“The Sandman” is a series of comics written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by various artists. While the original comics began in the 1980s, in 2010 they were re-released in a series of ten volumes collecting the stories. “Preludes and Nocturnes” is the first of these, collecting “The Sandman” numbers 1-8.
The main character is Morpheus, or Dream, the god of dreams (hence the title), or the anthropomorphic personification of dreams. “Preludes and Nocturnes” is a series of connected stories, that start with Dream’s capture by a wizard and imprisonment for seventy years. He eventually escapes, and the remainder of the stories in this volume concern his recovery of artifacts the wizard stole from him (a bag of sand, a helmet, and a gem) and his recovery of his own power and place. The stories are set in the DC comics universe, and as such fans of DC comics will recognize other characters used in these stories – John Constantine, the demon Etrigan, Doctor Destiny, the Scarecrow, and Martian Manhunter.
I want to start with the main character. Much of the writing in these comics is not people speaking, but Dream telling his story, his thoughts. Gaiman seeks through these words to show us a character who, while he is lord of dreams and as such understands a great deal about people, is not a human being. Dream’s race is called the Endless, telling us in their name that they are immortal. So when Dream is imprisoned he can afford to wait, to outlast his captor, and work his escape through others after the wizard’s death. The illustrators for this volume (Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III) compliment this by their depictions of Dream, fluctuating in his appearance, sometimes a fully solid humanoid form, other times more amorphous and floaty. Even the lettering adds to this – all Dream’s words are white letters on a black background, while everyone else’s dialogue appears as normal black letters on white. He travels through dreams, eats in dream, clothes himself in dreams. But Dream is not a huggy nice guy. When he is angry he will take revenge and it will be nasty, as the son of the original wizard learned. He does not have human morality, though he does understand it. He also understands the consequences of what they have done, which are pretty catastrophic on all humanity, as the events of this volume show. He does not believe this man deserves mercy. In a later story (“Sound and Fury”) he shows he is capable of mercy, as he shows mercy to Doctor Destiny. He understands that the man is quite mad, and unlike those who kept him prisoner, cannot be held responsible for his actions. I found it interesting that both these interactions were so different, but ultimately you can understand his rationale. The entire situation would not have occurred if the original wizard and his coven were not trying to capture Death, and wound up with Dream instead. They, fully sane and aware of their actions, were ultimately responsible for everything that happened next. Doctor Destiny, already mentally ill and sent further into madness by the gem itself, was not.
Being a fan of John Constantine, I was happy to find him appearing in “Dream a little Dream of Me”. Constantine, despite his own powers, is always depicted as very down to earth. He is approached by what appears to be a mentally ill homeless woman who tells him the Sandman is back, and while he finds this unlikely, he knows she is more than she seems (247 years old, for example) and so cannot entirely dismiss the story. When Dream turns up Constantine instantly realises who he is and, more importantly, what he is. He accepts this quite readily (he’s seen stranger things), and is quite ready to help him find the bag of sand. I enjoy Constantine in this – he is not remotely bothered by the suggestion of danger, so when Dream tells him that the house they are going into is not safe for him, Constantine just gets curious instead of alarmed. He also looks out for the friend who has driven them there, telling him to stay out, and get away if need be.
We meet one other member of the Endless in this volume, Death (in the last story, “The Sound of Her Wings”). She is represented as a goth girl (you could argue that’s appropriate) and tells Dream to stop feeling sorry for himself. We see Death at her work, visiting people whose death has come, and I loved this end story because all we see from Death is mercy. She is kind and gentle with each soul she takes. She also likes “Mary Poppins”, which I found funny. Dream muses about how humans are so scared of death, which is something he doesn’t understand, and the depiction of it in this book is beautiful. (I’ve often felt that it’s the act of dying that people are really afraid of – the potential for suffering.)
We meet the Devil himself in “A Hope in Hell”, Lucifer. He is depicted as a beautiful angelic being (he was an angel, after all.) His appearance is brief, but interesting in his dialogue with Dream. He asks if Dream wants to work for him, enquires politely after the family, and summons the demons so Dream can find his helmet. But the whole interaction is laced with menace and threat. Once Dream has bested the demon, Lucifer asks (just as politely) how Dream thinks he’s going to get out, stating he has no power. Dream, however, understands all too well, and asks Lucifer what power Hell would have if the damned could not dream of Heaven? Brilliant.
These are only a few of the characters in the book. The illustrators expertly capture the weirdness and mystery of the different realities and situations. I loved how, all through every story, the consequences of Dream’s absence were felt by humanity, and was becoming worse over time, culminating in a collective insanity when Doctor Destiny started to use the jewel. It illustrated the importance of Dream along with the other Endless. They are not just random gods hanging around, they are fundamental aspects to reality, so removing Dream from the equation has ramifications.
I enjoyed this immensely, and as time (and money) allow I will be looking to read further in this series. Graphic novels aren’t for everyone, but I would recommend it for lovers of fantasy and the supernatural, even if you’ve never been a comic fan. You never know, you may find a new passion.