Title: The Sandman: Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
PP: 240 Pages
Genre: Graphic Novel
This review is directed mainly at those of you who are not widely experienced with modern (one can hardly use the word `adult’ without erotica coming to mind) comics, because I do not know many comics aficionados who are not familiar with the Sandman saga – the Citizen Kane of comics, or the Sgt. Pepper, or the War and Peace – and have not read, at the very least, this first instalment in the series.
So – you haven’t read comics in a long time, have you? Sure, you read it when you were a kid, like everyone else, but then you outgrew them. You went on to read real books with no pictures. But suddenly a couple of people tell you that there have been some interesting things going on in comics in the last twenty years, and you should check it out. You decide to give the ol’ funny books a chance.
In that case, this book right here is one of the half-dozen masterworks you should start with to get a general idea of what comics are capable of, at least in the English speaking regions of the world (there are some fascinating things going on in Japan and France that I won’t even begin to discuss).
The Sandman, the ENTIRE Sandman saga, altogether ten books long – collected from magazine-form comics that were published regularly throughout most of the 90s – is one of the truly glorious, shining, perfect creations of, I’ll say it, adult comics. That Preludes & Nocturnes, the first story-arch in the series, is the only one that can stand rightly by its own right, other than being a convenience for new readers which may make it easier for them to deal with the size of this saga, is a sure sign of the wisdom of the creator, the brilliant Mr. Neil Gaiman.
While completely revolutionizing what people thought about comics, Neil started doing so in small doses to make it easier to swallow for audiences and editors alike. Thus, he started here with a story that is a classic folk tale, of a dethroned monarch who goes through a series of quests and challenges in order to earn back his rightful place in power. More help is given by cameo appearances of old and popular characters from the DC Comics universe – such as the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, the Scarecrow and John Constantine. Such appearances will become quite rare as the series continues, and the story becomes, rather than a folk tale, a mythology as grim as any Greek tragedy – which, doubtlessly, was in the author’s mind from the very beginning. However, though the storyline of Preludes & Nocturnes is schematic and the drawings are often bland, Gaiman’s already famous storytelling skills are fully developed, and the books is one of the most fantastic stories he had penned.
The hero of the series is, simply, Dream. His identity is a rather philosophical matter, as he is not so much a god of dream, but rather, the embodiment of the very concept of dream itself. At the beginning of the story, Dream is summoned by a human mystic, and caged. Seventy years later, when he escapes from his prison, he finds his kingdom in ruins, and must return to himself the symbolic garments of his reign to rebuild it. Along the way we have the pleasure to meet some of the most fantastic and fascinating characters in any literary creation, and also some characters who, small though their part may be now, will be crucial in the complete creation of the saga, such as Lucifer Morningstar, Cain and Abel, and the three Furies (also known as the Graces, the Fates, or the Kindly Ones). Though much more fascinating as part of the whole, Preludes & Nocturnes by itself is a perfect piece of fantastic storytelling.
“Preludes and Nocturnes” is not this book. It is a very, very good book, but it is not what solidified The Sandman as one of the greatest comics ever written. The early comics in Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus do not have the same extended narrative focus as the later issues, and it is more of a horror comic than it is a poetic tribute to the human imagination. Nevertheless, “Preludes and Nocturnes” is highly imaginative, scary, and at times poignant.
“Sleep of the Just,” issue 1, is a bit confusing, giving us a somewhat bizarre story that, in a roundabout way, introduces us to Dream of the Endless and the main conflict of the story – he is imprisoned by a group of occult magicians who seek to capture death, and they steal his tools. It also serves to set up events in future books.
Issue 2, “Imperfect Hosts,” has Dream returning to his realm, which has fallen into a state of disrepair. The last page, I feel, is one of the books highlights.
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” brings us a crossover with John Constantine, of “Swamp Thing” and “Hellblazer” fame (two other famous Vertigo series). Having never read a John Constantine story, I feel his character was somewhat underutilized here.
“A Hope in Hell” is far more interesting than the previous issue, and introduces us to Lucifer, setting up the aforementioned spin-off comic. It contains one of the books other highlights, being a battle of wits between Dream and the demon who has his helmet. This book also introduces us to another plot element that is further explored in “The Doll’s House” and “Season of Mists.”
“Passengers” is a more bizarre case. It sets up the primary antagonist of the next few issues, Dr. Destiny, an old and somewhat silly supervillain of the DCU. He is no longer silly. This issue is odd because of how much it stakes in the DC Universe. It features appearances from not only Dr. Destiny, but also Jonathan Crane (the “Scarecrow” of Batman fame), Scott Free (“Mister Miracle”), and the Martian Manhunter. Fans of DC will no doubt appreciate the references.
It’s the last three issues where I feel this book really hits its stride – “24 Hours,” which is a work of pure horror, is one of the most disturbing things in this book’s entire run, and one of the few works that Neil Gaiman said genuinely horrified him.
The next, “Sound and Fury,” gives us the climactic final showdown between Dr. Destiny and Dream. It wraps up the story arc and gives a satisfying conclusion. In earlier editions of the volume, this ended the book, but there has since been a change for the better.
However, it is the final magazine issue in this collection, titled `The Sound Of Her Wings’, that gives it more worth than the rest of it put together. Sam Keith’s surreal, deformed image of Dream and dark, heavy, brooding lines move over to make place for Mike Dringenberg’s realistic backgrounds, light-hearted lines and recognizable human faces. Dream’s flowing black robes make way for a t-shirt and a black jacket; the dark and towering Sandman is given a whole new perspective. He now seems like a depressed, bored teenager, sulking in the park and feeding the pigeons. He is then granted a visit by none other than his sister – Death, which is the single most brilliant creation in Gaiman’s universe. Death is a perky, cheerful, beautiful, wise, mature goth-girl who confronts Dream and show to him his own pettiness.
Completely without any action or suspense, it is this story that paved the way for the revolution that the Sandman series began. And this story alone remains one of the handful true perfect masterpieces of the medium. It is this story alone that makes this book a milestone in modern comics – and literature – and essential reading for everyone interested in the medium.
And, oh, I said half dozen masterworks, right? So, to complete the list, let’s say: Alan Moore’s `Watchmen’, Art Spiegelman’s `Maus’, Scott McCloud’s `Understanding Comics’, Frank Miller’s `The Dark Knight Returns’ and Kurt Busiek’s `Marvels’. Or, to make it a top ten, let’s add Peter Kuper’s `The System’, Garth Ennis’s `Preacher’, Grant Morrison’s `Arkham Asylum’, and anything by Robert Crumb. Enjoy!