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Absolute Sandman: Volume I

I’m supposed to say that Sandman is a comic for people who don’t like comics. It’s not. It’s a comic for people who like stories.

Neil Gaiman created a series that ran for the bones of a decade following the resurrection and revival of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. DC Comics cleverly repackaged the entire collection as four slipcase Absolute Editions. I own all four and have read them cover-to-cover once (and occasionally going back and revisiting particular threads from time-to-time). I’ve decided to re-read the entire collection again from the very beginning. So, how does the first volume hold up?

"Mister Sandman, bring me a dream..."

"Mister Sandman, bring me a dream..."

Neil Gaiman has shot to prominence lately as the author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book. There’s a rumour I’m particularly fond of which suggests that he’s going to script an episode (hopefully a two-parter) of Stephen Moffat’s first season running Doctor Who. The Sandman represents his first really big work, an epic that spread across nearly 2,000 pages. It’s a fairly daunting piece of literature to pick up.

The saga follows the title character, Dream of the Endless. One of the seven Endless (Death, Dream, Destiny, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delight/Delirium), Dream finds himself captured by an occult sect and locked away for sixty-odd years. He returns home to find his realm devastated, his creations missing and a plot gradually forming against him. The series moves forward in a series of arcs and one-shots. There’s a underarching theme developing in all this.

Wrong Sandman...

The volume is dark. I’d almost forgotten how dark. The tales call to mind some weird hybrid of Tim Burton and the Twilight Zone. Nightmares and demons are frequent guests, but few are as evil as some of the humans we encounter. There’s very little light or reassuring in the volume, but the lightest element Gaiman uses is quite surprising – his personification of Death as… well, a nice person. There’s quite a lot of disturbing images and ideas thrown into the mix here – perhaps more than later on. Still, Gaiman is crafting a sort of modern fable and fairytale, and – as one of his characters reminds us – the fairy tales we tell our children today are heavily sanitized.

The opening arc – Preludes and Nocturnes– is probably one of the less interesting arcs of Gaiman’s magnum opus. It sets up the scene and introduces us to all the key players, but in lightning fast succession. There’s little hint of just who and what will become relevent later on (the answer is quite a lot). We’re thrown into a fairly conventional narrative (by the standards of the rest of the series) seeing Dream looking to reclaim his lost kingdom and the tools of the trade as it were. Still, it serves to get us settled in nicely.

Dreams of glory...

What’s particularly interesting about the opening chapters is how Gaiman fits the book within the DC universe. Not only do we get shoutouts to the other characters bearing the mantle Sandman, but we also get a ‘team-up’ issue with John Constantine, a trip to Arkham Asylum and a duel with second-rate Justice League villain Doctor Destiny. Of course, Gaiman would subtly interweave strands of the DCU during his story – I am particularly fond of the last chapter in this collection, Facade, dealing with the long-forgotten heroine Element Girl. Still – barring a cameo from some DC mainstays during the final arc – this was as connected as Gaiman allowed his work to get. From here on out he was confident enough to allow the series to stand on its own two feet.

The Doll’s House, the second arc in this collection, is a much stronger piece. It also introduces us fully to Gaiman’s ability to tie together the banal and the sublime so easily. An abused foster child, a renegade dreaming dimension, a serial killer convention, a long-lost grandmother and an escaped nightmare (or three) are all smoothly tied together. Gaiman begins to show us subtly that all things are connected (indeed, there’s a connection to one the background characters appearing in the opening arc).

I was pleased to see it cats on...

That would become the hallmark of the series – all these subtle, unremarked-upon connections. They reveal that Gaiman is meticulously constructing a spider’s web that will be able to support more weight than it should. We won’t find out the favour that Johanna Constantine did for Morpheus for quite some time; nor will we discover why Desire is so intent on getting Dream to shed the blood of his kin. These small elements will be clarified later, but they ebb and flow. Even minor details – like the supporting characters in these arcs – will take on greater or lesser importance in the run. I always thought it would be cool if someone were to chart all the interpersonal relationships across the series. I’m sure there are some even I’m missing in my two full treks and several minor wanderings through the story.

Like I said, I enjoyed the second arc much more than the first. It’s a solid and entertaining piece of its own right – much like A Game of You will be in Volume 2. Still, the real treasure trove of this volume (and most of Gaiman’s work on the book) are the stand alone tales. Even those that will play some role in the greater mythos (as most will) make great stories of their own right. I particularly enjoy the above mentioned Facade or Calliope. There’s a strong cult following for A Dream of a Thousand Cats, and – while I enjoy it – I don’t think it’s the strongest work of the volume. Nor is A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which famously won the Hugo award, causing a Beauty and the Beast-type revision of the rules that subsequently made comics ineligible for the award. It’s a lovely fantasy piece that plays well on its own and also as part of Gaiman’s overarching theme of the decline of magic and mysticism and the fall of gods, but it isn’t the best thing about this collection.

Dream being a dick. Albeit somewhat justified in this case...

Dream being a dick. Albeit somewhat justified in this case...

I’ve always loved The Sound of Her Wings and Men of Good Fortune. Men of Good Fortune introduces us to Hob Gadling, a mortal who becomes Dream’s sole mortal friend. they meet once every hundred years amid the chaos that is Dream’s existence. Gadling has conspired to live forever – he believes it is possible through will alone – and Death spares him. Dream forms a unique connection with the man whose fortunes rise and fall and rise over the hundreds of years. There’s loss and despair, but also hope. Gaiman would develop the character much further in subsequent issues, and uses the story to set up various later events, but it still stands ridiculously well upon its own merits.

The Sound of Her Wings fully introduces us to Gaiman’s Death, perhaps his brightest creation amid the darkness and horror that haunts this first volume. Of the many revolutionary approaches that Gaiman takes in his book, his conception of Death is – to me at least – one of the most compelling. She doesn’t carry a scythe, she loves Mary Poppins, she’s willing to check in on people if she overhears them crying during an errand. She’s the oldest of the seven siblings, and the most mature. Dream follows her in a ‘day in the life death’style story. Many of the moments the story affords are sweet, and also honest.

So long, and he still feels nada...

It’s no wonder that DC has spun off an Absolute Death: The High Price of Living. It’s just a shame a great deal of material will be replicated from these volumes. The character is one of the few truly sympathetic during the entire series and manages to avoid the tropes and clichés that generally define the Grim Reaper in popular culture. She’s an example of the sort of fresh air blowing through the series and just one of the many, many things Gaiman does fantastically well.

Throughout this series of issues (and, indeed,throughout the life of the comic), Gaiman paints a world robbed of the magic and mysticism that we used to take for granted. Whether it is the departure of the fearie folk in A Midsummer’s Night Dream or an imprisoned muse in Calliope, his stories feature a world where man has seen fit to tear away all the non-rational aspects of existence. Those that would once have been gods are now shells of themselves. This is a worls with which Dream – imprisoned for decades – is out of step, possibly fatally so.

Gaiman is in his element...

The only real complaint I can level against this collection – and I do have some more obvious objections for the later volumes – is that Gaiman seems to assume that we all know ancient Egyptian or Greek or Roman lore like the back of our hands. There are densely-layered references hidden inside densely-layered references. While the more obscure ones are explained, several more obvious ones are not explained immediately. So someone not versed in greek folklore would not recognise the reference the three furies make to Orpheus in Calliope or recognise the significance of Desire attempting to get Dream to kill one of his kin. Both these elements are expounded on in later volumes, but I missed them in my first read-through. Maybe the rumoured Annotated Sandman will mitigate this problem, but I don’t want to shell out of this collection again. Not that it’s that big a deal – there are on-line guides if you feel the urge to investigate.

The art is striking. Most of the work on this volume is done by one artist – Dan Dringenberg – covering the first two arcs. This is – based solely on my recollection, so I’m open to correction – in contrast to the other volumes. It means that we have the bones of 16 chapters to get acquainted to this world before we receive another artist’s interpretation of it. The art is stunning and odd. It suits the dream motif surprisingly well. I can only imagine how difficult it is to illustrate concepts like Dream migrating to his destination through the dreams of various sleepers, or to actualise the unique and distorted figure of hell, for example, but it works. It really, really works.

Sweet death...

I love these books. I do. It’s epic fantasy. It’s not for everyone, but I’d recommend everyone at least try it. I don’t buy the logic that comic books need to grow up or be mature any more than action movies or trashy novels need to be grown-up or mature. But The Sandman is one of those rare experiences in any genre which stands as a high watermark. I’m unsure how it stands when measured against Watchmen – as Watchmen is a more contained and easier-to-define deconstruction. There has never been a story like that which Gaiman tells in these volumes, but – at the same time – it feels like a classic fairytale.

The Absolute Edition is the only way to read these babies and continues to be the definitive high watermark when it comes to releasing classic comic books. There are very few stories deserving the format – that this series is worthy of four is high praise indeed. The oversized art looks amazing, and the special features are fascinating and insightful. And there’s quite a lot here (and in the other three volumes). Awesome. This is the way the story deserves to be treated.

A classically dark and twisted fairytale. This book comes with the highest possible recommendation.

___________________________________________________________________________________

I have collected reviews of each of the four over-sized volumes:

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