In the year of my birth, issues of Sandman, a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman, were serialized by Vertigo books in what would become the penultimate volume of the Sandman series. The Kindly Ones, as this 9th collection would be named, consisted of issues 57-69, and was published in whole in 1996. I was two years old at the time, and only clever enough to tie my own shoes. Although I did not realize it then, Neil Gaiman’s series represented a landmark in the history of the graphic novel; Sandman became one of the most popular graphic novels of the 1990s and changed many of the preconceived notions about the graphic novel as a literary genre. The evolution of the graphic novel has been an ongoing process since its inception, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to witness many of the defining moments in its chronology in my own lifetime.
Sandman was written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a constantly rotating group of artists. The series tells the story of the seven Endless, most closely narrating the life of the titular character Dream. Gaiman describes the Endless in a variety of ways, perhaps best through the words of Destruction in volume eight, Brief Lives:
The Endless are merely patterns. The Endless are ideas. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs. The Endless are echoes of darkness, and nothing more... And even our existences are brief and bounded. None of us will last longer than this version of the Universe.
The Endless exist as the manifestations of universal experiences. Each of the seven Endless (Dream, Death, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Delirium, formerly Delight) personifies an aspect of the human condition. Gaiman’s ability to create such beautifully tangible manifestations of these experiences resulted in its popularity and transformative effects on the graphic novel.
The entirety of the graphic novel genre has the same wave function as the Endless; throughout history varying forms of sequential art have been used to convey narratives. Although only dubbed with the term graphic novel in recent history, examples of illustration portraying stories and legends exist throughout every culture and every time period. The Bayeux tapestry- portraying the Norman conquest of England, and the Egyptian papyrus scrolls- depicting the entry into the afterlife, are two examples of marriages between narratives and art. In the absence of written language, or in the absence of literate audience, pictorial cues have always aided the description of the greatest epics of our time. Building on this time honored tradition, the modern graphic novel has evolved and specialized around the world. From the bande dessinée of France, to the manga of Japan, graphic novels are a celebrated cultural phenomenon.
Today, graphic novels are capable of relaying entire stories in less time and often with less ambiguity than their non-illustrated counterparts. While both written language and literate audiences exist today, the driving force of instant gratification has caused a former measure of necessity to become a measure of convenience. However, a successful graphic novel does not sacrifice its story for its art; both aspects are strongly linked and benefit the other, and neither can exist alone. The power of the graphic novel lies in its ability to show and tell the reader what its characters are thinking and feeling. When we see sadness, we react to sadness. Likewise, when we read about happiness, we react to happiness. The duality of the graphic novel doubly increases our understanding of the material that we are reading.
Today, in our own little ways, I think that we are each living graphic novels. We want our moments to be captured and captioned. Evolving forms of communication have undoubtedly aided us in our attempts to be read. We create chronologies of our lives across facebook, twitter, and blogs, making a complex lexicon of who we are at any given point in time. These digitalized versions of ourselves are preserved like chapters in a book, each with a convoluted story line and unlikable main character. Our desire to be read and remarked upon (or perhaps, rather, our desires to be remarkable) is truly an example of life imitating art. So we write another blog post, tweet another status, and upload another profile picture. Maybe it will gain us the literary criticisms of “lol!” or “babby gurl u look fine”, and maybe they won’t. But we’ll write another page regardless, sometimes because we love ourselves more than dynamic lettering and dramatic inking could ever hope to convey. And sometimes we write another page simply because (as Neil Gaiman wrote in Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You) “everyone has a secret world inside of them. All of the people in the world, I mean everybody—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world… hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”