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Here your learning begins
on March 15, 2004
This review is directed mainly at those of you who are not widely experienced with modern (one can hardly use the word `adult' without erotica coming to mind) comics, because I do not know many comics aficionados who are not familiar with the Sandman saga - the Citizen Kane of comics, or the Sgt. Pepper, or the War and Peace - and have not read, at the very least, this first installment in the series.
So - you haven't read comics in a long time, have you? Sure, you read it when you were a kid, like everyone else, but then you outgrew them. You went on to read real books with no pictures. But suddenly a couple of people tell you that there have been some interesting things going on in comics in the last twenty years, and you should check it out. You decide to give the ol' funnybooks a chance.
In that case, this book right here is one of the half-dozen masterworks you should start with to get a general idea of what comics are capable of, at least in the English speaking regions of the world (there are some fascinating things going on in Japan and France that I won't even begin to discuss). The Sandman, the ENTIRE Sandman saga, altogether ten books long - collected from magazine-form comics that were published regularly throughout most of the 90s - is one of the truly glorious, shining, perfect creations of, I'll say it, adult comics. That Preludes & Nocturnes, the first story-arch in the series, is the only one that can stand rightly by its own right, other than being a convenience for new readers which may make it easier for them to deal with the size of this saga, is a sure sign of the wisdom of the creator, the brilliant Mr. Neil Gaiman. While completely revolutionizing what people though about comics, Neil started doing so in small doses to make it easier to swallow for audiences and editors alike. Thus, he started here with a story that is a classic folk tale, of a dethroned monarch who goes through a series of quests and challenges in order to earn back his rightful place in power. More help is given by cameo appearances of old and popular characters from the DC Comics universe - such as the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, the Scarecrow and John Constantine. Such appearances will become quite rare as the series continues, and the story becomes, rather than a folk tale, a mythology as grim as any Greek tragedy - which, doubtlessly, was in the author's mind from the very beginning. However, though the storyline of Preludes & Nocturnes is schematic and the drawings are often bland, Gaiman's already famous storytelling skills are fully developed, and the books is one of the most fantastic stories he had penned.
The hero of the series is, simply, Dream. His identity is a rather philosophical matter, as he is not so much a god of dream, but rather, the embodiment of the very concept of dream itself. At the beginning of the story, Dream is summoned by a human mystic, and caged. Seventy years later, when he escapes from his prison, he finds his kingdom in ruins, and must return to himself the symbolic garments of his reign to rebuild it. Along the way we have the pleasure to meet some of the most fantastic and fascinating characters in any literary creation, and also some characters who, small though their part may be now, will be crucial in the complete creation of the saga, such as Lucifer Morningstar, Cain and Abel, and the three Furies (also known as the Graces, the Fates, or the Kindly Ones). Though much more fascinating as part of the whole, Preludes & Nocturnes by itself is a perfect piece of fantastic storytelling.
However, it is the final magazine issue in this collection, titled `The Sound Of Her Wings', that gives it more worth than the rest of it put together. Sam Keith's surreal, deformed image of Dream and dark, heavy, brooding lines move over to make place for Mike Dringenberg's realistic backgrounds, light-hearted lines and recognizable human faces. Dream's flowing black robes make way for a t-shirt and a black jacket; the dark and towering Sandman is given a whole new perspective. He now seems like a depressed, bored teenager, sulking in the park and feeding the pigeons. He is then granted a visit by none other than his sister - Death, which is the single most brilliant creation in Gaiman's universe. Death is a perky, cheerful, beautiful, wise, mature goth-girl who confronts Dream and show to him his own pettiness. Completely without any action or suspense, it is this story that paved the way for the revolution that the Sandman series began. And this story alone remains one of the handful true perfect masterpieces of the medium. It is this story alone that makes this book a milestone in modern comics - and literature - and essential reading for everyone interested in the medium.
And, oh, I said half dozen masterworks, right? So, to complete the list, let's say: Alan Moore's `Watchmen', Art Spiegelman's `Maus', Scott McCloud's `Understanding Comics', Frank Miller's `The Dark Knight Returns' and Kurt Busiek's `Marvels'. Or, to make it a top ten, let's add Peter Kuper's `The System', Garth Ennis's `Preacher', Grant Morrison's `Arkham Asylum', and anything by Robert Crumb. Enjoy!