Revisit: The Sandman: Fables and Reflections

Fables and Reflections

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Fables and Reflections has no right to be as good as it is.

I remembered it being somewhat of an afterthought, a mishmash collection of single-issue stories that didn’t really belong anywhere else (some of them came before A Game of You, some of them immediately after. One even follows the next storyline).

The first time I read it, I actually read it after Brief Lives. I felt like they were fun little stories but ultimately useless. They added some texture to The Sandman but didn’t advance the plot.

I don’t know what was different this time — maybe it’s maturity or reading it in the “right” order — but now I think Fables and Reflections is probably the closest to expressing the bigger concept of The Sandman, which is that it is, in the end, a story about stories.

Fables and Reflections is nothing if not full of stories about stories – the stories we tell ourselves, the world. The stories we tell to revise the past or the future. It’s about how stories – about how dreams – shape the world.

The collection begins and ends with leaders and their cities. “Three Septembers and a January” is as much as about Emperor Norton I as it is about San Francisco (which is honestly the only place someone could declare himself emperor of the United States and get away with it). It’s a beautiful tribute to someone who’s not much more than a humorous footnote in history. “Ramadan” is about Caliph Haroun al-Raschid and the fantastic Baghdad. Al-Raschid’s choice to turn his city over to Dream to preserve it is still haunting and powerful (and sadly, it’s probably moreso today than it was in 1993).

The stories in between are a wild ride of new characters and old, historical and mythological figures. I don’t think we ever got to see enough of Johanna Constantine in The Sandman and Jill Thompson’s depiction of the “Lil Endless” in “The Parliament of Rooks” is so wonderfully ridiculous. There are so much in these stories that is delightful and surprising I don’t know how I ever thought this book was mostly a throwaway.

The only story that doesn’t work for me is “The Song of Orpheus.” I like Bryan Talbot as an artist but his work feels to modern for the setting of the ancient Greece of myth. While I’m happy to accept Orpheus as the son of Dream, I don’t feel like Neil Gaiman adds much of anything to the myth. I know why Gaiman told this story – it is important and necessary in the larger story of The Sandman — but it doesn’t go anywhere. (And as far as Greek myths go, I would’ve rather seen the story of Alcyone retold.)

But really, that’s a tiny complaint. Reading Fables and Reflections reminds me of why I spent many years obsessed with Neil Gaiman (and even now, admittedly, I still have my weaker moments). He’s an incredible storyteller. I don’t want to call these “comic books” or “graphic novels” or anything else. They are just wonderful stories.

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