If a comicbook is going to delve into the subject of dreams and the “dream world”, inevitable comparisons to DC/Vertigo’s Sandman are going to be thrown out by every single critic and fanboy on the map. Dreamland has already been plowed and planted, reaped and sowed, rinsed and repeated, salted and re-planted and then rinsed and repeated again. If it wasn’t covered in the Wesley Dodds years or the Garrett Sanford/ Hector Hall years, it must have been covered in the Morpheus years when Neil Gaiman made every Dream his own.
Creating a new, unrelated comicbook about dreamland, the tangibility of dreams and the forces, coincidences and purposes surrounding that nether realm we all visit is all but impossible, without becoming a bigger ripoff of Sandman than Pepsi was of Coke. However, it turns out that “all but impossible” is not “impossible” if the comicbook is Image’s the Dream Merchant, the writer is Nathan Edmondson and the artist is Konstantin Novosadov.
It is true that there are still some similarities to Gaiman’s Sandman work, but without seeming overly-cautious about the avoiding comparisons, Edmondson and Novosadov have created a smart and surreal dream comicbook. It’s all about all about a young man named Winslow who is so in touch with the “other side” that his dreams are as real to him as his reality is. This, of course, brings up the eternal question of which is the dream world and which is the reality. Unsurprisingly, such confusion has led to a life of problems at school and home until Winslow finds himself dreaming away his days and nights in a mental institution.
Keeping him grounded in reality is ward cafeteria worker Anne, who loans Winslow books she hopes will help him “wake up from them”. When Winslow’s buddy Ziggy asks presses Winslow about a possible romantic involvement, our main character says “It’s hard to like anyone when you leave reality every night.”
Ziggy’s response? “Try Schizophrenia. I have to convince reality it exists.”
Edmondson’s dialogue isn’t merely clever, it provides the setting for one of the more challenging aspects of this story, that being the question of what could possibly be counted on as real from the point of view of the unreliable narrator of Winslow himself who admits to being, and believes he is, quite insane.
In the late 1990s Mark Waid guest-wrote (then) all four Superman titles for a month in which Clark Kent’s body (and thus his powers) are stolen and his mind is placed in the body of a mentally ill teenager who has delusions… of being Superman. Thus, Superman must try to convince a hospital staff that has heard this before, that he really is the Man of Steel, not the same kid who has made the selfsame argument every day since they’ve known him. After all, isn’t “I’m Superman” something only a crazy person would say?
Similarly (or even, inversely), Edmondson builds Winslow as a man who has lived a life in doubt of both his realities, so the outlandish surely must not be real. The reader might have a hard time figuring this out, too, as the action of this first issue doesn’t really get started until Winslow’s doctor hypnotizes him for therapeutic reasons. If anything can happen in Winslow’s dreams, and he’s put under… how do we know when he’s awake again.
No matter where the “real” reality lies, The Dream Merchant is no single-faceted story. We are shown that (in some reality, anyway) may constitute dream warring factions that Winslow might be in the middle of.
While the separation from Sandman is noteworthy and surprising, there are a few questions and images that feel a lot like Inception with just a bit of Harry Potter thrown in. Novosadov’s art provides a beautiful accompaniment to Edmondson’s story. On one hand, the look is somewhat simple without much detail. On the other, it flows, frame by frame, and coalesces into exactly what it’s supposed to be, a surreal painting of a dreamscape that may or may not all be real.
The Dream Merchant works as a new and potentially challenging angle on a subject that seemed to have no room for competition. Truly, if Novosadov and Edmondson were aiming at the throne of Sandman, they would fail and fall. But for taking a unique sub-genre and breathing new and different life into it, they deserve at least a read.