Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. I — Preludes & Nocturnes
It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book for the next ten weekdays.
I would be exaggerating if I said I approached a reread of Sandman with trepidation. Sometimes you read something, think it’s great, but years later you wonder if it was really as good as you remembered. I had no such feelings when thinking back to Sandman. I knew what I had read was brilliant and was confident it wouldn’t lose its luster over the years.
So, I wasn’t surprised when Preludes and Nocturnes remained an excellent read. What DID surprise me was that it was far better than I recalled. The first volume is often seen as the weak link in the Sandman chain, the shaky start readers must get through in order to get to the truly brilliant stuff. Maybe in our desire for people to read those remarkable high points, in our eagerness to share the awesome with them, we forget how good this first set of stories truly is.
Thing is, for all the depth we attribute to Sandman, Gaiman’s grand saga begins with something very simple. Dare I say, a cliché. Our protagonist must Go On A Quest and retrieve Items Of Great Power.
Wait, no. It doesn’t start there. It starts with the titular Sandman naked and huddled in a cage. Weak. Powerless. A captive. But he is Endless, and patient, and he will wait. Even as the world of dreamers falls apart, he will wait.
It’s a pretty ballsy way to open a series, really.
Gaiman is smart. He doesn’t inundate us with information. He doesn’t outline his whole mythology right out of the gate. We’re left to guess at aspects of Morpheus’s nature and power and personality. This not only involves us in the story by forcing us to invest a little of ourselves in it — smart stories almost always do this — but it also leaves him wiggle room to invent, create and interpret over the course of the next 75 issues.
But I’m getting into big-picture stuff here when really I want to discuss Preludes and Nocturnes. Yeah, it’s better than I remembered and isn’t at all the just “okay” start Sandman fans (including myself) sometimes insinuate. Right off the bat we’re getting heaping helpings of mythology, dark magic, and a clear sense that Dream isn’t a humanlike figure with godlike powers. He is something other. Something alien. A being who can be many things. This is utterly vital to what the series would come to be.
Sure, in the context of the smart series that is Sandman, Dream’s fetch quest is kind of a dopey fantasy trope, but it works. It works because it’s a great excuse for allowing us to begin exploring this world. It doesn’t always work. Gaiman makes a misguided effort to tie Sandman into the main DC Comics universe — something thankfully all but forgotten as the series goes on — but by and large Dream’s quest shows us slivers of the kind of realm in which we’ll dwell. And I’ll be damned if the execution isn’t excellent right off the bat. The writing is VERY strong. His ear for dialogue is not perfect, but his narration is poetic and moving even at this early stage.
That said, much of this first volume is kind of standard dark fantasy stuff. Good, but in the years since it came out we’ve seen a TON of stuff like this (a lot of it from Vertigo, the DC Comics imprint that built upon Sandman’s success). The Alan Moore influence is pretty heavy in the early going, and at times it’s distracting. “Listen,” Gaiman writes as a repeated motif over a few issues, and every time he does so I think of Moore. “24 Hours,” the story set in the diner with Doc Destiny, was a somewhat misguided effort to delve into the kind of disturbing darkness Moore dabbled in with Swamp Thing. Gaiman can do better than this sort of gimmicky thing. It’s disturbing, yeah, but it’s also a bit cheap and easy. Gaiman at his best disturbs us with smarts, not shocks. At his best he gives us interesting characters in extraordinarily magical situations, not cheap shock.
It all ends well, though, and we get the sense that this whole story arc was nothing more than a grand beginning.
And it was.
When we get to the coda featuring Dream’s sister Death, we fall in love. We realize we’re reading something that might turn out to be very special indeed. We realize that maybe we’re in store for something that won’t be an ordinary comic book.
Rereading these initial stories reminded took me right back to when I first got sucked into Sandman. I had read non-tights books before — Hate, Cerebus and others were all on my reading list before I ditched comics in the early 1990s — but these were the books that told me I could keep reading and loving comics even if I no longer cared about superheroes.
Did this first volume of Sandman hold up? It sure did. This was very strong, stronger than I remembered … which means I can’t imagine how good the later stuff will be.
Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”
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