Monday, December 28, 2009

And the beak that grips her, she becomes


In the next ten months of reading all of its volumes or so, I didn't really think it was possible for me to fall in love with The Sandman. I knew I was already a fan since The Doll's House, but my appreciation and affection for Gaiman's work were not as intense or as consuming as I initially thought they would become sooner of later (and that happened later on once I got my hands on Gaiman's collaborative volume with Jill Thompson, but I digress).

I enjoyed what the previous volume Season of Mists had to offer. It was spectacular in scope, touching upon old faiths and religions and the complex interpretation of Lucifer Morningstar, as well as Dream's long overdue resolution with his former lover, Nada. My interest for this series of graphic novels was then maintained and I looked forward to what was in store.

What I got in A Game of You was initially disheartening, only because I was once again thrown off balance from the major plot toward a self-contained narrative which the fifth volume was all about. I wasn't entirely happy about the sudden shift from volume 2 The Doll's House to volume 3 Dream Country (an anthology of short stories about secondary characters), so I was just as displeased when after Season of Mists, I had to contend myself with yet another separate events from the major storyline I'm already invested in (where Dream is the focus). Nevertheless, A Game of You proved to be a daring story centered on women from different walks of life: Barbie (whom we previously encountered in the second volume); the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove, the transgendered man Wanda/Alvin and the mysterious college student Thessaly.

The concept of Game was written with a feminist perspective; Gaiman brought forth these conflicted women into the dreamscape to expound on the difficulties they faced both as social beings in the context of the unbelievable pressures the female gender has always faced; and as visitors/invaders of the Dreaming where they are thrust into an unknown territory that could change their lives forever. It is worth noting that Wanda was the only one left behind while the other four women were able to travel (and it's for the simple fact that he is physiologically not a woman at all).

Gaiman highlighted the long-held mysticism associated with female consciousness such as the connection pertaining to women's blood cycle and the phases of the moon; and how Barbie's heightened sense of fantasy has allowed her to bridge two worlds together. Queer relationships were touched upon with Hazel and Foxglove whose primary conflict was the unexpected pregnancy of the other due to a drunken mistake; and how it would affect the direction of their partnership. Thessaly, a later important character in the series, is a self-made woman who acts according to her survival instincts, if not because of the blatant disregard for the welfare of others she considers to be inferior to her. However, she is the most engaging character in the volume, and was able to capture the interest of Dream himself when he later arrives in the story to resolve the complications these women caught themselves in.

It's easy to dismiss the eventual arrival of Dream as a deus ex machina wrap-up that is anti-climactic, but after several readings of the entire volume, I realized that it was the most effective pay-off for the story. Barbie claims herself from the broken fragments of her dreamland and returns home to grieve the loss of her childhood and an unlikely friend. Thessaly once again defines herself outside the safety of societal expectations, and Hazel and Foxglove learn to build their relationship with more trust and open communication. The story of Wanda/Alvin is also very stirring and emotional, and its conclusion is one of the most unforgettable moments in the series for me.

Dream, on the other hand, says goodbye to another lover, and warns the women that they must take heed not to endanger themselves by their own hand because the only thing that truly oppresses them is the fact that they have learned to love their bondage. He was also beginning to soften a bit, thanks to the constant interactions with human beings and with the arrival of his secret admirer, the faery Nuala who was first introduced in Season of Mists.

After being able to refresh all of these moments in the book, A Game of You eventually became one of my top favorites of the series. Every time I read this volume, there's always something new to ponder within myself and discuss with people.


RECOMMENDED: 10/10 
* This volume is an acquired taste, however

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"The Dark Passenger"


I watched the television adaptation first, and Showtime's take on the life and times of Dexter Morgan almost captures everything the actual book itself has presented: the exotic and sunny landscapes of Miami that contrast the dark mind-scape of the titular character, and the self-aware first-person musings and morally ambiguous explorations of the criminal psyche through one of fiction's surprisingly likable anti-hero protagonists.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is an astonishing work that will become an instant favorite of anyone who has a deep-seated fascination for serials killers and the inner workings of such twisted individuals. But Lindsay's Dexter series was able to put a human spin on the supposed monster that is Dexter Morgan, a blood analyst by day and predator by night who hunts other serial killers to exact justice and punishment. Because he was raised by a policeman whose moral code was able to influence his base urge to kill, Dexter employs morality in his quest to rid off the vermin and criminal element in the city, knowing that as a creature of horror he is an efficient match for these psychos. Dexter's conflicted feelings about his work as a law enforcer and duty as a vigilante are the highlights of this series and Darkly Dreaming is the groundbreaking beginnings of his life story.

The most enticing aspect of this book (as well as the television show's first four seasons at least) is the way Dexter struggles to follow the light despite the truly darkest corners of his soul. Dexter feels sub-human and a fake, and deals with such ugly feelings through separating his public persona from his real face--the one he calls the 'dark passenger'. Though in control of his urges since he finally learned to impose routine and discipline on his nocturnal proclivities, Dexter never felt he could be a part of society or have a normal, happy life with a family that loves him--but he tries to acquire and maintain a semblance of humanity anyway. He cares about his stepsister Deborah; he treats his girlfriend (former battered wife) Rita and her kids with affection, and he is able to form other social connections. But Dexter acknowledges that it's all a façade and would often feel depressed because of it. Nevertheless, there is something worth saving and rooting for in this character, which is why his readers remain sympathetic to his cause because we know that there are worse monsters than him, and we are thankful that he helps exterminate some of them.

The appeal of Lindsay Dexter series starts with this debut novel and it's not hard to understand for yourself why once you pick up the books or start watching the show. His stories have became a part of the mainstream because they offered us a glimpse of monsters and their abyss. Darkly Dreaming Dexter introduced more than a deeply-flawed lead character prone to evil; Lindsay also gave us an anti-hero with a heart that may be tainted and corrupted, but who still seeks to be a better person even if his road is paved by death and darkness. Dexter is a monster but he has redemptive qualities that make readers always stand by him.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10
* The first book of the series manages to be both creepy and entertaining all at once; there are cringe-worthy moments and lots of fun and laughs all around too

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Forgiveness and Redemption


Since The Doll's House, I knew that Gaiman's The Sandman will soon have a special place in my heart. I was nineteen then, and this piece of literature was also a way for me to connect with my mentor (whom I was infatuated with as well). I was eager to get back to the major story arc with the Endless for Season of Mists, and I got exactly that; and a lot more than I anticipated.

In this volume, I've learned more about the Endless (Destiny, Despair and my eventual favorite Delirium make their appearances here) since Gaiman has dedicated a single page to describe and illuminate each and their function/influence over human affairs and existence as a whole. Most notably, Dream's history with the African queen Nada from Doll's was expounded on, and the effects of his cruel punishment of sending her to Hell just because she chose not to be Dream's lover anymore. Desire may be manipulative and callous but it has a point and Death, much to Dream's surprise, agrees. Dream was forced to re-examine his judgment then, and accepting his treatment of Nada as a mistake is the first sign of character growth from him.

I distinctly remember that in Dream Country, his ex-spouse Calliope had pointed out that he has changed somehow, and that may have something to do with his 75-year imprisonment. It's very telling to readers that Dream was not always kind and has a tendency to hold grudges, and Nada is a living proof of that. Because Dream now has a firsthand experience with captivity, he has finally learned to see the error of his ways when he banished Nada to Hell and he proceeded to remedy that by visiting Lucifer Morningstar (also popularly known to most of us as the Devil and ruler of inferno) to free her.

Reading Season of Mists has dredged up uncomfortable memories from my childhood. My father had named me from Paolo and Francesca, the lovers who were sent to the fourth circle of hell in Dante's Divine Comedy and when I found out about this, I developed a fascination for the concept of hell and the devil, and I pursued this interest with vigor and to my own detriment (this is too personal to talk about here so let me just say that, because of prepubescent hormones and my insatiable hunger for taboo subjects, I ended up joining a really bad crowd that alienated me from my family). Going back to the story: Gaiman's interpretation of Lucifer Morningstar strongly reminded me of Milton's Paradise Lost.

When Dream confronts Lucifer, he began to lament human beings' prejudicial and malicious portrayal of him, claiming that he buys souls when in fact human beings are simply terrified to own to their evil misdeeds. Lucifer poignantly phrases it: "I don't make them come here (hell). I need no souls. How can anyone own a soul? No, they belong to themselves. They just hate to have to face up to it."

Lucifer then decides to abandon his post and gives Dream the keys to Hell. And here starts Dream's dilemma when all minor gods and goddesses from other religions have gathered in the Dreaming to convince Dream to give them Hell. Even angels and faeries have joined the debacle. It was quite an entertaining situation especially the way Dream has dealt with it. It's becoming clearer to readers that Dream takes his obligations seriously but broods about them most of the time. There's an exhaustion and surliness to Dream's way of doing things that often annoy me (especially in the course of the next stories) but he is nonetheless very magnetic, and surprisingly compassionate though he's not aware of it (which makes it rather comedic). His rescue of Nada was long overdue, and he may reason out that he has done it out of duty and balance of things, but I couldn't shake the feeling that he was also learning to forgive parts of his old self that hate and retaliate. In his own unknowable way, Dream loved Nada and understood that he couldn't be with her after everything, and so he parted her with one last benevolent gift.

Season of Mists overall was the most exciting volume of the series yet, and definitely character-driven, introducing characters like Nuala the faery and Loki the trickster god who will later play bigger roles in the series. This was the volume that I found a more lasting personal connection with so far. Gaiman's literary philosophy that human beings are the "godmakers" species is reinforced in this volume, and I believe that it was able to capture the nature of religions and philosophies with a more rational understanding as opposed to superstition-based, without necessarily discrediting the beliefs themselves. I was also more or less enthralled by the Dreaming, and the people Dream surrounds himself with in his realm. I definitely enjoy Matthew the raven most of all.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10
* Gaimans pays his tribute to concepts of deities and godlike creatures with a whimsical yet sublime approach; Lucifer Morningstar is easily the standout of the bunch.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Of muses, faeries and cats


After the multi-arc storylines present in the previous book The Dolls' House, I was not ready for this volume because it was vastly different from what I was getting accustomed to for this series. Instead of a continuation to the major plotlines, Dream Country was an anthology of short stories instead. There is not much to say about this volume because I frankly did not enjoy it in my first reading.

Gradually, I did begin to appreciate the content, especially with Gaiman's delightful take on the Shakespearean story A Midsummer Night's Dream which won the World Fantasy Award. It was only when I started reading the analyses of this particular story in The Sandman Papers that I eventually liked the entirety of what it has to offer so I re-read it several times since and each time I would find a new layer of meaning. For this story, there are a lot of symbols and parodies written in the peculiar structure itself.

The only story I thoroughly enjoyed in this volume even in the first reading was that of Calliope, a Greek muse who was imprisoned by a struggling writer and was rescued by Dream (Morpheus) himself in the end (and she turned out to an ex-spouse). Death's appearance in Façade was remarkable though short, a story that dealt with a former superheroine's mortality (or actual lack thereof, considering her powers). A Dream of a Thousand Cats was almost forgettable, a Planet-of-the-Apes-esque story where cats dreamed that they could rule the world.

This volume might prove to be a distraction from the actual major storyline that readers are more excited to read. Nevertheless, Dream Country was insightful in itself, especially the bonus material where Gaiman's writing process and correspondence with his collaborator/artist were sampled and explored. I would not advise to skip this volume, especially since Shakespeare and Calliope will be appearing again in other volumes.

RECOMMENDED: 6/10
*This volume deserves another read, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Puppets who can see the strings"


 

Following the promising premise of Preludes and Nocturnes, this second volume became one of my favorite installments.

I believe this is the book of The Sandman series that captured not only my heart but my imagination in varying ways I did not expect it could. This is also the first time that Gaiman explored the vitality and freshness of his material and the result was a provocative examination of the unconscious and often catastrophic desires of human beings that are caught up in fulfilling such dangerous things.

Before the actual central story begins, the volume opens with Tales of the Sand, a short narrative pertaining to an African queen Nada who falls in love with the Dream king himself. It was considered unlawful for mortals to develop a romantic affiliation with an Endless so she was punished for it. This story able to cast a light on the nature of Nada's significance to Dream (she was first seen in Preludes, trapped in Hell because Dream was unable to forgive her). Another separate self-contained story is Men of Good Fortune which introduced one of my favorite characters, Hob Gadling. He is a man who doesn't want to die and Death grants him a pass, curious and amused of his tenacity to live. His unlikely friendship with Dream was uneasy and fragile, but one that has humanized our titular hero in the end.

Now onto the central story: the readers are now able to familiarize themselves some more with the mechanics and inner workings of the Endless mythos with Dream (Morpheus) as their point of reference. We get to know him best through the performance of his duties and his revealing interactions with the staff of the Dreaming like Lucien, the librarian, the raven pet Matthew, Cain and Abel, etc. Dream may not be entirely likable--he can be painstakingly stiff and cold at times--but the colorful characters he surround himself with provide not only entertaining foils to his somber personality, but also plenty of receptive opportunities that readers can relate and sympathize with.

One of them is Rose Walker, a tortured teen who stumbled upon the secret of her heritage; and the extent of its destructive potency. There are two separate stories that are happening for this volume: one of our titular hero, and the other with Rose Walker. While Dream was preoccupied apprehending some of the tangible nightmares that got loose during his sabbatical, Rose was carefully weaved into the events until she found herself in the Cereal convention; a dark parody of comic book conventions; only instead of geeks and nerds, Cereal conventions bring serial killers together (or "collectors" as they proudly dub themselves). These twisted men are under the influence of one of the most unforgettable nightmares in the series: the dashing and sexy Corinthian. Dream was able to get the Corinthian under control in the end, and he also passed judgment onto the serial killers, one that has a very chilling resonance ("You shall know at all times, and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how little that means").

Another significant event was Dream having a chance encounter with a replacement of his who fancied himself as a superhero who fights crime (a comical tribute to the original Sandman character that Gaiman reinvented). He met Lyta Hall, a woman who got pregnant while in the confines of the Dreaming (and whose child will eventually have an important role in the course of the series).

In addition to Death's appearance in Preludes, readers are delighted to meet another Endless sibling, Dream's younger sister-brother (for it is androgynous and gender-free) Desire. He-she-it is the paragon of self-love, destructive passions and haunting pleasures. Its own realm is called the Threshold which is a towering heart statue where Desire resides. Desire also has a complicated relationship with its brother Dream and it has been pointed out that they have done nothing but clash in the last centuries. Desire toys with Dream every chance it gets, and its latest invention has something to do with the conundrum surrounding Rose Walker.

The climactic events that follow the confrontation among Dream, Rose Walker and Desire are something to look forward to. Overall, the thematic angle of The Doll's House reconcile the tumultuous personal responsibilities that human beings have over their own lives, and that of the purpose of the Endless, and the duties that are profoundly etched in their existence. It would seem that the Endless are dolls of humanity, enhancing the traits that they are personifying as anthropomorphic entities; as well as exemplifying mortal insecurities all the while still transcending human experiences; and that of which will always possess a quality of brevity.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10
*A spellbound multi-layered storyline rife with philosophical and mystical elements; a most beguiling genesis of what is yet to come for the series' run.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Dream A Little Dream of Me"


Back in 2009, it was my second time to be a freshman in college (and my third course at that). To ensure that I stayed focused, I joined the student paper and there I met the associate editor who became my mentor in many ways than one; and he introduced me to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series. I felt his excitement when he started to share this piece of literature with me, and I was greatly touched. I then ventured on with the knowledge that this is the first time I will ever consume the medium in a graphic novel form (that being collected into a single edition as oppose to monthly individual issues which I was more accustomed with in high school--I read a lot of X-Men back then). I have a pretty limited view of comic books before this; my doses of the medium are all about superheroes. So when I encountered this first volume of The Sandman, I was not expecting to find a delectable juxtaposition of gothic elements, cultural folklore, and historical fiction. But it's exactly what I got and it changed the way I appreciated comic books.

Preludes and Nocturnes was not immediately an impressive volume, however. It was a straightforward adventure-mystery that featured the mythos of the Endless--seven anthropomorphic representations of enduring concepts, and that titular character is the surly and enigmatic Dream, lord shaper of stories (who will be known as Morpheus in later issues). He was imprisoned for 75 years by a cult, thus screwing up most people's sleep and dreams for the next few decades. It was a great premise, filled with potentially exciting directions, narrative-wise. And it was indeed a thrill to journey on. Dream escapes and begins to gather his personal items across the murky metropolitan streets, the hellish landscape of inferno and within the tapestries of a psychotic mind.

I was familiar with some facets of the DC Universe while reading the volume, so seeing Doctor Destiny was something that made me crack a smile--and then it completely disturbed me because Gaiman utilized his character in an incomprehensibly horrific way. The presence of John Constantine was another bonus treat, because I was also between my readings of his own Hellblazer series right around that time.

The plot of Preludes was simplistic enough to follow and yet still fascinating to encourage any new reader to keep going. I managed to finish everything in two hours during a random afternoon at home. I was drawn to Dream fairly quickly (who doesn't love tall, brooding men?), and by the end of the Doctor Destiny storyline, I was already enthralled. But it was in the final story The Sound of her Wings which transformed that endearment into full-blown intoxication.

In that story, we are introduced to Gaiman's enduring version of the reaper: a bubbly, raven-haired lanky beauty who is the personification of Death, and also the older sister to our brooding hero. Gaiman has indeed found his voice when he wrote this installment; Death was instantly likable; she understood her duty as the mother of endings, and she showed Dream that with death comes possibilities as well. No longer swayed by fleeting morose moods, Dream then accepted that he too has an obligation as the guardian of dreams and stories; and he will once again earnestly build his empire in the Dreaming now that he has a renewed sense of purpose.

Truly, Preludes and Nocturnes is a great start for this series and opens more doors for its author and fans. One can see why this series is praised for its creativity and originality, and has definitely become a worthy legacy that only someone of Gaiman's caliber can achieve.

RECOMMENDED: 7/10
* A remarkable premise that is about to get better from here on out. Teeming with creative potential, Gaiman's work is bound to be the timeless classic as it had become by now.