Seth Hahne's Reviews > The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1

The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman
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Feb 27, 09

bookshelves: comics
Read in January, 2009

To begin with, a poorly-devised haiku review:

Endless amusement
And with parts better than wholes.
Dream as paradox.

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[[NOTE: This review covers the entire Sandman collection. And specifically the Absolute printing.]]

At one point in his sprawling (how's that for an overused adjective) work 2666, Roberto Bolaño compares the short stories of the world's great authors with their longer, feature-lengthed efforts. Bolaño's narrator of the moment is reflecting on a literate pharmacist's preference for terse works (e.g. Kafka's The Metamorphosis or Melville's Bartleby):

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.


Reading Neil Gaiman's (sprawling) work, Sandman, the one that bought him fame in the beginning, reading that from beginning to end, I was struck by what may be a weakness on my own part. Gaiman, I believe, is at his resolute best with the shorter narrative. The sparring match, the experiment. Sandman is a curious work because it is itself a grand, arcing story that is made up of numerous smaller arcs that develop the narrative direction as well as individual self-contained singular episodes that work more to add flavour to the entire literary meal. And it is in the space of these singular episodes—which never last longer than a chapter's breadth—that Gaiman proves his genius. And it is in the longer, more ambitious pieces of Gaiman's wonderful tale that his mastery seems to falter.

To be plain, when it comes to Sandman, I prefer Gaiman's sparring to his real combat. And this may reflect more on me than on Gaiman's text here.

In any case, while Sandman contains some of the most sublime, interesting, and humourous acts of narrative whimsy I've encountered, the whole suffers by the comparison. It's not bad by any stretch; the work is still engaging and well-conceived. It just lacks the beauty of some of its contained stories.* Some of the longer arcs, even, are wonderfully told. But as a whole I don't believe that Sandman is quite as good as some of its parts.

The series lurches to an awkward beginning that may cause some readers to give up early. The art is largely unpalatable and only adequately suits its narrative content a minority of its time; there are chapters in which the art succeeds and is equal to the more literary aspect of the page, but this does not happen often. Apart from these trifles, things move rather well for the story after five or so chapters (and definitely by chapter six, "24 Hours," which was the first moment I knew Gaiman was an author to be well-considered).

Sandman explores the question of what might happen when one of the eternal forces that govern our world begins to change. The Lord Dream, Morpheus, one of the seven Endless, and brother to Death, Despair, and Destiny (among others), is our protagonist and Gaiman begins the journey with his capture at the hands of some errant human mystics. This seems to be the event that sets everything along its paces, but Gaiman is more circumspect than to toy with such obviousness and like in most things, final outcomes (as well as those in between) are come by innumerable influences, the vast majority of which seem mere inconsequentialities. That Gaiman can pull so many of these disparate threads together pays homage to his stature as an author.

Again, to speak doubly redundantly, I must here reiterate: despite enjoying certain portions of the series so much more than others, it cannot be said that Gaiman's work here is anything other than tremendous. Sandman receives nothing less than a strong recommendation. It is not Gaiman's best work, but it is still good enough that it is better than so much else of what is available and well-regarded. If one lives to life's end and chooses not to experience Sandman, I can say with confidence that they have chosen to actively impoverish their life.
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Something should here be said for the Absolute editions. The printing and presentation is gorgeous. These books are huge and heavy and their imposing size lends to the feeling that something important is being consumed. Unfortunately, one of my greatest problems with the series is that I rarely think much of the book's collective artistry. The illustrators chosen for the book are never great and are sometimes not even good. The exquisite printing standard offered here in some ways seems like a waste to be taken up by such lackluster art. But it is what it is. Each of the four volumes contains around a hundred pages of extra material, from sketches to scripts to merchandising histories to colleague tributes to additional stories (the extra episode painted by John Bolton is a joy). While paying through the nose for these deluxe volumes may not be worth it for most readers (I paid $240 for the series whereas retail price hits about $400), the story is great and worth the time spent reading.

If you've never read Sandman, I'd probably stay away from the Absolute volumes and simply check out the ten paperback editions from your local library.
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*note: for those who've read the series, the short episodes to which I refer to as being so wonderful include the following: "The Sound of Her Wings," "Men of Good Fortune," "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," " A Midsummer Night's Dream,"The Hunt," "Three Septembers and a January," "The Parliament of Rooks," "Ramadan," and the tales told in the Inn, World's End.
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