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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Absolute Sandman Volume 4

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.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Absolute Sandman Volume 3

Absolute Sandman Volume 3
Written by Neil Gaiman
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
Art for Sandman #50 by P. Craig Russel
1994 Eisner Winner for Best Penciller/Inker
Edited by Karen Berger
Tied for 1994 Eisner Winner for Best Editor

I started reading the regular issues of Sandman with the Brief Lives arc. I had mostly caught up with the series. That means that this volume is where my issues start to overlap with the book. Which means at this point I've bought these issues at least three times over (four times over for a few of them). Fortunately I doubt that there will be any better edition in the future so the Absolute Edition should last rest of my life.

Again there's two major story arcs and a handful of individual issues in this book. In Brief Lives Dream is convinced by his sister Delirium to hunt for their missing brother who abandoned his office centuries before. They find that their journey is complicated by traps that are harming those around them as they search. The other major arc in this volume is World's End which is not really an arc. It's more of Gaiman's homage to The Canterbury Tales. Traveler are finding themselves delayed by a storm breaking reality and seek shelter in an inn. Though they are all from different worlds they spend their time sharing their tales.

It's strange for me to think of the beginning of this as the half-way mark in Sandman. The plotting always makes me think of these stories as a kind of climax followed by the wrapping up. Brief Lives concludes with the pieces set in place for the end of the story and then World's End is a short breather before the action concludes. Despite covering a year and half worth of issues it feels that very little happens here. You could cut the important bits of Brief Lives down to a few pages (assuming you define important bits as how much they affect the overall story arc).

Which isn't to say that these stories aren't good. It's just that they're more focused on filling in the edges of the world that Gaiman has created and just telling interesting stories about stories. It's in World's End that the theme of Sandman is explicitly spelled out. It was there before and that is the only time it is placed on center stage.

Sandman #50 which was singled out for its own award was a single story in which the ruler of an Arabian Nights style Baghdad bargains with dream so that the city can exist at the height of its glory forever. P. Craig Russel's artwork is magnificent as you might expect as he captures the wonders of the city.

The big change that occurred at this point was Karen Berger using Sandman to spearhead a new imprint. Sandman was part of the wave of comics for mature readers and DC Comics finally decided to gather these books under one banner: Vertigo. That imprint is still going strong and remains a place for similar books such as Fables. Editorially nothing changed for Sandman, the new imprint however made it clear that books like Sandman were something that DC Comics wanted to publish.

This book is mainly a bridge between the strong arcs that formed the heart of the story in the second volume and the conclusion in the fourth. The single issues (which were collected in Fables and Reflections and World's End) aren't a bad introduction to the series. I may have started reading the issues with Brief Lives but I read most of the earlier issues first and it would not make sense without that context. Which makes this book a connection rather than something that I could recommend on its own.