[5 February 2004]
In the eight years that have passed since The Sandman came to an end, Neil Gaiman has written two novels, a novella for young adults, two children’s books with Dave McKean, a BBC miniseries, an illustrated novel with Charles Vess, an illustrated folktale with Yoshitaka Amano, a short story collection, a radio play, an episode of Babylon 5, and the recent Marvel Comics series 1602. He has also had one of the most visited online journals since late 2001, and has been involved in a high-profile lawsuit with publisher Todd McFarlane. But when fans at book signings or conventions ask him a question, there’s a fairly good chance it will be: “So are you planning any more stories with The Endless?” (I once committed this faux pas myself, shelving a good question at the last minute.) And, good-natured fellow that he is, Neil will probably say something like “Well, I’d like to someday, but there’s so many other projects I want to do as well.”
With any luck, Endless Nights will keep Gaiman’s famously loyal fans happy for a least a little while. For while Gaiman has given us The Dream Hunters, a retelling of a Japanese folktale, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, and two miniseries starring The Sandman’s perky older sister, Death (as well as many Sandman spin-offs written by others), this is the first full-blown set of adventures starring the entire bizarre family of the Endless: Dream (also known as The Sandman and a host of other names), Death, Destiny, Delirium, Destruction, Desire, and Despair. The Endless, for those new to Gaiman’s work, are something more than gods: they live in the background, older than the dieties, and will be around long after the last god or goddess has given up the ghost. They are manifestations of consciousness, and the reason we die, dream, destroy, desire, despair, go crazy, and follow our destinies.
Endless Nights is a series of seven stories, each by a different artist, centering on a different member of the Endless. You do not need to have read Sandman to understand what is happening; Gaiman gives you all the background you need in the book’s introduction, and instead of being concerned with the central plot of Sandman, each one shows a member of the family performing his, her, or its function (Desire is androgynous), and how others, chiefly mortals, react to them.
As with the original Sandman, Gaiman matches up each story with the style of the artist involved (the original comic had a series of different artists for the different story arcs). P. Craig Russell’s tale of Death and an 18th Century noble who tries to outwit his doom has an elegant feel, even when depicting horrors. Milo Manara’s story about a woman who fulfills her own desires with the help of Desire is lush and sensual.
Miguelanxo Prado draws possibly the only story in the collection to touch on the Endless’ history and family dynamics, with a tale of a celestial parliament when time was still young, and what happened to Dream’s first lover. This is the story that may have the most to offer to long-time fans, as there are many winks and nods to later events: Desire begins the story as Dream’s favorite sibling, but ends it as his enemy. We see a young Death before she cheers up, Delight before she transformed into Delirium (not much different, it appears), Dream when he showed an at least even a remote interest in social graces, and also some hints as to the origins of the Superman and Green Lantern stories, as well as life on Earth itself.
The other stories seem more tailored to the central characters. Barron Storey’s “Fifteen Portraits of Despair” pairs an abstract style with a set of vignettes in the world that exemplify Despair (in the comic, Despair looks at people in despair through a series of mirrors; these glimpses are supposed to represent what she sees). These mini-stories are absolutely devastating, and some may be a bit too effective, if you were thinking even a little bit of ending it all.
Bill Sienkiewicz’s collage-filled Delirium story gives a fairly good account of what it’s like to go crazy, as Dream enlists the help of old favorites Barnabas (the talking dog) and Matthew (the talking raven) to gather a group of crazies(including an analogue to outsider artist Henry Darger) to rescue Delirium, who has retreated so far into her realm that even she cannot find her way out.
Glenn Fabry, best known for drawing some truly horrific stuff on the covers of Preacher, illustrates a tale a Destruction and a team of archaeologists excavating a future that may come, and an apocalypse that could end it. Fabry manages to restrict the scary stuff to a few scenes, and gives a fairly straightforward rendering of the story.
Finally, Frank Quitely draws a sort of epilogue about Destiny, who is blind, but sees all. Considering that Destiny doesn’t have a whole lot of personality, Quitely does an amazing job; the art is sparse but regal, with a fairy-tale quality that manages to hold the whole universe, from beginning to end. It is also a good summary of how the Endless and the universe work.
Given the variations in narrative and art styles, it is hard to read the stories as any cohesive unit. They are, instead, little glimpses of each of the Endless that Neil Gaiman never got around to telling before. And while the visual styles vary widely, underneath it all is the same distinctive voice and heart Gaiman has always written with. As stories, they run the gamut from clever and insightful (Destruction’s story) to truly disturbing (Delirium’s and especially Despair’s stories) to heartbreakingly beautiful (Dream and Death).
For people who have never read Sandman, this is as good an entry point as any, as there will be only a few references that will get by you. For long-time fans, this is a quick (last?) look at some old friends.
Still, as much as I loved these stories (although I never want to read the Despair story ever again), I couldn’t help feeling a little sad, because these are little stories that are part of a big story that was finished years ago. The only thing I can fault these stories for is that they aren’t the old Sandman; they’re not Dream and Delirium going off to find their lost brother, or the Devil leaving Dream responsible for the ownership of Hell, or Dream’s relationships with Nuala or Death or Gilbert or Matthew or any of the other characters. But even the best author is unlikely to come up with more than one story of that magnitude and weight and beauty and subtlety in one lifetime. I hope Neil Gaiman still has another one of those in him, but until then, it’s good to see old friends once in a while, even if it’s just long enough to realize how much we miss them.