Monday, 16 February 2015

The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country Review (Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess)

I’ve been re-reading a lot of books that I enjoyed years ago recently and it’s been very rewarding for the most part, rediscovering books I loved all over again. Unfortunately Sandman - a series I really liked the first time round - is not among them and it’s so disappointing! What I remember of Sandman was that the first two volumes weren’t that great (and that checks out) but that the series starts to take off in this third volume, Dream Country, and… it doesn’t. It’s basically stuck in the mud for the third time. 

Unlike the last two books which were lengthy narratives, Dream Country is a series of four thematically linked short stories with Dream and Death making cameos but not taking centre stage. I almost gave up this re-read after the first few pages where we see a woman getting raped. Wow, this was darker than I remembered! If I never see another rape in a comic, it’ll be too soon. 

That story is Calliope where a desperate author attempts to overcome writer’s block by taking the physical manifestation of Homer’s muse back to his house, locking her in a room, and raping her for years. Turns out rape is just what he needs because he becomes a terrific success - except he doesn’t realise that Calliope is Morpheus’ ex. And the Dream King has very recent unpleasant memories of being held against his will…

I suppose it’s a noteworthy story for giving the reader more of Morpheus’ life story - he has a son, he had a partner - and it sets up one of the book’s two main themes: disguise/deception. But I felt the writer’s success was contrived and unconvincing and the story overall deeply repulsive. Not a good start at all and it may have coloured my overall perception of the book for the worse.

The second story is a whimsical fable of talking cats, one of whom recounts the story of how they once ruled the world until the humans dreamed that they were the rulers and reversed the roles. It’s cute and underlines the series theme of the power of dreams, and this volume’s other major theme of power displacement, but it’s kinda forgettable. It’s also the first time we see Morpheus live up to his name, shape-shifting from his human-ish form into a Dream cat, showing that he is Dream for all beings, not just humans.

The World Fantasy Award-winning A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the third and best story of the book. It’s 1593 and Will Shakespeare and his troupe of actors, Lord Strange’s Men, are in the provinces, about to perform Shakespeare’s Dream for the first time - and in front of a unique audience of faerie folk, guests of the Dream King himself. 

I’m quite surprised that this is the second story in the book where a writer has had their abilities gifted to them by an ethereal presence. It annoys me a bit that Neil Gaiman is, in a way, undercutting humanity’s achievements by saying this - it’s just so reductive! And, though I can appreciate the clever way that Gaiman basically retells the Dream during the performance of the Dream (with Dream in the audience), it still felt like a pretty flat story. 

But I am a huge fan of Charles Vess’ art and his Robin Goodfellow was wonderfully creepy (think a smaller Grinch-esque figure with a twisted mindset). And that scene between the Lady Titania (the real Faerie Queene) and Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, was especially chilling, as she hints of a plan to abduct him to her realm. In real life, Hamnet would die three years later aged 11 and a few years after that Shakespeare would write Hamlet, but the suggestion that Titania stole him away to live amongst the faeriefolk is both charming and horrifying at once - a brilliant writerly flourish from Gaiman. 

The fourth and final story closes out the volume on the same miserable tone it opened with as Urania Blackwell aka DC superhero and Metamorpho-lookalike Element Girl sits alone in a flat, depressed and suicidal. Yup, this is the sad death of a minor superhero! Yeesh… 

Goth chick Death makes a cameo that lightens the mood a bit but otherwise this wasn’t that great a story either. Again it hits the themes of power transference and deception (she can change her appearance using different elements), but that unshakeable gloomy tone is hard to like. This came out in the early 90s and it’s clear we’re still feeling the after effects of Alan Moore’s Watchmen where all superheroes must be dark and gritty beyond belief. I’m just not into that. 

On the whole I wasn’t that impressed with Gaiman’s work in this book. Midsummer is the only story worth reading while the others range from horrible to miserable to lightweight. Charles Vess’ artwork is great and, though I didn’t love it, there’s nothing wrong with Kelley Jones, Colleen Doran and Malcolm Jones III’s work here. I almost want to stop re-reading the series now and preserve my fond memories of the later books - what if the rest of Sandman is as average as the first three volumes are? Eh, in this instance I’ll take reality over dreams - onwards! 

(By the way, if you like Vess’ art and faerie stories, check out Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, illustrated by Vess with a corking collection of tales by Clarke!)

The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country

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