May 31, 2010

Getting Graphic: "The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes" by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and Dave McKean (covers)
Published: DC Comics, graphic novel (1995), originally as magazine series (1988)
ISBN 1-56389-011-9 (Trade Paperback)
ISBN 1-56389-227-8 (Hardcover)

I think a bit timely to read this graphic novel, as I believe it's been re-released this year. And had I any idea of just how good a story there was inside its pages, I'd have read it a lot sooner.

I've professed my love for Neil Gaiman's novels on this blog before, and I even had a chance to read his foray into the Marvel universe with 1602 (you can read my review of that graphic novel here), but now I can see why people hyped him up so much back in the 80s and 90s for his work in the comic book realm. The Sandman is a character that seems tailor-made for Gaiman's way of storytelling, with an otherworldly atmosphere and fanciful approach.

Being ignorant of the Sandman mythos within the DC Vertigo universe, the grim and graphic nature of the violence and gore took me by surprise. Here I was expecting a little dark fantasy and wound up with that and something that crosses the border into horror--and adeptly so at that.

The story begins in England during the early 1900s when a dealer in the black arts, Roderick Burgess, comes into possession of a book called the Magdalene Grimoire. He then uses it to summon and capture Death incarnate. But something goes amiss and he and his Order of Ancient Mysteries wind up enslaving Dream, Death's brother (aka the Sandman). As a consolation for failing to snare Death, the conjurer steals the three most prized possessions of Dream--his pouch of sand, his helmut, and his ruby amulet--only to have them stolen by defectors from the Order.

Things only get worse for them when Dream escapes nearly a century later and sets out to recover that which was stolen from him.

The graphic novel contains the first eight books of the Sandman series, and each one has its own indelible style that really shows when they're all laid out in succession. And while that's due in part to Neil Gaiman's writing, it is shown to much greater effect by the artists, Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III. "The Sleep of the Just" covers Dream's imprisonment and escape with an art style that hearkens back to the old weird comic book tales with disproportionate cartoon-like characters. "Imperfect Hosts" gives more of the same visually, but ups the ante with a deeper delving into the fantasy elements as the Sandman returns home to recoup.

The other chapters--"Dream a Little Dream of Me", "A Hope in Hell", "Passenger", "24 Hours", "Sound and Fury", and "The Sound of Her Wings"--gradually show a much more familiar yet sinister style, due I guess to the story taking the Sandman into the present day world and beyond his bastion in the dreamscape. And the color palette seems to be saturated in 80s boldness with such a penchant for purple I expected Prince to make a cameo.

The villain at work goes by the name of Doctor Destiny. I'm unsure if this is a preexisting DC character, but I do know that John Constantine and the Scarecrow are (they make cameo appearances in the story). And the elements of horror, through escalating scenes of violence and gore, really turn the tale from a hero-hunting-for-lost-treasure kind of story to one of humanity-is-royally-screwed-if-this-madness-keeps-up.

While there were moments when the story felt a bit pretentious, others were utterly charming, and others that just dropped my jaw because I didn't expect to see them in a DC comic book. Any Gaiman fans, like me who are late to the party, ought to check this seroes out. I'll certainly be doing what I can to read the other Sandman novels in the future.


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