The Sandman Vol. 1 (Preludes and Nocturnes), Neil Gaiman

An occultist in Edwardian England attempts to call forth and imprison Death in order to become immortal.  Instead, he lands himself with Death’s little brother, Morpheus – Lord of Dreams- and neither of them are too happy about it.  Initially published as eight separate issues, this is the first collection in The Sandman series, arguably one of the most successful and influential graphic novels ever written.  With very little knowledge of the form, and no expectations whatsoever, I dived straight in- and was delighted.

What struck me first was the collections’ unusual structure.  Obviously, each issue has its own story arc, but each one also acts as a chapter in the larger narrative structure of the collection.  And while the collection itself ended with a resolution of sorts, I was intrigued to learn more about how this first collection fitted into the overall Sandman story, as well as how this structuring would dictate plot and characterisation.

Right from the off, The Sandman is very concerned with stories and the power of stories.  Dreams are the source of imagination, and inspiration, and aspiration.  Dreams are not bounded by space or time.  The ideas and stories that dreams gestate don’t just consider where we are and where we come from, but where we can go.  Morpheus states that he is the true power in Hell, because ‘what power would Hell have if those imprisoned [t]here were not able to dream of heaven?’  But dreams by themselves are not enough to sustain existence or effect change in the universe.  Dreams are just the start, they must be acted on, made use of, if they are to have any power.  People literally dream their lives away here, with a strong parallel drawn with drug abuse.  But dreams are a rejection of the established order of things.  Dreams are the start of change.  By the end of this collection, Morpheus himself learns that change is not only inevitable, but necessary.

There are diverse influences at work here, including references to Greek and Norse mythology, tropes from literature, quotes from Shakespeare, characters from the Bible and the DC universe.  There is a giddiness to this range of references which is both erudite and charming.  It’s cheeky and a bit mad, but it works.  The stories too show an impressive variety, from a fresh yet familiar vision of hell, to a modern horror set entirely in a US diner.  While they each stand alone, I found myself rattling through each story, eager to discover what Morpheus would encounter next.

While the shifts in tone and setting can be a little disorientating, there was a wonderful sense of possibility, a gleeful disregard for any pre-established order here that was really quite exhilarating.  Perhaps this is more common in graphic novels/comics, than in novels, so it could merely be my ignorance talking, but I thought it was bold and, invariably, well handled.  I particularly enjoyed Morpheus’ encounter with grumpy detective John Constantine.

Characterisation was also solid.  The Lord of Dreams is a gloomy soul – understandable perhaps, after 70 years in prison – whereas Death is sparky and warm.  There’s a lovely exchange between them where she wonders why people find her so terrifying- after all, dreaming is surely more dreadful than dying? While Morpheus is very much the focus, we do get pleasing little snippets from some of those he encounters.   Cain and Abel – brilliantly twisted, doomed to play out the oldest story again and again until the end of time. Constantine makes a wry little greeting to London before he sets off to work.  An old man asks for time to say the Shma before Death wings him away.  Not because he was particularly religious, but because his Dad told him to.  People find comfort in the familiar, I suppose.

The art work was excellent.  I particularly enjoyed the cover pages by Dave McKean, but there were plenty of striking images from Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg.  Satan looks like Tilda Swinton with bat wings, and Morpheus himself bears a striking resemblance to Gaiman.  It may seem obvious, but I enjoyed how the construction of the images gave a real sense of movement and personality to the characters, and added to the momentum of the story.  So the deranged Dr. John Dee is often half hidden in shadow, isolated or uncomfortably framed.  When Morpheus interrogates the Maiden, Mother and Crone, their answers roll down the page, not across, forcing you to slow down and consider the answers.  It’s both efficient and effective – saying so much without saying anything at all.

The story structure itself also works well, leaving you with the best of both worlds:  the pleasing resolution of Morpheus regaining his autonomy, and the desire to see what he gets up to next.  The Lord of Dreams has completed his quest and regained his former strength.  But he has been forever altered by the experience, and travelled through a vast and glorious, and partly ruined universe, which establishes an expectation of further adventures.  And as Morpheus eventually meets up with his sister Death, there is also the suggestion that we may in future encounter the rest of the Endless…

Smart, warm and irreverent, this first collection is a brilliant introduction to both The Sandman saga and the world of graphic novels.   I’ve already ordered the next collection in the series – surely there’s no higher praise than that.

What did you think- is The Sandman as good as they say?  Have I made any glaring omissions?  Are you a graphic novel fan- any suggested reading for me?  Do let me know.