Neil Gaiman (text), with Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III (artistic rendering),
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (Vertigo, 1995)

Neil Gaiman (text), with Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artistic rendering), The Sandman: The Doll's House (Vertigo, 1995)

I admit to some trepidation about writing this review. So many authors, editors, musicians, and reviewers have said so much about these books. This series altered the face of the comics industry. It's drawn in thousands of people who had never read a comic book before.

Nonetheless, here I go: an omnibus review of the first two Sandman graphic novels, comprising the first sixteen monthly comics.
 

Preludes and Nocturnes

In June of 1916, in Wych Cross, England, the Order of Ancient Mysteries attempts to summon Death and bind him. The spell summons something, a paper-white and rake-thin man, robed in black, helmed with the skull of a dead god, bearing a sack of sand and a ruby. This is not Death. This is Death's younger brother, the Sandman, the Oneiromancer, the Prince of Stories, His Darkness Lord Dream of the Endless. Trapped and incapacitated, he can do nothing to stop the Order from stealing the helm, the ruby, the sack. For over seventy years, he will remain imprisoned. Around him, as he lies trapped in magic circle and glass bubble, the world changes. And, with his imprisonment, a strange illness spreads. All over the world, people fall asleep and will not wake, or walk in a strange half-dream.

It is not until 1988 that he finally escapes and begins to take vengeance. He is weak, though, and must return to his own realm, called the Dreaming. There he is helped by some of those who have remained in the kingdom even as it decayed due to its master's absence. To recover his tools, long missing from the stores of the Order, he must go on a quest, and a quest requires an Oracle. To that end, he summons the Triple Goddess of many names. He asks three questions and is given three answers.

First he travels to London, to ask a smartass magician named John Constantine where he might find the little bag of sand John bought at a garage sale.

Next, he ventures into Hell itself to challenge the demon Choronzon for possession of his own helmet. They play the oldest game, and then Dream must face down Lucifer Himself and all the hordes of Hell to escape.

Difficult as those encounters were, the worst is yet to come. He must do battle with a madman intent on destroying the world, and his very existence is on the line.

Finally, having completed every task and surmounted every obstacle, Dream ... goes to feed the pigeons in the park. There, he meets his sibling, the one that the Order of Ancient Mysteries set out to trap in the first place: Death. And Death, we find, is a perky little goth girl, who quotes Mary Poppins, says "peachy keen," calls her brother an idiot, and throws bread at him. Then she takes him on her round of duties, as she collects the souls of the newly dead. As he comes to appreciate what his sister does, he is comforted. He fills his heart with the sound of her wings.

The Sandman is a story about stories. Morpheus, the King of Dreams, is its protagonist. He is the anthropomorphic personification of Dream and Story. So what else could this be but a story about stories?

Preludes and Nocturnes follows a linear story line, something perhaps half of the volumes of Sandman do. It's a good thing, too, or else we'd be thoroughly lost from the beginning. This is the introduction to the universe and some of the key cast members, and to Morpheus himself. It's also the eight issues that Gaiman used to figure out what he was doing with the series.

This isn't Gaiman's first comic (Violent Cases and Black Orchid, both with Dave McKean as artist, came before it), but it is his first monthly, and it's still very early in his comics career. And it shows.

Each of the eight issues of Preludes and Nocturnes has a different style, feel, and even genre (or at least sub-genre). Sandman started out as a horror comic, and most of the stylistic choices reflect that (barring Issue 8, "The Sound of Her Wings"), but he echoes classic English horror, 1970s horror comics, gritty urban British horror, 1940s John W. Campbell, and the darker side of the standard DC Comics heroes and villains before beginning to find his own style of horror in Issue 6, "24 Hours." The style-hopping works well, in an odd way, partially because each issue is a discreet story as well as being a chapter in the larger story arc of the book (which is, of course, only one chapter in the story of the Sandman). Also, each style is chosen well for the story. It's hard to imagine, say, John Constantine (a Sam Kieth creation originally) without that touch of modern griminess.

Then, too, the changing styles and settings show us different facets in Dream's personality. These first looks at Dream's inner workings become more and more important to keep in mind as one gets farther into the series, and will ultimately provide some of the insights necessary to understand the end of this two thousand (or so) page epic, an end Gaiman had in mind from the beginning.

Most of the characters to be found in these pages are vibrant and well-rounded, even those with small parts. We understand Burgess, head of the Order that imprisons Morpheus, and his driving ambitions. We like seedy Constantine, and can feel his pain. We feel Judy's desperation, Bette's inspiration, and Mark's aspirations. Even Lucifer, Prince of the Damned, shows a very human anger at having been bested. But we do not understand Dream. Not really.

Dream is a subtle character, some have said a weak character. Perhaps that's even true (you'll have to judge that for yourself). But then, perhaps that's part of the point. The Endless, Gaiman says in The Sandman Companion, aren't causative, and are barely reactive. They are personifications of concepts. And in part, The Sandman is the story of how Dream learns to react, and to cause. But always very subtly.

The art is mostly wonderful: shadows, colors, distortions, and layouts only heighten the stories' impact. Sam Keith as penciler and Mike Dringenberg as inker, with Robbie Busch as colorist, create a moody first three issues. When Keith leaves, Dringenberg becomes penciler and brings in Malcolm Jones III as inker, and a kind of clarity of form takes over, which actually begins to suit the story better. Todd Klein as letterer gives each voice a resonance. You can hear the darkly echoing quality of Dream's voice, like Christopher Lee doing Terry Pratchett's Death. Lucifer's high, clear voice rings sharp and cold and formal. Doctor Destiny's broken mind is echoed in the jagged letters, like a constantly cracking voice.

A few failures, visually: the body turned inside out and splattered across a room is just sort of gooey and brown; the awkward stresses in Morpheus' upper- and lower-case speech in the first few issues; perhaps one or two others, nothing very significant.

My personal favorites in this volume are "24 Hours" (#6) and "The Sound of Her Wings" (#8).

The Sandman was conceived and listed as a horror comic, but personally, I've only ever considered the first two volumes to be horror. The rest just doesn't scare me. Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House are pretty creepy, and of all sixteen issues collected in these two volumes, "24 Hours" is the one that scares me most. Imagine twenty-four hours in a diner with a madman who can control your dreams... This one still gives me chills every time I read it.

"The Sound of Her Wings" is widely acknowledged as a turning point in the series, the place where Gaiman really found his own voice. It's also a longtime fan favorite. The story is simple, quiet. Dream follows his sister Death on her rounds, and he heals. Death attends the passing of an old Jewish fiddle player, a struggling standup comedienne, an infant in a crib. Her tenderness and humor with each of them as she enfolds them in the wings we never see will make you smile or cry or both. And there is a poem, which begins:

"Death is before me today:
Like the recovery of a sick man
Like going forth into a garden after a sickness."
It's a Babylonian poem Gaiman took from Joseph Campbell's Masks of God.
 

The Doll's House

A plot summary of The Doll's House is almost impossible, but here's an attempt:

The Doll's House opens with an African rite of manhood that involves a folk tale. These people were the first people, and once, in this place, they had a great city built of glass. Their Queen, Nada, had no man, and refused many. One night, she saw a man stand at the foot of her tower, and she loved him; he was Kai'ckul, the Lord of Dreams. But it is not given to mortals to love the Endless. She fled him, fearing repercussions, and took her own maidenhead. He did not care, and so they spent a night making love. In the morning, the Sun saw them, and destroyed her city. In terror of what she had done, and what had happened, and what might yet happen, she killed herself. Kai'ckul followed her into the Sunless Lands, and there he proposed to her, and said that if she refused, he would condemn her to hell. What could she do, but refuse? (And we know that she did, because Dream saw her, imprisoned in Hell, when he journeyed there for his helm, and he would not release her.)

Now, abruptly, we meet two of Dream's younger siblings: Desire, a creature whose gender and sex shift constantly, gorgeous and self-centered as Desire always is; and his/her twin, Despair, who rips her face with her barbed ring. They plot against their brother.

Rose Walker and her mother Miranda travel to England, brought there from America by a mysterious benefactor. Rose dreams of a census of dreams, and learns that four are missing (Brute, Glob, Fiddler's Green, and the Corinthian). She learns also that she is a vortex, an annulet... but not what that means. The Walkers meet Unity Kincaid, one of those who slept while Dream was imprisoned. Unity bore a child during her sleep, and that child was Miranda.

Supported by Unity's vast resources, Rose goes to Florida to seek her little brother, who has been lost to her since her parents' divorce seven years ago. In Cocoa, she rents a room in a house with a number of odd residents, and a drag queen for a landlady. She worries about her brother, Jed.

Jed dreams of flying, of being loved, and wakes to a reality in which he is imprisoned in a rat-infested basement, and beaten when he emerges. Nestled in Jed's dreams are Brute and Glob, two of the four missing dream-creatures; and Hector and Hippolyta Hall, a dead man and his pregnant wife. Dream discovers that Jed's mind has been sealed off from the Dreaming.

When Rose, now apprised of her brother's whereabouts, sets out to find him, Gilbert (one of her housemates) goes along. Somewhere in Georgia, their car breaks down. Exhausted, they take shelter for the night in a hotel that has been booked for a "Cereal Convention," whatever that might be.

Dream removes the four intruders from Jed's mind. Three of them he sends to their appropriate places. Lyta, though, he sets free, through he tells her that the child she bears is his. And then he leaves for a prior appointment.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, Dream and his sister Death go together to a tavern in England. There, they hear a man named Robert (or Hob) Gadling say that he intends never to die. With a smile, Death decides to grant him that. Dream tells Hob that, if he is not dead, they ought to meet again at the tavern, a hundred years hence. Every hundred years thereafter, they meet and discuss how the world has gone. Up or down, Hob always wants to live. And, during the sixteenth century, Dream strikes a bargain with an aspiring playwright, one Will Shaxberd. Dream and Hob become friends through the ages, and it is to the club that stands on the site of the White Horse Tavern that Morpheus goes when he leaves Lyta Hall.

In Georgia, men and women who speak in metaphors of death gather at the Cereal Convention. The Corinthian, a young and handsome man with a shock of white hair and dark sunglasses, comes as the guest of honor. We realize, slowly, the truth about this convention.

As the dust settles, Gilbert finds Jed, comatose and dehydrated, in the trunk of a car, and he and Rose rush him to a hospital. As Rose waits for news of him, for news of Unity who has had a stroke, she and her housemates begin to dream ... and she learns at last what it means to be a vortex of Dream.

It's worth noting that the first editions of The Doll's House also contained "The Sound of Her Wings." This was a marketing decision, not an artistic one, which is why I won't bother covering that material twice.

This is a story about women, and about how men see women. It explores Maiden-Mother-Crone imagery, the process of a woman taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, male-to-female transgender and transsexualism, misogyny in its vilest and most extreme form, the image of a woman as a vessel, and the power of a woman to remove walls. And in nearly every issue, there is the image of a heart. Most resonantly, there is the image of a heart being handed from grandchild to grandparent, twice.

Symbolism, reference, and homage are thick and multilayered here. The title refers to both the play (by Henrik Ibsen) and the children's book (by Rumer Godden). Jed's dreams are a pastiche of the early 20th century comic Little Nemo in Slumberland, and contain the 1970s Sandman character. An old, primal version of the Red Riding Hood story plays itself out, in telling and in life. Minor characters from other comics series are resurrected (quite literally).

And you can miss nearly all of it, and still enjoy yourself. I did, eight or nine years ago, in high school. The more I learn, and the more I reread the series, the more I understand and enjoy it. Isn't that one definition of literature? That the educated can read it with enjoyment, and reread it with more?

Dringenberg and Jones bring it all to life, the grotesque and the gorgeous, with affecting illustrations and occasionally brilliant layouts.

Nada's story, "Tales in the Sand" (#9); Hob's, "Men of Good Fortune" (#13); and "Collectors" (#14) all shine, each in its own way. In "Tales," Gaiman creates out of thin air an authentic-feeling folk tale, with true-to-form language, rhythm, and decay. "Men of Good Fortune" involved a huge amount of historical research, and aptly demonstrates both the changes that take place over time, and the constants of human attitude. It also sets the stage for several future stories. And "Collectors" is chilling from beginning to end, its biting winds seeming to blow right through your soul.

[Rebecca Scott]

Neil Gaiman has a Web site that is highly entertaining.