The occasional Monkey See I Will If You Will Book Club has reconvened to read Neil Gaiman'sThe Sandman: Dream Country. This week, we read "A Dream Of A Thousand Cats," the second of the four stories in the book.
Once again, I invited our comics blogger, Glen Weldon, to trade a few thoughts with me to kick things off. After that, you take over in the comments. Tell us what you think about story, art, and whether cats can be trusted.
So Glen, my immediate reaction to "A Dream Of A Thousand Cats" is essentially this: Is it okay that I find parts of it funny even while finding other parts of it profoundly sad? Obviously, the death of the kittens is devastating, but the part where the giant cats were walking around with the puny humans as their pets? That art was a tiny bit funny to me, and there's a panel of the little naked people grooming the cat that I did snicker at slightly. There's also one where the cat is sitting on top of the angel statue staring down at the other cats, and while I didn't find it funny, exactly, I found it sort of ... witty?
I guess I had a little trouble getting a handle on the tone of this one, which isn't to say I didn't like it, because I did. But it kept me uncomfortable, because I felt like it was really sad, but I couldn't help being slightly amused by incredibly severe pronouncements delivered by kitties.
If your question is: "Is it okay to snicker at the image of a handful of nude beardy-hipster li'l cavedudes scratching at a cat-tummy the size of a Quonset hut?" Why then my answer is yes.
It's an unabashedly silly image — and one, I'll just note here, that'd look even sillier were it transferred to live-action film or TV. Sillier, and fakier, because the comics page admits the fantastic more freely than the screen. It's not just that comics provide creators with an unlimited special effects budget, it's that the eye is more forgiving, more willing to accept what it sees, even when the it in question is a 50-foot-high Mr. Fuzzy Shnookums.
My question for you — and it's kind of an important one — is what happened to that smirk of yours as you moved on to the next panel, which depicts the giant cats hunting humans like mice? If mice looked more like they stepped off the pages of your parents' copy of The Joy of Sex? Because it's the same inversion, just taken a bit further, a bit darker.
And then the kicker image that follows — the teeth and eyes and moon, glowing in the prehistoric night.
That's Gaiman and Jones using montage to (hopefully) take the reader from "heh" to "eep" over the course of a single page. And the key to making that work — to having the reader accept the switch between light and dark (and, inevitably, back again) — is Gaiman's narrative voice.
I've said before that the voice I hear when I read Gaiman's stuff is wry, gentle and just a bit sad — the voice of the fairy tale, the bedtime story.
It might help to keep in mind that the two major story-arcs that preceded Dream Country in the series' run were essentially horror stories, albeit set in the DC universe of capes, cowls and cutility celts. The four stories we're discussing are when Gaiman really starts to pivot away from horror tropes and begins to show us that the world he's creating is wider and deeper than we might have guessed.
That wry, melancholy voice — which we've heard only intermittently, heretofore — asserts itself strongly, in this story, and it'll stick around.
It sounds like the story's shifts seemed a bit abrupt, to you. Because of course a story — even a short story — doesn't have to pick just one tone and cling to it, but what it does have to do is look back over its shoulder every so often to make sure the reader's still there.
I think "wry and melancholy" is exactly the right description. And while I certainly had the recognition that the imagery had grown darker at the point where the humans were being hunted, there was still a certain absurdity to it that I couldn't avoid finding a little bit goofy. Goofy? That may not be exactly what I really am trying to say. Maybe just absurd.
It's partly the fact that the image of cats — domestic cats like this — in popular culture is so aggressively nonthreatening, with the possible exception of black cats that supposedly bring bad luck. If the humans were being hunted by big cats that had grown to huge cats — lions, tigers, whatever, except 30 feet high — there'd be no smirk in it at all. It's the cat as Mogwai, you know? The cute thing made into a menace, like you're being beaten to death with a Hello Kitty backpack. And there is something in that that remains a little bit funny to me, even though I can completely understand the grandiosity (that's the wrong term; I think I mean "gravity") of the underlying tale.
I mean, many horrible stories of death and violence in real life contain elements of the absurd or the silly, or things that would seem silly if they weren't connected to death and violence. People may not literally get beaten to death with Hello Kitty backpacks, but long long ago, I used to work with criminal prosecutors, and you can hear some stories about people who are at least as dumb as anybody in Fargo who nonetheless manage to wreak a lot of very real havoc. So this sort of juxtaposition of the absurd and the frightening isn't necessarily any sort of failure as far as I'm concerned; it's just a tension that I'm very conscious of as I'm reading it.
It's also interesting just to step back and realize that one of the barriers in a situation like this, where I'm reading in an area where I don't feel comfortable and don't have experience, is precisely the fact that I find it so difficult not to stop and wonder whether I am responding to it correctly. I can go in with an open mind, but if I'm out of my comfort zone, I spend much more time thinking about whether I'm getting it wrong — is it okay that this is funny, is it okay that this is sad, and so forth. Given that I'm generally interested in questions about how people wind up culturally closed-minded, it's an interesting data point that, try as I might, it's hard for me to have confidence in my own reactions.
Good points, all. However:
1. We're in the realm of dreams, after all; all things absurd, uncanny and just generally freaky-outy are fair game.
2. As a dyed-in-the-fur Dog Person, I can assure you that not everyone shares your "awwww, kitty" attitude towards Felis catus. Some of us, in fact, can't look at a cat without seeing, in its flat, implacable gaze, the maddeningly effete ex-boyfriend who always used to regard us as if we were a small, stubborn stain on his white sofa. Which is to say: To some, cats are altogether cold and disquieting creatures, and they are certainly Not To Be Trusted. This story neatly justifies our position.
3. Oh, I get your anxiety about Not Getting it Right — but as you note, that's not a comics thing, that's a "how do I engage with this new medium?" thing. I feel it when exposed to opera ("Wait, THAT GUY's Don Juan? I'm supposed to think he's sexy?"), jazz ("Wow, listen to the way that guy plays all those extra notes that are just making the whole experience of sitting here listening to this song just so, so much longer!") and okra. It's a fascinating and universal response to the unfamiliar, and if it's any consolation, the fact that you recognize it as such means you're ahead of the game.
4. About that panel with the eyes, teeth and moon in the darkness? Every time I come across it, I wish that Gaiman had trusted Jones' image to do the work he wanted it to, and not felt it necessary to add that silly "RRRRRRRR" caption. It adds nothing, and in fact undercuts a moment that could have landed more directly, and thus harder, on the reader.
5. That whole thing about dreams (read: stories) shaping the world — or at least our perception of the world, which is as close to the world itself as makes any difference? Yeah, that comes back. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.