Whenever anyone criticises ‘comics’ (no, you mean ‘graphic novels’) as being for kids, I point o m in the direction of Sandman. ‘Read that and try telling me it’s for children!’ I’ll say. I have one shameful secret–I have never actually read Sandman.
Well, actually–that’s untrue. I have, I believe, read all of Sandman. The problem is, I read them when I was thirteen, and in the wrong order, and remember experiencing a mixture of complete confusion, occasional dislike, and infrequent inspiration. I remember them being quite good, I just didn’t really follow them. The age and confusing order might have had something to do with that. So I’ve decided to read through right from the start, buying the next volume as I finish the previous (thank you Amazon marketplace.) Preludes and Nocturnes is the opening to the stories of the Endless and the Dream world. It opens with the magician Roderick Burgess attempting to imprison Death, but instead snaring Dream. His imprisonment results in people all over the world becoming trapped in empty, blank sleep. Decades later he escapes, and wreaks his revenge on Burgess’ son, trapping him in ‘eternal waking’–constantly stuck in a cycle of waking from a nightmare, believing himself to now be in the real world, only to realise he is still in a nightmare. Dream then pursues the three ‘tools’ he had created which had fallen into other people’s hands; his bag of sand he finds with the help of John Constantine, his helm is in the hands of a demon in hell and his ruby is taken by Doctor Dee who uses it to turn the whole world mad.
The six issues in Preludes and Noctures really serve as an introduction to the character of Morpheus/Dream. We get a crash course in the basics of the Endless world (the other aspects and their kingdoms) and some of the denizens of the Dreaming (which were always my favourites–Cain and Abel, Lucien and his library…) Compared to what I remember coming after this, the stories are actually pretty straightforward, but Gaiman has always wrapped up simple stories in an entirely different style, and even the simple story of the dreamless people during Dream’s imprisonment picks an unusual slant and creates some memorable characters with very little ‘pagetime’. I’m not sure how many other writers would have set out to tell a first issue that has a protagonist who never speaks and an antagonist that ages and dies roughly every five pages to make way for a new one. The penultimate story, 24 Hours, in which Doctor Dee waits in a diner for the world to go crazy, is shocking and moving, and much more what I remember of Sandman.
I have to try and remember when I’m re-reading this that this is an introduction and that everything that’s to come is to come. The inclusion of DC characters, whilst presumably a requisite of writing at the time, feels awkward in the context of the overall story and tone, although it was nice to read it round this time and actually know who the hell John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter were. And then of course there’s the famous epilogue, The Sound of her Wings in which Neil Gaiman’s infamous counterculture icon Death is introduced. It might be playing to the crowd, but I loved–and still love–Death, and it’s a great counterpoint at the end of the book to have someone share a little joy into Dream’s eternally moody world.
So what do I think overall? I’m glad I’m re-reading it, because I’m finding all sort of things I missed before. Preludes and Nocturnes is a solid start, dark and intriguing and hinting at all sorts of mysteries beneath it, and beginning to create the web of mythology and literature that spans the rest of the series. So I can now say, without guilt, if you haven’t read Sandman, go bloody read it.
They’re graphic novels, don’t you know. Not comics.