The Sandman – The Dreaming, Volume 1: Pathways and Emanations

Awkward. I try to be positive on this blog because goodness knows there’s enough negativity around. But equally, I have to be honest.

If you take it at face value this is a gripping, well-written comic with excellent artwork. Those of you who know The Sandman will delight in the return of characters such as Matthew the Raven, Cain & Abel, Lucien the librarian and (stealing every scene) Merv Pumpkinhead. The good news is that Merv in particular gets to shine, and his wise-cracking, smartarsery is a joy to read. If that’s all you need to know, then go ahead and buy volume 1 of  The Dreaming and skip the rest of this post.

But… Now, I know it isn’t technically The Sandman (though Neil Gaiman seems to be acting as a story consultant) so you may well protest that I’m criticising The Dreaming for what it isn’t rather than for what it is. As I said, this is not a bad comic. But it undermines some of the key things that made The Sandman so important in the first place, and highlights the problems I believe are inherent in any “expanded universe”.

The premise is that Dream has left The Dreaming (his realm and the seat of his power). Cracks have (literally) started to appear in his absence. A new character, Dora, is having an existential crisis (which comes across more like a violent strop), Lucien is losing his powers of concentration (a plot device so underexplored as to appear a mere narrative convenience, but perhaps future volumes will give us some answers) and to sort things out, the ever-practical Merv opens a toy box of nightmares to instil some order and discipline (topical, no?). In doing so he lets out Judge Gallows, a fascistic hanging judge.

But the story feels episodic – formulaic, even – in a way Sandman never was. The final episode sees the utilisation (at last) of a geometric MacGuffin introduced early on (never explained and which remains dormant) whose sole raison d’etre then seems to have been to provide a convenient cliff-hanger for the next volume. But my reaction was less “a new threat!” and more “oh, another threat”.

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Dream/Daniel’s departure is left unexplained. I think volume 2 will rectify this, though I wonder how much autonomy authors of this and the other Sandman Universe spin-offs have as regards the adventures of Dream himself.

The departure, and the ructions it must cause in the dream fabric across the universe – if the precedent of Preludes and Nocturnes is anything to go by – are surely huge, yet by restricting our viewpoint to what happens in the Dreaming we aren’t given a sense of scale: the problems feel very small and local. In The Sandman, Gaiman would provide a sub-plot or a stand-alone issue within a story-arc which commented on or illustrated in miniature, the themes of the current volume: The Dreaming would really benefit from something similar.

There’s also something that – oddly – reminded me of the more recent Asterix books by Ferri & Conrad (which are nevertheless much better than most of Albert Uderzo’s solo output), and that’s lots of shouting and loud visuals. While this borrows from contemporary action movies with their use of CGI to stage events of a scale not available to directors in previous eras, they’re also an easy way to mask a lack of emotional punch. The Sandman‘s moments of crisis were far more low-key and subtle. Indeed (SPOILER ALERT) the denouement of the entire series took the form of something as understated as a brother taking his sister’s hand.

Finally, there is a sense that this Universe is, for all the loudly shouted drama, ultimately, pretty safe: that no-one who is key will die. By contrast, there was a real risk (for instance) to Matthew in The Kindly Ones. I also had a moment in The Dreaming fearing that Fiddler’s Green had been resurrected. Now, I liked Fiddler’s Green (Gilbert to his friends) but bringing a character back from the dead, unless done carefully, feels a bit soap-opera. You risk, like Star Wars, creating a universe in which no-one dies forever. It’s a risk that extended universes carry: they cater to a previously-existing popularity, based upon certain assumptions. Not only are writers reluctant to challenge those assumptions, there’s a risk that the universe becomes more of a goldfish bowl: if previously unrelated threads are drawn together (Star Wars is hugely guilty of this, from Bespin onwards) the entire edifice shrinks. The result can be a work that feels much more conservative than what begat it. And that’s my real beef with The Dreaming.

But… I bloody love The Sandman, and I’ve cared about some of these characters for more than half of my life, so I do want to know what happens next…

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