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This is the fourth volume in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and, in my opinion, the finest. Season of Mists has only one story, but the scope and breadth of it is breath-taking.
It revolves around a simple yet intruiging premise: what would happen if the gates of Hell were shut, and Lucifer decided he had had enough of being its ruler.
The story begins with a family gathering of the Endless. These are the siblings of the eponymous Sandman, also known as Dream and Morpheus. It is our first visit to the realm of Destiny, the eldest of the Endless and the story is introduced with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
One by one the other members of the family arrive. We have met Death, Desire and Despair in previous volumes, but this is our first encounter with Destiny and Delirium, the youngest of the Endless. Gaiman doesn't put all his cards on the table and we are still deprived of an encounter with Destruction. We merely know he turned his back on the other members of the family long ago.
As with many families, the Endless don't get along very well, and the younger members, Desire especially, seem to enjoy sowing discord. This results in Dream losing his temper, and vowing to go to Hell to have his one-time love freed. Again this links back to events in earlier books.
He prepares to do battle with Lucifer, but there's a problem. Lucifer won't fight him. Instead, he says he tires of his role, locks the gates of Hell and gives the key to Morpheus to act as caretaker until a replacement is found.
This leads to the most inspired element of the story. A variety of gods, from different pantheons in contrasting mythologies converge of Dream's home and put forward their cases as to why they should have control of Hell. These leads to some great comedy moments - Thor, of the Norse Gods, is attracted to the cat-headed Sekmet, of the Egyptians. Loki, also of the Norse, finds a kindred spirit in the fairie Puck, and the two set out to cause as much mischief as possible.
The story concludes as it began, in the style of Greek tragedy, with an act that epitomises 'deus ex machina'. Although, as an epilogue there is a wonderful moment where Lucifer, surfing in Australia, looks up at the sun and admits that God did a pretty good job.
Season of Mists sees Morpheus fulfilling the role he does best - a means through which other characters can interact. He remains a background figure, letting the incidental deities vie for centre stage like B-list celebrities. Gaiman creates a sophisticated and amusing story, mingled with his usual dark and inquisitive features.
As with other volumes in the series, the artwork was not always as good as I would like. Having thought about this more recently, I am beginning to accept that perhaps it DOES actually fit in with Gaiman's narrative. The semiotic nature of much of the drawing fits in more with the abstract nature of the stories than an attempt at realism would. While some of the imagery is stunning - the representation of the gates of Hell for instance - other frames seem a little rushed, as though we're not meant to look at them for long. Not quite the images to savour you might find in Sin City.
This was the first of the Sandman volumes I read. The quality of the story kept me coming back to the series, despite the inferiority of other titles in the series. If you've not ready any others, it's a great one to whet your appetite!
After the stand-alone tales of the third Sandman collection, Neil Gaiman is back to writing a large scale story spread across a number of issues that seeks to address some long pressing questions as well as introduce a host of new characters, realms and possible directions for the series hereafter. Season of Mists is the most singularly focused effort in the series yet, taking the customary time-out for a single issue in the middle but otherwise retaining an almost exclusive focus on the series protagonist the King of Dreams, rather than, as the series had done previously, pursue an assortment of seemingly unrelated plot threads tied up neatly by the conclusion. In this sense, and especially after reading the individual short stories that made up the previous Dream Country, Season of Mists felt to me much like the Sandman movie, a self-conscious expansion of a popular series striving to give something back to long-time fans as well as seek a new audience, but I cant say it was too successful either way.
There are several reasons why this was my least favourite Sandman story so far, though collected together in this manner, some of the problems are less pressing that if viewed in its original format, as a monthly release from DC comics. From the prologue to the epilogue, both of which could be more rightfully considered the first and final parts due to their direct participation in the story, rather than the somewhat bizarre and sidetracked introduction to earlier tales, the events of this story move at a disappointingly slow pace, and its surprising that Gaiman takes eight issues to tell a story that could be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. Of course, theres a reason people read books rather than simply browsing Wikipedia, and as usual Gaiman fills each issue with vital character development, interesting takes on mythology, humour, horror and excellent dialogue. As a graphical publication, its also a pleasure to see the writers extravagant ideas for the more twisted realms and figures interpreted by the usual revolving door of artists, some of whom are naturally more suitable than others. With a strong focus on Dream that has been deliberately lacking in the preceding issues, Season of Mists is an important part of the Sandman mythology that would be suited to newcomers, especially as characters frequently indulge in the explanation of previous events that they already know, but it unfortunately spends too much of its time expanding and explaining the series unique universe, setting events in motion for future serials at a cost to the enjoyment of this one.
The prologue to Season of Mists (unlike the other stories which carry individual episode titles, this is tellingly divided into simple parts) is one of its better and most memorable sections for finally bringing together and detailing all of Dreams brethren, the Endless... with the exception of the mysterious prodigal brother whose existence is still used to taunt readers. This issue takes place in the highly metaphorical domain of Destiny, the first of a great many realms to be introduced over the course of this collection, as the hooded figure is told that its time for a family meeting. The gathering of Dream, the female Death, the androgynous Desire, the putrid Despair (all of whom have been seen before, to varying degrees), the confused Delirium and Destiny himself, humorously proceeds much like any forced gathering of estranged family, though here the differences are emphasised by each individuals anthropomorphic nature. From here, the story soon begins in earnest as Dream is convinced by his trusted sister Death that he should never have condemned his former lover to hell for rejecting him, and despite being a whopping ten thousand years too late, the reformed King of Dreams elects to visit Lucifer in his domain, in spite of the danger that represents. Bizarrely, Lucifer seems only too happy to welcome his former enemy to a suspiciously empty underworld, and after explaining to a confounded Dream that he is sick of the responsibility, he dupes him into taking the Key to Hell, a much valued possession that the leading deities from a number of mythologies would do much to acquire.
By returning to some of the seeds planted in earlier Sandman stories, particularly the domain of Hell and Dreams former lover Nada, Gaimain takes the opportunity to elucidate on the Sandman universe in an unprecedented manner. Previous stories have confirmed the existence of ancient mythologies one-by-one, but the gathering at Dreams castle aims to check them all off definitively. Most prominent are the Viking gods of Asgard led by Odin, whose background is introduced (and patronisingly over-explained) in issue twenty-four, while representatives of Faerie and Ancient Egyptian mythology make a not-very-long-awaited return after the previous paperback. Confusing but entertaining manifestations of Deliriums opposing realms Order and Chaos also feature to a small degree, as does the Shinto sea god in a role seemingly designed only to show off Gaimans multicultural knowledge. Fortunately, Allah and Muhammad are nowhere in sight and thus are not presented in any sort of subjective or potentially offensive light; Neil Gaiman may be a show-off, but hes not stupid. This overcrowded cast, along with regular characters from both Hell and the Dreaming, serves to slow things down immensely, and amusing though the banquet scene may be seeing a ludicrously muscular Thor get drunk and letch over a cat-headed woman before falling into his own sick keeps the humour quotient suitably high the glacial progression of the plot in the last half of the story particularly must have provided a great source of annoyance to fans who had to wait a month to discover the next part of this tedious diplomatic tale.
Even in terms of characterisation, something this story seems intent to develop meaningfully through an increased focus on Dream, there seemed a certain lack of realism after the earlier issues, though this was perhaps due to the scarcity of truly human character featured this time around; fallen angels and godlike beings obviously behave a little differently to you and I. Lucifer is quite enjoyable, though his maniacal screaming and evil demeanour seem to disappear completely between issues, and although I couldnt help but love Destiny for his Reaper-like appearance, the new introductions to the Endless family disappoint in comparison to the established pairing of Dream and Death, and the devious Desire. Strangest of all are the humans exiled from Hell, who describe their decades, centuries or millennia of constant torment in fairly emotionless terms and have no trouble readjusting to human concerns immediately. With a writer as skilled as Gaiman, Im tempted to think that such decisions were deliberate, but it would have been more impressive to see some truly tortured souls who resembled very little of the person they once were. My final problem is one thats admittedly blown unreasonably out of proportion, but I wasnt amused by Lucifers mundane office, complete with potted plant and early 90s PC, as this silly joke detracts from the otherwise fantastic architecture and appearance of his domain.
Now Ive got those issues off my chest, I can applaud the better aspects of this new direction for The Sandman. For starters, nearly all ties seem to have been severed from the external DC comics universe that featured so heavily in previous stories, which is perhaps some of the reason that Gaiman goes to so many lengths to expand his own mythology (there are a couple of instances, one of which I think involves the 1930s Sandman character, but they are minor). Not being DC-literate, many of the previous links and cameos of Preludes & Nocturnes and The Dolls House passed me by completely, also managing to leave a lingering nagging feeling that I was missing out on something as they did so, so Im happy that these crossovers have been toned down of course, when the action switches once again to Earth, Dream may start hanging around with Batman and Swamp Thing, I couldnt say. Its also nice to see some coherence between the Endless formal attire, which has been in something of an unexplained flux previously but now makes some sort of sense, and however minimal the participation of the Delirium character, shes intrigued me enough that I look forward to future appearances in a larger role, particularly as her fall from grace as previous persona Delight has been left unexplained. As a heavy metal fan I was obviously quite pleased at the introduction of the Viking gods, and the trio of Odin, Loki and Thor was entertaining enough that a return is probably on the cards at some point, though Im more ambivalent about future appearances of Lucifer and the angels.
This story is so singular and concentrated that its difficult to incorporate the oddball twenty-fifth issue into its discussion, only linked as it is through the notion that the dead from Hell have been returned to life by Lucifers departure. This self-contained story features a brief appearance from Death, but is otherwise concerned solely with a small-scale horror focused on two children a lonely schoolboy and a dead schoolboy who decide not to become slaves to the fates and to the hellish school. As a fan of the last collection of individual tales, and of the series origins in horror, its no surprise that this was my favourite of the eight issues (perhaps alongside the prologue). The narrative plays out perfectly, and some of the ideas therein are really quite ghastly, enhanced by Matt Wagners memorable depictions of Charles Rowland sitting amongst a class of dead faces. The prevalence of dark humour is greater than it has been for a while, and the archaic public school scenario reminded me strongly of Terry Jones and Michael Palins Ripping Yarns, with dashes of The Wall, but thats probably because my education was in a 1990s comprehensive and I cant relate to this as anything other than fictional. In any case, its a valuable story that breaks up the slow main plot at the right moment, and helps keep the series human interest alive, even if the humans featured are mostly insane or undead. I like Charles Rowland; this is quite a sad and uplifting story at the same time.
While Wagners art suits this stand-alone issue, his slightly cartoonish slant not proving a problem in the isolated context, it continues to be a little distracting when different parts of the main story are pencilled by different artists, especially as the series best and, I assumed, primary artist Mike Dringenberg is increasingly absent from the mix. Dringenberg here pencils the introductory tale: a wise move, as his previous depictions of the Endless provided a definitive version for other artists to use, and here he gets to introduce the remaining stragglers. He is also, oddly, offered the rather slow and dull epilogue tale, which primarily acts to demonstrate his superior skill at both realism and creativity and thereby detract from the other artists. Thats not to say that the storys primary penciller Kelley Jones doesnt impress, as the revisitation of Hell and the introduction of Asgard and the other realms are all vivid and exciting, its just that the story demands an essential replicating of concepts introduced by former artists such as Dringenberg and his predecessor Sam Kieth. That said, Jones is just as capable of rendering twisted demons as those forebears, most memorably a huge figure with mouths for nipples skewering a tortured soul with a fork, and a gruesomely funny image of two demons French kissing, one of whom only has a half a face, allowing for a full view of their tongues inside her skeletal mouth. Nice! Jones hellish scenery looks excellent also, reminding me of Wayne Barlowes Inferno and H. R. Giger in its organic-looking architecture, and as usual the cover art by Dave McKean and experimental lettering from Todd Klein keep the series looking unique and distinctive amongst the competition. I only hope the series can calm down and return to more low-key terrestrial affairs now that Neil Gaimans universe has been firmly set in place.
Series: The Sandman / A journey through the dark and enchanting realm of dreams and nightmares with Sandman. This graphic novel tells of Sandman's attempt to free his lost love from hell, his confrontation with the devil and the consequences of that fateful meeting. This volume introduces the Endless family.