Absolute Sandman Volume 4
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by Marc Hempel, Michael Zulli, and Jon J. Muth
Art for Sandman #75 by Charles Vess
1997 Eisner Winner for Best Penciller/Inker
You'll note that Gaiman didn't win an Eisner for his writing on the second half of Sandman. It's not because the issues were poorly written, it was because the competetion was tough. For those years Alan Moore won the Eisner for From Hell. To give this some additional perspective for the first ten years of the Eisner awards only two people won the award for writing: Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Once their major works ended the field finally opened up to other people.
The two collections that provide material for this last volume of Absolute Sandman are The Kindly Ones and The Wake. In The Kindly Ones the bits and pieces from the rest of the series come together and reveal what the actual plot has been. Dream's actions catch up with him and beings who can destroy him tear apart the dreamworld to get at him. With the climax of the series finished The Wake is an extended denouement.
Denouement is something that you don't often see in comics. Setting aside those comics which have to go on to the next story each month it is rare for a comic book writer to not simple have the climax and then end the story a few pages later. Sandman has a five issue long denoument that pokes a bit into what happens after the story is over, how characters are reacting to the ending, and a tale of another writer who was ending his run of great works. It leaves you satisfied at the end since it ties everything into a nice package for the reader.
Sandman #75, the last issue of the series, is a book end to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in which Shakespeare has written his last play for Dream. His plays had fallen out of fashion at that moment. After he sacrificed his life to telling those stories he has retired to Stratford-On-Avon but he has one last story to tell.
Vess's artwork for this final issue is a mirror to the quality he provided in his World Fantasy Award winning work. In particular he captures the magical atmosphere of the play in some striking illustrations. Outside of those he draws some varied and expressive figures which prevent the story from being just a simple set of talking heads.
So the very ending is something special. Unfortunately the climax doesn't quite live up to that promise. The Kindly Ones is oddly paced which makes reading it frustrating. There's many threads and strange events which don't seem to be even tangentially related. They're not even very atmospheric or drama building. It's all fine in the end but it's a rough rode to get to that ending and unlike the skill that Gaiman demonstrated through the rest of the series. It feels like he had too many ideas and too little space for them all.
And so Sandman came to an end. This wasn't an absolute conclusion since several comics were spun out the series though none were as good. Gaiman did two short miniseries based on Death (an oversized hard cover collecting those was just released), an illustrated story, and an anthology about many of the Endless while others did less interesting things. The best of these was Mike Carey's Lucifer series which expanded on the theology that was presented in Sandman though it never was as great.
Gaiman himself would switch to being mainly a novelist who occasionally dabbles in comics and while some of his comic book work since has been entertaining none of it has approached the level of Sandman. He created a masterpiece and it's unlikely that he'll create another one for comics.