No space opera after all; I was still a little out of sorts after moving and decided to re-read for some quality melodrama. Had narrowed it down to either Last Call, Look to Windward, or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and decided on the latter (I’ve re-read Last Call pretty recently, and Look to Windward was a little more slow-moving than I was in the mood for; also, I read the British version pre-September 11, and I’m not sure how it would read now). It was a good choice; it’s been a while since I read the entire series at once, and it’s an emotionally rich enough work to allow quality wallowing. [Warning: long post ahead.]
The series begins with the collection Preludes and Nocturnes. The story arc is pretty simple: Dream of the Endless (sometimes called Morpheus) is captured, imprisoned for decades, and then released from his confinement; he must locate tools that were taken from him and re-establish his realm. The early nature of this work is clear, as Gaiman hadn’t yet started stretching the boundaries of the genre as he did in later issues. (Also, I dislike the art of the first few issues.) It is interesting to re-read this now; later issues pick up some themes and events in a way that makes clear that, despite being a monthly comic stretching over 75 issues, Sandman is still governed by a coherent overall story arc. And I’d forgotten that parts of this are genuinely scary. Still worth reading, but not necessarily where I’d recommend people start.
The next collection is The Doll’s House. (Note that issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” is reprinted in both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House; it’s one of the more popular issues and introduces Dream’s big sister Death, a cheery goth chick who quotes Mary Poppins and tells Dream to grow up.) This story doesn’t really come into focus until near the end, but it involves Dream continuing to rebuild his realm and an external threat to the Dreaming. (It also includes the infamous issue set in a serial killer convention.) There are two stand-alone issues included in this, “Tales in the Sand” and “Men of Good Fortune,” which have nothing to do with the arc of The Doll’s House proper. They do come at this point in the series for a reason, though: the fundamental story of Sandman is to what extent Morpheus’s emotions and ways of relating change as a result of his captivity. The contrast between the two stand-alone issues in The Doll’s House, like the resolution of this story arc, begins to suggest this progression.
Next is the first short story collection, Dream Country. This contains four stories, together with a script (what the author actually writes in the process of making a comic). The first, “Calliope,” strikes me as something that would be impossible to tell outside of fantasy: a man suffers from writer’s block and bargains with an aging writer for his muse. Which is an actual Muse, Calliope, youngest of the nine, captured decades ago in Greece and imprisoned since. If you tried to tell that kind of story in “realistic” fiction, it would be the worst kind of clumsy allegory: but here it’s simple drama, as Calliope suffers and is eventually released. It’s not the best story in Sandman, but it begins to make more explicit the themes of story, compassion, and imprisonment, boundaries, and rules that run throughout.
Two of the other stories, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “Facade,” are enjoyable but not particularly noteworthy. (Okay. “Facade” is noteworthy for being the first issue of Sandman to not feature the Sandman.) The other, though, deserves special mention: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” won a World Fantasy Award for short story (a juried award), after which the rules were changed to exclude comics from consideration. (I believe something similar happened when John M. Ford’s poem “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” won the same award, but I’m not sure.) The strangest people have read this issue: for instance, my Classics professor in college told me that an Elizabethan studies colleague of his brought it in and passed it around the department. It is the tale of the very first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, played on Wendel’s Mound for the faerie court. It’s gorgeously illustrated by Charles Vess (who also did the art for Stardust) and entirely an elegant and slightly melancholy telling.
The next story arc is Season of Mists, which in my opinion is where the series really begins to hit its stride. This is where Chad started reading the series, and it’s a good place for it, as it stands alone pretty well. Dream has a ten-thousand-year-old mistake thrown in his face: condemning a lover to Hell for eternity because she hurt your pride—not cool. He determines to release Nada (first seen in “Tales in the Sand” in The Doll’s House) from Hell, not an easy task since Dream earlier incurred Lucifer’s enmity. He goes to Hell, and is . . . somewhat surprised by what he finds there.
Season of Mists has a number of lovely touches, such as the chapter headings (my favorite of which is, “ . . . and in which it is demonstrated that while some may fall, others are pushed”), and enjoyable portrayals of different pantheons. It also formally introduces us to the six remaining Endless in a lovely series of half-page pictures overlaid with prose. First we met Desire, who “smells almost subliminally of summer peaches, and casts two shadows: one black and sharp-edged, the other translucent and forever wavering, like heat haze,” and Despair, Desire’s twin, who “says little, and is patient.” Next we are introduced to Destiny, “the oldest of the Endless; in the Beginning was the Word, and it was traced by hand on the first page of his book, before ever it was spoken aloud”; Delirium, who “once was Delight[;] even today her eyes are badly matched: one eye is a vivid emerald green, spattered with silver flecks that move; her other eye is vein blue”; and Dream, who “accumulates names to himself like others make friends; but [who] permits himself few friends.” The last panel says, quite simply, “And then there is Death.” You can’t get that kind of effect with text alone. (I must also note that Death is the only one of the Endless who gets normal, unornamented speech balloons.)
I determined to re-read the series in the order it was published, which took me next to three stories collected in Fables and Reflections, which I mentally dub “the late summer sequence”: “Thermidor” (July, in the French Revolutionary calendar), “August,” and “Three Septembers and a January.” The best of these is “Three Septembers . . . “, which introduced me to the Emperor Norton, but the most significant is “Thermidor,” in which we learn that Orpheus (still living as a talking head, centuries after being torn apart by the Bacchante) is Dream’s son, though they are estranged.
After that came the sequence A Game of You, which I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about. For one, it contains the issue with the worst art in Sandman; it appears to have been done by an emergency replacement for the artist who penciled and inked the rest of the sequence, and it’s just bad. Mostly, I’m troubled by the plot in ways that the introduction to the collection touches on but does not, for me, satisfactorily resolve. (Allow me to say here that none of the introductions should be read first if you don’t like spoilers.) Events in The Doll’s House continue to have repercussions, both for the characters involved in it and for an outpost of the Dreaming; identities are constructed, deconstructed, and painfully shored up against the world; and Dream makes an most unwise acquaintance.
Next are the rest of the stories collected in Fables and Reflections—on no account believe the order listed in the back of some of my collections and read Brief Lives after A Game of You. “The Hunt,” “Soft Places,” and “The Parliament of Rooks” are all vignettes about story telling (what else?). I particularly like “The Parliament of Rooks,” in which Eve, Cain, and Abel take turns telling stories to Daniel, a child gestated in dreams (in The Doll’s House). Somewhere in here comes “Orpheus”; it was originally published as a “Sandman Special,” so I’m not sure precisely when it was published. As far as I’m aware, it’s a fairly straightforward retelling of the myth, except for the appearance of the Endless. Finally, there’s my favorite issue of the series, “Ramadan” (which technically comes after Brief Lives); it is an insanely gorgeous tale of Baghdad, city of cities, in the days of its glory, and the bargain its king makes with Morpheus. P. Craig Russell’s art is amazing, intricate and jewel-like in its colors, and the tale brims with casual wonders like “the Other Egg of the Phoenix (For the Phoenix when its time comes to die lays two eggs, one black, one white; From the white egg hatches the Phoenix-bird itself, when its time is come, But what hatches from the black egg no one knows).” If anyone had to read just one issue of Sandman, I’d recommend it be this one.
The next story arc is Brief Lives, where we cross over a certain line: before this, a reader could pick up any one of the collections and start reading without problem. Brief Lives starts an arc that runs for the rest of the series and should be read in order, preferably after reading some of the earlier volumes. Delirium, fearful of change, decides to seek out the missing Endless, Destruction, and Dream agrees to accompany her for his own reasons. However, as is pointed out late in the collection, “You cannot seek Destruction and return unscathed.” Quite a lot of people are scathed in this quest tale that is also a mediation on change and mortality, and the peak of Sandman‘s overall story arc; more than that I cannot say, except to note that Delirium is a lot cuter and less scary than in her first appearances. (And very quotable. “Someone brought me a flower once, clandestinely. That means I don’t know who it was. And I never saw the flower, either. Maybe they never brought it at all.”)
World’s End is an anthology of tales told during a reality storm, a fundamental change in time and space and myth that strands travelers from many disparate places in the Inn at the End of All Worlds. The art for these stories is particularly apropos for the tales and works very well. Many of the tales are about cities: a creepy little Lovecraftian thing, very clean and spare; a diplomatic mission of Cluracan of Faerie to the city of Aurelia, sadly fallen from its greatness; and my favorite, a story set in Litharge, the Necropolis, a city devoted entirely to funeral rites. There’s also a sea story, in which we see Hob Gadling once again (initially seen in “Men of Good Fortune” all the way back in The Doll’s House), and a strange tale about a destined President of America (apparently an old DC character). The collection ends by setting the stage for the final arc, The Kindly Ones. I don’t think this has the highest density of really excellent stories, but in a way this is the quintessential Sandman collection in its format of nested stories within stories (I think the most levels it gets up to is four).
And then there is The Kindly Ones, the culmination of the long tale about Morpheus since his release from imprisonment, the changes in his character and the consequences of his actions. Many people hate the art for this, but I think it’s quite fitting. This arc is long and brilliant and moving, and that’s about all I can say about it without giving away more than I’d want to. The wrapping-up of the series is done in The Wake, which does an excellent job, especially considering the amount of story that has gone before. “Ramadan” is my favorite single issue, but the later volumes of the series just keep getting better and better.
The Dream Hunters is an illustrated novella with Dream, but is not part of the overall Sandman arc, being written several years after the comic’s conclusion. It’s a fairly faithful retelling of a Japanese fairy tale, gorgeously illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. However, I’m a Westerner at heart, and so often have trouble with the shape of Asian narratives; this is no exception. I’d say this is only for the die-hard Sandman fan.
What does all of my verbiage boil down to? Neil Gaiman is a fabulously inventive teller of tales, and Sandman currently stands as his masterpiece. I hope he someday does something to match it (American Gods isn’t it, in my opinion), but if he doesn’t, Sandman is a life work to be proud of. Go read it, unless you know from experience you are completely incapable of reading comics.