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Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991; individual comics 1988-1989
Length: 240 pages
Genre: graphic novel – horror/fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

I am of the opinion that the Sandman graphic novel series is one of the most staggering works of creative genius that the last hundred years has given us. I think it’s an utter masterpiece, a towering vision of imagination and veracity. It’s a series that has so much to say, that you can return to again and again and always notice something new. It’s a story that, as only the best stories do, lays open the heart of humanity, exposes it raw, and then somehow massages new life into it — or perhaps just breathes the spark of awareness back into the reader, so that we see truths that were always there but had never noticed, or forgotten. I think it’s complex and magnificent, a paean to storytelling, a love song between mortality and eternity.

All of that is true.

Unfortunately, I don’t much like the first volume in the series.

Oh, there are things about it that I like, but on the whole, it’s one of the less impressive installations. And then even those parts of the story which may demonstrate great technical merit fall into the category of “so not my thing”, which impedes my enjoyment.

The first issue is one of the better ones — or at least one of the ones I enjoy more. It tells the story of how an Edwardian magician, just after the Great War, determines to capture Death, so that no one ever need suffer again as so many did during that global crisis. Unfortunately, the spell goes awry, and Alexander Burgess ends up accidentally imprisoning Death’s younger brother — Dream. In the wake of Dream’s captivity, strange things begin happening in the mortal world — people who either fall asleep interminably or are unable to sleep at all, who lose the ability to dream or who find themselves trapped in nightmares. Dream also loses three important possessions: his helm, his bag of sand, and a ruby in which he has stored much of his power. 72 years pass before Dream can free himself, and when he does, his mission is one of both recovery and revenge. His journeys take him throughout the mortal realm, into Hell, and into the tattered remnants of his realm, the Dreamworld, falling to pieces in his absence.

I think part of the problem I have with this book is the element of the grotesque — especially in the art, and especially in the art of John Dee. Slobbering, slimy, melting, sloughing off John Dee — the man who ends up in possession of Dream’s ruby, a deteriorating psychopath who uses its powers for horrific evils. Gaiman himself describes the issue “24 Hours”, in which Dee sadistically manipulates a group of people in a diner to gut-wrenchingly awful circumstances and eventually deaths, as one of the few truly horrific things he’s ever written. And in writing and art both, technically, it’s well-done — Dee is, after all, supposed to be repulsive, and the story is meant as horror, so in the sense that the artist achieved the desired effect, it’s a success. But I don’t like being repulsed by things. I don’t pick up books hoping to feel my stomach churn.

For that reason, I’m generally not much for the horror genre, and for the first few issues, that’s what Sandman thought it was. It moves much more strongly into metaphysical fantasy later on (which is when I start cleaving so enthusiastically to it). The initial horror focus, though, is just one of the ways in which the series clearly takes a little while to find its feet — which Gaiman admits in, among other places, The Sandman Companion (which I’m reading in conjunction with the series). The attempts to mate his imagined universe with the existing canon of the DC-verse isn’t particularly smooth (a trouble that the next collection also has, but that eventually ebbs away). The incorporation of the Justice League International is pretty awkward, and it’s for the best when that connection gets more or less broken.

For my money, though, the best issue in the collection is the last, “The Sound of Her Wings,” wherein we meet Death, another member of Dream’s family, the Endless. This is the first issue where you truly get a sense of the scope of the series, as well as its arching mythology. Dream, moping over his recent trials, has some sense beaten into him (via a loaf of bread) by his big sister. She then takes him with her throughout a typical afternoon, as she welcomes mortals of all kinds into her embrace. It’s an iconic story, and one that sets the tone that I think defines the series far more than the preceding issues do. (It echoes later, in The Kindly Ones, but that explanation will come along later).

This collection is aptly named. As Preludes, these issues set up the series to come, previewing but not explaining, testing the waters before plunging in the deep. Gaiman had to find his ground, and it takes a little while. As Nocturnes, they are stories of darkness and depravity, of the alarming recesses of human psychology and inhuman torment. Ultimately, these are not the issues I enjoy. But I have to admire the technical merit, and it is something to see a writer’s process almost in-work, even from decades later.


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