Saturday, December 12, 2009

Absolute Sandman Volume 2

Absolute Sandman Volume 2
Written by Neil Gaiman
Edited by Karen Berger
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue or Story
1992, 1993 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
1992, 1993 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Editor
1993 Eisner Winner for Best Publication Design for the Season of Mists trade paper back

The first year and a half of Sandman was the weakest of the series. There were some rough spots in the story telling and for a period the art was awful. Of course when you start out at terrific and that's the weakest part then what follows has to be absolutely spectacular. Volume two of the absolute editions contains what I consider to the be the high point of the series: the two best story arcs in the series and some wonderful single issue stories.

The first story arc in this volume is Season of Mists in which Dream realizes that condemning women who reject him to hell for all eternity is a bit of a jerk move and so sets out to release one of his former lovers from the abyss. Once there he becomes entangled in the most insidious scheme that the devil has ever created and finds himself the center of attention for the supernatural powers.

The other story arc is A Game of You in which a character who had been caught at the edges of an earlier story finds that the dreams that she lost are seeking her out in the real world. She is drawn into the dreamworld by them to overthrow a tyrant and her friends follow her in.

I can't decide which of these two stories are better. Season of Mists is the big fantasy novel filled with spectacular high concept ideas which Gaiman never allows to get in the way of the storytelling. A Game of You is the character arc where the live of residents of a Manhattan apartment building are detailed and then thrown into chaos. It's more personal than schemes of gods and demons. But then Seasons of Mist is a key portion of the narrative that carries the entire series while A Game of You is an interesting side show.

Also in this volume are the majority of the stories that were collected in Fables and Reflections and this is an instance where the original collections failed badly. Fables and Reflections contained all the single issue stories that there wasn't room for in other books. The problem with this is that they were not consecutive; they fell between story arcs and for most of them their placement was significant. They introduced concepts that would be touched on the following arc and revealed information at a gentle pace in their original form. Piling them all into one volume broke the pacing of the series and having them all restored to the original positions is a nice benefit.

The art, mainly provided by Kelly Jones and Shawn McManus, is for the most part up to the high standards set through the series. Unfortunately the last chapter of Season of Mists reverts to the scratchy, barely visible art that dominated The Doll's House. In earlier printings of the story it was so bad that some the text was unreadable but that has been corrected with Absolute Sandman.

Just because I think this is the high point of the series doesn't mean it's completely downhill from here. It just happens to be the portion that I think of as the best; the moment when everything came together perfectly. Season of Mists has been what I've used to hook people on Sandman in the past because it's straightforward and gives a feeling for the best of the series and A Game of You is a change of pace while still being just as good. There's still more great stuff to come, though.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Sandman #19: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by Charles Vess
1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Short Fiction

Cover by Dave McKean
1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Artist

No, I didn't typo that award.

Despite the fact that I was a comic reader at the time and I was making somewhat regular trips to my local comic book store "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was the first time I heard about Sandman. Since it was the early 90's there wasn't same level of nerd support network around; I wasn't reading the fan press so I just wasn't aware of the book's existence. Then there was a newspaper article about this comic book that won an award for prose and the uproar that surrounded it.

Let's get a plot synopsis out of the way first. Dream made a deal with a minor playwright who had only written one particularly bad play titled "Two Gentlemen of Verona". In exchange for penning two plays about dreams the writer will gain phenomenal skill and immortality through his words. This issue picks up with that writer leading his theater company to a meadow where they will put on the initial performance of the first play for their patron. Their patron also happens to bring along with him the people the play is about.

The preamble to this award is that it wasn't the first time something strange happened. The Dark Knight Returns garnered ballots for Hugo nomination across multiple categories. To resolve this in the Hugo awards structure they placed it as an art book in the non-fiction category. This is what lead to Watchmen's Hugo award in the one off "other" category. So in the late eighties the cross over between SF fans and comic fans was starting to blur things together. This came to a head at the World Fantasy Convention.

Gaiman was not some unknown comic book writer to the panel that selected this issue of Sandman for the award. That year he was also nominated in the novel category along with Terry Pratchett for Good Omens (Thomas the Rhymer and Only Begotten Daughter tied for the award that year). So Sandman's nomination was a surprise but it wasn't completely out of the blue. Of course everyone thought it was an interesting gesture that wouldn't go anywhere.

When the awards were announced things exploded and battle lines were drawn. On one side were the comic fans who said that they were finally vindicated that comics could be mature and a medium for great storytelling. The opposition were outraged at the idea that a funny book could hold the same significance as something created by a "real writer". That's when fuel was added to the fire by changing the World Fantasy Award rules so that a comic could not win again.

Obviously I don't have much sympathy for those people who denied that a comic book could be well written but at the same time I think the committee that sets the rules for the World Fantasy Awards was right. The medium is part of the work and while it may come across as spiteful (many people have interpreted it that way) changing the rules limit the category to prose was the right thing to do based on the scope of their awards. And it wasn't as though they hated comics; Moebius won the best artist award a few years later for his comics work and Vess won a second World Fantasy Award for himself a few years after that. There may have been some appeasement in the rule change but since it occurred the day after the award ceremony I'm sure it was something in consideration immediately after Sandman was nominated. What it comes down to is that a comic book and a short story are too different for direct comparisons to be made fairly.

Moving past the controversy the World Fantasy Award did go to one of the best issues of the series. Throughout Sandman Gaiman's short stories were more effective than his long ones. It may be my love of Shakespeare speaking (I've actually seen "Two Gentlemen of Verona" performed; it's like an Elizabethan playwright doing a bad parody of what Shakespeare would become) but I adore this issue. The poetic balance of Shakespeare burning brightly at the height of his career while losing touch with his family and the fairies about to leave the world behind only to stop to catch a show on their way out leaves an impression. Even if you don't like Shakespeare Gaiman avoids becoming too entangled in the words of the play itself and instead relies on a Greek chorus of goblins who comment on the action. It's the story of a strange, magical night; exactly the kind of thing that fits the tone of Sandman.

As for myself, the newspaper article made me award of comic's existence for the first time but it would be another a while before I started reading it. I read the earlier trade paperbacks first and because of the lead time between the issue and the award it wasn't until over twenty issues later that I was buying the comics. Still it was the World Fantasy Award that let me know that Sandman was out there and it was something I'd have to read at some point.

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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review - Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog

Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

This review has been delayed a long time. Though I've had my copy of the DVD release for a long time I lent it to a friend shortly before the Hugo awards were announced and I only got it back last week. They kept showing it more people who hadn't seen it which shows you how much affection they had for the movie. Assuming you can call a internet video a "movie" of course.

Dr. Horrible is a socially awkward nerd who is documenting his efforts to become a supervillain in a video blog. He has a crush on a woman who he sees at the laundromat and he plans to impress her by building a freeze ray and performing acts of supervillainy. His archenemy Captain Hammer interferes with one of these heists and meets the woman Dr. Horrible has a crush on. And since this is a musical most of this is told through musical numbers.

A major part of what makes Dr. Horrible so effective for nerds is the fact that he is the prototypical nerd. He's smart, thinks he knows better than everyone else, and can't talk to a girl to save his life. He even uses sheeple in song lyrics.

Before going on I want to state for the record that I've never used my freeze ray in an attempt to meet a woman. Or used the word "sheeple".

Getting back to the point the main character is one of the few genuine feeling depictions of a nerd you'll find. He's as socially awkward as any nerd and his clumsy attempts to connect will be familiar to any nerd (albeit on a different scale).

The script is fantastic. It runs from hysterically funny to some brutal pathos and does both well. It's a comedy based on classic dramatic archetypes. The plot that runs through an old story hidden so well behind a mask of comedy that you won't see it coming. The music isn't spectacular (Joss Whedon may be able to pick out notes on a piano but he doesn't have a lot of skill at it) but the lyrics are fun.

The cast are also note perfect. Neil Patrick Harris plays the titular role as a man who puts up the defensive mask of being a supervillain to deal with the world. Nathan Fillion meanwhile takes comedic arrogance to a level rarely seen. I feel bad for Felicia Day as the innocent woman caught between them since she isn't given much to do besides being blind to people's faults.

If you get the DVD instead of watching the show online the bonus material is worth watching on it's own. One of the commentary tracks is a whole new musical on its own with it's own dramatic arc. They spend very little time talking about the movie and instead sing their own parody of DVD commentaries.

Dr. Horrible is a classic story with very modern stylings and rebuilt for nerds. So it's completely unsurprising that it won the Hugo award. The only real problem with it is the low budget styling that grew out of it's origin as a video for the Internet. Anyone who is a self-described nerd should see it but since it has been distributed on the net I doubt there's any self-described nerd who hasn't.