Slaughter on 5th Avenue – Sandman Meditations

A Game of You is the first Sandman story of which I had any prior knowledge before plunging into it. That’s because the introduction to the book is written by Samuel R. Delany and was included along with two other essays about Neil Gaiman in Delany’s 1999 collection Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary. I’ve spent much of my life reading Delany’s work, and Shorter Views is among my favorites of his books. Indeed, it may even be the place where I first learned of The Sandman, because the only time I remember hearing Gaiman’s name before that was when a friend remarked that some British comics guy named Neil Gaiman would be writing an episode of our favorite TV show, Babylon 5, back in the 1990s. When it aired, we both liked that episode, but neither of us were comics readers, and at the time that was all we thought he did, so we didn’t seek out his other work. Our loss.

Or maybe not, because it’s really been a joy to discover Sandman in adulthood, free of the passionate pressures of late adolescence — in some ways, I suppose I miss those days when we’d watch Babylon 5 and our assessment of its merits or weaknesses would color the rest of our week with either joy or rage; would, indeed, influence our entire view of humanity, and make us think the most important thing in the world was how well our favorite characters were developed, how surprising the story was, how thoughtfully the backstory expanded. I think I like serial stories much more now that I have learned to detach myself from them enough to keep them from either making or ruining my day. They can be a world, not the world, not my world.

Having read Delany’s introduction (a few times over the years, in fact), I knew a little bit about A Game of You before starting Chapter 1, but not enough to really affect how I read it, although I did respond most immediately to an effect Delany comments on: the absolutely thrilling movement and composition of the first three pages. The scene is narrated, with text boxes over images that begin from a wide distance and move in, in, in. We start from whiteness and slowly gain more darkness until we turn page two and suddenly all we see is black. For anyone who has developed a sensitivity to the pacing that panels provide, it’s a powerful prologue.

The pacing of panels is a unique feature of comics, and one Gaiman and his collaborators exploit masterfully throughout the series. I have been thinking recently about how to describe the feeling we find in such pacing, how to put words to what is a wordless effect, because I’m a teacher at heart and I get antsy when I can’t explain things. (Yes, I’m often antsy.) I’ve just finished using Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell in a university course, and I think I mostly failed to convey to the students my astonishment at the book’s visual structure, especially in moments where repetitions of images and small changes amidst the repetitions create the feeling of music … but with silence. The effect is somewhat different in the first pages of Chapter 1 of A Game of You, since the words weave through the imagery, but it’s the same premise, especially on the third page: our eyes collect the image, hold it, then add it to the next. It’s not enough to simply glance at the page and understand what is happening, to know that we are moving closer and closer into the cave where these voices come from. To really appreciate this page, we have to go slowly, deliberately, carefully, cultivating an almost synesthetic effect. The effect is not the same as a film, which moves at its own pace, although, if anything, it’s closest to a freeze-frame (the stunning end of The 400 Blows comes to mind), or like Chris Marker’s film from (mostly) still photographs, La Jetée. But with books we move at the speed we choose, faster and slower as we desire, and part of what the panels do is structure that desire.

Such desire is most vividly affected in Chapter 1 when Martin Tenbones is killed by the police. It’s a ghastly moment, made especially ghastly perhaps because he looks like a kindly, loving creature out of a Dr. Seuss book. To see him shot down, then bleeding in the street, is traumatic not just for Barbie, but for readers, too. Or, at least, for this reader — while I can watch all sorts of mayhem against humans and humanoids without any sense of nausea, I struggle with representations of violence against animals. (I still shudder when I see the cover of the novel Where the Red Fern Grows, which I read probably around age ten. A scene at the end with injured dogs scarred me for life.) Some deep part of me wants animals to be protected from the carnage humans produce, but of course, we slaughter even more animals than we do our own kind.

Look at how the scene is played out. The top third of the page contains the only words (Martin calling out to Barbie, “Princess? My princess?” and a police officer screaming, “Fire!”). The top third contains five panels, the last three of them quite narrow. We first see Martin from the back, with his head turned to us. The next panel moves to a more distant view from above, showing us the police surrounding him. The next two panels are the narrowest, and portray Martin in movement. Then we get the police officer from the side, his rifle perfectly vertical in the center of the panel. The middle third of the page is one entire panel of its own — Martin shot through by a crossfire of bullets. The bottom third of page contains two panels that echo the first panels: a close-up of Martin’s face, now with one eye closed and blood coming from his nose and mouth; and a view of Martin from above, lying in pools of blood, police and bystanders around him, Barbie standing tall right at his head.

It would be easy enough to gain the information from this page quickly, with just a glance to the center panel, but lingering on the page allows the full horror of it all to sink in. The pencilling and inking by Shawn McManus and coloring by Daniel Vozzo are strikingly simple and affecting. The page starts in tense stasis, explodes in movement, and returns to stasis — no longer as tense, but saturated with shock.

The second panel of the page gives us the first overhead view of Martin, and it’s a panel mostly filled with white. The sidewalk and street have only a few lines to distinguish them from each other, and all the figures are the same shade of yellow. The final panel on the page is a somewhat closer overhead view; the sidewalk and street have more definition, the figures are differently colored, and the blood is terribly red.

As the first three pages of Chapter 1 moved from white to black, now we have the movement from white to color, from lack of definition to definition — from the world that is called “The Land” at the beginning of the chapter to the world that is called “New York” on the fourth page.

It’s just the beginning of this story, so we know very little. Our brains have been stuffed with hints and portents.

A game has begun.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.