September 25, 2003

Endless Nights

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Think finding another twenty minutes of Citizen Kane, or a lost Shakespeare folio. That’s what this is like to the comic book world: the unexpected return of the master. That’s about as good a summary as I can give of what it’s like to open Neil Gaiman’s Endless Nights for the first time. As to what Endless Nights itself is about — that’s a somewhat harder question. Endless Nights is an addendum to Gaiman’s monumental Sandman, a 2,000 page ten volume graphic novel which originally ran from the late ’80s through the mid ’90s. Although Gaiman is kind enough to present the reader with a sly, intriguing introduction to the world of the Sandman and the artists who draw it, while a new reader would quite probably enjoy the book, they wouldn’t get nearly as much out of it as those who are familiar with the universe. All the stories deal with the identities and natures of the comic’s main characters, who readers of Sandman have come to know so well, or think they have.

But for those who aren’t familiar with Gaiman’s work: there are seven beings who are not gods (for gods come and go) who are personifications of the underlying patterns of existence. They are called the Endless, and they are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction (who quit), Desire, Despair, and Delirium. According to Gaiman, his 2,000 page saga about Dream can be summed up in less than 25 words: “The king of dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his choice.” The seven stories in the book each profile one of the siblings, or try to. One of Gaiman’s points is that it would be impossible to write a definitive account of any of them because what they are is so complex that we can only ever know a part of it.

The first story, “Death in Venice,” is a perfect marriage of subject and setting, writing, and art. P. Craig Russell, who illustrated the jewel like Sandman issue “Ramadan,” uses the same unusual panel structure and gleaming palette to detail an eternal day on a Venetian island. Death, one of Gaiman’s more popular and humane creations is markedly more sinister in this story, possibly because she gifts a young man with his life’s work and keeps unhurried watch over a ceaseless party. Gaiman, always so adept at reimagining old tales has basically given us a re-telling of “Masque of the Red Death” from the view points of both the revelers and the reaper. Russell matches Gaiman tone for tone, drawing Venice shrouded under gray clouds, the party in eye popping vibrancy, and a flashback in the warm sepia tone of its remembrance. The whole story seems to hang in that haze so particular to Venice: great beauty forever hovering on the edge of decline, the perfume not quite masking the scent of decay on the wind.

The second to last story, “Destruction On The Peninsula,” has a similar discomforting edge, as the two most charming siblings, Destruction and Despair, wreak unwitting (and witting) havoc on an archeological dig. The big brother / kid sister relationship between the two Endless is so perfectly drawn, and Destruction is such a capable, laid back character that it is entirely to easy to forget who he is.

The two most antipathic siblings, Dream and Desire, receive stories which mirror each other in odd ways, depicting the consequences of desires unresolved and saited, respectively. Desire’s concerns that most dangerous of all transactions in Gaiman’s universe: a wish granted and love requited. Miguel Manara’s lush style, at once impressionist and emotionally detailed perfectly complements Gaiman’s take on an old norse legend. It’s typical of his approach that while his story about Dream shows the stars and the Endless in all their ordinary concerns and pettiness, this seemingly tawdry tale has quite a lot to say about the power of human desire and what happens as the drama inherent in youth, and in this case being part of a myth, fades back into every day life.

Dream’s story is the most representative of the usual Sandman tone, and as it is an origin story (for more characters than might be immediately apparent) it’s perfect for both newcomers and old fans. Miguelanxo Prado’s fantastic watercolor scenes perfectly capture the soft edges of the world as it was when it was very young. One of the absolute best moments in the book is when the source of the story’s narration is revealed to be the sun, telling the earth a bedtime story.

Ironically, Gaiman is most faithful to his goal of profiling each Endless with the most experimental story in the book, his collaboration with Barron Storey: “15 Portraits of Despair.” They give us a profoundly saddening and terrifying ride through a part of life which is as outwardly varied as it is inwardly, horribly the same.

After the intensity of the other stories, the final meditation on Destiny is a quiet coda, but a fitting one for this world where, for all the epic deeds and minute, lasting cruelties, in the end, it’s all about love. More often than not, the kind that leaves scars. There’s a book, and a family, and stories. And, as Gaiman says, within the book was the universe.

Archived article by Erica Stein