Monday, November 10, 2008

Sandman...Endless Nights?

Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Master of Dreams coverHave you ever read Neil Gaiman's Sandman? Well, finally, I can say that I have. It's a work that I've written briefly about in the past, but at that point I was only about halfway through the series. Now, finally, I've made it to the end. And that's a big deal for me.

But let me take a step back for a minute, before I get into why it's a big deal.

For those that may not be aware, Sandman is the book that spawned the Vertigo line of mature readers comics, published by DC. Starting with issue 1 in 1989 and ending with 1996's issue 75, Sandman was, simply put, one of the greatest graphic stories ever told.

And, by "graphic stories," I mean comics, not...violent...stories.

Right. But you knew that. So, back to Sandman. As I'm sure you're all well aware of, I stink at writing reviews. I hate doing it, mostly because I do not like judging the work of others. So, I typically try to avoid doing straight ahead reviews of books and things, and instead do short little "well, this was quite a good read" and "definitely check this out if you like this" type of "reviews."

That said, even if I wanted to write a review for Sandman, I think I would be rather hard pressed to do so. Mostly, I think, because it's difficult for me to explain what Sandman is.

I mean, Sandman tells the story of the King of Dreams, the Prince of Stories--Lord Morpheus of the Endless, or simply, Dream. It spans centuries and tells the stories of gods and goddesses, myths and legends, and kings and queens long since forgotten.

Sandman introduces us to characters such as Hob Gadling, the man who refused to acknowledge death, and so lives on forever, and Fiddler's Green, who is both a man and a portion of land in the kingdom of the Dreaming.

Over the course of its 75-issue run, we meet Dream's brothers and sisters: Desire, Destiny, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Death. We meet Kit Marlowe in the months before he writes The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. We are invited into an inn on the edge of the world where patrons pay for their drinks and lodging by telling stories.

We visit the realm of Faerie and we are chilled by a convention for serial killers and we meet a young, then old, William Shakespeare and we meet a talking raven named Matthew.

And these are just a few of the many things that make up Sandman. So, instead of telling you what Sandman is, I'd rather tell you what Sandman is like.

Because the series was started in the late '80s and finished in the '90s, I didn't read it as it came out. I was too young to read mature readers books through the first half of the series, and by the time it was wrapping up, I was not very interested in comics. And that's the context in which I'd like to frame this "review."

I'd heard many fine things about the series, and with Neil Gaiman being one of my favorite writers, I always figured I'd check the book out eventually. So, at one point I picked up the first trade, read it that night, and...I liked it. I didn't love it, and honestly, I thought that maybe it just wasn't my sort of thing.

Then, a while later, someone bought me the Absolute Sandman Volume 1 as a gift. If you're unfamiliar with DC's Absolute Editions, they are basically these big, leather bound, slip-cased versions of classic stories. The production value is second to none, and the page size is much closer to the size of the original art.

Sandman artFor Sandman, DC/Vertigo decided to collect the entire series, in four volumes of Absolute Editions. Another first, and certainly well worth the effort. I read the first volume, which included considerably more story than the first trade, and I was engrossed in the work.

So I read the entire thing, as each Absolute Edition came out, devouring each volume over the course of a couple of days. And that brings me back to my point about describing what reading Sandman was like for me.

Reading Sandman was like listening to the Beatles.

Let me explain what I mean.

John Lennon was killed before I was even born, so I never had the experience to...experience...the Beatles as my parents did. By the time I discovered them, there would be no new albums to buy, no new music to wait in anticipation for. When I listen to the Beatles now, I know that I am listening to the greatest band in history.

And I know that, in my mind, and in the minds of many others, there will never be a better, more significant and groundbreaking group of musicians. The Beatles were, and still are, the pinnacle of rock music. When I listen to the Beatles, I know that, and I appreicate that, and I love what I'm listening to, and I'm moved by it, and the words of John Lennon are omnipresent in my every day existence.

But, at the same time, when I hear their songs, there is a twinge of sadness. A bit of regret--maybe a little jealousy? Because, while the music will live on forever, there won't be anything new.

And, more importantly, there won't be anything better.

And as I read the last Absolute Edition of Sandman last night, I found myself thinking a lot about the Beatles, and about John Lennon. I knew that what I was reading will be something I revisit at least once a year, but still I felt a pull of regret.

A twinge of sadness.

I missed out on the series as it was happening, and while there's always the possibility that Neil Gaiman will someday write new Sandman stories, I missed out on the book when it was revolutionary.

And, as someone who adores the comics medium, and appreciates the great amount of skill that goes into the creation of comics, I can't help but think that Sandman may just be the best we'll ever see. And I'm happy with that, because of how great Sandman was, and how literary and smart and influential the series still is.

But I'm also a bit saddened that I may have just finished reading the best comic that I'll ever read.

So, here's to Lord Morpheus of the Dreaming. And here's to Neil Gaiman, and the numerous and brilliant illustrators and painters and artists that gave Sandman to us.

[images are copyright DC Comics/Vertigo]

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