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SANDMANWriter: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)
Synopsis: The Sandman is more than the mythical figure who puts children to sleep each night. He's Morpheus, the king of dreams, and since the dawn of time he's protected The Dreaming, the land where you go when you sleep, from the assaults and plots of mythical beings within and without. Morpheus is one of the Endless, who are like gods except that they don't require worship, and therefore are truly immortal. Or is he?
How Is It?: This is the comic that got me into comics. Gaiman's astonishingly detailed cosmology weaves together stories from ancient myths to modern literature, and manages to turn it into something new. Sandman is, and will remain, one of the standards in fantasy storytelling, and possibly just as significant a turning point for the genre as The Lord of the Rings.
Preludes & NocturnesSynopsis: In pre WWI-England, a cadre of wannabe warlocks attempt to capture Death Himself. Instead, through a fluke, they get Sandman, and proceed to steal his possessions and keep him trapped for most of the century. When he finally escapes, Morpheus is compelled to find his lost tools to help him restore his realm.
How Is It?: Unfortunately, the first Sandman collection is the weakest; Gaiman was still struggling to find the right tone, and the artist Sam Keith quit four issues in, leading to an inconsistant look. (Not to mention that Keith wasn't that great an artist anyway.) Still, the clever structure of the series is established: one major arc made up of several smaller stories, many of them told from different points of view. To get his helmet back, Dream has to go to hell; his pouch of sand requires a visit to a haunted house. And his ruby talisman is in the hands of a comic book supervillain. Some of this is kind of awkward and merely foreshadows upcoming events. Still, the collection is entertaining enough, and ends on a high note when we actually meet Death--who turns out to be Sandman's sister, and is not what the warlocks were expecting at all.
The Doll's HouseSynopsis: While putting The Dreaming back in order, Morpheus discovers that four of its' most prominent inhabitants have gone missing, so off he goes to find them. Meanwhile a young woman named Rose Walker has just met her grandmother for the first time and goes on a journey of her own: to find her missing brother. She and many others will be swept up in Morpheus's quest.
How Is It?: The first really good Sandman arc, weaving dozens of characters and their stories together. We meet some of the inhabitants of the Dreaming, including Morpheus' assistant/raven Matthew and the bookkeeper Lucius. This arc is most memorable, though, for its side trips: in the course of this trip, we'll hear the story of an ancient African princess who Morpheus loved, meet a pregnant woman living inside the head of an abused kid, and (in the book's most memorable sequence) visit a serial killer's convention. The character of Rose ends up being one of the most memorable and likable guides to the Sandman universe; I only wish we'd seen more of her in the rest of the series.
Dream CountrySynopsis: A collection of short stories: A struggling writer imprisons a muse in "Calliope"; a feline prophet spreads the word in "The Dream of A Thousand Cats"; Shakespeare premieres a play to a really unique audience in the Harvey Award-winning "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; and an ex-superheroine finds closure in "Facade".
How Is It?: Short. Only four issues long, though one of them is one of the most acclaimed stories in comics, and provided the seed for several more collaborations between Gaiman and the artist, Charles Vess. My personal fave, though, is "A Thousand Cats". "Facade" is the last time superheroes make an overt appearance in Sandman, although there are references to the "DC Universe" scattered throughout the rest of the series. This is actually a good place to start reading Sandman.
Season of MistsSynopsis: After Death gives Sandman a sound telling off at the latest family reunion, Dream decides to do the honourable thing and rescue his ex-lover Nada (the African princess) from hell. Doing so, however, means tangling with Lucifer, who's not inclined to give Sandman an easy time of it...and takes his revenge in a surprising way that creates a thorny dilemma for ol' Dreamy.
How Is It?: This is arguably the best Sandman arc. Except for a one-shot story in the middle, this is one big, multi-part story, but one that takes a new twist every issue. This leads to some of the cleverest storytelling in a Sandman story yet. It also ties up a few loose ends and begins to develop some of the characters we've met only briefly in earlier issues, like Hyppolyta Hall, the Three Witches, and Hob Gadling, not to mention introducing Delirium, the youngest member of Sandman's dysfunctional brood. And then there's Lucifer Morningstar, who's become THE devil to beat in the comics world these days (he even has his own series now). And that's not even mentioning the giant assembly of gods and demons that Sandman has to deal with in this story. This is the big payoff for faithful fans of the series--don't miss it.
A Game of YouSynopsis: Barbie's not really such a weird girl; she just wishes she was. Moving to New York after her divorce and surrounding herself with weirdos didn't do much to help her escape her boring life. However, when her half-forgotten imaginary friend appears in the street and begs her to save the imaginary land of her childhood from the evil Cuckoo, she can hardly refuse...
How Is It?: This is probably the purest example of how Sandman's ongoing story is filtered through the viewpoint of peripheral characters; Morpheus himself only appears in about ten pages of this entire 150-page arc. Instead we're treated to a traditional fantasy quest story in the vein of the Narnia or Oz books, with a grown-up twist. At a first glance this struck me as a rather so-so offering, but after a second glance I had a much better time with it. The art is probably the best we've seen in any Sandman story so far (except for issue 3, disappointingly rendered by) and we're introduced to two more cult characters of the Sandman universe, lesbian lovers Hazel and Foxglove. This is the closest to traditional fantasy we've seen so far in Sandman, but it's still got a pleasantly modern twist to it.
Fables & ReflectionsSynopsis: An anthology. A man declares himself Emperor of America in "Three Septembers and a January"; Rome's first emperor reminisces in "August"; the history of the obscure tribe called 'The People' is revealed in "The Hunt"; Marco Polo gets lost in the Dreaming in "Soft Places"; John Constantine's ancestress faces the intrigues of the French Revolution in "Thermidor"; Morpheus's son goes on a doomed quest in "Song of Orpheus"; The first-ever Sandman story is recounted in "Fear of Falling"; The Sultan of Baghdad barters with Dream in "Ramadan"; and Daniel meets the Dreaming crew for a round of stories in "A Parliament of Rooks".
How Is It?: A Sandman anthology is usually more consistant than most. This is the coolest (not to mention biggest) anthology of the series, covering everything from Russian folklore to Roman politics to Arabian Nights fantasy ("Ramadan" is probably my favourite story of the bunch, with utterly fabulous art by P. Craig Russell) to the sorta-true story of a turn-of-the-century kook. The art can be seen to be showing a marked improvement, becoming both more lush and sharp while also more appropriately fantastical and stylized, as the revolving-door artists go from being a weakness to a real strength of the series. This is a good one to read first, if you want to get a quick glimpse into the true magic and epic scope that this series provides.
Brief LivesSynopsis: Dream's heart has just been broken by some as-yet unseen harlot. In his fragile emotional state, he's willing to do something crazy like...well, to go with his sister Delirium on a search for their lost brother Destruction. Needless to say, seeking Destruction isn't a great idea, and the point is bound to be driven home when the search takes Morpheus face-to-face with his son for the first time in several thousand years...
How Is It?: One of the most pivotal segments from a plot standpoint, in many ways rating this collection is like rating Sandman itself--so you know I have to give it top marks. :) The plotline eschews the usual subplots and stand-alones for a fairly focused and stripped-down storyline that finally reveals a few mysteries, especially about Sandman's lost brother. While it seems a little aimless for the first half--Sandman is only involved in the quest to kill time, initially--it ends with a MAJOR plot development that sets the stage for the big climax, and which ties in well with the overarching theme of morality.
World's EndSynopsis: A breakdown on the highway maroons Brant and Charlene at the mysterious Inn at the End of All Worlds, where there's little to do but tell stories: we learn what architecture dreams of in "A Tale of Two Cities"; have a Kipling-esque encounter with a sea monster in "Hob's Leviathan"; learn of the man born to be president in "Golden Boy"; find out what Cluracan's been up to in "Cluracan's Tale"; and visit the city of the dead in "Cerements".
How Is It?: Reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, this is a clever mix of ongoing plot arc and anthology. The stories are all solid; I liked "Two Cities" best, though "Golden Boy" does a neat job of resurrecting an honest-to-God REAL comic book character, "Prez, the Teen President", into a semi-mythological Christ figure. The ending provides an intriguing glimpse into the future and what's causing this bizarre "reality storm", setting us up for the big climax of the series.
The Kindly OnesSynopsis: Morpheus' enemies are pulling together to destroy the Dream King for good and all. Events have been set in motion, and soon Hyppolyta Hall will bring her curse to bear on Dreamy. She will summon the most fearful aspect of the triple goddess: those that even the Gods will only refer to, fearfully, as "The Kindly Ones"...the Furies themselves.
How Is It?: This is it: the climax of the series, weaving ALL, and I do mean ALL, the plot threads and characters Gaiman's introduced until now into a fantastically complex and satisfying denoument. You won't believe how expertly stories begun up to ten YEARS ago fit beautifully together to send events spiralling towards their end. (If you want to get the "quick" plot of Sandman, read A Doll's House, Season of Mists, Brief Lives and this one.) I've heard some people take issue with artist Marc Hempel's rather exaggerated and experimental style, which goes from something approaching realism to almost cartoony, highly abstract shapes and shadows. I, however, found it terrifically refreshing. In all other respects this is possibly the most jaw-droppingly ambitious payoff in comics history--don't miss it.
The WakeSynopsis: The final Sandman arc brings together all of Morpheus' friends, family, enemies and acquaintances for a final farewell, and a last smattering of stories: Hob puts the past behind him in "Sunday Morning"; Sandman turns to an older hand for wisdom in "Exiles"; and Shakespeare writes his last play in "The Tempest".
How Is It?: The traditional pace of comics storytelling would have declared this collection redundant; the story is "over", right? Well, Sandman's always been about tangents, about details leading to more details, and telling interesting stories within the world Gaiman created. So seeing the character's reaction to the end of the series, and the beginning of whatever comes next, is quite neat, and for people who have been following the series faithfully, may reduce them to tears. The fact that there are several stories tacked on to the end only heightens the sense that no story ever ends, and not everything is wrapped up in a tidy little bow.
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