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Absolute Sandman: Volume III

All things must end. I have to admit appreciating this volume a lot more reading through it again. It’s odd that the penultimate volume in a collection should reward repeated reading more than the early editions, but so it is. All-in-all, the collection is possibly the weakest of the four, but only barely. It’s still a damn good read and an excellent chapter in a compelling saga.

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Barring the Worlds’ End arc, which is arguably an anthology series framed within a serial, this collection has few standalone stories. Even taking Worlds’ End into account, those that can be found aren’t as good as those in previous volumes, for the most part. I’ll get onto the stories at the end of the volume later on, but we open with two single-issue stories. Fear of Falling is – as with most stories in the volume – built around a fairly obvious and basic moral. It’s shorter than usual (only ten pages), but features some interesting and unique artwork. Nothing too special, but it’s still very good and entertaining. Parliament of Rooks is much stronger, giving us focus on Cain and Abel. Though the eponymous avian establishment is interesting (and another example of Gaiman pushing the theme of storytelling to the fore), the real joy here is Abel’s sweet version of “Li’l Morpheus”. What? It’s cute and it’s sweet, just like the character himself.

From here on out we’re dealing with heavier subject matter, with The Song of Orpheus. It’s a fairly simply retelling of the classic Orpheus legend, but Gaiman is a strong writer and the story makes for great visuals. It’s nice to have some context for the short story Thermidor in the second volume and even Calliopein the first. It doesn’t hurt that the myth is beautiful of itself and that it fits perfectly with the mood of the series. It also sets the stage for the events that will lead to the conclusion of the series. And it provides a nice contrast between the Dream of olden times and the Dream of modern times, in how they relate to Orpheus. Gaiman does a lot of that this volume. I’m surprised that it didn’t seem so obvious on my first read-through. One of those things that rewards revisiting the set.

Under a blood red moon...

Okay, I’ll confess that I didn’t like the ‘big’ arc of the volume. The first time I read it, Brief Lives seemed to meander – and not necessarily in a good way. It seemed to have a lot to say, but it wasn’t particularly focused. I enjoyed the presence of Delerium (who has a voice in my head which doesn’t sound a lot unlike Miranda Richardson in Blackadder) and Destruction is hard not to like (modeled on Brian Blessed, so all we need is Rowan Atkinson as Dream and we’re set). Still, for an arc centred on Dream and the Endless, it did very little (except for the conclusion, which I knew would have repercussions). The journey seemed a bit… repetitive. Mortal contact bumped off, mortal contact nearly bumped off, mortal contact bumped off, mortal contact commits suicide.

On rereading it, it comes across much better. I’m still not in love with it, but I can appreciate it. It brings the theme of change (as suggested by other arcs like Lucifer’s abandonment of Hell in Season of Mists and the reshaping and destruction of a dreamscape in A Game of You) very much to the fore. Destruction preaches change is natural, Despair rejects the idea. Destruction, through choice, abdicated his responsibility – he changed; Despair, not through choice, was killed and replaced – despite this, she does not appear to have changed. Dream is changed, and has been changing over the past few years.

That kid really deserves some Prez...

This is handled rather well when Gaiman contrasts his handling of a pickpocket in the 18th century (driving him mad through dreams) and a rude firefighter in the present (pausing to thank him) within a couple of pages. Destruction rightly points out that Dream has changed (on hearing of his trip to Hell at the start of Season of Mists and his interference in Calliope), though Dream denies it – as he continues to do. Dream cannot change or evolve. He has duties and responsibilities, dammit! Indeed, change is very much the watchword here – as it is the gods who have changed that have survived. It’s reverting to the old ways that leads to the death of Ishtar.

Death is also present – though not the personification. Which is fitting, given those are the choices that Morpheus will face (again, between the courses walked byDestruction and Despair). We are reminded just how different and undefinable The Endless truly are. Destruction does not think twice over killing any of the mortals who could lead his family to him, only showing a little token of remorse at the death of his beloved. Though it is odd to hear Destruction state with certainty that even the Endless will eventually pass.

Anything you desire...

Indeed, Death gets the quote of the arc (and possibly her best quote of the whole collection) when she responds to a dead person complaining about not having enough time – she assures him that he got what everyone gets, “you got a lifetime”. Brief Lives is still my least favourite of the major story arcs throughout the series, but it reads a lot better a second time. There is a large element of foreshadowing and some nice character moments, all of which lead directly into the final plotlines of the series. The final two chapters – featuring Destruction conversing with Morpheus, the father-son reunion and the subsequent return to the dreaming – are fantastic. It’s also a nice touch that Gaiman lets us follow some of the mortals touched by the story – showing us the consequences of the actions taken in this brief spell. Consequences are something we’ll be seeing a lot of.

Outside of that, Ramadan looks amazing and reads like a fairytale – like the very best of Gaiman’s work on the comic. The prose and the artwork really are just astonishing and deserve to be savoured and enjoyed. It also helps that it’s a story that is perhaps more relevent now than it was when it was written.

Baghdad in a bag...

Baghdad in the bag...

After that we launch into a final arc, Worlds’ End. It’s a cliché to have characters swapping stories at a bar in the middle of nowhere, but it fits the themes that underpin the saga. I would have been disappointed had there not been a large ‘people telling stories’ motif built into at least one of the arcs. The notion of a “reality storm” isn’t necessarily a new or original one, but it gets the story where it needs to be and has pleasant echoes of Soft Places, the solo story that rounded out the last volume. A bunch of weary travelers get trapped and have to trade stories for entertainment. So the plot thread as a whole succeeds or fails off the strength of the individual stories.

The majority of the stories aren’t really standouts. They’re all well told and never less than entertaining. Even the least filling of the collection – told by the recurring Cluracan – is beautiful to look at and wild and fanciful as such tales should be. A Tale of Two Cities looks fabulous and seems wonderous and mysterious in the way that some of the earlier stories did – indeed it has quite a sparkle about it, an a bit of a charm – but doesn’t really go anywhere (not that stories have to go somewhere). And Cerements works well structurally – there are stories within stories within stories. It also is a nice bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come. Hob’s Levathian is fairly solid, but unremarkable.

A Dream visit...

I love The Golden Boy. Again – like my love of Three Septembers and a January – I can’t explain or justify it. It’s a fairly basic fable about the boy who would be Prez, with stunning artwork and a wonderful way with worlds. Again, this is one of the few places where Gaiman allows his world to overlap with the DCU – like Facade, The Golden Boy features a long forgotten hero of the DC pantheon. Prez Rickard and Boss Smiley shared a comic book, all those years ago. It’s a wonderful story about an individual who would not let himself be corrupted and perhaps the story to most overtly deal with that most patriotic of subconscious thoughts, the American dream. It isn’t forced or excessively cheesy, it just bases itself upon the nigh universal dream of a world where a truly decent man can achieve high political office. I won’t go so far as to say that the story has new relevance in the Obama era, but it is charming for its straight-fowardness. It doesn’t hurt that the story has a sweet and optimistic conclusion.

There’s an interesting segment at the end of the collection where one of the characters labels the tales told as “boy’s own” stories. I won’t pretend to dwell on gender in the whole of the run – there are many more qualified people doing that already – but I will say that I was quite surprised to hear that Neil Gaiman himself breaks down his Sandman stories into “boy” and “girl” stories. I had obviously noticed the strong female characters that inhabit the world as drawn, but I honestly considered it a rare example of a comic writer including rather than excluding a demographic all-too-ignored in comic bookdom. Of course, he’s the writer and he’s the boss (to paraphrase Mel Brooks, he outranks me), but I think that it’s kind of unfair to categorise the stories like that. For example, I adore The Doll’s House and A Game of You, which are two of the supposedly female arcs, and I don’t feel excluded or left out (I didn’t even feel like I wasn’t the target audience). Still, I won’t dwell on it, but now seems as appropriate a place as any to remark on the strong women of Sandman, particularly those paired with idiotic men (not that Hector Hall wasn’t without his charms). It’s nice to see them, and we should see a lot more of them.

The hole in things...

The events at the inn are directly tied back into the narrative by the final chapter. It pretty much makes the outcome of the entire saga clear, though Gaiman never hid that from the reader. Even as early as Season of Mists he was hinting that Morpheus stood at a crossroads between his role and duties and the changes that he was facing. Those following his characterisation know that there’s really only one true outcome from the course of action that the Lord Shaper must follow.

I’ve written quite a bit. I clearly have a lot of thoughts on this volume. It doesn’t read quite as well cover-to-cover as the other three volumes, but it’s arguably much deeper. There’s a lot of characterisation and development outlined in this collection, and the fact that Gaiman is basing a whole arc around the single-issue stories perhaps signals that the end is nigh (there will be only one single-issue story in the final collection). It represents one hell of a ride and Gaiman finally allows himself to fully articulate the themes that drive the series: all things die; change is inevitable; man always kills his gods (or, as we shall see, woman always kills her gods – there’s a lot of room for discussion of gender in Sandman); you can’t fight your instincts; words and stories and dreams have power and are perhaps more real than reality itself.

An Endless Family Dinner...

It’ll be a while before I can finish the final collection, but I’m already really looking forward to it. And also dreading it. It means the series will soon be over.

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

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