Revisiting The Sandman

Keyser Soze

Mar 9, 2002
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I picked up The Absolute Sandman, Volume 1 for my birthday a week ago, and have been posting up mini-reviews of each issue on my Facebook wall as I write them. I thought it would be good to create a thread here where I could also store these thoughts.

My plan is to now get all the Absolute editions, and reread my way through the whole series, adding my comments on each issue as I go. This could also be a good thread for others to share their thoughts on The Sandman, be it old fans looking back on the series retrospectively, or new fans discovering the comic and sharing their impressions.

The Sandman is going to be a hot comics talking point in 2013, with the new mini-series from Neil Gaiman and JH Williams III due to come out, so it'd be good to have a thread for all things Endless.
This double-length opening chapter is one of the issues of The Sandman that I'd already read several times before getting this Absolute edition, but it remains as good as when I first read it, if not better. In this age of decompression, it's refreshing to read a story so dense, packing 70 years' worth of incident into a single tale. This essentially plays like a standalone Tales From the Crypt type morality play about horrible people trifling with forces far beyond their understanding and paying a terrible price for it. If we never got another issue, this would have still been a complete, rewarding horror tale in its own right. But thankfully much more was to come!

If the first chapter of the series excels as a standalone tale, this part does a great job of establishing how this story can sustain an ongoing series, with the next several months' worth of story set up here as Dream is presented with three challenges he must face. It's also this issue where we really get to know Dream as a protagonist, since the first issue was essentially Alex Burgess' story. Here we are introduced to the world of the Dreaming, vividly brought to life by Sam Kieth. Mainly foreshadowing what is to come, but still a solid issue.

This chapter is noteworthy for the guest appearance by John Constantine. It's a story with its share of suitably skin-crawling moments, as the pair visit a house that's been taken over by dreams as its residents waste away. Sadly, it's let down a bit by Sam Kieth's art, so strong in the earlier chapters, but here a little rushed and half-hearted. Gaiman's writing makes up for it though. One of the weaker issues of The Sandman, possibly, but still a superior comic by most standards.

This early standout issue sees Dream travelling to Hell to reclaim his stolen helm. It's essentially revisiting the vision of Hell depicted by Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette in Swamp Thing, but Sam Kieth does a stellar job of making Hell a tangible place with its own nightmarish geography. And here, Neil Gaiman gives us his depiction of a bored, casually evil Lucifer that would quickly become definitive. A great chapter that sets the stage for the absolutely stunning "Season of Mists" arc down the line.

This is something of an odd curio in the Sandman canon, given that it features cameos from the likes of Martian Manhunter and makes reference to the Justice League International continuity of the time, A reminder that, though the series drifted away from the connection, The Sandman was a series very much set within the DCU. Here, we follow the journeys of both Dream and Dr. Destiny as they set out to retrieve the ruby, the last and most powerful of Dream's stolen totems. It is Destiny's journey that is more compelling here, as we see him first escape from Arkham (where we get a one-page Scarecrow cameo that remains one of my favourite uses of the character ever), then travel by car with a hostage as his driver. The issue's biggest strength is making us feel some sympathy for "John Dee" as he befriends this woman, only to hit us with a gut punch at the end as Dee reveals his true vileness. And so villainy we might otherwise have taken for granted becomes shocking. This is also the last issue by Sam Kieth, who departs the series on a high. This is mainly build-up for next issue, but an engaging read on its own too.
i have the first four absolutes and im waiting until I get the fifth to start reading it
Back in college, one of my roommates bought all of the Sandman trades (as well as Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: the Time of Your Life, I think they were called). So much great stuff. I need to read them all again some time, meaning I will need to buy them for myself. Really looking forward to the new stuff.
Back in college, one of my roommates bought all of the Sandman trades (as well as Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: the Time of Your Life, I think they were called). So much great stuff. I need to read them all again some time, meaning I will need to buy them for myself. Really looking forward to the new stuff.

You're in a similar situation to me. For the past several years I've read Sandman by borrowing volumes from my friend. I decided it was time I had copies of my own.
Another issue that I've already read several times, and perhaps the first bona fide masterpiece of the series. Neil Gaiman has a great skill for introducing characters and very quickly making them feel nuanced and real, and he employs that talent to devastating effect here. Within the confined setting of a 24-hour diner, we become emotionally invested in an ensemble of regular, relatable people, only for Dr. Dee to enter and systematically destroy their lives for his own amusement over the course of the day. Able to exert total control over them with the dream ruby, Dee goes to nastier and nastier places, and Gaiman pulls no punches with the steady turning of the screw. Mike Dringenberg performs well on art duties, offering a more grounded style that gives credence to the horror that Kieth's more stylised work may have lacked. This shocked me when I first read it, and remains a deeply upsetting comic.

This is a chapter that could be quite easy to overlook, sandwiched as it is between two classic issues. But there is much to like about this climax to the first major arc of The Sandman. The main story covers the final showdown between Dream and John Dee over the ruby, set against the backdrop of a world being driven mad by its nightmares coming to life that was only hinted at in the previous issue. But it's what happens after the conflict is resolved that stands out for me, here. We expect Dee to get a comeuppance, and superhero tropes tell us the villain is vanquished by dying or at least getting his ass kicked. Instead, Dream shows compassion for someone he sees is deeply mentally ill, returning him to Arkham as much for Dee's own well-being as the safety of the world at large. Mike Dringenberg's closing image of Dream's cloak reflecting an Arkham granted a reprieve from madness and a night of peaceful sleep is an unexpected, but rewarding finale for this particular story.

I may have called "24 Hours" the first masterpiece of the series, but this chapter ranks as one of the best single issues of The Sandman's entire run, and one of my favourite single issues of any comic ever. Here, we meet one of Gaiman's most popular creations, Death of the Endless, for the first time, as she meets up with her brother Dream to help him get his mojo back. Given the grim, fearsome personifications of Death found in most media, it can't be understated how revelatory Gaiman's depiction of Death as a warm, vibrant, reassuring presence is. We get a series of snapshots of various lives in their closing moments, as Death shows up to take them away to a location (never shown or specified) known simply as "The Sunless Lands." It's a poignant and strangely uplifting human interest story. The one moment that has always stayed with me since the first time I read it, and still gives me goosebumps every time at think about it, is the cot death scene. Death cradling the baby in her arms, the baby saying, " that all there was? Is that all I get?" And Death replying, "Yes, I'm afraid so," and taking the child's spirit away and leaving the body to be found by the devastated mother. So moving. My only complaint is the Absolute edition's recolouring, done wonderfully up until now, but which replaces Death's iconic white skin with normal flesh tone for some reason. Small niggle though. This classic comic remains as powerful and (ironically enough) life-affirming as when I first read it.

This was an issue I'd mostly forgotten, but rereading it I appreciated it as another gem in the series. We get the first example of an aside from the main, mostly-present-day tale of Dream and his exploits to travel to the distant past for a oneshot tale of a human encounter with the Endless, something which would become a recurring feature as the series went on. This is also a fine example of the large tapestry Gaiman was weaving where everything is connected and seemingly throwaway characters may return with greater prominence, as Nada - seen fleetingly in issue #4 - takes centre stage here. I enjoyed how the retelling of the doomed love story took on the aspects of myth, with talking animal kings, mountains on the sun and humans casually shapeshifting. But here I mainly want to make mention of artist Mike Dringenberg. It seems like he's mostly overlooked, with Sam Kieth remembered as "the early Sandman artist", but I think Dringenberg made an even greater imrpession than Kieth on The Sandman's world, and the prevalent art style that would be adapted by later artists. His work here is particularly lavish.

This chapter marks the beginning of the second phase of the series, not just in terms of the second major arc beginning, but in terms of the grander scope and the increased finesse in the storytelling. At this point we had already heard about The Endless and met both Dream and Death, but with the introduction of both Desire and Despair here, as well as the gallery each of the Endless holds in their domain, the concept of the Endless as a dysfunctional family becomes more fleshed out. In particular I love the realisation of Desire's domain, a further example of Gaiman's boundless, unorthodox creativity. Furthermore, this issue is packed with both callbacks to earlier chapters - we catch up with Unity Kincaid from issue #1 and the Hecateae from issue #2 reappear - and foreshadowing of stories away down the line: references are made both to Destruction's absence and the Kindly Ones, plot threads that wouldn't come to the fore for several years. It makes you wonder just how meticulously the whole Sandman saga was plotted out from the beginning. As a result of all this, this chapter feels like something of a fascinating lynchpin for the series.
This was a confusing issue for me, as I'd misremembered the house Rose moves into as the one later featured in "A Game of You", due to the presence of Barbie, as well as a drag queen and some reclusive spinsters. But while that place was an apartment tower in New York, here we're in a house in Florida. This is an issue of meticulous setup. Interestingly, while the first arc quite methodically took us through each of Dream's missions one by one, here Gaiman weaves a more ambitious tapestry, bringing each of the wayward dreams into a single larger story, some in more immediately obvious ways than others. In particular, The Corinthian is a horrifying presence, these early scenes of his crawling with foreboding, us only seeing things through his "eyes". On the art side of things, Dringenberg continues to deliver classy work, ably assisted by the inking of the late Malcolm Jones III, whose atmospheric contributions are not noted enough. The issue is also notable as the debut appearance of Matthew the Raven.

Chris Bachalo, who would later collaborate with Gaiman on Death: The High Cost of Living, fills in on art duties here for an issue centred on tying up the presence of a past iteration of The Sandman in the DCU into the fabric of this new Sandman mythos. What results is quite a sad, poignant tale about the ways people use dreams to try to escape from painful realities, both for Lyta Hall and her entrancing dream kingdom and for poor young Jed, subjected to horrific abuse by his foster parents and, in the nail biting cliffhanger finale, running away from that situation into the presence of a literal nightmare. For Jed, Rose, The Corinthian and Dream, all roads lead to the ominous Cereal Convention.

The Sandman starts its second year with a standalone tale about a man called Hob Gadling who, in the Middle Ages, decides that death is a mug's game and so he's not going to die. Dream comes to arrangement with Death, and then strikes a deal with Hob to meet him once every 100 years in that same tavern, to see if he wants to change his mind. From that point on, Hob never ages, and each scene skips forward 100 years, as we see the history of Britain through Hob's development, and get a but of insight into Dream as a character as well. This chapter isn't often mentioned amongst the classics, but it remains as one of my all-time favourite single issues of The Sandman. It boasts the finely-crafted, lyrical quality of Gaiman's storytelling at its best, and condenses it into a single self-contained fable. I've read this issue many times now, and always pick up something new. A highly rewarding comic.

In this dizzying high point of the "Doll's House" arc, Rose Walker and Gilbert stumble into the much-foreshadowed cereal convention, revealed as a convention for serial killers from across the globe. This is also where Rose's "A-story" finally interconnects with the Corinthian "B-story" that has been simmering along for a while, and where Dream catches up with both of them. The convention is suitably skin-crawling, perhaps drawing queues from a comic con with its panels and attendees feeling out over "big names". There are also Easter eggs I didn't notice first time round, such as references to The Bogeyman from Swamp Thing and The Family Man from Hellblazer. The killers themselves are portrayed as ultimately pathetic creatures, with only The Corinthian exuding the slick menace of a Hollywood serial killer. The issue is visually stunning, from the eerie cover from Dave McKean to the interiors of Mike Dringenberg, doing perhaps his best work in the series. And Gaiman's writing is stunning here, packing this issue with so much incident that I had misremembered it as several issues rather than one. Another classic chapter.

Revisiting the series, I couldn't really remember this chapter so well, as it was last issue's cereal convention showdown that had left an impression on me as the climax of the arc. But trust Gaiman to deal with the more conventional action relatively early on, and have the true climax take the form of the emotional pay-offs. Gaiman makes us keenly feel the heartbreak the Walker family are going through, before adding one final cruel twist at the end that plays on how we've come to like and relate to Rose. The realisation of the dreamworlds of the various characters is very evocative, Gaiman once more proving adept at the depiction of dream logic. I also love how we get a glimpse of Barbie's dreamworld - complete with an appearance from Martin Tenbones and a reference to the Cuckoo - which would go on to form the basis of the "Game of You" story arc about a year down the line. And once again Mike Dringenberg's art is an exercise in understated beauty, with the "dream vortex" double page spread a particular triumph. I may have overlooked this gem in the wake of "Collectors" on my initial reading, but it left a more lasting impression this time.
The "Doll's House" storyline comes to a stellar conclusion here. The issue cleverly makes us feel conflicted, in how it plays against our expectations of what a "hero must destroy the vortex before it destroys the world!" story entails. Here, the world-threatening vortex is Rose Walker, who we have become emotionally invested in, and we're rooting against the hero as a result. As a reader you're left genuinely in suspense about how Dream can possibly save the world without killing Rose, as every possible alternative is raised and falls by the wayside, making her demise more and more tragically inevitable. It's an emotionally engaging chapter, all the more so for the understated turmoil Dream seems to be going through about having to kill this innocent. This is a great issue for Dream in general, both in terms of Gaiman's characterisation and some of the wonderful visuals (look at that zoom-in into his eye) provided by Dringenberg. And after this main storyline is resolved, we wrap the arc by bringing it full circle, back to the seemingly non-sequitur appearance of Desire at the story's beginning for a reveal of just how wicked her intentions are. The Sandman's second major arc ends on a high.

In the wake of "The Doll's House", The Sandman took some downtime before launching into its next big arc with a series of standalone tales, which make up the "Dream Country" volume of the paperback graphic novel series. This first of these tales, about a struggling writer who is given a captured muse, and from imprisoning and raping her builds a hugely successful career, reminded me a bit of the grim moral parable of The Sandman #1. As was the case in that first chapter, this tells the tale of a mortal man keeping captive an immortal being whose powers he doesn't fully comprehend, and the price he pays for his hubris. The art of Kelley Jones also recalls the visuals of Sam Kieth in that first issue, with Jones having that same knack for drawing fascinatingly ugly people. I didn't like his depiction of Dream too much, however. "Calliope" doesn't quite match "Sleep of the Just", but it's a solid done-in-one that should prove particularly interesting reading for writers.

Probably my favourite of all the "Dream Country" one-shots, this is a story that at first glance might seem to be very much at a distance from the wider Sandman mythos, but in fact is one of the best representations of themes central to the series. This chapter tells the tale of a cat, heartbroken after her kittens are drowned by her owners, who then ventures into the Dreaming to seek out The Lord of Dreams - here taking the form of a giant black cat - to ask why cats must live under the thrall of cruel humans. The answer she receives is that because humans dreamed it to be so, and that the only solution is for cats to unite and dream of a world where they rule. It's a powerful message: that if enough of us dream hard enough, we can make our dreams reality. With this simple but enchanting story, poetically told, Gaiman shows himself as not just a master storyteller, but a craftsman of myth. Retreading this series, I'm surprised by how densely packed with classic comics this first Absolute Sandman is.

This chapter is famous for winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction when nominated against a shortlist of prose stories. It was the first comic to achieve such an accolade... and also the last, as the snooty elitist a who organised the awards were so outraged at Gaiman's tale being voted to victory that they subsequently banned any comic from being eligible in future. As an English Literature graduate who studied Shakespeare at Honours level, this chapter is a delight to read for me, packed as it is with the minutiae of Shakespeare's company in his lifetime. Much of this issue is simply reciting the play, but the lyrical, dream-like nature of Shakespeare's famed drama is thrown into sharper relief by the twist of having the actors perform it in front of an audience of faerie, the true counterparts of the play's characters. Gaiman cleverly plays with the boundaries of fiction here. This is already a play where the characters watch a play, but now we get a scene of a play, within a play, within a comic! This issue also features one of my favourite quotes from The Sandman, if not one of my favourite quotes from comics or anything else, verbalising a key theme that permeates through both this issue and Gaiman's saga as a whole: "This is magnificent... and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true."

The last issue in my read through of The Absolute Sandman Volume 1, and unfortunately we close with what I feel is one of the weaker chapters of the series. I've talked before about how skilfully Neil Gaiman has taken seemingly odd non-sequitur stories and woven them integrally into the frantic of the larger narrative, but this tale of a sad, reclusive Element Girl whose superhero days are long behind her never really manages to make that connection. It's a comic of two halves for me: the first part, with "Rainie" wallowing in her misery, fails to grip me as much now as it did on my initial read. But, ironically enough, once Death of the Endless shows up in the climactic portion of the story, the comic comes alive. Gaiman's Death is a character who can inject vibrancy into any story and make it better through her engaging presence, and she gets a fantastic monologue here. On the art side, Colleen Doran does well, but would turn in more refined work for "A Game of You" later in the series. Death's welcome return salvages what would otherwise have been an unremarkable comic, but this is still one of the lesser entries in the Sandman canon.
And so I begin The Absolute Sandman Volume 2. The "Season of Mists" storyline just blew me away when I initially read it, and it has loomed large as my favourite volume of the series ever since, so I'm intrigued to go back to it now and see if it's as incredible as I remember. The arc proper doesn't get started until next issue, but here we're treated to a family meeting of The Endless, including the first appearances of Destiny and Delirium. The Endless are fantastic creations, and so reading extended interactions between them like in this issue is always a delight. Perhaps the highlight of this chapter are the 3 pages of prose that introduce each of the present Endless in turn, demonstrating the ingenuity, nuance and boundless imagination that Gaiman put into bringing each of them to life. If there's a downside to this issue, it's that the art of the normally dependable Mike Dringenberg feels a bit sloppy and rushed in places.

"Once upon a time, there was a place that wasn't a place." This is our (re)introduction to Gaiman's Hell, and as opening lines go, that's one that's stuck with me long since my first reading. This is where the mesmerising "Season of Mists" saga begins in earnest, though this chapter is entirely composed of build-up. Dream is preparing himself for his journey to hell, where he seeks to rescue his long lost love, and face Lucifer for the first time since crossing him, Meanwhile, in Hell, Lucifer begins his own preparations for Dream's arrival. The amount of gravitas Gaiman sets up in this issue is astounding, as he really amps up the tension of this impending Dream/Lucifer confrontation by showing even Dream to be afraid and unsure of himself. But as well as looking forward, this is an issue where already we feel the dramatic weight of what has come before. From past issues, we revisit Hippolyta Hall and her son, Nada, Hob Gadling, and of course Lucifer and Hell. Kelley Jones is on art duties, and save for the odd awkward ugly face (particularly on Lucifer, supposed to be famous for his beauty but instead left looking like Leland Palmer), Jones does a commendable job, his characters looming large and mighty on the page. There's so much I adore about the "Season of Mists" storyline, which I'm sure I'll get to later, but even in its beginnings you get a sense of Gaiman elevating The Sandman once again to another level.

After all the build-up of the previous issue, here we finally get the confrontation between Dream and Lucifer, but it goes very differently than what we might have suspected. There is no massive battle, no hordes of hell waiting to attack Dream. Instead, he arrives to find a Hell whose inhabitants have all been sent away, and a Lucifer who has decided to close up shop and abandon his post, eventually handing Dream the keys to his empty kingdom. This engrossing issue is anchored around Gaiman's excellent realisation of Hell and Lucifer himself, crafting a credible theory of how Hell works and Lucifer's role in the world that allows for some fascinating original thought while not necessarily contradicting Biblical canon either. From here, Lucifer would relocate to Earth and star in his own spin-off comic book series, and Gaiman's characterisation of him in The Sandman was masterful enough to make that series an exciting prospect indeed. Dream's characterisation is more understated, but no less refined, and as this chapter ends our focus shifts back onto him, and the most unenviable conundrum he now faces. Fantastic stuff.

I remember when I first read this part of the "Season of Mists" storyline, I marvelled at the sheer scope and ambition behind it all. Here, Gaiman opens up the universe of The Sandman in a manner that suggests all religions and mythologies in history can seamlessly fit into it. This chapter revolves around angels, demons, personifications of the abstract ideas of order and chaos, gods from Egypt and Japan, and the Norse gods, all converging on the Dreaming to petition Morpheus to give them the key to Hell. Retreading this chapter now, I still have great admiration for Gaiman's craft, though now I see his Odin in the context of Wednesday in American Gods, making that aspect of the issue even more intriguing. One thing that doesn't hold up so well on my revisit is Kelley Jones' art. Mostly successful in the past couple of chapters, here Dream in particular suffers from a series of goofy facial expressions. But still, with how the stage is set here, reading on to find out what happens next is an irresistible prospect.

The Sandman begins its third year in much the same way it began its second, taking a brief sojourn from the ongoing storyline to give us an ostensibly standalone tale. This chapter only features brief cameo appearances from Dream and Death, focusing on the wider repercussions of Lucifer's abdication of Hell. Our main character here is Charles Rowland, the lone pupil staying at a formidable old boarding school over the holidays, who finds himself joined by the legions of miserable former students and teachers who died in the school in years past. With the shift more into fantasy territory in the recent issues, this story at points feels like a return to the skin-crawling horror of "24 Hours". However, we don't fully return to that territory, instead veering into a weirdly upbeat, optimistic ending.... well, as upbeat and optimistic as any ending involving the death of a child can be. I liked this issue when I first read it, but I think I like it even more now.
Check out the awesome Endless sketches I got done at Thought Bubble...

Death by Yanick Paquette, artist of Swamp Thing:


Desire by Pia Guerra, artist of Y: The Last Man:

It's interesting working my way through The Sandman at the same time as reading American Gods. The idea of gods from various pantheons gathering, and how they might react to one another, evidently fascinates Gaiman. The plot here is very methodical, as each of the gods, demons and other fantastical beings approach Dream in turn, stating their case for claiming Hell, and offering Dream something he may want in return for the key. But with how well-structured, tight and functional this issue is, it could be the little details I love most: the table staff at the party made up of dreaming humans in their pyjamas who are likely to wake up the next morning thinking they had the trippiest dream ever, the portrayal of Thor as a ridiculous blowhard with a tiny phallic hammer, or the incongruous image of the ever-solemn Dream wielding a child's balloon. This issue is also noteworthy as the debut appearance of Nuala, given to Dream as a gift from the faerie kingdom, who would go on to become a prominent member of the supporting cast.

The "Season of Mists" storyline builds to a satisfying climax, as the dilemma of who should inherit the key to Hell is resolved in a fashion that allows Gaiman to raise more thought-provoking questions about the relationship between Heaven and Hell. This mystery is actually resolved fairly early on in the issue, with the main dramatic thrust returning to Dream's original goal of rescuing Nada. Much of this arc has been devoted to Dream on the backfoot - afraid, doubting himself - so in his battle with Azazel it is rewarding to see him at last in control of the situation, and getting to be a badass. Kelley Jones' art in this issue is the best it's been in the run thus far, with the earlier problems much less evident and the strengths enhanced. A strong chapter all-round then, that wraps up the main plot, while leaving the big emotional layoffs for next issue's epilogue.

As was the case with the "Doll's House" arc, it seems like the ostensive plot driving the narrative of "Season of Mists" wrapped early, leaving the final chapter to tackle the more emotional, character-based resolutions. And so much of this issue is dedicated to the long-simmering story of Dream and his star-crossed love affair with Nada finally coming to it's conclusion, ending on a suitably poignant note. We also get a little scene with Loki that sets the stage for major repercussions waaaay down the line. Re-reading the series, it's quite impressive how much of it seems to be Dream laying out an inescapable trap for himself, piece by piece. Perhaps my favourite moment of the issue, however, is the little vignette where we revisit Lucifer, now enjoying his newfound freedom on Earth. Nothing substantial happens, but it's a delightful little bit of character business. On the art front, Mike Dringenberg returns to art duties, possibly for the last time, if memory serves me correctly. His art is tidier than in the prologue, though not as precise as his best work earlier in the run. Still, he made a huge contribution to The Sandman, so now is the time to give him major kudos for all his stellar work.

We reach an interesting juncture in my read-through of The Absolute Sandman, as I first read this chapter in the "Fables and Reflections" graphic novel, collecting a big mass of one-shots into a single chunky volume, but in the chronological context of the series as a whole, these tales were in fact originally spread out disparately throughout the run. What links many of these tales is that they take place in another time quite distinct from the present day narrative, as the case with "Thermidor", set during the French Revolution. This chapter picks up a thread left dangling in the "Men of Good Fortune" story from way back by reintroducing Johanna Constantine, who proves to be a compelling, resourceful protagonist who I'd be happy to read about in further adventures. The main link to the wider Sandman narrative is the first appearance of Orpheus, Dream's son, but on it's own merits this makes for a good read, largely through how Gaiman portrays the hypocrisy behind the Revolution through the depiction of the suitably vile St. Just and Robespierre. Stan Woch's crisp pencils give the chapter strong visuals, and the only real setback is that major pet peeve of mine: the "illegible handwriting as narrative captions" device. I should also note that I like the cover for this issue, a departure from the usual style.

It's funny, last issue I was going to remark how reminiscent of Bryan Talbot's work Stan Woch's art felt to me, and now here we have an issue drawn by Bryan Talbot. Of course, we know Talbot is a great artist in general, but he could be somewhat underrated as a great Sandman artist. He drew quite a few things over the course of the series, but it was largely more low-profile than the more widely-regarded artistic contributors. But I love his sense of detail, and his is one of my favourite depictions of Dream. As for Gaiman's story, about Emperor Augustus spending a day on the streets of Rome disguised as a beggar, it has no real relevance to the larger overarching plot of the series, connected to the mythos in only the most tangential of senses. But I nevertheless find this a quietly engaging read, dealing with weighty ideas of how man becomes myth, and the nature of divinity and destiny.
One of my favourites from amongst the standalone tales I originally read collected as "Fables and Reflections", this features appearances from most of the Endless, using one man's life to illustrate how each of these entities might come to interact with the mortal realm. The story begins with a ruined and penniless man called Joshua Norton in the clutches of Despair. She calls on Dream to make a wager with him, challenging him to draw Norton from despair using only the power of dreams. And so Dream implants a fantasy in Norton's head that he can be Emperor of America if he chooses. The dream proves strong enough to have him escape from Despair, and also resist the call of both Delirium and Desire. The Desire sequence is interesting, given how it foreshadows the Kindly Ones, though it seems to me that certain locales and characters (such as the King of Pain) were probably expanded upon in some side project I haven't yet encountered. But in spite of all the sparring between the Endless, the real strength of this story is the characterisation of Joshua, an actual historical figure I believe. There's something moving, uplifting and oddly inspiring about his comforting delusion, and the ending never fails to give me wee happy goosebumps. A terrific chapter.

After that cluster of oneshots, this marks the first chapter of "A Game of You", the next big storyline in The Sandman. It's an unusual one, as it largely revolves around a mostly new set of characters, with Dream himself largely relegated to the sidelines - in this first issue he only has a 2-page walk-on part. Amongst the central ensemble, the one strand connecting us to the existing Sandman universe is Barbie - a minor incidental character from "The Doll's House" - and her dream world, featuring an unseen enemy known only as the Cuckoo and her beloved protector Martin Tenbones. It's Tenbones' tragic journey from the land of dreams into the real world to find the wayward Barbie (who has seemingly lost her ability to dream and left her domain in ruin) that marks the key dramatic setpiece of the issue, with their brief reunion movingly rendered by artist Shawn McManus. The rest of the issue is dedicated to introducing the ensemble of residents in Barbie's tower block: Wanda, Thessaly, Hazel, Foxglove and George. And very quickly and efficiently, in depicting the mundane detail of their regular lives just before things are set to go crazy, Gaiman breathes life into these characters and makes them immediately feel like real people with history and personality. On my first reading, I started this arc itching to get back to the Endless, but by the time it was over I was taken aback by how much I had come to care for these characters so casually introduced to us here.

This is where "A Game of You" starts to get really good. Dream himself doesn't appear once in the issue, but dreams serve a crucial purpose in getting deeper into the psyches of each of our new ensemble. The main storyline with Barbie returning to her dream kingdom is probably the least interesting strand of this chapter, though it certainly picks up later. It's as the forces of the cuckoo attempt to corrupt the dreams of the other characters that things get really engaging. In particular, Hazel's dream sequence, with the dead baby, is one of the most genuinely horrifying scenes to be found anywhere in The Sandman, laced with credible dream logic by Gaiman, and brought to life with stomach-churning detail by Shawn McManus. I also love how Thessaly - seemingly the dullest, least well-realised character last issue - surprises us by emerging as an unexpected badass here. I enjoyed this arc first time round, but I'm admiring the craft of it even more on repeat reading.

Colleen Doran takes over from Shawn McManus in this chapter, and the immediately apparent difference is that everybody becomes more attractive. But even without McManus' trademark odd-looking characters, Colleen Doran gets to illustrate some weird happenings here, such as Thessaly frenching a faceless corpse, or the absent face in question being nailed to a wall and starting to talk, its eyes bulging and it's big tongue lolling about. I mentioned in my previous review that the character dynamics amidst the residents of the apartment block was more compelling at this stage than Barbie in her dream world, so it works well that in this issue we spend all of our time with the other residents, only seeing Barbie as a sleeping beauty in the waking realm. We get some more hints about who Thessaly is, with the implication that she is an immortal who has walked the Earth for hundreds of years, at least, as well of clear indications of formidable magical power. Wanda is probably the star of the show here, though, our access character freaking out at the increasingly bizarre and horrific goings-on. She also gets the best line of the chapter when Hazel, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, belatedly discovers Wanda is transgendered. "You've got a thingie," Hazel observes, to which Wanda replies with, "Hazel, didn't anyone ever tell you that it's not polite to draw attention to a lady's shortcomings?"

A switch in perspective now, as we go from an issue focusing entirely on Barbie's housemates in the real world to one that's almost focused on Barbie's journey through the dreamworld. This sequence subverts her expectations of such a fantasy tale, beginning in the conventional mould we've likely seen before - princess and her cute animal friends go on an epic quest through dangerous lands to get their Macguffin to the predestined place and save the day - only to take a surprisingly dark, bleak turn as we near the chapter's conclusion. In this tale, the cute animal friends either die horribly or turn out to be traitors. Particularly upsetting is the demise of Wilkinson, the grumpy talking rat who Gaiman quite cruelly spends the issue making us very fond of with his humorous anecdotes about his family history. If there's a downside to this plot, it's that Barbie herself remains a less relatable character than Rose Walker or even the other housemates like Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove, due to the narrative requiring that she be a somewhat emotionally disengaged presence at this point in the story. There are brief scenes that take place elsewhere, with one nice moment in the Dreaming giving us an early beat in the Nuala/Dream relationship that will turn out to be important later on. I had seemed to remember Colleen Doran drawing more of this arc, but Shawn McManus is back for this issue, and continues to deliver strong work.
"A Game of You" reaches a climactic point here, as Barbie finally confronts the Cuckoo... and it's herself! Or a version of herself, at least: the exact nature of what the Cuckoo is isn't made clear, but for a cheerful little pigtailed girl the character has a surprising amount of menace. I've mentioned that I've found this story of Barbie and the Land of her dream to be the least compelling thread of "A Game of You", but it's with this twist that it truly comes into its own, particularly with the thread of her friends' quest to rescue her finally joining up with this main narrative. I love the characterisation of Hazel and Foxglove, and their relationship. These characters would be explored in more depth in the Death miniseries', but already their relationship is one we want to see work out. This issue is one where all the disparate threads come together. Dream finally becomes an active presence rather than hovering in the fringes, and Wanda - seemingly relegated safely to the sidelines - sees her role take on shocking significance in the cliffhanger conclusion. The art is a bit of a mash-up, with Stan Woch and Bryan Talbot popping in to assist Sean McManus, but together they craft some memorable images, and a strong rendition of Dream. I enjoyed this arc on first reading, but revisiting it I find it even richer, its degree of separation from the larger overarching narrative make it feel rewarding as a standalone tale. I look forward to reassessing the arc as a whole after next chapter's finale.

A bit of an unusual lurch in the pacing here, as the bulk of this concluding chapter of "A Game of You" takes place after a substantial time leap forward from the previous issue's cliffhanger ending. While that left Wanda's fate hanging in the balance, we don't get to see any life-or-death drama here, instead picking up with Wanda long dead, and her funeral underway. It's a death that is, if anything, more upsetting in the abstract, as we are robbed of any cathartic, heroic farewell for the likeable character, any chance to properly say goodbye. In this sense, we are cast into the same disoriented sense of grief as Barbie, more relatable here than she has been at any point in the story. Worse still for Wanda, in death she is given terrible treatment, returned to her American heartland hometown, where the locals and her family all hate and judge her, where her hair is cut and she is out in a suit for her viewing, where she has her birth name of Alvin forced back upon her. It's a pretty cruel fate for a good character who didn't deserve it, and made me angry as a reader. But I think that's kinda the point. I'm becoming a broken record saying this, but with the major dramatic happenings largely wrapped up in the penultimate issue, this last chapter was left to deal with the emotional fallout, in this case resulting in the best chapter of the storyline. Going into this re-read, my recollection of "A Game of You" was that it was the arc in between my two big favourites, "Season of Mists" and "Brief Lives". But revisiting it now, I might just like it even more than "Season of Mists". It will probably take another repeat reading somewhere down the lone to decide for sure, though!

After "A Game of You", the series ran another few one-shot stories under the banner of "Convergence", also collected in the Fables and Reflections graphic novel. When I read that book, "The Hunt" wasn't really a standout for me, but I enjoyed it more coming back to it now. We cut back and forth from an Eastern European grandfather telling his granddaughter a tale of "the old country", and the tale itself, which proves to be an effective framing device as the bickering family members' commentary on the story amusingly undercuts certain moments. The "old country" story of a poor forest boy and his quest to find the daughter of a duke after seeing her picture starts somewhat based in reality, but takes increasingly fantastical turns until we reach a point where characters casually turn into wolves. It brings to mind a great line from the chapter: "You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story." Duncan Eagleson's art is unremarkable but competent, and Gaiman's storytelling plays like a dark fairy tale. A solid issue.

The last chapter included in the second volume of The Absolute Sandman, and for the second time in a row, it feels like we're ending on a weaker chapter. Of course, when talking about The Sandman "weaker" is a relative term, and this is still rich with enough nuance and detail to make it a worthwhile read. But this one-and-done tale of Marco Polo getting lost in the desert and encountering some characters from the Sandman mythos feels a bit too detached and ponderous for my taste. The sketchy, sparse artwork of John Watkiss only serves to enhance this distancing effect. There's some intriguing questions raised about the nature of dreaming and just whose dream this is, and the concept of "soft places" in the world where time and space get fuzzy is a good one - and I like how Marco Polo is tied into it, with his mapping and charting of the world making it more tangible and therefore less magical. But I feel the "soft places" conceit was revisited more evocatively towards the end of the series.

Chapters like this are what make rereading The Sandman such a rich experience. I remember when I first read "The Parliament of Rooks" I was unaware of its larger narrative significance: I had forgotten enough of the events of earlier volumes to not remember Hippolyta Hall, and was unaware of the pivotal roles these characters would take later in the series, and so thought this was just a random baby called Daniel. Reading it now it becomes clearer this is a more important chapter in the overall Sandman saga than I first believed it to be. But even removed from a wider context, this is a charming tale that I enjoyed immensely. Baby Daniel takes a trip into the Dreaming, where he spends time being babysat by some of the odd denizens of the realm, including Cain, Abel, Eve and Matthew the Raven. There's some delightful exploration of dream logic here, and a return to that recurring Gaiman motif of reality being different for different people, and one version being no less true than the other: it's true for whoever believes it to be. It's also funny how Dream himself never appears, but is referenced as being off romancing some off-panel lover. I recall when I first read about Dream huffing over a bad break-up a bit later in the series, I worried I'd forgotten about some key relationship depicted earlier, but as far as I can tell this romance is in fact never seen, only referenced by other characters. Jill Thompson is on art duties here, but while she would go on to become perhaps the greatest of all Sandman artists, here her style is still being refined, though of course there's still plenty to enjoy visually. I enjoyed this story about stories and storytelling back when I first read it, but appreciated it even more on returning to it.
My first experience with this world and character. I thought it was great overall. I'm planing on saving up to get the rest of the series in trade, so I can't wait. Oh and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing
I really enjoyed it so far, as well. Since I read the previous stories in trade form, it's going to be weird waiting two months between issues. I may need to reread the #1 before #2 comes out, #1-2 before #3 comes out, etc.
Sandman is still one of my favorite series. It made Neil Gaiman one of my favorite authors.

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Arnold Rimmer