It’s been a tradition for three years (and an interim birthday) now. There’s an enormous slab of book under my Christmas tree, and before I even unwrap it I know what I’ll be doing for the next 48 hours: I’ll disappear into the world of the Sandman graphic novels, written by Neil Gaiman, and I won’t come out for anything but fire, blood, or election day. This Christmas, though, was bittersweet: volume 4 is the last in the Sandman series, and there will be no more volumes “large enough to stun a burglar” (as Gaiman says) in my future.
This volume of the series is different in tone and focus from the last. While volume three took Morpheus, the Sandman, the King of Dreams, into one episodic adventure after another (like the brilliant “Ramadan”), this volume has a much stronger and more ambitious narrative drive. I suppose that Gaiman and his fellow artists knew that they were going to wrap up the series, and they had a goal in mind this time, a way to end things that was satisfying and unsatisfying at once. Endings give stories meaning, Gaiman says. A dream is not a dream unless you wake.
In the course of this marvelous work of art (“graphic novel” seems like too tame a term, though I still have to teach myself to slow down my reading and notice the gorgeous pictures in each frame), Gaiman does a wonderful job of uniting the many — and I mean many — disparate threads that have wound their way through the stories from the first page. Faerie, ancient Egypt, Shakespeare, the Taklamakan desert, Loki, angels, and the Furies are only a few of the most obvious beings that make their appearance, or reappearance, here — and while this may sound chaotic, it is only the chaos of a dream, where it all makes a certain kind of sense.
I’m not normally a comic book reader. I don’t follow Batman and I’ve never been to a convention. But the Sandman novels are great stories in the truest sense, stories that thrill and amuse and scare and touch you, take you into another place and time and mind, make you see things differently. If ever you’ve hesitated about this form, let Neil Gaiman do what he does best, and start by slipping into the Dreaming.