First off, if you’re new to this world of comics, which I am, what an absolute nightmare it is to navigate the world of issues, volumes, books and all the various editions, omnibuses, deluxe editions and absolute editions and figure out what covers what. Moreover, sometimes volumes and collections have the same front cover and sometimes books cover two or more volumes. The bottom line with The Sandman is that there are 75 named issues, which are collected in 10 named volumes. This review will be about volumes 1 and 2: volume 1, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and volume 2 “The Doll’s House”.
Preludes and Nocturnes (1989)
The story begins with a secret society of alchemists and mages somewhere in England who try to summon Death himself but accidentally end up with Dream, the Sandman. They imprison Dream in a glass bowl for decades until he escapes and goes on a quest to retrieve his belongings. On this quest he has to traverse Earth, the Dream realm and even Hell itself. We are treated to an exciting, imaginative and fast-moving story. While Dream’s journey is full of fantastical creatures and locations, it has a dark, nightmarish edge to it. Humans end up in bad places, tortured, disfigured or wasted away. Dream can be gentle and cruel both. The drawing style reflects this perfectly, with panels full of shadows and understated colours and a kind of delirious touch to the characters and their facial expressions. The comic itself has a dreamlike quality.
The Sandman himself, I can’t help thinking that with his unruly hair, long pale face and dark coats that he is some sort of insert for Neil Gaiman himself. He is a bit of a dark hero, a creature of the night, a Dark Knight if you will, but he’s not in the business of saving people. He’s a mythological creature and deals with angels, demon and other assorted personifications. At first he just wants his things back, because they upped his mojo and really tied the dreamworld together. That question of what kind of character he is going to be is asked at the end of his quest. In a lovely, quiet epilogue he has a talk with sister Death about it. I love how every chapter – like this epilogue – feels like a self-contained little story that’s received some thought from Gaiman and the artists about the best presentation of that story. Good stuff.
The Doll’s House (1990)
Now that Mr Sandman has all his powers back, the sky is the limit and Gaiman had to invent something new to keep the comic going. This volume shows the story of Rose Walker, a girl who attracts some dream demons to her that escaped during Sandman’s long absence. The comic jerks the reader from one place to the next, often switching viewpoint characters and art style. Some settings have brighter colours, or pay homage to old superhero comics. In this way, The Doll’s House moves away from the previous volume in that it isn’t all dark and nightmarish anymore. There’s always something new going on, something to keep it fresh and interesting. There is, for example, a brilliant little interlude of Sandman skipping through time. Chapters work like little unfolding narratives, where in time you learn what is going on and how events in the real world and in dreamworlds are connected.
This volume juggles a lot of themes, such as fixing broken families, moving past trauma and finding a direction for your life, and dreams reflecting the deeper worries and desires of your person. And combine that with all these chapters with different styles and viewpoints and the gestalt narrative turns out quite complex and layered.
So far, the story feels more like a series of connected short stories. Individual chapters have a very strong identity of their own; they have their own style or they open and close their own contained story. Both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House do end in a way that ties the whole volume together, but I’ve heard that further volumes have sometimes only short stories. That doesn’t feel out of place. The brilliance is also to be found in individual chapters, and there are some standouts in both of these volumes.
Definitely check this out, not only if you like fantasy stories that mix mythological creatures with a modern day setting, but also to appreciate some varied and fascinating narrative structures and some cool, original ideas.
followed by –> Vols 3 & 4, Dream Country & Season of Mists