(Note, I don't know how you're supposed to list comic books, so I just listed the writer, hopefully that's okay?)
A long, long time ago, I came across the second 'Sandman' story arc - A Doll's House. It still haunts me - in a good way, but also in a way that means I would need a lot of moral courage to pick up Sandman, ever, again. Or any Neil Gaiman - I've never read anything else by him except Blueberry Girl, which thankfully didn't seem to come from quite the same part of Mr G's imagination. I liked Doll's House - a lot. But the reasons I liked - it's strange ability to tap into your own subconscious, for instance - was also why I've since avoided it.
Just over the last little while, I (like probably everyone else on earth, I guess) have followed Mr Gaiman on twitter - he's an excellent tweeter, and the experience of listening to him has really made me feel like he's one of the nicest people. Twitter is nice that way, when used righ,t because it shows people for who they are, and who Mr Gaiman is, is a genuinely sweet person. Aside from seeing Coraline last year (AHHHHHHHHH!), I've thus been bombarded with the idea that maybe, just maybe I should try him again.
Well, guess what, I'm not sure Preludes and Nocturnes is the best book to convince me that I have developed sufficient moral courage to read Neil Gaiman.
I say that because there is some very, very, VERY intense ideas in here. If you do not want to be disturbed, this book is not recommended, because it is a genuinely disturbing read, particularly certain chapters of it (24 Hours! Ah!). I won't sugarcoat it. This book is hideously, deformedly ugly in terms of what happens.
And nonetheless, it was also beautiful, sweet, even playful at times. The last story has widely been hailed as the best in the book, and in the afterword, Mr Gaiman says he first found his own unique voice writing it. And he's write, I hear more of the Neil I hear twittering in this book: A little off perhaps, but clever, good-hearted, optimistic and realistic, quirky, irreverent. It's a sweet, meaningful story, not a perfect story, but a real one. And then peppered through the other stories there is tehse same bright moments. The scene with Constantine's old girlfriend was moving, for instance, and the scene in which the Martian Manhunter offers one of the other superheroes to come in and have some Oreos had that pleasantly quirky esotericism that I love in the author.
And in the darker parts, there are moments that are uniquely powerful. The disturbing stuff is, genuinely, disturbing, of course, but beyond that, he taps into some of the more subtly queasy parts of human nature. Take Dream's response to Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer), when Lucifer threatens to keep him captured in hell:
You say I have no power? Perhaps you speak truly. But-- you say that dreams have no power here? Tell me, Lucifer Morningstar... Ask yourselves, all of you... what power would Hell have if those imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?The power of the quote - and the power of the best of Gaiman's moments - is it's duality. On the one hand, sure, the demons he's speaking to stil maintain a semblance of humanity, because a part of their soul can still dream of heaven. It is their one comfort - and even if it is the comfort that makes them continue to suffer, it's also a real, meaningful comfort, it is teh 'hope' that earlier defeats the powers of Hell, to return Dream's helmet to him.
But then, on the other side, it is that same dream - a dream that is, after all impossible to come true - that teases the demons to do desperate, terrible wickedness. Love and Hope cannot live without a dream. But neither can hate - without the dream of revenge, of return, they could have no force to hate with. So it is with humans. Take the 'American Dream' in it's various forms over the years. IT's the dream that drove Edison to make the lightbulb, it's the dream that drove American soldiers to free the concentration camps. It's also the dream that drove American soldiers to slaughter the indians, and the dream that drives the consumerism that enslaves most of the world today. Dreams are messy, amoral things - as is Dream himself. Another example of this is in the scene where Rosemary is being held captive by Dee. The force of human connection is there throughout the whole section. And it's what makes us love Rosemary - who I really did love. Say Stockholm Syndrome all you like, but reading the pages as she drove John Dee to his destination, and slowly began to pity and understand him - as a human being, instead of a monster and a criminal - I felt the best of human nature, the ability to look past anything to see and love another person. Of course, that universal human love (SPOILER!)
ends up getting Rosemary killed, when there are several points if you reread the section, when she COULD have stopped him. At one point, the gun just sits on the dashboard between them - and it's clear that Dee is both not all there and deeply distracted - and it even feels for a while as if he's feeling a little more human himself. IT would have been so easy for her to take the gun, and shoot him. And it would have saved not only her, but countless others. Love is a double edged sword, and cold reason is as well.
Of course, the search for Gaiman's voice in the book has it's negative ramifications. There are stories - and points in stories - that feel slow. Or overdone. Or hackneyed. The book is very imperfect, it's pacing is uneven and confusing sometimes, some of the stories feel gratuitous and childish, at moments. But, in a sense, I'm glad they feel this way. There is a sort of book-within-a-book, where you watch as an artist grapples with himself, with his faultless skill at mimicking other artists, with maybe even a little timidity and awkwardness over how to speak for himself, and in the end, you see him take the dangerous leap and become his own self. It's a powerful tale in itself, even if Gaiman I imagine reads through the book now and feels dissatisfied and frustrated with his mistakes.
Just as a side note, if you, like me, are a complete geek, there are fan annotations of every Sandman story at http://www.arschkrebs.de/sandman/annotations/. This can be particularly helpful if you, like me, know NOTHING about the connections made to the larger superhero world (I, for instance, had not idea who the heck the Martian Manhunter was). Sometimes the annotations are good, sometimes less so, but nonetheless, an interesting reference.