Having read about a third of the 75 Sandman comics, I appreciate Gaiman's ambition and find his work fascinating, if often disturbing and murky. I feel a little better when Mike Voiles confesses that even he doesn't quite understand certain parts of the series. "You can read them multiple times and at different ages and get different meanings from them," he says.

Back in the day, of course, comic books were defined by their simple, straightforward plots, the kind a kid could devour while sitting on his bike, sipping a Coke, waiting for baseball practice to start. Now it's a much more complicated picture. Here's the novelist Samuel Delaney in his introduction to volume five of The Sandman:

"Gaiman's world is held together always by relationships. Nor is his a world of relationships between fixed, solid egos, sure of themselves and clear in their identity ... And all of Gaiman's selves are split, if not deliriously shattered. What he has to say about those relationships is what makes him an artist particularly interesting to our time."

If that sounds less like the Flash and more like a graduate class in postwar French literature - well, that's the new world of hero comics: dense, full of allusions to mythology and the occult, fodder for PhD dissertations. Milton Griepp of ICv2.com says that contemporary comics command increasing respect from serious publications such as The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and Publishers Weekly.