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Preludes and Nocturnes is the first of the eleven original Sandman volumes, although the series doesn't have to be read in order. In fact, since reading my first of Gaiman's works in 1995, I have found new things every time I paw through them. This is one of the reasons I can keep coming back to them every couple of years.
The Sandman series takes religious, mythical, cultural and folkloric characters and themes and weaves them into an intelligent and fresh narrative. From the first pages of Preludes and Nocturnes this is apparent. An early twentieth century cult aim to capture and harness the powers of Death, but succeed instead of trapping Dream - or rather his 'anthropomorphic personification', Morpheus.
Naked, and seperated from the tools that give him much of his power, Morpheus sits and waits for 70 years. By this point, you're only 20 pages into the 220 page story. You begin to appreciate the depth of the narrative, which makes this so much more than a 'comic' - although some people will never appreciate the graphic novel genre as anything BUT comics.
The remainder of Preludes and Nocturnes follows Morpheus, now released, as he seeks to recover his three stolen artifacts. This serves as a useful introduction to Morpheus - although by the end of the final volumes you will still find him an enigma. It also introduces the canvas on which Gaiman paints his stories. we travel from Morpheus' own kingdom, to Hell and back to Earth, encountering religious figures, like Caine and Abel - a darkly humorous double act, and historical figures like John Dee, all seamlessly interwoven.
I found the artwork a little mediocre in places, but I never read these books to look at the pictures. The images save you from having to read a page of description, making the narrative flow more quickly and meaning you can focus on the dialogue and thoughts of the character interactions.
To pick a favourite section is difficult. There are moments of immense cruelty and violence (alluded to rather than seen), there are moments of comedy and gentleness. I would have to settle on the last chapter, where Morpheus sits sullenly feeding pigeons and his sister comes to cheer him up - his sister being Death :)
The introduction of Dream and Death, sets up numerous interactions between Morpheus and his family, the 'Endless', in future volumes. At times I find myself wishing these personalities really existed, and then I'm relieved they don't, as they are manipulative and their reality is scarier even then ours.
Gaiman seems to have a near-Shakespearean depth of storytelling, which he brings to bear in The Sandman. I think this every time I read one of his books. The way in which he personifies his characters is always fascinating. He is also adept at setting these epic stories of gods and deamons within a contemporary world, with all the problems we have in it.
This first volume will suck you into Gaiman's postmodern mythology.
Preludes & Nocturnes is the name assigned to the first paperback graphic novel of DC Comics popular series The Sandman, collecting together the first eight issues of the comic originally released between 1988 and 89. Written by Neil Gaiman at the height of the graphic novel formats popularity and acceptance as a serious art form (Alan Moores Watchmen had just won a Hugo Award), this series seemed aimed at an audience tired of predictable tales of patriotic caped crusaders, and far more interested in adult themes, seedy low-lifes and leather-clad anti-heroes, as well as the occasional glimpse of breasts.
The first double-length issue introduces the titular character and the proposed fantasy-horror style of the series, similar in purpose to a feature-length TV pilot. The series concerns the Endless, a group of (as their name implies) eternal god-like creatures who bear the responsibility of administrating the living world of humans and animals. A wealthy early-twentieth-century occultist hatches a plot to capture Death, but his spell goes awry and his cage instead serves as a prison to Dream (known by many names to different cultures and individuals, Sandman among them). Refusing to communicate or acknowledge his presence, Dream is imprisoned long past his original captors lifetime into the late 1980s, when he finally seizes the opportunity to escape thanks to the sleeping guards, whose dreams he is able to inhabit and manipulate. Now free, the naked goth quickly magicks himself up a leather jacket (yes, I know), indulges in some brief exposition and do-you-know-what-youve-done! moralising with his elderly captor, and shoots off to repair the damage. Each of the Endless performs a vital task, and without the comfort of dreams, the twentieth century has seen an outbreak of hysteria and sleep disorders, demonstrated throughout the story with a diverse and tragic cast of characters. As Dream points out, its a good job they didnt succeed in capturing his sibling Death.
This first tale is well executed, maintaining an air of mystery throughout, but perhaps revealing a little too much at the end in order to launch the series with no further delay. Dream himself plays a comparatively minor role until his inevitable escape, which presents a great opportunity to explore the individual occultists over an extended period of time, as well as the selected humans with sleep disorders whose lives are followed on the fringes in a manner very reminiscent of Alan Moores work. Sam Kieths artwork is very distinctive, but also quite unusual, and it took some time get used to. His penchant for unusual and exaggerated viewpoints is entirely suited to the more surreal, dreamy elements of the story, but tends to counteract the realism of the more mundane conversational scenes in a way that his successor Mike Dringenberg would remedy. As a self-consciously adult comic, there is some gratuitous violence, Kieth getting a little excessive with the flying eyeballs in issue one, but nothing along the lines of sex or language designed simply for shock value as it would be in a lesser publication. Although The Sandman isnt up to the literary standards of Watchmen, there are a few attempts at cleverness with the recurring sand imagery that are interesting and relevant rather than attempts to show off.
After this pilot, the series begins in earnest, and starts to find its feet. The extended story that spans issues two to seven is a great overview of the Sandman concept, moving between bizarre dream realms and the afterlife, before coming back to downtown Earth again. The plot is based around a fairly straightforward quest, which sees Dream travelling to three distinct areas to recover rejuvenating artefacts that have been stolen from him, and involves what must be, for fans, extremely rewarding cameo appearances from other DC Comics characters that largely go over my head. Sam Kieths surreal art becomes a little distractingly excessive in the dream realm, the warped frames often making it difficult to follow the panels, but is thankfully toned down when the action becomes more terrestrial. Former inker Dringenberg takes over from issue six, maintaining the look of continuing characters to avoid making the shift too obvious, and his more traditional, ultra-realistic style is a lot easier to digest (if prone to repetition), even if I cant help seeing his interpretation of Dream as Rob Newman in a Robert Smith wig. That said, Kieth does an excellent job rendering Gaimans Hell in issue four, taken straight from Dante, and clearly has a lot of fun in a double page spread depicting a phalanx of weird demons. As a complete and deliberate contrast, the final story in this collection is the entirely self-contained The Sound of Her Wings, a low-key terrestrial affair that I quite enjoy as a thoughtful epilogue, which sees Dream slightly depressed after his ordeal, and hanging out with his older sister Death (also a goth, who would probably be attractive if she was real. But I dont find pencilled comic characters attractive, obviously. And even if I did (which I dont) theyre presumably based on real people in the first place, so its allowed, but I still dont).
I wont pretend to be an expert on graphic novels (or comics as they are more commonly known, by people who arent worried about being branded as childish), but I was so impressed reading Alan Moores works a couple of months ago that I was soon desperate to find something comparable, and starting from such a high point I was bound to be somewhat disappointed. Gaimans The Sandman is quite a different beast, a long-running franchise of sorts that lacks the clear direction and concise depth of Moores filmic mini-series, but shares similarities of style and target audience. Dream and his Endless brethren (who I expect to show up one by one as the series progresses) are not traditional heroes, but their motives are honourable and just; as he muses in the final tale of this collection when witnessing his sister Death carrying out her task, people dont appreciate the almost parental care they provide, and fail to love her for it. Of course, the urban gothic look is going to appeal to anyone who liked The Crow, although for me its a little too fashion-conscious, and stretches credibility at times (for some reason Im able to accept that Dream can travel through our subconscious on buses, and battle demons in a game of wits, but find it a bit strange that he would emerge from eighty years of imprisonment and immediately don biker gear).
There are some really interesting ideas in Gaimans series, making me eager to read more. I was impressed by the lack of exploitative gore and nudity that can sometimes come with an adult title like this, being less excessive than V for Vendetta for example, and its clear that Gaiman (whose other work I have previously enjoyed) is capable of extending the interesting and imaginative universe that is somewhat skimmed over here, however borrowed and bastardised it may be. The self-proclaimed weirdness of some sections put me off the more eccentric characters a little, though the humour quotient usually balances out these parts nicely, such as the Cain and Abel shenanigans in issue two, but the series perhaps excels the most when dealing with the intimate or hidden lives of characters, whose inhibitions and thoughts Gaiman is given license to explore thanks to the Sandman concept. This is especially present in 24 Hours, the sixth issue, when the crazed Doctor Destiny takes the occupants of a coffee shop hostage and slowly turns them into murderous savages over the course of a day. The dialogue is excellent, although once again the more elaborate proclamations of otherworldly characters can make them more difficult to relate to: this is why its so important that Dream is given the conscience that he is.
Gaimans inclusion of Gotham City, the Justice League of America and other existing alumni firmly integrates his series within the established DC universe, which is something I found a little hard to accept at first, not being accustomed to these fan-pleasing crossover things. While the use of obscure villains and heroes carrying out humdrum tasks have been quite enjoyable so far, Im not sure I could stomach a full cooperative effort between Dream and Batman, but my faith in the writers subversive nature makes me confident that The Sandman would attempt nothing so mundane. This impressive collection closes definitively, but there are enough plot threads and unknowns hanging in the ether that its going to be interesting to see what happens next.
Wake up, sir. We're here. It's a simple enough opening line - although not many would have guessed back in 1991 that this would lead to one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comics of the second half of the century. In Preludes and Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman weaves the story of a man interested in capturing the physical manifestation of Death but who instead captures the King of Dreams.