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Fables and Reflections is an appropriate title to govern this second anthology of stand-alone stories released in DCs series The Sandman, collecting all of Neil Gaimans canonical Sandman comic releases from 1991 to 93 that didnt fall into the larger story arcs that dominate the majority of these paperbacks. Breaking with the tradition of the earlier independent tales collection Dream Country, this anthology is divided into three uneven sections, some categorised under further collective titles to demonstrate their participation in a smaller story cycle, and others standing very conspicuously alone, arranged alongside the rest of the collection for matters of convenience and completion. This was the first Sandman paperback to break with the series chronological publication order, collecting as it does the three issues released between the Season of Mists and A Game of You serials, a further three between A Game of You and Brief Lives, and a final instalment from even later, while also incorporating the story from 1991s so-called Sandman Special #1 and a very brief tale from a promotional magazine designed to promote comic book series on DCs Vertigo imprint, including The Sandman.
Despite this erratic, unfortunate and confusing mixture of sources, there is no significant break to the series continuity by publishing or reading this collection in the prescribed order, or indeed at any point in the series, as all of these stories (with the notable exception of the Orpheus special) are specifically designed to exist on the margins of the Sandmans larger, continuous plot. The four stories collected under the banner Distant Mirrors (hence Reflections) achieve this by being set at various points throughout history as the series has done several times before, focusing on new characters but always featuring familiar faces in the form of the Endless or other beings from the realm of the Dreaming, most commonly Dream himself, who is known by many different names and appears in varying guises depending on the observers own historical period and cultural beliefs. The issues labelled Convergence take a slightly looser and more chaotic approach, concerning narratives and stories (Fables) or more specifically the blurring between truth and reality, one of the series prominent themes expressed through the exploration of dreams.
While these nine core tales form the bulk of this large volume, the two one-off stories provide something of a distracting but welcome break, and are shoved at the end where they will do the least damage. Each comic is reproduced in its original publication order with the exception of Ramadan, the highly deviant fourth chapter of Distant Mirrors which, due to its unusual nature, extra length and odd demands, was not completed in time to be published in the intended order, and was shelved for a significantly later date, eventually winding up as issue fifty rather than thirty-two. It makes complete sense to place it fourth in this collection as originally intended, but of course, the more hardcore fans intent on reliving the original publishing experience (but without having to wait the annoying month in-between comics, unless theyre really dedicated and strange) are free to stop reading this paperback half-way through, work their way through the next one, write a review of that one, and then return to this. Not that I did that though. Well, maybe a bit.
So, what are the stories in this pick-n-mix assortment about, and more importantly, are they any good? Youve probably already noticed the three stars signalling a pretty average product, and this is unfortunately true for around half of these stories (only in my opinion, obviously), while the highs and lows elsewhere serve to balance each other out. This was disappointing in light of the great success of writer Neil Gaimans previous stand-alone episodes (including The Sound of Her Wings, Men of Good Fortune and A Midsummer Nights Dream), which were concisely brilliant and often a great source of relief from the long and heavy-going story arcs surrounding them. The stories here are very aware of their forced deviation from the normal order, and for some of them, this strangeness is their downfall. Others are simply quite boring. I dont want to dismiss this tome too easily however, as there are several excellent tales to be found between its multi-coloured pages, and especially as it presents excellent value for money compared to the standard Sandman paperback. In particular, Dream Country contained only four stories of twenty-five pages each, with some special features tagged on to bulk it out ever so slightly, while Fables and Reflections contains six issues of normal length, one of extended length, the huge sixty-page special and the little bonus preview comic.
Broadly speaking, as I will have to with a collection this diverse to avoid a five thousand word review, I found the earlier Distant Mirrors stories more entertaining than their counterparts in Convergence, but both areas have their highs and lows. Gaiman impresses with his historical and multi-cultural knowledge in Distant Mirrors, which charts defining events in the all-too-brief lives of great empires in consecutive months of different years (corresponding to the July, August, September and intended October of the original publication), from violent revolutionary France to mighty Rome and majestic Baghdad, even dropping in on the first and only Emperor of the United States of America. August and Ramadan concern an emperor and a king at the height of their powers, whose concern for the future of their respective empires leads to an encounter with the King of Dreams. Thermidor (July in the short-lived revolutionary calendar) involves itself more directly with the unfolding mystery of the Sandman series, as Lady Johanna Constantine is employed by Dream to rescue the severed head of his son Orpheus, a symbol of the ancient superstitions and magics that the reasoned revolutionaries were intent on wiping out, even to the extent of renaming their calendar to erase the names of pagan gods.
Three Septembers and a January is the most charming of the lot, another informal gathering of the Endless brethren as Dream accepts a challenge from his sister Despair in inspiring a depressed, near-suicidal businessman named Joshua A. Norton into becoming something greater. Based almost entirely on the true story of Emperor Norton I, with a little creative license permitted for magical elements, this is the perfect companion to Augustus message (in August) that people need the symbol of an emperor, and a nice mid-nineteenth century conclusion to the entire arc. Gaimans own stance on the matter is a little unclear, though he demonstrates an obvious contempt for the revisionist atrocities of the French revolutionaries in Thermidor, and like all stories in the expanded Sandman universe, the humans are treated as individuals with mortal abilities and failings, though August does descend far too deeply into trivial and obvious banter for my tastes, however superb Gaimans grasp of dialogue. However strong these first three issues are, its Ramadan that stands out as the most distinctive and creative, presented in the style of an Arabian Nights tale told partially in comic form, but mostly in a form of illustrated prose, a combined effort between Gaiman and this issues artist P. Craig Russell. Although this detachment comes at a cost to its resonance and humanity, its an enjoyable experiment that, however long delayed, provides a suitable celebration for the fiftieth issue.
The three stories of Convergence rely on narratives from new or marginal characters, and its in this collection-within-the-collection that the presence of Dream and the Endless is the least pronounced, instead being taken by supporting characters from the Dreaming in expanded roles. The Hunt is a fairly inevitable werewolf tale, though told quite skilfully and subtly from the perspective of an old man in the present day to his irritable, postmodern teenager granddaughter who would rather be watching MTV. Continuing Gaimans touring of the regions, there are many similarities with Russian folk tales, including an appearance of Baba Yaga, but on the whole this seemed to last far too long, for very little reward. Even less riveting is its successor Soft Places, featuring historic traveller Marco Polo and his chronicler Rustichello, who become caught in a titular soft place where perception, reality and time are unstable, usually manifesting themselves on the Earth as the vast deserts of shifting sand. While the ideas are quite interesting, there does seem to be a little too much technobabble and exposition in this story that keeps it from going anywhere, while the focal character Fiddlers Green, last seen prominently in The Dolls House, lacks the presence and interest required of a protagonist in the same way Lucien disappointed in the previous issue; sometimes relegating background characters to larger roles isnt entirely successful, as would be demonstrated further by the numerous Sandman spin-offs penned by less capable writers.
Fortunately, the final story in this selection raises the standard, the multi-voiced Parliament of Rooks. The sleeping spirit of Daniel, a baby who appeared earlier in the series but whose importance has not yet come into play, wanders independently into the Dreaming, East of Eden. The raven Matthew and gargoyle Gregory take him with them to Cain and Abels house, where all characters, as well as Eve who had previously been seen only briefly, decide to tell the baby little-known, secret or exaggerated stories to entertain him until his return to the waking world. The interaction of this ensemble is excellent, from Matthews pop-culture criticism of Cains Vincent Price-like voice and confusion over how these apparently true Creation stories tie into cavemen and dinosaurs and all that sh**? On a more basic comedic level, its nice to see the characters having a domestic natter and drinking tea, even the hulking Gregory who holds his tiny cup with care, and the overall relaxed tone and message of this issue succeed in communicating Gaimans message where their predecessors failed.
Gaiman never shies away from contradiction or questionings of his multi-faceted universe, at times seeming to strive for an all-encompassing mosaic of cultural and historical textualities, and Matthews questioning, along with the granddaughters criticism of apparent post-modernity and sexism in the earlier story, develop into a nice argument about the nature of storytelling. Young Daniels presence encourages the timid Abel to tell his story of the first murder in a weakened and sanitised, child-friendly form, complete with accompanying cartoon illustrations of the brothers being watched by the Lil Endless, again addressing Gaimans criticism of revisionist history as has been seen several times in the series thus far. Cain believes that mysteries are exciting and should never be explained, which is proven at the end when Abel reveals the puzzle to the riddle of the parliament of rooks. It is at first plausible, and then immediately disappointing for no longer being a mystery, proving the point perfectly.
The issues tagged onto the end of this collection are both fairly enjoyable, but do disrupt the flow slightly. The Sandman Special, entitled The Song of Orpheus, is the (apparently) long-awaited story of Dream and Calliopes son, based on the Ancient Greek myth of the character. Gaimans adaptation is quite enjoyable as usual, but does little truly exciting or novel with the established premise, and the gratuitous flaunting of all seven Endless at Orpheus wedding ceremony smacks of a disappointing publicity stunt, one step away from an action figure advertisement. The Vertigo preview comic is nothing substantial, a genuineattempt at publicity this time but carried out more tastefully, touching very lightly on the general Sandman premise, at least as it was at the beginning and in brief synopses, through the perspective of a random English playwright character. Its only seven pages long, but I enjoyed it.
A chaotic collection of Sandman stories wouldnt be complete without an equally diverse creative team, and this book predictably features the most diverse list of artists yet, the only pencil artist to be credited on more than one story being the reliable Bryan Talbot. Reliable is the main word that comes to mind as his renderings are nothing truly sensational or creative, both in the dialogue-heavy August that requires a great degree of repetition in its limited scope, and in the longer Orpheus special where characters and vast backdrops are drawn with immense detail, but lack any real defining character. The three artists of Convergence are similarly rather uninspired, though they are given more to work with and effectively realise some quite diverse characters, but its Stan Woch and Shawn McManus (illustrating issues 29 and 31) who appealed to me the most, with odd angles and a nice deviation between gritty realism and the more surreal excesses of the dream realm. Im fully prepared to admit that this might be due in some small part to their presence earlier on in the book, before the constant shifting of location, characters and artist started to take its toll on my perspective.
The Vertigo preview is illustrated excellently, as would be expected for a promotional tool such as this, but again its Ramadan that stands out the most, simply for being the most unusual. The drawing veers on simplistic and cartoonish, characters often having simple dots for eyes if they are out of close-up, and the lack of significant background detail contributes to the fairy tale feel of this piece. The colours from guest Digital Chameleon are suitably garish and opaque, relying on excessive gradient colouring whenever the opportunity presents itself, while the previews pleasant limited palette of reds and browns provided by Sherilyn van Valkenburgh works very nicely. The rest are coloured by series regular Daniel Vozzo, who always does the job adequately but, like the inkers, doesnt really have as many opportunities to stand out and often only does this through glaring mistakes that only long-time readers will spot while Todd Klein goes above and beyond as usual in his deceptively simple task of providing all the lettering. As well as the stylised speech of characters such as the Endless, most notable in Dreams trademark black speech bubble with white text, Klein provides some convincing and almost illegible eighteenth-century handwriting for Constantines diary entries in Thermidor, and handles the extensive prose paragraphs of Ramadan in what must have been a very time-consuming stylised, mock-Arabic font. Though neither he, Gaiman, nor Dream would have any wish to mock anything Arabic, and are very careful to avoid doing so (youd never see Allah and Muhammad being mocked for debauchery in this series, unlike the safely expired Viking gods).
Fables and Reflections is a deliberately non-essential Sandman volume, but at the same time that makes it a necessity for serious collectors, providing extra depth and explanations about the universe and concepts unique to the series while also foreshadowing or teasing about things to come. Some of the stories are disappointing compared to the usual standard, while few are truly exceptional, but all the same it would provide an easily accessible starting point for newcomers who, for the most part, wouldnt be confronted with complex and highly developed character relationships, though much of it would likely go over their heads or perhaps seem even duller than it already is, outside of context. The horror angle continues to be missed, replaced largely with a concentration on fairy stories and present only in a couple of effectively gruesome and horrific scenes from Thermidor and the anticipated ending of Song of Orpheus, a sixty page countdown to an inevitable beheading that actually manages to surprise in its viciousness even when readers knew more or less what was coming. Regular readers are baited along with hints about Dreams current lover, one of many events clearly happening beyond the panels of these more specific tales. What was the final fate of Orpheus? Who is this mysterious, bearded, seventh figure of the Endless, who can shoot fire from his fingertips? Who are the Kindly Ones? How does baby Daniel have access to the heart of the Dreaming, and what does this spell for his future? And what on Earth or elsewhere is the significance of the wolfmans treasured small bone carved into the shape of a small bone but a different small bone? I cant begin to make sense of it, but it really made me laugh.
Nine stunning short stories from the acclaimed, multi award-winning, Sandman series, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by today's greatest comics artists. From a man terrified by his nightmares of falling, to Baba Yaga and her hut on chicken legs. From the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice to the story of how the finest city on Earth was sold into dreams to forever preserve its beauty, these nine tales represent the stunning range of storytelling which Neil Gaiman brought to Sandman throughout its wildly successful run. Beautifully illustrated by artists of the calibre of Jill Thompson, Kent Williams and P. Craig Russell, these tales represent an essential read for Sandman and fantasy fans.