Well, Neil Gaiman's brilliant, epic "Sandman" series is over. But that doesn't mean that there aren't more stories to tell about Morpheus and the Endless. And while the other Absolute omnibi collected the regular series, "Absolute Sandman Vol. 5" collects some of the side material that was doesn't quite fit into the chronology -- stories about the Endless, a fox, and the OTHER Sandman.
First there is "Endless Nights," a compilation of stories about the Endless -- Death's wanderings in Venice, and a young American who remembers her; an ancient Briton woman who makes a deal with Desire for an all-too-brief love; how Dream lost a lover to a star; people wracked by Despair; a quest to save the disturbed Delirium; a trip into Destiny's garden, and an archeological dig that is disrupted by a long-absent member of the family.
And then there's "Sandman: Midnight Theatre," in which Golden Age superhero Wesley Dodds (aka the Sandman) is sent on a mission to London to uncover fascists, while his on-off lover Dian helps an old friend who is being blackmailed. But in the course of his investigations, Dodds infiltrates a country mansion where occultists are gathering... and finds a mysterious figure imprisoned in a secret chamber.
And finally, we have "Sandman: The Dream Hunters" in two different forms. It was originally published as a novella with illustrations by the legendary Yoshitaka Amano, and was later adapted into a lushly dreamlike graphic novel.
It tells the story of a young monk and a kitsune who fall in love -- only to be threatened by the Baku (dream eaters) who have been sent to kill the monk by a paranoid onmyoji. The fox is determined to save her love from the sorcerer, and when she lapses into a coma, he ventures into the Palace of Dreams to save her life. But asking for help from the King of Dreams has a price.
"Absolute Sandman Vol. 5" is probably the choppiest of the Sandman omnibi thus far, since the three major works -- the two "Dream Hunters," "Midnight Theatre" and "Endless Nights" -- are pretty much unconnected to each other. All they have in common are the Lord of Dreams and his eternal family, whether in a major role or a cameo.
And Gaiman does a brilliant job with all the stories, whether it's a bleak between-wars spy story, a lush and bittersweet Japanese fairy tale, or snapshots of the Endless. He adds a strange, dark edge to the everyday world, with haunting little glimpses of a boundless unfathomable world outside our own. And the artwork is always sublime, whether it's colorful realism, dreamlike beauty, or grey blocklike figures.
My only problem is that "Theatre" has waaaaayyyyy too little Morpheus. He and Wesley meet for approximately two pages, and Wesley doesn't really get to say anything. But it IS awesome to see the Golden Age Sandman encountering Gaiman's more otherworldly one.
The contents of "Absolute Sandman Volume 5" are not for casual dabblers, but fans who want the scattered side-stories in one gorgeous volume.
on June 23, 2014
There is consensus among critics and comic fans that 'The Sandman' was a turning point for the medium. DC's line of mature reader comics, Vertigo, was created to accommodate the series after it became a surprising hit somewhere around issue 7 or 8, with the first appearance of Death, the eldest of Morpheus' siblings. Gaiman brought a clever, unabashedly literate approach to comics that had nothing to do with superheroes. Aware that the comic audience was getting older, on average, a trend that continues today, Karen Berger was tasked by DC to create the Vertigo line, with The Sandman as its flagship and prototype. A lot of derivative, mediocre copies and spinoffs followed, but so did some of the best comics of the 90's & 00's -- The Invisibles, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Lansdale & Truman's Jonah Hex, Hellblazer, 100 Bullets, Flex Mentallo, We3, Silverfish, Garth Ennis' War Stories, etc. But The Sandman still feels special, in the same way Watchmen does, regardless of the prequels and the film.
What bothers me about the Sandman, however, is the quality of the art in the first few books, particularly Vol. 1 & 2 (I refer to the original TPB collections), but also specific issues all the way to Volume 5: 'A Game of You' -- it is in that story that Colleen Doran was called upon to fill in for the regular artist, providing pencils. George Pratt, a long-time comics vet, was asked to provide inks, and he proceeded to turn in some of the worst finished art I've seen. Doran has hated Pratt for that inking job, knowing that as penciller, people blamed her. But by all accounts, her pencils for that issue are excellent, and she keeps them handy to prove that it wasn't her fault. And it certainly wasn't -- blame it on Pratt, but also blame the editor that let it go to print, and blame DC for always putting deadlines before quality. Fortunately, Doran was allowed to re-ink that issue for the Absolute Edition, and most of the terrible coloring of the early issues has been redone. Before the 'fix-ups' of the Absolute Editions, The Sandman was like a $500 000.00 Bentley that had one side keyed by some punk kid, a 10" long, jagged scratch. It's still a masterpiece of design and engineering, and most of the vehicle is perfect; depending on where you stand, most perspectives still present a flawless beauty... but you know that scratch is there, and it bothers you. The difference between the artistic standards of today and the late 80's are surprising; the curmudgeonly nature of hardcore comics fans resists notions that the artists working now are better than the artists of the late 80's, and of course, this is an entirely subjective judgement. Nevertheless, it is my snarky opinion that the 80's and early 90's were a low point in mainstream comic art, and Gaiman's brilliant scripts were a victim of that artistic nadir.
Fortunately, matters improved when The Sandman became a surprise hit, and Gaiman had more artists to choose from. Coloring techniques improved immensely during the series 6-year run, as demonstrated by the garish tones of the early issues (which have benefited greatly by the recoloring done for the Absolute Editions) and the subtlety of Michael Zulli's colored pencils on the final storyline of the series, 'The Wake'. But while the most blatant problems have been addressed, the art of Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg is crude. Charles Vess provides the first great art of the series in the acclaimed Shakespeare story of Vol. 3, and Kelley Jones' art on Vol.4: 'Season of Mists' is by no means remarkable, but is good enough that it allows one of the series best chapters to shine on the merits of the story. It is Volume 6: 'Fables and Reflections', which collects the specials and single-issue tales, that marks an artistic turning point. Since the 1st issue, artist Dave McKean provided covers done in his sophisticated mixed-media technique, blending paint and photography with digital methods decades before they would become commonplace. Finally, the artistry on the comics interiors would begin to match the promises suggested by the covers, as Jill Thompson, Bryan Talbot, P. Craig Russell, Marc Hempel, Teddy Kristianssen, Michael Zulli, J.J. Muth, Charles Vess and others made the second half of the series into a more complete work, matching Gaiman's writing with brilliant artistry it deserved.
After the monthly series ended, Gaiman concentrated on his prose, achieving a level of success that surpassed even that of his comics career with American Gods, a modern-day fantasy classic that confirmed his status as one of the world's most talented writers. But regardless of his popularity, he realized how much of his career he owed to comics and to his signature creation. Gaiman returned to the Sandman, and it is this 'afterlife' that is collected in the fifth of the Absolute Sandman volumes. Physically, they are perhaps the most beautiful books DC has produced, with sculpted black faux-leather and elegantly embossed titles and designs that give it the look and feel of a tome that Destiny himself might mistake for his own. The material collected includes art more worthy of the oversized format than any of the other Sandman volumes. 'Endless Nights', the first Graphic Novel to make the New York Times Bestseller List, features fully painted stories by some of the world's greatest comic artists: Milo Manara tells a tale of desire; Miguelanxo Prado takes on the old Dream, Morpheus, when our Sun was but a boy; Barron Storrey Despairs; Bill Sienkiewicz gets Delirious; P. Craig Russell returns to Death in Venice; Glenn Fabry tracks down a wandering Destruction; but for me, the real standout is Frank Quitely's vision of Destiny, perhaps the most beautiful and perfect art executed in mainstream American comics, and it is frustrating, in a way, that he only does painted work for short stories and covers, if at all. I know I'm not the only one who's waiting for a fully-painted book by Quitely, even though he's slow enough working with pencil and ink. The other major work that appears is 'The Dream Hunters', in two gorgeous versions. The original illustrated novella, a Sandman story featuring Gaiman's very convincing attempt to create his own Japanese myth/fable, is reprinted here in a larger format, along with the 40 or so paintings by Yoshitaka Amano that accompany the tale, some of them double-sized foldouts, all of them breathtakingly rendered in a fusion of traditional and modern methods. P. Craig Russell, one of the more important artists to depict the Endless, then provides his comic adaptation of 'The Dream Hunters', in his instantly recognizable style, a very different and very entertaining take on Gaiman's prose.
The shorter stories and extras provided are no doubt familiar to anyone who owns an Absolute Edition, interesting tidbits that add to the inclusive feel of the book. While the art in the first two volumes in the series doesn't measure up to the standards necessitating a luxury reprint, the art of Volumes 3, 4, and 5 certainly does; as well, as the brilliant writing of Gaiman, the importance of the series, and the 'remastering' done to fix problems from the earliest issues makes owning the entire series in the Absolute Edition a must for hardcore fans. I started with Volume 5, knowing it would be excellent. Once I owned Volume 5, however, I had to own the rest. You can't just own one. If you want to try it, however, this is the one to get, since it stands apart from the monthly series, collected in volumes 1 - 4. This huge, 9" x 13" 600+ page slipcased book looks great on a shelf, but it gets lonely by itself, trust me...