Welcome to Neil Gaiman month here on Books & Bits!
Neil Gaiman is one of my very favorite authors (you may have noticed this, yes?) and I thought it was about time I did some posts about my favorite series of his… Sandman.
For the first post this month, I’ve decided to begin with a piece that isn’t a traditional graphic novel… but instead an illustrated novel. I’ll be following up by talking about The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 and… well, that may be it for Sandman. There’s so much that’s already been said that I don’t have much to add, at least at the moment. Plus… I’m really waiting on the other annotated volumes… but we’ll see. Months are longer than we think…
After Sandman, I’m planning at least three other posts: one about American Gods, one about Black Orchid, and one about his two young adult novels, Coraline (tenth anniversary!) and The Graveyard Book. Add ’em to your calendars, folks!
So a little history… Sandman was absolutely HUGE for DC Comics in the early 90s. And I mean HUGE! There was an influx of British authors into American comics after the critical and commercial popularity of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing (to name just a couple) and Neil Gaiman was a part of this wave, along with other excellent writers like Jamie Delano and Grant Morrison and artists like Dave McKean, Dave Gibbons, and Brian Bolland.
Neil Gaiman is one of the most popular of these and a lot of that can be attributed to his work on Sandman. The series was a huge success for DC Comics and for Gaiman himself. The series was so successful that it is the main reason that DC created their own Vertigo imprint (also home to excellent series like Doom Patrol, Hellblazer, and Animal Man).
Sandman The Dream Hunters
June 1, 2000
And that brings us to… Sandman. It began as 75 individual issues , a few specials and other bits and pieces of comic work. These issues and other bits were collected into ten trade paperbacks (fancy comic term for a collection\story arc of issues they’ve placed in one nice volume), and, finally, five Absolute volumes (Absolute editions are oversized hardcovers that DC sets aside for their most popular\critically acclaimed series, including Sandman, Justice, All Star Superman, and many others).
But one of the strangest anomalies in the series is a book entitled Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Unlike the rest of the series, the story is told through prose with illustrations by the stellar Yoshitaka Amano. Amano is best known for his work creating character designs for the Final Fantasy video game series, and doing the illustrations for Vampire Hunter D, a highly popular series of Japanese novels.
The book is pretty straightforward in the story… a monk lives alone in a small temple on a mountainside. A badger and a fox take turns attempting to trick the monk into leaving his home so that the victor can make it their home. But things change when the fox falls in love with the monk.
But the prose! If you’ve never read any Neil Gaiman, you should be made aware of his stellar skills in using pastiche. Stardust is one of these, done in the style of early (Victorian-era) English fantasy. Sandman issue 9, Tales in the Sand is another, where Gaiman expertly apes the style of African folk-tales (which he also does quite well with the character of Anasi who shows up in both American Gods and Anansi Boys). This prose of this book is very stylistically reminiscent of Japanese folk tales and Gaiman pulls it off wonderfully.
One of the better things about the book is that it requires absolutely no knowledge for a new reader to enjoy the story. As in the fantastic comic series that the book takes its name from (Sandman, duh!), Morpheus himself doesn’t appear for a majority of the story. The focus is the love story between the monk and the fox and (like the Sandman’s A Game of You story-arc) the strength comes from the characterization, the story, and the imagination (and the art!). The story, like A Game of You, could just as easily be an imaginative fantasy tale that is made better by the addition of Gaiman’s most fantastic creation.
If I could put this review as simply as possible, however, it would be: come for the story, stay for the illustrations. Gaiman’s writing ability, as in a great majority of his comics work, is hinged on the strength of the artist. Gaiman has a knack for working his scripts toward the illustrator’s abilities and this is no different. This book has everything… great writing, beautiful illustrations, and Morpheus. How could you go wrong?