The Sandman Series

I seem to be on an unofficial bi-weekly schedule.  Mostly that’s due to time constraints every other week as I rush to finish another deadline I have.  I suppose I should accept that, but it seems rather annoying.  I’d hoped to post every week.

Anyway.  Since my last post, a number of interesting things have happened.  My car finally got repaired.  We hired a few new guys at work.  My grandmother went to the hospital.  Stuff like that.  Also, there’s the whole crisis in Japan.

An 8.9 on the Richter scale, the biggest quake in the island’s history, I heard.  Which, given Japan’s history with earthquakes, is saying quite a bit.  I suppose at least most Japanese buildings are built with earthquakes in mind, so they were better prepared than most countries to take the blast.  Interesting, though, how fast rumors grow, I’d heard the death toll was up to 10,000, but research just now shows that actually it is more like 7000.  10,000 is more a forecast of what the death toll COULD reach.  Both amounts are tragically large, though, and the forecast is nearly as disturbing as the current stat.  I believe the estimate is based partly on the expectation of what the overheated reactors will do.

Japan really can’t catch a break, can it?  First Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, now reactors overheating all over the place.  Although, actually, the overheated reactors aren’t NEARLY as dangerous as all the media hype suggests.  I mean, yes, they’re dangerous, and some of the heavier radiation is going to cause some serious illness in future years, but by and large most radiation isn’t as dangerous as most people believe.  That’s why the Japanese government and the American government and nearly every other government involved is scrambling to assure people that they’re not all going to die from a plume of radioactive gas blowing across the Pacific.  They’re not in some kind of conspiracy, they’re just trying to calm down a populace driven crazy by too many years of comic books.  The bad news is, even if nothing DOES happen with the reactors, simply the danger will frighten off most nations from experimenting with nuclear power for a couple years.

The bright spot in all of this, however, is Japan.  As someone’s who’s been somewhat fascinated with Japan for a while, I feel confident that they’ll survive and surmount this.  It’s what they do.  They jumped into the Industrial Revolution late and grew to become a major military power that threatened the East.  The US smacked them down and put their army under constraint, and Japan bounced right back up to become a major economic power.  This earthquake is a tragedy, and demands our prayers, but it won’t stop the Japanese people. 

Wow, I sound like a fanboy in that last sentence.  Moving on.

My fancy new computer has shown its worth through its handling of the game Myst III: Exile.

Exile is the sequel to Riven, which was the sequel to Myst.  All three are some of the most beautifully realized and original games you are ever likely to come across (can’t say about the other sequels, haven’t played them yet).  They’re completely nonviolent puzzle games, revolving around a series of worlds that you travel between and through in order to find parts to an overarching puzzle.  The different worlds are both fanciful and realistic, a magical combination, and the stories are tense and engaging.  What I really like is how you travel between worlds–books with moving pictures that you touch to teleport.  Fascinating games.  Myst is, to my mind, the best, but I haven’t finished Exile yet, so perhaps that’s premature.

There’s not much new history in Exile, it appears to be mostly more information about the crimes of Sirrus and Achenar, the baddies you met in Myst.  They’re gone now, of course, but some guy whose world they destroyed is back and pretty crazy for revenge.  Fortunately, his revenge is mostly of the irritating type… you need to follow him through the puzzles to regain the book he stole from Atrus (the good guy).

Hey, by the way, wanna know something fun?  The actor who plays Atrus is actually Rand Miller, one of the creators of the game.  Even better, he plays Achenar too, while his brother Robyn, one of the other creators, plays Sirrus.  Apparently Rand Miller dislikes his role as Atrus because he doesn’t feel like much of an actor, but he can’t drop it without enraging fans.

So far, I’ve only finished Ameteria (the world in the picture above), but the other two worlds, Voltaic and Edanna, look promising also.  Amateria was essentially a giant pinball machine through Japanese shrines atop something like the Giant’s Causeway.  Some of the puzzles seemed a bit too… videogame-ish, too obvious, as opposed to the more subtle challenges of the first two, but then these ARE supposed to be lesson islands, designed to teach Atrus’ sons about stuff.

Anyway, I look forward to trying out the rest.  Perhaps I’ll do the other two games and do a fuller review of the series later, but that will have to wait because NOW we have the meat of this post.  The Sandman.

Now, I’m not talking about this guy…

Or this guy…

Or even this guy, who’s from a totally different universe.

No, the guy I’m talking about is the Sandman your mom tells you about, the one who sends you to sleep.  He’s Morpheus, prince of stories; Oneiros, the shaper; Dream, the Endless in charge of, well, dreams.  This guy.

By the way, as this is a graphic novel, I’m probably going to be using a lot of inserted images, so this post is likely to stretch on for a ways.

The Sandman is a graphic novel mini-series by Neil Gaiman, one of the most creative and original writers you are likely to meet.  He wrote Coraline, Stardust, and the Marvel:1602 series.  He also, though, wrote the horrendous Beowulf movie that came out a few years ago, so sometimes he fails. Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of the guy.  He’s definitely not a Christian writer (he’s Jewish, was raised Anglican, and currently isn’t sure what he subscribes to), and though his stories have morals, they’re more often about general aspects of life, not certain patterns of behavior.

My opinion of him is further confounded by his writing tendencies.  If you’ve read Stardust, you probably know that sometimes he strays into some more… questionable areas, and Sandman definitely goes there too.  This is not a series for children.  Neil Gaiman claims to be personally squeamish, but if that’s the case, his writings definitely don’t show much evidence of it.  I would definitely avoid the collection A Game of You, for reasons I won’t discuss, and also the issue “24 Hours.”  Neither contributes to the main story and are unnecessarily disgusting. A number of the other story arcs also have rather twisted situations and scenes which you may want to avoid.  If you are, as Neil Gaiman claims to be, squeamish, don’t read this series.

The series revolves around, unsurprisingly, the Sandman, and the realm of dreams he governs.  This means that a lot of the plots deal with dreams, both as they relate to hopes and aspirations, and more frequently, how they serve as stories.  There’s a lot of artistic commentary running in the background of Sandman, and it’s backed up by the fanciful worlds and landscapes that are necessarily part of the dream world.

And the characters.  Oh, the characters.

There’s Merv Pumpkinhead, the scarecrow janitor.  There’s Matthew the raven, Dream’s wisecracking assistant who flies around the Dream world observing. There’s the nightmare Corinthian, who has mouths where his eyes should be.  There’s Lucien, the birdlike librarian with the wild hair.  Hob Hayward, the immortal man who Dream meets once a century.  There are Cain and Abel, a pair of brothers who were supposedly ‘the First story,’ and who mostly interact by Cain killing Abel (who pops back into life).  And Gilbert, a garden in the dream world that decided to become incarnate for a while as a vaguely GK Chesterton-like professor.

Then there’s the family.  The Sandman is also known as Dream, one of the Seven Endless.  The others are, going clockwise from Dream: Destruction, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Death, and Destiny.  The Endless are not men, not superheroes, not elementals, not really even gods.  They’re just the Endless, who’ve outlasted worlds, universes, and gods.

They’re something of a family, though they don’t meet very often.  The eldest (as far as that applies), is blind Destiny with his book.  Destiny doesn’t have much of a personality, but the others make up for that.  Desire is a self-obsessed fop who derives amusement from tormenting Dream.  Dream is actually something of a drama queen for a member of the Endless, there’s one scene where he stands out in rain that HE MADE HIMSELF for three weeks because he got dumped by his latest girlfriend.  Destruction, by contrast, is a rather exuberant truant, the only Endless to desert his role.  He spends most of his time painting pictures and doing various jobs while wandering all over Creation.

Death, strangely enough, is the most perky of the bunch, and she tends to rather steal the show whenever she shows up.  Dream gets along very well with his older sister, so she shows up quite a bit in the Sandman series.

This is at the end of the first arc, when Dream has regained his power as lord of the dream realm, and he just sits in Paris, feeding the pigeons and feeling a little… aimless.  Death shows up, tells him if he feeds birds for too long he’ll get fat birds, talks about pigeons in Mary Poppins and other matters, and finally tells off Dream for being all mopey.  She reminds Dream of his duty by taking him along on her rounds, and the story ends by Dream regaining a sense of purpose.  By the way, the scene above has an amusing alternate.

Death kills gods, among other things, and Gaiman’s attitude toward gods is worth noting.  Angels appear in the Sandman series, as do demons, and God (or at least the Master of the Angels) is mentioned but appropriately enough not shown.  However, they share space with Odin, Bast, and several other minor gods.  The angels are apparently more powerful than any of the other gods, so at least the Creator can be presumed to be the most powerful, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in the Sandman universe, all gods are equally true.  Gaiman suggests that they derive their power and existence from people’s belief in them (even the Endless are said to exist largely because people believe they do), so the cosmology of Sandman is a Stargate-like situation.  The more people believe in you, the more powerful you are.  So perhaps the Creator exists and is most powerful simply because the most amount of people believe in him.  Gaiman diplomatically avoids addressing this.

The series in general is an interesting and engaging read, although, as I said, a somewhat disturbing one at times.  Highlights include the trip through history with Hob Hayward, Death and Delirium’s quest to find Destruction, and the story of Emperor Norton I, ruler of San Francisco.  (Apparently his decision to become emperor came from a bet between Dream and Despair).  The most interesting, perhaps are the two issues that deal with Shakespeare, who in this universe made a deal with Morpheus–two plays for a lifetime of story ideas.

The two plays are, for your information, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (shown here), and The Tempest.  The two issues that deal with those plays are chock-full of historical detail about Shakespeare and the time period.  Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson make appearances, and events like the Gunpowder Plot and King James’ ascendancy are referenced.  Shakespeare is even credited with the line “Remember, remember the Fifth of November,” in one of the comics.  We see Shakespeare’s family, too, and how his genius for words affect them and him.  Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son (and, it is suggested, the inspiration for Hamlet), appears in the first, and his wife and daughter (inspiration for Miranda in The Tempest) appear in the second.

These two issues are worth reading even as separate pieces from the rest of the series, not least because they have none of the disturbing elements in the rest of the series.  One can’t help but wish Gaiman had spent more time on comics like this, and less on things like kidnapped muses in high towers.  Indeed, one often wishes that Gaiman would put more effort in avoiding the overly realistic.  His potential as a writer makes his failings all the more regrettable.  Apparently, at one point he contemplated writing a story for the Sandman that described the dream of an unborn child, who at the end would be revealed as en route to an abortion, but discarded it because he was afraid it might influence people.  The sheer waste of this appalls me, and I really, really wish he’d written it.

Still, what IS written is in many ways sheer genius and worth reading.  Not a read for the young, the squeamish, or even the casual reader, the Sandman is nonetheless an engaging and mind-blowing experience recommended for more mature audiences.


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