Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Sandman

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is often held up as an example of how good DC's Vertigo line, and comic books in general, can be. It’s not without good reason. Although the title starts out a little bland and directionless it develops during the course of the run into a story about the nature of dreams, myths and stories themselves, introducing a memorable cast (Delirious, Jack Pumpkinhead, Lucien, Matthew the Raven, and Lucifer, amongst many others) and providing some excellent storytelling along the way.

The first story arc, collected as the trade paperback Preludes and Nocturnes, is far from special. It deals with Dream, the Sandman of the title, being imprisoned for decades and the journey he must make to regain his power upon being freed. The use and portrayal of Christianity, while important later, feels cumbersome and uninteresting during a first read. The very clear links to the DC Universe (most obviously the appearance of John Constatine and Arkham Asylum) limit the sense of scope. At this point it feels like “just another” comic book.

But wade through that first collection and things improve. The final issue of Preludes and Nocturnes features a drastic change of tone. Gone is the quest, the blood, gore and angst of the first seven issues, replaced by a conversation between Dream and his sister Death. It is the first indication that Gaiman has realised the opportunity writing the series represents. This relationship is revisited multiple times during the series and becomes one of its highlights.

The Doll’s House, the second collected volume, is where the series begins to hit its stride. We learn more about the nature of the book’s powerful and emotional protagonist and Gaiman seizes upon the potential the book presents. Things just get better and better as the story progresses.

What’s nice is that Gaiman will often present one-shot issues where his regular cast are in the background, sometimes not even appearing at all. It allows him to construct a larger world while at the same time conjuring an air of mystery for the central characters. Considering their nature (which I shan’t spoil here as discovering it is one of the joys of reading the series) it’s a smart move.

These collections of one-shots are often highlights of the series and never feel out of place. It’s perfectly natural that a series about dreams and stories should go off on tangents focusing on such things, placing importance on the tales over the characters. This isn’t to say that the regular issues are not good. The central tale is difficult to surmise but it is essentially a story about Dream coming to understand his responsibility and place within the universe. The various arcs of the series cover different periods in his life and decisions he makes, all contributing to the title’s closing issues.

A personal highlight is the use of mythology. He borrows liberally from Egyptian, Norse and Christian mythology as well as fairy tales, making the characters his own while never contradicting the spirit and feel of his source material. The idea that these gods and monsters all fall within the dominion of ‘The Dream King’ is an interesting one, and makes you consider the nature of religion and belief.

Gaiman also takes much inspiration from Shakespeare. The man himself appears a handful of times throughout the series and is given his own story arc. It’s surprisingly intricate considering Shakespeare is essentially a bit part character in the series. The concept of ‘The Bard’ being gifted his great writing ability by Dream may seem passé now but it was original and innovative when the title was first printed.

Gaiman also looks at the nature of names. Dream is revealed to be a collector of titles, epithets and designations. Dozens of names for our central character are revealed throughout the course of the series and Gaiman also looks into the origins of some of his mythological cast. It makes for an interesting side note (or perhaps sub-plot).

Of course, the author did not create The Sandman alone. While most of the famous titles from Vertigo feature a regular writer and artist combo from start to finish The Sandman features a revolving door on the visual side of things. The only artistic constant for the series are the issue covers of Dave McKean. These evoke a wondrous sense of unknowable magic and really help to create the right tone for each instalment.

The internal art is handled by somebody different on practically every arc. Naturally this means some issues receive better artwork than others, although views on that are naturally subjective. I personally love the style of Marc Hempel on The Kindly Ones but I know of several people who feel it’s some of the weakest work of the series. These changes in art reflect the changing nature of dreams, something which is never really emphasised within the series or by the author himself but fits nicely with one of the book’s chief themes.

On the subject of the artwork it should be mentioned that over the last two years DC have reissued the ten volume run with recoloured pages. Naturally some portions of the series benefit from this more than others. A Game of You feels almost like a new story for example, while the changes made to the already vibrant pallet of World’s End don’t strike me as such a big deal. Ultimately it’s a change for the better and a good move on the part of DC (even if they did only do it for the dosh).

While it may not get the credit of Watchmen for bringing large scale changes to the comic book industry I’d say that, over the course of time, The Sandman has proven to be the more influential series. Looked back on it is a truly epic series both in terms of scope and achievement. It’s one of the first comic series I ever read and it remains one of the best.

Critical information:
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Various, including Sam Kieth, Charles Vess, Malcolm Jones III and Marc Hempel (and covers by Dave McKean)

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