Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review - Absolute Sandman Volume 1

Absolute Sandman Volume 1
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by too many people to list here
1991 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1991 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
1991 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint (Modern Material)
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Archival/Collection Project (Comic Books)

I needed to cover Sandman by the end of the year and I've been struggling with a format. Trying to do the whole thing at once doesn't work since there are awards specifically for certain storylines and issues. One issue in particular needs it's own post because of its significance. I considered trying to space it out a bit more but introduces the risk that I might lose my own train of thought as I go through it. Breaking it down too much is another problem since it would take too much time. I finally decided on a format of a post per volume of the Absolute editions that touch on the material in them, a special post on that one particular issue, one on Endless Nights, and if I have not completely burned myself out on Sandman at that point I'll wrap things up The Dream Hunters.

I'm also going to abandon my usual format at least for these Absolute volumes. You could copy and paste my comments among all of them so if you need to here's a convenient paragraph:

Neil Gaiman's original metatext on the nature of stories is brilliant. He weaves real world myth and legend into a compelling Sandman is one of the most significant comic books ever created and it demands to be read. Its missteps are few and the entire series stands out as a work of genius. Sandman is a comic book that will be discussed and dissected for a long time.

I can't say that Sandman is my favorite comic book ever (I have a tough time ranking such things in my mind given the quantity I've read). I can say that I place it in the ranks of comic books that have transcended the medium to be literature. It's an arbitrary distinction if there ever was one and a debate I'm going to get to in the next post.

So there's the preamble, let's get to the main event.

Sandman is the story of Dream a.k.a. Morpheus, the personification of everything that is not real in the universe. He governs the dreaming which is where stories and myths come from and where we go when we sleep. He is not a god because gods die; he is one of the seven Endless who exist beyond them.

At the beginning of the series a cabal of sorcerers attempt to summon and trap Death but instead capture Dream. He waits out the lifetimes of his captors and once he can escape he finds that his kingdom has gone wild in his absence. So Dream's first duty is to recover symbols of his office that were taken from him by the sorcerers so that he can use them in rebuilding dreams.

This was the storyline that was originally collected as Preludes and Nocturnes and includes some of the high and low points of the series. The high point is a gruesome issue called "24 Hours" in which a lunatic who can control people's minds spends a full day at a diner playing with the people who were there when he arrived. It's absolutely chilling to see people played with. This sequence also features a battle of metaphors with a demon (as opposed to a metaphorical battle)

The low point is that Gaiman tied a bit of the series directly into some superhero comics. He would do this overtly twice more in Sandman but this is the one that stands out like a sore thumb mainly because it's so awkwardly shoe horned in. Dream just goes to visit the Justice League one night and get information on one of their enemies. It just doesn't fit very well with the rest of the series during which the nods to superhero comics tended to be sly winks and references that comic book nerds would pick up without breaking the flow for the crossover audience he was getting.

The artwork in this section is sharp with some wonderful stuff by Sam Keith leading off for a few issues. I don't care for everything Keith does but this is an instance where his ragged, distorted figures match the tone. Also his page layouts which include strange borders and offset framing of panels add to the surreal tone of the book. When Mike Dringenberg takes over the quality of the artwork drops though it's still good enough.

That takes us to The Doll's House which won the 1991 Eisner for best reprint and all of the material from that version is included in this book. (That's true of everything in the Sandman trade paperbacks with one exception.) Some of you might be saying "But wait! There's one more story in Preludes and Nocturnes!" and I'll have to point out that the early printings of the collected editions included that story in both trade paperbacks.

I'm talking about "The Sound of Her Wings" which was one of the big turning points in Sandman. The first story arc was clearly built around it being a horror series. In "The Sound of Her Wings" Dream is moping in a park after finishing the first story where he runs into his sister Death. She convinces him to follow her around for a few hours as she does her rounds and he sees people dealing with their own deaths. So instead of being a horror comic it switches to some philosophy and exploration of the human condition. It also brought in the concept of the family of Endless who would be central to the ongoing story.

The tone of the series changed starting from that point. The next issue dealt with African myths and a few issues after that there was a story about a man who has a regular meeting with Dream. Neither of these could be mistaken for horror on any level and The Doll's House is really where Gaiman started determining the direction that he would go with Sandman.

The main storyline in The Doll's House is that of a woman seeking her lost brother who has become entangled in dreams. She is a is a focus of dream activity and Dream lurks in the background of this story as he uses her to search for some dangerous nightmares that escaped his kingdom during his absence. These plots come together at a convention for serial killers, a concept that's done so perfectly that the insanity of the basic premise can be overlooked for the sake of the creepiness.

As much as I love the concepts that Gaiman plays with in this arc it is my least favorite portion of Sandman. There seems to be a chapter worth of information that gets lost somewhere along the way which makes the conclusion come across as muddled. The protagonist of this story and her family trouble wasn't nearly as interesting as the fantastic things going on around her. Then there's the art.

The artwork in The Doll's House is the nadir of series. There is only one point where I think it looks this bad and it's still a few posts off. In this case I think it's the inking that's mostly at fault; the lines are thin and sketchy to the point that I wonder if the rough pencils were even filled in for most of the pages. It's still Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones providing the artwork and I'm not sure what caused it to degrade from decent to sketchy to just plain ugly.

This volume concludes with stories that were collected in Dream Country which demonstrated what Gaiman excelled at over his run on Sandman. These are four short stories that were complete in a single issue and each took on a very style style and tone. There's a muse held captive in the same way that Dream was, what your cats really do behind your back, a bit of Shakespeare, and a superhero who has become an agoraphobe. They're all exquisite stories that explore the edges of world that Gaiman is creating.

Absolute Sandman is the biggest project that DC comics has done with their line of Absolute Editions. It spans four volumes (five including Absolute Death which is a spin off of the series) and are gorgeous books. Each one is has a kind of faux leather binding and slip case that looks terrific on a book shelf. The inside is just as good as the stories have been recolored to help smooth over some of the art problems but that recoloring effort is not as garish as some modern recoloring projects are. The first volume has as an appendix the original series proposal and the script to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (that's issue nineteen, not the play). Missing, however, is the annotated original script for Calliope which was in the Dream Country collection. Still given what happened after that collection was printed I think it's a fair trade off.

What happened after Dream Country was printed? That's for the next post.