I came to Neil Gaiman through his books Neverwhere (excellent), Stardust (also excellent), and then others. I'm a fan, but not an uncritical one. I'm a fan of Neil the person and blogger, and the genre and style he's helping to popularize with these books: a dark, humorous and serious, ultra-hip urban fantasy.
There's a lot to like about Neil's writing, and a lot to criticize. His command of his language can be decent or lovely, or less than spectacular. He creates wonderful and sometimes meaningful stories imbued with masterful mood and style, populated with memorable but often flat, two dimensional characters. Of the five books I've read, the above two are his best, in my opinion. I thought Coraline was a nice idea that suffered from an overly long and slow first half. I loved the movie Mirrormask.
It's impossible to become familiar with Gaiman without reading about his supposed tour-de-force, the Sandman comic series. My knowledge of contemporary comics is pretty much limited to Elfquest, Maus, and Watchmen. Frankly, I didn't think that I would get the chance to read any of the Sandman comics, let alone all of them.
Then I won a blogging contest which included a gift certificate to Amazon.com . For various reasons, I had to make a quick decision as to what to get for around $150; after a few hours of searching, there it was: the complete Sandman series in ten graphic novels for a mere $135 or so. Something I would probably not have bought with my own money. What the heck.
The Sandman was originally a comic book series that spanned 75 issues. Neil wrote the text and gave very detailed layout and illustration instructions to a talented and changing group of illustrators who did the inking, coloring, and drawing.
As a result of changing illustrators, some of the issues look stylistically very different from others. These changes can be disconcerting if you read several issues at once, as I did.
In the collected graphic novels that I read, ten books collect all 75 issues into roughly separate story arcs. Each book has its own fawning introduction (how many times can we hear how wonderful Neil or the Sandman is, for 6 to 8 pages of densely types text each time?) and sometimes some additional material. Other collection formats also exist.
Note that the ten volume edition claims to be part of an eleven volume series, but the eleventh volume, Endless Nights, is not part of the original series and is a later revisiting of the characters. The series definitively ends at the end of the tenth book.
A note about the gore
Entirely due to Neil's direction, many of the illustrations throughout the series are disgustingly horrific or grotesque. I don't object to nudity or violence in a comic, but I do when it reaches a level of pornography. The nudity is thankfully kept tame, but the explicit violence and gore most certainly is not.
I don't see the need for so many panels to show closeups of skin being pulled off of a corpse, skewers going into eyeball sockets, rotting corpses, and so on. Detailed illustrations like these detract from, rather than add to, the story. The story no longer evokes reactions; the pictures do. I understand that a comic's story is told through both media, but repeatedly explicit gory images are needless to the story line. Is everyone but me is desensitized to these types of images already?
Suffice to say, this series is not for kids.
WARNING: SPOILERS HEREIN
The Sandman series is about human history through the eyes of seven immortals known as the "Endless": Dream, Death, Delirious, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Destiny. These seven personify the experiences after which they are named.
Even when they are not attending to their duties, experiences continue to exist without them. It is suggested that their inattention causes the general weave of these experiences to break down somehow, but this appears to be true for some of the Endless more than for others.
The central character is Morpheus, aka Dream, who is dressed a lot like Gaiman's ideal vision of himself, with a long black overcoat, jeans and tee, and spiky blue-tinged hair. Death - an uber-hip cool twenty-something girl with spiky black hair, a tank and jeans, and an ankh symbol on a neck chain - and Delirium - a young girl in her teens multi-colored hair, fishnet rags, and a loose grasp on conversation - are his two closest siblings.
The series is set in the
The humans we meet are generally regular humans, although a number of them practice the occult and/or know how to live for millennia. There is a single occult practice in this world; if a human knows about it, he or she also knows the general lay and leadership of all of the above mentioned fantastic realms. You're either in the know or you aren't; there's little in between. Various real historical figures play central characters in some of the side narratives, such as William Shakespeare, Marco Polo, and others.
Many of the human characters weave their way in and out of the series. If not them, then their children or grandchildren do. This gives a cohesive feel to the universe.
The main plot line in a nutshell is as follows: Dream is captured and held captive by a human occultist for some seventy years. After escaping, he reflects on some unresolved issues in his past and begins to right them with a renewed sense of compassion. Eventually, he realizes that he's grown weary of his service as an Endless. The plot is not always told in strict chronological order.
The main theme is about Morpheus's development as a character, which is handled a little strangely given that he's an immortal. It's not that an immortal can't be seen to change over time; it's that the time span in which this change occurs and completes is a relatively short period of time, something like a year or two. For an Endless to change so much, so quickly, is a strain to believability; it could really have been done over a longer in-story time span.
A bit about each volume, one by one.
Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (1-8)
Plot: An occultist trying to capture Death mistakenly traps Dream. Dream is imprisoned for seventy years, during which time thousands of people experience "sleeping sickness". One of these people is Unity Kinkaid, who is raped and gives birth to a daughter while asleep.
Dream eventually escapes and finds his realm in disrepair. While it is cleaned up, he sets off to find the three symbols of his realm which were taken from him: his endless pouch of sand, his Cthulhu-like helmet, and a ruby. His pouch he finds with the help of a human hero. His helm he recovers by battling a demon in Hell. But his gem has been corrupted by a human who uses it to control people and cause chaos. In the end, the gem is destroyed and the parts of Dream's soul which were trapped within return to him.
The book ends with Dream receiving a pep talk from his sister, Death, who reminds him about the joys of returning to ones responsibilities.
Reaction: Neil calls this the awkward part of the series where he is struggling to find his voice. Some of the writing is indeed juvenile, as are a number of the illustrations in some of the early issues. But the idea of Dream being help captive, patiently outliving his captor, and then questing to recover his stolen symbols of office is nicely mythic. It serves well as a catalyst for the themes that inhabit the remainder of the series.
The stretching time spent in captivity is well handled. The search and recovery of the pouch and helm are nicely resolved. The search for and destruction of the gem contains some of the most overt and needlessly disgusting images, and seems to wallow in the horrific for too long; its resolution is also something of a letdown.
The strongest part was the final scene of Dream trying to regain his purpose while having a chat with Death. This scene is moving and lyrical; not coincidentally, it's the scene where Neil claims to have found his voice. It stands out as one of the brightest spots in the series.
Vol. 2: The Doll's House (9-16)
Plot: Two of the issues in this book are stories unrelated to the books overall story arc, although the characters in these issues reappear later in the series. The first is an African-themed story of how Dream desired the princess Nada who refused him, whereupon he condemned her to suffer in Hell for the next 10,000 years.
The second is about a man in Elizabethan times named Robert Gadling. Death and Dream overhear him saying that anyone can decided not to die. With Death's permission, Dream asks Robert to meet him in the same spot once every hundred years to tell him if being able not to die is, in fact, all its cracked up to be. They continue to meet and talk every hundred year until today.
The remaining six issues deal with a story arc involving Rose, the granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid, who is somehow manipulated by Desire into becoming a "dream vortex", which is something that can cause damage to the dream world and so must be killed. Somehow related to this is the story of her attempts to find her brother. Her brother is being held by some refugees from the dreamworld who left while Dream was held captive.
Dream frees the boy, and in so doing un-animates the corpse of the husband of a woman named Lyta (short for Hyppolyta). Lyta was living in a dreamworld concocted by the refugees, and mistakenly believes that Dream in fact killed her husband; Dream doesn't bother to set her straight. To add insult to injury, Dream claims Lyta's unborn child for some future purpose.
Rose's brother's bad luck continues when he is picked up by another refugee from the dreamworld, a nightmare named the Corinthian who locks him in a trunk and on his way to a convention for serial killers held under a pseudonym at a hotel.
Rose ends up at the same hotel at the same time, in the company of yet another dreamworld refugee - but a nice one - named Fiddler's Green. Dream destroys the Corinthian, Rose and her brother reunite, and finally Rose, Fiddler's Green, and Unity all meet with Dream to solve the dream vortex problem.
Dream is bound to kill Rose in order to stop the vortex, but Unity takes Rose's heart and becomes the vortex in the process, and then dies. After resolving the problem, Dream tells Desire to stop messing around with his element, the implication being that it was Desire who fathered the child on Unity while she was asleep.
Reaction: The two individual stories are both solid yarns. We'll come back to both of these stories later in the series, as well as the further adventures of Lyta.
The larger story is rather bizarre. The three main elements: a "vortex" which is never fully explained, Rose's brother's imprisonment and the resolution thereof, and the very contrived serial killers convention, don't appear to have much to do with each other.
The con is the weirdest of the lot; at least with the escapees from Dreamland you expect to find strange creatures and warped dreams. But Neil takes the con too seriously. He presents the killers as dementedly proud of their work. Based on this premise comes the need for Dream to take them down from this delusion. The plot/resolution structure revolves around this rather far-fetched premise, where a more traditional resolution to a more realistic problem could have been more effective.
The story serves mainly as an effective tool to introduce gratuitous shots of blood and gore in the form of the killers' victims. It is pandering to a visceral taste for gore while pretending to castigate it at the same time.
The vortex is mentioned at the beginning of the story arc but plays no role in the story until it resurfaces at the end. It's a fairly toothless story, and only serves to complete Unity's storyline and heighten Dream's relationship with his siblings.
This book is not my favorite in the series, as you can tell.
Vol. 3: Dream Country (17-20)
I'm not sure why, but the cover depicted here doesn't match the one on the book that I have.
Plot: Four unrelated stories, each one issue long.
The first is about Calliope the muse, who is trapped and abused by a writer who needs a new hit novel, and her appeal for help which eventually reaches Dream. Calliope is described in Greek mythology as "the muse" and mother of Linus and Orpheus. Neil takes a little liberty from the original myth by making her Dream's ex-wife; Dream is now father of Orpheus, who plays a prominent role later in the series.
The second is a short story about a secret meeting of house cats, one of whom reveals that cats once ruled in an alternate reality until human dreams changed reality; and if cats dream strongly enough, perhaps reality will change back.
The third is the story of William Shakespeare's first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The audience is Dream and the King and Queen and all the host of faerie, who watch themselves as depicted by Shakespeare. The actors are rather nervous, and Puck eventually gets tired of watching some actor play him and so takes over.
As an aside, this issue won the World Fantasy Award, the first time it was given to a comic book. Due to complaints about this, the rules for the award were changed to prevent any comic from winning again in the future.
The fourth is about a woman who becomes disfigured, immortal, and lonely owing to having disturbed the tomb of Ra many centuries ago. Death finally pays her a visit and tells her how she can end her suffering. Death is once again cute as a button, and she explains a bit about her role in the universe.
Reaction: Calliope is one of the best issues of the series, both in writing and illustration. The idea of holding captive and raping one's muse is entirely too relevant today. It also serves to clarify a bit more about Dream's former cold personality.
The cat story is a complete throwaway and the least interesting issue of the series, not to mention undeveloped and rather shallow.
The Shakespeare issue is fine enough, but nowhere near World Fantasy Award material. I suspect that the judges were taken in by the copious amount of lines from Shakespeare used, rather than any consideration for Neil's original contributions. I always suspected that something similar happened when they gave the Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love.
The parts of the issue that are not Shakespearian quotes make a nice read: the hesitation of the performers before the unearthly audience, the comments upon seeing themselves represented in the play by the faerie, and waking up the next day. Nicely drawn, fun to read, and that's about it.
The fourth story is also ok. But otherwise it's not a particularly memorable issue, and you can skip it without missing any of the main narrative.
Vol. 4: Season of Mists (21-28)
"Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness" is a quote from John Keats about autumn.
Plot: Dream's siblings convince him that he was wrong to condemn Nada to Hell for 10,000 years simply for rejecting him. He is finally persuaded and goes to Hell in order to battle for her freedom. He first stops off to say goodbye to various characters in case he doesn't return, including Lyta and her new baby, whom he names Daniel. Lyta is not happy to see him.
Dream find Hell empty, Lucifer having decided to abandon his throne and give Dream the key. Unsure of what to do with the key, Dream fields many entreaties, bribes, and threats from a host of visitors, including Heaven's angels, Azazel, the Faerie, pantheons of several myths such as Norse (Odin, Thor, and Loki), Sumerian, Chinese, and so on. Azazel's threat is to devour the soul of Nada, whom he has managed to acquire.
Dream rescues Nada and returns her to Earth as a newborn. He gives the key to the representatives from Heaven, who return to Hell to take over its administration.
Reaction: This story arc is intriguing and well-carried out. It's one of the solid pieces of the series. It has some interesting things to say about suffering and redemption.
Some of the guests who petition or threaten Dream are not especially interesting, but merely fulfilling their expected roles from the mythology from which they are drawn. Happily, some exceptions to this include the Faerie and Lucifer, whose parts are drawn out and extended more fancifully.
I was well pleased with this volume. It is clear that Neil's work and vision are more maturely making their way onto the page. The stories are tighter, the writing and graphics now nearly completely mature.
Vol. 5: A Game of You (32-37)
Note that we've skipped issues 29 through 31. These are collected in book 6.
Plot: Some women in an apt building are attacked one night by dreams sent by a man from the same building. Thessalian is one of the women, but she is also an occultist; she resists the attack and kills the man, who has been sent by something called the Cuckoo to capture Barbara. Barbara falls prey to the attack and becomes trapped in a familiar dream from which she can't wake up.
Thessalian uses her powers to take herself and two others into Barbara's dream in order to kill the Cuckoo, leaving another woman, Wanda, to watch over Barbara's body. In her dream, Barbara runs into the Cuckoo, who is Barbara herself when she was as a little girl, and who wants now to exist independently.
Eventually all parties meet up with Dream, who is there by some sort of contractual obligation. All is resolved, for some more happily than for others. Thessalian is revealed to be quite old and to have had previous unspecified dealings with Dream. The story ends with Barbara reflecting on her dreams and life after Wanda's funeral.
Reaction: While the basic plot is sort of shallow (how come everyone's inner child don't wreak the same sort of havoc that Barbara's does?), the execution is excellent. Excepting the Cuckoo, the main characters and relationships are all well-developed and meaningful.
There's too much gore used to illustrate Thessalian's occult rituals, but that's about it.
It's not clear to me that this arc is particularly relevant to the main story in the series, as Dream barely appear in it. It serves to introduce Thessalian, who returns later in the series.
Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections (29-31, 38-40, 50, and other sources)
Nine unconnected stories, although some of the stories' characters also figure into the main plot.
Plots and Reactions: This is a diverse collection of stories, all of them (except the first one which is a throwaway story) well-written and enjoyable.
The first story, which is not from one of the comic books, is a quick moral about a playwright who faces his fears through a dream of flying. The moral is that it is better to try and fail than to be afraid to try. It is written about as simply as that. It was probably a nice diversion in wherever it appeared, but is not particularly noteworthy here.
Another is a retelling of the true story about a delirious man at the end of the 19th century who declares himself Emperor of America. The story also highlights some of the childish interplay between the various Endless.
Another is a story told by a grandfather to his twenty-something granddaughter, about a young peddler who acquires a bag full of curious items, his quick wits, his strange encounters, and his visit to the halls of dreamworld. It is told in a Romany style and involves a whole host of people, items, and places.
Both of these stories cover the themes of desire and dreams and are poetically told.
Another is a tale from the French revolution, concerning how the head of Orpheus ended up in its resting place on a Greek island. Another is a retelling of the original story of Orpheus, now Dream's son, and how he went to Hell to search for his late bride, how he lost his head but continued to live, and how Dream left him to his fate. This story was not originally an issue but a special from something called The Sandman Special.
These stories fill in the story of Orpheus as it has been reworked for this canon. More importantly, they show examples of Dream's previous cold and flawed personality. It is heavily as a reaction to his treatment of Orpheus (and Nana) that Dream comes to reflect on his past wrongs. These stories are both excellent.
Another is a standalone story about Augustus Caesar, and how he disguises himself as a beggar one day a year to sit in the marketplace, and why. Another is illustrated in a very different style than any of the other issues until now. It is an Arabian tale of the King of Baghdad, his troubling vision of the future, and his deal with Dream to preserve his city's legacy for eternity.
These two stories are told very differently, but are both about kings that have reached the limits of their desires. The illustrations in the Augustus story are rather ugly, as they are meant to be, but that doesn't make them any more pleasant to look at. By contrast, the Baghdad story is beautifully and stylistically written and illustrated.
Another story is of Marco Polo who gets lost in a dreamworld while separated from his companions during a trek through the desert. He encounters a few other lost characters and tells a bit of his own tale and hears the others' tales. Dream has just escaped from his captivity when he meets him.
The tale is good enough, but aside from quotes from Marco Polo's writings, didn't seem to have any deeper point.
Another is about Lyta's baby Daniel's travels to dreamworld and his witness to stories told by Eve, Cain, and Abel, including some of the original myths about the creation of woman. In Abel's story, Dream and Death are shown as cute little children.
This issue also didn't seem to have much point. The stories explain how Cain and Abel came to live in dreamworld, but not why they are relevant or interesting for the story. I find the whole sub theme about these two, as well as Cain's continuing violence against Abel in every issue in which they appear, rather pointless. I might be missing the point, however.
Vol. 7: Brief Lives (41-49)
Plot: Dream has just had a breakup of some sort, so as a diversion agrees to accompany Delirium on a quest to find out what happened to Destruction who abandoned his realm three centuries ago.
Their paths cross and adversely affect many of the humans who have unnaturally long lives. Since Dream wasn't interested in finding his brother to begin with, he abandons his search in the wake of the adversity it is causing, leaving Delirium upset.
Death convinces Dream to make things right with his sister, and the two resume their quest. Destiny points them to Orpheus (a living severed head), who tells his father where to find Destruction in return for agreeing to help him to finally die. Dream agrees.
Delirium and Dream finally confront Destruction, who informs them that the realms of the Endless are experiences that need no coordinators such as themselves, and that they, in fact, are mere imaginations. He also confirms the fact that Dream has changed and matured, and then he leaves the world altogether.
Dream returns and fulfills his bargain by killing his son.
Reaction: This is the best storyline of the series. Delirium is a delightful character, both by her childlike ways and her deliriously illustrated representation. While she generally appears as a naive child, she really shows her teeth in this story.
The story is filled with wisdom from one end to the other: about change, life, responsibility, and too many other things to list. The writing here is also top notch. If the entire series was only this story it would be a classic.
The illustration is as good as ever, with stylistic effects for certain scenes set in a strip club.
A must read.
Vol. 8: Worlds' End (51-56)
Plot: This is a collection of stories told by a diverse assortment of lost travelers within the familiar motif of an "inn at the end of the world".
It begins in modern America with a young man and a woman who are driven off the road in a snowstorm. They find themselves waiting out the storm while stories are told by the various travelers.
The stories are: a man is trapped in an unfamiliar and strangely empty city and discovers that the city has its own life; a Faerie recounts his role as a messenger, his capture, and his vengeance; a youth recounts an adventure as a stowaway where he meets a few interesting men (including Robert Gadling) and sees a huge sea monster; a boy becomes a perfect American citizen, becomes president at a young age, and defies all temptation to do anything wrong; a group of undertakers tell their own stories in a city of undertakers called Necropolis. The first two stories are illustrated in a unique style.
As a finale, they all experience a heavenly revelation in the form of a funeral procession by the Endless, their servants, and friends, before finally returning to reality. In the end, the young man isn't sure if any of it was ever real.
Reaction: The framework of this book is well worn and comfortable: an inn at the end of the world, diverse travelers each with a unique tale, group dynamics, an ultimate revelation, a return to reality.
Neil uses the framework well. Each of the stories is not quite a complete traditional story; they are more experiences of events. But they are stories, nonetheless, densely packed with detail. The only disappointment was the young president story, which didn't contain any great tension or revelation.
The characterizations are more fleshed out than they were in the earlier books.
The procession across the sky at the end was a bit overly dramatic, but works all the same. It's worth reading, but not necessary for the main story.
Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones (57-69)
Plot: Like the last movement in a symphony, the climax of the main narrative finishes the story by incorporating all previous threads to the story.
Lyta's child Daniel is mysteriously gone when she returns from a meeting. Later the police tell her that they found his burnt body. She goes into an apparent delirium, seeks out the Fates, and pleads with them to wreak vengeance on Dream whom she blames for Daniel's death. The Fates agree to help her because Dream has recently killed his son, Orpheus, and they can only intervene for a blood-debt among kin.
Thessalian (now called Larissa) finds Lyta's deranged body and takes her into protective custody.
Rose was the babysitter who fell asleep, waking up to find Daniel gone. She goes to England on account of a message from her dead grandmother who wants to return her heart. In England, she runs into Desire, who informs her that she was her gandfather.
The Faerie take back one of their own who worked in the dreamworld for a while. Dream gives her a token which she can use to summon him as a parting gift, which she uses at a very bad time in order to tell Dream ho she feels about him.
Loki is putting Daniel through some sort of mortality cleansing ritual, for some reason.
And many other characters we've seen before make brief appearances.
The Fates begin destroying the servants of dreamworld one by one. Dream goes to kill Lyta, but finds her protected. Dream appears helpless to stop the calamity, while remaining strangely unmoved by the events.
Eventually he summons Death to him. They agree that his recent changes, and in particular his having to kill Orpheus, has precipitated his realization of emptiness and desire to abandon his responsibilities, but, unlike his brother Destruction, he has prepared for someone to take over. Death takes Morpheus, and Dream is reincarnated in the now transformed body of Daniel.
Reaction: This work proves that the (relevant) parts of the entire series were part of one whole work.
The ending to the story (bar the conclusion) is told over twelve issues with a striking change in the illustration style: they are now drawn in a kind of cubist minimalism. It was a little confusing sometimes trying to match up the drawings within this part of the series with the same characters I'd seen before, but not overly so.
Some of the things that bothered me before still do, such as Cain and Abel's presence. These are now minor quibbles. At this point in the story, everything that has come before is now carefully brought to its conclusion. The whole thing has the feel of classic mythology. It just works. Many scenes just drop with poetic intensity.
This is among Neil's best works.
Vol. 10: The Wake (70-75)
Plot: All the Endless except for Destruction come for a wake over Morpheus, as do many familiar figures in their dreams. Larissa explains that it was she who had broken up with Dream before the start of Brief Lives.
The new Dream does not attend the wake, but tries to find his way by recreating much of what was lost and asking questions. He forgives Lyta. After the wake, he meets his new/old siblings.
The last three chapters are standalone stories. In the first, Robert Gadling muses at a Renaissance fair and has a chat with Death. He decides that he's still not ready to go.
In the second, illustrated in a minimalist Chinese style, a wandering Chinese adviser meets Dream, who's looking for an adviser of his own.
The last issue is about William Shakespeare. He finishes The Tempest as his second and final commission to Dream in exchange for giving him the muse (the first was Midsummer Night's Dream).
Reaction: It was enjoyable to see Neil's strengths grow throughout the series. The many facets of Dream have come together: as an experience that needs no personification, as an Endless who cannot be contained in a single personality, and as an individual with both powers and flaws.
There are no false steps in any of these last issues, in story or in art. As an example, where Dream's first story with Shakespeare seemed an easy throwaway story, now Shakespeare is simply a character in a much deeper story.
Like the previous book, in this book Neil is firmly in control of his story and tells it beautifully.
Overall, The Sandman helped change the genre of comic books. Some parts of the series are truly phenomenal. It is generally well written, laid out, and illustrated, and the whole is a worthwhile read with some very strong points and many beautifully rendered scenes and characters.
The entire work stands as a series of good stories, some of which fit into a central thread. The writing is occasionally cliche and self-conscious, but just as occasionally original and moving. But you must be able to tolerate a number of extended graphic and gory story lines and pictures.
The Sandman is worth much of the hype it has received. It starts off with starts and fits, almost as if Neil didn't believe that he would be allowed to take the medium seriously. Then he throws in a few shocking graphics, like an adolescent pushing the limits.
He may have needed to get these experiences out of his system in order to settle in to the wise and serious piece of literature that the story becomes. A graphic format can allow laziness to creep into writing; that doesn't happen here. Or it can mirror the writing without adding anything, or be its own artistic effect with no particular relationship to the writing; that, too, doesn't happen here.
While his first Shakespeare issue was not truly deserving of the World Fantasy Award, many issues or collections of issues nearer to the middle or end of the series were. It's a shame that they were no longer eligible.