By Neil Gaiman and P Craig Russell
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was a very important book in my development as a comic book fan, but I never really kept up with any of the spin-offs or extras that came out after the series itself ended. I read the last Gaiman-written Sandman stories (Endless Nights) via a book from the library, and I never even read the original prose novella (with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano), or bothered to seek it out. I didn’t even know that the story had been adapted into a four-issue comic book series by P Craig Russell; when I saw it in the library, I had to pick it up because I was so surprised by its existence, and because Russell is a fantastic artist and adapter of other people’s work.
In the afterword, Gaiman says something pertinent to my reading this: ‘What I did not expect was the strange feeling that comes from reading a new Sandman comic. … It was magical.’ Not having read much of the other material, I came to this quite anew and it was exactly like reading a new Sandman comic, and it was magical. It is not a vital story about Morpheus – he is a supporting character in this – but it is an enchanting and exquisite tale, marrying Gaiman’s beautiful prose with Russell’s gorgeous art. Set in Japan sometime in the distant past, it tells of a Buddhist monk who looks after a small temple on the side of a mountain and a fox spirit that starts out trying to evict him (in a wager with a badger spirit), only for emotions to get involved and a plot by a Kyoto civil servant (who deals in magic) to kill him through dreams. It is a story of hubris, tragedy, love, sacrifice, revenge and, of course, dreams, and it leaves you both sad and happy in the way that a good Sandman comic can. There are appearances from the Three Witches, Cain and Abel, and Matthew the raven, and Morpheus appears in human form but also in the form of a large black fox, which looks absolutely fabulous.
The art is ridiculously beautiful – Russell talks about the three influences in this work: Japanese woodblock prints, European Art Noveau and, bizarrely, Disney – and it all shows in the precise detail and composition. A clear line, with visuals playing off each other from panel to panel, while some hark back to Japanese prints in the scene-setting panels (mountain vistas in tall vertical panels, or waves in the sea echoing Hokusai); then there is the playfulness of the fox and the badger and Morpheus-fox, or the charming facial expressions that speak volumes, which are then contrasted by the huge majesty of the strange and beautiful places the monk passes through to enter Dream’s palace. Russell has done his usual outstanding job, and I’m glad that he persuaded Gaiman to let him adapt the story into this comic book, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoyed the original Sandman series.