cacl, who's racheting up the ranks of book reviewers, has returned with a review of the latest Neil Gaiman work Sandman: The Dream Hunters. He and Yoshitaka Amanos produced this work together, which is Gaiman's first return into the Sandman story in several years. You may remember the name recently from our review of Princess Mononoke, a recent anime film. If you've read Sandman before, you know the art of it - and if you haven't, you should.
In researching his writing for the movie Princess Mononoke, Neil Gaiman ran across an old Japanese fairy tale called "The Fox, the Monk and the Mikado of All Night's Dreaming" in a compilation by Rev. B. W. Ashton. For the tenth anniversary of the first edition of the Sandman graphic novel series, Gaiman had been asked to write something, and he decided to retell this old story in his own way. The twists of fate that combined the desire to write this story with the artistic talents of Yoshitaka Amano need to be roundly thanked for the beauty of the work that resulted.
As I greedily unwrapped this book, a little like one of the bad children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the illustrations on the inside of the cover presaged the treat that was going to be the reading of this book. The inside covers and fly pages are illustrated with these simple, elegant ink drawings that at one time flow and define the pages between them.
After starting the book, I did not stop. I walked on sidewalks, slamming into people, stubbing my toes, stopping in my tracks occasionally, until I could find a bench to finish the reading. I sat there, with my rear growing cold, and my hands red from the chill, devouring this lovely story. When I finished, I sat for several minutes, watching people walk by, until I shook my head and resumed the dirty details of my daily life.
These pages are an archetypal story of love, heroism, evil, magic, faith and revenge. A fox sacrifices herself to save the monk with whom she has fallen in love. The monk, in turn, sacrifices himself to save the fox, who then seeks revenge on the evil mage who caused the death of the one she loves. "The onmyoji who did this to you will learn what it means to take something from a fox."
Several characters from the Sandman universe appear here, old favorites like Cain and Abel, Fiddler's Green and the Gryphon, among others. Gaiman wisely chose not to saturate the story with other characters, even though a part of me cries out for Death to have at least made a cameo. Still, having tried to squeeze too many recurring characters in would have detracted from the original beauty of the tale, and I was glad to see such wisdom in this writing.
If you don't like mythology, folklore, fairytales, or art, you may not enjoy this book. Because there are so many illustrations, as one might suspect, the price of the book is fairly high. If you've read Gaiman before, and absolutely hated him, avoid this book. If you've seen Amano's work before and hated it, avoid this book. If you meet either of these two prior conditions, go to your doctor and ask for enough drugs that you become human again.
The most impressive part of this book is that Morpheus becomes a central character without overbearing the framework of the original tale. This makes sense, since Gaiman had picked this story carefully for having a Sandman type character already in it. His inclusion of other Dreaming elements is also relatively smooth and they take on an Eastern tenor that is convincing and elegant.
Amano's illustrations are breathtaking. I'm not a serious fan of Japanese animation. I watched Voltron religiously, but that was pretty much it. I realize now I just wasn't seeing the right Japanese artwork. Amano has created a series of images that are as varied as they are beautiful, and the depth they add to the story is irreplaceable. Stark grey images with flat, monochromatic landscapes can appear on one page, while the next is a brightly colored, magical hodgepodge of elements that quicken the pulse. Delicate strokes and dainty pastels make way for violent brush marks with somber, solid colors on the next page.
So What's In It For Me?
A great book. This is something to give to the next idiot who says, when you tell them you sometimes read graphic novels, "Oh comic books." It's not a computer book. It will not explain how to hack Perl code or tell the difference between GPL and SCSL. However, as a human, you need to grow, and this is food for the brain and soul. This is the type of work that will help you in ways that you cannot measure, but are perhaps more important than those you can.
Buy this book and read it. Buy a copy for a friend, or a family member. This is a great tale with gorgeous art. You cannot lose by having this around you.
Other important links...
Buy this fine text at fatbrain.
You should also read Good Omensbecause both Hemos and I think it is one of the funniest books out there.
Visit the Vertigo Site
And for good measure, spend some time again with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.