The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes (Volume 1)
Written by Neil Gaiman
Art by Dave McKean (covers), Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, & Malcolm Jones III
DC Comics/Vertigo (1995)
Comics / Fantasy / Dark
Warning: Neil Gaiman is quite possibly my favorite writer ever. Neverwhere and Stardust started me down the path of reading both urban fantasy and straight fantasy when I was in junior high. I have a nice little shrine for him in my library. It’s a little crazy. While this is a review, it is a very fangirl-ish review.
With that said, I have never read the Sandman comics. I am so ashamed of this fact that I use my general knowledge of the characters, storylines and Gaiman’s writing style to fake pretend mislead allow others to make their own conclusions on whether or not I have any idea of what I’m talking about. I have Death, Delirium and Desire action figures. I have Death, Delirium and Dream t-shirts (I think I’m up to six now). And yet, I had never read the comics. By the time I could afford to own the entire 10 volume series, I was too afraid that I had built up this series as something that the real thing could never stand up to. I mean, ten years of imaging that the Sandman books are the BEST. THING. EVER. is really difficult to live up to in reality.
And yet Volume 1, consisting of issues 1-8 of the monthly comic, fulfilled every one of my prior disillusions about the series. It’s dark, it’s funny, it’s gross, it’s scary, and it’s all in a world that’s just like our own except when it’s not. Death is the grungy king of dreams, trapped in a fishbowl for decades before going on his own hero’s journey. Batman makes an appearance. I mean, really, Batman. And John Constantine. John Constantine.
Side Note: This series started about the time the Vertigo line was started, so I believe the first few issues were published by DC (thus Batman and Martian Manhunter).
Okay, the brief synopsis: Dream is one of the seven Endless siblings. He rules over the entire realm of dreams and can play with people’s dreams accordingly. An awful occult artist attempts to trap Death in order to control her and live forever. He screws up and gets Dream instead. Mr. Occult steals Dream’s three symbols of power (a gas-mask like helm, a bag of power, and a ruby amulet) and traps him in a giant glass fishbowl until Dream promises to teach him everything he knows and therefore make him immortal. Wishful thinking, of course.
Eventually Dream gets out of his fishbowl. I mean, he has to or the story doesn’t go beyond an issue or two. Then we follow him as he discovers the state of his kingdom and goes after his three treasures. Along the way, he has run-ins with John Constantine (hee!), Martian Manhunter, Lucifer, Cain and Abel (yes, that Cain and Abel), and a host of other eccentric, seriously disturbed characters.
On the surface it’s nothing new. Hero’s Journeys are classic and everywhere. It’s the details that make this story so much more. Gaiman goes into the effects a missing king of Dreams would have on the populace at large. The relationships between immortal personifications of ideas and the people they play around with for fun and folly. And most of all, what do the things of dreams do when their king has abandoned them?
The cover art for each issue is deliciously creepy, but then again Dave McKean doesn’t know how to do anything that isn’t mysteriously sinister and full of otherness. I wish he and Gaiman would collaborate even more than they do. McKean’s art is the perfect fit to Gaiman’s bizarre gothic imagination. The main panels, while not nearly as abstract and creepy, fulfill the promise of Gaiman’s words. There are some seriously disturbed images in this book. This is definitely for mature audiences. There’s nudity, sex, drugs, gory gross graphic blood shed… all the things that I would usually roll my eyes at in a Capes-and-Tights comic, but it works (is my fangirl showing?). The story lends itself to the images inside and the artists, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcom Jones III, all of whom I’ve never heard of, go all out. Nothing is held back and the comic becomes more of a movie than still images on a piece of paper.
The insertion of other DC characters feels forced with the exception of John Constantine, who fits so well into this universe it might as well be his own. I think the wedging of other, more notable and known characters of the time stops after these few issues, but it was a valiant effort. Attempting to insert new characters into the well mapped streets of Gotham is a difficult task, and Batman and the Justice League are just too much for a story with such serious undertones. Though I admit the use of Arkham Asylum patients and Scarecrow/Dr. Jonathan Crane was inspired and worked well (even if Scarecrow looked nothing like Cillian Murphy).
Was I disappointed that Delirium never appeared? Of course. She’s my favorite. I quote her all the time. I have both of Jill Thompson’s Little Endless storybooks (those I have read). But now that I’ve read this volume, it makes sense to only introduce Dream with his big sister Death showing up at the end to knock some sense into his broody self. There’s a brief shot of Destiny as well, but he’s not named. Cramming in all the Endless over the course 230 pages would be too much. Dream is our star. This is his story, at least for these eight issues.
This is such a GIANT universe with so many GENIUS ideas that I don’t know how Gaiman could possibly encapsulate them in even the 10 volumes that exist. I think it’s finally time for me to find out though.
Creepy, dark and magnificent; fantastic and suitable artwork; insertion of other DC characters is a bit jarring, but doesn’t happen too often