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 a 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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