. Destruction, with his refusal to do his job and his friendship with his talking dog Barnabas, is amusing and entertaining, and very likable. Delirium is fun to read, with just about every sentence that comes out of her mouth being a funny and absurd juxtaposition of words. And Death? She's in there for such a limited time, but she shows up in ACTION COMICS, so there's a strong sense of popularity for you, right there.

But again, they just aren't there for very long, so if you're making your decision to buy a series based on wanting to fall in love with a character, that's something you should keep in mind. Every SANDMAN book has likable characters; they just tend to not be the same characters in each book.

The one character in every issue, Dream, is also not very sympathetic, partly because he's just not human. He operates by different rules and has a very ancient sense of justice. At the end of the first issue, he punishes his transgressor with "eternal waking," the condition of being forced to dream that you're waking up continuously, without ever waking up. In any other comic, it would be very easy to paint Dream as a villain. That's part of the point - SANDMAN is about change, and it's, of course, about Dream's change, but yes, it does make it hard to really love the character.

At the end of the day, I think, SANDMAN and PREACHER are books that are smart and have heart, but I think that SANDMAN is more of the former while PREACHER is more of the latter. SANDMAN is a vaster world and has a more elaborate mythos. As many of its ravers would say, it's a comic that "makes you think." PREACHER, on the other hand, makes you feel. It makes you love these characters and see them as friends, and years from now, when you've all gone your separate ways, it'll make you wonder how these friends are doing, and you'll pick it up again to relive some great memories.

I feel the same way about this story, Cass.

So, if the Comics Cube! had to pick, quite honestly, I'd pick PREACHER over SANDMAN. It's just that good. Your mileage may vary.


TomO. said...

Two awesome series that's like trying to pick a favorite child.

Seasons Of Mist will probably remain one of my all-time favorite stories, but you just can't beat the complicated relationship between Jesse and Cassidy. I still feel the emotional wallop of Cassidy's transgressions as strongly today as I did when I was reading this thing monthly.

It's moments like that that give this series the ever so slightest of edge.

Paul C said...

You're so right about how good the characters are in Preacher. On the surface the characters seem so one dimensional, the cowboy, the Irish vampire, the fascistic German villain etc, but Ennis really gets us under their skin and gives them such strong motivations that, as you say, they feel like old friends. And once you get to know them they're all so recognisable. For example, no one's met a vampire but most people have met that one charismatic, confident friend who sucks you in and makes you feel like you've both got some special bond, but is really all talk and let's you down when you need him most.

Duy Tano said...

Tom: It's odd, but when I read Sandman the first time, SEASONS OF MIST was undoubtedly my favorite volume. These days, I end up reading it as a bit cliche, and would end up favoring BRIEF LIVES. In ten years, maybe I'll be favoring THE KINDLY ONES. That's one of the great things about SANDMAN - it gives me different reactions at different points in my life. I'm not sure I can say the same thing about PREACHER.

Paul: You haven't met an Irish vampire? I kid, I kid.

fanboy420 said...

Reading Sandman is like reading The Little Prince. Its meaning and impact on you change every time you read it. I've never read Preacher but I'll take your word on how awesome it is. So yeah kind of one-sided for me since I've never read Preacher. But your post has given me every reason in the world to start reading it. So thank you kindly for that. No pun intended. :D

Duy Tano said...

Waps, I could easily agree that Sandman is the work that ages better. I think Preacher has to be read at a certain point in your life. Probably before your 40s. Or something.

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