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So this guy walks into a bar...
on July 8, 1999
Brant Tucker and Charlene Mooney are two travellers making their way cross-country, when a snowstorm (in June, no less!) and an otherworldly animal-beast in the middle of a highway interrupts their travel, and the car crashes. Lost in the blizzard, Brant stumbles upon The World's End Inn, a free house. A tavern populated by people and creatures from different worlds and times, displaced from their homes by a `reality storm', an event so cosmically huge, it resonates across time and space.
So, to kill time until the storm passes, they tell stories. The art in theWorld's End framing sequences is top-notch stuff by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham. Very tight, its realism contrasting nicely against the art in some of the other stories.
The first story, "A Tale of Two Cities", the story of a man (literally) lost in the dreams of his city. While a favorite of Sandman editor Karen Berger, I must confess I found it a little puzzling and indecipherable. And this is no fault of the artist, because the separation of text and art works very well. The format almost makes up for the lame story. My least favorite in the book.
Cluracan's Tale was much more enjoyable, starring and narrated by the lovable, oft-inebriated, arrogant emmisary of Queen Titania of Faerie. Cluracan is sent to a city-state run by a corrupt, piggish king, who is, by a quirk of politics and bloodlines, is also the city's spiritual leader. What follows is an adventurous story of murder, family helping family, and political sabotage. The art's very nice here, conveying a very interesting fairy-tale look, although Cluracan, Titania, and Nuala look nothing at all like they do in this or any of the other books.
Hob's Leviathan, a story of the immortal Hob Gadling (my favorite Sandman character, bar none) told by Jim, a young man who met Hob on a Ship in 1914. A stowaway is discoverd, whom Hob knows as a fellow immortal (in case you didn't know, he's the king in the story of the fruit of eternal life). Jim's fascination with the sailboats becomes the readers own. The crew of the Sea Witch are given real personalities here, and are shown to be real people. After the ship is nearly capsized by a sea serpent, every one of these grown men cry. This was my favorite story in the novel, mostly because of Michael Zulli's wonderful art. While sketchy and bland compared to his work in The Wake, it's still beautiful and works with the story wonderfully to convey the wonder and grandeur of those ships.
In The Golden Boy, the story of cheesy 70's comic character Prez Rickard, the teenage president, is updated courtesy Gaiman and Madman Comics creator Mike Allred. Given a Christ-like sensibilty, Prez becomes not only the hippest president of all time, appearing on Saturday Night Live skits with John Belushi, but also the best. He disarms the country's nuclear and biological weapons, and puts education back as the #1 priority. And he does it on his own, despite the evil Boss Smiley's offers. Both Death and Dream put in welcome appearances here, after Prez's passing on. Mike Allred's work in always a welcome sight, and I doubt that his ironically animated style would have looked half as good on any other Sandman project.
Cerements, a story of a young apprentice in the necropolis Litharge, a city whose chief industry is the `funerary arts'. After performing a disposal of a corpse, young Petrefax and his disposal party share tales, one of which Destruction pops up in, to give a little history of the previous necropolis, and the death of his sister, the first Despair. Lots of threads of started here which re-appear when members of the Endless return to Litharge in The Wake. Despite the EC-Comics-like horror-style in which it's drawn, the story holds a lot of emotion and warmth.
The final story is Charlene's. Maybe not a story, but as Stephen King puts it, in his introduction, "a scathing soliloquy." Finally, a funeral in the sky is witnessed. No one in the tavern knows whose it is, but all are agreed, it is the cause of the reality storm. Afterwards, some leave, some stay.
Don't be deceived. Ignore the title. Despite what your senses are telling you, this is NOT a Sandman book. Morpheus shows up on maybe a half-dozen pages. And that's what's so cool about it. There's very little of the grand, and at-times head-swelling epic of Morpheus stuff in here. This was my introduction into the world of Sandman, and a very gentle introduction it is. With some of the best stories in the series to boot.