The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III,
cover art by Dave McKean.
Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, foreword (1995) by Karen Berger.
30th anniversary edition, DC Vertigo 2018 (1988-9).
In his 1991 Afterword to this volume the author describes how he proposed reviving “an almost forgotten DC character […] and doing a story set almost entirely in dreams.” Editor Karen Berger suggested that the Sandman be created as a new character, “Someone no one’s seen before.”
And so it turned out: Gaiman had an image in his mind of a man, “young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes; Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”
It’s extraordinary how that initial image survived as the opening chapter of Preludes & Nocturnes, and how the scenario of an imprisoned Lord of Dreams was arrived at and then resolved. What’s even more extraordinary is how the series developed into The Sandman Library, with its thirteen volumes all going on to achieve cult status and, more than three decades later, to morph into an adaptation for a streaming service. But for someone like me coming completely new to it is it, was it, worth the hype?
Preludes & Nocturnes opens with an Aleister Crowley type attempting to conjure up Death in order to ensure he will be granted everlasting life. Unfortunately for him he has instead imprisoned Dream (Morpheus, the Sandman) in a bubble, with consequences he can’t imagine except for the absolute certainty of his own demise. Dream’s accessories – his mask-like helmet, his ruby, and his everlasting bag of dream-inducing sand – are stolen and dispersed, and when Dream finally escapes his bounds he goes on a quest to retrieve them. And if he’s successful, what then?
On this, my first ever read, this first ever volume comprising eight issues of the comic book series seemed very episodic, not helped by changes in style as different graphic artists took the lead in pencilling and inking. But writer Gaiman clarifies his purposes in his Afterword, saying that each chapter features a different genre – classic English horror stories, 1940s dark fantasy, or DC superhero comic strips, for example – and these different approaches are reflected in each chapter’s atmosphere, whether through visuals, storyline or setting.
Those settings are like tableaux in a diorama. They move from an English Victorian pile to Dream’s palace, to London, Hell, Arkham Asylum, an all-night diner, and eventually NYC’s Washington Square. The quest for Sandman’s missing accessories is a slim thread running through this volume: more to the fore are the characters Dream meets – Cain and Abel, the Fates, Lucifer – and figures from the DC stable such as Martian Manhunter, Scarecrow, Batman, John Constantine, Green Lantern, Doctor Destiny and so on. It’s Dream’s interactions with these and others that shape his quest and his search for purpose.
I confess that I have mixed feelings about this introduction to the series. On the one hand I admire Gaiman’s vision, his intermingling of myths and legends with both mundane and fantastic elements, his conception (in concert with his editor and artists) of Dream, the Sandman himself. As the chapters unfold I start to sense the directions he was feeling his way towards after throwing us in, as it were, the deep end. On the other hand I find the visual aspects more disturbing than intended, and as these are a crucial element in any graphic novel it’s these I must address now.
Apparently the lead penciller at the start was Sam Kieth, but I admit his figures’ depictions in an almost jokey caricatured style, with exaggerated features and bulging eyes, didn’t appeal to me at all and rather distracted from the substance of the story. After he voluntarily departed from the project and Mike Dringenberg took the lead I sensed a more serious attitude which reached its apotheosis in the final chapters. I do hope that seriousness continued through to the following dozen volumes; yet for me it’s the Dave McKean cover artwork, for this collection and for the individual issues, that truly impresses.
But the focus of The Sandman series must surely be Dream himself, a solitary and enigmatic personage who, along with his sibling Death – one of ‘the Endless’ whom Morris Burgess Brocklesby originally intended to conjure up and control – satisfyingly bookends this novel. In this Goth version of Struwwelpeter we can perhaps glimpse an alter ego of shock-headed Gaiman himself, a purveyor of daydreams and nightmares, of visions inducing either träume or trauma. As Gaiman states, Preludes and Nocturnes is “a little night music from me to you,” but whether it soothes the mind or disturbs with its cacophony depends on the listener.
Personally it affects me in both ways.