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Absolute Sandman: Volume II

I finished the second Absolutevolume last night at about 1am. It’s a little disappointing to think I’m already halfway through the epic, but that’s life. I can always read it again. And – for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on – I think that the second collection might be my favourite of the four. I don’t know what makes it slightly better and more compelling than the other three, but I can hazard some guesses.

Dream at the Helm...

Despite the fact that I am more fond of the one-shots than the arcs, this collection includes relatively few single-issue stories, with the bulk of the content split across two arcs. But they are two very strong arcs. The first, Season of Mists, gives us a very clear idea that this series is heading towards a tragic conclusion as Morpheus is given the key to hell and incurs the wrath of various gods and demons in his quest to find a suitable heir to the fallen angel. Indeed, a large number of threads from here (Loki and Satan, in particular) will tie into the final storyline, but it’s more the mood that works.

Gaiman gives us a throughly original Lucifer – quite a feat considering that everybody everywhere has written stories about the character. This fallen angel is hanging up his wings and leaving Hell. He doesn’t come across as a particularly evil character and there’s a grain of truth when he laments being used as humanity’s bogeyman. His appearance in the final arc of the series is relatively small and he plays no direct role in the climax, but – given the character’s scheming ways – it is entirely possible that he intentionally set all the events in motion to lead to that point. It’s food for thought.

The devil's in the details...

It’s always fun to see Gaiman handle mythological figures and intrigue in the courts of the gods, but my favourite issue in this storyline could just as easily have been a one-shot. Taking place on an Earth where Hell is closed and the souls of the damned have been returned to walk the earth, the otherwise untitled Chapter 4 follows life in a British boarding school over the Christmas holidays. It’s dark stuff, but there’s just a tease of optimism allowed to shine through at the very end of the story.

The second arc is possibly my favourite of the entire series. A Game of You ties into The Doll’s House (from the first collection) and focuses on Barbie, one of the formerly supporting characters. I’m not sure exactly how much of the series that Gaiman made up as he went along, but it all fits together relatively well, as it is wont to do in epics. Anyway, the story features some of the most interesting ideas of the comic (mainly the Cuckoo itself, but also the notion of dreamers inhabiting, forming and creating lands that survive beyond them). However, the real beauty of the arc lies in Gaiman’s continued brilliance at tying the epic and magical world of fantasy to ordinary life – which never seems boring (despite Barbie’s fears about herself).

King of San Francisco...

The book also contains its share of one-shots, though not as many as the previous collected edition, nor the next (which features an arc of anthologies – if that’s possible). There is some good stuff here. Soft Places expounds upon Gaiman’s theme of man rationalising all the magic out of the world, as Marco Polo finds himself trapped between dream and reality. He stops to chat with Fiddler’s Green who laments the decreasing number of such “soft places” as humanity’s thirst for exploration maps out the globe and fixes it in rigid patterns. It’s a sweet short story and one that continues the trend of the series to show events occurring out of chronological order (because, in dreams at least, time is a malleable as space). Indeed, Marco meets a man who will become his writer and encounters Fiddler’s Green in 1992 and a Dream still weak from his capture way back in 1987. Confusing? It can be at times, but things are relatively well laid out by the writer and the artists and its more than likely meant to be a little disorienting.

Speaking of events out of context, Thermidor introduces us to Dream’s son, the Orpheus of legend. Most of the character’s backstory won’t be expounded until the next volume (unless you’re familiar with Greek lore or felt the need to look up the name after encountering it). The story takes place between the two stories presented in the third volume of this collection. I’m not entirely sure why Gaiman develops these strings so far out of context or step. Indeed, on my first time reading through it this story raised more questions than it answered. I can only assume that Gaiman is trying to give us a sense of scale and a sense of pattern in the randomness that is life. Kind of like those out-of-sequence flashbacks on Lost.

I'm not a doctor and even I know that's not healthy...

I'm not a doctor and even I know that's not healthy...

However, like most of the standalone stories throughout the run that play into large threads or themes, this piece stands well of its own two feet and explores the notion of the power of dreams upon the human soul. The Hunt plays upon the same basic themes (as well as being a fairly good fairytale of its own right). I did notice the re-appearance of the glass heart, and image that occurred at least twice in Volume I – though none of the images seem connected (but there’s so much of the series that appears unconnected at first). My eyes are now thoroughly peeled for any heart-shaped glass in the remaining two volumes.

Three Septembers and a January
may be my favourite short of the entire Sandman saga (it’s certainly tied with The Golden Boy, one of the anthology stories from Volume 3, which I’ll go into then). I couldn’t tell you why, exactly. Sure, I could probably come up with a bunch of reasons – it shows the importance of dreams and hope for the survival of the individual, the power of aspiration and the capacity to retain ones dignity even in the most dire of circumstances – and some of them may be true. It might be that the protagonist – the self-proclaimed Emperor of America – is a benign old sort and a good man (and we can agree with Death on that one). It may even be that Morpheus actually does a good thing rather than simply passively and detachedly observing – though for his own selfish reasons (goaded on by his siblings). It might also just be a simple, subjective thing. I think it’s a great story, beautifully told. Again, we see events here (Desire’s grudge against Dream) which in retrospect explain certain actions and motivations in earlier issues (Desire’s wish to see Dream spill family blood to have The Kindly Ones target him).

To Hell and back...

We get a trilogy of “month stories” (Thermidor, August, Three Septembers and a January), but the fourth (the superb Ramadan) is held off until the next volume in the collection. It would be nice to have the tetralogy together, but I can understand the reason for dividing it. Plus that would be too much awesome for even this Absolute Edition to hold.

Speaking of Absolute Editions, it’s becoming redundant to comment on how awesome it is to have the story in this format. The oversized artwork looks lovely and the hardback volume is just beautiful to hold and to read in your lap. As usual, there’s a whole host of extras included which should satiate the rapid Sandman or Gaiman fanatic, but the real treasure is the stories themselves. Or to paraphrase Indy in that movie that I saw again over the weekend, “Their treasure is stories. Stories are their treasure.” Or something like that.

One can only imagine the labour issues that closing hell entailed... How much work is there for a giant preying mantis with the head of a wolf?

One can only imagine the labour issues that closing hell entailed... How much work is there out there for a giant preying mantis with the head of a wolf?

The artwork here is somewhat more chaotic than in the first volume, though that’s not a bad thing. There are more artists working on the book than there were when it began and the wide range of styles compliments the work. It’s somewhat fitting that there should be so many different styles and manners of drawing should be used to illustrate the world of dreams, as if each lights up a single tiny facet of that world. The art is at times (particularly in Soft Places) truly stunning but – in my very humble opinion – the best art is yet to come, both in individual issues (in Volume 3) and also across an entire arc (Volume 4).

All in all, the collection just reads well – the best of the four. It is all playing into a larger story, but can be read in isolation without locking a reader out. Indeed, reading through the collection for the first time the reader may not necessarily grasp the importance of various strands. The collection is – as with the other three volumes – required reading for anyone with an interest in fantasy or fable, myths and fairy tales. It’s a fantastic exercise and it rewards rereading. In retrospect Gaiman’s themes and points seem clearer, as do the little markers that he has left along the way. It’s a remarkable literary achievement, a single story told in chapters published monthly over the course of nearly a decade. It truly is an epic, in the best possible sense of the word.

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

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