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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mr. Sandman, send me a dream; make it the creepiest I've ever seen

The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1

By Neil Gaiman

Vertigo, 612 pp

99 dollars

It isn't exactly bedtime reading. Putting aside for the moment the fact that falling asleep and dropping this massive tome on yourself would likely result in a broken nose, if not a fractured skull, the eerie nature of this collection of the first 20 issues of the groundbreaking comic book The Sandman is enough to make you want to keep the lights on all night.

When the main character is the eternal personification of all dreams, you expect a bit of nightmarish spookiness, but The Absolute Sandman is a compendium of creepiness, a grimoire of grim tales and a treatise of the terrible. The series of stories includes a journey to hell, a conspiracy of cats to rid the world of humans, a serial killers' convention led by a demon with toothy mouths for eyes, immortals and minor gods held prisoner by sorcery, death incarnated in the form of a punk-rock goth girl and a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Will Shakespeare himself for an audience of fairies.

Whatever Neil Gaiman may lack, it certainly isn't imagination.

Gaiman has become something of an industry in his own right with successful novels (American Gods, Anansi Boys) screenplays (Mirrormask, the English language script for Princess Mononoke, and two films, Stardust and Beowulf, due to be released this year) and a plethora of comics projects, but the Sandman series (no relation to the Spider-Man 3 villain of the same name) was his breakthrough work, spanning 75 issues from 1988-96.

The series is generally considered, along with Alan Moore's The Watchmen and Frank Miller's reimagining of Batman, to have brought an air of respectability to comics aimed at adults.

Lavishly illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zuli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Malcom Jones III and Steve Parkhouse in a wide variety of styles on heavy, glossy paper and bound in black leather, the book looks like something a movie wizard would cast spells from, an effect that is unlikely to be a coincidence. The price sounds a bit hefty for a comic book collection at first, but a few moments browsing the impressive artwork--especially the covers by Dave McLean--will have most fans of graphic novels, fantasy, horror and gothic literature reaching for their wallets.

The story begins in 1916, when a group of British occultists seeking immortality attempt to conjure up and hold captive the incarnation of Death, but instead trap her brother, Dream, also known as Morpheus, Oneiros, the Prince of Stories and, more recently, the Sandman. His mystic captivity lasts 80 years, with all sorts of odd phenomena occurring due to his absence: Dream creatures enter the waking world, changes occur that threaten the existence of the Dreamworld and the tools that give the Sandman his power are scattered throughout many worlds.

This first quarter of the Sandman series focuses heavily on the horror genre with a good deal of otherworldly sparring between the eternals, demons and demigods thrown in. The Sandman gathers his tools, puts the Dreamworld back in order and rights some previous wrongs he has committed.

In several of the stories--that of the aforementioned feline conspiracy, for example--Morpheus does not actually appear except in a sort of peripheral way. In others, he teams up with more mortal comic book heroes such as occult detective John Constantine--even the Justice League of America makes a brief appearance.

The Absolute Sandman, Volume 1 is not intended for children, or adults who are easily frightened, but at least if the nightmare creatures do crawl out from under the bed, the book is heavy enough to swat them with.

(Apr. 28, 2007)

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