Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SANDMAN: PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES (Vol. 1) written by Neil Gaiman, art by Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg

The more I work on this blog, discuss it with friends, and field questions from new readers, the more I start thinking about where I was when I first started reading comics and how I got to this point from there.  So it occurred to me that I should start at the beginning and talk about the first comic book I ever read, and how it snagged me into the comics form for life.

I had heard of Neil Gaiman here and there, and one day after reading a short story he had written online, I ran to my friends and asked if any of them had any of his books that I could borrow.  One of my friends piped up that he had written a series of comic books that she could lend me if I wanted them, though it was clear she understood there was a chance I would reject them outright just for being comics and not prose.  But I was in an adventurous mood, and I wanted to read more of Neil Gaiman's work so I accepted her offer.  The next day, she brought three volumes of Sandman, and I spent the weekend buried in their glory.

It's hard to describe what Sandman is about-- it's one of those books where what happens is secondary to the ideas it explores.  But it starts with a group of dark magicians attempting to imprison Death, only to instead imprison Death's brother-- Dream, the titular Sandman.   The first volume follows Dream (also known as Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Oneiros, and about 20 other titles) as he makes his escape, gets his revenge, and reclaims his kingdom.  And it is creepy-- beautifully creepy.  A lot of that is the artwork; Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg's drawings are the stuff of nightmares, hallucinations, and surreal dreams.  But Gaiman's storytelling is the tree the art grows from.

By anthropomorphizing Dream in the way humans long have done with Death, Gaiman is able to explore the deepest recesses of the human psyche, telling stories that really revolve more around a common theme rather than a character or plot.  Ultimately, Sandman is about the power of dreams and imagination, for good or ill.  I shuddered in one scene, where Dream is facing a hoard of demons, and he is taunted by the Lords of Hell who ask why they should let him leave.  Dream responds calmly, Ask yourselves, all of you, what power would Hell have if those imprisoned here could not dream of Heaven?  And the final chapter of the first volume, "The Sound of Her Wings," where we meet his sister Death, is a quiet and beautiful meditation on death and life.

Neil Gaiman has become far more successful and famous in 15 years since Sandman ended than possibly any other comics creator before him, and Sandman is barely even in the top ten of his most well-known works anymore, but if any of his works deserve to be read, it's this one.  This series grabbed me in a way only few works have before or since, and it showed me what I was missing by not reading comics.  That an epic work of such imagination was outside my ken before I stumbled into it was to me a massive oversight that had to be corrected.  And since I have immersed myself in the comics medium, I have only found more and more of such works, works that could not and would not have been done in any other medium.  It is what addicted me and why I am such an evangelist of the form.  If you read no other comics in your life, give Sandman a chance.

You can download a PDF of the first issue from the DC/Vertigo website.

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