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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Sandman: Endless Nights

Title: The Sandman: Endless Nights

ISBN: 9781401201135
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2003
Artist: Glenn Farby, Milo Manara, Miguelanxo Prado, Frank Quitely, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz, Barron Storey
Writer: Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4/5

A few years back, Neil Gaiman penned the final story of The Sandman comic book series. Even though he cleaned things up and locked the door behind him, he promised us that he had more stories to tell, that he'd be back to tell them. And now he is. Here are seven stories, one for each of the Endless (seven brothers and sisters who rule the functions of dying, dreaming, despairing, etc.) that are focused strictly on them. In the series, Dream (the Sandman of the title) was always there, even if we never saw him. Here, we have stories that spotlight just the people they star, even though there are threads of other the functions woven in. And because of this, each story attempts to define the function its star represents, not the whys of it, but its impact and the action of it.

The first is "Death and Venice", illustrated by P. Craig Russell, who is the only artist to have worked with Neil Gaiman before, on the Arabian nights-like "Ramadan". In it, two stories run parallel for a time; one about a group of eighteenth century nobles who live an hedonistic existence on a secluded island and the second about a disillusioned American solider wandering present day Venice who recalls a meeting he had with a mysterious woman. The two stories twist about each other and almost mirror each other's moods, defining the two main things that we, as humans, always have to go through when Death is involved. We always fight her, and in the end, we always accept her. I think you can recognize Russell's art from a million miles away. But I never realized before how he has perfected the art of expressive simplicity. If you've read Sandman 50, you know well how absolutely ornate he can draw, but in this story, while often things look ornate, they are actually much cleaner than that. Lovely work that matches what is really a very quiet, gentle story.

Following that is the exquisitely drawn "What I've Tasted of Desire." It is the story of a young village woman who "wants like a forest fire." The object of her desire is the chieftain's son. But how can a goat girl win the love and loyalty of a man desired by all the girls of the village? It is a very intelligent story, saying a lot of sensible things about love, lust and desire -- the differences between them, and the magic of each. It is told in a way I found totally captivating. Gaiman removes the fourth wall for this story, creating a sense of intimacy and immediacy that makes it all the more moving. She tells her story directly to you, looking right out of the panels at you the reader, speaking with all the honesty that plain dialogue sometimes lacks. Milo Manara's sensual art is a perfect match for this. The people are absolutely beautiful, and his rendition of Desire, who is neither male nor female, is for me the definitive version.

For long time readers, "The Heart of a Star" is a special treat, because it shows us a much, much younger Dream, taking his beloved Killalla of the Glow to a very important meeting, where he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his lover to his family and friends. While still formal, he's a much happier being. While Death, who has been known to use the expression "peachy keen" is, well, different. I admit I loved it because it featured my favorite of the Sandman characters, and gave some interesting insight, but it is also a very wise and bittersweet story. It is about the dream of love, and the nightmare of it, and about what planets dream of, and stars...

Miguelanxo Prado does a lovely job on the art. His rendition of space is fabulous, and several of the special guests, whose true identity I'll keep mum about, require a special quality to them that I think he achieves perfectly.

"Fifteen Portraits of Despair" is not nearly so gentle. Baron Storey lends his talents to this evocative, wrenching look at the darkest depths of Despair's Realm. It is not a conventional one person's story, but the tale of everyone who despairs. Gaiman begins by describing her appearance and moves to the people who are even now visiting her; a priest accused of a horrible crime, a girl who lists things that make her happy, but can only think of one thing, and a man who lets down the animals that depend on him in a most terrible way. It is poetry interspersed with bits of prose, for example, "Her kiss is the black dog that follows you in the darkness" and, I think, would have been very effective even without the art. The art changes in style and feeling, showing us things of horror and darkness, interspersed, here and there, with things that could be beautiful. It is imaginative and disheartening.

"Going Inside" is Delirium's story, of an unlikely rescue mission conducted by an even unlikelier team of people who know her ways intimately. Bill Sienkiewicz draws this intricate story, one that as if tells of the rescue mission, it shows several different voices. All people whose grasp of reality is not the same as our own. Part of the reason why this works so well is that they use different caption boxes for the different stories. There is also a mixture of artistic styles to help lead us into the realm with them. From the almost photographic perfection of Delirium and Dream, to the black and white pen and ink used to show us our heroes, it is the essence of Delirium's Realm.

This isn't the last time we visit with Delirium. In "On the Peninsula" she joins her brother Destruction. An archeologist goes to San Raphael, where she takes part in a dig but instead of excavating the past, she excavates the future. Destruction agrees to help her in the dig and we learn about how, it seems, even though he abandoned his realm long ago, it looks like we humans don't need him. We're perfectly capable of destruction all on our own. All the stories, you could argue, mix the functions of the endless. But this one mingles them all very closely, so that you can see how closely dreams and desire and despair are all linked to the small destructions that happen to us every day, as well as the larger ones. Glenn Fabry is the artist here, creating really clean, more traditional graphic book art, rendering even the stranger things, such as her dreams, as very real feeling.

The final story is, as it should be, Destiny's. It is hard for Destiny to have a real "story", because he carries a book that has all of our stories. It tells of his walk, through his realm, and of the contents of this book. Frank Quitely's art is really pretty, filled with soft colors and expressive art. It is almost an epilogue, gently ending these endless nights, while strangely, promising that there are more stories to be told.

The Sandman: Endless Nights is, all and all, a beautifully done book. Several different styles and tastes of art that capture the stories and expand our experience. Neil Gaiman is a master of telling short stories. The opportunity to read seven distinct tales told in different ways is a true treat for us, allowing us to experience different worlds and textures. I found them moving and strong. This is a must read for Sandman fans, and provides a fabulous start for those who would like to try out Neil Gaiman's graphic work but were worried about starting on a ten-book series.

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