Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You”

The Sandman: A Game of You
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1991-1992
ISBN: 1-56389-089-5
Titles: The Sandman #32-37

In a Q&A session Neil Gaiman was asked “What is your favorite volume of Sandman?” to which he replied “Probably “A Game of You,” because it’s most people’s least favourite volume, and I love it all the more for that.”

Well, I can see why people say that this is their least favorite volume. Compared to Dream Country and Season of Mists, A Game of You can only be described as BORING. This was a trudge of a volume to read.

The first problem comes from our protagonists (actually, there are several issues with the protagonist, but more on that later). Our story centers around Barbie, a minor character from The Doll’s House. In that volume, we get a brief snapshot of Barbie’s dreams of being a princess and having adventures in a special land. A Game of You expands on that world, and we learn that there are skerries in the Dream world–or rather, pockets of dream lands that shift and change and die.

The premise is not a bad one. We’ve had minor characters reappear before, such as Nada. The idea of some dreams actually taking place in a part of Dream where there are more concrete beings and consequences has potential. But there are a number of problems that run this volume into the ground.

The first is that, by the time we reach A Game of You, we have not seen Barbie in 16 issues. I read The Doll’s House and A Game of You within just a couple of weeks of each other, and I had barely any recollection of this character. I vaguely remembered that she was married to a guy named Ken, and that at the end of the story it was insinuation that they were no longer going to be together. But A Game of You made a lot of references to the previous issues–which is surprising given how the issues were originally published. I can’t imagine someone having to wait weeks to read new issues would have had any recollection of who this woman was at all.

This is the first problem, which wouldn’t be so bad, if Barbie was in any way a likeable or dynamic character. She literally does nothing throughout the entire story. She follows other characters, and is so passive that she made me want to fall asleep. It’s disappointing, because the brief snippet of dream we got in The Doll’s House showed Barbie as a warrior, a princess fighting with strange animals and beasts. It was a great dynamic–the bored housewife fulfilling her desires through her dreams.

But in A Game of You, Barbie has completely forgotten her dreams. Even when she returns to her dream world, she has no memory of being there before. It turns her from a strong, powerful presence, into the weak and helpless victim. She becomes unable to help in the quest, and is reliant on the strange friends who accompany her.

Ultimately, Barbie (or how she is handled) is the downfall of this volume. We’re given nothing about her to hang on to, nothing to relate to. She just complains and sleepwalks her way through life.

The other characters are a bit more engaging. Wanda is a pre-transition trans woman, and Barbie’s best friend. Wanda is a great character, and for the most part, the issue of her transexuality is handled tastefully and correctly. She is referred to as a woman, and those who insist on behaving as though she is a man are shown to clearly be in the wrong.

Except for one part, which really bothered me. When it is revealed that Barbie is in danger in the dream world, her friends perform a spell to send them afterwards. Wanda is tasked with staying behind to guard Barbie. This, in itself, would have been fine. It’s already been established that Wanda is physically the strongest of the group, so it makes sense to leave her behind in the real world to guard Barbie. But then it is said that she couldn’t have traveled to the dream world in the way that the other women did. This being because they called down the moon to do so, and that the moon still recognizes her as a man. That basically, it “comes down to chromosomes.”

And this, my friends, is bullshit.

Excuse me while I get on my soapbox for a moment.

The entire volume takes great pains to support Wanda in her identity. She is a woman. Those who deny this fact are painted as transphobic and wrong. So why then, does a symbol of womanhood deny her? The moon is connected to women in multiple myths and legends. And Gaiman knows this, because he references myths all the time. The supernatural elements of The Sandman series are generally shown to be more knowledgeable than mortals. By including this sentiment, the message ultimately becomes that no, Wanda is a man, and can do nothing to change this. It is a jarring notion to what is otherwise a consistent message.

Okay, soapbox over.

Well, maybe not quite. The story does a poor job of handling its lesbian characters as well. Specifically, at one point we learn that one of Barbie’s neighbors is potentially pregnant. This is an issue, as she’s in a relationship with another woman. But instead of setting up the woman as bisexual, who might have had a one night stand with a man, she’s presented as an incredibly naive lesbian who just sort of fell in to having sex with a man.

As Hazel describes it, someone she works with was really tired, so she let him come home with her. Then he got aroused, and she just casually had sex with him, despite having never had an interest in men before. She also thought that because they did it standing up, that she couldn’t get pregnant.

It comes across as too casual to be rape, or coerced sex, and just sounds like Hazel shrugged and was like ‘okay, let’s try some dick.’ Now, I’m not saying that people can’t experiment. But I have a hard time imagining that most lesbians in a committed relationship who have never had an interest in men would have sex with one just because he was there.

I just…wow. It’s really obvious in this volume that a man was behind the writing. And while the story is remarkably open and progressive to have been written in the early 90s…it still rubs me the wrong way.

My final comment is that the introduction section to this volume is drastically misplaced. In short, it’s not an introduction. It’s a reader analysis of parts of the story. The writer even tells the reader that it is best read if they have already read the volume itself. So why put it at the beginning? It spoils the deaths of two characters, and makes no sense to anyone who has not yet read the issue. I don’t understand why they didn’t just put it at the end of the volume, where it would have made more sense. I stopped reading it after two pages, when I realized it was spoiling plot information. Do yourself a favor, and skip it if you’re a first time reader.

Overall, this volume is just a mess. While there are good concepts and good elements scattered throughout, it was poorly executed. It may be possible to skip the volume entirely–I’m not certain, as I’ve yet to finish the series. If so, definitely skip it. You’re not missing anything.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Trigger warnings: Nudity, gruesome images, witchcraft

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists”

The Sandman: Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1990-1991
ISBN: 1-56389-035-6
Titles: The Sandman #21-28

In this volume we get back to the more traditional storytelling method, where the volume itself contains a cohesive storyline. Of the tales we’ve had so far, I hold this volume on par with Preludes and Nocturnes. Both volumes give us storylines that explore the Endless and their abilities, as well as the realms beyond Dreaming and the mortal world.

First, we encounter Destiny, the eldest of the Endless. I love Destiny’s concept design, perhaps more than any other Endless. He is shown carrying his book, which is chained to his wrist. He literally can never be rid of it. Beyond that, he can also read ahead, or behind, to gain further insight into events. Even his own existence is not immune to this recording. A chance meeting prompts him to look in the Book, and call a meeting of his siblings.

Most of them we’ve met, at least briefly, before. This meeting is an excellent chance to see them together, and to gain a better dynamic of them as a family. And there are family dynamics here, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

Desire makes fun of Dream for his treatment of Nada, and Death points out to him that perhaps his actions were not noble. Dream determines that he should descend into Hell to free Nada, despite his insulting Lucifer in Preludes and Nocturnes. The insult makes reentering Hell a risk, as Dream freely admits that Lucifer is stronger than he.

I do wonder Desire’s motivation here. We’ve seen in the past that they have tried to destroy Dream. While it is not explored, I do think that perhaps Desire’s mention of Nada and needling of Dream is just to try and get Dream to do something that is not in his best interest, and could get him killed.

Dream makes his preparations to descend into Hell, which is a great example of the care and forethought he puts into his realm. Upon arriving in Hell, he runs into a surprise–one too good for me to spoil here. Suffice to say, I thought it was a great direction to twist the story in.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot of the volume, but I will say that I greatly enjoyed it. Seeds are planted for Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, as we see various pantheons and myths come to life. One thing I greatly admire about Gaiman is his dedication to research. He tries to be as authentic in his myth portrayal as he can to the original sources. It makes the stories more interesting, and can serve as arousing interest in old stories.

The ending was not one that I expected, and one that I have mixed-feelings about. While I like the solution to the problem, there are some timing issues that are raised once you realize what has happened.

This is a good story, and I loved the various elements that went into it. I’m interested to see how this might have further impact down the line.

Rating 5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Gruesome images, child death, violence, magic

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country”

The Sandman: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1990
ISBN: 1-85286-441-9
Titles: The Sandman #17-20

This is the trade that first inspired me to pick up the Sandman series. Why? The story “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which won Neil Gaiman a World Fantasy Award in 1991. I am a huge fan of the play, with it being one of my two favorite Shakespearean comedies. But I’ll explain my love for it in a moment.

Dream Country collects issues #17-20 of The Sandman comic. Since these stories stand alone more than the previous issues, I’ll talk about them individually. The first story, “Calliope,” is a hard read. It is the story of a muse who has been imprisoned by a writer. Not only does he keep her locked away, but he assaults her physically. Yes, friends, there is a rape scene in this story.

Fortunately, the story itself can be skipped without consequence. While it is a well-written story, I understand that it contains disturbing content, and some people may feel uncomfortable reading it. I felt uncomfortable reading it (that is the point of the story after all–it certainly isn’t glorified) but survivors of rape may find it to be triggering. I don’t know if Calliope comes back in a later issue, but from what I can tell, the story can be skipped.

Rape aside, I did enjoy the concept of the tale, especially Morpheus’s punishment to the writer. All writers have struggled with the blank page. This story is an interesting take on what lengths someone might go to for those precious ideas. I would like to see this story done from a different angle–what if, instead of abusing and capturing a muse, a writer courts her, relishes her, maybe giving her a taste of human life that she hasn’t experienced. Could they fall in love, or is a muse simply too fickle for such things?

The second story, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” makes me both glad I like cats, and a little terrified to own one again. It’s a short story, and I don’t want to give anything away. But trust me, you’ll never look at Fluffy the same way ever again.

Ah, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Okay, backstory time. I first encountered this play in 9th grade, when my best friend introduced me to Puck’s closing monologue. We both memorized it, and I went around reciting it for months. I read the play, and was hooked. In senior AP English, we studied the play, and a local theater happened to be doing a production of it that season. I saw it twice in one week. It was absolutely amazing, and was also the first Shakespeare I’d seen performed live. Puck was played by a female, which totally lined up with how I’d always seen the trickster. It solidified the play as a masterpiece in my mind.

I initially came across The Sandman comics in researching media that Puck had appeared in. A few panels from this issue were posted on a website detailing some of the history of Puck, and so I bookmarked it to look up at some point. I came across the trade in a bookstore, and read through the issue for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was interesting–but not interesting enough for me to spend $20 on a trade that I otherwise wasn’t very interested in.

Now, reading the story as a part of the larger collection, I notice several things that went over my head before. While the story can stand alone (like many of the stories in this trade) it works best as part of the collective. In Sandman #13, Morpheus meets Shakespeare in passing, and the story alludes to them making a deal (presumably to make Shakespeare’s writing better, since at the time, it’s not very good). #19 shows the first part of that deal, which was for Shakespeare to write two plays playing homage to dreams. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first of these two. Morpheus invites the Faerie Court to watch the play, and it is all around quite entertaining.

I truly love this story. The fey designs are brilliant (kudos to penciller/inker Charles Vess and colorist Steve Oliff) and the story introduces a truly terrifying and fascinating Puck. I absolutely love the design of the hobgoblin here, and the character is everything that Puck should be–scary yet mischievous. If you read nothing but this story, it will be well worth it.

The final issue is “Façade,” which tells a story of a character from the DC verse, Element Girl. I didn’t know who this character was, or who she was supposed to be, when I read the story, but it really didn’t detract from the story itself. It shows her meager life now that she’s retired, and the degeneration that has occurred to her body. It is a sad tale, about a woman whose life has become a trap for her. I especially loved that we got another appearance by goth girl Death, who is a surprisingly wonderful character.

All in all, this is a good trade. I enjoyed these stories, despite a decreased role by Morpheus. It gives us a look at the larger universe, and plants plenty of details that could come back in later issues.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (I detracted part of a point for the rape of Calliope–I really just felt it was unnecessary)
Trigger warnings: Rape, violence, gruesome imagery

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 2: Doll’s House”

The Sandman: The Doll’s House
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1989-1990
ISBN: 0-930289-59-5
Titles: The Sandman #9-16

This is the place where I started to realized that The Sandman was not going to be your typical comic series. While the first trade had a cohesive storyline in play, from here the stories are a bit more disjointed. They are all pieces of the same puzzle, the overarching connection being Morpheus. But the linear timeline has been abandoned for the most part.

The Doll’s House collects issues #9-16. There is a summary at the beginning which I highly recommend reading, even if you’ve just read the previous issues. Not only is it well written, and unique in its framing, but it helps to pull together some details of the story which the reader may have missed. For example (I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything here) there is a minor character mentioned in issue #1, that we see again later as an old woman. On my reading of Preludes and Nocturnes, I didn’t make the connection between the women, but did upon reading the introduction.

That seems to be a running theme through the series. Small details come back to play larger roles in later issues. We first see Nada, the main character in #9 “Tales in the Sand”, as a brief cameo in #4 “A Hope in Hell”. I really like this sort of detail–it shows a lot of planning on the part of the writer, and it makes rereading the stories more interesting.
This trade has a very dark undertone. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who are easily triggered by gore or talk of rape. That is a good rule of thumb for the entire series, actually. As I said in the last review, it is not for the faint of heart.

We see more trappings of the dream world in this collection, and see that the minions of Morpheus have their own powers. The consequences of his incarceration are still being felt now that he’s free. There are a few twist endings to the stories, and overall, it was very satisfying. I rate it just a little lower than Preludes and Nocturnes, mostly because I felt some of the gore was overkill (no pun intended). A serial killer convention is interesting to think about, but unless the Criminal Minds team is crashing the party, it’s not really my thing. I never really understood why the Corinthian was so violent. The reasoning for him being the way he was just seemed a bit weak, or maybe it just wasn’t explored as much as it should have been.

I think taken apart from the other issues, the stuff with the Corinthian would have played more powerfully. But by the time I got to it in the trade, I was already numbed by the proceeding horrors. I’m sure it made more sense in the original publication, where the issues would have been spread out. Still, it’s interesting stuff.

This is a powerful collection, and I do not recommend it lightly. It is definitely not for everyone. Tread lightly, dear readers. These dreams might just devour you whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Trigger warnings: Mentions of rape, gruesome images, violence, body horror

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes”

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: 1989
ISBN: 1-56389-011-9
Titles: The Sandman #1-8

It’s hard to believe that these comics came out of the “Dark Age” of comic books. Maybe it’s Neil Gaiman’s writing, maybe it’s the inclusion of some amazing mythological characters. But this is an amazing series, and probably some of the most memorable of the 90s.

Preludes and Noctures collects The Sandman #1-8, and it contains the “More than Rubies” storyline. We begin with the ensnarement of Dream, who goes by many names in the course of these comics. His capture has long reaching consequences for mortals across the globe. Once he is freed, he begins to go about the plan to regain his strength and exact his revenge.

Dream encounters a variety of characters from the DC universe, including John Constantine and Doctor Destiny. However, a pre-existing knowledge of the characters is not necessary. It’s the sort of cameo that would by enhanced by previous knowledge, but is not worthless without it. While I’ve never read any of the Constantine comics, I was aware of the basic story of the character. I vaguely remembered Doctor Destiny from Batman’s rogues gallery, but the story tells you what you need to know. Namely, that he is crazy.

I really enjoyed this story. It felt mostly self-contained, but the stories within connected well to each other. The artwork is not for the faint of heart–there are a few gruesome moments. It’s not my preferred style of artwork when it comes to comics, but it is certainly atmospheric. And Gaiman’s writing is very well done.

Dream, or Morpheus, is an interesting character. He is both understated and full of emotion. One gets the sense that he is weary, trudging through eternity because he knows he must. But he is not without mercy, or kindness. I look forward to seeing him developed further.

All in all, this is an excellent beginning to a series.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Gruesome images, partial nudity, violence, mentions of rape.

Posted in Adult Graphic Novels

“Serenity” Vol. 1-4

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Vol. 1)
Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories (Vol. 2)
Serenity: The Shepard’s Tale (Vol. 3)
Serenity: Leaves on the Wind (Vol. 4)

My first venture into the digital comics was the four volumes that have been published for the Serenity franchise. If you’re not familiar, Serenity was a movie that came out in 2005, as a continuation of the short-lived but amazing TV show Firefly. These comics take place over a span of the timeline, mostly being used to fill in gaps between the show and the movie. Volume 4, Leaves on the Wind, is the official follow-up to the movie.

Out of the gate, let’s make one thing clear: there will be spoilers here. I’ll try to keep the comic spoilers to a minimum, but if you haven’t seen the show or movie, turn back now. Then come back after you’ve watched it, because holy crap, western in space. Seriously, this show was so underrated.

vol1-1

Those Left Behind is a mini-series that was put out in 2005 as a bridge between the show and the movie. The crew of Serenity are attempting a heist on a border planet, while Shepard Book is giving a sermon as a diversion. Another team steals the job from under them, and alert the townspeople to Mal and his crew. Shepard Book “borrows” some transport, and the team race to the ship.

The Hands of Blue reach out to Lawrence Dobson for help in locating River and Simon Tam. I’ll admit, when I was reading the comic I was scratching my head trying to remember who this character was. Turns out he’s the Alliance agent in the pilot episode of Firefly, who Mal shot in the eye and left for dead on Whitefall. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched the show, and the comic doesn’t really offer any hints. I had to look up information online to figure out who he was.

The crew return to Persephone, and take another job from Badger, another character from the show. Refusing to detour for Inara’s duties as a Companion, Mal gets in a fight with Book over the validity of his word.

The job goes south, and both the ground crew and those left on the ship are left facing adversaries with Dobson and the Hands of Blue. We’re left with Inara’s departure from Serenity, and Shepard Book announcing his own intentions of leaving the ship.

This was a good bridge, even though it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be. I was hoping we’d get an explanation of Haven (the world Book ends up on in the movie) and perhaps a little more information as to why Inara chose to leave in the first place. There just wasn’t a lot here in terms of character development. But the story was good, and it was nice to see the return of some characters from the show.

The artwork is decent, though it’s nothing like the covers. This is an issue I have with a lot of the Dark Horse media tie-in graphic novels. They use photo-realistic art for the covers, and not for the comic itself. The people tend to feel a little flat in the art, recognizable only by a few trademark differences.

serenity-better-days-2nd-editi-1

Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories collects a variety of short stories into one volume. Better Days is another mini-series that was set between the show and movie. However, it takes place before Those Left Behind.

Better Days has the crew pull a job, only to be hounded by a new security drone from the Alliance. They manage to disable and steal it, in exchange for money that’s been hidden in a temple. Upon collecting their payday, the crew realize that it is far more money than they were expecting. Several of the characters share their fantasies of what they would do with such wealth, as they take a vacation to a luxury world.

Inara’s client is an agent who hunts down “Dust Devils”–rogue Browncoats who continued to attack after the War and are considered terrorists. He targets Mal and Serenity, leaving the crew to deal with a standoff.

This was a good story, with the crew all together. It was fun to see the different fantasies of the characters, and it fleshed them out. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was also interesting to see the Alliance’s view of remaining Browncoats, especially as it makes a lot of sense. We don’t see Mal and the crew as bad guys, because they’re lovable scoundrels. But there are Browncoats out there still acting like the War is on, and yeah–they would be considered terrorists by the ruling government.

The other stories in this volume are shorter. “The Other Half” features the crew trying to transport an injured passenger, who is their cargo for their current job. River detects something isn’t right about the man, and her psychic abilities save the day.

“Downtime” is a short featuring a bit of daily life on board the Serenity. Zoe and Wash enjoy some quality time together, Kaylee and Inara fantasize about food, and Jayne comes to Simon with a sensitive problem.

“Float Out” is set after the movie, and features three men christening a new ship. They share stories of their lost friend Wash, reminiscing on their past adventures. “It’s Never Easy” is also set after the movie, well into Zoe’s pregnancy, as the crew depart for supplies and a would-be passenger tries to steal Serenity.

I enjoyed the shorts collected in Volume 2. They provided a bit of character development, and were fun. My least favorite was “Float Out,” mostly because the three men telling tales are people we’ve never met, and Wash barely features in the stories or artwork. It’s all mostly about clever flying, so is mostly action scenes of ships. It was apparently the first reveal of Zoe being pregnant, but as I read the volumes out of order, I already knew about it, so the reveal was wasted.

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The Shepard’s Tale gives us the much desired backstory of Shepard Book. Told in flashbacks, we get glimpses of his life leading up to when he joined the crew of Serenity. I won’t give anything away here–but it was a fascinating take on the character.

My one complaint is that, in hindsight, it makes the events in the episode “Safe” make less sense. But as a backstory, it was great.

serenity_leaves_on_the_wind_hc-2

Finally, we get to Leaves on the Wind. Oh my god. This book. Honestly, it’s everything I could hope for as a follow-up to the movie.

The crew of Serenity, minus Jayne, has gone into hiding after the events of the movie. Zoe has her baby, and complications demand that she be taken to a hospital. She begs Mal to leave her, knowing that she’ll be captured, so that the Alliance doesn’t get her baby too.

The crew then have to figure out how to rescue her from a remote prison planet, while the New Resistance recruits Jayne to help them find Mal.

I’m not going to say anything else about it, because honestly, this is one that you want to go into spoiler free. All I can say is, I can’t wait for more.

The Serenity comics are solid pieces of work. Joss Whedon had a hand in all but Leaves on the Wind, which he passed off to his brother Zack. However, they are not good jumping on points for those not familiar with the series. These are true tie-in pieces, meaning that watching the show and movie are required before reading.

Final Verdict: If you’re a fan of the series, absolutely check out these comics. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you’re interested in the series but haven’t been exposed to it yet, start with the TV show, watch Serenity, and then tackle the comics.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5