One of my favorite writers, in or out of comics, is Neil Gaiman. It is hard to find any comic fan who hasn't read something by him, much less heard of the name. Neil is also one of a rare few who began writing in the comics medium and then found critical success in another field. Aside from having a solo novel on the New York Times Top Ten Bestsellers list, he found acclaim among fans and critics alike with "Good Omens", a novel he co-wrote with British humorist Terry Pratchett. "Good Omens" is due to be made into a movie by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame within a year, as is "Neverwhere", another story by Gaiman which was created as a miniseries for the BBC and then was later adapted into a novel. Of course Gaiman is most famous for the comic series which first put him into the limelight and made him an icon among the seemingly incompatible groups of Goths and mainstream comic fans. Of course I'm talking about the revolutionary Sandman series.
Gaiman's work on The Sandman had an immeasurable effect upon the comics medium. His work helped bring about the creation of DC's Vertigo line for adults and helped to bring many new fans, who had previously considered comics a children's medium, into the hobby. It is also likely that such later creator-controlled series with fixed endings such as Preacher, Starman and Hitman would have ever been published.
Even after Gaiman left DC to work on a variety of other projects, his influence remained. The minor characters of the Sandman series were popular enough to be allowed their own series: The Dreaming. Even now, Gaiman's legacy continues in Lucifer, a solo series book about the life of Gaiman's Paradise Lost inspired Lord of Hell, who quits his job as the legions of the damned. And many other writers were allowed to do solo stories centering around minor characters of Gaiman's work.
There has been a glut of these later solo stories within the last month: some living up to Gaiman's standards of storytelling, some falling short... and some even building on what he started.
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Dreams But Were Afraid To Ask
Divided into eight chapters of varying length, this one shot gives us a closer look at the world of the Dreaming outside of Dream's Castle. It shows us the grunt work that employs so many of the various beings in the Dreaming. Rather than Dream individually handling the dreams of every single creature in the multiverse, there are a series of dream writers, directors, technicians and actors who populate each individual dream. This presumably gives Dream more time to focus on the creation of new dreams or worlds. Or perhaps he enjoys having the company even though he could easily do everything himself.
At any rate, we get a look at this wonderful world of dream making through the eyes of several old favorites: Merv Pumpkinhead, Lucian the Librarian, Cain and Abel, Gregory and Goldie Gargoyle and Nuala the Elf, who gets her first big break as a dream director. Nuala's story is the closest thing we get to a connection between the stories, with some of the stories connecting to her first directing job. The stories do stand alone for the most part however, but all are equally amusing in one way or another, as they answer several questions about dreaming. Such as what causes nightmares, if there really is an inherent symbolism to dreams and what causes recurring dreams.
The answers to these questions are unexpected, unusually simple and in some cases rather frightening, but always funny, even if it is in a rather dark way. Consider the first story, where we discover that the cause of nightmares is dream directors who wanted to create something interesting for someone whose life is too dull. An innocent man is sent to the loony bin in a matter of weeks when one director who specializes in horror dreams in for the man's regular director. There is also the tale that explains why some people dream in color and others in black and white. Quite simply, the people who dream in black and white have dream directors who favor the Bergmanesque or Film Noir look.
It's not nearly as deep or symbolic as any of Gaiman's work, but it is a worthy edition onto the mythology of the series. It is also, a rather funny read.
My Rating: 7 out of 10 Stars
The Dead Boy Detectives: Parts 1-4
Fan favorites despite having only one appearance in the original Sandman books, Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland are two boys eternal. Killed by school bullies in a Satanic ritual, Edwin was trapped in Hell until the Events of The Sandman: Season of Mists, which released all of those in Hell onto the earth. He met and befrinded Charles; a young boy who was later killed by the ghosts of the same bullies who killed Edwin. The two eventually left the boys private school where their bodies were, and with Charles refusing to be taken by Death, the two left off to find adventure.
Well, it's taken nearly ten years but the boys finally found their adventure. And what an adventure! This story is the stuff of Saturday morning serials and boys adventure stories, despite the rather dark origin of the heroes. In fact, this may well be the most light-hearted of the Sandman spin-offs and I wouldn't mind seeing a series based on the boys exploits.
The boys set up a detective agency in a tree-house built outside a haunted mansion. After hanging up their Detective License (from the Apex Novelty College, signed by College President Raymond Hamett), the boys sit down to wait for a client. It doesn't take them long, as their house is found by Marcia, a blond, attractive, slightly-older teenage runaway who both boys instantly get a crush on. She tells them a tale of how friends of her's have been disappearing and found dead later, looking withered and rotten, like they had aged hundreds of years in a day. She is rather reluctant to hire two pre-teen boys to investigate the murders and leaves very quickly.
Regardless, Charles drags Edwin into investigating the case with him, arguing that the cases are obviously magically related and that they are better equipped to handle such things than the police. While being dead and young are serious flaws for two detectives, being a ghostly boy does have advantages- such as being mostly ignored by adults under usual circumstances and being able to go anywhere without being seen. The boys discover the even greater powers they posses as ghosts, thanks to the aid of the Marquis de Marquez: a mysterious man they meet who recognizes the boys as what they are, and tells them that they may be after the same quarry. Marquez is the ancestor of a Spanish Royal Inquirer who swore to track down and destroy Gilles de Rais: a knight turned necromancer who drained the life force of children to prolong his own life. From father to son, the charge was passed down to hunt the black magician, and Marquez believes that it is de Rais who is responsible for the current series of murders in London.
Red-herrings, setbacks and mystery abound as Edwin and Charles struggle with the idea of growing up while being dead, how a dead boy can love a living girl and the surly Margaret Dumont-ish lady who haunts the mansion that they have built their treehouse hideaway in and insists they act like proper ghosts and not stay hidden when she has the Lady's Association over. Throw in a few cameos by Sandman favorites like Mad Hettie and you have as fine a four-part miniseries as you'd hope to find anywhere.
The characterization is top notch, with Charles and Edwin expanded into full characters. And despite the rather dark subject of necromancy and child murders, this story maintains a light-hearted, Hardy Boys/Boxcar Children vibe as we see two boys being boys even as they go about the serious business of trying to fight crime. And make no mistake about it: Charles and Edwin are very much boys, unlike most of the youngsters in comics, who are written like tiny adults with smart aleck wit. Sure, they may go about the serious business of fighting evil, but that doesn't stop them from playing pirates and fencing with wooden swords in the middle of the a case. It also doesn't stop them from dressing up for adventure (Charles as a musketeer, Edwin as Sherlock Holmes) when the time comes for them to start hunting the killer... even though nobody can see their clothes.
My Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars
The Corinthian: A Death in Venice
Created by Dream, The Corinthian was meant to be a reflection of humanity's dark side. In The Sandman: The Doll's House, we found out that The Corinthian had escaped into the Waking World and become the inspiration for and leading member of a society of serial killers. Uncreated by a furious Dream (who was more furious at The Corinthian's lack of ambition or vision than any deaths he committed), he was later remade in "The Kindly Ones" as part of an effort to locate a kidnapped boy.
This flashback series shows The Corinthian shortly after his escape, which was facilitated by another character from the series: a minor one who appeared once and only once in Sandman #1. After serving a bit in WWI, The Conrinthian travels to Venice, seeking a fellow soldier: A man named Charles Constantine who he hopes can teach him how to kill: an act which fascinates him completely, but which he is unable to understand the hows and whys of without instruction.
Trippy as all get out, this story requires a fair bit of knowledge of the series mythology of Hellblazer and the Constantine family to fully appreciate. Everything in the story is explained but very rarely is it understood. The muddy, over-inked artwork makes things difficult to follow at times and some characters tend to blend in and be hard to tell apart, such as Charles' name-changing female companion and a local woman of Venice who holds a minor part in the story.
Unusual for a Sandman tale, this story is so simple that to summarize the whole thing would be to tell the whole story. Sadly, this simplicity means that the usual multiple layers one expects of a Sandman spinoff are not there. Not that this story is truly bad, but it is really only of interest to those who like The Corinthian best of all the minor cast of The Sandman and Hellblazer fans who would like to read up on one of John Constantine's ancestors.
My Rating: 4 out of 10 Stars
Very close in tone to Gaiman's own American Gods novel, this book centers around the many-named Greek witch who was Dream's lover for a short time: Call her Thessaly. It suits her as well as any. Whatever her real name, she has long been a fan favorite, this mousy-looking young woman whose deceptively innocent face hides a heart of stone and an ancient mind.
We start out with a nameless narrator telling us about the many monsters and gods who hide out among humanity. This was a common theme of Gaiman's early works, with gods of travel and trade overseeing travel agencies and small companies and goddesses of lust and fertility, forced into stripping for a living. After watching a butcher whom our narrator assures us is the Great Earth Serpent in mortal guise, we focus in on Thessaly, who has once again assumed her favored disguise as a simple college student.
She's out on an unwanted date with a rather shy and goofy nerd who thinks she too, is a rather shy and goofy nerd. But she's willing to indulge him and things go quite well, at least until the demon dogs (shades of Ghostbusters here) jump through the walls and rip the poor love, struck idiot to shreds. Of course they are little match for Thessaily, a magician so powerful that "even the gods fear her", so says our narrator. We finally get to see our narrator at this point: a rather shabby looking fellow in a trenchcoat, khakis and dress-shirt with long sideburns and a pompadour haircut. He shrugs off all of Thessaly's attacks against him and introduces himself as "Fetch". Thess figures it out at this point and realizes that the man before her is a ghost. Fetch introduces himself further, says that Thess killed him at some point in her past, but he gives no hints as to where or when. He then lets tells her how he has been hired to track her down and capture her soul for various parties who want to see her suffer for past crimes. With Fetch tagging along, Thessaly goes on a quest to find his employers and teach them a very important lesson. The important lesson, as fans of Thessaly will likely remember from "A Game of You" is, "Don't mess with me if you want to live long."
Only two parts of the story have come out as of this writing, but so far the series is very enjoyable. It is unexpectedly funny, with Fetch being the perfect foil to the nearly humorless Thessaly. There's also some quick cameos by various other Sandman regulars, including the Deadboy Detectives and some other characters from "A Game of You" in a metaphorical subway station Thessaly must use to take her quest. Try and track down the first two issues if you can. This one is a keeper, so far.
That's all for now. Until next time, may your clerks be friendly and your comics unbent.