Hellboy Sure Isn’t Sandman

I discovered comics (or graphic novels) late in life.  I never really enjoyed them as a child; I think it was because either I felt forever confused about which panel to read when or I never felt satisfied that the story would end after only a few pages, and I’d have to wait another week or more before I could obtain the next installment.

I dismissed comics entirely all through my teen years and never really gave them another try until I was in grad school.  The professor for whom I did graduate research taught a class on Art of the Holocaust, and she recommended I read the graphic novel MAUS.  I bought the story soon after that and found myself completely absorbed in the tale.  I found the story so moving and filled with great discussion points that I ended up including it on my own syllabi.  Afterwards, I thought I wanted to give comics another try, so I went out and bought another comic (one that, now, I cannot even recall).  I became instantly disenchanted, realizing that the comic’s story did not compel me in quite the same way as MAUS had.  I once again abandoned any thought of reading comics or taking them seriously, thinking that MAUS had been a fluke for me.  I didn’t think I could ever find another graphic novel series that I would find interesting.

Then, during my PhD program, I took a class in which I was assigned Understanding Comics.  I felt so annoyed by the assignment that I put off reading it until the night before class.  I was amazed by how informative the book was, though.  It truly gave me a new outlook on comics and how to perceive them.  Reading the book and discussing it in the class pushed me to give comics another shot; my only problem, however, was that I did not know what to try.

And then, I remembered Sandman.  My friend Jennifer had recommended the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman for several years, and I had put her off each time, telling her that comics just weren’t for me.  But after my positive experience in my graduate class with comics, I stopped by the local Borders and picked up the first volume.  By this time, the Sandman series had been long completed, so I knew I would never have to wait weeks on end to discover the conclusions to story lines.

I sat down that evening to read Sandman, and I don’t think I put it down until I finished it.  After completing the first volume, my time was spent going to the bookstore, purchasing the next volume, and devouring it the minute I got home with the collection.  In no time, I had read through the entire ten volume series and the two special editions.  

The characters of Sandman were so fully developed for me; the storyline was very taut, and everything had a purpose.  Situations that took place in the first or second volume would arise again in later volumes.  All the components of the story worked together in a masterful way; in many ways, I thought Gaiman might have developed the plot and worked out every aspect of it from start to finish before he ever began writing:  that’s just how well-crafted the storyline is.  Gaiman also gives the characters a true sense of life, a history, a believable dynamic with other characters–none of which I had ever encountered in other comics.  The stories in Sandman are so great that I’ve reread them all several times now.  I think the volumes Brief Lives and  The Kindly Ones stand out as all time favorites.

Unfortunately, my love for all things Sandman has created problems for my being able to enjoy other comics or graphic novel series.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  I’ve also asked friends for suggestions, but no one has been able to direct me to a series quite comparable to Gaiman’s work.  I did enjoy Red Son Superman, but that was a brief volume.  I gave several of Alan Moore’s works a try, but sadly, none of them held up for me–in most cases, I found the heavily altered movie versions of his graphic series more enjoyable.

Recently, I seemed optimistic about the Hellboy series.  I had seen both the movies–ok, the second movie was a total stinker–but the first film held all the elements that I thought could lead to a Sandman-like series:  a brooding hero struggling to make sense of himself; a sinister villain challenging Hellboy to discover more of his true self.  Needless to say, I had high hopes.  To my chagrin, Hellboy didn’t stand up to my Sandman expectations.  I really wanted Hellboy to succeed, but too much of the story was missing.  It read superficially; it lacked the questioning of motives and identity that had been so prevalent in Sandman–even prevalent in the movie version of Hellboy.  Halfway into Hellboy, I found myself not even caring about the situation at hand, but I was determined to finish reading, just in case the author might give me a glimmer of hope that more development occurred in the second volume.  But, nothing of the sort prevailed.

I’ve become disenchanted, once again, with graphic novels.  I’m beginning to worry that Sandman might have ruined my chances of ever enjoying other graphic series; maybe I read the best first and nothing else will compare to it.  I hope that isn’t the case, but I’m obviously not a seasoned reader of this medium.  If anyone has suggestions for me, I’d sure like to give them a try.

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