Thursday, June 20, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes"

About a month ago, I walked into the comic book store and recognized the person J checking bags at the door. It was a glorious moment, and not just because I was coming from seeing "Iron Man Three" and it was free comic book day.

J used to worked on my floor in a now-defunct department, which meant that in addition to her job at the comic book store, she was in need of another work study gig at the school. And we had just lost a round of work study employees to graduation.

Worlds were colliding.

J gives me the opportunity to bring my hobbies into the office. I gave my coworkers fair warning that she was coming and that her presence would reveal depths to my nerdery I've only hinted at before. Though how could any warning ever really prepare the uninitiated for listening to a two-hour conversation about "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"? (Survey of office-mates indicates it can't.)

Anyway, J and I are re-reading Neil Gaiman's groundbreaking "Sandman" comics together this summer. Reading with others opens you to fresh perspectives on familiar works, and since summer is the time when a lot of my geek websites run fresh reviews of old/classic television shows, I'm going to take this opportunity to review the first comic books series I ever read.

"The Sandman" was published by DC's Vertigo imprint from 1989 to 1996. Its seventy-five issues were collected into ten volumes, which I will now type from memory (you'll have to trust me that I can do this trick, as there's no way to confirm that I didn't just open a wiki-page on another tab): "Preludes and Nocturnes," "The Doll's House," "Dream Country," "Season of Mists," "A Game of You," "Brief Lives," "Fables and Reflections," "Worlds' End," "The Kindly Ones," and "The Wake."

I think I got all the apostrophes right, but some of those "and"s may be ampersands.

As I said, this was the first comic series I ever read. I'd always loved the comic strips that ran in newspapers, especially back when "Calvin & Hobbes" and "The Far Side" was still being published and the funnies page was worth a damn. Everyone knew to set the funnies aside for Rachel to read with the intensity of  a medieval scholar deciphering an illuminated manuscript. I rarely laughed (except at "Garfield," fat cats are hilarious). The jokes didn't interest me as much as the interaction between words and pictures, how they could tell a story over time and suggest movement and speech where there were only static images on newsprint.

I was primed to make the leap from the funnies to comic books, but unfortunately, it was the 90s, which was kind of a nadir in the mainstream comics industry.

It didn't help that the only comic book store I ever encountered was Android's Dungeon on "The Simpsons," and that establishment wasn't exactly a bastion of culture and good life choices.

Without holding a single issue of a comic book in my hands, I knew that it was shameful to like comic books. When I went to the library to check out a "Garfield" or "Calvin & Hobbes" collection--always with a couple of real novels, like a teenager trying to disguise a pack of condoms with Slim Jims, paper towels and discount Halloween candy at the drug store--I'd see the "Batman"s, "X-Men"s and "Avengers" collections. I'd see them. I'd want them. But I didn't touch them, not even to flip through. Not because they were "for boys," though I know that turns a lot of little girls away from comic books. I didn't pick them up because comics were stupid trash for stupid people. They were low class entertainment, and I was too smart to waste my time on them.

Like a lot of nerds, smart was all I had. I wasn't good a sports, I wasn't popular, and I wasn't pretty, but damn, was I smart. And like a popular girl whose life can come crashing down around her if she gets a bad haircut, I wouldn't be caught dead with some "picture book" in my hands. Every book I read, I wanted people to see me reading it and be impressed by how advanced my reading tastes were. I didn't even read the Harry Potter series when it came out even though it was written for people my age, because I read adult novels, not kid-stuff. (Yes, I was also kind of insufferable. Who isn't at 13?)

I had a friend who was just as insufferable as me, if not more so because she was also kind of goth-y. And she loved "The Sandman," as is the goth's wont. She uttered the gateway words that have seduced many a pseudo-intellectual down the dank and musty aisles of the poorly-ventilated comic book store:

"It's not a comic book. It's a graphic novel."

Graphic novel I could handle. It had the word "novel" right there in the title, which meant it was literature. It helped that the cover of "Preludes and Nocturnes" is one of artist Dave McKean's fabulously surreal constructions of wood, flowers and madness, with not a pair of tights or a cape in sight. You don't question the intelligence of a girl reading a book like this.
"If you have to ask what it means, you don't get it."
McKean did most of the covers for "Sandman" (though he didn't do the interior artwork), and he did them in the pre-Photoshop era, which meant he literally constructed them. This is a photograph of a sculpture that actually stands about four feet high, as I learned the first time I saw Neil Gaiman speak.
I bring this up because even though I was a pseudo-intellectual who had to justify my love of the comics medium by couching it as this alternative art form that you had to be sophisticated to understand, the people who created "Sandman" actually were intellectuals. They were groundbreaking alternative artists pouring their hearts and souls into this massive, sprawling epic that strove to do nothing less than illuminate the nature of imagination itself.

Not that you can tell from "Preludes and Nocturnes," which collects issues 1 to 8 and covers the first story arc of the life and times of the titular Sandman, the King of Dreams, also called Morpheus. Re-reading it as an adult, I'm struck by how simple it is, and how unlike it is from the volumes that follow. It's not a bad story--in fact I think the strength of the series is that even when it's not at the top of its game, it's still better than almost anything else in the comics medium--but its clearly going through some growing pains, switching artists after its third issue and relying on some rather clunky voiceover narration from Dream to keep the story going.

Later in its run, "Sandman" would become known for its rotating cast of stellar artists putting their own spin on a character whose appearance changes depending on whose looking. Its hard to criticize the shift in style that comes half-way through this volume when it foreshadowed such good things to come. And the voiceover disappears altogether after issue 10 or 11, meaning that as clunky as it feels as a storytelling device, "Preludes and Nocturnes" is also the closest the reader ever gets to being inside the head of Dream, who actually becomes more distant and unknowable the longer the series goes on. For that reason, it's fascinating to see him narrate his quest, even if it doesn't always work as a storytelling device.

So what happens in this story arc? The King of Dreams is captured by an English magician in 1916 and spends the next seventy years trapped in a glass dome in the magician's basement. Various characters, some of whom we'll meet again, develop sleep disorders resulting from Dream's imprisonment and the subsequent metaphysical distortions through the fabric of Dreamtime. Then Dream escapes and spends the rest of the story trying to recover three lost magical objects that give him most of his power: a pouch of sand, a helmet made from the skull of a god, and a ruby.

As my friend R says, it's basically a video game. Each object he re-acquires levels him up and gives him the power he needs to move on to the next item on the list. He finds the pouch of sand with the help of John Constantine, a character who enjoyed an extremely successful run in the "Hellblazer" series, to which the early "Sandman" owes a great artistic debt.

(Lecture alert! Alan Moore created the character of Constantine for his groundbreaking series "Swamp Thing," which was one of the earliest mainstream comics to publish without the seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority. While the 90s were a pretty awful time for superhero comics, the 80s and early 90s saw the arrival of several British writers and artists who revolutionized the medium and are largely responsible for making comics good again. See Moore's "Watchmen," Grant Morrison's "Animal Man," and of course, Gaiman's "Sandman.")

After the pouch, Dream goes to Hell to recover his helmet from a demon. This was probably the issue that really got me hooked on "Sandman," and remains the point in the volume at which I really become interested in the story. The artwork is superb, and it's the first time the reader gets to know Dream as a character in his own right, not as a shadowy figure humans encounter in the darkness. More than any other issue in the story arc, it also sets up characters and plot points that are part of the larger "Sandman" epic. Dream meets an ex-girlfriend in Hell, is a righteous dick about it, throws his weight around with the Lords of Hell while trying to conceal his lack of power over them, and David Bowie Lucifer vows to destroy him. All of this will come back to bite him in the ass.

I'm less wild about the next chapter, where Dream meets some members of the Justice League  and discovers that a D-list supervillain has his ruby. But the issue after that is about the supervillain spending 24 hours in a small-town diner, driving its patrons mad with the power of the ruby. The reader is trapped within the narrow walls of the diner with the victims, but is also aware, through the TV in the background, that the whole world is succumbing to the same madness. Excepting the violent imagery, this issue could be an episode of the "Twilight Zone," which frequently took place in small-town diners in apocalyptic settings. Dream only shows up on the last page of this story, after everyone has tortured, murdered, fucked each others' corpses, and committed suicide.

"24 Hours" somehow manages to be more horrifying than the issue set in actual Hell. It also set up some of the major themes that run through "The Sandman": the power of self-contained worlds; the existential horror of the Hells we carry around inside of us; and the idea that what we see, however grand or terrifying it seems to our eyes, is just a small facet or a representation of a much larger whole. Gaiman states in the afterward that he didn't feel he found his voice until the last issue of this volume, "The Sound of Her Wings," but for me, the whole thing really starts coming together and feeling like "The Sandman" (in italics with a note of hushed awe) in "24 Hours." In a lesser series, this issue would have been a highlight, but in "The Sandman," it feels more like we've finally reached the status quo and are ready to rock.

The next issue, "Sound and Fury," is okay. It's appropriately climactic. Supervillain and King of Dreams battle for possession of the ruby, laying waste to the Dreaming realm while the world continues to cut, burn, and slaughter itself. The artwork is good and there's enough gravitas to really sell the idea that if Dream loses, all is lost. But it reads more like the penultimate issue of a standard superhero story arc than the type of story "Sandman" would become. When I was younger, I loved it. Now, I tend to shrug, because I know that this isn't the best they can do.

I understand what Gaiman meant about finding his own voice. Most of these early issues are heavily indebted to other comic series, with cameos and references from all corners of DC in order to firmly establish "The Sandman" within that universe. And while they're good--often great--"The Sandman" ultimately ends up going in a very different direction, far away from DC universe continuity and deep into its own mythology. It becomes bigger and grander, pulling away from adventures and quests and addressing more the existential quandaries implied by the existence of Dream and the rest of his family, the Endless.

In "The Sound of Her Wings," we meet his sister Death.

Possibly no other character in this series has had as much impact on pop-culture as Death, not even Dream. She's just a sweet, perky goth girl who happens to be the anthropomorphic manifestation of the darkness at the end of all things. And even though she's super busy, what with all the people dying all the time, she wants to cheer up her little brother, who's kind of been a whiny jerk since he escaped from that glass box and saved the world. I love the relationship between Death and Dream, who may be these powerful cosmic beings but are also, underneath it all, a brother and a sister from a dysfunctional family who have no one but each other to lean on when times get tough.

There is a truthful emotional core to this issue that's somewhat lacking in the rest of "Preludes and Nocturnes." It's a quiet moment of family bonding to round off a parade of horrors and strife. As "Sandman" progressed, it succeeded whenever it hewed to this formula (and tended to fail when it didn't, as we'll see next time in "The Doll's House").

So that's "Preludes and Nocturnes," volume one of the critically-acclaimed "Sandman" comics series. Does it hold up under the scrutiny of the adult reader who doesn't care if her co-workers see her reading Harry Potter in the lunch room? Absolutely. It's not the strongest story arc of the series, but it's also not the weakest. It's very different from the series "The Sandman" eventually becomes, but it's also similar enough that I can appreciate the differences as an interesting evolution and progression of ideas and themes. I still find things to like about it, and not as many things to dislike as I expected.

Final Grade: B. It can't be higher because it is a little clunky and rough around the edges, but it also can't be lower because it's the fucking "Sandman" and it's still better than anything the rest of us chuckle-heads will ever come up with.

Next time: "The Doll's House."

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