It's difficult to pin down the precise moment that a preoccupation begins. In that Joan Didion quote about telling ourselves stories in order to live, the emphasis always seems to be on the storytelling. I was halfway through 'Brief Lives', a volume that could perhaps be said to contain the most brutal but tender narrative arcs in all of Neil Gaiman's comic Sandman, when the Didion quote began to splinter for me. Clauses became questions. What is one's obligation to live? We tell ourselves stories so that we may live. Didion goes on to write in The White Album, "We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five." Didion seeks—and mocks, but how else—our relentless chase to make good sense of our lives. In this, we self-censure, lest we make too much sense of something we'd rather forget. In this, we ask ourselves aloud for more time to remember. In this, we rush to fill a pause, or point it out to others, so that we don't have to look too deeply for the preoccupation or worse, discover there was none all along. What else is a good story for, but to testify to ourselves on our behalf?
There is no sermon in the suicide. There will never be. There have been, and there will be: notes, snaps of memory, political conversations, guesswork, retrospectives, hopes, wishful thinking. There will be a marking, inevitably, of when their preoccupation began. Then we will ask ourselves how ours began. And we can never know. So we do our best to believe we can know.
The Sandman is an elaborate and gutting modern epic in the form of a comic, detailing the many lives of Lord Morpheus, or the Dream King, or Sandman. Morpheus is a tall, skinny, hollow-cheeked chap in a black tee and unremarkable jeans. He looks dapper in a robe. He is also the father of Orpheus. He is frequently thoughtless, but always honest. He is a misogynist; his sister and his sister-brother, Death and Desire respectively, tell him this themselves because they know he can be better. Morpheus has an endless library in the Dreaming, a home where I believe nobody is ever lonely. He does not eat. He does not sleep. He cares deeply, so deeply that I believe he's one of the reasons I've made sleep, like time, through most nights in the past few months. He thinks he does not love, but he is responsible for every dream we've ever had, and what is a dream if not a kind of self-love, the kind we never seem to be able to grace ourselves with because who on earth loves themselves that much? I suppose this is the last thing you need to know about Morpheus: he does not love himself.
I spent most of December 2017 and January 2018 in the Dreaming. Most nights I remember as a time-lapse of chrome-coloured light and a breeze only occasionally felt, as I read through issue after issue of The Sandman. I dreamt of the Dreaming; I dreamt of many places, like the home I left behind recently, which felt—and feels—to me like the Dreaming, a land where everything that is possible is guarded like a secret. Life itself. Don't you know it? Not two long arms to grab you if you let go, but a soft belly to lie on when you fall. In a tale as reaching as Morpheus's, worked on by a talented bunch of artists, I learnt to read again. I paid attention to shadows, pen-strokes, and the way I read, and I re-read every page several ways before I cultivated an instinct towards wildness. I learnt the work of an inker, a colourist, a penciller. I eventually started reading The Iliad for the first time, a decision which felt only too natural and for which I am deeply thankful.
In issue 11 of the volume 'The Doll's House', I chanced upon a tiny dedication. "Dedicated to the memory of Inell Jones, 8.2.62 - 7.23.89." I was preoccupied. A factoid so seemingly innocuous, but worthy of space. I let go of Rose Walker, and I looked up Inell Jones. I felt myself leave the Dreaming.
Inell Jones, I discovered, was the sister of Malcolm Jones III, an inker/artist who worked on the early Sandman comics as well as other DC titles, including on the issue dedicated to Inell. In an interview, Mike Dringenberg, another key artist, says, "At the time we did the serial-killers convention story, Malcolm's sister died. Also, one of my friends was attacked by a serial killer up in Canada. This was an amazing series of coincidences, but then the whole of Sandman was essentially founded on bizarre incidents of synchronicity." I couldn't find very much else on Inell Jones, but I continued to google, and eventually discovered that Malcolm Jones III committed suicide in 1996.
I returned to the Dreaming. Occasionally I'd look up Malcolm, whom Neil Gaiman called "the unsung hero of pen, brush, and deadline", and think about black life and fungibility. I did not realise then, that part of how I continued to think of Malcolm was also my attempt to make sense of a life he took into, and by, his own hands. The early volumes of Sandman (which I began to read at the recommendation of J, who has also, over the past few years, helped me think through what witnessing suicide entails), were not as narratively sophisticated as the later ones, but the colour and texture fit the Dreaming as I was to know of it. The heart in these early volumes was a tight squeeze on my own. Page after page read like the textual equivalent of a slow-motion pirouette strobed in velvet light. At a time when I came to a halt with nearly everything else, it was hard to stop reading. Dreaming.
Asking questions of suicide reveals the underbelly of our narcissism, especially when it is flipped over to show us our crooked inability to cope with what we see as gaps. I am just an anonymous reader and I knew better, yet I sought a story anyway, because Malcolm was one of the creators of the Dreaming, and it did not make sense that I did not know more, when it felt like I knew the Dreaming so intimately, and that, miraculously, it knew me, learnt me back. Why does that feel like a betrayal? When all the common mourner has is a black man's labour to remember him by, for that is how so many of us have come to know of Malcolm, the work of a page becomes the work of a life. A life at work. A life working to live, until it doesn't anymore.
Malcolm Jones III's suicide, back then, was not a celebrity suicide in the way I've known it to be through the past few years. The little we have of him consists of testimonies by those who inevitably look back to a future with him in it. If there was a collective mourning moment, where readers-sought-maker, where the encounter with the text was heightened for those whom it illuminated on either side of the bridge, I was not part of it. I am here today, reading:
“I knew (we all knew) that Malcolm was a troubled soul and I’m sad to say that when he committed suicide a few years ago I was not that surprised. [Milestone co-founder] Denys [Cowan] and I would often talk about how to deal with Malcolm and reached out to him many times. That does little to erase the feeling that we somehow let our friend down.”
Mike Dringenberg, in the same interview where he talks about Inell Jones, but I missed the rest, until today:
"But the thing is, if he'd stuck with it, if he hadn't killed himself, if he'd stuck with it for another year or so, he would have won every award that an inker could win."
How do we remember a life? In pinches, of course. Because life exceeds itself. The aftermath is for those left behind in the Dreaming. Today, when I finished the last issue of the comic, I found a column-long remembrance by Neil Gaiman on the second-to-last page:
"He was one of the finest inkers in comics (though he was never satisfied simply to be an inker), a good man, and during his time on the book, a pillar of dependability and a unique conversationalist. I learned today that he was dead. This one's for you, Malcolm. Good night. Rest easily."
Nothing on this page testifies to Malcolm's life. At best, remembrances and obituaries help to point out the steps at the door. We cannot go in. From where we stand, the view is necessarily partial. It is easy to make gods of those who have made our life easier in such memorable ways, but there are less futile preoccupations. The drive to end it all, the leap, is the most private thing a life can offer, which is only funny if we don't think about it. I am trying to understand what it means to honour that privacy. Maybe we cannot.
The most informed of us can never know. But we can remember Malcolm Jones III, and we can acknowledge what he gave us in the Dreaming. Like Death says, he lived what anyone gets. He lived a lifetime.