In honor of today’s release of The Sandman: Overture, I recently took it upon myself to reread Neil Gaiman’s epic masterpiece from start to finish for the first time in years. My intentions were twofold: one, it seemed a good idea to refamiliarize myself with the story, since it had been years since I’d done so. Second, because hell, it’s a damn good story, and all damn good stories deserve to be reread time and again.
Similar to my last blog regarding Y: The Last Man, there’s not much I can say to add to the countless praise that’s been heaped upon the series over the years. So instead, I thought I’d relate my own thoughts on each TPB in and of itself, along with some token reviewing. One note: I’m grading these trades on a Sandman-only scale, since the body of work in its entirety trumps just about anything else out there critically. So, without further ado:
1. Preludes & Nocturnes: Morpheus’ first fling is a little bit of a mixed bag, as by Gaiman’s own admission, he was a little lost having not written an ongoing series before. It’s a basic quest tale: the king is imprisoned, the king breaks free, the king must then set about the task of rebuilding his fallen kingdom. Along the way he interacts with various denizens of the DC Universe, including Mr. Miracle, Dr. Destiny, and J’onn J’onzz. All of the series core concepts are laid out, including the Endless (although only Destiny and Death make an actual appearance), the Dreaming, and its myriad denizens such as Lucien, Cain and Abel, Eve, and Matthew (Cable) the raven. Lucifer makes his first appearance, setting the stage for his epic abdication. Oh, and some guy named Dave McKean began making a name for himself with his trippy covers. Like I said, it’s a little unfocused as compared to what was to come, and it certainly didn’t hit the literary heights of its sequels. But it’s a solid foundation, and an extremely competent successor to the “British Invasion” kicked off by Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Score: 7/10.
2. The Doll’s House: Generally considered to be the ultimate Sandman story, “The Doll’s House” is Neil Gaiman let loose and at his best. Still in the process of rebuilding his kingdom, Morpheus discovers upon taking a census of the Dreaming that several of its key residents are missing: Brute and Glob (the embodiments of brute strength and base cunning), Fiddler’s Green (a place who takes the form of Teddy Roosevelt), and the Corinthian, the eyeball-chomping living nightmare. Gaiman tied ideas and characters from Jack Kirby’s Bronze Age iteration of a kid-friendly, superheroic Sandman into a waking nightmare of child abuse, serial killers, monsters literally living in your head, and a girl named Rose Walker tying it all together. Rose quickly became the prototypical female Gaiman protagonist: outgoing, thoroughly modern, and extremely strong, but with a niggling bit of immaturity at her core. The story itself is actually staged as a three-act play, with Rose and Morpheus acting as the strings that tie the whole thing together. As a bonus, the story takes a break in the middle to introduce us to Hob Gadling, a man whose refusal to die begets a lifelong friendship with Morpheus that’s a key piece of the series’ tapestry. It’s a beauty of a story, and showed the world that Neil Gaiman was on his way to very, very big things. I absolutely love this story, and it’s tied for my personal favorite of the series. Score: 10/10.
3. Dream Country: The first trade to collect one-shot issues of the ongoing series, this collection of but four issues is a great showcase for Gaiman’s wide range as a writer. The first tale is of psychological horror, featuring a novelist who magically enslaves a muse to aid him in his quest to get out of a sophomore slump; the tale of what cats dream about, and why we should be afraid; the World Fantasy Award-winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, performing his classic play for an otherworldly audience; and finally, the weird, extremely out-of-place “Facade,” featuring a female version of DC stalwart Metamorpho who just wants to die… but can’t. “Facade” is easily the weakest issue of the entire Sandman run for the simple fact that by this point, Gaiman had skillfully illustrated that he was very, very far beyond his initial (however tangential) connection to the DCU proper, and Miss Metamorpho (or whatever her name is) taking center stage for an issue was a very strange, unnecessary choice indeed. But beyond that, the rest is great, particularly seeing Gaiman play with history a bit in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He has an uncanny knack for portraying Elizabethan England, supported by his encyclopedic knowledge of the same. A great primer for Sandman; I’d readily hand this to someone who had never read the series before as a gateway drug. Score: 8/10.
4. Season of Mists: Gaiman, at his audacious best, blows the roof off of Christian theology by having Lucifer abdicate his throne as monarch of Hell. He then hands Morpheus the key to Hell, takes his bow, exits stage left, and heads off to Earth to admire sunsets and open a nightclub. Morpheus is left with the seemingly-simple task of finding a new caretaker for Hell, and what follows is a gather of deities both major and minor, along with an abstract concept for two, vying for control. The whole thing is wrapped like a burrito by Morpheus’ initial task of freeing an ex-girlfriend from Hell, whom he banished there 10,000 years ago for spurning his romantic advances. Gaiman’s intricate working knowledge of different mythologies, and allowing those deities to play off each other, creates an immensely entertaining ride as the stakes grow ever-higher the more he deliberates. Unfortunately, the ending is a deus ex machina, and Morpheus never has to actually make said decision, which is a letdown to say the least. But still, this is the first time we really begin to see the subtle change in Morpheus’ character in dealing with ex-girlfriend Nada, a result of his seventy-five years in captivity. That slow change would take hold over the remainder of the series, and become a key point in the series’ conclusion. Score: 9/10.
5. A Game of You: This time around, it’s fairy tale tropes that get turned on their head by Gaiman. Playing off the idea that everyone has a secret, fantastical world inside their head wherein they’re the star of the show, Gaiman introduces this concept in the form of “skerries:” minor facets of the Dreaming that exist only as long as the person internalizing them is alive. A skerry from the inside of protagonist Barbie’s head is reaching critical mass, as a creature known only as the Cuckoo begins to assert itself and cause disaster in the waking world. There’s a wide assortment of supporting characters in this arc who would later reappear in the series and/or its spinoffs, including punky/homey lesbians Foxglove and Hazel, and the witch Thessaly. This story typifies what would become a recurring theme in Sandman as it continued: stories in which Dream himself is not the focus, but instead merely plays a supporting part. Incidentally, this volume’s art by Shawn McManus is the best sustained run for the series as a whole. That’s not to knock earlier collaborators Sam Keith or Kelly Jones, but their contributions were minimal and never for entire stories. Overall, a solid, but not great outing. Score: 8/10.
6. Fables & Reflections: The second volume to collect the series’ myriad one-shots, plus the “Song of Orpheus” special. Similar to “Dream Country,” this is a great entry point for someone unfamiliar with the series. A couple of the stories, though, are fairly inessential reading: “The Hunt” and “Soft Places,” while technically proficient enough, add nothing to the overarching, ongoing tale of Morpheus. The other side of that coin is “Song of Orpheus,” which is one of two seemingly-unassuming issues that play key roles in setting up the series’ finale in “The Kindly Ones.” (The other is the end of “Doll’s House,” in which Dream lays claim to Lyta Hall’s unborn son.) The trade is rounded out by the classic “Ramadan,” sumptuously illustrated by P. Craig Russel. This issue stands as one of the finest one-offs in the entire series, and is fondly remembered as such. Score: 8/10.
7. Brief Lives: Morpheus’ and Delirium’s quest for their missing brother, Destruction, is the focal point of this story. Dream, stuck in a funk after the termination of his latest romantic entanglement, decides walking the waking world with his little sister in order to find their wayward brother would be a good means of taking his mind off his problems. Morpheus has no intention of actually finding Destruction, who left instructions when he quit his post that none of them ever seek him out. But the best laid plans of the King of Dreams come crashing to a halt when it appears that some mystical force is acting to stop their quest by killing those they seek in order to find Destruction. This story brings to a head several plot points that set the stage for sthe epic “Kindly Ones,” including Morpheus being forced into making a decision that will ultimately seal his fate before the series finale. It also sees Morpheus changing and embracing his own humanity, a trait he has long denied within himself. But a kinder, gentler Dream King ultimately cannot sustain the course he’s on… Score: 10/10.
8. Worlds’ End: Gaiman got into a bit of a slump story-wise in the arc that bridges the events of “Brief Lives” to “The Kindly Ones.” This six-part story defies all known storytelling conventions to become an ode to telling tales. In the eye of a “reality storm,” myriad denizens from all different times, places, and dimensions seek refuge at the Worlds’ End, an inn/bar that remains fixed outside of all reality for just such an occasion. The residents of the inn then spend six issues telling various stories, all of which wind up involving Morpheus in some way or another. Each issue is technically well-rendered, but when you look at the entirety of the six issues and try to stack up a meaningful overarching story, you find there isn’t much of one… which is the point. The point is in the individual stories themselves; the trees rather than the forest, as it were. This results in a somewhat tedious outing, especially if you’re looking for, say, forward momentum. Noteworthy exception is the issue that focuses on Bronze Age oddity Prez, the teenager who became President. Similar to what he did with Kirby’s goofball in tights ’70s iteration of the Sandman back in “Doll’s House,” Gaiman deconstructs a fairly bizarre concept and applies basic notions of logic to his otherwise fantastical story. This volume is frustrating to get through; it’s almost as though Gaiman just wanted to show off his writing chops for six issues rather than jump immediately into “The Kindly Ones,” which is really his only real misstep throughout the course of the series. Score: 6/10.
9. The Kindly Ones: The first Sandman story I ever read also happens to be Morpheus’ last. At a whopping thirteen issues, there’s a lot going on here, and not all of it is especially essential to the overall story. Yes, it’s nice to see Rose Walker return, and revisit a few of the denizens from “The Doll’s House,” but how does her quest to uncover the truth behind her lineage tie into “The Kindly Ones,” exactly? Or how about the angel Remiel’s attempt at getting Lucifer to reclaim Hell? Neither of these have a single thing to do with Lyta Hall’s vengeance against Morpheus after her son, Daniel, is kidnapped by Loki and Robin Goodfellow (and just who they are working for or why they kidnap the child is never addressed, either). But honestly, these diversions are so well-written, they actually serve to deepen and enrich the overall plot. Lyta’s vengeance brings down the Fates on Morpheus’ head and domain, and there’s very little he can do to stop them except for embracing the inevitable. A true tragedy in every form–starting with the fact that it didn’t have to happen the way it did–Gaiman rose to the challenge of bringing Morpheus’ story to a close with style, dignity, and power. Marc Hempel’s abstract art style is off-putting at first, but soon transmogrifies into the perfect visual realization of this tale. Score: 10/10.
10. The Wake: The epilogue to end all epilogues, Gaiman takes the first three issues of this volume holding a wake for Morpheus, and introducing us to Daniel, the new aspect of Dream. Gorgeously illustrated by Michael Zulli, the capstone of Morpheus’ life is the somber reflection you’d hope for. Daniel proves from the outset to be a more humane version of Dream than Morpheus ever was, opening the promise of a whole new feel for the series had it continued. But to do so would have been in error: this was Morpheus’ story, not Daniel’s, and so the introduction of Morpheus’ successor is a fitting end indeed. The other three issues involve the following: the last word on Hob Gadling’s refusal to die; a return to one of the “soft places” that serves as an unnecessary juxtaposition of Morpheus and Daniel; and finally, “The Tempest,” which is the follow-up to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and portrays an older William Shakespeare, nearing the end of his life and writing his final play to fulfill his bargain with Morpheus. The latter is the final word on the comic’s literary aspirations, a sort of fourth-wall-breaking vehicle for Gaiman to say, “Look. Comics can have the same value as prose any day of the week.” Which was sort of the point all along! Score: 9/10.
And that concludes my personal overview of the Sandman library. Gaiman, of course, extended the reach of the series with his two fantastic miniseries starring Death, “The High Cost of Living” and “The Time of Your Life.” (Bonus: these stories both feature the best work of one of my favorite artists, Chris Bachalo, before he became tainted with manga stylings.) He would also go on to write the Endless Nights hardcover, featuring all-new tales of each of the Endless, and The Dream Hunters, a prose hardcover featuring art by P. Craig Russel. And then of course there’s the two ongoing series that grew out of Sandman’s fertile soil: Lucifer by Mike Carey, and the less-fondly-remembered The Dreaming by… whoever. The series got cancelled because it couldn’t hold a candle to its source material. And then there’s the dozens of spin-off miniseries, featuring everyone from Thessaly the witch to Merv Pumpkinhead to Petrefax from Worlds’ End. I haven’t read many of these series, but they’re definitely a collective portrait of quantity over quality.
And now it comes full circle, with Neil Gaiman back to write one more yarn featuring Morpheus and company, taking it back to the beginning, to the events just prior to Preludes & Nocturnes that left him so weakened he was able to be captured by a mortal man for seventy-five years. Gaiman is back, Morpheus is with him, and it’s about damn time.