The Absolute Sandman, Volume One

Author: Neil Gaiman

Artists: Sam Kieth, Michael Dringenberg, Dave McKean, others

Type: Fiction, comic

Collects issues: 1-20

Published: 2006 (this collection), 1988-1990 (original issues)

I read it: March 2015


The Sandman comics hover over the Gaiman universe like a mysterious deity. I’m trying to chip away at the author somewhat methodically, because he’s one of those who has enough works to want to sink into the whole universe, yet not quite so many that it’s an impossible task if you come late to the game. Though he is still churning them out pretty regularly, so I’d better try to keep up in the forward direction, while also jumping into the past by tackling Sandman.

Anyway, I got this collection for my wife for Christmas one year and wrote an inscription that says “Here’s to better dreams, fewer nightmares.” Little did I know how upside-down those hopes were. Some of this stuff is dark. It’s probably my fault for not researching much about the title before cracking it open. (But isn’t fending off full summaries part of the joy of trying to experience older fictions as a new reader?) I didn’t even know this was a DC Comics title. It all makes a bit more sense in retrospect after reading Gaiman’s initial pitch, which is included at the back in a section called “A Sandman Miscellany.” Here he describes his wish that “it would be firmly rooted in fantasy, and it would be a horror title, with a Mature Readers tag” but also that “it would be the combination of horror/fantasy/superhero that would make it work.” The horror and fantasy parts came through in full form, and the main character of Dream/Morpheus/the Sandman is distinctly cool enough that he can hold his own in a superhero world.

These early issues have all the strengths and weaknesses of being an origin story. You get the full history starting at page one, so there’s little confusion about the action, and each new unfolding of the mythology is exciting. Yet things are rather clunky as they get rolling, and some of the early concepts feel kind of off. For example, Dream has this weird gasmask thing that makes him look vaguely buglike and demented in the wrong way (fortunately this seems to fall by the wayside as the issues progress). The introduction by Paul Levitz states that the story really finds its stride in issue eight when Dream’s sister, Death, first makes an appearance. I think this is a generally sound judgment. It comes a couple issues after the really nasty “24 Hours” which, alongside the later issue “Collectors,” is the super dark stuff I mentioned earlier that I was unprepared for. I don’t see how some of those storylines would be worth re-reading.

That brings us to the thorny issue of storylines overall. The collection shows off the huge playground that Gaiman is using to concoct his dreams and nightmares, so things are pretty uneven. The stories that feature on Sandman himself seem the most necessary, yet in a lot of them he hardly makes an appearance. This kind of works when a strong new character is introduced, like the human Rose, who presumably has a bigger part to play in the future. Other non-Morpheus issues feel deflated, like the clever experiment “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” or the last issue, “Facade,” which seems to have only a small relation to the series overall. This reminds me of the weakest tendencies throughout Neverwhere, where the whole is neat in concept but rough in execution, with some set pieces that are colorfully brilliant and others that are interesting yet fail to cohere.

My favorite experiments are the more whimsical (and less visually nauseating) ones like “Men of Good Fortune” in which a man in the 1300s claims he would never submit to death and so, thanks to the bro-sis duo pulling strings, gets his wish to live on for at least another 600 years. Sandman checks in on him once per century and it’s a nifty little walk through time and the man’s various experiences. More medieval fun is had in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which features William Shakespeare and his traveling troupe. Bill S. has to make good on a previous deal with Morpheus by writing and performing the famous play for a special, otherwordly audience that consists of the very characters the play is about. It’s a lot of fun.

Something also has to be said for Dave McKean’s unique cover illustrations. Remember that Bright Eyes song that goes, “He once cut one of my nightmares out of paper/ I thought it was beautiful, I put it on a record cover”? I imagine McKean flipping through early drafts of an issue, coming up with this elaborate photo/painting layout, then Gaiman taking a look and saying, yep, that’s basically the entirety of the nightmare right there. Those pages are instense.

I’m still trying to work out what I think of the book, while reminding myself that I’ve only just walked a few lengths down the full trail. It’s been my experience that Gaiman’s greatness comes in bursts, so I can see how these comics give him a good opportunity to get crazy. I’ll just have to see if it’s the kind of crazy that can keep me interested enough to get through several more of these books that strain my back just to lift.

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