Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review - The Sandman: Endless Nights

The Sandman: Endless Nights
Written by Neil Gaiman
2004 Eisner Winner for Best Short Story
2004 Eisner Winner for Best Anthology

There's one more stop on my Sandman blitz since I'm going to hold off on The Dream Hunters for now. Endless Nights is not a continuation of the series. It doesn't even reference events that occur toward the end. What it contains are seven short stories (and I'd hesitate to call two of them "stories"); one for each of the Endless who are at the center of the series. Consequently this is an excellent sampler of what Sandman is like.

Leading off the anthology is "Death" which won the Eisner for best short story. It is the story of a group of decadent Venetian nobles who avoided death by living the same day over and over. Another person who encountered Death waiting at the gate to their manor as a young boy and returns to her as a man after he has seen too much death.

This story also happens to be my favorite of the seven. While it uses elements of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" (it's impossible to avoid when you have nobles partying away while Death waits just outside their gates) Gaiman spins them into something more compatible with Sandman's Death. It's a classic structure that feels fresh due to Gaiman's skill. The men who have found immortality in the repetition of one perfect day are not just simplistic characters either; they're hiding from their own doom while at the same time have become lost.

P. Craig Russel provides art and much like his Eisner winning work on Sandman #50 he vividly displays the division between a decayed society sliding into ruin (or the sea in Venice's case) and the decadence of it of it at that society's summit.

The other stories feature topics such as a woman who uses lust to her advantage, portraits of absolutely crushing depression, schizophrenics who are each lost in their own worlds but still come together for a cause, love found and lost at a meeting of stars, the many ways that man will kill, and a brief look at destiny. There isn't a single one of these stories that is like the others. Four of the chapters use conventional comic book storytelling but that is the only thing they have in common.

Oddly enough the Dream chapter is the one I found to be the weakest. It was still very good, it was just the chapter where things were the most straightforward. Gaiman indulges his rarely exposed comic book nerd side in that one and that's where he puts the subtlety in that story. Without the comic references it's a simple story of a lover's betrayal. It's interesting but lacks the punch that the other stories have.

I don't want to break down every single one of them but there are two more things that I have to single out as spectacular in Endless Nights. The portions on depression are extremely depressing. I felt like I needed Prozac after reading that chapter. The other thing is that Bill Sienkiewitz's are in the chapter on madness was the high point artistically in the book. I cannot think of another comic book artist who is more capable of capturing insanity on a page than Sienkiewitz and his jagged, raw art sets the mood exactly right.

I have only one aspect to this book that prevents me from recommending it completely. The identity of one of the seven Endless was a minor mystery over the course of Sandman and because there's one chapter for each of them in Endless Nights it means that someone who starts here will have that spoiled. Still I think that's a small price to pay for what is both the best follow-up a series could hope for and a terrific primer for those who want to try out Sandman before dedicating more time and money to the series.