Steve Mollmann (steve_mollmann) wrote,
Steve Mollmann

Reading Roundup: The Absolute Sandman, Volumes Three and Four; The Absolute Death

After a bit of a summer pause, the Continuing Comics Project is back in action, with the last few Absolute Editions of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series:

The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three by Neil Gaiman
New York: DC, 2006 (1991-2000). Comic hardcover, 616 pages. Borrowed from the library (ILL).
Timeline Placement
: November 2001 (after Eclipso: The Darkness Within)

As I'd mentioned earlier, I was somewhat lukewarm towards the earlier volumes of The Absolute Sandman.  There was certainly an amazing mythology at work, but I found it hard to be interested in Dream as a character; often, I was more invested in the random people who got caught up in his adventures.  (Curiously, all of these substitute protagonists seem to usually be women.  I wonder if there's anything in that.)  But the substory Brief Lives, collected here, changed all that.  This story features Dream and his sister Delirium searching for their lost brother Destruction-- and in the process of that, Dream finally has to come to terms with his relationship with his son.  It's half a road-trip comedy, half a meditation on knowing when to move on, and half a very dark fairy tale.  It's definitely the funniest of the Sandman storylines... but it's also the most touching.  I enjoyed every aspect of this one a lot, from Delirium's inane attempts to try to drive a mortal car, to Dream and Destruction's conversation on reuniting, from the first appearance of Merv, the pumpkinheaded janitor of the Dreaming, to the moment where Dream finally goes and sees Orpheus.  Most of all, it's great to finally get a sense of Dream as a person.  (Inasmuch as an anthropomorphic personification of an abstract universal concept can be one, I suppose.)

What struck me as I was reading it is that The Sandman really is a literary comic book.  I mean, there have been plenty of literary graphic novels produced-- non-superhero fare that is done in one sitting.  But The Sandman unlike most "highbrow" sequential art pieces, is completely and utterly a comic book: an ongoing, indefinite story.  In total, the series comprises some 75 issues, and stories and characters and ideas weave in and out of these issues the same way they might in a Superman or Spider-Man ongoing.  Gaiman really utilizes the potential of the comic ongoing to its maximum here, and that is the reason I like The Sandman as much as I do.  It might have taken until Brief Lives for me to like The Sandman, but Brief Lives would never have worked without all the preceding issues to lead up to it.  Gaiman has utterly mastered one of my favorite aspects of the medium here, and I find that delightful.

A brief word about the other storyline collected in this volume, Worlds' End.  This is a collection of one-issue stories set in the world of The Sandman, but unlike many of the other ones, they're connected with a frame narrative.  They're also the weakest; most of these did nothing at all for me.  Strangely dull for Gaiman.
The Absolute Sandman, Volume Four by Neil Gaiman
New York: DC, 2008 (1993-6). Comic hardcover, 608 pages. Borrowed from the library (ILL).
Timeline Placement
: November 2002 (after The Starman Omnibus, Volume One)

With this volume, The Sandman storyline hurtles to its inevitable conclusion.  I had this spoiled for me ages ago, but it still totally works, and besides, Volume Three has a sequence that gives the game away anyway.  The story is slow to start, but it really comes together as it goes, and as we see people throughout the universe of the series react to what is about to happen to Dream-- or what Dream is about to do?  The final storyline makes a lot of sense of Dream's inactivity throughout the series (though I don't know that it excuses it as good storytelling), and I was happy to see Lyta Hall, wife of the 1980s Sandman, make a return.  As the series' longest storyline yet, The Kindly Ones really works: I was riveted as I read, wanting to know what was going to happen next even thought I knew.  There were lots of great little moments, especially the last stand of Merv Pumpkinhead during the assault on the Dreaming, and Cain's grief at what has happened to Abel.  Marc Hempel has a different pencilling style from most of the other artists on the series, which would have been fine-- except that it often made it difficult to recognize brief appearances by preestablished characters.  Though not quite as good as Brief Lives in Volume Three, The Kindly Ones provides an excellent finale to the series.

I need to say a few words about Matthew the Raven.  Though Merv makes me laugh the most, Matthew is my favorite of the characters to inhabit the Dreaming, a mortal man who died and was offered a chance to live on in dreams as Dream's raven.  He's your "average guy" amongst the far-fetched characters of the Dreaming, a little baffled but often able to cut through the crap.  He got some good material in Volume Three, and he shines here in Volume Four, providing a human anchor for the massive events unfolding.  The climax of the The Kindly Ones wouldn't be nearly as powerful without him, and he's what makes the last storyline in the book, The Wake, work as well as it does, as he struggles to come to terms with what happened.  A great supporting character.
The Absolute Death by Neil Gaiman
New York: DC, 2009 (1989-2003). Comic hardcover, 360 pages. Borrowed from the library (ILL).
Timeline Placement
: June 2001 (after Justice League Europe: The Extremist Vector)

This last Sandman Absolute Edition collects the adventures of Dream's sister, Death.  It leads off with two Death-centric issues from The Sandman, which was probably done to pad out the book, but I still appreciated the chance to reread "The Sound of Her Wings," which features Death's first appearance.  In retrospect, it stands out: Dream narrates part of it, which rarely (never?) happened again in the series, and it also seems to set up some of Dream's decisions in The Kindly Ones, a full fifty issues later.  But the primary point of this collection are the two Death-focused miniseries it collects.

The first of these is The High Cost of Living, which tells the story of a 24-hour period spent by Death as an ordinary, living person in modern New York.  Primarily told from the perspective of a layabout teenager, it's a nice story with a lot of fun moments and couple reappearances by Sandman stalwarts such as Mad Hettie and Hazel and Foxglove.  Death's adventures are alternately entertaining and horrifying, as you might imagine, and I enjoyed this one a lot. 

The second is The Time of Your Life, which isn't really about Death at all, though she appears; it's more about Hazel and Foxglove, and how they deal with having a child and the pressures of fame.  I liked getting to focus on these two because, for me, Death doesn't really work as a principal character-- even more so than Dream, she's all-powerful and all-knowing, and what's worse, she likes what she does, so what's at stake for her?  She works better as a side character in the stories of others.  Hazel and Foxglove go on a stranger journey in this tale, and learn a bit about themselves-- though unfortunately the story occasionally descends into the kind of cheesy aphorisms you might see inside of chocolate wrappers.  Also the ending is a convenient cop-out.

The art of both tales is ably provided by Chris Bachalo.  I especially liked his art in the second story, where Mark Buckingham's inks are clear and gorgeous.  The use of color in The Time of Your Life is really great, too.

After this, there's a few mini-stories about Death, all of which look pretty good, but maybe didn't do a whole lot for me.  The one about 9/11 also descends in cheesy aphorisms, I think.  The AIDS awareness story featuring Death was worth it for John Constantine holding a banana while Death put a condom on it.


I liked The Sandman enough to begin reading the spin-offs, but first I'm going to take a bit of a break and dive into Gotham Central, so stay tuned.
Tags: reading roundup
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