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Saturday, October 18th, 2003


Sandman: King of Dreams

by Alisa Kwitney

Hail to the King, Baby

A review by Chris Bolton

With the simultaneous release of Alisa Kwitney's overview of Neil Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series and Gaiman's first new Sandman graphic novel in several years, Endless Nights, now seems a good time to look back at the stories that have revolutionized the comics industry and comprise one of the greatest narratives in any medium.

Gaiman has since become a bestselling author of justly praised prose, from his Alice in Wonderland-like solo debut, Neverwhere, to his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning American Gods, to his recent Hugo Award-winning novel for children, Coraline. But long before all of the awards and acclaim, back in the dark days of the mid-1980s (think of the hair, the clothes, the music — oh God, may they never come back!), he was primarily known in this country for writing a well-received graphic novel called Black Orchid, illustrated by Gaiman's friend and longtime collaborator, Dave McKean. At that time DC Comics was recruiting as many talents as possible from the U.K., and on the basis of Black Orchid, editor Karen Berger was eager to see what else Gaiman could do. He suggested a couple of series that would revive outdated DC characters, but the Phantom Stranger was deemed too passive for his own series, so as Kwitney notes in King of Dreams, "Neil would end up inventing another character, the Sandman, or rather reinventing."

The Sandman's earlier incarnations were a hero from the 1940s who wore a gas mask and used gas to put criminals to sleep, then sprinkled sand on them and left them for the police, and a 1970s hero who wore yellow tights and an orange cape and cowl. Both characters make appearances in Gaiman's series. But Gaiman's Sandman was a different matter altogether.

He created Morpheus, also known as Dream, who presides over a kingdom called the Dreaming, where our collective unconscious resides. (Among its notable features is a library of every book never written — yes, you have one there, too.) Morpheus is the third-oldest of seven siblings known as the Endless, each one a personification: Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (formerly Delight), and Destruction (who abandoned his realm). While the Endless are extremely powerful and have been around since the dawn of time, they are also siblings, and therefore prone to bickering, infighting, jealousy, and of course, betrayal. This is the first of Gaiman's many strokes of genius — he humanizes the gods, demons, spirits, and other powerful figures who populate these stories. Instead of the silent, hooded, scythe-wielding skeleton one expects of the Grim Reaper, for instance, Death is depicted as a kind, sympathetic soul who often appears in the guise of a willowy Goth woman; hers is the face most of us would hope to see when we die. By contrast, the hero of the series, Dream himself, is dour, brooding, arrogant, aloof, and prone to harsh judgements (he confines a lover to Hell simply for spurning him). There are ten volumes in the Sandman series, not counting the various spin-offs (two Death miniseries among them) and stand-alone stories (including The Dream Hunters, Gaiman's collaboration with renowned Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano). Most of the volumes can probably stand on their own, although there are nuances and story elements (not to mention characters and situations) that may be lost on first-time readers. The books are rich enough to reward rereading, however; each fresh read reveals something new that helps deepen the stories, and the series as a whole. Taken together, they form a 2,000-page epic that spans time and worlds, and results in an act of sacrifice and redemption, followed by hope and renewal. Gaiman borrows liberally from DC's pantheon of superheroes, but these aren't the "fight-of-the-month" comic books that those who spurn the comix form would expect; he uses these superheroes much as he utilizes gods and mythological figures from numerous cultures and ages. Superheroes, after all, are our modern myths, and contribute accordingly to the vast and dizzying gallery at Gaiman's disposal. The Sandman is a tale not of heroics (although there are heroes, and also some villains), nor of adventure (though there is some of that), but rather of regret, atonement, and growth. It is Dream's heroic quest to change, to become a better person.

The Sandman series gained wide recognition in the mid-90s when DC's Vertigo imprint began reprinting the comic books in graphic novel form. Since then they've sold millions of copies, and to quite a few readers who had never picked up a comic book, at least since adolescence). For these devoted fans, Hy Bender's comprehensive The Sandman Companion will be an invaluable reference, containing interviews with Gaiman and the various artists, as well as trivia, inside information, and more.

Alisa Kwitney's book, The Sandman: King of Dreams, is somewhere between a primer and a glossy yearbook. The full-color, hardcover volume contains a gallery of McKean's gorgeous covers — for both the comic series and the graphic novel collections — along with sample pages from the series, various artists' renditions of characters, and brief overviews of each book in the series. It is a perfect, albeit costly, introduction for newcomers or casual readers who aren't sure they want to read a book with pictures — and for fans, it's a fun, casual reminiscence. It certainly inspired me to crack open my graphic novels and revisit the series.

The books themselves are published in a particular order but don't necessarily have to be read that way. The first book I read was Season of Mists, which remains my favorite for reasons both sentimental and aesthetic. Kwitney notes that this is one of the more popular volumes, largely for its accessible and compelling storyline. This is also the first story in which the Endless appear in their entirety, and the first time Morpheus begins to regret the decisions he has made in the past. Confronted with his own cruelty, Morpheus journeys to Hell to free the lover he'd confined there, only to be handed the key to the realm by Lucifer, who has decided to retire. The result is chaos: the denizens of Hell are set loose upon the world, while Morpheus's kingdom is invaded by sundry deities, angels, and demons who want to claim the stewardship of Hell for their own purposes. Perhaps "invaded" isn't the right word for it; whereas in many comics there would be a huge battle between gods and monsters to decide the fate of the realm, in Gaiman's universe the combatants are guests in his kingdom who must act accordingly — resulting in some hilariously strained exchanges and double crosses. While the story is intriguing, even riveting, and Gaiman has a lot of fun with his mythological cast (Lucifer is one of his more complex and vivid characters, and Gaiman's lusty, brawling Thor is a delight), Season of Mists also contains a stand-alone episode that illustrates the consequences on a human level of the actions of immortals. In this story, a lonely boy stuck at a boarding school during the Christmas holiday discovers he's trapped in a vast haunted house, and his classmates are the worst bullies in Hell. Simultaneously macabre, darkly funny, and ultimately touching, the story by itself stays with the reader. It is a perfect demonstration of how Gaiman is able to create whole worlds and fill every crevice with staggering invention and, above all, recognizable humanity. (Gaiman would later duplicate this technique with stand-alone vignettes in American Gods, which to my mind are the most enjoyable parts of the novel.)

The Sandman series begins proper with Preludes and Nocturnes, introducing Dream, who is set free after being held captive by a power-hungry madman for seventy-five years, and giving him a fairly standard quest to retrieve several missing magical artifacts. This is the most conventional of Gaiman's stories, yet it is loaded with unique touches that he would expand on later, most notably the popular episode "The Sound of Her Wings" (issue eight of the series) that introduced Death, and provides the foundation for events that initially seem insignificant but spiral into monumentous, in some cases catastrophic, consequences.

The second book in the series, The Doll's House, takes a turn toward the unconventional, as Morpheus largely disappears into the background. Try to imagine Spider-Man or Batman taking a backseat to supporting characters in their comic books, and you begin to see how Gaiman was blazing trails in the comix medium. He follows this volume with Dream Country, a collection of single-issue short stories, one of which, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (in which we learn, among other things, that a certain Shakespeare's prolific genius was due in no small part to a certain King of Dreams), was the first — and last — comic to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

The rest of the series consists of Season of Mists; A Game of You, another story arc in which the Sandman plays a supporting role; a second collection of outstanding short stories, Fables and Reflections; Brief Lives, the tale of Dream and Delirium's search for their missing brother, Destruction (a runner-up to Season of Mists for best single volume, in part because Delirium is second only to Death as the most beloved character in the series); Worlds' End, Gaiman's answer to The Canterbury Tales; The Kindly Ones, the climax of the series; and the final volume, The Wake. Now, I don't get teary-eyed when I read something touching, but if I ever did get teary-eyed (though, as I said, I don't!), The Wake would be the book to do it. It is the emotional resolution of the series and gives us a chance to bid farewell to a character we have grown to know and love, even if he sometimes angers us or drives us crazy, through ten astonishing, beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated volumes.

Gaiman may never top The Sandman. I don't expect him to (I doubt he would even try) — and anyone anticipating such a feat is bound to be disappointed by his subsequent works. This is a definitive storytelling feat, one that could perhaps only be achieved to its fullest effect in the comix form, where the written word combines with the skill of the artist, never more capably than in these books. (The quality of the art will vary, of course, depending on one's preference for an artist's style — but even the weakest-drawn Sandman story maintains a powerful storytelling thrust.) It is a story that should be read, in its entirety or in pieces, and celebrated. Kwitney's book is a fine place for beginners to start.

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