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After the long and plot-heavy Brief Lives, the Sandman series retreats once again to the recesses of Neil Gaimans universe, as a group of travellers stranded by a freak storm share ripping yarns in a cosy inn on the edge of realities. The comic book series final foray into stand-alone short stories before readers are hurled headlong into its dramatic conclusion with the final publications, Worlds End (notice the plural) centres on the concerns and exploits of a disparate cast of characters from various realities and time periods, all of which are either brand new, or marginal in the series grander scheme of things.
Despite the vast differences in style and subject matter across these individual tales, the collection is far from random, building upon the ideas in the earlier Fables and Reflections that saw stories grouped together through a rough common theme. Here, the connections and sequence are kept firmly in check through the presence of an all-encompassing narrative frame, the story of hapless software designers Brant and Charlene, who stumble across the Worlds End inn after an accident caused by a freak snowstorm (in the middle of June) and are forced to wait it out. This continuous narrative takes a back-seat to the stories being told in the first five issues before being dramatically concluded in the finale, in a process that reminded me of anthology horror films such as Dr. Terrors House of Horror and the hilarious The Uncanny, only handled more skilfully. Even despite the tenuous framework that essentially allowed Gaiman to fit a handful of random stories into The Sandman, or perhaps because of it, this collection holds together much better than the scattered Fables and Reflections, and the comparatively short, self-contained storylines avoid the tedium that made its predecessor Brief Lives so disappointing in the end. Its certainly my favourite Sandman paperback for some time.
Furthering the split of each issue between (mostly) brief introductory and concluding sections set in the pub and the dominant characters tale, the artwork for each of the six issues is divided between separate groups of pencil and ink artists to better distinguish each respective piece. Almost all of the primary plot is pencilled by Bryan Talbot and inked by Mark Buckingham, and as well as providing a much-appreciated consistency across the book, the lighter workload of several pages a month as opposed to the full twenty-five means that readers (or more accurately, observers) are treated to an unprecedented amount of excellent detail, from the wood grain of the surroundings to the nice background details and odd characters whose presence adds several minutes to the reading (observing) experience. The use of different artists is a common trait of the Sandman series, particularly in the short stories, and their nature as oral narratives rather than direct observations grants each artist a greater degree of freedom that they evidently relish, many pencil artists stretching to provide all the defining inks also, allowing for the pleasant experience of viewing something of a pet project (though all are coloured quite conservatively by regular Daniel Vozzo). The respective style that each artist aims for is often tied quite cleverly to the nature of the story, from Alec Stevens surreal, angular dream world of the first story to John Watkiss more traditional heroic fantasy art in Cluracans story of fairy politics. Perhaps the only slightly disappointing element is Todd Kleins lettering, simply for remaining at a consistently high standard but without indulging in his usual creative excess... and for making about one spelling mistake per issue.
The primary, overarching plot once again uses the naive human perspective to introduce an outlandish concept successfully to the readers, and to its credit this larger story doesnt attempt to properly explain things until the final issue, by which time readers have been comforted by enough cosy fireside tales that revelations can come nice and slow. Readers are primarily led along by Bryan, being privy to his thoughts and feelings in the extended sections and accompanying him as he catches some sleep and spends a penny in the gents, while Charlene is left to reach decisions on her own. The first issue mainly serves to introduce the situation and guide the characters to their destination in order for the stories to begin, but the final comic is devoted entirely to the circumstances leading to their departure, Bryan being as astounded as the readers as the creepy, all-star funeral procession passes by and only too clearly signals a major event afoot in the next paperback. Charlene, meanwhile, gets a very nice outburst scene in which she derides all of the tales weve all sat through as worthless, unrealistic and overly masculine clichés, declaring that the world isnt like that and proceeding to deconstruct phantom phallic symbolism in a well-meaning mockery of postmodern feminist criticism. Both characters succeed in providing a larger meaning to this collection through their actions, dialogue and feelings in this final chapter, making the whole experience enjoyable and satisfying, and even worth sitting through the couple of deathly boring issues in-between.
To briefly overview each of the yarns, all of which feature some further aspect of storytelling within them, A Tale of Two Cities is a brief, surreal and nightmarish encounter between a dumfounded human and the dreams of a city that raises some very interesting questions, while the appropriately-drab titled Cluracans Tale spends twenty-odd pages telling a rather dull and unnecessarily complex tale of fantasy politics through the voice of a particularly irritating and loathsome character. Hobs Leviathan is a rip-roaring high seas adventure grounded in a realism that works excellently against the more subtle fantastical elements and sees the return of Dreams immortal friend Hob Gadling from way back in the series, and The Golden Boy delves into the obscure recesses of the DC Comics universe to expand on the tale of Prez: First Teen President in a story set in an alternate 1970s United States. The penultimate Cerements is a well-crafted but ultimately quite dismal affair concerning a Necropolis populated entirely by skilled morticians and their apprentices, which throws in some references to the Endless to foreshadow their appearance in the present-day finale Worlds End, where the reality storm is over and speculation by readers is only just beginning (though its pretty obvious whos in that coffin).
Its arguable that these stories are a clear demonstration that Neil Gaiman is running out of ideas, diversifying so extensively from the series usual style and admitting the touring of clichéd genres even through his own characters dialogue, perhaps due to a sense of guilt. The entire Sandman universe has always been based on the reinterpretation of existing stories, whether classical, mythological or restricted to the more local world of comics, and Gaiman once again shows his flair for adapting a previously stale tale. The resurrection and subsequent killing-off of Prez was a strange move that harks back to his ret-cons of earlier Sandman superheroes in the earlier issues, and while I was quite disappointed to learn of the source for Prez and the creepy Boss Smiley being outside of Gaimans own imagination, his biblical take on their conflict makes for one of the stand-out issues of this collection. The (literal) fairy story likely fails because it doesnt try anything new (Cluracan himself calls it a bald and insipid narrative), and although Cerements is packed with quite fascinating and intelligently morbid concepts, it noticeably lacks an actual entertaining plot, justifying its narrators anxiety that he has nothing to talk about. Perhaps the finest demonstration of Gaimans ability comes with the evolution of Hobs Leviathan from what must have started simply as a weak pun title (based on Thomas Hobbes seminal seventeenth-century publication Leviathan, but of course we all knew that) and ending up as one of the better parts, as these historical Sandman stories tend to be.
Despite a couple of very weak links, this collection surpasses the previous few publications in all areas but price, retailing at the same price for a six issue volume as for paperbacks containing up to twice that amount, though fortunately the wide printing of Sandman keepts it readily available and subject to discounts, and Amazon.co.uk are currently selling these collections for a reasonable £7.97 as opposed to the RRP of about £12.99. Worlds End is admittedly unoriginal in places, and may sadly be at its best when following the style of Alan Moore in stories like The Golden Child (which even sneaks in a visual reference to Watchmen), but its departure from the rather trying saga of the Endless allows for a greater degree of creativity and unusual character focus, A Tale of Two Cities standing out in particular for its distinctive illustrated prose style rather than the usual comic layout. The conclusion is a little forced, but tied in very nicely to that very same larger scheme of things that the stories sought to avoid, and perhaps the greatest achievement of this collection is the excellent atmosphere it creates. Whether venturing to the glory of the waves or the creepy tombs of Litharge, its always comforting to return to the friendly haven of the Worlds End, a free house with no ties to any of those domineering realities.
This collection of tales tells of travellers caught in the vortex of a reality storm. These wayfarers come from throughout time, myth and dreams to converge upon a mysterious inn, there to share stories of the places they have been and things they have seen, beside a flickering fire.