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Dream Country is the third volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Unlike The Doll's House, which has a connecting through-plot, or Season of Mists, which is a single epic story, Dream Country consists of four seperate tales. The fourth story does not feature Dream / Morpheus, but his sister Death, who would later have her own series of books.
In the Sandman cannon, Dream Country does not rank particularly highly with me, and it's difficult to know why. Having read the works several times, perhaps I am aware of how good Gaiman's works can be. Perhaps the four stories are just too superficial, and we don't get enough of that complex and enigmatic Morpheus. Or maybe, the stories don't resonate with me as well as some of the others - after all, he is working with a vast breadth of subject material and he's done well getting to his third volume without me finding anything to dislike.
The stories themselves follow Gaiman's familiar structure. Take historical, mythical or cultural figures, translate them into a dark, gothic setting and make them interact, in unexpected ways, with the Endless (the collective name for Dream's family: Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction).
The first involves a desperate writer taking ownership of the Muse, Calliope, treating her like a slave, and exploiting her to fuel his ability to pen novels.
The second is an interesting story, where a cat tells other felines about a time when they were the masters of people but were overthrown by the power of their dreams.
The third is my favourite of the short stories in any of the volumes. It concerns a bargain Morpheus makes with William Shakespeare to write him two plays. The performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream to Oberon, Titania and the Faerie court is an inspired idea.
Finally, Gaiman crafts a bittersweet tale of a superhero who wants to die but is indestructible. Again, it's a nice twist on the standard square-jawed creation Marvel has given us for decades.
Don't think I'm saying these stories are bad. They're not. They're clever, engaging, humorous and moving. But they don't have the depth of some of Gaiman's other stories and, in consequence, Dream Country doesn't come as highly in the order of the series. To see Gaiman at his best, read the following volume, Season of Mists.
In contrast to the first two collected volumes of Neil Gaimans The Sandman, Dream Country is comprised entirely of individual, one-off stories rather than an extended serial. This interval takes some time out from the developing plot of the series, heading back in time or focusing on the margins, above all being unexpectedly and creatively divergent.
This happened to be the first Sandman paperback I read a couple of months back, and although its more satisfying to read in the intended order, as a relief from the epic and complex The Dolls House plot that spanned the previous eight issues, Gaimans stand-alone tales can just as easily be enjoyed in isolation on their own merits, even by readers with no prior knowledge of the Sandman concept. The writers penchant for introspection is still present, leading to the involvement of characters from elsewhere in the DC canon, but such indulgence is surprisingly limited here, and far less irritating than in the previous volume. Uniquely for the series at this point, prominent characters are introduced for a singular and satisfying purpose rather than as a further piece of an ever-developing jigsaw puzzle, and praise was rightfully awarded to Gaiman for making such ambitious use of this temporary freedom from restrictive story arcs; the third story, A Midsummer Nights Dream, won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991, a first for a comic publication.
Although veteran Sandman readers will have already been exposed to the wilder ambitions of Neil Gaimans mind, there is little that could prepare them for the eccentricity of Dream Country. Most noticeable is the lack of focus on the series protagonist Dream, who features prominently in only one of the four stories and is entirely absent from the fourth. Instead, each of these stories focuses on an individual plight or scenario linked in some manner to the mythology of the series, such as the realm of the Dreaming or, in the case of the final story, the long-awaited return of Dreams sister Death. The lack of continuity between each story only adds to the enjoyment, as Gaiman seems to push himself to veer in ever more elaborate directions; thus, we move from a horror fantasy set in contemporary London, along the lines of the first issue of the series, to a prophetic and thoughtful tale (tail?) all about cats. The third is the popular jovial Shakespeare story, the second appearance of the playwright in this series, while the last returns to the present-day for a bleak tour behind-the-scenes of a deformed ex-superhero. Each story is strong and enjoyable in its own right, and for vastly different reasons.
The first story, Calliope, provides service to fans of the series gothic horror origins that were largely abandoned as the fantasy plot took over, and has the same combination of believable everyday life and uncanny mythical elements that makes the series so successful. The central character is struggling writer Ric Madoc, an irritable and desperate English author who makes a deal with a dying old writer that sees him acquire a captive muse, one of the nine mythical creatures used by the Ancient Greek poets for inspiration, and another legend that the Sandman universe verifies as genuine. The series dark, adult nature leads it to reveal the method of this divine inspiration, as Madoc rapes Calliope, reluctantly at first, before beginning to enjoy their two and a half minutes of squelching noises as his second novel is rattled off in the space of a few short weeks. This comics plot is dastardly and sinister, but also really funny as the series always manages at its best, and the rise and fall of Ric Madoc forms one of my favourite issues of the series so far. Dream appears in a significant role towards the end, and although his administering of justice is entertaining, replacing the customary primary school moralising with a vengeful and creative punishment, his presence and relevance is more concerned with setting up what can only be future developments in the series, notably the revelation that he and Calliope once had a son. The focus on a struggling writer allows Gaiman to vent his own frustrations and experiences in the profession, which keeps this feeling authentic (including frequent use of the clichéd question: where do you writers get your kerrrazy ideas from? which is, of course, answered), and as usual there are enough subtle references and curious contradictions in the speech and art to keep the story in the readers mind after theyve moved on. (Just how did Erasmus Fry poison himself when he had hoarded so many charms of poison immunity?)
A Dream of a Thousand Cats is instantly memorable for its strange slant on the notion of the Dreaming, revealing conclusively that animal species have their own place in the sleeping realm and are similarly catered for by Dream, who here appears in a more relevant cat form. The horror elements are replaced with a compelling and emotive oral narrative, as a wise cat addresses a gathered feline throng in an overgrown graveyard, telling them of its sleeping encounter with the King of Dreams and the apparent revelation that humans were once subservient to the dominant cat race. This cats noble lot is to travel the world and spread his tale, in the hope that one night, one thousand cats will dream of the way things used to be, and make it happen. The power of dreams is all but confirmed by Dream, and will doubtless play a large role in the rest of the series, and its modest introduction in a story focused on cats is inspired.
A Midsummer Nights Dream, like Blackadder, grants credit for additional material to William Shakespeare, whose early play forms the basis for this amusing historical performance. The premise is that Dream, whose deal with Shakespeare follows on from a brief scene in issue thirteen, has commissioned this play and a unique outdoors performance on ancient land for the pleasure of an audience from the faerie realm. Shakespeares tale of boggarts and trolls and nixies is a dramatisation of events that genuinely transpired, with some necessary artistic indulgence, when Auberon and Titania ruled the land. The assorted creatures watch with amusement and occasionally offence as their own stories are enacted before them, as Dream contemplates his experiences with waking humanity, and the value of entertaining fantasy over dry facts.
The final story, Facade, is the weakest of the four, but its sombre nature is a nice contrast to the general merriment of the previous offering. Featuring deformed newcomer Rainie, evidently an existing DC heroine previously known as Element Girl due to the credit given to creators Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon, this is another Alan Moore-inspired look at the human cost to the superhero lifestyle, particularly in the heros redundant autumn years. Rainie lives alone in a flat that she keeps dark, her exuberant multi-coloured body giving way to deformity in her facial features, requiring her to wear artificial silicate masks on the rare occasions she ventures outside. Its touching and convincingly depressing, especially as she reveals how her near-invincibility renders suicide an impossibility, and the verification of another strand of mythology, namely the Egyptian Gods, links nicely to the return of Death, who is herself identified by the Egyptian ankh worn around her neck. Nevertheless, the dry terrestrial plot makes this a less riveting and memorable tale, perhaps one for the DC fans more than the casual reader, and is similarly down-to-earth as Deaths first appearance in The Sound of Her Wings, the realism aided by the excellent art of Colleen Doran.
Sandmans high quality art continues to provide a talking point, as the complete absence in these issues of previous regular Mike Dringenberg enhances the individual flair of each story. Both Calliope and A Dream of a Thousand Cats are pencilled by Kelley Jones, whose grasp of dramatic realism equals that of Dringenberg, and makes very interesting use of shadows to define characters facial features in the gloomy first story. Jones cats in the second story look excellent, realistic and in the case of the kitten, extremely cute (if youre into that sort of thing), even if their range of expressions is necessary limited. The overgrown churchyard of the cats speech is an excellently realised setting, complete with symbolic angel statue acting as a podium, and whatever the future of the series art may be beyond this point, Jones return would be very welcome.
Charles Vess handles the Shakespeare story and rises to the commendable task of rendering late-sixteenth century men and boys along with their faerie audience, but the most striking feature of the art in these latter issues is the vivid colouring by Steve Oliff, replacing veteran Robbie Busch whose customarily understated work proves particularly disappointing in Calliope, which is otherwise saved by the prevalence of shadows and highlights that almost make it black-and-white. Oliffs colour jobs are the complete opposite, bright and multi-coloured and clearly rendered with the aid of a computer, revealed in the enthusiastic over-use of gradient effects. Its quite a shock after the previous style, but works particularly well in this elaborate tale, although Busch would perhaps have been preferable in better capturing the despair of Facade. Dorans pencils on this issue hark back to the series original artist Sam Kieth, adding another impressive contributor to the franchise.
I enjoyed this collection equally on my first reading as a Sandman virgin, and more recently after two books worth of deflowering. Calliope is my personal favourite for its macabre sense of humour and reminder of the series initial roots in English gothic eccentricity, although A Dream of a Thousand Cats receives near equal billing for its sheer individuality. The Shakespeare story is a nice idea, but not being too familiar with Shakespeare (having avoided studying him at length in University after a bad experience with Renaissance drama the previous year), I feel that some of Gaimans clever references and tricks pass over my head, and if theres any foreshadowing of future events it passed me by completely. Like the earlier historical story Men of Good Fortune, these glimpses into points earlier in Dreams existence continue to build up an interesting character profile, particularly when paired with the present-day characters changed attitudes in tales such as Calliope, reminding readers that seventy years of solitary imprisonment with his own thoughts have left their mark. And of course, its been revealed that Dream has/had a son, something that is clearly going to enter the main plot sooner or later.
The focus on his sister Death in Facade also lays to rest some questions about her own functions and abilities, particularly the statement that she exists in multiple places across the entire universe at once in order to carry out her task efficiently. It unfortunately destroys my previous belief that if one were to see two teenage goths hanging around near a cathedral or museum steps, its just some of her helpers. Any readers feeling cheated by the deviation from the present-day happenings of Dream and his Endless brethren are really missing the point of this collection, which comes along at just the right time in the Sandman timeline, and will likely be followed by a similar collection of assorted oddities in the future in case its not apparent, Im enjoying working my way through this series book by book for the first time, and pretending its the early nineties, so I dont know whats in store. It makes a change from pretending its 1982 like I usually do.
Perhaps to compensate for the thinner volume (four issues as opposed to the customary eight, one of which is usually extended to double length), Dream Country features Neil Gaimans annotated script for Calliope, which will be of interest to all readers as a glimpse behind-the-scenes of comic production, and furthers the comparison to filmmaking. As well as allowing subtle glimpses into Gaimans own take on the series, it also offers some nice points of criticism, such as a complaint that Kelley Jones memorable full page introductory pencilling of Calliope looked too emaciated and dishevelled, something that was able to be remedied slightly by regular inker Malcolm Jones III. Also included are reproductions of the original comic covers by the excellent Dave McKean, as in all of these paperbacks, and although a slightly reduced RRP of £9.99 in comparison to the usual £12.99 doesnt really make up for the drastically shorter volume (inversely high in quality though it is), Amazon.co.uk currently offers it for a more fair near-half-price tag of £5.99 as opposed to £9.09 for the others.
These stories stand strong on their own, and are thus more enticing to read again than some of the more exhausting epics of the other books. Quality over quantity is the key, but it would have been nice to have both. I want the moon on a stick.
Series: The Sandman / This collection of stories in comic strip form includes an interpretation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, alongside Calliope, A Dream of a Thousand Cats and Facade. Also included is the annotated script for Calliope, showing the process behind creating a comic-book.