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Sandman

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

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

Dusting Off : The Sandman Presents – Marquee Moon (unpublished, 2000ish)

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A slight change this week for our usual feature in which we dig out a back issue from our collections to review – as the comic featured here never actually ended up being published. Nevertheless, it’s well worth taking a look at, because… oh, just read on…

The fact that Neil Gaiman had the temerity to bring his Sandman story to an end in 1999 left DC and Vertigo in something of a quandary, as they now had a ready-installed market for a comic, but nothing to sell to them. The spinoff series The Dreaming was their first attempt at sating those fans, but after enjoying little success with it as an anthology series spotlighting a variety of characters – with vastly differing levels of profile – from across Gaiman’s world, they handed it over to Caitlin R. Kiernan, who somehow managed to get twenty-odd issues of overwrought masturbatory fan fiction published as an “official” comic. That didn’t stop them having another go at the anthology format, however, and a bunch of occasional Sandman Presents-branded miniseries kicked off in 1999 with Love Street, a three-parter by Peter K. Hogan which featured a teenage John Constantine and tied briefly into Dream’s imprisonment by Roderick Burgess.

Despite gleefully tearing apart Garth Ennis’ Hellblazer continuity by putting Constantine in London a full year younger than the Ulsterman had posited, it was an enjoyable enough read, and this reader was sufficiently impressed by it – and, more significantly, by some of Hogan’s excellent Dreaming issues – to be excited by the prospect of Marquee Moon, a follow-up set at the height of London’s punk era, again featuring Constantine and his infamous band Mucous Membrane. Sadly, after the initial solicitations, the series was never heard from again, apparently consigned to some cosmic dustbin. Until last year, however, when first the entire script – and then artist Peter Doherty (not that one)’s fully-inked pencils appeared online at Roots of the Swamp Thing (albeit with an accompanying blurb that claims the comic is from 1997, which I believe to be two or three years earlier than the actual date).

And what a great loss the comic – a one-shot, as it turned out, rather than a three-parter – turned out to be. It’s arguably a more entertaining read than Love Street (though not quite the equal of Hogan’s terrific four-part Dreaming story “The Lost Boy”, which I positively urge you to track down), although perhaps that’s because I’m naturally more drawn to a story that features a cameo appearance by the Clash than I am to one rooted in sixties hippy culture. But it turns out to revolve not so much about Constantine (who really gets more of a cameo appearance himself) as it does around spinning out of the single-issue Sandman story “The Hunt”. Telling the story of the “missing link” from that tale – the daughter of Vassily and mother of the unnamed granddaughter – it’s a pleasant surprise that the connection works so well, and in Tamara, Hogan does a good job of creating a strong individual character that shares believable characteristics with both of Gaiman’s originals.

The story itself is perhaps a little straightforward – you’ll be able to figure out the identity of the mysterious other “wolf” long before Tamara does, and it feels like there’s a bit of a jump to get the two characters together that never feels satisfyingly filled in (at what point does he stop being an arsehole? And come to that, what does Vic do so wrong that gets him the “haha, loser” status in the closing “Where are they now?” sequence?). But it’s an enjoyable enough romp through the lives of a ramshackle late ‘70s almost-successful London punk band, and Constantine’s appearance – in full-on twat mode but with an excellent nod to his supernatural savvy – is a joy, even if we have to ignore that Hogan again willfully pitches him as a Londoner rather than the post-Delano Scouser that he really should be.

Doherty’s art, even in black-and-white, is more appealing here than his earlier arc on The Dreaming, although in fairness that might just be partly down to him having to draw less grim subject matter. His characters aren’t always the most pleasant to look at, but he does a good, arrogant young Constantine, and also does a particularly good job of capturing Vassily from Duncan Eagleson’s original. Also, despite his storytelling being a bit one-note and static, he’s a good choice for this by virtue of his skill at getting the various animals to look right – and there’s strong photo-referencing at play for his London locations, even if the same can’t really be said for his Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.

All in all, as ultimately inconsequential as the story is it’s certainly one of the stronger Sandman spinoffs, which makes it all the more baffling that having got a finished script, pencils and inks (the latter courtesy of D’israeli), Vertigo decided against publishing it after the departure of editor Alisa Kwitney. Still, for anyone with an interest in any or all of the Sandman universe, the Hellblazer universe or simply good comics set in punk-era London, there’s plenty to enjoy, and it’s well worth taking a visit to Roots… in order to check it out.

Read Marquee Moon here!

Seb Patrick | 3rd December, 2008

The Sunday Pages #24

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Now that SDCC is over, the news is pretty thin on the ground, so it’s a pretty short roundup this week as we instead look at what’s going on elsewhere. For example, comicsgirl’s Sandman re-read, Big Head Press’ La Muse, the state of London Back Issue sales and, once again, the articles we’ve written elsewhere.

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Dusting Off : The Dreaming #32 (January 1999)

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dreaming32.jpgEvery Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue at random, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.

Ah, The Dreaming. Road to hell, good intentions, and all that. Having started out as a way to allow an idiosyncratic variety of creators to play in the sandbox of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe, the first year or so followed the template of distinct and individual stories (sometimes single-issue, sometimes spread over a few) that bounced around various supporting characters, minor and major, with – as you’d expect – varying degrees of quality. Unfortunately, neither critical nor sales success was forthcoming, and so Vertigo editorial took the decision to change the focus to an ongoing, plot-driven series centred around a core group of characters (Cain, Abel, Lucien and so on). This mightn’t have been a bad decision in and of itself, but the choice of Caitlin R. Kiernan as one of the two writers (and, later, the sole writer) to take the series forward was fatal, as one of the worst writers in comic book history (yes, even worse than Chuck Austen – and it’s telling that the industry has barely been near her since) completely ran it into the ground in a self-indulgent, fan fiction-esque fireball.

Before all of that, however, we were at least treated to a few issues by the series’ other main writer, Peter Hogan. Hogan had already turned in two of the best stories of the “anthology” era (four-part fairy story “The Lost Boy”, and the superb single issue “Ice”), and would also create the Sandman Presents : Love Street miniseries and the later-cancelled Marquee Moon. He showed an uncanny knack for the characterisation of numerous members of Gaiman’s expansive supporting cast, and for my money, he’s also the best potential Hellblazer writer never to have been given a shout at it.

Anyway, amid the dross that Kiernan’s story arcs were gradually plunging the title into, there was one final ray of light in early ’99 in the shape of “London Pride”, a standalone issue with artist Steve Parkhouse that represents possibly the finest non-Gaiman moment in the Sandman franchise. Set during the Blitz, it tells the story – mentioned briefly in Sandman – of the death of Hob Gadling’s wife Peg. In a neat twist – and I’m not sure if this was intended by Gaiman and I was just too stupid to notice it in the original – it turns out that she’s the same girl (“Peg” being a shortened form of her name “Margaret”) that Hob met in his seafaring days and with whom he encountered the sea serpent, as relayed back in the Sandman : Worlds’ End. Gadling was, in my opinion, the best character to come out of Sandman, and the issue is a welcome expansion of his largely-untapped backstory. We’re also treated to not only a cameo by Sandman favourite Mad Hettie, but an addition to the ranks of the Constantine clan, in the shape of vile chancer Jack.

It’s a fairly simple little story in itself, but it’s moving and funny in turns, and the atmosphere – helped by some sterling work from Parkhouse – is well-judged. The style may not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s really the point of what The Dreaming was supposed to do – span the range of tastes of the wide variety of readers drawn into Gaiman’s universe. Certainly, “London Pride” stands out as exactly the sort of character exploration that was sacrificed all-too-quickly in favour of dicking about with Kiernan’s murderous transsexual Mary Sue character Echo. And it really raises the question of why Hogan’s career in American comics stalled so markedly after he left the title. But if you’re any sort of Sandman fan, I can heartily recommend it as a cracking little read.