03 July 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part II: The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two

Comic hardcover, 616 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1990-98)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sean McManus, Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, Matt Wagner, Stan Woch, Coleen Doran, Duncan Eagleson, John Bolton, Malcolm Jones III, George Pratt, Dick Giordano, P. Craig Russell, Vince Locke
Colorists: Dave Vozzo, Steve Oliff
Letterer: Todd Klein

There's two big storylines collected in this volume of The Absolute Sandman. The first is Seasons of Mists, which opens with a meeting between Dream and the rest of the Endless. They suggest that Dream was a bit of a jerk for exiling his lover to Hell ten thousand years ago (described in a side story in Volume One), and that he should get her back. Apparently that's all it takes to change someone's mind, because Dream launches himself into Hell to reclaim her soul. Why? No one knows. Upon getting there, he finds out that Lucifer has opened the Gates of Hell and let everyone go because he's tired of the whole thing, and Lucifer hands the place over to Dream and promptly absconds, leaving Dream with the question of what to do with Hell. Various claimants come to petition Dream, and I was initially excited-- who Dream chose would give me some insight into his character surely, or even just watching him deliberate would-- but the whole storyline just stops with a literal divine intervention. Seeing Gaiman's depictions of the various claimants is fun, though; I think my favorites were Thor and the Lord of Order. His Loki is pretty underwhelming for the ultimate trickster, though. The best part of the storyline, however, is the side story about the boy left behind at a boarding school when all the souls are released from Hell.

The second story, A Game of You, is much better for the reason that it doesn't focus on Dream at all, but rather Barbie, a human who previously appeared in Volume One. Her dreams are starting to spill over into the real world and into the lives of those who share her apartment building. We see almost everything from the perspective of Barbie, her transvestite friend Wanda, the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove (one of whom is pregnant!), and a witch named Thessaly. Barbie soon becomes lost in her dreams, which are a little girl's depiction of a fantasy land, with herself as the princess, surrounded by a cast of goofy animal characters. Watching these characters try to make sense of the weird world they've been projected into, as well as their own personal lives, is great, and I was totally on board with every moment of it. The ending is a bit underwhelming, however, as Dream just shows up all of a sudden and takes care of everything. But other than that (and the epilogue), this was my favorite Sandman storyline yet.

There's also a quality side story about Emperor Norton I of the United States, which I just loved. A fun look at a fun historical personage.

My reviews of the first two volumes of The Absolute Sandman might make it seem like I'm down on the series, and I'm not-- I think the writing is usually sharp, most of the characters are fully-fledged people, the tone and atmosphere are great, the Dreaming is a fantastic mythology, and Matthew the Raven is pretty much awesome. But it's hard to get too enthused about a series whose protagonist leaves you so little to connect to, even at supposedly defining moments.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part I: The Absolute Sandman, Volume One

Now that I've finally finished up with Green Arrow, I've moved on to a new comics project: Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Long considered some of the most literate comics, I've never read them, and I've long felt that to be something of a deficiency. As a result, I'm forcing the ILL staff to get hold of the swanky Absolute Editions of the series, which takes some time, but lets me move through the series a bit quicker.

Comic hardcover, 612 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1988-90)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume One

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Charles Vess, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Chris Bachalo, Malcolm Jones III, Danny Vozzo, Colleen Doran, Steve Parkhouse
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, Steve Oliff
Letterers: Todd Klein, John Costanza

The protagonist of these stories is Dream of the Endless, a personification of the abstract concept of "dream"-- the other Endless, who are all siblings, also personify abstract concepts that begin with "D" in English (odd, that). He can enter into people's dreams, and acquire whatever he needs from them. Despite his enormous power, he's imprisoned by a human sorcerer, but the series begins with him finally making his escape after almost a century. Now, he must return to the world and re-establish his kingdom. All of my problems with this series can be traced to Dream himself, I think. How does he feel about being locked up and powerless for such a long period of time? No one knows, since Gaiman never gives us much insight into his interiority. Dream embarks on a series of quests upon his escape in an attempt to track down and recover artifacts stolen from him during his imprisonment, but it's hard to root for a protagonist whose powers are so all-encompassing and ill-defined. There's not really any circumstance where he won't triumph; even his journey into Hell is anti-climactic; he turns out to have a power that Lucifer's demons don't.

Where this volume succeeds much more is with its depiction of the small characters, human or otherwise, caught in the wake of Dream's machinations. The snippets of those affected by Dream's imprisonment in the opening issues are the first sign of this, but it gets better with those who are subject to the evil machinations of Doctor Destiny (who just happens to escape imprisonment and steal Dream's magic ruby at the exact moment Dream comes looking for it), and even Doctor Destiny himself. Even better, however, is the substory called The Doll's House where a "dream vortex" begins to form. No one, not even Dream or Neil Gaiman, seem to know what a dream vortex actually is, but the exploration of its effects on the tenants in a Florida house is well done, as we see the snippets of all these people's dreams, and thus the snippets of themselves. Rose Walker is a good character, well drawn as a teenager struggling to come to terms with all the enormous things suddenly happening in her life. I even liked the appearance of poor Hector Hall, one of the substitute Sandmen who filled in for Dream during his imprisonment. He's a buffoon, but a well-meaning, manipulated one. The ending of the story, with Rose Walker and the heroic Gilbert at a serial killer's convention, is great. Even if Gaiman continuously tops himself in the gross-out stakes with the serial killer stuff.

Perhaps the best part of the entire volume are the side stories that show other aspects of the Dreaming. "The Sound of Her Wings," Dream's first meeting with his sister Death after his imprisonment, and "Dream of a Thousand Cats," the story of the secret dream of cats, were both good, but my favorite was "Men of Good Fortune," which is about an ordinary English granted immortality that Dream meets with every century-- the closest thing Dream has to a friend, and a rare insight into Dream's character. Curiously, the award-winning "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where Dream hires Shakespeare to write the titular play for him, left me cold. Clever, but uninvolving.