Page 45 Review by Dominique
"I shall seek the Buddha. But first I shall seek revenge."
The afterwords by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell will tell you that SANDMAN: THE DREAM HUNTERS is actually an adaptation of an adaptation that never actually was an adaptation. Apparently, when Neil wrote the illustrated book 10 years ago he concocted a convincing back-story about an ancient Japanese folk tale which never was. How appropriate then, as Neil himself points out, that the first new SANDMAN comic for quite some years should have its roots in a fabrication; a myth, if you will. I found that little factoid quite charming!
Despite this confession however, this comic is written exactly as if it were an adaptation of a classic tale. A young monk tends his small temple while a badger and a fox strike an impish wager as to who can drive him out; the winner gaining the temple as their home. Some exuberant, over-the-top and ill-directed illusions follow but, of course, promises of riches and fame fall upon deaf ears while threats of evil and harm fare little better. The monk, serene and devout monk with peace at his centre, is wise enough to see through the glamours and even good old fashioned seduction fails to make its mark. Well, maybe it leaves a small impression... because of course folk tales are never that simple and soon a quandary arises; the fox has fallen in love with the monk and is horrified when she overhears demons plotting his demise.
This demise is to be the work of The Onmyoji; a local Yin-Yang Master and demonologist of some status in the community. Though wealthy and respected, he does not seem to indulge or flaunt. Far from being a cackling overbearing bad-guy, the Onmyoji actually lives a life strictured by a quiet fear which stalks him through his waking hours and through his dreams. What the monk cultivates at his centre - calmness and peace - the Onmyoji lacks, and it is this peace which he pursues through his ever-growing knowledge of demonology. The Yin-Yang theme is not hard to spot here; a restless, neurotic spirit contrasted with a disciplined mind. Added to this is a Shakespearean theme, as the Onmyoji consults with three witches who, of course, tell him what he wants to hear whilst leaving all the caveats unsaid. They inform the Onmyoji that he may banish the fear which shadows him by sacrificing the life of a young monk. These plans are never simple though, are they? The monk must not die by violence or in pain, he must simply slip out of this world... as if into a dream. And so it is that the smitten fox learns that to save the monk from his fate she must intervene not in the real world but in the realm of dreams.
The art is, of course, extremely pretty as you would expect from P. Craig Russell. It is also subtle and clever; the changes in the foliage behind the fox as she gazes at the monk; the tapestry behind the Dream King, morphing as he speaks; an owl catching a mouse in its beak just as the Sandman catches the monk in a half-truth about his feelings for the fox; the demise of the monks father, captured in a single picture, the elements of the panel seamlessly translating the narrator's words. The influences Russell speaks about in his afterword are clear to see, as flame, waters, wind and cloud are rendered in woodcut-style swirls and the leaves and trees (which I am a sucker for anyway) are gorgeous. There is some lovely use of iconic Sandman imagery too. When the fox enters the realm of dreams and then meets the Dream King in fox form we know it is him by the arrangement of stars contained within his eyes (not to mention those cool, white-on-black blobule speech bubbles he gets to speak in). The sequences in the Sandman's realm flow well, capturing the peculiar, non-linear flow and distorted sense of boundaries of a dreamscape. Even Russell's Disney influence comes through with the fox and the badger being anthropomorphised; not in a HEPCATS or Antarctic Press way but rather through their expressive eyes and faces. It may sound like an odd combination but it works well. The colouring (by Lovern Kindzierski) is sympathetic, delicate and well conceived; bold when it needs to be, light and spacious at other times; and so overall the art holds the multiple themes and influences of the story together, bringing the tale to life in pictures.
Regardless of the source-material-shenanigans, THE DREAM HUNTERS is an adaptation of what is intended to be a folk tale in the traditional Japanese style and, for me, this is where it hits its limitations. This is purely a matter of personal taste on my part but I have never been overly keen on the narrator's voice device, particularly when it persists throughout a whole piece. I find the constant breaking back into "And so this happened, and afterwards that" jarring and, particularly in comics, limiting. Though (as you would expect from a writer as good as Neil Gaiman) the timing and pacing of the book are good, I found I could not quite relax because I was always waiting for the next part of the tale to be doled out. For me that broke, or rather set too rigidly, the rhythm of the story. It's a comic, I don't need to be told that something has been done quickly, or causes sorrow or happiness; that is what the pictures are there to communicate and, to me, that is one of the great joys of the medium. With an artist as good as Russell there is no shortage of nuance or expression and I do wish sometimes that he had been left to draw the story without the exposition over the top.
Perhaps in this though I am missing the point. DREAM HUNTERS is presented as an adaptation of a folk tale, blending the modern mythology of the Sandman into the ancient mythology and style of Japanese folklore; it does this well and is very easy on the eye to boot. It's just a little bit too predictable for me, bounded as it is by the conventions of its chosen style. As the first new Neil Gaiman SANDMAN comic for many a long year we may have liked something more open-ended, less restricted; however I did find much to enjoy here, even if the style was not completely my cup of tea.