The Short Version: Dream, the spiritual embodiment of, well, dreams, is captured and locked away on Earth for seventy years. When he is freed, he must reclaim the sources of his power in order to rebuild the Dreamworld.
The Review: A friend of mine expressed her absolute astonishment at my confession: I’d never read any of Neil Gaiman’s comics work. She urged me then and there to use a generous Christmas gift (given with the caveat that I must “buy something decadent”) and purchase the box set of the ten major volumes, assuring me that I would not regret it and that I would love it.
But I was, admittedly, a little scared. The best graphic novels (Transmetropolitan, Bone, the classic Batman texts, etc) grab you instantly and prove to be transcendant. Preludes & Nocturnes did not grab me instantly. Sure, the first story was interesting and I was intrigued… but I found my mind wandering a bit. I was also, I have to admit, a bit confused to see classic DC comics characters like members of the Justice League, John Constantine, and The Scarecrow – not to mention Dr. Destiny appearing as a major villain in the piece. It all felt a little rote, a little ordinary. There were moments, of course, of beauty and panache – I loved the triumvirate in Hell – but so much of it felt… meh.
And then I read Neil’s afterword. And suddenly, it all made a little more sense. I’m not usually one to truck with apologist writers – “yeah, that wasn’t my best work” is rarely an acceptable reason for having turned in a subpar product. But instead of simply saying “oh, I wish I’d had more time” or “I was rushed” or “I was distracted”, Neil makes the incredibly cogent argument that he was learning. He was new to the game at that time and was still trying to find his voice. And what a hell of a thing to admit, having sucked me into buying a ten-volume set that I was starting to maybe slightly regret. Suddenly, I saw the comic I’d just finished in a new light and it was actually better, retrospectively, for it.
Because the thing is, it isn’t a bad comic. By any means. It’s just not the glorious masterpiece that people describe to you – but, then, you have to realize that they’re describing the whole series and not just the first collection. And as it all falls into place, you can retroactively have a little more fun with it. John Constantine, one of my favorite characters of all time (told you I loved that urban wizard cop schtick), is no longer oddly shoehorned in but instead a welcome cameo to help set up a new title. And the oddly paced beginning – with Morpheus being called by the mystic (he wanted to call Death – who I’m way interested in seeing more of. Her one-issue appearance in this collection was the most original thing going and it made everything else in that issue more lively) and the seventy-year imprisonment – was no longer, well, as tough to get through because I realized it was the labor pains of something new.
And what a new thing it is. It’s the introduction of a new mythology, spun off from classical myths (classical meaning everything from The Grim Reaper to the Bible to the modern myths of superheroes) into something else, something nobody’s seen before. Gaiman’ll go on to play with myths and legends a whole lot more – American Gods is still one of the very best books I’ve ever read, let alone one of the best attempts to tackle the mythos of America – but I see now where it all began… and I’m hungry to read more.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I realize that this review might sound (at times) like I’m making excuses or something – and I don’t want it to seem like that. This rating, I hope, will make it clear that I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this first volume. I’m just trying, perhaps, to temper expectations of anyone who hasn’t read The Sandman yet so that they don’t judge too quickly, as I did. It’s good – it just isn’t great. But if you let it take you over and if you think about it a little, I’ll bet any amount of money that you’ll be hankering for the second volume before an hour has gone past.