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Absolute Sandman: Volume IV

It’s over. Wow. It has been a long haul, but an impressive and richly rewarding one. Having read the entire collection again over the space of about a month, I have even more appreciation for the wonder of Neil Gaiman’s writing. The volume is pretty much perfect, featuring (in my opinion) the most consistently brilliant artwork of the four volumes and a fitting conclusion to a saga that has run for 1,500 pages already. It’s hard enough to write a fitting conclusion to a two-hour movie or a novella. How does Gaiman manage to tie up everything so ridiculously well?

An empty throne? Foreshadowing, you say?

An empty throne? Foreshadowing, you say?

Warning: This review contains spoilers (as any review of the collection will). They’re minor, they’ve been foreshadowed throughout the collection and pretty much made explicit at the climax of the Volume 3. Still, consider yourself appropriately warned.

It’s amazing how much the series has grown and progressed since it began. I noted on rereading Volume 1 that it was a lot more explicitly violent and disturbing than what follows (and also a lot darker in tone). That the series has shifted in tone and content is undoubted, but it is impressive how well Gaiman manages to tie everything back together, even from the first story arc. There are shout-outs to event explicitly rendered and implicitly concealed, happening within and beyond the series that we have followed. Indeed, the death of Morpheus has been foreshadowed explicitly as early as the climax to Prelude and Nocturnes, where he destroys a facet of himself (the ruby) as a solution to a problem and so he may survive. It is somewhat fitting that the narrative moves a full circle (destroying himself so that a facet of himself (the emerald) may survive – in Daniel). There are tonnes of other shoutouts and I’m not even sure I’ve picked up on all of them.

The introductory arc, The Kindly Ones, is epic. It’s spread across thirteen issues, but it fits what Gaiman attempts to do. Sure, it’s the conclusion to Morpheus’ story, but he offers us a hint of closure (or sometimes teasingly a lack thereof) in the lives of the newly-fallen Duma, the recently freed Satan and the wandering Rose Walker, among others. These interludes only tangentially interlink with the central narrative thread (the death of Dream), but this isn’t necessarily a story about Dream. It’s a story about stories. Of which Dream is but a facet.

One final Dream...

In the same way that Morpheus and Daniel are facets of Dream, or how Vixen is a facet of Hal, or how the three ladies are a facet of the Furies. We only ever see part of the cloth, never the whole think, a point that Gaiman hammers home by strategically cutting us out of the second arc, The Wake, at the moment that Daniel first meets his siblings or by having Loki mercilessly tease Carla that she will die knowing absolutely nothing about what is going on. It’s the way that life works. It isn’t pretty, but that’s it. Stories have many facets – many versions (which Gilbert used to delight in enlightening Rose with) – and we are arrogant to assume that we will ever see or understand them all. Illogical and irrational things happen, despite our own need to rationalise (Zelda’s death is the ultimate fluke – Hal has his version of how she contracted HIV, but Rose has another). Sandman features as many unseen important moments (the first meeting between Daniel and his family; the fallout between Hal and his former housemates) as it does important ones, because these are facets. We only see them when the light shines right – like we only discover about Morpheus’ romance with Larissa/Thessaly after the fact.

We finally find out the symbolism for those hearts I spotted appearing in Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are explicitly identified as a “heart”and – although symbolic – are fittingly tied to Desire. It is hammered home how important the organ is. Morpheus bares the scare on his face with ease and almost absent-mindedness (simply not being bothered to heal it), but it is the wound to the heart that will ultimately symbolised his death.

Death comes to us all...

Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.

-Daniel/Dream, Exiles

It’s interesting to consider how true the various “change or die” ultimatums that Gaiman peppers throughout the text actually are. It seems obvious that Morpheus did not treat either as an absolute position. How much of his fate can be pinned at his own hands is also debatable. That he died because he was unwilling to change is a fair and logical argument to make – he could have fled as Destruction did, as the Furies are not renowned for their speed. However, the irony arises that at least some of his fate arose from the changes he underwent during the series. Had he not been captured and imprisoned it seems unlikely that he would have taken pity on Loki and freed him during The Season of Mists. Loki would have returned to his cave and would not have kidnapped Daniel. Nor would he have changed his mind and gone back on his refusal to kill his son Orpheus. If he had not spilt family blood, the Furies could not have pursued him.

You could make the argument that a steadfast Morpheus would simply have delayed the inevitable and prevented things from occurring in this particular manner. Desire had previously conspired to force Morpheus to spill family blood in The Doll’s House, so (s)he likely would have continued. The Furies would likely still have borne a grudge against the family for Orpheus making them cry and Lyta Hall would still have resented Dream for stealing Daniel from her (as he was obligated to do). Indeed, it was Morpheus’ sense of obligation and duty to Nuala that led him to leave the Dreaming at a key moment, which ultimately led to his death. Indeed, it might even be suggested (and is hinted in the text), that Morpheus himself set these courses in action knowing full well how they would end.

I wonder how much of this was planned, and how much Gaiman came up with on the fly...

Gaiman ties these themes and threads together as well as the three ladies that frame the story. Nothing feels rushed or forced. It still packs a whallop on reread, even knowing what must happen (though we arguably know what must happen even the first time that we read the collection).

I know I offered a brief comment on gender in my review of the previous collection, but still. The Kindly Onesis defined by women. All the key participants are female (save Morpheus himself) and most are malicious. That isn’t a commentary – it’s the nature of the story and villains are required. That Gaiman makes us sympathise with Lyta Hall despite what she does is no small accomplishment. And Larissa remains true to her complex character, but still seems the most outrightly cold participant in what occurs. Nuala is the most wonderfully innocent and the most tragically ignored. That she finds the courage to leave and exist independently is one the series’ most heartwarming moments.

Perchance to dream...

By contrast the men seem impotent and weak, particularly physically. Lyta breaks the arm of her rich and powerful suitor without so much as a second thought and Mervyn’s macho display of army tactics is ultimately fruitless (as is Gilbert’s attempted application of reason). Rose’s solicitor, initially charming and dispassionate is meek and awkward when confronted with his indiscretion. Loki and The Corinthian (and arguably Matthew, though he remains mostly passive) fare slightly better, but even the “master manipulator” is ultimately being manipulated, which doesn’t bode well given that manipulation should be his special talent. That leaves us with The Corinthian, who manages to recover Daniel. So kudos to him.

The Wakeis touching and tragic and sweet and heart warming. It is a nice tranquil ride after the kick to various vital organs which we just received. Try to spot all the cameos (which allow Gaiman to flex his metafictional sense of humour with DC superheroes). It also features every character ever. Seriously. Check it out. And I finally got that the little Asian kid is Nada. Don’t know how I missed that. Anyway, it’s nice and doesn’t feel forced or stretched. I also really like the epilogue with Hob at the Renaissance Fair. Does anyone get the sense that Neil hates RenFairs? His discussion with Death hits on the importance of stories, perhaps even over truth itself (she defends the Disneyland-esque approach to history). It’s also fun to have an immortal character who doesn’t long to be mortal. It’s a nice subversion of the usual, heavy-handed fare that we get and seems a fitting note for the legacy to wind down on.

The stairway to... where ever the endless go..

Anyway, the artwork throughout the volume is fruitless. From the almost abstract bright colours of The Kindly Ones to the stately illustrations of The Wake. The single stories that end the volume are also great (Exiles calling to mind two superior individual stories in style and content), and offer a reflection back over the mammoth saga. I think that The Tempest pretty much explains why the story ended here. And it’s fitting, echoing back to the other Shakespeare play that ended Volume 1. The artwork is the most consistently fantastic of the entire collection (which is saying something). It may not offer the best individual examples, but it reads very well, cover-to-cover.

As ever, the Absolute Edition is the way to read these stories. Seriously. The extras are amazing and the oversized and remastered art suits the story perfectly. There is everything you could ever want hidden away inside. Indeed, my only real source of complaint is that the collection feels incomplete. Where is that Absolute Sandman: Supplement that you promised, Neil? It’s certainly a far better deal than the recently issued Absolute Death. That’s just about it as far as complaints go. As a way of reading the story, I can offer no better alternative than these four lovely over-sized volumes.

So, it’s over. It’s a nice little collection. It’s a fully engrossing and complex saga. It’s the story of dreams, but it’s also the story of stories. There is no way to over hype what Gaiman has done with his story arc here. 75 issues (and more) of concentrated goodness with a logical structure and a tonne of creativity, flowing naturally but with a clear idea of where it must go. I’m glad to have been along for the ride.

If you like stories, you owe it to yourself to check out at least one volume of the series.

Such is the stuff from which dreams are woven…


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

3 Responses

  1. This is a very late comment, but, y’know, as if goes…

    The artwork for the Kindly Ones struck me as kind of Dick Tracy-ish. I wish they had stuck with The Wake’s designs the entire book.

    Who’s Nada? I feel like I should know.

    • She was Dream’s love who he exiled to Hell, if I remember correctly, but it’s been a while since I’ve read them.

  2. It’s either Nala or Nada, but I haven’t the heart to look it up.

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