BOOK REVIEW: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the first, eight-issue volume of Sandman, we’re introduced to Morpheus / Dream – the king of dreams & nightmares and one of the seven Endless – when he’s captured by an amateur occultist who was trying to kidnap Death [the (not-so Grim) Reaper and also Dream’s sister.] The story told in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is one of Dream’s captivity, escape, and the subsequent missions to reacquire three magic artifacts that were stolen from him when he was captured (i.e. his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby-like jewel.) That last sentence makes it sound like a far-out fantasy, but it’s really a relatable and human set of stories.

This imaginative and compelling opening volume is at its best with “24 Hours” (as well as “Passengers,” the issue that precedes “24 Hours” and sets up its story.) In “24 Hours,” escaped villain, John Dee, torments the occupants of a smalltown diner by manipulating their reality (a capability he achieved when he came into possession of Dream’s “ruby.”) It’s a story that’s both horrifying and thought-provoking as Dee forces the diners to shed the masks of polite society and get to know the uncensored versions of each other.

Another favorite is the concluding issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is really more of an epilogue, given the story has been brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion with the penultimate issue. “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces us to Death (the kinder, more charismatic, and more articulate Gaiman-version of the Grim Reaper) and shows us interaction between Dream and Death as Dream learns a crucial lesson from his sister.

“Sandman” is an excellent series, and the volume where it all began is no exception. I’d highly recommend it for readers in general.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman

The Books of MagicThe Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Timothy Hunter is a young man faced with a big decision: take up magic and become the powerful sorcerer that he’s prophesied to become or live a magicless existence among muggles. The story’s structure is reminiscent of “A Christmas Carol,” except that instead of three ghosts showing the protagonist what a jerk he is, it’s the four members of the Trenchcoat Brigade (John Constantine, Mister E, Doctor Occult, and the Phantom Stranger) introducing Hunter to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the magical world. There’s much more adventure than in Dickens’s story, owing to the fact that there’re many who don’t want a powerful new magician coming on the scene, and so Hunter is being hunted.

This is a quick read and a straightforward story. It’s a little unusual in that Timothy, the protagonist, so often doesn’t have much agency, but in many ways it’s as much a Trenchcoat Brigade story as a Timothy Hunter story. Also, it’s hard to avoid with a character who is just a regular boy among powerful practitioners of magic.

There’s a lot of connection to the Sandman universe as well as references to the broader DC universe of characters.

I found it to be an intriguing story, and I thought the art captured the trippiness required of this kind of story. If you like Gaiman’s DC / Vertigo work, you’ll enjoy this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst

The Storyteller's HandbookThe Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

This is a book, but not one that one reads but rather one that one writes. It contains more than 50 imaginative and fantastical artworks intended to help creative parents build their own stories, while helping their children learn to become storytellers. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman (who has worked with the artist on previous occasions) and an introduction by Hurst, but otherwise there’s almost no text.

The animate subjects of the book are children and animals, but not just any animals. They are mis-sized, misplaced, mythical, imaginary, anthropomorphized, and extinct creatures in search of a clever explanation for their existence and behaviors. The usual suspects of our beloved stories are most well-represented: bears, lions, foxes, rabbits, birds, and fish – for example. But there are also less well-known creatures: mollusks, a mantis, kangaroo, koala, and armadillo. The settings are also designed to fuel the imagination: oceans, hot air balloons, impossibly floating places of all sorts, cities of gothic and fantastical architecture.

If you’re looking for a storybook where you have a graphic prompt to trigger your own story, this is a beautifully illustrated example of such a work.


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BOOK REVIEW: Lucifer: Book One by Mike Carey

Lucifer, Book One (Lucifer, #1)Lucifer, Book One by Mike Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This sixteen-issue collection consists of three issues of “The Sandman Presents: Lucifer” in addition to the first thirteen issues of “Lucifer.” As the former title suggests, this is based on a character from the vast cast of “The Sandman” comics, and this volume does occasionally touch upon the broader Sandman universe, though it largely sticks to the Abrahamic mythology bits.

Each of the five story arcs in the volume standalone, but the last three (i.e. “Born with the Dead,” [1 issue,] “The House of Windowless Rooms,” [4 issues,] and “Children and Monsters,” [5 issues]) form an epic arc with a young girl Elaine and a portal to an alternate dimension at its heart. This larger arc impressively works to biblical proportions, involving grandiose stakes. I will say the first arc [from “The Sandman Presents…] was harder to follow the motives driving the story, but I can imagine it would be much easier for those who’d followed The Sandman comics from the outset. [Also, it’s only fair to have some challenges in finding a direction when dealing with such a massive cast and sprawling over-universe.]


If you’re wondering how this Lucifer compares to the television version, this one is less neurotic (though flawed in many of the same ways) and is more serious and a tad more wrathful. The TV version is lighthearted and comedic to a larger extent, while the comic book version bumps up against horror a bit more, but that’s not to say the comics have no comedy or the television version lacks all intensity. From a broader perspective, the Lucifer comic also not only more frequently touches on the Sandman universe, but also on mythologies outside that of Abrahamic religion – e.g. Lucifer ventures into the realm of Japan’s Izanami / Izanagi in “The House of Windowless Rooms.” It’s always nice to see a show can diverge from the source material and still be good, and I think that’s very much the case here.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House - 30th Anniversary EditionThe Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House – 30th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“The Doll’s House” story arc is the second volume in the original run of “Sandman,” and consists of issues #9 – 16. After a prologue that tells an African tribal myth about a love between a mortal woman and a god, the other seven issues tell the story of Rose Walker, a young woman whose mere existence will become a threat to the Dreaming (the world of dreams and the dominion of Morpheus, god of dreams.) The prologue story introduces concepts helpful for the main story, but does not otherwise share characters or plot details with the larger arc.

The volume presents a clean and satisfying story. Gaiman is among the most superb developers of stories within stories such that his serial work always leaves the reader satisfied. The troubles that play out in this volume result from Morpheus’s (a.k.a. Dream’s) earlier incarceration [volume 1,] but one learns what one needs to follow it during the telling of this story. Besides the issue of Rose Walker, there were escapes and shenanigans in the Dreaming owing to the lack of proper supervision. Morpheus has to fix these problems without a clear picture of what has happened.

Gaiman creates a story that is at once engrossing and humorous. The story reaches its heights in both regards in the issue called “Collectors,” [a.k.a. “The Doll’s House, Part Five”] which involves Rose Walker’s stay in a hotel that is holding a convention that is nominally for the breakfast cereal industry, but is – in fact – for serial killers and collectors of human beings (or artifacts, thereof.) The world of Sandman is gripping and brilliantly creative, and I highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman

Death: The Deluxe Edition (Death of the Endless, #1-2)Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book includes seven stories featuring the character of Death from Gaiman’s Sandman series. Two of the stories are longer (three-issue) tales, and the rest are single-issue short fiction.


For those unfamiliar with character, Gaiman subverts the “Grim Reaper” persona. Instead of a cloak-enshrouded skeleton, its face obscured by hood and shadow, Gaiman’s Death is an attractive young woman who goes by Didi, Gothically pale but certainly more beautiful than terrifying. However, appearances aren’t the only way in which Didi is the polar opposite of the Grim Reaper. She’s also preternaturally likeable and gregarious.


The first tripartite story is entitled “The Hight Cost of Living,” and in it a suicidal teen, Sexton, gets drawn into Didi’s drama, but also experiences a newfound appreciation for living. The other three-part story, “The Time of Your Life,” is about a rock star [stage name, “Foxglove”] who has everything a budding pop star could want, but when she learns that you can’t have it all and no one escapes their mortality, she’s forced to reevaluate her priorities. While the collection is built around those two stories, it’s not like the shorter works are filler. I found that “Façade” and “Death and Venice,” in particular, to be quite satisfying as stories.


A couple things to keep in mind: First, the stories are pulled from a long run, and so there are discontinuities – e.g. Death in “The Wheel” looks different from the other stories. Second, one reviewer said this book wasn’t a good choice if one hadn’t read the whole “Sandman” series. Someone who’d read it all might get more Easter Eggs, but it’s not the case that the stories don’t make sense in isolation. With the exception of the opening story, “The Sound of Her Wings,” I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not having read the series.


One can’t go wrong with Gaiman, the storytelling is clever and compelling, and the art is captivating – despite the stylistic variation.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Adapted by P. Craig Russell

The Complete American Gods (Graphic Novel)The Complete American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 28, 2021

This is the graphic novelization of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant story “American Gods.” The tale begins with the protagonist, Shadow Moon, being released a few days early from his prison sentence to attend the funeral of the wife whom he has been longing to see. On the flight home, he sits next to a gregarious man named Wednesday who offers him a job and who knows way too much about Shadow. While Shadow initially rejects the offer, Wednesday is relentless. When Shadow finally gives in, he’s introduced to a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of gods, demi-gods, and folklore heroes.

The premise is simple, but magnificent. America is a hard land for gods. The country’s melting pot nature makes for so many old gods: Native American gods, Norse gods, African tribal gods, pagan gods, Hindu gods, Slavic gods, etc. Then there are the new gods like “technology” and “media.” Comparing the average American’s screen time versus time in church or in prayer, it’s not difficult to tell which side is winning the war for the affection and attention. Still, the new gods exist in an ephemeral landscape. So, Wednesday is going around trying to build support among old gods for a war between the old and new gods — no easy task as a self-confessed con man.

It’s been a while since I read the novel, but this adaptation felt true to my recollection of the original story. It seems closer to the original than, say, the Amazon Prime series (which I also enjoyed, but which often diverges, particularly to build out some of the secondary characters’ arcs.)

This is definitely worth a read, whether you’ve read the novel or not. The artwork was well-done, and I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere Adapted by Mike Carey

Neil Gaiman's NeverwhereNeil Gaiman’s Neverwhere by Mike Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a graphic novelization of one of the greatest urban fantasy novels, ever. While it’s been a while since I read the novel, this adaptation felt true to my memories of the original (one of my all-time favorite novels.) Carey did make a perspective shift from the third-person in the book to first-person in the comic book, but, otherwise, the story is substantially unchanged.

The protagonist is Richard Mayhew, a seemingly preternaturally average middle-class Londoner. Mayhew is going about his life as a suit-and-tie office worker with a domineering fiancé when he almost literally stumbles across a wildly-dressed young woman on the sidewalk. Mayhew’s decision to help the young woman will force him to reckon with a London that exists in parallel to the one he knows, a London of Marquises and angels and monsters and magically-endowed thugs for hire – any (or all) of which may present hazards to his health and well-being. The young woman is the last remaining heir to an important aristocratic family of London Below, and her problems are more dire than being passed out on the sidewalk.

Despite having read the novel, I enjoyed the graphic novel immensely and found it well worth retaking this beautifully rendered trip through the looking-glass into the London that exists beyond our world. This hero’s journey offers a satisfying character arc and many turns and surprises. Even if you’ve read the novel, I’d recommend giving this adaptation a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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