The second book that I’ve finished is this first volume (well, it’s the only volume available at the moment) of The Absolute Sandman. Fans of comics will know that Vertigo and DC comics have recently been releasing a lot of famous comic series in “Absolute” editions. Unlike a regular trade paperback, these absolute editions are oversized (meaning you can see the pictures in really good detail), often re-coloured (as has happened in this book), printed on really good quality paper and bound with very nice hardcover binding, and put in a slipcase. Also, like a DVD, they have lots of “extras” in the back. So if you like a particular comic, they’re the ideal way to keep and collect them.
However, that said, if you’re going to buy them, get them from Amazon because they’re horrendously expensive in Australia. You could probably make a fair bit of money, actually, buying them off Amazon and reselling them on Ebay in Australia, the price difference is that large.
Anyway, to a review of the story at hand. Volume 1 (with another three volumes projected as being necessary to contain everything) contains the first 20 issues of The Sandman comic series. For those of you who have never read any Sandman before (like myself before I picked this up), I should say that The Sandman series is probably the most praised comic series ever written. Even people who don’t like comics enjoy Sandman. So this piqued my interest.
So what’s it all about?
This is kind of tricky, because unlike a regular epic (say, Lord of the Rings) where we’re given lots of background detail, Sandman sort of starts low key and gradually expands its mythology as it goes. So, in the very first issue, a tale is told in the style of old Edgar Allan Poe-type stories of a group of magicians in England in 1914 who attempt to call up Death and trap him (or her, as we later find out . . .) so that nobody needs to die.
However, something goes wrong, and instead they end up with a tall, skinny, pale looking fellow with dark hair and very black eyes, with starfire in them. This is Dream. Anyway, figuring that they can hold him for ransom, the magicians lock up Dream in a bottle, where he stays for the next 70 years. They also take off him his helmet (looking like a gas mask), his red ruby, and his bag of sand. During that time, all around the world, people get “sleeping sickness”, where they suffer from various ailments – some can’t dream, some become like zombies, some sleep and never wake up. But, basically, the world is not a fun place without Dream in it.
Ultimately, Dream escapes and sets out to reclaim his missing stuff (which, in true quest fashion, is now scattered in various places). This is what he spends the rest of the eight issues doing. We find out, during the course of this time, that he’s commonly known as Morpheus, sometimes as Dream, and (very rarely – despite the comic title) as The Sandman.
These first eight issues aren’t all that crash hot, because Neil Gamain, the writer, is trying to pay a bit of a homage to all his favourite DC comics characters, and so there are a lot of references to other characters that show up in other comics (some of which I recognised, a lot of whom I didn’t). Also, in the beginning, it is meant to be more of a horror series than anything else. But as the series moves on and heads away from its DC/horror beginnings, and starts to develop its own unique world, some brilliant ideas start to surface.
First of all, Death. She’s Dream’s sister. (By the way, I should also mention that Dream and Death are one of several personifications of human life, all coincidentally starting with D. So we also meet others such as Desire, Despair, etc. throughout the series.) Death, in a rather unlikely move, appears in the form a young girl in her early 20s, who wears black. (So she’s a bit Gothic.) Very friendly, almost human – rather different from the cold and aloof Morpheus. The comic issue where Dream and Death walk around as she “collects” various people who are dying is quite brilliant (and also unnerving, because this is still death we’re talking about).
Other brilliant ideas are some one-issue stories Gaiman comes up with where the Sandman interacts with different characters and cultures, showing how he has appeared in various forms throughout different times. So there’s one story of two African tribesmen, an elder and a younger. The elder is telling a story about a princess long ago who fell in love with Dream.
Then, there’s an issue entirely devoted to the dream life of cats. So Morpheus (still recognisable by those dark eyes of his) shows up as a cat. Then there’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where Morpheus brings William Shakespeare out into the country with his troupe of actors to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Unbeknowns to Shakespeare (who has kind of sold his soul to Morpheus in exchange for the gift of creativity), Morpheus is bringing along the real fairies to see the play about themselves.
But, my favourite one has to be the one where Dream and Death enter a pub in England in the 1400s. There, a man is bragging that the only reason everybody dies is because everybody follows the crowd. Nobody has the tenacity to be different. So Death decides to give him a go, and never comes to collect this guy. Dream is left with the job of telling this man that he’ll never die (unless he wants to) and so these two unlikely characters make a bargain that every 100 years, they’ll meet up and see how life is going.
As a Christian, I can understand why this series has taken off. In a day and age where most stories that we hear and read are remarkably superficial, and only concerned with this life, these stories deal with things that are very close to us, that we share in common with all mankind. Dreams. Death.
In contrast to the prevailing view that “this life is all their is”, in the world of the Sandman, there is so much more reality to the everyday mundane world around us. Almost, it seems, a meaning to life.
Of course, The Sandman is just fiction, and a closer look will reveal a lot of imagination, but not much meaning. And, ultimately, the Sandman, while he is interested in keeping order in the dream world, doesn’t seem to care so much for people themselves. (Which is why it is so interesting that Death, by comparison, is much more sympathetic of humans, even though by the time she comes to visit you, you’re number’s up.)
So I’m rather more glad that there is an infinite, personal God who cares for us, rather than the Endless. But, as far as stories and myths go, I shall be interested to read the next volume at some stage in the future.
4 out of 5.