Every now and then you come across a book that is required reading because it’s just that good. That day finally came for me when I read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes (Vertigo), with art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III, and colorist Daniel Vozzo. There are some writers whose reputation demands their work be read because whatever they write will be quality work. Neil Gaiman is one of those writers. With a long history of success, Gaiman has an eye on the best of what fantasy/horror has to offer.
This being my first foray into Gaiman’s work, I must admit I was expecting one thing but was met with something completely different. I was expecting an all out horror comic, and while there were some horror elements, it had far more fantasy than I expected. In the case of bestselling authors like Gaiman one has to take into account his talent and history. Sometimes when you’re expecting one thing, but are greeted by another your preconceived notions can cloud your opinion, and the question is no longer about the quality, but a question of spite--it wasn’t what I expected and so therefore it wasn’t good.
Once I got over my initial setback I quickly began to appreciate and recognize what everyone saw as “a treasure house of story” as Stephen King says.
Mixed in with the fantasy elements are some gruesome aspects within the first few issues as several characters meet their untimely end in less than pleasant fashion--by way of hangings, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement at Arkham Asylum, and curses. Among the darkness, it’s hard not to feel for Dream as he is held prisoner by a man dedicated on learning how to live forever by cheating death.
The man, Roderick Burgess, who is an occultist, conjures up the wrong demon but detains him regardless. After Dream eventually gains his freedom, he sets out on a path of vengeance, but soon realizes his kingdom has fallen into disrepair in his absence.
Possibly due to the departure of Keith early on which led the subsequent art to Dringenberg, I found the art to be slightly inconsistent, even hit and miss. At times it had a cartoon-ish style with characters like Dr. Hathaway, Cain and Abel and their pet gargoyle, Gregory. I mean gargoyles are by definition grotesque carvings of animal or human faces, the way Gregory was illustrated came off as a dopey caricature. However, illustrations of Dream (aka The Sandman, Morpheus among other names), were the most striking and consistently menacing in the series. His simple black cape contrasted well with his bleached skin and his spiky black hair. If the art was drawn more in the vein of Dream, not only would I enjoy it more, it would be more appropriate for the adult oriented comic that it is. The way the pages were formatted was a bit overwhelming as well. At times the pages were so filled with panels, I had to read and re-read them to verify that I'm following along in the correct order.
The highlight of this trade was the last story entitled The Sound of Her Wings, a stand alone story that summarizes the events of the previous 7 issues, which introduces Dream’s sister Death. It’s not entirely fair to judge a comic series on it’s first 8 issues without any prior knowledge of the writer or the series. So I will withhold any firm opinions until further exploration of The Sandman series. However, based on this initial sampling I'm not sure Gaiman's fantasy heavy writing is for me, especially when it's gets even further away from the horror genre later on in the series.
The Sandman: volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes was published in 1996 and consisted of issues 1-8.