(Originally published in Rolling Stone India, April 2008)
Absolute Sandman Volume 1
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones et al.
“I will show your fear in a handful of dust.”
In 1987, when DC advertised a new horror series with this tagline, accompanied by an image of a pale, gaunt man with dark eyes and wild hair, not many readers recognized the source of the words (TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, in case you didn’t either) and no one really thought the series, a re-imagining of a lesser-known Silver Age DC character would go on to become the flagship title of Vertigo comics and one of the cornerstones of graphic literature. Two decades later, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is being republished as a set of four over-sized ‘remastered’ hardcover books – referred to as the Absolute Editions. The first volume covers the first twenty issues of this seventy-five part series, which introduce us to the world of the Sandman and some of its cast of characters.
The story of Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming, the anthropomorphic manifestation of dreams begins in tragedy, when members of a cult, in 1916, capture the dream lord and ensnare him in a magical barrier for the better part of the twentieth century. His subsequent escape seventy years later is not the end of his troubles, because without his tools – a helmet, a bag of sand and a ruby, all of which were taken away by his captors – he cannot regain control of the Dreaming. The first seven episodes of the story then takes the form of a fairly straightforward quest, in which Morpheus interacts with the various beings in the DC Universe, including the mage John Constantine and the Justice League of America, and visits Lucifer in Hell – all to reclaim his rightful powers.
In the eighth episode, Gaiman produced a quiet, introspective story that introduces Dream’s sister, Death, re-imagined as a kind, perky sixteen-year old girl, contrary to genre conventions. The positive reactions to that story made Gaiman bolder – like Alan Moore, his spiritual guru in comics, he began to experiment with different techniques, weaving an intricate tale of 22-page chapters that hop across centuries and include an immense cast of characters, taking his own sweet time to create a world that built upon the previous history of the character. The Sandman began as a horror title, and believe me, there are moments of creeping terror in the early arcs – like in the Dr Destiny sequence ’24 hours’ or the Cereal convention subplot in The Doll’s House, but as it progressed, the series slowly morphed into something that was a combination of literary wit, high fantasy, mythology, and solid storytelling. Greek myth, Shakespeare, superheroes, Biblical characters and African legends rub shoulders in these early stories, notable ones being ‘Calliope’, in which Gaiman tries to answer the perennial question faced by writers – “where do you get your ideas from?” and the heartbreaking ‘Dream of A Thousand Cats’, in which, and this is all I can say without spoiling your first-time experience, the origin of the world is explained.
The refurbished collection, encased in a faux-leather cover is a bibliophile’s (dare I say it?) dream come true. The volume has series colorist Daniel Vozzo redoing the murky colors on the first eighteen issues, originally the result of primitive printing techniques. One of the mainstays of the Sandman series is the use of rotating artistic teams for the different storylines, each artist interpreting the characters in their own style. The art nouveau influences of Charles Vess and Michael Zulli are used in period pieces set in medieval times, the dark, sooty ink-work of Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg bring out the malevolent nature of the early storylines, and Dave McKean’s abstract imagery graced all the 75 covers. The high-quality paper and the larger size of the Absolute Edition make the artwork leap off the page with spectacular clarity. Adding to the joy is 70 pages of extra material at the end of the book, which includes Gaiman’s original proposal for the series, concept sketches by various artists, and to top it all off, the original script and art breakdowns to Sandman #19, the only comic to win a World Fantasy Award. What more could you ask? Buy this book before it goes out of print, your bookshelf will thank you for it.
The Complete Don Martin
Writers: Don Martin, various
Artists: Don Martin
Publisher: Running Press
Mad Magazine treads into coffee-table territory with a series of hardbound collections called Mad’s Greatest Artists. The first such offering, The Complete Don Martin is a gorgeous behemoth of a book, collecting the entire oeuvre of the great creator in a two-volume slip-cased edition. Printed on high-quality paper with flawless reproduction are all of Don Martin’s strips, the all-too-rare TV and movie adaptations, cover paintings, posters, postcards, and even pencil prelims. A neat bonus is the inclusion of occasional essays by Martin’s colleagues (‘the usual gang of idiots’, to use Madspeak), with names like Sergio Aragones, Dick DeBartolo and Al Jaffee relating anecdotes and opinions about the great artist’s work.
Martin, often billed as ‘the maddest Mad artist’, started his career with the venerable magazine in 1956. As you leaf through the early reprints, you realize that the first years suffer from the malaise common to most long-running strips – that of the creator trying to find his groove – and floundering in parts. These early strips, while funny in their own right, have Martin experimenting with verbal gags, a little unsure with his figure structures and trying his hand at extremely dark humour. While these are far from unfunny, they are nowhere as bizarre and laugh-out-loud as what his later work would be, and one feels the urge to skip these parts as quickly as possible.
From the sixties, the change in his style becomes apparent, the figures attaining their trademark extended shape, the strips hitting their stride, and the trademark sound effects – exploding flowers (SKLISHK!), dead fish ricocheting off a face (GLUP! SHPLIPPLE! FLADDUP!) and my personal favorite, two frogs catching each other with tongues. (ZAP GING GING TWONG SPLAT!). By the time we are into the second volume (which covers 1975-1988), Don Martin has become the Don Martin we all know and love.
The Art of Sin City
Writer & Artist: Frank Miller
Publisher: Dark Horse.
In case you’ve not read Frank Miller’s Sin City yet, do yourself a favour. Stop reading this right now and go buy the series. Miller’s chiaroscuro masterpiece is not only a ripping good yarn; it’s also got the most eye-catching artwork in comics today. And after you’ve read all nine of the trades and are tempted to pick up The Art of Sin City, my advice would be to save the trouble, and buy something else.
Art books based on comics aren’t uncommon –Alex Ross’s Mythology and Mike Mignola’s Art of Hellboy comes to mind as two of the recent good publications that raised the bar for creators and publishers. But unlike these two, and all the other art books that actually give an insight into a creator’s mind and a deeper understanding of his craft and his process, The Art of Sin City concentrates on reprinting key panels from the actual series, blown to full size, with an odd preliminary pencil drawing or two thrown in. This, truth be told, is not entirely a bad thing if you are looking to admire the minimalist style that goes into the making of Sin City. Also, some of the images are from trading cards, alternate covers and advertising artwork, most of which are hard to find, making this the only book in which you will get to see them.
But staring at 150-odd pages of poster-quality artwork of naked women and men with guns with gets tedious, especially when apart from the preface, there’s no text to be seen anywhere. Miller’s conceit seems to be that his drawings alone have the clout to justify a price tag of 39.95$ (roughly Rs. 1350). Strictly for completists and hard-core Sin City fans.