Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review Club (March 2010): Sandman, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman

(This is the March 2010 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list of all participants, click on the link at the end of this review.)

For the whole of his career, Neil Gaiman and I have never met. Not in person, not online, and not through his fiction. Recently, that’s changed. I started reading his Newbery Award winning YA novel, The Graveyard Book, and really like it. I’m listening to it, read by Gaiman himself, and it’s like having the author sit beside me and narrate the tale. Up until I started reading his latest novel, I knew enough to know Gaiman made a name for himself with his comic book writing, specifically the Sandman series for DC’s Vertigo line. All seventy-five issues have been collected in a ten-volume trade paperback edition. Sandman, along with other famous graphic novels I’ve actually read (The Dark Knight Returns; Watchmen; V for Vendetta) ranks among the most important products of the comic book world. Seeing as I’m a comic book devotee and with a new found appreciation for Gaiman’s storytelling (I’m also reading his short story collection, Fragile Things), I figured I ought to start where he started.

Hired to revamp DC’s classic Sandman character as created by Jack Kirby, Gaiman quickly earned the right to create his own title and character. Thus, he begat Dream, AKA Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreamworld. Dream is tall, lean, deathly white, with spiky black hair and pupil-less black eyes. In a nice touch, his word bubbles on the page are white script on a black background (as opposed to the typical black text in a white balloon). This distinction, along with his visage, lends Dream an “otherness” quality that sets him apart, visibly, throughout the issues.

Volume I: Preludes and Nocturnes, includes the first eight issues of the series. Issues one through seven constitute the first story arc. In a bizarre ritual in 1916 England, humans, who didn’t quite know what they were doing, yank Dream from his realm and imprison him in Linka glass orb. There he remains for seventy years, time passing for him at the same rate as for us. His three talismen—a ruby, a helm (gas mask), and a pouch of sand—are stolen. Obviously, he escapes and the remainder of the seven-issue arc is Dream’s quest to recover his stolen property and seek revenge.

Dream’s journey is, to say the least, trippy. The artwork—by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III—is often kaleidoscopic, just like our real dreams are. With it being an ostensibly mainstream comic, many of the more horrific elements are masked behind four-color comic art. A few of DC Comics’ more interesting characters make cameos along the way. The first people Dream seeks help from are the brothers Cain and Abel, the curators of the House of Mystery and House of Secrets, respectively. Later, he meets John Constantine, AKA Hellblazer, the character Keanu Reeves played in the movie “Constantine.” Dream searches for his “tools” and, in places, must duel mortals to regain what is rightfully his. I have to say that the sequence where the mortal—Doctor Destiny, enemy of the Justice League—uses the Dreamstone for his own sadistic pleasure is disturbing. Be warned: this is marketed as being for mature audiences and I would concur.

In early issues, Dream has his revenge against the people who either imprisoned him or had his tokens. In the battle with Doctor Destiny, Dream nearly perishes. His actions in the aftermath, given all that we have seen up until then, are interesting and lead directly into the last issue of this volume. Here, Dream talks with his big sister, Death, and accompanies her as she does her job. This issue is a sort of epilogue to this first sequence, and it’s where the bulk of the entire series seems to be headed.

I had no preconceived ideas about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and I’m glad. I thoroughly enjoyed it. A friend of mine who has read the latter section of the series tells me it only gets better. As a writer myself, I understand how ideas form and how they can be shaped into stories. The groundwork Gaiman laid in this first volume of Sandman is something deep and epic. This is a journey and a story I fully expect to love.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

The only graphic novel I have read was Persepolis and I think that is pretty uncommon. Have to try a more traditional one.

Barrie said...

I've read and enjoyed several of Neil Gaiman's books. Such an imagination! I haven't read this one though. In fact, I really haven't delved much into graphic novels. Much fix this. Thanks for this review, Scott.

George said...

I, too, am not familiar with Neil Gaiman's graphic novels. I'll have to fix that soon. On a different issue, I just finished listening to Peter Gabriel's new CD of cover songs, SCRATCH MY BACK, and came away less than impressed. I'll have a review of it next week on my blog, but since we're both Genesis fans, I wanted to give you a heads-up before you wasted any money on this disappointment.

Sarahlynn said...

I reviewed a graphic memoir this month, but I almost reviewed Neil Gaimon's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK instead. A few of the women in my book club listened to the Gaimon-narrated audiobook last month and said it was fabulous. I missed that, but did really enjoy the illustrations in the hard cover. Incredibly dark opening scene for middle grade fiction, wouldn't you say? Great book, though.

I've long been embarrassed that I've never read the Sandman comics. What kind of geek am I?! (I haven't read Watchmen, either, though I did read V for Vendetta when the movie came out.)

I'll keep waiting for one of my geek friends to put a volume in my hands, but I'm sure I'll love it when they do.

Clare2e said...

Yes, and yes, yes. But American Gods and Neverwhere, and maybe especially American Gods.


Matthew K. said...

Enjoyed the review. I avoided Gaiman's work because it seemed so very goth. After watching a profile of him on CBS TV , I like him more.

Sarahlynn said...

Can one be goth and a Scientologist?

Scott Parker said...

Patti - Haven't read that one. Heard about it, and will read Sarahlynn's review shortly. Sometimes, like with Sandman, I use the term "graphic novel" to encompass a trade paperback edition of a single story arc.

Barrie - I'm just putting my toe in the Gaiman ocean. After Sandman--which will take awhile--I'm going to open one of his novels.

George - I'm intrigued with PG's CD. I like it when artists (Elvis Costello; Sting) go classical. I'll give the CD a listen online but will certainly take your warning into consideration.

Sarahlynn - As an avid audiobook listener, Gaiman is far and away the best author/narrator. I do think the opening section is dark. Interesting, when Gaiman talks Coroline (not read/seen) that he's heard that we adults think of dark things as REALLY dark whereas children just go with the flow. Oh, and I got my copy of Volume I at my library.

Clare2e - So, you're saying American Gods is where to start? I've discovered a novella in the Fragile Things collection that I'll pass on until I've read the novel.

Matthew K - I was pleasantly surprised yesterday morning when I saw the piece, too. Love his house.

Sarahlynn - Good question. Post it on Gaiman's blog...

Clare2e said...

I don't know if American Gods (or Neverwhere) is where to start, but I think it's some of the very finest of what he's done, and AG has more of that nifty mythological re-jiggering that's so cool in Sandman.