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Neil Gaiman

Best Comics of 2013: Sandman Overture

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sandmanovertureEven by our usual standards, it’s especially strange to include in our comics of the year a series that has only managed to put out one issue in 2013. But then, Sandman: Overture is hardly a usual comic – in fact, it’s downright exceptional.

Here, for example, was a comic that had to live up to some outrageously lofty expectations – the first issue of The Sandman since the series ended in 1996 (notwithstanding the Endless Nights hardcover or P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of The Dream Hunters), and one that has to break into the almost hermetically-sealed perfection of that original run. Anything less than utter genius from a new comic with this title by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams would be a huge disappointment.

And yet there were lingering doubts that the old magic could be recaptured. Gaiman has written some fantastic work in recent years, but not very much of it has been in comics, and Sandman was of such a distinct time in comics history that it wasn’t clear whether it could translate to the style of an era twenty-five years after its first issues.

So it’s largely because of the fact that it both lived up to those huge expectations, and dispelled those nagging doubts, that the first issue of Overture immediately stood out as one of the best comics of the year. Effortlessly sliding back into the familiar and comfortable setting and characters, it read like Gaiman was picking up where he left off with issue #75 (aside from the plot being set a little while prior to issue #1, of course) – but by the same token was a dazzling example of confident, high-class modern-day comic book storytelling.

Much of this, it’s clear, is down to the presence of Williams – one of arguably a handful of artists currently working who could possibly live up to the ideal of working on Sandman. Indeed, some of that first issue’s most inspired moments feel more the work of the artist than the writer – bringing his signature style to double-page spreads like the astonishing Corinthian sequence, and even managing to convey the somewhat abstract notion of Destiny’s book in a way that made arguably more sense than any of the original series’ artists had managed to.

And if it felt a little bit like a greatest hits tour – with gratuitous cameos from characters like Merv Pumpkinhead – the nostalgia was at least earned by the occasion. And what’s more, this feels (so far at least) like a missing story that was waiting to be told, rather than simply a cheap cash-grab – with some genuinely startling revelations about a mythology that previously we felt we’d learned all we could about.

Simply put, it feels incredibly good to have The Sandman back in the year 2013, and back at a level of quality we all remember it for. And that’s why, in only twenty-odd pages, it was comfortably one of the best comics of the year. The fact that 2014 actually promises several instalments of this is almost too joyous to contemplate.

Seb Patrick | 28th December, 2013

30 More Days of Comics #29: A comic that changed your life

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And then there was Sandman.

I don’t just mean in terms of all the comics discussed in this meme, either. I mean that there were all the other comics in the world… and then there was Sandman. My comics reading history divides neatly into Before Sandman and After Sandman, as clear and obvious a watershed moment as you could ever find. After all, if I weren’t the comics fan that I am, my life would be very different; and I wouldn’t be the comics fan that I am if it weren’t for Sandman.

I was dimly aware of it long before reading it, of course. And I suppose there must have been an inkling that it was meant to be something special by virtue of the fact that, when my Dad sold his somewhat epic comics collection some time when I was too young to have yet read the likes of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and all the other “best bits”, he held on to his first edition Sandman trades (although he did flog whatever single issues he’d accumulated before switching to buying it in that form). So the books were always kicking around, waiting to be read – and indeed, I’d dipped my toe into it on occasion, having at some point at an earlier age read both the “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “August” stories. But by the time I was 15, I knew enough about comics to know that I really should be reading the series in full. I figured I was old enough and intelligent enough – and without much ceremony, I dug out my dad’s copy of Preludes & Nocturnes and started reading.

The impact on me was immediate and profound. I pretty much wouldn’t talk about anything else for the next year or so. Gaiman became, instantly and without question, my favourite writer across all and any media (and despite some iffy comics work since, his novels and short stories are enough to keep him in that place for me). I started wearing black more, not because I was a goth or a mosher or anything, but because he did and his characters did. I called myself “Somniator” – having worked out that it was Latin for “Dreamer” – on my early forays into the internet (“Morpheus” would have been simpler, but The Matrix had just come out, and I didn’t want people to think I was naming myself after that). I brought the trade paperbacks into school, making my English teacher read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and my Latin teacher read “August”. And most crucially, from that point on, I was lost – I was irrevocably and forever an evangelistic Comics Reader.

I’ve since re-read the series so many times I can recite it almost beat-for-beat, and yet it still offers a fresh thrill whenever I go back to it every year or so. It was the series that taught me exactly what comics were capable of; that they really could be astonishing works of searing literary merit – a point I’d return to in essays both at A-Level and later for an Oxford thesis. It broadened my awareness of a vast array of visual styles, with The Kindly Ones in particular teaching me that the most brilliant art didn’t necessarily have to be the most perfectly realistic. It led me to an entire new world of comics to explore – from direct spinoffs, to other characters (such as John Constantine) who happened to show up in its pages, to series that were simply inspired by what Sandman had done with the form, and which owed their very existence to its success. It is simply the greatest and most brilliantly-told story in comics – and, further, in just about any form of literature for a very long time. It’s funny, sad, scary, profound, educational, perceptive, literary, moving, warm, chilling, epic, and utterly without peer.

For me at least, Sandman is the comic that stood up and shouted “This, this is what comics are supposed to be for”. It’s fair to say that I doubt any other comic I read will ever actually live up to the standard it set, and so perhaps in that way its strength is also a weakness (when you’ve read it, can anything else compete?) But even so, I can’t hold that against it – comics is a great medium and a great artform, perhaps the one I love more than any other; and it’s because of reading Sandman that I was able to make that wonderful discovery.

Seb Patrick | 21st December, 2010

30 More Days of Comics #24: A miniseries you never finished

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There are very few writers I like more than Neil Gaiman. There are very few artists I like more than John Romita Jr. Really, it’s almost as if The Eternals was invented specifically for me.

Well, actually, no. Because if it had been invented specifically for me, the story would probably have involved Spider-Man and Superman teaming up to fight Daleks, rather than being about some old Jack Kirby characters I have little to no interest in. Of course, not being about characters one already knows or likes is hardly the biggest obstacle to a series being any good. However, being really rather dull undoubtedly is one.

The series actually started out fairly well. I reviewed issue #1 at the time, and appear to have actually really liked it (moreso than I remember, even). It’s true that it’s very well constructed as a first issue, and does a good job of pulling the unfamiliar reader into the concept – plus, of course, as I mention in that review, Gaiman’s craft is never anything less than immaculate. And it is, of course, a gorgeous-looking book from top to tail – Romita could draw the hell out of the phone book, frankly, and the Big Kirby Sci-Fi stuff suits him down to the ground.

By issue #3, however, I was less than hooked. Skimming through it now, there doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for my having given up on the series – and there are good elements to what would turn out to be the last issue I’d buy, including a good action sequence and Romita drawing Iron Man – but the fact of the matter is I wasn’t sufficiently invested in the story or characters to actively go after getting issues #4-6 of the series. Although I was fully into the habit of regularly buying comics by late 2006 – living in London and having access to a veritable cornucopia of comic shops helped – it might well be that the series just fell in those early, frugal months where I had to justify every purchase that bit more, which would probably explain dropping assorted non-essential titles (it’s from around this period that a number of gaps start to show up elsewhere in my collection, too – from times when visits to the comic shop were more than a month or two apart, and single issues or whole chunks of series would fall through the gap).

Clearly, too, despite being a Gaiman completist when it comes to his prose work, I never really felt the need to catch up on it in later months or years, either. I’d probably read it in trade if the opportunity came along (i.e. to borrow it from a library, or pick it up on the super-cheap), but it’s a sad fact that having written some of the absolute greatest comics of the ’80s and ’90s (and not just Sandman, either), and then moving on to being an absolutely brilliant novelist, Gaiman’s never quite successfully made that triumphant return to the field that made his name (probably his only truly outstanding comics work of the 2000s was Endless Nights, and even that wasn’t as good as even the weaker original Sandman books). Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? was an interesting stab at it, and I’d imagine an eventually-completed Miracleman would be as well – but Eternals, sadly, definitely wasn’t.

Seb Patrick | 16th December, 2010

30 More Days of Comics #19: A comic you’ve read but don’t own

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Ah, Miracleman. The comic it’s okay to admit you downloaded, at least for as long as the messy rights issues persist in preventing a proper re-release of the now-scarce trade paperbacks. In fact, considering the fact that the character of Marvelman (although yes, I’ll be calling the comic Miracleman throughout this piece – sorry, purists, but that’s how I encountered him, and for reasons I’ll come to, it feels more right to me) was originally a thinly-veiled ripoff of a character that was himself a thinly-veiled ripoff of a different character; and that the subsequent use by Moore in Warrior that defined him as an iconic figure has, in later years, been almost conclusively proven to have been carried out by people who didn’t have the rights to do so; and finally that the rights to the character are currently held by a company who had previously spent years legally opposing its publication and who don’t actually yet own the rights to the interpretation that everyone wants to see printed; considering all of that, reading the series in illegally-downloaded form almost feels like the most appropriate way to do so.

As it happens, mind, I actually first read it entirely legally, with copies loaned from a library in Liverpool about five or six years ago. But their set of trades was incomplete – not least because the entire series hasn’t actually been collected, due to the book’s publisher folding only two issues into the Silver Age storyline – and so a short while afterwards Miracleman became what I suspect is probably the first comic I ever, shhh, downloaded (I also have Flex Mentallo in .CBR form, and that’s all you’re getting out of me).

At the time that I read it, it seemed a vitally important series to finally get around to reading – and had a profound impact on me, as I considered it possibly even a better treatment of the superhero myth than Watchmen had been. In later years, however, that impact has dimmed – nowadays I’d place Moore’s run, in his own canon, below Watchmen, V, LOEG and even the likes of Top Ten and Halo Jones. That’s not to say there’s not still a lot that’s appealing – and at times staggeringly good – about his run. But it does stumble about all over the place somewhat, particularly in the early part – and the second volume, while containing some strong ideas (the Red King flashback/dream sequence is inspired – indeed, perhaps the best element of the Moore run is the brilliant lifting and repurposing of the original Marvelman’s world, in a manner that upset plenty of purists but is to me the perfect example of a good retcon), is badly compromised by the utterly dreadful Chuck Beckum/Austen artwork at the (jarringly mid-storyline) point the publication moves over to Eclipse in the US. Things are markedly improved in the third volume, though, largely down to the astounding work of John Totleben – and, of course, issue #15 is a masterpiece of unrelentingly grim despair and carnage (never, ever has the likely effect of a “super” battle been portrayed in such a devastatingly realistic fashion).

But actually, if anything, I think Miracleman actually gets a bit stronger when Alan Moore leaves and Neil Gaiman takes over. The six Golden Age issues are an oddly brilliant collection of divergent musings on the sort of themes of myth, story and legend that Gaiman would explore to a fuller extent in Sandman, and offer an opportunity for Mark Buckingham to superbly express an array of artistic styles from issue to issue. Not only that, but they actually quite successfully meet the challenge laid down by Moore (and that Moore himself didn’t feel he could take on) – just how do you tell convincing stories about a superhero in a world that that superhero has turned into a totalitarian utopia?

Sadly, we didn’t get to see the full extent of Gaiman’s answer – The Golden Age is quite deliberately an exploration of the world that Moore had left behind, making us wait until the frustratingly incomplete Silver Age to see the plot actually move on. Nevertheless, there’s some great material in The Golden Age – the Evelyn Cream-starring Spy Story (one of a handful of issues I do actually own, as it happens) and the Andy Warhol issue are particular standouts, and it’s because of the Gaiman run that Miracleman has always felt like the more appropriate name – after all, far more is made of the name than Moore ever did with the “Marvel” part, which makes me wonder just how odd it’ll look if Marvel (Comics) ever do get round to republishing it (and indeed finishing the story) with the name re-lettered to a form Gaiman had never actually written it as.

In a way, Miracleman/Marvelman is more worth reading for the experience of having read it than for its worth as a truly unmissable comic – it’s far from perfect, although it does contain many outstanding moments and ideas. But it’s undeniably a significant moment in comics history – as well as being an enlighteningly formative point in the development of two of its finest ever writers – and until the big lovely reprint edition that we all hope we’ll one day get shows up, reading it on a screen (or being lucky enough to borrow it) will have to do.

30 More Days of Comics #17: A comic you own more than one copy of

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Of course, we’ll disregard here any comics that I own in more than one format – the likes of Sandman, Phonogram, We3 and so on – partly because most will be discussed elsewhere, and partly because they don’t really count. There are, however, a few single-issue comics that for one reason or another I’ve ended up with multiple copies of, and this is one of ‘em.

The first Neil Gaiman comic I ever read wasn’t Sandman, or Miracleman, or that Hellblazer issue I wrote about recently, or anything else particularly high-profile you might expect. Instead, it’s DC’s Secret Origins Special #1 from 1989, a comic that I read and loved probably if not around the time of publication then within a few years of it. At the time I read it, of course, I didn’t know who Gaiman was – and even upon becoming a fan of his work in later years, it took a while to go back and discover that this particular comic was also (in part, at least) written by him.

So what is it? Well, Secret Origins was a 50-issue (plus a few specials and annuals) series put out by DC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which did pretty much exactly as it said on the cover – told in single-issue (or sometimes half-issue) form the origin stories of a variety of DC characters. At a time when said facts were somewhat in flux due to Crisis, it was handy to have a reminder of exactly how the “current” version of a character was supposed to have come to be, and often these retellings could put a new twist, perspective or other enhancement on the original tale. I’ve got a few of the issues in my collection, but one of the most memorable is this one – I’m not sure why it’s a “Special” (it was the only one, to boot) and not an annual, mind, but it’s essentially the same thing.

The focus is on three of Batman’s most famous villains – although rather than telling an “origin”, each of the three vignettes concerns itself more with alighting on a particular element of the character’s past. It’s all held together by a framing device (written by Gaiman) about a TV crew making a documentary about Gotham’s colourful criminal element – to the chagrin of Batman, who sees it simply as glorifying them and possibly inspiring copycats. It’s fairly workmanlike, though it does contain a cameo from none other than John Constantine, and also a nice twist at the end that serves to answer the obvious question of why a certain well-known villain hasn’t shown up in the issue’s pages. The two stories that aren’t written by Gaiman are decent enough – the stronger is a Penguin story by Alan Grant and Sam Kieth, which has the sort of tone you’d expect from Grant’s early ’90s Batman work; while Mark Verheiden serves up the usual “is he good or is he bad or what?” in a deliberately morally ambiguous story about Two Face and his wife.

But inbetween these two, we also get a story written by Gaiman himself – and it’s this story that’s the reason I love the issue so much, and why I’ve ended up getting multiple copies. It’s called “When is a Door?” and it features the Riddler being interviewed by Gaiman’s TV crew. It’s a wonderful little piece, in which Nygma bounds around assorted giant advertising paraphernalia and bemoans the loss of the innocent days of super-villainny (“You look around these days – it’s all different. It’s all changed. The Joker’s killing people, for god’s sake! Did I miss something? Was I away when they changed the rules?”) with direct nods to the ’60s TV series. Oh, and tells a lot of bad jokes. It’s a really nice play on the dichotomy that’s almost always existed within Batman stories – the difference between the “light” and “dark” sides – and while it may not be the only one, it is perhaps rare in doing so through the eyes of a villain rather than from the perspective of Batman himself.

Given that my comics collection exists largely for reading (and re-reading) rather than preserving, it’s inevitable that sometimes a comic will come along where having more than one copy just makes sense, to guard against loss/damage. This will, I imagine, have been my reasoning behind snapping up a second copy found in a back-issue box some point a few years ago – I knew I already had the issue (although even now I can’t remember whether the one I had was the original I’d read all those years before, or another copy picked up in the interm – it’s in surprisingly good nick, you see, where other comics from that time have ended up with torn covers and suchlike). It later proved even more prudent, when I took the original copy along to a Gaiman signing – where he informed me that it’s one of his favourite stories of his, and the only example of his buying a page of original art from something he’d written, a page he later gave to his son as a birthday present – which meant that I could keep the signed copy in a bag (signed issues are about the only things I ever want to “seal”) and keep the second one for re-reading purposes. It’s not as rare or obscure as it used to be – finding a wider audience due to being reprinted in the Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? trade – but it’s a great little issue to dig out on its own every so often, and having that “backup” copy means I’m always likely to be able to do so.

30 More Days of Comics #8: A comic about your favourite character

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Even before I’d read a single issue of Hellblazer itself, I think I’d have described John Constantine as my favourite comics character. He’s just the most wonderfully complex and contradictory individual out there: easy to love – or at least admire – one moment and feel contempt for the next, someone who wins even as he’s losing and loses even as he’s winning, and who’d sacrifice his friends and family to get his way yet just as soon sacrifice himself for their sakes. He appears in others’ comics as the arch-manipulator, with as many plans as Batman, appearing suddenly in the corner (usually sparking a Silk Cut) and announcing his arrival with an “Alright, squire?”; and yet in his own series, he seems to be on a personal quest to discover just how far it’s possible for one man to fall and suffer, and how many times. He’s the best and worst of humanity all at once, wrapped up in a sarcastic, chain-smoking, trenchcoated Scouser-turned-Londoner. Is it any wonder I spent much of my late teens wanting a tan trenchcoat of my own?

I later discovered the Garth Ennis run – although mostly in the wrong order, starting with a cheaply-acquired copy of the Tainted Love trade before then catching up with Dangerous Habits and finally the other volumes – and I still think it’s by far the best take on the character overall. Jamie Delano’s run had some good stuff, and was of course key in shaping the character (indeed, the Constantine we know nowadays is far more Delano’s than Alan Moore’s – I think by rights, Jamie should have a co-creator credit of some kind), but I think Ennis was equally instrumental in developing not only John himself, but the world around him (perhaps it’s just the length of time he was on the series, but I think he probably created far more characters/elements that have endured since than any other writer who’s worked on the book). Dangerous Habits is perhaps the most astounding instance of a writer taking over an existing character that comics have ever seen, and it sets the tone for a breakneck run filled with ups and downs (but mostly downs), gruesome tragedy, heartbreak, and bitter twist after bitter twist – before the almost unbearably bleak (yet damned near perfect) closing arc, Rake at the Gates of Hell. It’s easily the best work of Ennis’ career in my book (even though Hitman and Preacher both, in their own ways, run it close), and frankly, as much as I’ve enjoyed the work of others on it, I’d even be happy if Hellblazer as a series began and ended with it.

That is, with perhaps one particular exception. Because although Ennis’ run on the title is my favourite, I think the best single Constantine story came from the pen of somebody else – Neil Gaiman. In fact, it had been Gaiman who’d introduced me to the excellence of the character in the first place, courtesy of appearances in Sandman and, especially, a star turn in issue #2 of The Books of Magic. He also wrote a solitary issue of Hellblazer as well, though – issue #27, with a story illustrated by Dave McKean called “Hold Me”. It’s actually a difficult story to talk about in too much detail – it’s one of those where saying too much about the plot spoils the potential reading experience. But it’s an extremely touching and deeply layered story about the lonely and the homeless, and is exactly the sort of blend of the supernatural and true-to-life (a certain part of the story was actually based on a real experience of Gaiman’s) that Hellblazer at its best has always been capable of.

It’s a beautiful comic, too – it couldn’t be anything else, being as how it’s drawn by Dave McKean – and features a distinctive, muted colouring style in which characters blend into the murky background of a grey, grey London in a perfect silent metaphor for the character. In fact, perhaps “beautiful” doesn’t quite sum it up – “ugly, but in a beautiful way” is more accurate. The cover is a work of art, too – completely different from the rest of the series’ covers at the time (even down to the layout, and even though McKean was the regular cover artist) it marks out the issue as something special and unique. Furthermore, and just to emphasise that it’s a great comic about the character, too, the issue contains possibly my favourite line of Constantine dialogue ever – sick of the racist droning of a cab driver, Constantine hops out, hurriedly pays the exact change, and is asked by the driver whether he gets a tip. “Sure,” says John. “It’s this: get a new mind. The one you’ve got now is narrow and full of crap.”

“Hold Me” has always been a particularly sought-after issue of Hellblazer – even before Gaiman’s explosion into superstar status was it thus, courtesy of a particularly low print-run. I first encountered it in the collection of DC-published Gaiman miscellany Midnight Days, where Gaiman even discusses this rarity. Remembering and discussing it now, however, has reawakened my interest in getting hold of a copy one of these days (despite already having it in a trade, it’s something I feel I have to own in its original form, and whenever I see a back issue rack I flick to the “H” section in the hope that someone will have put it out, unaware of its market value) – and I’m pleased to discover that, presumably due to it becoming more widely available thanks to a Hellblazer short story TPB from around the time of the Constantine film, list prices seem to have gone down somewhat and you can get it for well under a tenner. It might still seem overpriced for a single issue, but it’s still absolutely worth owning, and holding on to.

Seb Patrick | 24th November, 2010

30 Days of Comics #9: A comic you received as a gift

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Similar situation here to yesterday. I get a lot of comics as gifts, which makes it hard to pick one. However, since Death is about to make a re-appearance in the DCU, I figured this would be an appropriate choice.

The gift I received, then, was the 3-issue collection of Death: The High Cost of Living. It was given to me by Seb, the co-writer of this blog, a couple of years ago (I’m rubbish at remembering the dates of things, although since it was a birthday present I’m going to say it was September 2008). Obviously, this is far too late for someone with my interest in comics to be reading Sandman, and were it not for Seb, it would have been even longer. So, here’s my excuse.

One of the problems with entertainment art – even in a relatively small form like comics – is that there’s simply too much stuff to ever catch up with all the great works. For every 10 films, albums, comics or books people are telling me is a work of utter genius, I seem to find the time for maybe three, at most. Unless I entirely give up on reading new books and comics, watching new films and listening to new albums, I’m reasonably sure I’ll go to my grave having never read Promethea, or seen Vertigo, or listened to anything by Pavement. I’ve come to terms with that. I just try to follow my nose and not worry too much about all the great things I’m probably missing on the way.

The thing is, sometimes you need someone to point you in the right direction. I avoided Sandman for years based on the strength (or lack thereof) of 1602, which was the only Gaiman-comic I’d read at the time. What I really needed was for someone to sit me down and say “Look, Sandman isn’t just some goth shite, it’s probably the finest long-form comics narrative ever composed and any comics fan is a fool not to have read it.” Which is more or less what Seb did over the first few years that I knew him, until I finally decided to give it a shot when the Absolute editions came out.

In the midst of me reading those, Seb bought me this – the first, more stand-alone Death miniseries – as a complement, since I didn’t want to skip ahead but was getting impatient waiting for the next Absolute release. It’s a great little story in which Death assumes human form for one day, as required to maintain her position, and the whole thing just reads like an extended, feature-length issue of Sandman. I was a bit concerned that the series’ plot – about someone trying to steal Death’s powers – was a bit generic, but there’s a third act twist which saves it, and I’m never quite sure if it was a genuine fake-out or if Gaiman snapped to his senses before issue #3 and realised who he was.

That said, I’m not sure it’s the kind of story that would convince new readers of Sandman‘s overall brilliance. As a gift, it was perfect for my situation, wanting to read more Sandman but unable to follow anything outside the core series – but more generally, there are probably better choices.

James Hunt | 9th October, 2010

Death in Action (Comics)

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Okay, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes (or hackles) up, but let’s have a look at this Twitter exchange:

@Paul_Cornell Big Action Comics teaser in DC books out tomorrow. All will be revealed later that same day. Enormous stuff! #

@neilhimself @Paul_Cornell I’m not saying a word. #

@Paul_Cornell @neilhimself well I think that’s for the best. #

Sounds cryptic, doesn’t it? What have Gaiman and Cornell got in common? Not much, assuming that we can automatically discount any kind of Doctor Who tie-in with Action Comics. That doesn’t leave any obvious link – until you take a look at the DC Nation page running in this week’s releases, showing a teaser for David Finch’s cover to the October issue of Action Comics:

dc_nationThe relevant part of that text there reads:

“Who’s that blacked out on the cover? We’ll reveal the answer this week on The Source (dcublog.com), so make sure to check in. I’m sorry in advance for all the melting your face is gonna do when you see who it is. Wow.”

No real clues in the text, but the image says it all. With Cornell writing Action Comics, Gaiman hinting his involvement, and a silhouette of a goth-looking woman (cane, gloves/bracelets, bunch of potentially dead flowers) set against a background of skulls… well, it looks a hell of a lot like we’re getting a Lex Luthor Vs. Death story, doesn’t it? Traditionally, my speculation tends to be hilariously inaccurate, so there’s a chance it’s all a big red herring, but I’d be surprised if it is. I suppose we’ll find out on the DCU blog tomorrow.

EDIT: The blog post has gone up, and it looks like I called it right. As a Sandman fan, I won’t pretend it doesn’t make me a bit nervous, but Cornell is a generally excellent writer and I’m fairly sure it isn’t going to be the start of a massive trend, so let’s see where it goes. If nothing else, I has accomplished the goal of making people who wouldn’t be interested in Action Comics (ie: people like me) sit up and take notice. I might even buy this one. Might.

James Hunt | 7th July, 2010

Absolute Death

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absolutedeathSince the Absolute Sandman compendiums were what finally convinced me to buy (and read) the series, it was a given that Absolute Death would also be on my list of purchases. After all, Death herself was arguably the breakout character of Sandman, and one of the few who made it into her own Gaiman-penned spin-offs – the only reason I waited to read some of these comics at all was because I was waiting for the release of this collection.

However – that does perhaps put me in the unique position of being one of a small number of people buying an Absolute edition expecting it to provide “new” material, even though the format is largely archival – and that colours my opinion of it. At first glance, this is as fine an Absolute collection as any of the others. Oversized artwork, beautifully reproduced on high-quality paper and in fantastic binding – as a physical object, it’s a more than worthy companion to the four volumes of Absolute Sandman. But much like many of DC’s recent Absolute editions, the contents feel a little rushed, and the collection itself actually suffers slightly by its association with Absolute Sandman.

The quality of the work it contains is not in doubt, nor is the value factor of the supplemental material, which includes the pencils and script for Sandman #8. However, large chunks of this book comprise Death-centric stories that have already been included in the Absolute Sandman volumes. The introductory story from #8. The Death story from #20. The famous instructional comic, Death talks about Life. In isolation, it feels natural that they should be included – but alongside the existing collections, it’s hard not to wish that they’d gone with some different material – for example, the rest of the Endless Nights tales, which by this point represent about the only Gaiman-penned Sandman comics not collection in Absolute format. It’s fair to say that the attempt to be comprehensive has led to a certain amount of redundancy – which, when you’re paying over £60 for a comic, you’d understandably want to avoid.

Now, all that said, it’s not exactly a misfire on the same level as, say, Absolute Black Dossier. If you haven’t already got Absolute Sandman,  the collection is utterly beyond reproach, containing everything you need to know about Death and more – but beware that it isn’t, in any way, intended to serve as Absolute Sandman Vol. 5. Despite the common ground of the characters, it is a collection designed to stand alone. Approach it thusly and there will be no disappointments.

James Hunt | 13th January, 2010

Dusting Off: Sandman #13 (Feb 1990)

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sandman13Common wisdom (including that of the author itself) is that issue #8 of Sandman, the first Death story, is when Neil Gaiman first “found his voice” on the series. That’s certainly true to a certain extent, and of particular elements of the book – but to my mind, in the middle of the subsequent storyline (one which, I still feel upon re-reading, shows the series stuttering a little bit in firmly establishing itself), we’re given an issue that rather more successfully defines and exemplifies the best characteristics of what still remains perhaps the finest long-form achievement in the history of the medium – issue #13, “Men of Good Fortune”.

A standalone done-in-one tale, its placing as a “break” in the middle of The Doll’s House seems odd – but it almost feels like the book needs it, because it does such an important job of establishing that it lives in a much, much wider world than the set of characters and places we’ve so far been following. Elements that wouldn’t become important until much later – talk of a “delegation from Faerie”, the first appearance of Johanna Constantine, further hints at Death’s character, and the seeds of William Shakespeare’s relevance – are planted here, as if Gaiman is saying “Right. This thing’s going to run and run. And here’s a few examples of how I’m going to play with it.”

It’s just so bloody clever, too. Without actually looking it up, I’m not sure how loosely Gaiman plays with time in order to conveniently have centennial encounters in years ending in ’89 allow for cameo appearances by Geoffrey Chaucer and a chummy Shakespeare and Marlowe, but I’d bet it’s not by very much. Conveniently catching the Bard prior to his fame and his friend at the height of his, Gaiman is able to draw parallels (explicitly referenced in the dialogue) with the latter’s Doctor Faustus in the Shakespeare/Morpheus deal that we first see hinted at here, while at the same time leading us to wonder slightly on the nature of the unwitting “arrangement” between Death and Hob. The tone and atmosphere of each successive decade (not to mention the common threads of general conversation between them), meanwhile, just feel so spot on – this is the furthest from lazy writing that you can imagine, with so much care and attention devoted to the setting as well as dialogue that is largely a joy from start to finish (“Now the chap next to him with the broken leg, bent as a pewter ducat – he’s a good playwright.”)

Part of that latter point, of course, is down to the introduction of Hob Gadling – unashamedly my favourite of the series’ stellar cast of characters, and here he demonstrates exactly why. Not without his flaws (most notably the manner in which he chooses to make his eighteenth-century fortune, something for which the series rightly never allows him to make full restitution), he’s nevertheless a brilliant and deeply human pair of eyes through which to view the series, and its lead character. He’s also, I’d argue, one of the first truly unique voices that Gaiman is able to bring out – after all, as the only person (with the possible exception of Matthew) that Dream can truly call “friend”, he needs to be a strong character, and he is. And even now, even having read it countless times, the final page is still just utterly lovely.

Of course, anyone reading Sandman for the first time nowadays will always come at it from the angle of knowing what a monumental series it’s supposed to be, and so are more likely to have the preconception that it’ll turn into something magnificent. And I can’t even claim to have read this story in sequence when I did first embark on the series – The Doll’s House was missing from the borrowed set of trades I read. Nevertheless, it’s clear looking back that #13 is an important milestone in the series’ history, the second big “moment” (after #8) to hint that this was going to be something special – and arguably (despite Hob’s relatively unimportant role in actual events) the first true indication of what the whole thing was all about. It absolutely nails it, in other words, and it’s fair to say that comics are very rarely as good as this one.

Seb Patrick | 18th November, 2009