Friday, 16 October 2015

Reflections on Sandman. Volume 1- Preludes and Nocturnes.

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcom Jones III
Colourist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein
Covers: Dave McKean
Publisher: Vertigo

I'm in danger of repeating myself, I realise that. I'm in danger of turning into a machine that perpetually harps on about breaking free from my shackles and discovering a whole new world of independent and creator owned comics. Bragging about being brave enough to leave behind the comfort of the familiarity of superheroes and their outlandish adventures. If this statement begins to bore you then I bear you no ill will, I'm on the cusp of boring myself. However it is leading to an important point here so afford me a jot more patience before you jump ship into the deep, vast waters of Internet distraction. 
Like many people it began with Batman, how could it not? Batman led to other DC characters, which in turn led to Marvel. You cannot blame me I was twelve years old, impressionable and was what is colloquially known as a geek. As I grew older my interests burgeoned and become more well rounded, but I still loved Batman; I fear I always will. Much like Neil Gaiman who, in the introduction to 'Whatever happened to the caped crusader?', confesses a similar love. So really it is fitting that someone who I can identify with on some levels is responsible for the work that opened up exciting new worlds for me.
Now Sandman isn't my first brush with independent or creator owned works, that privilege lies with 'The Boys' which was my first memorable experience outside of the 'big two'. Though if 'The Boys' opened a crack in the door, then it was Sandman that blew the door into innumerable splinters and shook the foundations of the universe (and the dreaming).
I was well aware of Neil Gaiman before I came across Sandman, I'd read many of his novels and they had a profound effect on me. Every so often you will discover something that changes your outlook, your nature and almost everything that he has written falls into this category. If it does not, then it's likely because I haven't read it yet. So having been initiated into his style of writing, in the way that he captures the magical in the mundane, forever hinting at the existence of a world hidden just beyond ours. Building layer upon layer of story, flawlessly blending a multitude of ingredients to create an immersive fantasy. I began to hear whispers of 'The Sandman'. It was spoken about in hushed tones of reverence by people I knew, almost like a kind of worship. It felt too grown up, too far removed from the standard archetype to be enjoyed by a young man who still clutched Batman and Spider-Man tightly to his chest. However having just recovered from the epic 'American Gods' I needed a Gaiman fix and was convinced that it had to come in the comic form. So I headed out bravely to my local comic book shop, the same shop that opened my eyes to the boys, and enquired about Sandman. After spilling my guts about my current situation, the kindly manager informed me that he too had gone through a similar process, although for him it was Green Lantern he was struggling to tear himself away from years ago. He took the plunge and recommended that I do the same; as you may of guessed I'm ecstatic that I did.

Much like Gaiman's other literary dreams, Sandman affected me deeply. I fell in love with comics all over again. In fact the extent of its affectation runs so deep that I am physically struggling to finish the series. I'm serious, the last two collections 'The Kindly Ones' and 'The Wake' are currently sat on my shelf eyeing me with a wistful gaze emploring me to pull them off and read them with furious gusto. However I'm not sure that I could emotionally handle it, as I have an inkling of what will transpire in the hallowed pages and worry that I'll have trouble letting go. I'm slowly building up the courage and am hoping that writing this will help me come to terms with the closure. The fact that work like this exists is the greatest testament to how truly amazing comics can be, and this is the volume that started it all. 

Preludes and Nocturnes introduces us to Morpheus, the King of the dreaming and his kin, the Endless. It's a dark and, thanks to Gaiman, lyrical literate world. Beginning with 'Sleep of the Just' which reads a little like a classic English horror story and sets up the shape of things to come. Roderick Burgess attempts to entrap Death, but only succeeds in imprisoning Dream, incurring his wrath and setting off a chain of events thus beginning our journey. Now this volume does have some linear story progression, i.e there is a central story arc that flows throughout the issues, but there are seemingly infinitesimal events occur here that take on significance later in the series. That's one of the things I adore about Gaiman's writing, how he makes a tiny ripple that later becomes a tidal wave of revelation. He creates this world and I think that, at least for a while, he becomes a part of them. In later volumes there are standalone stories that involve the dream king as well as entire story arcs, but there is always this overbearing shadow that something great is in play behind the scenes. The writing is both uplifting and haunting, it is incisive and moving, and affects you negatively and positively. In the fact the whole scene in the diner in '24 Hours' is absolutely harrowing and I found myself reading it peeking out from behind the sofa, afraid of what would happen but unable to look away. Gaiman has an inimitable style of writing and as Stephen King has once said of him is "..a treasure house of story..". Gaiman has a vast wealth of knowledge about stories, both those he is writing and those he is not. His explorations of historical drama, myth and legend is twisted to his own needs and interwoven beautifully. He draws upon multiple elements and layers them as only he can to create this fantastic, well rounded world. His knowledge and love of character shows throughout, calling on classic historical characters such as duo Cain and Abel while also including cameos from DC characters such as Etrigan, Constantine, Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman. Batman only exists in a single panel but it's a nice nod to a character Gaiman loves. Although Gaiman has stated that his attempt to mix superheroes with the world of Sandman, this blend of well known comic book heroes and characters of legend shows how Gaiman understands character and uses it to his advantage. He is a masterful storyteller and uses the dream king to exhibit this, after all what are dreams but stories?

The artwork took a little getting used to for me, not because of its quality for it is simply sublime, rather because I was so used to 'newer' artwork. Don't forget that the first release of Sandman was around the same time that I was born, so the comics that I had started with had quite a different style. That initial shock passed in moments and I think that quite often I actually now prefer this style of art. It's the perfect foil for Gaiman's scripting and has a dreamy quality that of course suits the story perfectly. Some of the panels appear to be caught in the penumbra between worlds, with a sort of sonombulant ethereal quality that is enchanting. Sam Keith left the book after saying he felt as though 'he was in the wrong band' and starting with '24 Hours' Mike Dringenberg, who had been inking, took over on pencils and Malcom Jones III took over the inks. The transition though is seamless, it can sometimes be jolting when an artist leaves part way through but it was handled properly and the story doesn't pay the cost. At the time these were the industry's most sought after artists and the fact that they gave their services so willingly is testament to the appeal that Sandman holds.
The artwork again exhibits perfectly the diverse appeal of comics and showcases their potential for discovery. I unearthed something that changed my opinions, changed my tastes and my preferences and ultimately my perceptions of what comics can be. The artwork shows this because, before I maybe would of neglected to read or enjoy a work because it didn't quite fit with what I was expecting, but the skilled artists here have taught me that there can be much more to enjoy beyond the realms of your comfort zone.
My first contact with Dave McKean was Arkham Asylum written by Grant Morrison. I thought his artwork was gorgeous and the way it was painted across the pages was quite magical. For Sandman he has created a series of covers that are majestic in nature. The way they are painted, even sometimes built, mirrors how the layers of story are built by Gaiman. Looking at them is a glimpse into the mind of McKean himself and you get the sense that, like Gaiman, that mind operate at just a higher level than most people. If you're a fan of beautiful artwork, Sandman is worth it for this alone too.

There is so much more to Sandman that this reflection could never be large or comprehensive enough to do it justice. The only thing that could is to go out and buy 'Preludes and Nocturnes' and read it. No pore over it in detail, soak in every word, every letter of each word, each deft stroke of the art and let it slowly open up your mind. If you have already done this and are already familiar with Sandman, then for heaven's sake pull your copy off the shelf and do it all over again, you may discover something you missed. I was hoping that writing this would be an act of catharsis that would help to me to finally read the last two volumes, but I think I have given myself the thirst to start from the beginning once more.
Gaiman inspired me in my own writing and his offerings with Sandman inspired me to follow my dreams, showing me whole new worlds of possibility. Ultimately you take what you want from works like this, stories that creep inside you. Opinions are subjective but Sandman offers something for everyone and I defy you to read it and not be moved in some way.
In summary, you really cannot summarise Sandman. For me it is beyond analysis, it sits outside of critique. It is a masterpiece that has stood fast in the tides of time. Gaiman et al have created something poetic, beautiful, lyrical, delicate and literate in a world of pictures. Something unstoppable and resolute, Sandman will still be here in years to come and, almost ironically, will refuse to fade into dreams.

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