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This is where The Sandman gets good.
A collection of four stand-alone short stories, Dream Country is where Neil Gaiman figures out exactly what the potential of this comic is – he can just tell stories. They are all connected to dreams, but that’s secondary, honestly. In one of them, the lead character doesn’t even show up.
I find “Calliope” to be the weakest of the four – while I like the story, the ultimate moral involving the price of ideas is a little obvious to me and Kelley Jones’ art looks dated (lots of bad early 90s hair). It’s still a strong tale, though, and Gaiman’s ability to combine humor and brutality shines throughout.
Oh, how did I forget about “A Dream of A Thousand Cats”? Seeing the world through eyes of cats does change my perspective a bit (the punchline at the end is a cute one). Mostly, though, it’s about the power of dreams and our ability to shape the world, all packaged in this fun little tale. In a really odd way, I’m almost glad I didn’t remember it because it felt like I was reading it for the first time.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is perfect. It’s completely understandable why this won the World Fantasy Award. It’s elegant and masterful, both on the part of Gaiman and through Charles Vess’ beautiful work. It’s a story about a story, but it does point to the larger theme of The Sandman as a whole – “The price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted.”
In “Facade,” Gaiman and Colleen Doran take a minor DC superherione and explore her inner life and ultimately death. While the territory of “superheroes as people” isn’t necessarily original (and it wasn’t at the time), it nicely connects the idea of superheroes into a larger mythology. It’s not my favorite Sandman story, but it’s always touching and surprising to me. And despite her insistence that she’s not “merciful,” Death remains an adorable, reassuring presence. Death is one of the most charming fictional characters I’ve ever read.
Despite the philosophy of “it’s best to start at the beginning,”I think I’d quickly hand Dream Country to someone who’s interested in The Sandman. Maybe I’d have to fill her in on a few things here and there, but I think this makes a wonderful introduction to both the humor and the heart of the series.