Tag Archives: graphic-novel

Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is a wonderfully imaginative volume of Sandman — and considering that the entire series is a celebration of imagination, that’s really saying something.

A series of nested stories, reminiscent of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Worlds’ End introduces us to a mismatched set of characters who meet by happenstance, during what we learn is a reality storm. Something tremendous has caused the walls between the worlds to bend and quake and crack, and some hapless souls caught in the shivering have ended up at the Worlds’ End Inn, telling tales until the ripples settle. This collection is somewhat like Dream Country and Fables and Reflections, in that it takes place outside of what continuum of the larger story arc exists; there are discrete stories, but, unlike in the other two volumes, they are connected through the frame device.

The frame focuses on one man, Brant, and his traveling companion, Charlene, who had just been driving home from a business trip when a fabulous creature runs into the road, causing Brant to wreck the car; they wake in the Inn. As they accustom themselves to their new surroundings, they begin to hear tales. The first, of a sleeping city that traps its inhabitants in its dreams, isn’t one of my favourites, but it is told in a rather interesting way, both in its words and its images. There are no outlines; everything is blocks and shadows and and shapes, and there are no word balloons, only plain text narrative. It creates a very stark sensation. The second story is about as far in contrast from the first as it could be; our old friend Cluracan of the Fae tells it, about a diplomatic mission of his that turns into a political intrigue and tale of vengeance. Because it belongs to the Fae, it overflows with colour and details and whimsy. We meet another Queen of the Fae — Mab, this time, rather than Titania — and we get to see another imagined world, entirely apart from our earth. In The Sandman Companion, Gaiman states that he thinks this story fell flat, that it needed to be much longer to work well; I actually rather like it. I think the pace, which clips along with a rather casual shrug at cause and effect, suits Cluracan well.

The third story is one of the more fantastic in the series, among the best illustrated, and also revisits some old friends. A sailor lad names Jim decides to tell a true story here, in the Inn, where it might be believed, or if it isn’t, it won’t matter — a story he could never tell back at home, about an amazing voyage. This starts out, in many ways, like a classic eighteenth- or nineteenth-century sea tale; there are flavours of Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and Kipling. Jim takes to sea, and the boat he ends up on is chartered by none other than Hob Gadling — now a respectable businessman. They travel and talk and Hob passes on some wisdom. I love this for getting to see more of one of my favourite characters in the entire series; it’s magnificent to see Hob in-between his meetings with Dream, and it’s wonderful to see him look back at lessons learned with a touch of regret. He remembers the slave trade, which he took part in, because, at the onset, no one thought to question it as wrong; but now he feels ashamed for it, resolving to do better in the future — but with an awareness that, in the moment, you may not ever be able to tell right from wrong, and that he possesses hindsight on a near-unique scope. We learn at the end of the story that Jim is, in fact, a girl, approaching the age when she won’t be able to hide her gender anymore. Both her time on the sea and the era of the tall ships are ending, and the reader definitely gets a sense of mournfulness. So, too, a sense of romanticism; not everything is as pretty as a wistful memory makes it — as Hob Gadling is always swift to point out to us.

Next, an alternate history of America, where a remarkable young boy named Prez becomes President at the age of 18. Through this story, Gaiman explores politics from point of view that is both a fairy tale and semi-religious, a tale of promises made and hopes fulfilled — as they almost never are in our version of reality. It’s ideal and idyllic, a world where everything goes right in the 1970s and America enters a Golden Age more true and magnificent than any Golden Age has probably ever been. It ends as swiftly as any Golden Age must; Prez declines the calls to run for more than two terms and retires quietly. Things don’t suddenly become bad, but the shine’s gone off. And one day, Prez dies — though no one knows how or where, there’s a mythic awareness that it happens. The readers witness his conversation with Death and his choice to move on, through the worlds, to find more things to fix. There’s definitely a messianic quality to Prez, an implication that he comes when needed and never overstays his welcome, never falls prey to the downfalls of normal humans, never fades in the hearts of those who love him.

The next story is one of the most complex, exploring the lives of interdimensional undertakers, who live in the Necropolis, a City of the Dead tasked with maintaining the funereal customs of various worlds. This one, like many of the story in the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, nests within itself. A young apprentice speaks of his experiences; someone in his story tells about his mistress’s youth; the apprentice eventually has to tell his own tale within his tale. They twist and intertwine, spreading outward to the Inn, as well, as we’ve seen the apprentice wandering around and having conversations in the framework.

Through that framework, we learn, bit by bit, more about the Inn. It is a “free house”, a clever bit of play on Gaiman’s part. In Britain, a free house is a pub unattached to any brewery; for Worlds’ End, it means that it exists outside reality, attached to the bounds and rules of no world, entirely its own place. There is an implication that the current hostess may be a Hindu Goddess (Lakshmi, perhaps, or a version of her?). And people can come, and go, and pass through to worlds not their own. Towards the end of the collection, Charlene is asked for a story — and she replies that she has none. Except, in saying so, she does tell her own tale, a female story (the only one in the collection, really), and one of futility and frustration. Ultimately, she decides to stay, to work at the Inn, determining that she has nothing really worth returning to in her version of reality. When the storm ends and Brant wakes back up, he discovers that it is not as if Charlene has died, but as if she had never existed; her car is in his name, no one remembers her. And then the reader learns that everything in this volume has been told by Brant (who never had to share a story in the Inn) to a bartender.

The art in this volume may be the best in the series — at least it’s among the best. Evocative, enormously detailed, full of colour and nuance — it’s an absolute visual feast. One of the best centerfold splashes ever features a phenomenal sea monster, bursting up out of the ocean to dwarf the tall ship observing it. Perhaps the most spectacular series of images, however, comes towards the end of the issue, when the denizens of the Worlds’ End look out the windows and witness what they suppose to be the cause of the reality storm — a funeral procession of truly incredible proportions. It lasts over three full two-page splashes — a circumstance unique in the entire series. We see many, many familiar faces — Destiny, leading the way; Titania, Odin, Bast, Emperor Norton, Mervin, an angel, a raven. But whose funeral is it? We may make an educated guess, based on the attendees, but we have no confirmation. And when is this happening? Where? Is it even real? And, most important of all, how did it come to be? We don’t know yet — but we will.

Worlds’ End is fantastic and imaginative and explorative, but through it all, you feel an ebb. Things are receding, failing, ending. The energy at the end of Brief Lives, where you first sense that the greater story of the Sandman is nearing its close, continues here, though we hardly see Dream at all. The mood carries over. The reader approaches The Kindly Ones with trepidation, both wanting and not-wanting to know what’s going to happen, reluctant to confirm suspicions, but inexorably drawn to the story’s climax.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Brief Lives probably has the most cohesive plot of any of the Sandman collections, excepting maybe Volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In this collection, Delirium, youngest of the Endless, has conceived a fierce need to go in search of “the Prodigal”, Destruction, the middle of the siblings, who has abandoned his realm and who has not been seen in some 300 years. But she doesn’t want to go it alone (and is vaguely aware that she can’t, fractured and unstable as she is). She first asks the twins, the siblings nearest to her in age, Desire and Despair; both refuse. Then she asks Dream, who, surprisingly, consents — though his reasons have little to do with helping Delirium or finding Destruction, and far more to do with having an excuse to walk in the mortal world.

Dream, we learn, has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend, the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), and he’s gone into quite the existential funk over it. Several of the inhabitants of the Dreamworld discuss how his mood affects their manifestation of reality:

Nuala: Brrr. Listen to that thunder. Poor Lord Morpheus. He must be very sad.

Mervyn: Nah. He enjoys it. I mean, hell, it’s a pose. Y’know? He spends a coupla months hanging out with a new broad. Then one day the magic’s worn off, and he goes back to work, and she takes a hike. Now, guys like me, ordinary Joes, we just shrug our shoulders, say, hey, that’s life, flick it if you can’t take a joke. Not him. Oh no. He’s gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin’ the loss of his beloved, so down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet.

I like this little poke at the Dream-lord’s massive ego — he is, in many ways, a figure that takes himself quite seriously (as his sister Death frequently reminds him). So, both to shake himself out of this depressive fit — but also hoping that he might cross paths with his ex-lover — Dream agrees to accompany his sister on the search.

The search goes badly right from the start. Delirium has a list of people who were acquainted with Destruction, who might know his whereabouts, but they all suddenly die or disappear before Dream and Del can get to them. This is more worrying since these figures are immortal — some gods, some figures out of mythology, and some who have just refused to die. In one of the more memorable openings of the series, one chapter begins:

There are not many of them, all things considered: the truly old.

Even on this planet, in this age, when people consider a mere hundred years, or a thousand, to be an unusual span.

There are, for example, less than ten thousand humanoid individuals alive on this planet today who have personal memories of the saber-toothed tiger, the megatherium, the cave bear.

There are today less than a thousand who walked the streets of Atlantis (the first Atlantis. The other lands that bore that name were shadows, echo-Atlantises, myth lands, an they came later).

There are less than five hundred living humans who remember the human civilizations that predated the great lizards. (There were a few; fossil records are unreliable. Several of them lasted for millions of years.)

There are roughly seventy people walking the earth, human to all appearances (and in a few cases, to all medical tests currently available), who were alive before the earth had begun to congeal from gas and dust.

How well do you know your neighbors? Your friends? Your lovers?

Walk the streets of any city, and stare carefully at the people who pass you, and wonder, and know this:

They are there too, the old ones.

I love that passage. It’s chilling, unsettling, and somehow inspirational, all at the same time (a Gaiman specialty). And the first of these that we meet, we meet at his death; Bernie Capax remembers the stink of mammoth during his morning commute, and moments later, gets crushed by a construction site accident. He doesn’t want to believe it at first — after all, he’d made it so long, and for it to end like this? Who could blame him for feeling cheated at the last? But, as Death reminds him, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” We find out later that Bernie was on Delirium’s list; somehow, Destruction left a trip-wire in his wake that’s disrupting any attempts to find him, often at great cost.

Dream and Del also incur some purely mortal collateral damage, as accidents and mishaps plague their travel. Eventually, Dream throws in the towel; he’s had enough, he isn’t getting what he wanted out of the trip anyway, and he’s tired of their efforts getting people killed. Delirium takes this poorly, throwing a fit, retreating to her realm, and locking it down; Death intervenes, chastising Dream for being callous and selfish, and he agrees to try again. After coaxing Del back out, the pair journeys to their eldest brother, Destiny, who tells them to seek out an Oracle who is of the Family — Dream’s son Orpheus. Orpheus reveals Destruction’s location in exchange for a boon which he can claim from his father; despite knowing full well what price he’s going to have to pay, Dream agrees, and off they go to find Destruction — who is, as fate would have it, on an island neighboring the one where Orpheus has been kept all these years.

The meeting is, if anything, anticlimactic. Destruction reiterates his reasons for leaving his realm — he doesn’t think that the Endless should behave as they do, toying with mortals and governing their lives — that mortals quite have the hang of it now on their own, and the functions of the Endless can go on without their personal supervision. (Clearly this is correct for Destruction — we do a plenty good job of that — but what happened with Dream’s absence from his realm at the very beginning of the series calls the truth of his assertion into question). The conversation ends to no one’s satisfaction, and Destruction decides to pack up and go on the move again. Dream returns to the other island and kills his son, at Orpheus’s own request.

I really, really enjoy this volume, for several reasons. I appreciate the progression of the saga’s overarching plotline and thematic concerns. I like getting to see more of Delirium, who is a fascinating figure in her own right. Her contradictory nature and unpredictability show best when she and Dream visit Destiny; when Dream has a minor breakdown, Delirium briefly reigns herself in in order to console him. She says it hurts, and she doesn’t like doing it — but she can, when the need is great. The idea isn’t explored much further, but I think it’s tremendously interesting. I also like getting to see Destruction, on his own, attempting like anything to create and finding that he cannot do so in any sort of satisfactory manner. But perhaps more than all of that, I like what this collection has to say about immortality. It anticipates American Gods (published in 2001, 7-8 years after these issues first appeared in stores) in many ways, particularly in the idea of how old gods and other mythological beings survive: namely, any way they can. Most poignant to me is the story of Ishtar, reduced to dancing in a seedy strip club for the scraps of sexual worship she can glean there. She doesn’t seem to take it too badly, honestly, but there are echoes of such greatness and such loss in some of her conversations with her friends. And then, when she takes herself out in rather spectacular fashion:

I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams. … And what comes after, not even we know.

She’s a stunner, to the end, and no mistake, and she makes a powerful statement — even the gods are not truly immortal; only the Endless are, and even they, as we learn in this collection, can falter, perish, and be replaced by a new aspect of themselves.

Brief Lives also includes, in a flashback to the seventeenth century, an interesting commentary on Reason. Poised at the edge of the Age of Enlightenment, Destruction comments that man has turned away from other methods of explaining the world and has focused on reason.” It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth, or dream.  But it has the potential to be far more dangerous.” Dream agrees that it is a flawed tool at best. This is an interesting thing to consider, from a modern standpoint, in an age when science and faith so often find themselves at loggerheads — when we debate whether or not evolution should be taught in schools and whether or not religion ought to be allowed to govern what women can do with their own bodies. It’s interesting for me in particular because I somewhat straddle the line where reason is concerned. I love science, believe in science, am fascinated by science — but I have faith, too. I don’t see that the two have to be incompatible — the world is no less miraculous just because it’s composed of atoms and forces and chemical reactions — and yet there are so many who would insist on making them enemies. I think we need all of those things — instinct, myth, dream, and reason — in balance, to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. But that is, of course, only my own musing on the topic; I do love when Gaiman makes me think these thoughts.

In Brief Lives, you can really feel the saga spinning towards something. All the pieces are not only in place but now in motion. There’s more of an intensity to this volume, that will only ratchet up further in The Kindly Ones. Before that, though, we get the delightful imaginative exploration of World’s End

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 264 pages
Genre: fantasy/magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This collection has some really great stories, and some that I find rather unengaging. As with Dream Country, there’s really no through-line here, so it’s probably best to take each story individually.

Fear of Falling– The opening story, which, honestly, I find a little pedestrian. It’s the sort of thing every writer indulges in sooner or later, I guess: a story about creation, a story about when it fails, a story about fearing success. The best thing in this episode is the advice Morpheus gives to the struggling writer/director in his dream: “Is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative.”

Three Septembers and a January – I love this story to bits. It is the true tale of one of history’s quirks, Joshua Abraham Norton, the First Emperor of the United States from 1859 until his death in 1880. As Joshua is contemplating suicide, Despair tempts her older brother Dream into a bet: to see if Dream can claim and keep him, rescuing him from Despair, without his falling into Desire or Delirium. Against his better judgment, Dream takes the bet, and gives Joshua a dream of being Emperor — and so he becomes. What follows is an incredibly charming story of how he sets himself up in imperial majesty, never mind his actual poverty. He becomes a beloved local celebrity in San Francisco, cherished for his eccentricities, protected from persecution, selfless and benevolent in all his dealings. Desire cannot tempt him, and as Delirium notes, “His madness keeps him sane.” The best thing about this story is that, as I said, it is entirely true — or, given that (as we learned several volume ago) things need not have happened to be true, I should better say — it happened, it is historical reality, well-documented. It’s a wonderful inspiration, a testament to the power of a dream to sustain a life, to keep someone going. Cocooned in his perfectly sane madness, Emperor Norton is inviolable.

Thermidor – Lady Johanna Constantine, who we met back in Hob Gadling’s origin story, is on a mission from Morpheus in the fading days of the Reign of Terror. An Englishwoman, undercover in Paris, steals the head of Orpheus, the Dreamlord’s son (the head, incidentally, is still alive and talking, which we’ll learn more about later) and take it to safety. Robespierre, we learn, seeks to destroy the head, as he seeks to destroy everything he dismisses as superstition, sacrificed to the altar of Reason. The story progresses through several philosophical tangents, exploring the nature of liberty, the double-edged sword of revolution, and the place that the mystical and the impossible have in a post-Enlightenment world (a thread which the series will pick up again later). I like this story a lot, largely for that mix of historical reality and the fantasy of the Dreamworld. I also loved seeing Johanna Constantine in action, and I always wished she would have become a more regularly featured character.

The Hunt – In the modern age, a grandfather tells his reluctant granddaughter a story of their people. In the Old Country, a young man named Vassily meets a gypsy woman, who in exchange for dinner gives him a chain with a picture of a beautiful duke’s daughter on it, and he decides to set out in search of her. From there, it becomes largely an Eastern European/Russian fairy tale — with a couple of notable diversions. For one thing, the thin veil over the story is that “the people” are werewolves. For another, Vassily runs into Lucien, Dream’s librarian, who has misplaced a book that has fallen into Vassily’s hands — and thus, when Vassily most needs assistance, Lucien becomes the unlikely fairy godmother to help him out of trouble.

August – Late in the reign of Emperor Augustus, formerly mere Caius Octavius, the emperor disguises himself as a beggar for a day and discusses the world he rules with an actor named Lycius. I really enjoy this story in some ways, and it irritates me in others. It’s incredibly inactive — most of the panels are Augustus and Lycius just sitting on a stoop, talking. Some of the history is good, but a lot of it is completely wrong, the stuff of popular misconceptions about Roman society. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed in Gaiman for shoddy research, when he’s usually so precise about it, or if I should let it slide on the basis of this being 20 years old and thus an entire generation of scholarship behind. The most interesting part is the explanation of why Augustus set the boundaries of the Roman empire where he did — and, historically, the Empire’s swift decline began when they over-extended themselves. By Gaiman’s account, this had to do with a prophecy, that Rome would either flame and sputter for a few hundred years, or else spread to the ends of the earth and rule for ten thousand years. (Personally, I’d give quite a lot to see a graphic novel series on that version of history). Overall, this one somehow falls flat for me, which is odd, since the material should’ve been a gimme.

Soft Places – A young Marco Polo gets lost in a desert sandstorm and finds himself stumbling through the veils of time and reality, meeting with people from the past and the future, as well as our old friend Fiddler’s Green. I like the inherent concept behind this one — the very idea of “soft places” where reality thins, time bends, and the mystical collides with the mundane — but somehow this is an issue that never sticks with me. Somehow the characters just don’t reach out and grab, and while the art pretty perfectly reflects the story, that also means it ends up a whitewash in my mind. So, Soft Places is effective in weird ways, but not one of my favourites from this volume.

Orpheus – This is a good if not particularly inventive retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the musician whose bride dies on their wedding day, who goes to the Underworld to find her, only to lose her through his own lack of faith before he reaches the realm of the living again. The best thing about this storyline, which spans several issues, is the integration of the Endless into the tale. Orpheus is, in this version of the tale, the son of Calliope and Morpheus — an interesting twist, since most versions put him as the son of Calliope and Apollo, and in “August”, Augusts mistakes Morpheus for Apollo. That’s one of those little ways Gaiman twines his stories together, that you might not appreciate on the first or even the fifth read, but which curls there, underneath, waiting for you to notice it. Anyway — we meet, for the first time, the entire family of the Endless gathered for Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice, including the missing prodigal, here called only Olethros — which translates as “Destruction”. When Eurydice dies, as in the myth, Orpheus wants to go to the Underworld for her; here, the decision involves the Endless. Dream initially refuses to help, and father and son quarrel, but Uncle Destruction sends Orpheus to talk to Death — who says the way to get in and out of the Underworld alive is for her to agree not to perform her function on him. The myth progresses as we know it, all the way through the less-often-told story of Bacchantes tearing him to pieces (in a few rather gruesomely detailed pages) and his still-sentient head floating down the river.

The Parliament of Rooks – Another one that fails to impress me. Of all the elements of the Dreamworld, the Eve-Cain-Abel part always seemed weird and out of place to me. They always seem like they’ve come in from a very different kind of storytelling, and so I never much enjoy their presence. The best note in this story is Eve’s tale of the three wives of Adam, from the Jewish apocrypha.

Ramadan – This story has some of the best art in the series, though I find the tale itself somewhat lacking. The sultan of Baghdad believes that he is living in the most glorious city in the most glorious time ever created, and he strikes a deal with Morpheus to keep it so forever, in the Dreamworld. And so Morpheus locks the city in a magic ball, removing its glory from the real world but preserving it forever in fantasy. The story ends in what was then modern Baghdad, in 1993 — eerily similar to what is modern Baghdad in 2012, war-ravaged and destitute, but still a place where a young boy might dream of a golden past.

Overall, there’s a lot in this volume about the place where dreams and the mundane world collide, and that’s a theme I really enjoy. There are also a lot of threads, less pronounced, about family, other relationships, and their value. From Vassily’s choice to prize a soulmate above wealth and carnal delights, to Augustus’s pronounced familial disappointments, to the amazing love that wraps Emperor Norton, to, of course, the tangled web of the Endless. It centers, ultimately, on Morpheus’s fraught relationship with his son. Orpheus disowns him in a moment of despair, and unyielding Morpheus refuses to reconcile even after tragedy befalls his son. If you know where the story’s headed, you can feel what it’s beginning to spin to in this volume, as certain aspects of the story pick up more energy and as more information falls into place. Fables and Reflections is thus oddly situated between plot-advancing and ponderous, displaying both the overall arc of the series and the imaginative exploration at which Gaiman excels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 192 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

Everyone has worlds inside of them.

This theme isn’t new to the Sandman series, but it’s revisited more strongly here than elsewhere in the ongoing saga. A Game of You features Barbie, who we first met back in Volume 2. She’s left her husband, moved to New York, and now lives in an apartment building with a lesbian couple (Hazel and Foxglove, both connected back to characters we’ve met before as well), a transwoman named Wanda, a quiet woman named Thessaly (who turns out to be a centuries-old witch), and a strange man named George (who turns out to be no sort of human at all). And in her dreams, Barbie lives in a fantasy realm. We caught a glimpse of it back in Volume 2, but it’s more fully realised here: an expansive world populated by talking animals, Narnia-esque. Here, Barbie is a princess, called upon to defeat the evil Cuckoo and restore justice to her realm.

The two worlds collide when a figure from the dream realm crosses over to the waking world — an enormous doglike creature called Martin Tenbones, who manages to pass a message and a strange gem on to Barbie before being gunned down by the NYPD. Bizarrely confronted by what she thought was only a dream, Barbie (not inexplicably) wonders if she’s cracking up. That night, the gem — the Porpentine — sends her into a coma-like sleep. Deep in her dreamworld, . George, revealed as a servant of the Cuckoo, releases nightmares in bird form upon the other inhabitants of the apartment building; when Thessaly catches one trying to get to her, she first kills it and then kills George. Gathering Hazel, Foxglove, and Wanda, she starts working old, bloody magic, using George’s remains to get answers about the Cuckoo and Barbie’s dream world, then drawing down the moon to walk its path into the magical realm. She takes Hazel and Foxglove with her, but leaves Wanda, chromosomally a man and thus unable to travel the moon’s path (and anyone looking for commentary on transgender issues will have loads to deal with there), behind to deal with a talking corpse, a comatose Barbie, and an impending hurricane caused by Thessaly’s meddling.

Meanwhile, in the dreamscape, Barbie’s trekking across a frozen wasteland, through a dark forest, and other such fantastical . In the end, we learn that this dreamworld was an island, a skerry of dreaming, isolated unto itself, and that its original inhabitant was a woman named Alianora, proud and beautiful and with a scar cutting across her right cheek. From her brief conversation with Morpheus, we can intuit that they were lovers once (and from what we know of Morpheus, we can assume it ended poorly) — but to the best of my knowledge, her full story is never told, a mystery left past the end of the series. Barbie was just the latest in a series of women who came there to dream, populating the realm with their imaginations.

We get Dreaming from a more human perspective here, rather than the viewpoint of Morpheus or other immortals. Morpheus only comes in at the very end of the story — Endless ex machina — and as a result, this story is rather more personal than a lot of the story. Its scope is (hurricane notwithstanding) less epic. When Barbie sleeps, she finds herself dropped into a world that is strange yet somehow familiar, which operates on its own set of rules — some of which she instinctively knows, and some of which she has to learn as she goes along. And everyone knows that feeling. Dream logic doesn’t resemble waking logic, but it does have its own patterns.

So, there’s the outline. I don’t really care for this volume, to be honest — and I’m not sure why. Barbie’s the sort of figure I ought to empathise with tremendously, but something about it just falls flat for me. Maybe it’s just that I do prefer the epic scope. Maybe it’s that there are places where this volume seems too conscious of making a point, rather than just telling a story. Maybe it’s that — despite bringing back a character we’ve seen before and introducing one we’ll see again — it feels more disjointed from the rest of the series than most of the volumes do. It still has considerable technical merit, and there are parts of it I enjoy, but ultimately this isn’t one that sticks with me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 224 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

First off, I apologise for the lack of reviews lately; NaNoWriMo has been consuming most of my post-work hours, leaving me little time either to read or to compose reviews.

In Volume 4 of the Sandman graphic novel series, the focus is initially — and for the first time — on the family. That is, on the Endless, on their interactions with each other. Though we’ve seen some of them before — and though one, known here only as the Prodigal, is still missing from the count — this is the first time we get explicit descriptions of each and his or her duties. Destiny calls a meeting, because it is destined that he will. Desire picks a fight, which leads to Dream deciding that he needs to go free Nada (remember her?) from Hell, even though it may cost him his own existence.

He prepares himself for battle, knowing that he challenged and offended quite a few demons, not to mention the Lord of Hell his-infernal-self, the last time he was down there. But when he arrives, he finds Hell… empty. Abandoned. And Lucifer Morningstar announces that he’s giving up the shop — that after 10 billion years, he’s had enough. It’s a tremendously inventive look at that character, accompanied by a wonderful commentary on human nature as it relates to religion and the idea of damnation. Lucifer complains:

Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spent my entire days sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commits acts they would otherwise find repulsive. “The devil made me do it.” I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.

And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here. They talk of me going like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul? No. They belong to themselves…. They just hate to have to face up to it.

After chivvying out the last few stubborn souls (including Breschau, and when Lucifer tells him, “No one cares any more, Breschau. No one remembers. I doubt one mortal in a hundred thousand could even point to where Livonia used to be, on a map”, I would just like to point out that I am that one in a hundred thousand. I mean, maybe not precisely, but it was a Baltic state, somewhere in the Latvia-Estonia region) and recalcitrant demons, and having Morpheus cut off his wings, Lucifer locks up — and throws Morpheus the key. He makes Morpheus custodian of what he calls “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things” — and he proves right, for claimants waste no time in coming a-calling.

Representatives from many different pantheons show up: Odin, Thor, and Loki for the Norse, looking for a way to avoid Ragnarok; Anubis, Bes, and Bast for the Egyptian; three demons displaced from Hell, led by Azazel, who offers to trade, giving Morpheus Nada as well as another demon who had offended Morpheus in the past in exchange for the return of their property; Susano-o-no-Mikato for Shintoism; manifestations of Order and Chaos; two angels, Duma and Remiel, from the Silver City, there, Remiel claims, simply to observe; and Cluracan and Nuala of the Faerie, asking that Hell be left empty, so that they will no longer have to pay their tithe. Morpheus tells them that he will hear each delegation in turn, and then make his decision. Ultimately, Morpheus decides to remit Hell to its original creator, and hands the key over to Duma and Remiel; the damned return, and things go on much as usual — except that now, under the direction of the angels, the overtones are now of purifying, not punishment, because they love the souls they now have charge of — which, as the damned note, makes it so much worse.

But that doesn’t settle issues for Dream. He still has to contend with the demon Azazel, who threatens to destroy Nada in revenge for Morpheus’s decision. But in the Dreamland, Morpheus has supreme power, and he defeats Azazel and sets Nada free. They have an appropriately anticlimactic conversation — what do you say to an old lover, ten thousand years later? — and Nada decides that she would like to forget all and live again. Morpheus grants her request, causing her to be reborn in the body of a Chinese boy. Still in the Dreamland, Loki tricks Susano-o-no-Mikato into taking his place in his own personal hell; when Morpheus learns of this, he frees the Shinto god, but agrees to let Loki remain free as well, putting an illusion in his place, with the understanding that Loki is now in his debt. Finally, Morpheus finds himself saddled with an unexpected burden: Nuala, who had been offered up as a gift by the Faery Queen, and who cannot now return home without causing offense. Dream agrees to let her stay, but strips her of her glamour, revealing not the beautiful, haughty blonde, but a small, pointy-eared, mousy-haired girl. The collection wraps up with Lucifer on an Australian beach, discussing the sunset with a local man.

This is one of my favourite volumes in the Sandman series, though possibly for all the wrong reasons. What I love about this story is not, ultimately, the larger arc. I love the details. I love seeing gods from different  pantheons interacting. I love meeting Nuala. I love the toast of Hob Gadling, which I never fail to bring out at parties:

To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.

There’s an odd poetry to this volume. Perhaps appropriately for a story featuring Lucifer Morningstar, there’s an almost Romantic sensibility to the language — which is often entirely at odds with the grotesque and gruesome artwork. Lucifer both is and is not the Byronic hero; appropriately for the original rebel, he refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations. He is, perfectly, a nonconformist, refusing even to adhere to the usual picture of nonconformity that latter ages have painted for him. That sense of the language fitting the character and situation continues through the rest of the issues, down to the lettering for the speech bubbles of each of the various visiting pantheons. Gaiman gives each of them a unique voice — whether tangentially polite, like Susano-o-no-Mikato, thunderingly direct, like Thor, floridly gracious, like Cluracan, or purringly sensual, like Bast. No one representative actually gets that much stage time, but you still finish the volume feeling certain you know who these individuals are — both within the confines of their mythos, and out of it, in the less-cleanly-cut world of Sandman.

The only real off-note for me in this collection is the side story taking place at the boarding school, when the closing of Hell apparently means that the dead start coming back. I just find it rather dull, and don’t think it really adds anything.

Overall, this is a great story, and it sets up so much for the rest of the series. So many characters will return, so many deals struck or rejected will become important again, and so many things hinted at will be revealed in full later on. The Season of Mists opens up the universe to a larger expanse, and we also see more of Morpheus ruling his realm. The Dreamland gets some more rules and structures — not to mention new inhabitants. The Season of Mists is a great, strong installment in the series, a detailed and well-crafted exploration of the mythos of Gaiman’s universe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 160 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy/historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dream Country is, for my money, where the Sandman series goes from good to genius.

The third volume isn’t an arc, but rather a series of one-shots. These one-shots beautifully illustrate the real advantage of the graphic novel medium — the freedom to take these side tracks, which are linked thematically, perhaps tangentially tied in to the main story, by the thinnest of threads, but which mostly just flesh out the author’s world. Gaiman explores themes, indulges in experiments, and it’s gorgeous.

The first story, “Calliope”, explores a captured muse. Calliope, a bonafide Greek remnant, was caught decades ago by a writer, enslaved, and forced to inspire him to greatness. But the man is old now, soon to die, and so he sells his muse to a Richard Madoc, a young man plagued by writer’s block. He’s written one great book, and his publishers are hounding him for a sequel he doesn’t have — until he trades a trichinobezoar for Calliope. Her suffering is palpable and harrowing; she appears nude, in a way (as Gaiman indicates in the script, which is included at the back of this volume) that is anything but titillating, and when Madoc rapes her “on a musty camp bed,” it’s profoundly uncomfortable for the reader, because we’ve become, somehow, complicit in his crime. As the story progresses, Madoc becomes, of course, fabulously successful — and Calliope, profoundly miserable, calls out first to the Fates, then to Morpheus, who we learn was once her lover. This is the point where the story intersects with the main plot, though we don’t yet know just how much it will — but the first hint is here, where Morpheus helps her to freedom, taking pity now where once he might not have, softened to her plight by his own recent captivity. I like “Calliope” because it’s an interesting twist on a muse story, and it attacks the question, terrifyingly present in so many writers’ hearts, about just how far we would go for success — not just for the fame and money, but for that glorious feeling of knowing what you’ve created is right. Morpheus’s punishment is apt: first he floods Madoc’s head with stories, too many stories, the blessing turned into a curse. Then, when Calliope asks that Madoc be shown mercy, Morpheus withdraws everything — Madoc ends as he began, with no ideas at all.

The second story, “Dream of a Thousand Cats”, is interesting in large part for the artwork. A small kitten goes out in the middle of the night to listen to a traveling evangelist Siamese tell a story. After her owners callously drowned kittens she bore to a stray tomcat, she begged for justice, and during a dream, traveled through a wasteland to see the Dream Lord — Morpheus again, but who here takes the form of a giant black cat (intimating that Morpheus’s form depends, in large part, upon the viewer). He tells her (and here we see the classic frame structure used quite well) that once upon a time, cats ruled the world, and humans were their playthings, until one day a prophetic human got all mankind to dream the same dream — a dream that changed the world, not just into what it is today, but so that it had always been that way. The Siamese is now traveling the world trying to accomplish the same goal, to get as many cats as she can to dream the same dream and turn things back. The story is simple, if elegantly woven, but as I said, what I love here is the artwork. The artist of this story really knows cats, the difference in build between breeds and ages and lifestyles, the expression in the faces.

The third story in the collection isn’t just my favourite in this volume, it’s one of my favourites overall. If I ever get the chance to get Neil Gaiman to sign something for me, it’ll be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

One of my grad school professors, and now my professional mentor, has a great lecture about Shakespeare’s Dream. He talks about its flawless construction, how it opens up and up, then narrows back down again, layering fantasy and reality together. Our players sleep, dream, wake — and then enter the theatrical world, a different kind of dream, and at the very end, Puck releases us all from the impossibility we so willingly bought into for two hours’ time. It’s a thing of beauty, and Gaiman builds on this structure gorgeously. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which, incidentally, was the first comic book to win a World Fantasy Award), we return to the bargain that Will made with the Dream Lord, and learn its details — in exchange for the power to write the way he does, Shakespeare will write two plays for Morpheus, one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Midsummer isn’t quite at the beginning of his career, but it’s close enough to fudge, and it’s certainly one of his first truly great plays. He wrote it the same year (probably) that he wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, and you can tell that he’s really starting to hit his stride in those three plays — so this narrative makes sense. But Morpheus doesn’t just have him write the play; he wants Shakespeare’s troupe to travel out to the countryside to perform it for a very particular and peculiar audience: the Fae themselves. And so, as the book progresses, the story opens and closes again and again like a blossoming flower, moving from the microcosm of the world of the play, out to the world of the players, alternately bickering about craft matters and trying to contain their astonishment at their audience, to an in-between place, where Titania tempts Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet with promises of glory in her realm, all the way out the entirely Other world of the immortals, where Morpheus converses with Titania and Auberon, and where the lesser fairies show themselves every bit as petty and quarreling as the mortals. They are all echoes of each other, and the framing structure of the play helps crystallize the reflections.

The thing is, I can talk all I want about the structure and the references and the cleverness, but none of that is why I adore that story so much. It’s just magic. There’s something intangible to it that just makes it such a joy to wander through. Every page is a delight, crammed with nuances, details, and clever jokes. Charles Vess illustrates — who else, to do justice to the subject matter? — and his wonderful balance of ethereal grandeur with cheeky whimsy fits the story perfectly. And then there’s the dialogue, the meanderings of truth flitting in and out of the fiction:

MORPHEUS: You have asked me why I asked you back to this plane, to see this entertainment. I… During your stay on this Earth the faerie have afforded me much diversion, and entertainment. Now you have left, for your own haunts. and I would repay you all for the amusement. And more: They shall not forget you. That was important to me: that King Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

AUBERON: We thank you, shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

MORPHEUS: Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

There’s so much brilliant in that little snippet of conversation. First, the idea of the Fae leaving our mortal realm, and taking some of the magic of it with them when they go — perhaps for the better. Our world is less wild, less dangerous now, for certain, but the departure of the Fae is part of the relentless march of Progress, and it leaves something wanting in its wake. Then there’s the statement, which could so well cover the entire series, really: “Things need not have happened to be true.” It’s a guiding principle of my life, really, as I think it is for any writer who really loves the stories she tells — and as it is for children. Stories endure where facts disintegrate, because there’s just something stronger, more sinewy and resilient, about the tale (which Shakespeare knew better than anyone, judging by what he did to the narrative of English history). The magic of this issue is just entrancing, and that’s why it’s one of my favourites.

The last story in the collection is actually the one I don’t at all care for. “Facade” is, I think, a little weak — perhaps because its claustrophobic nature makes it hard for the expansive exploration I so enjoy in the other stories, perhaps because the main character is obviously a reference, pulled from DC stock, but not one I’m familiar with, so it’s hard to make any sort of connections. Urania is a former superhero of some sort, pensioned off now that she’s no longer needed and sort of deteriorating — the government forced her to magically irradiate herself in an Egyptian temple, and the Power of Ra transformed her into Elemental Girl (or something). She’s no longer organic matter; she’s indestructible. And that means she can’t die, even though she wants to. She’s become a reclusive agoraphobe, terrified of revealing what she’s become to anyone. Death shows up and eventually gives her the secret of ending her existence. It’s not much of a story, for my preferences, and it’s the one I always forget is in this collection. I take it that folk of other sensibilities have received it better, though.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, a jewel in an amazing series. The four different explorations of storytelling all come at the overarching themes of the series from different angles, and they all illuminate something different about the nature of dreaming and its relationship to the waking world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews