Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 11/12/2003.
Gaiman has dabbled in comics again on a couple of occasions since this book, with 1602 and Eternals for Marvel. I don't believe he has any plans to return to the Dreaming in the forseeable future, even though lots of people hoped he might in 2008 for the 20th anniversary of the first issue of Sandman.
Meanwhile, if you want to catch up on Morpheus' earlier adventures, they're collected in the luxury four-volume Absolute Sandman set. See Amazon links below.
Proust had his madelines, but I have the smell of wet dogs and regret. Not personally, you understand: it's the smell I always associate with comic shops. I encountered it for the first time in years during a recent visit to the New Oxford Street branch of Forbidden Planet in London, as they were winding it down in preparation for their move to swankier, less rancid premises on Shaftesbury Avenue. Smells are always a short-circuit to the memory, and this one took me back to a time around 15 years ago: when every broadsheet and style mag was banging on about how Comics Aren't Just For Kids Any More, and FP was based in a dingy hovel on Denmark Street. I'd be there every Thursday, scanning the new release lists to see what fresh delights had been shipped over from the US, even though most of them were written and drawn by Brits in the first place.
I'd started off by dabbling in graphic novels and collections of the established modern classics - The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, the usual - but the first actual comic that I started buying on a monthly basis was The Sandman. Looking back, it's hard to remember exactly why that was my first. I know that a comics fan of my acquaintance had already told me about it. Plus, I was vaguely aware of writer Neil Gaiman's name from a couple of hack-job quickie books he'd written (a collection of sci-fi related quotes, and the first biography of Douglas Adams). But to anyone who was hanging around comic shops in the late eighties, the main attraction of Sandman was the cover art: Dave McKean's eye-catching collages always stood out on the shelf, no matter what else was surrounding them. So, I picked up the Doll's House collection, and within days I was buying the new issues and scouting the racks for the old ones. And pretty much everything else in my post-childhood second wind of comics love - which is just about coming to an end now after one and a half decades - stems from that purchase.
The key thing about Sandman is this: I'm a sucker for a well-honed narrative. And Gaiman's comic had a format that allowed him to tell any type of story he damn well liked. Because the Sandman of the title - aka Morpheus, aka Dream, aka Lord Shaper and any number of alternate monikers - is the ruler of The Dreaming, the land of dreams where we all go every night as we sleep. And what are dreams other than our own personal stories? The Sandman may be primarily an epic tale about a family of mythical figures and their adventures - but it's also about where stories come from, and you can't get more simultaneously post-modern and old-fashioned than that. It helps set Gaiman's work aside from the countless other writers working in what could simplistically be described as the 'fantasy' genre: I have very little time for all that pixie shit, but Gaiman has always been in a different league.
Between 1988 and 1996, over the space of 2000 or so comics pages, Gaiman wove a story that he recently crushed into a single sentence: "The Lord Of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision." A simple plot summary like that doesn't begin to describe how this comic redefined the industry. Alan Moore had laid the groundwork for comics as an adult medium, but it was his acolyte Gaiman who took them into the realms of literature. A large part of its success was down to the anything-goes nature of the comic: Gaiman is ludicrously well-read, and thinks nothing of hurling in huge numbers of references to historical events and other tales into his narrative. It's not done in a smart-arse way to dazzle the reader - there's still a gripping and entertaining story to be enjoyed, even if you don't spot all the sources. But gradually, over 76 issues, Gaiman wove elements of what felt like every folk tale in the world into his story (not to mention several dozen old comics characters), like it was some sort of storytelling equivalent of the Unified Field Theory.
Every comic for mature audiences that followed (including the various ones I've reviewed here) took its template from things that The Sandman did first. It became the flagship title for DC Comics' mature imprint, Vertigo, which is still going strong ten years later. It was one of the first monthly books to ensure that every one of its 76 issues is still available in your local bookshop to this day, collected into ten handy volumes. Most importantly, The Sandman was a comic that ended. Gaiman started off with a vague idea of the overall story he wanted to tell: he told it, and then told DC he didn't want to do any more. As the title was owned by DC itself rather than its creator, there was nothing to stop them just hiring a new writer and carrying on without him: after all, that's what they'd do with Batman. To their credit, they didn't do that. Admittedly, the series has been a Vertigo cash cow for years, but Gaiman has been given approval rights over any spin-offs subsequently published, and DC have been working hard to keep him sweet. Presumably in preparation for the day when he would eventually agree to write some new Sandman stories for them. And as you've probably worked out by now, that day is here.
Since the final issue in 1996, Gaiman has eschewed comics in general and The Sandman in particular. His one return to The Dreaming was for a one-off called The Dream Hunters, which was more like an illustrated Sandman novella than a comic (and exquisite illustrations they were too, by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano). But this new collection, Endless Nights, is the first full-on comic he's written since then. And Vertigo have pushed the boat out: it's initially only available as a pricey hardback (twenty quid or twenty-five bucks), in a page size several square inches larger than normal, on fantastically glossy paper. There was always the danger that this would be a shiny collectable item for Sandman fans rather than a good set of stories in its own right. Thankfully, on the whole that isn't the case.
Endless Nights is a collection of seven short stories, each one about a member of Morpheus' family, The Endless. More important than gods, older than the universe, these seven beings are the prime forces for pretty much anything that happens anywhere. Dream, of course, you already know. But we also have his younger sister, Death: with her foxy goth looks, and her amusingly down-to-earth attitude to life and what comes after it, she quickly became a fan favourite. (Gaiman isn't the first writer to reinvent human mortality as an anthropomorphic character, but he's the first to invent one that teenage boys want to fuck.) Over the course of the original series, we were introduced to the other five of the Endless. Destiny, who holds the whole story of existence in his book: Delirium, the wayward sister who used to be Delight: Despair, unsurprisingly the most depressing of the bunch: Destruction, whose estrangement from the rest of the family fuelled one of the major plot strands of the series: and Desire, whose personal feud with Dream ultimately turned out to be the key to the entire story.
Gaiman's approach on the series was to work with a variety of different artists, always ensuring that each story arc was skewed towards their particular talents. And for Endless Nights, he's got seven of the biggest names in comics from all over the world to make these stories look as fabulous as possible. The only one of them who's worked with Gaiman before, P Craig Russell, opens the collection with Death And Venice: a story that you suspect was probably written around the title rather than vice versa. Gaiman was the first writer who made me aware of the structure of the comics page, and how it can be used as a storytelling device: and this story exploits that, being for the most part a series of double page spreads alternating between two narratives. In one, a decadent Count comes up with assorted inventive ways of filling his days: in the other, a soldier on leave in Venice revisits old childhood haunts, and becomes entangled with Death herself. The result is the closest this collection comes to a 'traditional' Sandman tale, if such a thing exists - a 24 page story told in line art with sensitive colouring, with most of the storytelling in the actual writing. That's not to deny the elegance of Russell's artwork: it's just that from this point onwards, fans may find things get a little atypical.
What I've Tasted Of Desire, for example, is (I believe) the first Sandman story told in fully painted art, rather than coloured-in inks and pencils. Which is always a double-edged sword in comics. It can look fabulous, and gives your project that extra touch of class that allows you to charge more for it: but the lushness of the art can sometimes slow the storytelling down to a crawl. Milo Manara's been chosen to tell this story, and he gets its languid pacing just about right. Gaiman described him in a recent interview as a 'high-class pornographer', which is a bit harsh, but there's no denying his ability to draw good-looking naked women (particularly, in one memorable sequence, ones who like eating sausages). Gaiman gives him plenty to work with in an old tale with the quality of myth, about a woman who makes a deal with Desire and pays the inevitable price. There's a rather smart narrative device in which the main character continually breaks the fourth wall to narrate the story directly to the reader, while still participating in it. Plus there's some more elaboration on the whole feud between Desire and Dream, including a hint at the possible jealousy behind it: "He talks about stories, my brother. Let me tell you the plot of every one of his damned stories. Somebody wanted something. That's the story."
But if you want the real truth behind the fallout, you need to go on to Dream's own tale in this collection, The Heart Of A Star: it's something like an origin story, if beings who always existed can have origin stories. We've always known that Dream has had problems with women, and that his beef with Desire is something to do with it: well, this is where it started. Artist Miguelanxo Prado is an architect, and it shows in the astonishing design of this story's palace setting, where Dream brings his date while attending a mysterious conference (and then gets stuck with the traditional problem of how to keep your spouse amused while you're busy). This is set far earlier in time than any other Sandman story we've ever seen, and Gaiman has fun imagining early versions of the Endless before they evolved into what we see today - most obviously a rare appearance by Delirium in her early form of Delight, but more subtly with the others. Death isn't the little ray of sunshine she usually is, while Desire is hedging more towards camp male than the pure androgyne we know now.
Fifteen Portraits Of Despair is the point where it starts getting seriously weird. It's a pointillistic profile told in fifteen short text vignettes, some hugely detailed, others exquisitely sadistic in their brevity: "She decides to make a list of the things that make her happy. She writes 'plum-blossom' at the top of a piece of paper. Then she stares at the paper, unable to think of anything else. Eventually it begins to get dark." Each tale is accompanied by a large number of illustrations by Barron Storey, with Dave McKean assembling the whole lot with his usual strong graphic design skills. Storey is an illustrator who's inspired many of the comics artists we associate with surreal mixed-media art: McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kent Williams and so on. Here we get to see a rare example of comics work by the man those big names look up to, and the results - without any particularly explicit imagery - manage to be wildly disturbing. Neither text nor images offer up easy pleasures, you'll need to work for them. When you hand this book over to a friend for them to flip through, this is the point where they'll stop and look at you funny.
After Barron Storey, we get a Delirium story, Going Inside, illustrated by one of those imitators of his I mentioned earlier. I used to be a huge fan of Bill Sienkiewicz, so much so that there was once a time I could spell his name without looking it up (unlike now). The rampant invention of his artwork on material like Frank Miller's Elektra: Assassin and his own Stray Toasters was astonishing, though to be honest I lost interest in him a little when he walked out of Alan Moore's Big Numbers two issues into the run and killed it. That was twelve years ago, and it's good to see that his talent for bonkers expressionism hasn't diminished over that time. In this story, Delirium is in trouble, and a party of five lunatics has been assembled to rescue her. Each of them is in their own, uniquely warped world: Sienkiewicz captures each of those worlds beautifully, and obviously relishes the chaos when they're forced to overlap. His sense of colour and composition has never been as strong, making this the story which comes closest to embodying its subject character in its art style. (But it's worth mentioning Todd Klein's lettering here too - a distinctive feature of the series has been how the Endless all have distinctive lettering styles for their dialogue. For this story Klein's also designed lettering for each of the loonies, making the words as stunning to look at as the pictures.)
After these two experiments, Glenn Fabry's tale of Destruction feels a lot more conventional. But if there's a thread that's run through all of Gaiman's fiction, it's his love of the anti-climax: so even though this story doesn't hit the emotional heights of the earlier ones, fans won't feel disappointed. On The Peninsula is the only story with a connection to the others - it's set in the aftermath of Going Inside, with Destruction accompanying Delirium on some R 'n' R after her ordeal. They visit a peninsula off the coast of Sardinia. Around the same time, a team of archeologists arrives there, and starts uncovering unexpected antiques - unexpected as in antiques from the future. Destruction has always been the enigma of the Endless, and if you come to this story expecting some answers, you may well be disappointed. Though Delirium's spoiler for the end of the world is of some interest: "my sister will take my brother's book and say goodbye, like this, 'goodbye', and then it's all done. And that's it for this time round." Again, Gaiman's only dropping hints at the cosmos he's created.
The final piece of the collection, Endless Nights, features Destiny. It's another piece of illustrated prose rather than a comic: a short reflection on the eldest of the Endless, which ties all the characters together (along with pretty much everything else in existence). I can remember artist Frank Quitely's early work in the ScottishViz ripoff Electric Soup, where he was drawing parodies of The Broons with added jokes about Big Jobbies: but here he takes on the challenge of giving life to the thinnest piece of writing in the book, and does it magnificently. Quitely - and I can't believe that I only worked out a couple of days ago where his pen name came from, quite frankly - well, you can imagine him looking at the short text Gaiman gave him for this, and realising that he's basically got to cram the entire universe onto eight pages. But he pulls it off, ironically doing it with large amounts of white space on the page.
It's a nicely minimalist way to end a collection that sometimes feels a victim of its own lushness: you can't help feeling that with all the buildup and hype, Endless Nights is primarily a machine for getting Sandman fans to part with large amounts of money at Christmas time. Presumably this collection will come out some time in 2004 in a more wallet-friendly paperback: but there's enough fine Gaiman writing and lovely art to make this edition a rather delightful object in its own right. Some people - notably the Count in the first story - might think that being crushed to death by a bull elephant between two beautiful virgins at the moment of orgasm is the way to get your jollies, but I'm happy to make do with just owning this book. Being a monkey, and all.
Neil Gaiman has his own official site, and as he puts it in his biography, "he was keeping an online journal long before keeping such things was fashionable". He's also got an Official Online Store where you can buy the books, and all manner of related products. If you're that obsessed with the man, you may want to consider taking the 100 Point Neil Gaiman Purity Test to formalise your level of obsession.
The Dreaming [dead link] is probably the best of the unofficial Gaiman sites out there. Using a blog-style front page, it has a useful roundup of all the recent references to Gaiman in all media, plus an archive of interesting and thoughtful articles on his works, running the gamut from fan fiction [dead link] to academic papers [dead link].
DC Comics are the publishers of Endless Nights. More accurately, it's published by Vertigo, their imprint for 'suggested for mature readers' comics (a label Alan Moore once said should be replaced by 'full of tits and innards'). They've got a handy microsite dedicated to Endless Nights [dead link], which includes a multimedia interview with Gaiman himself. (Go for video if you've got broadband, or audio if you're dialling in.) [The DC site now has a downloadable PDF of half a dozen pages of the book.]
Dave McKean, P. Craig Russell, Milo Manara, Miguelanxo Prado [dead link], Barron Storey, Bill Sienkiewicz, Glenn Fabry and Frank Quitely [dead link] all have sites of varying degrees of officialness, where you can find out more about them and see examples of their artwork.
Wordplay is the official site of screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who have been mentioned here in the past for their work on Shrek. Over the years, as you can imagine, countless Hollywood fans of Sandman have attempted to get a movie version off the ground. Elliott and Rossio have been brave enough to put their attempt at a screenplay on the web for all to see. Comics2Film is the best site to visit if you want to find out how far into Development Hell the Sandman movie is. (Ditto for the spin-off book Death: The High Cost Of Living, which looks more likely to see the light of projector in the forseeable future.)
Forbidden Planet no longer smells of wet dogs and regret, now they've relocated to the posher end of London. But give it time. (And if anyone out there can tell me where I've subconsciously stolen the phrase 'wet dogs and regret' from, please let me know, because it's been bugging me all week.)