I still proudly bear the unique trappings of my literary nerd-dom. Unlike the more commonly recognizable trappings of being a computer nerd (using hex notation), fantasy nerd (memorizing the Valar and the words of the Great Houses), or a backpacking nerd (having very strong opinions on the matter of goose down and Mountain House), the stuff a literary nerd gets excited about may not immediately strike someone else as being especially nerdy. Make no mistake, though: it's just as nerdy, just with a longer heritage.
One of the nerdiest things I do is read books about books. I did this when I was studying English Literature, but I actually enjoyed it, and continue to do so now. Not nearly as often, of course, and only for the best books; I'd guess that I probably read about one book-about-books for every forty or so actual books. I do get a lot of pleasure out of them, though. One of the best was a guide to Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49." I'd already read that amazing book multiple times, and thought I'd gotten everything I could out of it, only to discover that there was a whole host of other clever allusions and inside jokes that I'd completely missed. It's like getting a bonus pack for a favorite video game!
While I've done that for novels before, I recently finished reading my first literary-criticism-ish book on the subject of a comic series. Appropriately enough, it was for my favorite series of all time, Sandman. "The Sandman Companion", by Hy Bender, isn't traditional literary criticism, but arguably something a bit better: it combines a synopsis of each major arc of the series with some discussions about the process of creating the comics and, my favorite, an extended conversation with Neil Gaiman himself. Neil is always wonderful to hear, and his personality and intelligence come across wonderfully in transcript form.
There are all sorts of wonderful nuggets tucked away in this book. Hy also spoke with many other people connected with Sandman, including artists, inkers, letterers, and other comics creators. In one sidebar, he recounts an anecdote that Alan Moore told him about a dinner he had with Gaiman and some other friends, when Gaiman became ill while Moore was describing a scene from his upcoming graphic novel "From Hell." About a hundred pages later, Gaiman independently brings up that exact same scene; the perspectives are slightly different, but it's amazing and amusing to thing of these two giants in the field sharing an encounter like that.
MEGA SPOILERS FOR SANDMAN (THE COMIC)
One of the big questions I remember having after finishing the comics was who, exactly, was to blame for Morpheus's death. After considering several suspects, I eventually decided to settle on Loki, who seemed to have been working behind the scenes to put the major players in the tragedy into action. On subsequent re-reads through the series, though, I came to believe that Desire was ultimately to blame; in "Three Septembers and a November," she pretty much comes out and says what she intends to do, and she was thwarted during her first attempt at that plan earlier in the series.
Hy and Neil talk about that a lot, and as I should have suspected, there isn't a tidy answer. You could say that Sandman himself is responsible for his own death; even though he doesn't act out of a conscious desire to kill himself, he did make all the decisions that led to it happening, and crucially avoided making other decisions that would have let him avoid his fate. Desire and Loki are also very culpable movers in the tragedy. Interestingly, Gaiman also names Lucifer as another possible source of blame, which initially surprised me. Then again, Lucifer did arguably set the wheels in motion: by surrendering Hell to Morpheus, he caused the Sandman to call his conference, which in turn led Loki to make his deal. If Lucifer had never abandoned his realm, then Loki would never have been set free and would not have caused Lyta to invoke the Kindly Ones.
Of course, the Kindly Ones would have had no cause to pursue Morpheus if he hadn't killed Orpheus; and (though I didn't realize it until reading this book) he wouldn't have killed Orpheus if not for the changes in his personality as a result of his imprisonment. So, you could just as easily point to Burgess as the villain.
The point being: this comic is complicated, and real life is complicated, and as much as we love pat, tidy explanations, there tend to be a multitude of causes and effects that are impossible to untangle. Yet another reason why I think this series is amazing.
There's a good amount of criticism that comes in this book as well. The author rightfully praises some of the most remarkable entries of the series, like the stunning "Ramadan". There's also frequent discussion of fan reactions to the series; I was happy to hear that I wasn't the only person who didn't care much for the minimalist artwork in The Kindly Ones, and also appreciated hearing Neil's explanation of why he chose that artist for that series. They also talk a bit about some specific issues that didn't work as intended, but tend not to dwell on them too much.
The Sandman Companion is definitely not required to enjoy Sandman - like I said, it's been my favorite comic series for years - but if you love it as much as I do, it's a great way to deepen that love a little more.