View Full Version : Graphic Novel Review: The Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman

9th January 2005, 10:34 AM
‘Yeah? Well, Eumenides this.’ – Merv PumpkinHead

The Sandman is a tragedy in both the Greek and Shakespearean molds: the one, because it concerns the absolute rules of family blood, and the punishments for transgressing those rules, even in the most understandable of circumstances; the other, because of the examination of a central imperfect character, and the role that personality plays in downfall, even self-destruction.

Of the 75 issues and one special which comprise the collection of ten graphic novels, there is barely a comic in the series which does not have some small part to play in the conclusion of the story in Book IX: ‘The Kindly Ones’, in which the last words are: ‘There. For good or bad. It’s done.’ (Book X is properly regarded as epilogue). This self-conscious awareness of the story is typical of Sandman, though it is not one story, but also many stories within stories, and at other times, overlapping stories. It is immensely satisfying to read from one end to the other, and fully appreciate what and who make the final events possible, and then read again to find out what you missed first time around, and then read again just because it’s wonderful.

In the Sandman, history, mythos, and literature are all sources of stories to be plundered. References are frequent, and occasionally obscure, but never distracting. What you do not know will not affect your understanding (though it may affect one type of appreciation) because all is seamlessly interwoven into something which is Gaiman’s own. That something is the story of Morpheus (who also goes by The Sandman, or Dream, or Oneiros, and many more names besides). The mythological centre of the work is of Gaiman’s creation (though there are strong Christian and Greek and Roman elements): seven beings known as The Endless, embodiments of aspects of intelligent life, of which Dream is one. It has been said so often before that I cringe to repeat it, but The Endless are great works of imagination, both comment on and subversion of the traits they represent. Death is a cheerful and beautiful young woman; Desire sarcastic and cruel; Destruction has the soul of an artist, but no talent for creation (though this doesn’t stop him trying). Dream himself is serious and withdrawn, with a tendency to dramatic moping (which puts me in mind of the man in black in Chaucer’s ‘The Book of the Rose’, itself the story of a dream – I could not say if this is co-incidence). In addition to The Endless there is a recurring cast of gods, mortals, miscellaneous immortals and inhabitants of The Dreaming.

Any over-view of The Sandman would be incomplete without reference to the artwork. It is, after all, a comic, and, like the best examples of any medium, would be nothing without one of its primary modes of storytelling. Gaiman is unusually precise with his instructions to his artists, so in one sense the visual component can be credited to him. However, there are still many different artists and thus many different styles exhibited throughout the series, as well as the expected advance of style and technique over eight years in the comic industry. However, there is one constant, and that is Dave McKean, who had previously collaborated with Gaiman on ‘Violent Cases’ and ‘Black Orchid’ (both of which are worth picking up simply to gawp in wonder at the beauty of the hand-painted artwork). Dave McKean is responsible for all the cover-art of Sandman, and the initial character and text design (Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Lucifer, Matthew and Remiel, to name only the ones that occur to me at this moment, each have their own fonts and speech bubbles – a mode of expression unique to comics. Strangely, one does get an idea of how a character should sound by the literal shape of their speech). McKean’s partially abstract, partially symbolic cover art is perfect for a comic about the Dream King.

Because this is a series and not a single book, I’ll outline a bit about each collection to make it easier to dip in:

Preludes and Nocturnes On the basis of this book, you may not want to continue reading Sandman. Do. The first book is not typical of what will come later, and at the point of writing Neil Gaiman did not know that his creation would go beyond the eight comics collected within. The first seven issues experiment with different genres of horror in telling the tale of Morpheus’ imprisonment and return to power, the most horrific of which is probably ‘24 Hours’. They are imaginative and compelling, but lack the warmth which tempers the gruesome events of later Sandman. The eighth issue, however, is what ensured Gaiman got 67 more issues. This is the first appearance of Death, in which we get to see her go about the task of greeting the newly-dead. It is both sad and heart-warming.

The Doll’s House While Morpheus was imprisoned, some dreams escaped from the Dreaming into the waking world – this collection follows their current actions. The name of the collection initially suggested to me Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, which explores the role of women and understanding of one’s own identity. These themes, however, are more explored in ‘A Game of You’, though it is worth noting that the characters of that collection in some cases mirror the inhabitants of the Florida house. The Doll’s House refers instead to the manipulations at work, and perhaps the games of the errant dreams. The Doll’s House also represents continuity down the generations, as the bonds of family are emphasised in the collection.

Dream Country This is a slim collection of short stories. Two of the issues have no bearing on the main plot, though I think one, ‘Façade’, is a fine and poignant tale all on its own. The other two issues feature characters or events of which we shall hear more, including the award-winning ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the partner issue of which is the very last issue of Sandman.

Season of Mists This collection is a good place to start reading if you aren’t sure if Sandman is for you. Arguably the second best collection (some would even say best), it gives you a much better feel for the series than its proper starting place, while still being early enough that you do not need to be aware of previous collections to make sense of it. It starts with a family meeting, at which six of the Endless attend. This collection is concerned almost entirely with supernatural events (except for a short interlude, no events occur on earth) which serves to showcase most of the elements of Gaiman’s adapted mythology. In it, Morpheus has in his possession an item forced upon him, and wanted by most supernatural factions. He must decide to whom, if anyone, he will give the item, which gives rise to much pleading, bribery, blackmail and general machinations. The ending is a Deus Ex Machina (literally, from the Greek tragedy origins), but it is, I think, entirely appropriate.

A Game of You Downgraded by many fans for featuring very little of the Sandman, and having little to do with the rest of the series. By failing to read it you would miss very little which would add to your understanding of main story, though it features some characters who have been mentioned before, and some whom we shall see again later. But I think you should read it anyway. This collection is centrally concerned with issues of identity, particularly the shadows the past casts upon present identity. The characters are rapidly drawn and instantly endearing as the plot plays out in two locations: one in the dream-world, and one in a rickety apartment building in the middle of a hurricane, creating a sense of claustrophobia.

Fables and Reflections This is another short story collection. Again, a mixture of the relevant and the simply pleasing for its own sake. ‘Ramadan’ in this collection has been much praised, which I have never understood, but it is a feast for the eyes. This collection contains the first appearance of Orpheus in two stories, whose connection to the story you will know if you were paying attention back in ‘Calliope’ of ‘Dream Country’.

Brief Lives My favourite collection, in which Morpheus seeks Destruction (summarised in such a way the pun is made more blatant). The event which ends this collection represents the point of no return in the story of Morpheus. Thematically, the title says much about the preoccupation of the collection. Bernard has just been crushed by a falling wall and, as Death helps him to his feet, he remarks:

‘But I did okay, didn’t I? I mean, I got, what, fifteen thousand years. That’s pretty good. Isn’t it? I lived a pretty long time.’ ‘You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.’

Much later in the collection another character muses, a single speech played out on a double-page spread taken up mostly with a star-speckled sky, dark and distant, and yet warm in tone:

‘I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than memories. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds don’t last; and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.’

Yet a story so completely concerned with the despair of impermanence that people must make up pleasing fictions simply to continue living, starts and ends with the words: ‘It’s going to be a beautiful day’. This too is only transitory, but that does not mean it cannot be enjoyed.

World’s End Another collection of short stories, but this time with a stronger connection: here we get various characters telling stories to each other in the World’s End inn, one of the free houses which belongs to no single time or place. Not only are the stories connected by their storytellers, but also largely thematically linked around the idea of lost places, like the inn itself. As one of the story-tellers leaves he has a vision of events to come.

The Kindly Ones The biggest single volume (‘…in hardback at least, could undoubtedly be used to stun a burglar: which has always been my definition of real art’, Gaiman says in the afterward), concluding not only the main story, but providing ending to the stories of several characters we have met along the way, which may or may not have anything to do with the main plotline. By the end of this volume there are still questions, the answers to which we shall never be given, but this does not mean the ending is unsatisfactory. We get to know what happens, but not necessarily why or how, and joining the story together for hours afterwards on scant but tantalising scenes is part of the fun. One of the most striking things about this volume is the artwork, which is colourful and highly stylised, in contrast to the varied but largely realistic artwork of the rest of the series. I initially objected to this, but on second look, while consisting of simple shapes and clean lines, it is far from simplistic artwork: it is full of expression which enriches the text and story.

The Wake Consisting of the three issues of the wake, richly and softly illustrated, and three further single issues. This strikes me as a funny way to end a series, but the issues are not wholly inappropriate. It ends on the story of Shakespeare writing his last non-collaborative work: a story of dreams and fantasy, of growth and renunciation of power, including Shakespeare’s literary power in a debt he owes Morpheus.

In summary, I’m tempted to say this is the best thing in the medium of graphic novels, but that would be unfair to many fine works which simply don’t attempt the scale of this project, and excel in different ways. There is no comparable work in the medium of similar subject-matter and complexity.