Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Dream is captured, released, loses his power, recovers it, the natural order is disturbed, and restored.

Capturing a Dream
A dangerous thing to do
For you and the world

Full review: Preludes and Nocturnes is the first volume in Neil Gaiman's much-praised Sandman series. The volume introduces us to Dream, one of the Endless and the central character in the series. But though Dream is the central character in the series, he is not human, and does not behave according to human concerns. In fact, the primary attitude that Dream seems to display is indifference to all concerns other than his own. Being Endless, Dream simply does not care about the wants or needs of mortals, which gives him an indifference that some might call evil, but within his own viewpoint, is merely natural.

The story doesn't just introduce Dream, but rather presents him as he is: an enigma. Dream's introduction to the story in the first act of the volume is almost accidental. Seeking to gain control over Death, a cabal of sorcerers instead captures Dream, without even realizing who he is at first. Gaiman shows the power of silence, as Dream barely speaks in this segment, instead merely waiting and watching through his imprisonment while the effects of his incarceration reverberate through the outside world. It seems that not having Dreams changes the world for the worse. While his captors become increasingly desperate, agitated, and angry as the years pass by and they see the end of their days approaching, Dream sits quietly, implacable, uncaring, and timeless.

Eventually, being timeless, Dream escapes, and sets about to regain his lost power and find his revenge. Revenge proves easy for Dream, finding the symbols of his power proves less so. The remainder of the book is broken into four main arcs, as the Sandman seeks to recover his pouch, his mask, and his ruby. But first Dream stops off at the house of the eternally feuding brothers Cain and Abel, the first indication that there are other beings like Dream that live in perpetuity. Dream summons the triple goddess to gain information, and it turns out that even he is bound by rules. As with the rest of the book, the artwork reflects the dream-like nature of the story, enhancing the text.

To recover his symbols, Dream must enter the mortal realm, and this is where one of the more incongruous seeming elements of the Sandman series comes to light - it is set in the DC Comics universe. Seeing Dream interact with John Constantine is somewhat odd, but seeing him raid the Justice League headquarters and ask J'onn J'onzz for information is downright strange. Each story sequence shows the Sandman hunting down the fragments of his power stolen from him by his captors, first the pouch, then the mask, then the ruby, each one more difficult than the last, as he deal, in turn, with humanity's lust for pleasure, the desires of a grasping demon, and finally an insane mind who has turned Dream's own power against him. As the story progresses, we see Dream's own aspects, first as a benevolent purveyor of fantasy (and the detrimental effects of allowing fantasy to take control) and a being that can express gratitude, and then as a supernatural power that can challenge the entire hosts of Hell, and finally, as a nightmare made manifest.

Every segment reveals a bit more of Dream, and everything comes to a head in 24 Hours, a horrific story that seems to provoke the most visceral reactions from readers. But this is necessary to illustrate the full range of Dream's character, because he is not merely the representation of humanity's hopes and desires, but also of our fears and darkest thoughts. And when those fears are in the hands of an insane mind and let loose upon the world, they have dire consequences. But the other important revelation in the story is that Dream simply does not really care about what is to him a period of temporary the havoc, but only that his own power has been threatened, and his own responsibilities have been undermined. This segment is gripping and brutal, but without the macabre twists of 24 Hours Dream's character would have been incomplete.

And without 24 Hours the beauty of The Sound of Her Wings, the final act of the volume, would have been wasted. Because, as comes out during his conversation with Death, Dream is so much more terrible than she. Death, in the story, is beautiful, swift, and sure. Death moves from person to person, bringing them to their mortal end and ensuring that they are carried away to somewhere beyond. Dream in contrast is brooding and morose, listlessly dissatisfied with the ennui of having completed his more recent adventure and considering the eternity that lies before him. After seeing Dream deal with lesser beings throughout the volume, the introduction of another coequal member of the Endless is perfectly handled, and sets up the rest of the series quite well.

The Sandman series is regarded as one of the masterpieces of graphic novel writing and Preludes and Nocturnes gets it off to a strong start. Although origin stories can often drag, bogged down with the need to provide background information, the stories contained in this volume introduce the protagonist and the world around him without losing the narrative flow. With a strong set of stories complemented by superior artwork that reflects the enigmatic nature of the main character, Preludes and Nocturnes is an excellent beginning to an excellent series.

Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House

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