Heresy this is to a lot of comics fans, especially the moody goth kind, but you know what? It may well be one of the greatest comics ever, but I'm always going to think of it less as a great work of art and more of a book that wasn't as good as it should have been. (See also: Maus.) And I realize this is unfair; in any creative field, especially one with as great a paucity of quality writing as comics, work should be judged on its merits rather than on its failure to live up to an impossible standard of perfection. It's not entirely just to be disappointed that Sandman wasn't as good as it could have been, when it was, to be honest, pretty damn good in its finest moments. But, revisiting it now after not having read it for quite a long time, that's the impression I'm left with: an ambitious and often excellent book that nonetheless set its own bar too high and failed to live up to its own ambition.
What works: the literary allusions. The seamless incorporation of diverse mythologies. The peripheral characters (the Endless always strike me as pretty intensely unlikeable, but that's probably by design). The outstanding structural work -- Gaiman crafts really intricate plots and then calls them back perfectly when the time comes; as unfocused as the series seems at times, it reads much better as a whole than I remembered. The ability to tell an elegant story with the feeling and tone of a dream but the craft and skill of a novel.
What doesn't: the characterization (Delirium in particular is a complete botch-job, and while Dream is meant to be something of a moody prat, that doesn't make it any easier to be around him every issue). The pandering way that women are written. The rotating art staff, which undercuts the consistency of the storytelling (not Gaiman's fault, of course, but still a flaw). The dialogue; sometimes it's pretty good, but other times it reads like Stephen King when he's trying to be 'relevant'. The inconsistent use of Dream as a framing device, which sometimes works but more often doesn't.
Don't get me wrong: I like the series. I own it. I just reread it. It did something to comics that desperately needed doing. It created a precedent for more experimental, ambitious, artistic work in mainstream comics. It launched Gaiman's career, which has been a mixed blessing, but a blessing just the same; better an inconsistent Gaiman any day of the week than a consistent hack like Dixon. And it's still plenty rewarding to people who give it a close reading. But the collected TPBs have introductions from some pretty heavy literary hitters, and I just don't think it deserves their repeated claims of being the best comic of all time. The difference between Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman has been addressed by a lot of people in a lot of ways: their gap in age, their handling of women (Gaiman is always cited as the better writer of female characters, a claim I find completely bewildering), their common themes of horror and transcendence, their opposing degrees of optimism and pessimism, their sense of the mystical. But when all is said and done, I think the biggest difference is that Moore is simply a better writer.
*: By the way, we finally looked at this apartment right down the street from us -- I mean, like, four doors down -- and...well, I mean, okay, we haven't looked at many places. And maybe this is just settling or wishful thinking or something, since I'd as soon have the move over and done with. But MAN! I really like the place. It's a nice-looking building, the apartment is big, it has a big patio storage area, it has a sun room, the bathroom is bigger, the kitchen is huge, it has central air and heat, and even more amazingly, the landlord seems really cool. We're still gonna look at more places, but wow, I like this place.