Neil Gaiman's Sandman, published in monthly comic-book form between 1988 and 1996 and still going strong in graphic-novel anthologies, was a prodigious publishing event. It was characterised by Norman Mailer, no less, as "a comic strip for intellectuals". After 2,000 pages and 10 graphic novels, it is not surprising that Gaiman chose to give himself a seven-year break from his creation, concentrating on prose fiction while leaving his complex fictional universe to be explored by others, with extremely mixed results.
The present collection of new stories has a title that bookends an earlier Gaiman anthology, Midnight Days. It marks the author's return to the saga of the Endless, the "anthropomorphic personifications" of such universal human phenomena as Death, Desire, Dream, Destruction, Delirium, Despair and Destiny. The Sandman himself is, of course, "Dream", and, like his siblings, he is not the "God" of that state after which he is named, but the thing itself. In the company of seven artists (one for each of the Endless), Gaiman not only tells fresh tales of his beloved characters, but explores how each can affect human lives.
The styles of both art and narrative vary drastically from story to story. Thus Despair is represented by the painter Barron Storey in a series of chilling vignettes, in the self-descriptive "Fifteen Portraits Of Despair". Death and Destruction receive far more conventional comic-strip narratives at the hands of, respectively, P Craig Russell and Glenn Fabry.
Bill Sienkiewicz falls - or rather, adeptly tumbles - between the traditional and avant-garde stools in a rich and though-provoking tale of Delirium entitled "Going Inside". Here an autistic girl is saved from a life-threatening situation by a dream (sent out by Dream, naturally) which stimulates only the insane to mount a rescue mission.
Milo Manera's richly textured artwork is admirably suited to the haunting, sensual and Tarantino-grade gory tale "What I've Tasted Of Desire", in which a young girl who encounters the androgynous, deceitful Endless of the title uses her allure first to attract and tame the swaggering, promiscuous man she craves, and then bloodily to avenge his murder.
Dream's own tale, oddly enough, is among the least impressive, although it fills in much of the back-story of the Endless and contains a couple of amusing comic-geek references to the mythos of the Superman and Green Lantern super-hero strips. Only Destiny's story fails to take off: despite exquisite illustration by Frank Quitely, it literally goes nowhere.
Like all the Sandman collections (and all the covers of the original comics), Endless Nights is beautifully designed by Dave McKean. Well over a million copies of the series have been sold in book form which - since Sandman fans are notorious completists - suggests that there are at least 100,000 Sandman loyalists out there. It is unlikely that any significant proportion of them will be disappointed by Endless Nights.
The reviewer's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' is published by Faber & FaberReuse content