The five-paragraph essay.
As a high schooler in the ’90s, that’s what I knew how to write. It was an easy and efficient way to structure an essay and convince your audience of your point: drop your thesis into a nice introduction, follow it up with three paragraphs of examples to prove your point, and then wrap it all up with a summary to remind your reader that you just blew their fucking mind. Of course, now the five-paragraph essay (or “hamburger essay”) is seen as terrible writing and another reason why public education sucks.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I decided to write my first submission to Wizard: The Guide To Comics about Neil Gaiman and Sandman. It was a safe topic that would give me a better chance of getting my writing published and was also a way to provide something that I thought was missing from the magazine: a focus on comic book writers instead of artists or characters. When it came time to sit down and write this thing, instead of doing what someone with any common sense would do and looking at an actual magazine to see how a real article was written, I just went with what made me comfortable: the five-paragraph essay. (To be honest, the first “Palmer’s Picks” actually has more than five paragraphs. But the basic structure is still there.)
Aside from the whole hamburger essay thing, there are some other cringe-worthy things here. I’m not going to list them all, but the one that stands out the most—because it is completely ridiculous—is when I mention that Kelley Jones was chosen to illustrate “A Dream Of A Thousand Cats” from Sandman #18 because he actually owns a cat. It almost sounds like Neil Gaiman had to search high and low to find an artist who likes cats, and that was the only reason Jones got the gig.
Wizard was still making the transition from being a comic store newsletter to a glossy magazine, so there were a few wonky layout choices. This first “Palmer’s Picks” took up three pages in the magazine. The main body of the column occupied a complete spread, which meant that the “Recommended Reading” section followed on its own page instead of being a sidebar, and it gets a bit lost as a result.
Towards the end of the column, there are a few quotes from Gaiman about how the Sandman series evolved. I have no idea where I got them; I certainly didn’t conduct an interview for this column. My best guess is that they were from an introduction to one of the early Sandman trade paperbacks, but I’m too lazy to go hunting for them. There’s a layout mistake around one of these quotes that wasn’t in my original manuscript. A comma got changed to a period, so instead of this:
But, by the 8th issue, Gaiman acknowledges that, “I was beginning to find my own voice.”
This is what saw print:
But, by the 8th issue, Gaiman acknowledges that.
“I was beginning to find my own voice.”
It’s a mistake that still sticks out like a sore thumb, but at least it shows that all of the embarrassing parts about this first column are not of my own doing!
There is also another big thing that I’m not responsible for: the name “Palmer’s Picks.” The original draft I submitted to Wizard didn’t have a title, so someone on staff came up with “Palmer’s Picks” and—aside from an unexplained omission in the following issue—it stuck.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was an extra side benefit of the name “Palmer’s Picks.” It allowed me to be autonomous. I was able to pick and choose what interested me each month, and I was responsible for backing it up with compelling reasons why I felt a comic or creator was worthy of attention. When it came to Neil Gaiman and Sandman, I was a fan from the start, so it was fairly easy to articulate what I admired about the comic (even if I might look back at what I wrote and roll my eyes). At the time of this first “Palmer’s Picks,” Sandman was still being published as a monthly comic; I estimate issue #32 or #33 was on the stands and only the first three graphic novel collections of the series had been published (in softcover only; hardcovers came later). I looked forward to reading each issue of Sandman, an experience that is lost now—something that started as a series of comics is now a series of novels.
The idea that Sandman was planned to end once the story was complete was unique back in the day, and I have a feeling that most people dismissed it as just talk. Sandman was one of the first comics from a mainstream publisher to be collected shortly after each story concluded. The norm at the time was that trade paperbacks were a means to reprint stories that were older or collect back issues that might be too expensive for the casual reader. The strategy for Sandman was different and signaled that it was something closer to a series of “real” novels. This helped it gain new readers for the monthly comic and eventually helped it become a breakout title in the emerging bookstore market for graphic novels.
I don’t remember much of the actual writing of this first “Palmer’s Picks,” but I do recall being nervous about it. My unease went away after I turned in my draft and it was published. There’s a unique thrill to seeing your work in print, even when the occasional mistake creeps in. And to top it off, I even got paid to write something. Not too bad for a kid still in high school!
One of the things that might have helped the column gain a foothold in the early, formative stages was that my dad, Tom Palmer Sr., was kind enough to draw a caricature of me for a masthead. It’s a small perk of being the son of an artist. I was able to convince him to follow it up with a couple more drawings when Wizard went through its occasional top-down redesigns, and I even got him back to do a new piece of art for this blog.
A quick note on the format of these posts before I get to the reprinting of the first “Palmer’s Picks.” For each issue of the original run of the column, I’m going to present scans of the cover (with any additional variants if I have them) and scans of the “Palmer’s Picks” pages as they ran in the magazine, followed by a plain-text version for easy searching and indexing. I’ll also include scans of any relevant documents that might be of interest, like notes, letters, or sketches. I hope that these things will make this blog a useful resource for anyone interested in the alternative/small press/independent/literary comic scene of the early 1990s.
Enough preamble! Here it is, my very first published writing, warts and all:
By Tom Palmer
Most comic fans today buy whatever comic features their favorite artist or character without bothering to see what kind of story the comic contains. For this reason, some comic writers are paid little attention, giving them no incentive to create innovative stories. In this column, I hope to point out some of the comics and get you, the reader, to give them a try.
One of the major mainstream comics to gain attention for the quality of its stories is Sandman, published monthly by DC. It’s written (as many of you probably already know) by Neil Gaiman, but has no regular artist. A different artist is chosen to draw each extended storyline, or just to illustrate a self-contained story. Among the artists featured at one time or another are Sam Kieth, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Matt Wagner and cover artist Dave McKean.
The concept behind Sandman has allowed Gaiman to keep the book fresh and exciting. Most writers, if they had to write a monthly comic about the master of dreams, would have each issue take place within the dreams of a popular super-hero so that there would be reason to have a guest-star every month to boost sales. Needless to say, this would get boring very fast.
Instead, Neil Gaiman has created one of the most diverse comics out today. The character of the Sandman is a member of a family called the Endless. They have existed since the beginning of time and will be here until the end. This allows Gaiman a broad spectrum to base his stories on. The stories in Sandman have ranged from a unique take on the typical “quest” adventure, to short stories revolving around various historical personalities such as William Shakespeare and the Roman emperor Augustus. In these historical stories, the Sandman takes on a different appearance to reflect the styles and costumes of the period he’s in.
While each storyline has its own identity, the book retains a high artistic standard that has been maintained from the start. In most cases, Gaiman has written stories that suit each artist’s style and specialties. For example, Kelley Jones, a cat owner, drew issue #18’s “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” while Charles Vess, known for his fantasy artwork, was asked to draw the following issue’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with its cast of faeries and fantastic creatures.
Usually, some comic book writers feel obligated to fill a page of a book with numerous word balloons. This is not the case with Neil Gaiman. He knows when the art can be used to tell the story without an abundance of words. There is a balance between both art and writing in each issue; there are never too many words floating around, nor are there too few.
Although the stories I have mentioned so far sound like they have nothing in common with each other, Gaiman says that he plans to end the series around the fiftieth issue, with all of the loose ends tied together. Even though the story is not over yet, its already evident that each “novel” ties into each other. Aside from the Sandman and his brothers and sisters, there are other characters that have appeared throughout the series. Unity Kincaid, a minor character from the first issue, provided the basis of “The Doll’s House,” the second major storyline. The dreams of Barbie were barely mentioned in “The Doll’s House,” but they are the foundation for the current novel, “A Game of You.” Part of the fun of reading Sandman is finding the numerous other plot threads carried through each story.
One of the other things that can be followed is the development of Neil Gaiman’s writing style and the evolution of the concept behind the comic. What seemed to be a typical horror comic at the beginning has changed slowly into a darker-edged fantasy comic. Gaiman says that the first novel “was a definite effort…to explore the genres available.” Each story was an examination of different types of horror stories, from “classical English horror,” to experimentation with “some of the conventions of the old DC and EC horror comics.” But, by the 8th issue, Gaiman acknowledges that, “I was beginning to find my own voice.” From that issue on, the stories became more diverse and original, sometimes evoking the themes of fairy tales and myths, or having the depth of characterization and complexity usually found in novels.
Sandman is a complex comic book. It’s difficult to describe every aspect of it briefly without having to go in depth about one particularly interesting detail. If you seem interested in any one of the things I have touched on, I urge you to give Sandman a try. You may find something you like.
For those who are interested in comics and other stories written by Neil Gaiman:
Sandman: published monthly by DC and collected in three trade paperbacks, Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House and Dream Country. A special edition with a self-contained story has also been published.
Violent Cases (with Dave McKean): graphic novel originally published in black and white in England, recently published in color in America by Tundra Publishing Ltd.
Black Orchid (with Dave McKean): originally published in three prestige format volumes and collected in one trade paperback.
Good Omens: novel written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and published by Workman Publishing.
For those who are not interested in Neil Gaiman, but are looking for something good to read:
From Hell: a fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell serialized in Taboo from Spiderbaby Graphics and Tundra Publishing. The prologue and the first two chapters have been collected in one volume from Tundra, with more collections to follow.
Cerebus: a 300 issue limited series by Dave Sim and Gerhard about a little grey aardvark, published monthly from Aardvark-Vanaheim. The first 150 issue have been collected in six telephone book-sized paperbacks for those of you with a lot of money to spend.
Hate: a consistently hilarious comic by Peter Bagge published by Fantagraphics Books. Four collections of stories from Bagge’s previous comic, Neat Stuff, have also been published. These paperbacks are: The Bradleys, Studs Kirby, Junior and Other Losers, and Stupid Comics.