Last month it was Kmont with the horror novel Summer of Night. This month, we decided to Dare Kate from What Kate’s Reading. Kate’s kryptonite? We Dared her to read and review a graphic novel (her first ever graphic novel read!). Since Kate told us she was a Neil Gaiman fan (and in light of our recent Gaiman Week), we decided to give her a gooder, and Dared her to read…
Title: The Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Graphic Novel
Summary: (from NeilGaiman.com)
A wizard attempting to capture Death to bargain for eternal life traps her younger brother Dream instead. Fearful for his safety, the wizard kept him imprisoned in a glass bottle for decades. After his escape, Dream, also known as Morpheus, goes on a quest for his lost objects of power. On the way, Morpheus encounters Lucifer and demons from Hell, the Justice League, and John Constantine, the Hellblazer. This book also includes the story “The Sound of Her Wings” which introduces us to the pragmatic and perky goth girl, Death.
Why did we RECOMMEND this book: Isn’t it obvious by now? We love Neil Gaiman. The Sandman series is not only an exceptional work of comic art, but a literary masterpiece. In our humble opinion, of course. Since Kate read and enjoyed other Gaiman works, we decided that this would be a fitting graphic novel for her to try on her Dare!
And so, without any further ado, we present you with this month’s Guest Dare, and turn the stage over to KATE!
By my body clock it’s four in the morning, and I’m at the Houston International Airport on a layover. I am not naturally a Texas sort of gal. The whole state is too big, it boggles my mind, and I’m just not comfortable here. The air is unnaturally thick, and I just ducked into the bathroom to put on makeup while wishing I had a cute sundress and perhaps some platform sandals to change into so that I might look slightly less alien in this foreign place. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest long enough to gain the belief that everyone at all times should be within spitting distance of two decent coffee shops, and that every wall should have a field of electrical outlets so that everyone can plug in their MacBooks. As it is I’m sitting at gate B84 by the only available outlet with McDonald’s coffee, merrily tapping on my laptop, a stranger in a strange land. This, I feel, is very appropriate for my review of a graphic novel.
In my entire life I’ve only owned one graphic novel: the Death of Superman. It was the summer of 1993, I was in Chicago, and though I’d never read a comic book I was aware that Superman was dead. Feeling that this was monumental occasion enough to warrant buying a comic book for the first time, I did so. Not ten minutes later I was in a very lovely and posh bookstore on Michigan Avenue, digging through their John Bellairs selection, when a very familiar face and tanned pair of tall legs slid past me.
Tom Selleck? I thought, dumbfounded.
The lady at the till confirmed my suspicion: Mr. Selleck bought books for his kids at that particular bookstore whenever he was in town. She assured me that he was a very nice man and wouldn’t mind if I asked for his autograph. So I did. I don’t remember much of the encounter except that he was in fact very nice even though he was clearly in a rush, and he wore khaki shorts and docksider shoes – very Magnum, P.I. And he also seemed to think it was odd that I wanted him to sign my copy of the Death of Superman, but he did so anyway. It was the only paper product I had. Thus I came into possession of quite likely the world’s only copy of the Death of Superman autographed by Tom Selleck: “To Katie, Aloha, Tom Selleck.” A good friend who was a collector later told me that I’d probably devaluated my graphic novel, but I didn’t care.
So that, in sum total, is my previous experience with a comic book. I never even read it.
When Thea and Ana asked me to review a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, I was pleased with their selection. I enjoyed American Gods, and Good Omens is one of my top-ten books. I’d heard magnificent things about Gaiman’s graphic work, and was interested in delving into The Sandman, eager to see the genius everyone else raves about.
The Sandman series is presented in eleven bound issues, and my responsibility was only the first, “Preludes and Nocturnes.” An occultist group, in an effort to trap Death, mistakenly takes prisoner Death’s brother, the Sandman, also called Dream, Prince Morpheus and many other names. Generations later when the Sandman finally escapes, he is without his three tools he needs to wield power: a pouch, a helm, and a ruby. He sets out to find his instruments, enlisting the assistance of John Constantine, battling the demons of hell, and besting the horrid Doctor Destiny. His power reinvigorated, he falls into a slump until he meets his sister, Death, who gives him a kick in the ass pep talk to get him out of his funk. Thus the preludes end, a satisfying and short introduction to what will become an increasingly complex and intricate story.
The feel of “Preludes and Nocturnes” is definitely that of a prelude, and it’s obvious that many of the smaller characters that seemed to have no pertinence to the plot will pop up later, like Cain and Abel or the Hecateae. As interesting and even amusing as some of these smaller characters are, placing them in the beginning of the book was a little confusing to the casual reader such as myself; many smaller scenes don’t seem to have much to do with the individual book but no doubt have pertinence to the whole, which works when a body intends to read the whole cycle but may be off-putting to the beginning reader. Overall, however, the arc of these particular stories feels like the Odyssey, with Dream traveling and fighting to regain his power – his own homecoming of sorts – and though the graphic novel is only one part of a much larger whole, Preludes and Nocturnes does have an epic feel to it, a journey worthy of Homer with just as dark a bent.
The most malicious and appalling chapter of the book is “24 Hours,” in which the demented Doctor Destiny not only corrupts the world through his control and their dreams, but also torments a coffee shop of regulars into blood, sex, gore, and violence. The development of this particular part is masterful; Gaiman introduces us to each person, their hopes, dreams, and lives in just a few short sentences, but as the hours pass and their characters disintegrate we’re left horrified at their actions and confessions. It was a scene the likes of which I’ve never read and it left me aghast, yet it stands out as an amazingly powerful story, a strong piece of work, and indicative of not only the horror that graphic novels can portray but also the power of that horror in graphic form.
I was most interested to view the art of the novel, as that’s one-half of the whole and an area that I know very little about. To my great surprise, there were only a few images that really took my breath away. One of the most dramatic and (in my opinion) more artistic representations in this series comes just before Dream descends into Hell to battle for his helm. The wide, impressive panoramic view holds a tiny Dream, his midnight blue cloak falling over a dock into the stars, into the nothingness of the heavens, with infinity obvious and Dream only a small, almost human, lurking and lonely part of it. A slightly closer image just before Dream steps off the end of the pier into hell is slightly less impressive, but the shift in perspective is amazingly effective in closing in the viewer’s infinity, and the vantage point from slightly below Dream and the dock magnifies his importance and significance, in defiance of the previous view that made him one tiny part of an infinitesimal whole. The lack of color in the images outside of the blue of his cloak and yellow of the stars also plays into almost an anti-graphic novel aesthetic in this particular series of images with its brooding and deathly palate.
Another favorite image, for the image itself more than for the artistry, is this picture from the fight in hell, with the demons watching the Sandman and Lucifer Morningstar. A very obvious homage to “Star Wars” is front and center, so to speak, and it made me wonder if I knew more about graphic novels if I might see other inside jokes in the illustrations along the way.
To my great disappointment, though, I found the artistic representation of Dream himself lacking and almost amusing, and something I had to get beyond to appreciate any of the other art. To me, Prince Morpheus as he is represented looks somewhat like a slightly Goth-ier dropout from KISS; I had expected gloom, mystery, control, desperation, and instead got a rock-star wannabe? I suppose in context – The Sandman was first published in 1989, the end of the hair band era and the dawn of grunge – the drawing of Dream as a black-cloak-wearing, sharp, jagged-do-sporting, vaguely Mick Jagger-esque antihero would have been different and strange, if not gothic, but the representation did not live up to my expectations of the character. And why do I keep comparing Dream to various bands and rock stars? I can’t help but to think that was an intentional parallel by the illustrators, the similarities are so strong, though I see no evidence or reason for it.
Overall, I can give “Preludes and Nocturnes” a rousing rating of “it’s not bad.” I enjoyed reading it, though honestly not as much as I’d hoped to. I came into my first graphic novel with exceedingly high expectations, gauging by my previous experiences with Neil Gaiman’s written work. I think my reaction to “Preludes and Nocturnes” is based on two very important facts: the first, I am not a visual person, despite a very close association with art and artists for a number of years. Since my mind focuses more on words than images, I’m certain my eyes grazed over plenty of graphics that are probably stunning and impressive, only since my mind wants to learn through the words the images were missed. Second, my mind functions in a very linear fashion, and there were times I had to read and reread pages simply because I was unaware what order the text was supposed to progress since it’s not always as simple as left to right, top to bottom. I wanted more from the words than what I was able to get, because the words are at most only one-half of a graphic novel. As much as anything else, reading “Nocturnes and Preludes” was a fascinating study of my own reading habits as I recognized those above reasons as why I probably never read graphic novels in the first place. However, I can also recognize two other facts: one, for someone more aware of graphic novels, art, or spatial design, The Sandman is probably manna from heaven; I showed my copy of “Preludes and Nocturnes” to one artist who, not even reading any of the text, was immediately engrossed in the imagery. Second, since it’s one part of a very large whole, and only the introductory part at that, “Preludes and Nocturnes” must be better appreciated in the context of that whole.
So here I am, a stranger in a strange land of comic books – er, graphic novels – and the Houston International Airport. The coffee, surprisingly, wasn’t too bad, and though I probably won’t seek out more graphic novels, if any of the Neil Gaimans came my way I wouldn’t say no. So thanks, Book Smugglers, for getting me out of my comfort zone, and thanks, McDonald’s, for a not entirely crap cuppa joe. But now, if only for the humidity and my sense of spatial orientation, it’s time to move on.
Next up for the Guest Dare: Christine from The Happily Ever After does Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (dark fantasy)!
Once more, a big round of applause for Kate for her fearlessness, and for the wonderful review!