Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source:

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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There’s A Downstairs In Everybody – Making Sense of The World With Sandman

I wasn’t sure I was going to come back this time.

My brain’s always so fried this time of year, but I had a whole slew of posts lined up and ready to go (well, in my head at least) and was all ready to have a productive, if predictable  December.  Blogging about comics (maybe finishing A Naked Singularity) and just kinda coasting through the rest of the year.

And then on December 11th, there was a shooting at the mall I work at.

I came out of the back room around 2:20.  Maybe twenty seconds later, I heard what sounded like a series of electrical shorts.  Maybe a clumsy electrician dropping a pack of light bulbs.  Somewhere between eight and ten pops, echoing from down the way.

Just seconds after that, I heard screaming and people were running.  A couple of employees and I herded some customers into the receiving area.

I then received a call on my store phone telling me to go close the gates to the mall.  I’m somewhat ashamed that someone had to tell me, but I’m also sane enough to realize that I was in a bit of a panic at that point.

Gates closed, we made sure the store was clear and retreated to the break room for just under two hours while we waited for the police to clear the mall itself.

Two people were killed that day.  In the three weeks since the shooting, I haven’t been over to where it happened in the food court.  In fact, I’ve only been out into the mall just once.  Having sat waiting for the mall gates to close, I feel as if I’ve spent enough time in those areas for a bit.

I pretty much dropped most of what I was doing with my life at that point.  I stopped reading the couple of novels I was reading, I stopped work on crafting a Christmas gift for my wife, and I generally found myself to be more tired and irritable.  Especially when customers were back in the store and complaining about the long lines, or long waits for returns.

But, thanks to an excellent team of co-workers, I’ve successfully navigated another holiday season.  At this point, I’m hoping it’ll be my last retail holiday season, but… I’m not making any decisions at the moment.

In the interim, my reading has been two things: Matt Fraction’s fantastic Invincible Iron Man comic (seriously, I love this!) and another revisit to the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Why Sandman?  Well, in addition to it being the first long-form, on-going comic series that I loved… I always turn to it for good quotes.  Usually, I’ll find something in it (or in one of the two Death miniseries) that will help me with whatever I’m struggling with.  That and I can count on finding something new that I missed before.  A panel of art, a word or phrase… sometimes bits of foreshadowing, or callbacks that I didn’t recognize the last time I read it.

But there’s always something.

So I decided… I’m going to read Sandman again… but this time, in whatever order I come to it.  So I pulled the second volume of Absolute Sandman off the shelf and read the “Game of You” arc first.  I’ve loved this arc the most since I first read the series.  In fact, just before the following picture was taken, I thanked Neil for writing it and told him it was my favorite arc in the entirety of Sandman.



So Sandman it is.  I’ve learned that there’s a TON of people at my work who love Gaiman himself and Sandman more specifically.  I’ve learned that the Absolute copies of the series are just as heavy as I remember them… and just as great.  I still love the recoloring!  I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn about just about anything…

I’ve also learned that there are going to be triggers for me.  Putting up, or down, the mall gates.  Seeing groups of ambulances congregated in the same places.  Hearing fireworks outside of the house…

I may have learned more.  Right now I’m content with the feeling that things are getting better in my head.  I feel more well aligned than I have in more than a month.  I feel more positive about my life, my body, and my soul.  Most of all…I feel ready to take a short stroll around the mall…

Thanks Neil!  For Sandman, American Gods… pretty much everything.  Thank you for helping me in getting my mind refocused and back to as normal as I can.

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10 Books I Wish I Could Read For The First Time… Again!

Inspired by an older post on one of my favorite blog reviewers (seriously, Greg Zimmerman over at The New Dork Review Of Books does fantastic work! And he has great literary taste too!), I’ve decided to do a pair of lazy posts in a row.


I expect to be back in 3-5 days with a new post about… something a little more thoughtful than a Top Whatever list. But I make no promises.

So… Inspired by this post, I’m going to briefly discuss the top books I wish I could re-read again… for the first time.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children is one of my favorite novels… and I’m fairly certain I’ll never read it again.  I had to read it for a multicultural lit class in college and loved it… But I think I only loved it because the class went over every nuance in the novel, every metaphor… just exhaustive.

And every time I’ve tried to re-read it… I’ve failed.  Maybe next year?

9. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Much like The NDRoB, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy reading this book whenever I try to revisit it.  After being frightened to the point of quitting several times through college, when I finally finished House of Leaves… I felt accomplished.

It was scary, mind-bending, and almost indescribable.  And I highly recommend it for everyone.  Just be warned that you may not want to reread it.

8. Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I distinctly remember this novel being one of the ones that convinced me that I had made the right choice in being an English Lit major.  Despite the Oprah Book Club designation… this book excited me.

I was laid out, sick as a dog at a girlfriend’s house and I didn’t feel like doing anything but finishing up this novel, even though the class I was in had only been assigned the first six chapters.  I finished it in a single sitting and took another drive at finishing it.

7. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I made the almost unforgivable mistake of watching the movie first.  It wasn’t an intentional decision, but it happened.  I’m not proud of it, but there you are.  For awhile, I preferred the film, until I really dug in and got more of the subtext of the novel.

The infection is so bad that any time I read anything by HST, I usually end up with Johnny Depp’s voice in my head instead.

6. Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Simply put, I was too young when I read this.  I was 20, thought I knew everything, and didn’t fully appreciate the novel for its humor, or its brilliance.

The strong, short sentences.  The heartbreaking story.  The man, the myth… Chinaski.

Boy I sound like a tool…

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This was one of the first comics I read when I was trying to get more into the medium, and I was completely blown away.  I’ve read it nearly half a dozen times in just a few years, but I always get more out of it.  I especially love rereading the fourth issue, when Doctor Manhattan contemplates his past, present, and future from Mars.

Just the same, the shocking reveal of the unlikely villain, the moment you find out who Rorschach really is… the giant squid… all of that.  I’d love to experience all over again, especially with my now greater appreciation for comic books.

4. Catch-22 by Joseph Hellar

If you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I love Catch-22, that Hellar’s novel is one of my favorites.  And that is true.  Mostly.

But I’ve also never successfully re-read the novel since I first read it about a decade ago.  For some reason, every time I sit down to try to read it again, I just can’t do it.  And I don’t know why.  Maybe the timeline confuses, maybe I don’t like the characters as much as I used to, maybe I just plain don’t enjoy the novel any more… but I’d love to read it fresh and unspoiled again, to try to recapture that magic.

3. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists

There’s little I can say about this except that it was hard to choose between Sandman and Neverwhere.  I (obviously) love Neil Gaiman’s work, but I don’t think I fully appreciated Sandman when I first read it.  I sort of liked the first volume (and loved loved LOVED “The Sound of Her Wings”), but I found it difficult to keep up with the interlacing stories.

I know, I know.  I think I made it harder than it was because it was a comic book.

Just the same, I’d love to experience the story all over again.  One of the finest fantasy tales in literature, graphic or otherwise.

2. The Instructions by Adam Levin

This behemoth of a novel was a serious project.  I got a copy from the library and had three weeks to finish it.  No renewals because the queue behind me was rather long. So I told myself: no video games, no TV, no dicking around with my phone, nothing.

And I did it.  I rocked it out in two solid weeks of reading and loved pretty much every moment.  A re-read would be great (maybe some day…), but to be reintroduced to all the characters… and to get a chance to experience the climactic and violent final third of the book for the first time… that would be simply divine.

1. Ask The Dust by John Fante

This is the book, for me.  Seriously, the book.  If I could read one, and only one, book for the rest of my life, it would be Ask The Dust.  After picking it up as a completely random recommendation from someone I met in an AOL chat room late one night in college, I fell in love with John Fante’s sparse, beautiful prose.

I wanted to live in that Los Angeles, with smoky hotel rooms, drunken-yet-lovable neighbors, wild Mexican women.  I wanted to be a starving artist with a threadbare suit, a typewriter, and a dream.

Most of all, I wanted to write like John Fante.  I wanted to infuse settings with character and depth, like he did for Los Angeles.  I still haven’t reached any level of success toward this goal in my fiction writing, but whenever I need inspiration, I just flip to a random page and read.  My breath still catches, my eyes well up, and I’m captured again.

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Top 5 Summer Reads – Massive Slacker Edition

So I haven’t been quite as busy with posting as I hoped I would be during the summer.  Super-sorry.  And because I’m so far behind, I’m going to give you guys a post that you don’t deserve…

Here’s a (sorta) quick Top 5 list of my favorite books that I’ve read (or re-read) so far this summer:

5. The Sandman: King of Dreams by Alisa Kwitney

King of Dreams is one of many books written about Neil Gaiman’s fantastic series Sandman.  Authored by Alisa Kwitney, the book is one of the few volumes on the series that should be required reading alongside the ten trades (or four Absolute volumes, if you’re crazy like me).

While some of the illustrations aren’t new, there are bits of ephemera from various artists (including a really nice collection of early drawings from the pre-Sandman days).  Pick up the Sandman collection, Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, and this volume and begin waiting for Gaiman’s upcoming Sandman prequel illustrated by JH Williams.  2013 can’t come fast enough.

4. The Waste Land and Other Poems by TS Eliot

The Waste Land and Other Poems has been my favorite collection of poetry since I accidentally stumbled upon TS Eliot as an angst-ridden sixteen year old.  The Wasteland and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock are two of the finest examples of the genre, and the way Eliot plays with literary allusion in conjunction to his maddeningly complex and layered style will forever be burned into my brain.

And, likely, Prufrock will haunt me to my grave…

3. Saga by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples

What can I say about BKV?  His comics work stands far above that of most mere mortals, and his new series, Saga is no different.  Saga tells the story of two aliens who fall in love… and unfortunately are on differing sides of an intergalactic war.  

Romeo and Juliet is the first comparison, but Vaughan has already brought in bounty hunters, bizarre aliens, and some truly hair-raising scenes that are drawn beautifully by Fiona Staples.

They’re just about ready to release issue 5 (WEDNESDAY!!!), so there’s still time to jump in on this one early!  Y The Last Man and Ex Machina were both fantastic, creative, and high-minded literary comics that are becoming increasingly rare… Check out Saga now before you regret it!

2.5 Dial H by China Mieville and Mateus Santoluoco

OK this is a cheat… but I forgot about this comic until I started writing about Saga.

Dial H is a reboot of an old DC property titled Dial H For Hero.  And that’s the extent of what I know about the original series.  The reboot is part of the New 52 from DC Comics… I could go on about that, but I’ll leave it alone, mainly because Dial H is so damn fantastic.

Our hero is Nelson Jent, an overweight slacker who one day finds himself turned into an oddity named Boy Chimney after attempting to make a phone call from an old pay phone.

Each issue thus far (we’ve reached #4) has been exciting, funny, and well illustrated… not to mention that you actually get a story instead of the crap DC has been mostly shoveling into their other New 52 titles.

Plus, Brian Bolland does the covers.  What’s not to love?

2. A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

This was going to by my number one… but it was outvoted by my mind.  We’ll get to that later, though.

Eggers is a true master as storytelling and crafting relatable characters, and Hologram is no different.  Alan is a salesman.  Or was, before all the economic bullshit the world had been thrown into.

Now, Alan is sitting in a hotel in Saudi Arabia, hoping to impress King Abdullah with hologram technology so that when the King’s city is built, all tech will be provided by the company Alan represents.

Alan is an everyman, and a bit of a post-modern Willy Loman.  Divorced, broke, and on the verge of giving up, Alan is on his last chance.  As he adjusts to the customs of a new culture, he also has to deal with family issues, the death of friends, and a general feeling of obsolescence.

The book also pretty much has the best designed cover of just about anything in my collection… so you should definitely buy it just for the gorgeous graphic design work on the cover.

1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

If you ever need to convince a friend that teen books have value beyond the section they’re shelved in (I’m looking your way, Jonathan Franzen), don’t hand them Hunger Games (I’m begging you!), give them a John Green novel!
I’m not even going to justify this statement with a plot.  Just know that The Fault In Our Stars is not only the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months… it is one of the best books that I’ve read in the last decade.
A bittersweet tale, Green impresses, not only with the way he subverts our expectations as readers, but also with his incredibly subtle literary references and not-so-subtle pop-culture references.  He weaves them together so well with the story he tells that you’ll be stunned.
And also crying.
Not that I did.
 I’ll be back in a few days with a more in-depth discussion of A Hologram For The King and The Fault In Our Stars! I also hope to dig into a few more books in the coming days to talk about!

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Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 2 – The Annotated Sandman Volume 1

So this post is going to be a bit different. I could write for hours… for DAYS about how spectacular Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman is. In fact, I probably will at some point. Maybe this month, even.

But that isn’t what this post is about. Mostly… I want to discuss the necessity of The Annotated Sandman. Why annotate a comic book, one might ask? And certainly, this is a good question.

If you’re reading some Superman back issues, chances are you’re probably not all that interested in which issue a certain character is referring to (and even if you aren’t, don’t worry… if you’re reading The Death and\or Return of Superman, the editor will step in and tell you… repeatedly). Or, if you’re reading an Iron Man comic, you won’t need to have every panel, every speech balloon, ever WORD analyzed over and over again.

But in Sandman… you very well could. And fortunately, Leslie Klinger has done so. Thanks to help from Neil Himself, all seventy-some-odd issues of The Sandman are presented (unfortunately in black-and-white, to reduce costs) with accompanying annotations.

So the question… Why the fuck would you annotate comic books? More specifically, why would someone of Leslie Klinger’s caliber (star annotator of both Dracula and just about everything Sherlock Holmes related) annotate a comic book?

Well… mainly because it requires it.

I’m not going to be one of those Modernist assholes who just comes out and says that unless you’re understanding every single reference an author makes, you aren’t enjoying it.  I can’t.  I’m not T.S. Eliot.  Nor am meant to be.

And yet… The Sandman is heavily allusive in so many places.  And not just to other works of literature (though there are certainly references in spades to classic mythology, The Bible, and a host of other older and newer texts).  A large number of references come from DC Comics’ own history, both recent (Hellblazer’s John Constantine) and less so (the title of Sandman has been claimed by two other characters in DC’s history, one in 1939, the other in 1974 and both make brief appearances in the series).  The allusiveness in Gaiman’s writing necessitates this series of volumes, not only for the enjoyment of book nerds such as myself, but also for scholars who are already beginning to study The Sandman in classroom settings.

One of the best “in” references in the series occurs in volume 2 The Doll’s House, where current protagonist Rose ends up at a serial killer convention.  Of all the serial killers mentioned in issue 14, only two are worthy of nerdgasm.  The first is The Family Man, who is supposed to be the “Guest of Honor” but has not arrived.  Savvy readers of Hellblazer will know The Family Man won’t be there because he was already killed by John Constantine.

Similarly, when one of the convention guests refers to himself as The Bogeyman, the comic reader who enjoyed Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run know that the real Bogeyman drowned in Louisiana more than five years previous to this story.  Gaiman’s ability to make these connections in his script are fantastic… but would be missed by many readers who may have not branched out into the rest of the DC\Vertigo family of titles.  Fortunately for us, Klinger is aware of these connections and draws our attention to them.

Klinger, working closely with Gaiman from Gaiman’s own scripts, has put together a truly remarkable collection of information about both the Sandman series as a whole (check out the extensive annotations to the award-winning issue 20, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Worth the price of admission alone, those), but also to Gaiman’s connections to the greater DC Universe, history, mythology… just everything.  Many notations are extensively cross-referenced as well (e.g.: a note will point to 2.5.1, meaning issue 2, page 5, panel 1) and show the amount of time and effort that both Klinger and Gaiman have put in to try to make this collection as extensive and detailed as possible.

So the most important question… is it worth it to drop $50 (or whatever the lowest online price is currently) on this new version of the classic series.  From my perspective (the perspective of someone who owns the complete set of the Absolute Sandman books) yes.  But not if it will be your first collection of Sandman books.

For one thing, the art is presented in black-and-white.  While this is fine for the purposes of the book, it would be an incredible disservice to the series as a whole to not get the full experience of the color and detail present in the newly recovered trades, or the Absolute editions.

That said… if you’re a huge fan of the series, have a large collection of the books in color, and have spent hours pouring over single panels of the issues… this could be a good investment.  Considering very few of Gaiman’s full scripts have made it into the public eye, this is about as close as most of us will get to the information contained within.

The books are solid, well produced, and a great scholarly resource… not to mention just damned interesting.  Did Neil Gaiman just pull a date out of his ass for a particular scene and\or panel?  Not bloody likely.  Klinger will tell you the historical reference behind that date.  If you have an interest in the series, particularly in the mythological connotations behind it, the Annotated Sandman is an excellent edition to your collection.

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 1 – Sandman The Dream Hunters

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
Neil Gaiman
128 Pages
Vertigo Comics
 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?