Every Wednesday we’ll be running a piece on a volume of Sandman.
You can find Jason Sack’s introduction to the series here.
They tell college kids to read this stuff? No, really, there are people out there that recommend this comic to people who have never read comic books before? That’s criminal. No one should be subjected to a comic book featuring the Martian Manhunter as their first exposure to the medium (I kid, I kid). I’m genuinely perplexed after reading this comic because it might very well be the first and only comic that many people (perhaps the sort that would probably latch onto the term “graphic novel” over “comic book”) have read. People have probably heard a great deal about how this book pushed the limits of the mainstream and was of literary quality. Maybe there are issues of Sandman that are but, aside from one late instance, they sure don’t exist in this first collection, Preludes and Nocturnes. Unfortunately, that’s probably going to be the one more people read because it has a #1 on the spine and starting at #4 tends to make people uncomfortable when there isn’t a star war involved.
The first five issues of this comic are visually ugly and uninteresting. The most I could say to Sam Keith’s credit is that his pages are designed in a way that is easy to read and probably very welcoming to a first time comics reader. That legibility doesn’t translate into style as the figures are somewhat inconsistent (there are several panels in which Dream is depicted solely as a terrifying, giant, disembodied face) and the environments seem to lack an interest from Kieth that he eventually summons in time for Dream’s descent into Hell with issue #4. It’s a relief when Mike Dringenberg slots over from inker to penciller as he brings a sense of style to the book that had evaded Keith’s short tenure. You’ve got Dave McKean busting his ass and gluing circuits to cardboard for some experimental and eye-catching multimedia covers but then you open the book and all his work is undone by drab work that doesn’t match the tone he established.
Dringenberg implements interesting visuals in the sixth issue that recall Bill Sienkiewicz’s exaggerated figures and Klaus Janson’s scratchier linework. It’s a bold look that grows more and more experimental as the character’s descend further and further into madness at the behest of the villainous Doctor Destiny. While I had enjoyed the third issue featuring John Constantine, that was Neil Gaiman writing an issue of Hellblazer rather than Sandman, so the sixth issue was as close to a revelation as I could have hoped for as I started to get a feel for what could develop into the comic’s own unique identity. Where the first issue plays like a riff on old school horror comics with the punishment Dream implements on the occultist holding him captive, this issue plays like an actual horror comic with a building unease that sees Gaiman upping the tension and denying a pay-off while Dringenberg follows him off the deep end. If Sandman is to be a horror comic then this issue certainly shows that Gaiman has the ability to imbue that with something different from his homages to House of Mystery or Hellblazer.
There’s a certain fun to the first five issues (save for the dreadfully boring first issue that acts as a double-sized history lesson) with the protagonist Dream going on a quest to retrieve his stolen artifacts of power. It doesn’t amount to much more than a simple quest narrative that takes readers to weirder parts of the DC universe that existed before the Vertigo imprint became its own thing, (mostly) separate from the world of cape comics. I was honestly baffled by how much of this book was spent checking in on DC Comics trivia with Cain and Abel of House of Mystery, Etrigan the Demon, Arkham Asylum, and even the Justice League International. The House of Mystery’s residents and Etrigan fit a little better within the book’s tone as they reside in strange, supernatural corners of the DC universe. The stop-overs at Arkham Asylum and with the Justice League push things into the spandex world that doesn’t integrate with anything else. There is a cleverness to Dream appearing to the Martian Manhunter as Mar’s own god of dreams (apparently one of the first ideas Gaiman had about the series, according to Jason Sack’s excellent introduction) but what it adds doesn’t make up for how much the presence of a DC Comics superhero takes away from the otherworldliness that Gaiman is establishing. In a world where Superman exists, Dream as the personification of dreams, nightmares, and storytelling(?) feels like sort of a mundane aspect of a universe where I as a reader have been conditioned to accept almost any crazy thing a writer can come up with.
Doctor Destiny, or John Dee as his mother Ethel named him, stands as a great acquisition from the DC universe that Gaiman twists into something really unsettling. Dee is portrayed as drastically disfigured, almost like a cartoonish, maroon skeleton by Kieth’s pencils (and somewhat less so by Dringenberg) and it’s a far cry from his original supervillain get-up that he wore in his first JLA appearance. The unhinged and sadistic Dee works best at a remove from his former supervillain shtick and really makes an impression as he uses Dream’s lost amulet to inflict horrors upon a diner full of people that just wanted a cup of coffee. Dee’s character definitely didn’t need to be an import from the DC universe (I can’t imagine Doctor Destiny being a big draw for readers) but he injects a lot more interest into what was a rather drab and boring comic before he took over for a few issues.
It’s cruel that the best issue in this collection would be the eighth and final one as a reader would conceivably have to read the previous seven (of which maybe two are good with the other five being snores) before arriving at “The Sound of Her Wings.” The issue sees Dream living in a melancholy state after completing his quest to regain his lost power because he feels lost for purpose. So the issue turns into a sort of slice of life as he spends the day with his older sister and fellow personification of a concept, Death, as she does her job of collecting the dead across New York. The issue is almost formless, more short story like in structure with its loosely connected vignettes, and it stands out as a much more innovative approach to storytelling as it denies its protagonist a goal of any kind. With issue #6, I thought I saw the book forming it’s own identity as a horror comic but the sense of self isn’t nearly as strong as it is here as the book turns into what is decidedly not a horror comic.
Dringenberg’s pencils inked by Malcolm Jones III look great in this last issue as he creates more realistic figures and depicts real landmarks from New York City. Dream and his sister’s otherworldliness is captured mostly in Robbie Rusch’s coloring that depicts the two as goths with discolored skin tones but it’s effective at separating them from the people Death claims throughout the day. I was moved to tears by the effective storytelling of a mother putting her baby into a crib juxtaposed next to Death picking that same baby up out of the crib. Nothing needs to be said because Dringenberg and Gaiman have established the rules of how Death’s “harvesting” works. There’s no commentary from the creators in that, the storytelling takes an objective approach with the emotion ultimately being supplied by the reader, and it’s that lack of judgment that makes the book feel more revolutionary for its point in time. The book isn’t really interested at that point in telling the reader how to feel, letting them reach their own conclusions.
I guess I’m just surprised that readers and retailers stuck it out through the first volley of ugly and uninspired issues of this book. That’s seven issues (more than 150 pages!) of material to read before the book turns into something interesting of its own and I really can’t imagine sticking it out that long to get to something better just because I had been promised that “it gets really good at issue eight!” I mean, I did, but that’s because I had to write about it and didn’t want to be a flake. Comics, being a serialized medium, can really vary in quality from month to month and will generally take a few months to pick-up or change direction after the initial round of reception. Sandman ain’t Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, it’s more like a television show that wasn’t ushered into the world as a dramatic saga ready to go and needed some time to bake.
In managing my own reaction to this comic and trying to reconcile that to some degree with the positive critical consensus about Sandman, I was really nervous about the experience. Was this going to be Crisis on Infinite Earths all over again with me roasting a sacred cow or just agreeing with everyone? After gauging my largely negative reaction to Preludes and Nocturnes and discussing it with others, it appears that I fall into the latter category. It doesn’t seem as if many people are willing to defend this trade as much more than a weak start to something that got better later. The only difference is that I don’t want to spend any more time reading Sandman than I have already.