Back in 1990 or 1991, I picked up a stray issue of a book called The Sandman off a comic shop shelf. It was issue #18, and the book had this cool painting on the cover of a creepy cat jumping into some clouds and the words, “Dream Country,” in big letters across the top, just under the book’s title. I had probably seen name, The Sandman, in lots of monthly price guides, because I was one of those “collectors” who kept track of how much their books were “worth” back then, and The Sandman back issue values started to climb pretty much as soon as they hit the shelves—but this single issue was my first actual taste of the series. (I still have the issue in a frame on the wall in the dining room.) As it turned out, I LOVED the book, and as I bought more issues, it quickly became my favorite comic series, and I did my best to get every new issue as soon as they were published, and I attempted to track down as many of the back issues as I could afford. Most of my back issues came in the form of trade paperbacks, though, because I was poor… (Some things never change…) I have since LOST almost all those books, along with MOST of my comics, but that’s okay. I try not to get to attached to STUFF anymore. The STORIES that Neil Gaiman wrote for this series, however—THESE I did get attached to, and I try to read (and REREAD) them as often as I can by whatever means necessary… (An evil laugh echoes through the internet…)
Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and others – The Sandman – Preludes & Nocturnes (1991/2010)
Preludes & Nocturnes collects the first eight issues of Neil Gaiman’s comic book masterpiece (and I have, of course LOST my paper copy, so I read a digital version for this review.) I’m guessing that many of you may have already read this series, or part of it, or have at least heard of it, because it was one of the most popular comic titles of the 1990s, inspiring an entire army of goths to venture into comic shops, (thanks in no small part to the iconic character, Death, who looks a heck of a lot like a young Siouxsie Sioux, and who made her first appearance in book eight of the series. Morpheus himself bares more than a passing resemblance to Robert Smith from The Cure!) The entire series is now taught in college mythology courses, it was one of the cornerstone books in DC’s Vertigo line of mature horror titles, and in its 75-issue run from 1989 to 1996 it redefined what graphic literature could be, even winning a prestigious World Fantasy Award! (The first comic book to ever win one…)
For those who have never touched a Sandman book, the stories focus on Morpheus, or Dream, (he goes by many names), who is a demi-god or cosmic force, one of the Endless, whose family includes Death, Destiny, Desire, Delight… (Lot’s of “D” names.) Because the main character is the personification of dreams (and nightmares), there is a lot of FREAKINESS to these stories. Gaiman, who is a classic storyteller, borrows from literature, mythology, history, and psychology to craft his tales, which breathes a depth into this series that takes it beyond mere superheroes or grade B horror into something far more epic—and often far more DISTURBING.
The first issue opens on a turn of the century magical society who are attempting, through occult means, to capture and imprison Death. Their attempt fails, and instead, Dream is conjured and confined in a magical prison. The consequences of the King of Dreams going missing are far reaching, especially for people who are intimately tied to the dream world. Some fall asleep and can’t wake up, others are unable to sleep at all and either go mad or commit suicide. The magicians who attempted to capture Death keep Morpheus caged for decades, and he (being Endless) simply waits as his captors grow old, die, and are replaced by younger, less talented magicians. The story is dark, takes place over the course of about seventy years, and doesn’t end well for anyone. Eventually, Dream escapes, but while he was captured his tools—which hold much of his power—were stolen by the magicians and lost. Weak, nearly shattered, Morpheus returns to the Dreamlands, only to find his realm in tatters and his castle destroyed.
The next several issues recount the (mostly horrific) tales of how Morpheus regains his tools, which he needs in order to rebuild his kingdom and reestablish order in the Dreamlands. The stories are nightmarish, often involving horror themes, many with very high body-counts, and yet they are all told with a flair and feeling of epic, mythic importance. It’s like, in these first seven or eight issues, Gaiman was creating a full universe out of fragments of old DC comics, horror movies, mythology, religion, and the mundane, everyday world.
I should mention the artwork as well, which is very dark (in color palette) and kind of messy, especially compared to the super-clean four-color look of classic, superhero books. The covers for the entire series were created by Dave McKean, who is a brilliant collagist and painter, and who designed some absolutely unique art for these books, combining paint, ink, collage, sometimes little dolls, photomontage—all rolled into a nightmarish, but perfect, whole. (These covers were like NOTHING I’d ever seen before.) The interiors are also quite good. Sam Keith, who started as the penciler for the series, brought a loose, gritty, almost underground comix style to his panels, and Mike Dringenberg, who took over pencils after issue five, did an excellent job of keeping the tone of Keith’s established style, while not copying it directly. (Dringenberg was Keith’s inker. Malcolm Jones III took over inks when Dringenberg moved to pencils—at least for the issues collected in this book.) The artwork is yucky at times, fitting the horrific subject matter, but can also be very emotive or funny or deeply unsettling.
I hesitate to cover too much of what happens in the first few issues because I really think people should just get this book and read it for themselves, but highlights from issues two through eight include a cameo by John Constantine, Morpheus taking a trip to Hell to battle a demon for his helmet (one of the tools stolen when he was captured), the introduction of Death in issue eight, and a particularly psychotic couple of issues where an escapee from Arkham Asylum uses another tool stolen from Dream to play with and torture and eventually murder a coffee shop full of “regular folks” before Morpheus arrives to take his stolen item back. This section, in particular, is somehow very funny, incredibly disturbing, and genuinely horrifying. It’s a nearly untouchable piece of horror fiction.
Despite The Sandman’s popularity as a series, and the success that other Gaiman projects have had on both the big and small screens (Coraline anyone? or American Gods?), Morpheus has yet to appear in theaters or on television—and I think I know why. The tone is too epic, the universe that Dream inhabits is so massive, so all encompassing, the themes and metaphorical examinations so expertly articulated, that nobody has the guts to even TRY to translate it into motion. It’s not just special effects that need to be considered here, but SUBTLETY. A botched attempt at making The Sandman could be a horrible train-wreck of confusing visuals, nonsensical plot points, and overblown, garbage dialogue. (Did anyone see The Dark Tower?) For now, the ONLY way to experience this world is through the comics, and the only place to start is with Preludes & Nocturnes because it sets the stage and pulls the curtains back.
I love The Sandman comics. It’s probably my favorite thing that Neil Gaiman has written, and that’s saying a lot because he’s written some fantastic tales. As always, it is my duty to mention when a book is NOT kid friendly, and this collection hits just about every possible button: it has graphic scenes of violence and torture, sex, drug use, blasphemous content (for the religious folks), ghoulish and nightmarish artwork, and enough existential angst to strangle a Sartre fan. However, if you are looking for a deliciously weird story, full of epic themes and cosmic horror, then The Sandman is just the thing for you, and this collection is the place to start.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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