You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review: The Sandman

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the sandman vol IThe Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Neil Gaiman (with Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Karen Berger)

My book club selected this under the graphic novel category. We’ll be discussing it during Banned Books Week in September. It’s not coincidental that our selection dovetails with the graphic novel theme of this year’s Banned Books Week.

I’m not anti-graphic novel (see my review of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home); I’m just not interested in fantasy, especially self-consciously dark fantasy. This collection of fantasy and horror conceits reminded me of the proto-Goth phase I went through as a teenager. The grotesque faces gracing every third or fourth page were almost identical to the grotesque faces I drew in my school notebooks when I should have been doing homework.

This collection hit me as much more of a comic book than a graphic novel. There are even a couple of dream characters wearing what look like skin-tight superhero outfits, posed in Spiderman-style crouches. It put me off. The Sandman is for kids, not grownups—such was my reaction, at any rate (call me a snob all you want, I can take it).

The Sandman is listed by the ALA as one of the top banned and challenged graphic novels. I’m interested in the reasons people try suppress books, and I read this graphic novel with an eye to that. The ALA says the most frequent complaints about The Sandman refer to anti-family themes and offensive language. Others complain that it’s unsuited for its intended age group.

Unsuited for its intended age group? The theme of dream and nightmare is a dark one, and the preponderance of illustrations are likewise dark (the printer probably goes through a year’s supply of black and purple ink with every issue). Since The Sandman presents itself as a comic book, and indeed was originally marketed as a series of individual comic books that were later assembled into this collection, its intended audience certainly included children, probably well down into the pre-teen years. But apart from outright children’s fare like Caspar the Friendly Ghost, aren’t most comic books dark these days? I suspect if kids find The Sandman too dark, they simply won’t read it.

Is it anti-family? It’s more that it’s not about family, and the only answer to that is “So?” Usually (in my experience), accusations of being anti-family are leveled at books that don’t feature happy, well adjusted Christian protagonists. That’s a definite strike against The Sandman, if that’s where you’re coming from.

Offensive language? Here I draw a blank. Although I admit to skimming some of the final pages, I don’t remember any such thing.

I saw two things that might energize bluenoses. One, a full-page drawing of a naked woman. She’s a junkie in the final stages of addiction, withered and skeletal, not erotic in any way. Two, a character who appears to be transexual (or at least a cross-dresser). These illustrations, I believe, are the peccant issues. Gay, lesbian, or transexual characters bring out the book-burners every time.

Apart from looking for reasons why people might want to suppress this book, I couldn’t whip up any enthusiasm for it. It’s just not my thing, so I can’t speak to its merits. Obviously, many adult readers love it. I personally think Neil Gaiman has been milking the same two or three fantasy themes for years now, but that’s just my opinion. YMMV, as they say.

– Paul Woodford

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