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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sandman: Dream Country



written by Neil Gaiman
“Calliope” and “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” pencils by Kelley Jones, inks by Malcolm Jones III, colours by Robbie Rusch
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” pencils and inks by Charles Vess, colours by Steve Oliff with additional material by William Shakespeare
“Facade” pencils by Colleen Doran, inks by Malcolm Jones III, colours by Steve Oliff


What’s It About?

The Sandman, Oneiros, Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Dream of the Endless, he has had many names. He is the concept of human imagination personified, the well from which all stories spring. In his landmark series The Sandman Neil Gaiman created and used this central character to explore the very idea of stories.

This is a collection of shorter stories from the Sandman series. We have the Sandman commission a play from William Shakespeare, a cat who has become a preacher, a modern author who has imprisoned one of the legendary muses Calliope and an immortal who not only longs for Death but gets to have a conversation with her.


What’s Good About It?
Each of the four stories collected in Dream Country has its own attractions. To take them in no particular order:

Façade concentrates not on Morpheus the Sandman himself but on his sister Death, herself one of Gaiman’s better creations. Here Gaiman has her discuss philosophy and mythology with an immortal who wants to die - this Death is no grim reaper but a woman with her own very great love of life. If you like seeing a character defy expectations then this interpretation is certainly one to read.

A Dream Of A Thousand Cats explores the not-uncommon fictional ideas of animals that are secretly sentient and the concept that belief shapes reality from the perspective of one cat preaching to a graveyard full of its fellow felines. On a more serious note it is an exploration of emerging religions as one lone cat preaches a dream of hope to a skeptical audience.

Calliope mixes modernity with mythology as a modern author captures the muse Calliope. It’s an interesting and thematically complex story difficult to summarise, which is true of most accomplished short fiction but it deals a lot with themes of creativity and inspiration, the psychology of dehumanisation and the age-old theme of “be careful what you wish for”.

The absolute jewel of the collection is A Midsummer’s Night Dream which has the fantastic hook of the Sandman commissioning William Shakespeare to write the titular play to be performed before the Morpheus’ friends Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the elves, and their fairy court. The story combines the actual performance of Midsummer with backstage business and snatches of conversation from the audience. More than a little hilarity ensues, not least when the real Puck decides he’d do a better part playing himself than the human actor, but like A Dream Of A Thousand Cats it has a metatextual edge. The story explores not only the cultural impact of Shakespeare but also how legends become stories and are reinterpreted over and over by succeeding societies.

The collection may be short but it has a nice spread of different, individual stories each with their surface plot informed by more complex themes. If you are looking for stories that are “about” something more than just action then The Sandman is a series you should really check out and this is one of the best introductory volumes.

What’s Bad About It?
I must tender to readers a trigger warning as Calliope includes a scene depicting an act of rape. I repeat: the act is (briefly) depicted and whilst the rapist’s punishment is an interesting plot twist it is hardly legal justice.

There are some issues with Façade for the new reader as it deals with a character from early 1950s pulp hero comics. In its earliest days, characters from DC’s Vertigo imprint sometimes interacted with their mainstream superhero characters. Later it was decided to strictly segregate the superhero and mature content books. In the context of the stories around it the Urania Blackwell character seems to exist in a different world, a conclusion the editors later came to when they put a stop to such crossovers. Further to that is the fact that her backstory takes up a large chunk of the chapter with what is essentially little more than a basic, rather formulaic superhero origin.

Collecting a mere four issues Dream Country is running a little short compared to most graphic novel collections and so the full script of Calliope is included as an added extra complete with annotations by the author. If peeking behind the curtain of the creative process appeals to you this is all well and good but considering the completed product is included in here already it may seem a vestigial add-on to fill out the page count.

What’s the Art Like?
The four stories are handled by three different art teams, a pattern that is followed by most volumes of The Sandman and one that gives individual stories a sense of separate identity, a must for an anthology series.

Calliope and A Dream Of A Thousand Cats are drawn by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III. This first scene shows how this team generally approaches the more normal human inhabitants of these stories:


You’ll notice an almost caricature exaggeration in certain elements of the characters’ faces but the expressions are still very much recognisable human emotions. There’s also a heavy reliance of shadows in these pages for atmospheric effect. This page is from Calliope, the most horrific of the stories in Dream Country and the very shadowed style suits it well. Jones and Jones also have the chance, in A Dream Of A Thousand Cats to draw more fantastic environments as the would-be feline messiah travels through the realm of dreams:

In the figure of the cat and the plane of bones you can see the way in which Kelley Jones’ art is both impressionistic and strangely precise. Its is mainly Robbie Rusch’s colouring that ties the elements of the art together, take the bone plane for example as the grades of grey forms the sketchy lines of the skulls and other skeletal fragments into more defined shapes, the same goes for the colours defining the snout of the cat in the final panel.

Charles Vess’ artwork on A midsummer Night’s Dream benefits from a much finer linework. You’ll notice from the following example in which the company of William Shakespeare meets Oberon’s court in the interval that the lines are finer, the features of the characters far more delicate than in the art of Jones and Jones.


It would be wrong to say that Vess’ art is more detailed than Kelley Jones’ but the finer lines and use of hatching to create contour effects (note the hair of the blonde “actress” and the armour of Oberon in the first panel) give this illusion. Colourist Steve Oliff, who takes over from Robbie Rusch for the second half of the book, also uses a subtler colour palate, making more use of grading to create shades and fading effects.

Finally, Colleen Doran contributes a more angular style, shadowed style of art for Façade. Taking place mainly in the apartment of the mystically mutated and socially isolated Urania Blackwell’s apartment the art goes a great way to conveying the claustrophobia of Urania’s existence:


The black spaces between the panels, the lifeless brown pallet of her apartment, the shadows and wrinkles around the face that bring emphasis to her inhuman appearance: it all fits in with the emotional themes Gaiman’s writing is conveying at the same time.

Other Information
Dream Country is the third of ten volumes collecting the complete run of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. There is a strong running arc through the ten volumes but most of the first eight can be read in isolation and most volumes will probably receive their own reviews here on New Readers... in the not-too-distant future. Dream Country itself is retails for around £9.99 and is available through Amazon here.

The reading order for the ten-book series is as follows. Please note, a new publishing run is planned for the series over the next year or so, therefore some books will be temporarily out of print until the new editions become available.
Preludes & Nocturnes (new edition November 23rd 2010, currently out of print)
The Doll’s House
Dream Country
Season of Mists (out of print, new edition coming but date unannounced)
A Game Of You
Fables & Reflections
Brief Lives
Worlds’ End
The Kindly Ones

The WakeA sequel of sorts to A Midsummer Night’s Dream appears in The Wake in which Shakespeare writes his final work The Tempest for the Sandman.

Two further volumes The Dream Hunters and Endless Nights have been published, their stories take place outside the ten book sequence so they aren't presented in the reading order.

2 comments:

  1. I really wanna start reading Sandman..but there's so many books, series and minis...

    Glad there's your blog to help a bit ;)

    ReplyDelete
  2. If you're buying these new, I'd heartily recommend picking up the new editions - the improvement in the artwork over the originals is remarkable (plus the new covers look much better than the last editions).

    ReplyDelete