Re-Enter Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes

In 2008, I reread The Sandman and wrote about it. And then I just didn’t read it again.*

That wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice but I do think there was a part of me that thought I’d gotten everything out of it I was going to.

Since that was 14 years ago and it was in honor of that I’d first started reading The Sandman when I was 14 years old, I decided that now, 14 years later, it would be amusing to do it. Also, I’m overdue. In the past 14 years, I have certainly read a lot more comics and learned a lot more about comics. I have felt genuinely curious as to how I still feel about this comic that has meant a lot to me.

(Plus, yeah, there’s the Netflix series that should be debuting this year so I’d like to have the comic fresh in my mind because that’s what I do now.)

Preludes & Nocturnes collects the first 8 issues of The Sandman and the first story arc. It’s an ambitious start — maybe overly so, but I’ve always admired writer Neil Gaiman’s confidence in just going for it immediately. With artists Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III, there’s a spirit of “making it up as we go along” while still building on a solid foundation.

I always forget just how much happens in the first issue (although it was 52 pages so it was longer than standard comics). It covers 70 years and capably sets up the rest of the story. I don’t know how much Gaiman knew going into this, but the overall mythology feels developed while playing with a lot of the leftovers from DC horror comics. It just has a sense of “let’s just see where this takes us” that is still incredibly appealing. The rest of The Sandman quickly moves away from this first issue (and the first few issues for that matter) but what a bold start.

The first time I read this, I was 14 and it was like nothing I’d read before. To be fair, most of the comics I had read were various X-Men titles and Elfquest, so it’s not like I had a tremendous amount to compare it to. However, I remember where in the first issue I settled in and thought “I think this is going to be good.” It’s this panel (apologies for the quality — my scanner’s not hooked up right now):

A panel from The Sandman with text panels reading "They have to explain where she is to her every time she wakes. She never remembers.", "Around her the elderly wait for death as they'd wait for an old friend.", and "Killing time." Art by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg

That beat between “Around her the elderly wait for death, as they’d wait for an old friend.” and “Killing time.” is just so … perfect. Now, it strikes me as a little obviously perfect, but at 14, there was a moment of “oh, so this is what comics can do.”

Cover for the 30th anniversary edition of Preludes and Notcturnes. Art by Dave McKean

The rest of Preludes and Nocturnes follows Dream/Morpheus as he tries to get his stuff back and sure, it’s an easy way to give our protagonist things to do but I do think this is where “we don’t know what we’re doing yet” begins to show. Tying it more into the DC Universe proper (although the darker and weirder aspects of it) feels like a stretch, but this time around, I found it more charming than I did before. I think that’s where familiarity helps. Rather than it being “I don’t know who that is so I don’t care” it became “oh, hey, that’s kind of fun.”

The art works for these stories. I prefer the issue with Kieth to the ones without him, but all three artists bring an exaggerated darkness when needed and a calmness when it’s not (although in these issues, there’s not too much that’s particularly calm until the final issue).

I also remember “24 Hours” to be much worse than it is. Sure, it’s still a disturbing piece of horror but maybe I’ve seen much more horrific things (and lived through the past several years) that it doesn’t feel that shocking anymore. I think it’s also a case of memory playing tricks on me — many of the worst things happen off-panel and my mind just filled the blanks. That’s another thing comics can do to great effect and “24 Hours” uses it well.

I have never felt like the conclusion with Dee/Doctor Destiny worked to a satisfying degree and I still don’t. It’s a case of using pre-existing DC characters isn’t effective. It’s an interesting attempt, but it also feels like Gaiman backed himself into a bit of a corner and didn’t quite know what else to do. I do, however, like the collage-like chaos of the art in “Sound and Fury.” It’s fun visually, at least.

I do appreciate the reprieve from the darkness that the final issue here, “The Sound of Her Wings” provides. But here’s where I admit I have never actually loved this issue in the way a lot of other people do. Yes, Death is fun and cute and I like how much she and Dream do feel very much like siblings. I just think it wants to be more meaningful than it is. (But then, I also feel that way now about Dream winning the contest with Choronzon by saying “I am hope” so you can take my opinion or leave it.) However, I did find myself inexplicably tearing up during this issue and that has never happened before. Maybe I like it more than I thought.

Did I get anything new out of this? I’m not sure, but I had more fun reading it this time than I expected to. I always think of Preludes and Nocturnes as being my least favorite (or at least the one I went back to the least). It was good to read it with fresh eyes.

*I have been listening to the Audible adaptation but that’s not the same as reading the comic.

Re-Enter Sandman was a joke my friend Steve Kopian made on Twitter and it made me laugh so I said I’d use it and credit him. Visit his website Unseen Films.