Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

How Caitlin Kiernan Killed The Dreaming

DC Vertigo's current efforts to turn Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN into a franchise are not the first attempt. Roxane Grant describes how, in her opinion, one writer turned THE DREAMING into a nightmare.
13 July 2001

Brothers and sisters, sit with me and I will tell you tale. This tale is a lament to a dream conquered and an ode to an age long past. What you read now is a heartfelt dedication to an idea, which has suffered a painful death. Yes, I speak to you of THE DREAMING.

THE DREAMING was a monthly comic book series from DC Vertigo that ran for 60 issues between June 1996 and May 2001. The series was an attempt to creatively describe the place that we all go to when we sleep. It was an artistic endeavour to walk around the uncharted territory that lies behind our eyes. THE DREAMING tried to graphically examine the subconscious, by representing the unrepresentable. It was an imaginary place, which was "a fertile plain... for writers and artists to explore" (THE DREAMING #1).

Neil Gaiman (AMERICAN GODS, NEVERWHERE) originally created the Dreaming as a vast landscape to be partially explored in his monthly, eponymous comic series THE SANDMAN. The Sandman, or Morpheus, as he is otherwise known, was the ruler of this magnificent kingdom. Gaiman gradually developed the Dreaming through Morpheus' various interactions with dreamers. Depending on where the dreamer had come from, the style and content of that particular tale varied. Just as we all are very different people and have very different dreams, Gaiman made sure that the Dreaming reflected individual desires. After all, no two dreams are alike.

Thus when SANDMAN came to an end in 1996, DC Vertigo announced that it was going to release a series that would build upon Gaiman's work. Unlike SANDMAN, THE DREAMING was not going to be based upon any one character, but the entire realm. In order to emphasise the enormity and individuality of the Dreaming, several writers and artists were to be employed. After all, as one-time Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney said, "There is room for all kinds of imaginations." (Ibid.)

This approach worked well for a while. We met new characters, gained special insights into how our dreams worked, and watched as the landscape grew.

Unfortunately, some of the audience were not entirely receptive towards THE DREAMING. Many who had read SANDMAN, thought that THE DREAMING was far too eclectic. Although it dealt with a broad subject matter, many felt that there should be common focal point like in THE SANDMAN, through which stories could be told. Rather than discuss this with the various talented writers at its disposal, Vertigo apparently decided to appoint just one full time writer to the book. Sadly, this writer turned out to be Caitlin R Kiernan.

Here it seems that Vertigo made two fatal mistakes. The first was in ignoring Gaiman's advice when he stated that "The Dreaming's not only vaster than anyone's previously imagined; it's vaster than anyone can imagine." (SANDMAN #1)

The second mistake was in giving Kiernan such a massive responsibility, when she was obviously not as talented a storyteller as Gaiman. Caitlin R Kiernan is a novelist with a limited scope, best known for imitating the dark fantasy writing styles of Poppy Z Brite and Anne Rice. I say she is a restricted writer because she seems to have a goth fetish and seems incapable of writing in any other genre. This handicap is also reflected in her comics, and eventually came to dominate THE DREAMING. Prior to permanently taking over the book, Kiernan had written a short story the prose anthology of SANDMAN, and issues 17-19 of THE DREAMING.

Instead of revitalising THE DREAMING, Kiernan did the reverse. Her work was like a virus that steadily ate away at the core of the book. It consumed the very essence of the comic and turned it rotten. Instead of growing, THE DREAMING began to atrophy and fall apart.

Unlike the other DREAMING writers, Kiernan was artistically unable to focus upon the many different aspects and styles of the Dreaming. Her morbid, un-inspiring work went against everything that THE DREAMING had tried to represent. Gaiman took pains to try and describe the Dreaming in its entirety, and tried to make sure that the Dreaming reflected individual desires.

In contrast, Caitlin R. Kiernan's chief contribution to the Dreaming was the creation of a weak character called Echo. Echo was originally a transvestite who killed mainly little boys (or the occasional young man) and stole their eyes to please his blind lover, Gabriel (THE DREAMING #17). Kiernan tried to manipulate the comic so that her murderous child-molester would appear to be some kind of anti-hero and the star of the show. She had Echo die, then gave him refuge in the Dreaming, turned him into a real woman and allowed her to become a nightmare. Literally.

Kiernan was obsessed with Echo and THE DREAMING suffered because of it. The book only lasted for 60 issues, and Kiernan wrote 35. Out of these 35 issues, less than ten do not feature Echo. Out of these ten issues, more than five of them are connected to Echo in some indirect way.

As a result of this decision to focus on a single character, complaints from concerned readers flooded in, but Kiernan remained unrepentant. At one point, as far as Vertigo was concerned, it seemed Kiernan could do no wrong. During her tenure, she also wrote a comic entitled, THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH (1998).

The book may have sold well for Vertigo, but I don't think the success was due to Kiernan's meagre talents, but because the story was supposedly based on SANDMAN-related character, who, much to the annoyance of anyone who actually bought the book, did not actually feature in it. It was instead another showcase for Kiernan to wallow in her favourite genre at the expense of a good story.

Like THE DREAMING, THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH was nothing more than another showcase opportunity for Kiernan to wallow in her favourite genre at the expense of a decent story. When she was not writing about Echo, Kiernan introduced to the Dreaming other drab characters connected to THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH. Rather than create a decent literary work, she turned THE DREAMING into a hollow, self-referential one-woman publicity wagon. As stated earlier, THE DREAMING ended at issue 60, but it was supposed to be a longer running series. It was presumably cancelled due to a less than stellar performance. This notion is reinforced by the fact that, in issue 50, Kiernan wrote a letter stating that she was looking forwards to writing up to issue 100. There were no indications whatsoever that THE DREAMING was to end until a small notice appeared in issue 56.

Today, Vertigo is releasing several new titles to follow on from SANDMAN, such as LUCIFER and THE DEAD BOY DETECTIVES. All of these titles combined are designed to do exactly what THE DREAMING was supposed to do: explore the Dreaming through the means of different writers and artists. Vertigo editor Shelly Bond writes, "This new conceit allows a diverse array of writers and artists to capture the very essence of the SANDMAN mystique and let loose into uncharted arenas." (THE DREAMING #60)

Now I wonder, where I've heard that before?

Correction: On original publication this essay contained a quote from Neil Gaiman that was used to suggest Mr Gaiman had not been fully consulted on developments in THE DREAMING. We have since been informed that this was not the case, and that the quote came from an inaccurate source. The article has since been corrected. We apologise for the error.

Roxane Grant is a Literature Masters student at Essex University.

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