Night music

© C A Lovegrove

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?

The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters’ (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos): aquatint by Francisco Goya.

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.

Neil Gaiman, perhaps modelling for the Sandman

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.


#RIPxvii

10 thoughts on “Night music

  1. I had a very similar reaction to you reading this first volume some years ago. Stick with it though as it gets so much better – the historical stories are particularly fine and the artwork also improves hugely. DC foisted Batman etc on him, something he moves away from after this.

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    1. That’s really helpful to know, Jake, thanks—this first volume really felt like he was exercising his muscles and feeling his way forward, but I shall get round to later ones in due course even if I’m in no hurry at the moment.

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  2. Interesting. I’ve never read Gaiman and I’m not much of a reader of graphic novels so this is probably not for me. I’ve read a few good ones but they tend to be more serious – like Maus. Not sure grotesque superheroes are something I would enjoy!

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  3. My husband, who loves graphic novels, bought me the first two books in the series. I had exactly the same reaction to Preludes and Nocturns as you, Chris, and have never read the second volume. I’m interested to hear from Jake that it’s worth sticking with. I might try again.

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    1. Ditto, Jan, in terms of “might try again” – though I’d have to acquire a copy of the second volume when I’m in the mood for it. But it had better be better: I’m very finicky about the visuals matching the quality of the storytelling, and while the couple of Alan Moore graphic novels I’ve read have satisfied in both departments I can only say my reaction to this was more meh!

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  4. I don’t think I’ve ever read a graphic novel before so was interested to hear your experiences with this. I’m still not sure whether it’s a format I could get on with. Storywise quite a lot of this seems to have featured in the recent adaptation and I did enjoy that as an introduction to this series.

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    1. I wouldn’t start with this as an intro to graphic novels, for sure, though I’m unsure what exactly I might recommend. I’ve liked the couple of the Alan Moore novels I’ve read but the violence can be a bit, er, graphic! But the range is enormous, as you might expect from fiction.

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  5. joyweesemoll

    I found it all very disturbing many years ago. It didn’t help that I bought the books with the intention of giving them to a sensitive young friend. They didn’t seem appropriate and the fact that I had paid so much for them was as disturbing as the content.

    I suspect that all of that would be better now, for me, since I’ve had more experience with the graphic novel format and would be happy to read them from the library.

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    1. Interesting points, Joy, thanks. Yes, it’s true, the episode with John Dee in the al-nite café was particularly disturbing, and I don’t think sensitive minds (and I count myself in with them to some extent) would cope well with it. Personally I believe that suggestion by way of shadows or other means can be just as effective as explicit graphic violence in getting a story across, though I’m not in favour of the return of the US Comics Code Authority or similar. Not that this ever applied in the UK.

      I suspect that Gaiman would probably write this differently nowadays if he was starting from scratch. Apart from a trailer I haven’t seen any of the Netflix episodes but wonder how they would (or did) portray this sequence.

      In some ways though the original would not come as a shock to youngsters used to the violent, sexist video games generally available, so having The Sandman series accessible in libraries may not be so problematic now.

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