Friday, February 11, 2011

Hob and Me

The comics landscape has changed a bit over the years, with the focus going from single issues to collections. Even that's changed somewhat, with a heightened amount of attention paid to original graphic novels. I'll skip the debate and discussion about the definition of these terms, but I want you all to know that I am absolutely gritting my teeth and fighting this urge.

Because my brain has developed the way it is, I am obsessed with lists; making them, reading them, maintaining them after I have made them. At any one time my phone has at least two or three lists on it. Two of these are similar, or exact copies of lists on my iPod, which are also on my computer. I am pretty sure this all stems from my childhood, when I would buy action figures, particularly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Every figure came with at least 1,900 accessories, usually weapons. There was no physical way for the Turtle or whatever other weird animal/warrior ninja to hold any more than one of these weapons at a time. This messed me up pretty badly.

Years later, I use those jagged memories and end up creating Top 5 lists nearly every week. One of those lists has almost nearly been "Our Top 5 Favorite Favorite Single Issues." Actually, I'm not entirely sure we never did that one. Even so, the constant and obsessive list making has led me to think about my favorite single issues of comic books on more than one occasion. Here I am again, doing this.

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Neil Gaiman wrote 75 issues of Sandman. All of these issues contain enough awesome shit to put you into a sweet coma. There are two Sandman issues I love enough to read over and over, and one of them (maybe both) makes my list of All Time Favorite Single Issues. The name of the issue which is definitely on the list is "Men of Good Fortune," and it was the thirteenth issue Gaiman wrote. Yeah, he wrote 62 issues after he wrote the issue that I would carry around with me always, if this were possible without making me wonder how far away I am from just building a house out of the shit I like.

The issue deals with Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, meeting a man named Hob Gadling in a bar in the year 1389. Gadling is an outspoken guy, maybe not specifically because he's drunk, but certainly that amplifies the trait. He tells his drinking buddies that he's not going to die, simply by refusing to do so. He says death is a "mug's game." Morpheus overhears Hob saying these things, and he happens to have his sister, Death, with him. Being members of the Endless - a family of ethereal beings whose powers border on the limitless, and also all have names beginning with Ds - someone making such an outrageous claim along the lines of "I'll never die, just 'cause I don't want to" turns into something much more.

Gadling is granted immortality for as long as he desires it. It's kind of surprising Desire, Dream's androgynous sister-brother never shows up, because this story sort of deals with that concept as well. What Gaiman does do with the story, however, is much more entertaining than having another member of the Endless appear to send ripples through the mortals' - or soon to be immortal - lives. At this point in the series we had only seen Dream and Death, and Gaiman was still feeling out who these characters were, and who they were going to become. He's stated in several interviews, as well as introductions and afterwords to the Absolute Sandman editions, that he didn't exactly have a defined story in mind, at least regarding the span of the 75 issues that ended up being written.

The most interesting aspect of the "Men of Good Fortune" issue is how surprising it ends up being. Before this issue there were tales of revenge, some bloody, some psychologically jarring/scarring, and all of them delivered from the hands of Morpheus to those who had betrayed him or greedily used his artifacts for their own personal gain. Issue six was titled "24 Hours," and it covered that amount of time inside a diner. Over those 24 hours Doctor Destiny used Morpheus' dream amulet to torture the customers in every way you can freaking imagine, eventually capping the whole festival off with some grisly murders. So yeah, when this Hob Gadling dude tells his friends that he isn't going to die because he refuses to, it isn't too hard for the reader to envision some Clive Barker-esque torture scenario where the guy ends up living forever, but has to literally puke his stomach lining up every time someone talks to him, or some nutty shit like that.

There's no way for me to know if Gaiman planned to use previous story lines and their themes or plots to nudge readers into a crazy teeth-counting serial killer mindset. No one's asked him this yet, that I know of, and I probably won't be the guy to do it; sometimes I describe Neil Gaiman as "British as shit," so I might not be the first choice to ask the guy anything. I don't mean it pejoratively. I guess I just mean he has a really awesome accent. My adoration comes out in strange forms, occasionally.

What happens is partially obvious. Hob Gadling is granted immortality, yeah, and the reader most likely knew that was coming. The next part was a surprise, however. Morpheus says that he will meet Gadling in that bar in 100 years, and if he still wishes to live, then they'll take off for another hundred and do it all over again. If he wishes to die, however, then that wish will get the okay too. About that time, when Morpheus dropped that bit of information on our boy Hob, I could hear the chains rattling and the fires roaring.

They meet, they talk, they generally just sort of hang out. We see them both go through various clothing styles, Gadling taking on different careers that fit into the changing world around him. Through it all he never says he wants to die, even when he's having a shitty time of things and the endless life he's been given is dragging his ass through the dirt.

The thing that makes this comic one of my favorite single issues ever is the ending. It isn't a surprise/twist, not in the widely accepted sense of these things, but it definitely surprised me. I would hate to spoil it for someone, so maybe this is all pointless or incomplete. I know for me, when I read this issue, it changed not only how I thought about the Sandman series, but about the character of Morpheus in particular. I was reading the next issue with a fresh set of eyes, and that is always an accomplishment for any writer.

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