Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Sandman Volume 4: Season of Mists

Title: The Sandman Volume 4: Season of Mists

ISBN: 1563890410
Price: $19.95
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1992
Artist: Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Matt Wagner, Dick Giordano, George Pratt, P. Craig Russell
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Collects: The Sandman #21-28

Rating: 4/5

Those of a Christian persuasion accept Hell as a given.

Lucifer, the first of God's angels, rebelled and was cast out of Heaven, falling to Hell where he rules over the demons and the damned. But what if he decided he no longer wanted the job?

That's the basis for the Season of Mists storyline in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Morpheus goes to Hell to release an ex-lover, whom he condemned to Hell 10,000 years earlier after she spurned his love. (The Endless, it seems, are not good people to upset.) Morpheus isn't sorry for his actions until, at a rare family gathering of the Endless, his siblings chide him for his cruelty. So he sets off to Hell to right a wrong, fearful because Lucifer is one of the few beings more powerful than the Endless, particularly in his own kingdom, and he already bears the Dream King ill will from an earlier encounter.

He arrives expecting conflict. Instead, he finds Lucifer in high spirits -- and Hell itself is all but empty. Lucifer, we learn, has quit. He has banished his demons and damned souls from the place and locked all the gates -- and he gives Morpheus the infernal key.

That, we quickly surmise, is Lucifer's revenge. For what will Dream do with an empty Hell?

Almost immediately after his return to his own realm, envoys begin appearing making claims and offering trades for the empty territory. The Norse gods, represented by a cunning Odin, blustering Thor and sly Loki, want it as a haven so they may escape the deaths of Ragnarok. The now-homeless demons, led by Azazel, want to reclaim their home and rule it themselves. The ambassadors of Faerie want it so they can end their endless tithe to Hell. The Egyptian and Japanese deities each make a bid. Chaos and Order both lay a claim. And Heaven sends two angels as observers.

The banquet, with entertainment by Cain and Abel, provided by Dream for his guests, and the public and private negotiations for Hell are deucedly clever storytelling. A solution that won't cause strife among the great powers seems impossible. And we begin to understand just what Lucifer had in mind when he made his "gift" to Dream.

Meanwhile, on Earth, with no other place to go, the damned souls start returning. The story of two boys -- one living and one dead -- at an English boarding school is poignant, funny and sad, and the extra-busy Death makes a grand cameo appearance in tights and running togs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Preacher: Salvation

Title: Preacher: Salvation

ISBN: 9781563895197
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1999
Artist: Steve Dillon
Writer: Garth Ennis
Collects: Preacher #41-50

Rating: 4/5

It is simply astounding that some critics feel this the least of the Preacher story arcs to date! Writer Garth Ennis is still perfectly comfortable writing this incredible character in fascinating, if decadent situations.

This time out we get to meet Jesse's delightful and utterly enchanting mother, a creature inspired by a painting by Wyeth. Other new enticements include Cindy, the female deputy sheriff; Lorie, the cyclopean girl with an unexpected perspective on the world; Skeeter, the cuddly mongrel whose loyalty and obedience to Jesse proves to be more than merely a life enhancement; and the entirely despicable Odin Quincannon, whose personal perversion intrigues, while it disgusts.

Writing such complex characters at this level of sophistication is no easy feat, but Garth Ennis does so masterfully. Steve Dillon's art perfectly catches the nuances of the characters and their setting. This is truly a virtuoso performance and truly a grand reading experience.

Preacher: Salvation is not for everyone, certainly, but if you love a superb story well told and are not offended by the seamier side of life, there's little better.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country

Title: The Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country

ISBN: 156389016X
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1995
Artist: Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Malcolm Jones III
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Collects: The Sandman #17-20

Rating: 4/5

Neil Gaiman doesn't waste any time before hitting readers of his third Sandman collection with a series of disturbing images.

We have a writer, a man with one successful novel to his credit and a long train of writer's block ever since, who comes into possession of a large wad of semi-digested hair, freshly cut from a woman's stomach. He trades it to an older writer for possession of Calliope, one of the nine Muses, a prisoner who's been kept, naked and emaciated, in the old writer's attic for decades -- his personal Muse. But now he no longer needs her services and passes her on to the next would-be creative genius, whose first act -- after getting her home and installed in a musty old room -- is to rape her. And then he starts writing again.

There's nothing very pleasant about the story or its characters, although it does present an interesting perspective on some people's need to create, at any cost to themselves or others. As the young writer Madoc begins to reap his new found success, he makes and breaks promises to his captive, who he sees as nothing but an inhuman tool. And Calliope's efforts to call help attract only the attention of her mother, the three-in-one Fates, who are powerless to free her.

But then, Dream of the Endless learns of her fate. Although he holds no particular affection for her now, they did share love in the long-ago past -- even bearing a son, the lyrist Orpheus -- and he doesn't like the thought of her held captive. Unable to interfere directly, he gifts Madoc with ideas in excess, more than any mortal can hold.

And then, we have the cats.

The next tale in Dream Country is about the dreaming of cats, and their belief that dreaming can redefine reality. Woe to us poor mortals if they're right!

Unlike the two previous collections, Dream Country is a collection of four unrelated tales. There is no connecting storyline, no common characters but Dream himself -- and he doesn't even appear in the fourth one, the touching story of a metahuman created by the government, who never earns the kind of acclaim that most comic book heroes get. She is alone, bitter -- and unable to die. Thus, the Endless appearing in this story is Dream's older sister, Death.

But it's the third story in this collection which makes it most worth having. In the preceding volume, The Doll's House, Dream made a bargain with a fledgling playwright in Elizabethan England. Now he's claiming the first half of his price, and thus William Shakespeare sets out into the countryside with his troupe of actors to present a command performance of his latest play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

His audience is none other than Dream and his guests, the true Auberon and Titania of Faerie, and their court of faeries including Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and, of course, Puck.

The performance is exquisitely presented, and the reactions of the Faerie court are delightful. As the Puck himself says, "This is magnificent -- and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?"

Magic, indeed ... but nothing more mystical in this case than the incredible pen of Neil Gaiman.

This chapter is also one of my favorites because of the art, masterfully drawn by Charles Vess. Vess has a true knack for the faerie realms, and it turns out he does good Shakespeare, too.

Of extra note in this volume, Gaiman has printed the script for "Calliope." It's not particularly exciting to read -- it works better as an illustrated story, which is, after all, at the beginning of the book -- but it's an interesting insight into the way a comic script is prepared and submitted before the artwork is done. There are margin notes by Gaiman and illustrator Kelley Jones for additional exposition.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Sandman Volume 2: The Doll's House

Title: The Sandman Volume 2: The Doll's House

ISBN: 0930289595
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 1995
Artist: Chris Bachalo, Mike Dringenberg, Michael Zulli, Malcolm Jones III, Steve Parkhouse
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Collects: The Sandman #9-16

Rating: 4/5

The second collection of Sandman books begins, oddly, with the same story which ended the first one. I don't know why writer Neil Gaiman and/or DC Comics officials decided to print it again, but I'm not complaining. The bittersweet story of Death and the final moments of the humans she meets on her rounds is a good enough piece of writing that casual readers of the series -- those who pick up a volume or two but don't collect the whole set -- deserve to read it.

The second tale in The Doll's House seems at first glance to be a filler. It recounts the oral tradition of an aboriginal tribe, and the story being told as a rite of passage for one young man is about an ancient race who lived there, and their queen who dared to love -- and reject -- Morpheus, the King of Dreams. Gaiman does an excellent job of capturing the oral style, peppering the tale itself with superstitions and lessons -- the most important of which may be, never fall in love with powerful, god-like beings. The story also sets the stage for later events in the series.

The bulk of the remaining collection is taken up by "The Doll's House" storyline. It begins with secret plottings between the androgynous Desire and the grotesque Despair, two of the younger Endless who seem to bear their brother Dream ill will. Cut to a plane en route to England carrying Rose Walker and her mother, the unknowing daughter and granddaughter of long-time sleeper Unity Kinkaid. Rose, when she sleeps, peeks directly into the Dreaming, inadvertently spying on the Dream Lord himself. During Dream's conversation with his aide Lucien, we learn that several major dreams have vanished from the Dreaming. (This will become important in the next book.) And we learn that Rose is a vortex of dreams, and that Morpheus is aware that she's eavesdropping.

Later, after some vague warnings from the three Fates, Rose jets back to the States to continue her quest for her missing younger brother. She takes an apartment in Florida and meets her transsexual landlord, Hal/Dolly, picture-perfect neighbors Ken and Barbie, and the mysteriously veiled Chantal and Zelda. We learn of Gilbert, the large, kindly man upstairs, and briefly meet Jed and his dream-friends, "Sandman" Hector Hall and his three-years-pregant wife, Lyta. We learn of the mischief of escaped dreams Brute and Glob, and the fate of Rose Walker's missing brother.

If all this sounds confusing -- it is. At least, it's hard to summarize, but Gaiman somehow manages to present his tales without a word squandered or poorly chosen, weaving numerous characters and plotlines into a tapestry which will span the whole 75 issues of the series.

The story comes together when Rose and Gilbert, on their way to find her brother, stop at a rural hotel ostensibly hosting a convention for cereal growers. It is, however, a gathering of serial killers -- and Gaiman is hitting his stride on some of his most disturbing work yet. The characters here discuss terrible murders and mutilations with the casual indifference that farmers might use to discuss the year's grain crops. The scenes are funny in a way -- a collection of oddly dressed nerds with "Hi, my name is _" name tags who seem, by appearance, better suited as comic book conventioneers than hardened killers. The chit-chat and panel discussions are a riot.

Somehow, Gaiman works the story of Little Red Riding Hood -- or, rather, the fairytale which preceded it -- into the mix.

And it's here we meet the Corinthian, the most sinister of the escaped dreams. And things get seriously weird, and at times violent and bloody. And the confrontation between Morpheus and his strayed creation is potent stuff.

When that's all settled, Dream still must deal with the wayward vortex, Rose ... and there's only one thing he can do with a vortex.

The volume also contains an excellent filler piece which, again, sets the stage for later events in the series. It is 1389, and Death brings Dream to an English tavern so he can experience a touch of mortal life. There we briefly meet Geoffrey Chaucer and, more importantly to the tale, Robert Gadling. Gadling is your basic peasant fellow who has passionate beliefs about death -- or, rather, about avoiding it. The two Endless decide to grant the man's wish, and Dream strikes a bargain to meet him again, in that very same pub, in 100 years.

This begins a tradition of meeting every century, and Gadling keeps Dream up to date on the course of his life. For two centuries Gadling prospers, and it is on their their meeting, 1589, that Dream stumbles on yet another mortal whose passion intrigues him. Will Shaxberd, who "acts a bit, wrote a play" complains to friend Kit Marlowe about his lack of talent. Dream decides to tender a deal -- again, a storyline which resumes later in the series.

By 1689, Gadling has fallen on hard times. And so it continues on to the present. If anything, the tale demonstrates the human zest for life no matter what the cost or condition.

If anything, The Doll's House is superior to the preceding book. The major storyline begins makes major strides towards establishing the Endless mythology, and the subplots give Dream and his cast of supporting characters some real, three-dimensional personality.

Those reading through the series for the first time should, by this point, be hooked.