Endless Nights seems to be getting an awful lot of attention. Dirk Deppey refers to it as the “Neil Gaiman media juggernaut.” Why all the press? Here’s my theory: the throngs of sensitive English-major types who adored Sandman while they were in college are now the mid-30’s editors and writers churning out the bulk of the nation�s media content. They’ve got some pull, so when Vertigo launches a strong publicity campaign, they respond. In droves.
And a good thing, too, I say. On second reading, I liked Endless Nights even more, though that’s not to say that I don’t have quibbles. Let’s have a look at each of the stories in turn.
“Death and Venice”
Art by P. Craig Russell
The first three stories are clearly the top three of the bunch, though I’m hard put to pick a favorite among them. This one is the longest, and of all seven the one that holds tightest to its subject — that is to say, it’s about not just Death, but death. I loved the depictions of Death herself, as well as the different styles in which Russell draws the present day, the Duke’s court, and the soldier’s memories. This story is classic Sandman: it takes a mythological conceit (the Duke’s court cheats Death, who waits for them outside the gate but cannot enter enter until another opens the way for her) and fleshes it out with the mundane and the personal (our protagonist and his understated listlessness and doubt about life as a soldier).
The story goes on for exactly one page too long. The bottom of page 33 is a fine stopping point; everything after is just overdone moodiness. Here’s the last line: “I shiver, and hurry from the square, as the darkness of the city closes over me like canal water or the grave.” Pick your metaphor, dude. This is not the prose of the guy who wrote American Gods.
“What I’ve Tasted of Desire”
Art by Milo Manara
Say it with me now: it’s not about the nekkidness. It’s not about the nekkidness. OK, maybe a little about the nekkidness. Certainly Manara is a master of the erotic, and his art fits perfectly in a story about Desire. There’s a great folk tale at the core of this one, even if Desire herself is somewhat tacked-on. The facial expressions on pages 52-53 alone are worth the price of admission.
Friendly tip: if you’re reading this story in your favorite coffee shop, take care about who’s watching over your shoulder. Otherwise ‘bound to have to do a lot of explaining to the innocent young person who works there and now thinks you’re some kind of perv. “But, see, it’s Sandman! It’s art! Really!”
“The Heart of a Star”
Art by Miguelanxo Prado
Unlike the first two, you really need a familiarity with Sandman to appreciate this story. It’s one for the fans, providing glimpses of the early manifestations of the Endless: a rare glimpse of Delight; the first instance of Desire tampering with Dream’s love life. The premise is the sort of thing few besides Gaiman would think of and still fewer could pull off: a conference of stars at the near-beginning of the universe, to set boundaries and rules. Making Sol the awkward kid of the bunch warmed my heart.
The weak spot was Death’s entrance on page 66, for reasons that go beyond that particular scene. Consider the common literary topos, “Death will come for each and every one of us in the end.” Gaiman wrote a beautiful story about that: “The Sound of Her Wings,” Sandman #8. The first I ever read. He’s felt the need to repeat himself a few too many times since. On page 66, the whole thing could have been handled much better with fewer words and more innuendo. The facial expressions of the stars say plenty by themselves.
“Fifteen Portraits of Despair”
Art by Barron Storey and Dave McKean
I’ve never liked Despair. Duh. What I mean is that, unlike the villain that you love to hate, I’ve never even wanted to see Despair or read stories that involve her. Even in that I’m probably not alone, and maybe it’s even intentional. The best of the portraits are number three (harrowing in its simplicity) and number thirteen (so sad it’s funny, so funny it’s sad). I have no use for the ones that try to just describe Despair, rather than evoking her with a story or something else concrete. These need to be sustained primarily by the art, and none of that is particularly to my taste.
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz
This story is almost impossible to understand on first reading, which, considering that it’s about Delirium, may be appropriate. Great lettering keeps the five different crazy people straight. Gaiman is showing off here, with his ability to juggle the internally consistent, stream-of-consciousness monologues of five different madpeople. Good stuff. We have another perfect matching of visual style to theme (page 119, for example, is just fantastic.) Even the resolution — what exactly do they do to rescue her? — remains somewhere just beyond the realm of the understandable. Here, as with Dream’s tale, it helps a little to have some context and know why Delirium disappeared into herself in the first place. It ends with both a miracle and a happy ending, giving us a touch of delight amid the madness.
“On the Peninsula”
Art by Glenn Fabry
This story recycles the “the Endless are irresistibly fascinating to mortals” schtick again, which is one time too many in a single volume. In the first two stories, the person enthralled — the soldier, the chieftain’s wife — have a particular connection to the the Endless that they meet. What’s our archaeologist’s affinity with Destruction, though? Or maybe that’s the point — he’s turned his back on his calling, and no longer embodies his domain. In any case, it’s a pretty good story. The best thing about Fabry’s panels are the subtle hints of characterization, like Stanley checking out the other woman on page 127. I think I prefer his people as drawn at a distance to his close-ups.
Art by Frank Quitely
This story was the one big disappointment of the batch. Not because the drawings aren�t beautiful — they are. But there’s no story here. All we have is a recyling of the whole “this is Destiny; this is what he does” bit that has already appeared in at least two Sandman issues that I can think of. It would have been great to see an actual story involving Destiny: someone strange visits his garden, maybe, or something tries to steal his book. What we get isn’t so much a story as as an extraneous epilogue.
So the good stuff is definitely frontloaded, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t great. I was a bit too harsh when I said earlier that it was only the art, not the stories, that made Endless Nights a great book. The stories of Death, Desire, Dream, and Delirium rank up there with the best of Gaiman’s comics work. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time he pays the world of Sandman a visit.