Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Short Stories

Neil Gaiman’s the Sandman: Endless Nights (2003)

Like Gaiman’s other short story collections, Endless Nights has its share of ups and downs. Each of its seven stories are quick snapshots into the Endless’ everyday, and each one sticks around just long enough to give some insight into individual personalities. Some are connected, most aren’t. Some aren’t even stories, but descriptions, ideas, atmospheres. It’s a nice idea, but certain members of the Endless aren’t exactly known for their character, and some of these stories subsequently don’t do much to change that.

Death’s story, ‘Death & Venice,’ makes for a good character to start with, but I found her story a little too dark. To some extent, it’s a retread of other Death stories filtered through the tragedy of 9/11. The narration carries the melancholic musings of an American soldier on leave in Venice. He’s remembering his visits as a child, his brush with the eternally-beautiful Death then, and his frequent brushes as a soldier now.

Overlapping his story is Death’s story: A part of her rests outside a door barred to time. Behind this door, if it could be opened, one would find a men and women frozen in a single day, reliving an unabashed series of vulgarities and vices for eternity. They’re puppets all the same. They feel safe from Death’s clutches, but she’ll always be outside, waiting all the same. The end result makes for one of Gaiman’s darkest stories.

P. Craig Russell’s art is excellent. While I enjoy his work, I don’t quite get the overwhelming praise it garners. His capture of Death is akin to a Saturday Morning Cartoon: Clean, colorful, yet dark and grey. She rests somewhere between the bright, colorful world beyond the gate, and the gloomy tint of a post-9/11 reality.

P. Craig Russell was the artist for the opening Death story (L), creating a clean and grey look for the usually-dreary character, while Milo Manara drew the more sensual story about the androgynous Desire (R).

Only Milo Manara should take the reins on a story about Desire. ‘What I’ve Tasted of Desire‘ offers a distant look at the Endless’ influence in days long gone, about a pre-Roman woman who has a keen insight–if you can call it that–into the game Desire plays. Manara’s artwork is nothing but a rush of phallic energy and the sexualization of everything. His women are unreal (as one expects of Manara), but that’s image Desire draws out of us.

Kara, our hero, has more in common with Desire than meets the eye. When she receives Desire’s personal guidance to win the heart of the town hunk, there’s a thin line strung between whether her prepared hubris was always there, or something from Desire drew itself into her in the moment. Regardless, she carries the bizarre understanding of the wolfishness she desires and what it means for her. Her story of winning over her lug seems to venerate that very wolfishness that Desire draws out of folks–and she plays it to her advantage, manipulating her family, her enemies, and the readers. She ends her story as she expected to, getting what she wanted.

I didn’t like Dream’s story.

The Heart of the Star‘ (illus. Miguelanxo Prado) was the most comic-book among the stories, with sly DC Universe references knotted into the plot to create continuity with DC’s superheroes. It gives it a colorful atmosphere akin to comic books of the ’70s and ’80s. This is Endless Night‘s ode to the classic comic, which is to say: Not my thing. The DC Universe being crammed into the Sandman lore is responsible, I think, for the series’ lowest points–most of them early in its run, before Gaiman cemented his style or his success.

This tale is set long before our sun had even formed, when the Endless were much younger. They’re meeting with the stars themselves in an impossible architecture to discuss future plans. They’re hardly recognizable as themselves. Death’s appearance is merely the cameo of succinct professionalism one would expect of her name–nothing like the pert cheer she resonates in recent millennia. Despair is the first Despair, similar to our current sister, but not quite. Destruction’s playing with explosive energy, suggesting a creative role outside his implied expertise. Delirium appears, for the first and only time until 2013’s Overture, as Delight. The difference between them is barely noticeable, with her naivete a symptom of instability. Morpheus is…happy. This is the story of what makes him unhappy, and the beginnings of his sibling rivalry with Desire.

The impossible gap between stories allows for personalities to be entirely unrecognizable, but its brief length (20 pgs.) to rush billions of years of character development makes it feel more akin to fan-fiction than canon. That’s a problem. Desire’s prank turning Morpheus into the Dream of the Sandman‘s first issue happens in the span of a couple minutes.

One interesting aspect, though, is this tale explains why Morpheus seems to devote so much time to Earth and humanity when his reign is implied as temporally and spatially infinite, itself an explanation for why readers found so much to care about with the original series.

Miguelanxo Prado contributed the art to the Dream storyline (L), while Barron Storey and Dave McKean collaborated on the stories of Despair (R).

Despair’s ‘Fifteen Portraits of Despair‘ illustrates a significant character issue with the Endless, while still being one of the most powerful stories in the collection. If anyone could bee expected to tell a good yarn about Despair of the Endless, it should be Gaiman. This is not that yarn, or even a yarn, for that matter. This is a series of prose-poem vignettes interspersed with chaotic, unsettling artwork by Barron Storey and long-time collaborator Dave McKean that explores the emotion of despair felt at its worst.

The vignettes in Despair’s collection are successful at pulling the reader into the feeling of despair itself, deeply. Some of the prose-poems and artwork were more abstruse than others, and some longer than others. Some dig deep to evoke a scenario, like that of a failing artist or–the worst for me–a caretaker of large family of pets knowingly leaving them to starve to death and doing nothing about it, only admitting off-hand to regret and unhappiness. Others are emotional snapshots in a handful of lines, with characters or situations difficult to discern. While I really enjoyed this series of vignettes, it did nothing to add to Despair’s character, simply playing off a single-note she was mostly known for.

Going Inside‘ with Delirium poses a similar format to Despair’s story through its abstract artwork (courtesy of Bill Sienkiewicz). It tells a story, however–but in the scatter-brained, cute-but-dark way you’d expect of Delirium of the Endless. It’s jolting being paired back-to-back with Despair’s story, and it would have been preferential to get a stylistic break between them.

Delirium’s story is a fragmented adventure into the minds of the delirious to rescue our Endless sister. Delirium is back, lovable as ever, but she’s in hiding again. She’s retreated into the mind of a young catatonic woman following an implied traumatic experience. Despite being of the Endless, Delirium is often written as vulnerable, with her siblings needing to look after her, and because of this, it’s unclear if she was hurt in the same way or simply identified with the catatonic’s state. Trying to follow Daniel and Barnabas’ rescue mission filtered through unhinged perceptions is exhausting, but rewarding.

Bill Sienkiewicz (L) accurately captured the chaos inside Delirium’s head, while Glenn Fabry’s more traditional art (R) backed up the story of the missing Endless, Destruction

The penultimate story is a return to comfortable storytelling technique with help from artist Glenn Fabry. Destruction’s ‘On the Peninsula‘ is a feel-good existential romp if ever Sandman could have one. It carries some parallels to Death’s story, including a haunted narrator in a foreign land, exploration of an isolated ruin, musings of melancholy and depression and the need for personal revelation, &c.

It stars a post-doc, Rachel, invited by her sleazy professor to help a government-funded dig that promises to change the world. The future has appeared on a European peninsula, buried and by all accounts ancient. Delirium’s trouble suggested from ‘Going Inside’ has effected shock-waves through reality (including the upbeat tone of this tale!), which her and Destruction are now overseeing as fellow tourists. Rachel shares an immediate connection with Destruction, evident through her morbid dreams that drove her to their meeting. Her new-found ties with Destruction and his sister allow her a position outside of her funding camp, and with his help she’s able to find herself and move on, leaving the power of the future in the Endless’ hands.

This story shows a hopeful reunion with Destruction, as well, who left the series willfully before. Since Morpheus’ passing, he’s evidently reconnected with his family, and taken up his mantle of Destruction again. I’d wager this very story is about his initial re-awakening as Destruction of the Endless.

Finally, Frank Quitely’s wonderful art backed up the prose-poem about the eldest of the Endless, Destiny (L). Right shows his vision of all the Endless siblings.

Endless Nights‘ ends the collection with a prose-poem, a fitting epilogue dedicated to the eldest of the Endless, Destiny. It’s well-written, absorbing, and beautifully-illustrated by Frank Quitely; but like Despair’s story, it illustrates the problems of giving each of the Endless their own tales. The sole unoriginal member of the Endless, Destiny was a rescued product of the prior decades–and a great inclusion among the Endless early in the series. He was subsequently the most difficult character to work with, and by the end he remained a single-note stoic with nothing to his character but the name.

Instead of combating Destiny’s negative stereotype, ‘Endless Nights’ embraces it. It’s a meditation on what destiny means, even if it’s a little contradictory and nebulous in its definition — just how destiny should be. His book holds the universe, and he can read the fate of any person, any being, any atom, but the wonder of humanity is that our destinies are ours to write.


reviewed November 2015, revised December 2016

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