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The Boston Phoenix Dream Lover

Neil Gaiman's Sandman returns

By Susannah Mandel

DECEMBER 7, 1999: 

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano. (DC Comics), 126 pages, hardcover $29.95.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, the new illustrated fantasy book by English writer Neil Gaiman and Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, has stirred considerable expectation among fans of its collaborators. Gaiman is one of the few Western writers of comic books to achieve widespread pop-cultural recognition; he is best known for his work as the writer of The Sandman, a clever, literate comic-book series that rewrote the conventions of horror and superhero comics for a new generation of adult readers. Gaiman's Dream Hunters illustrator, though not yet a household name in the United States, has a similarly strong fan base in Japan: a visual artist with fingers in many pies, Yoshitaka Amano has been a character designer for the successful "Final Fantasy" video-game series and for the stylish animated cult film Vampire Hunter D. In 1997, in New York for a retrospective exhibit, he blitzed the city with a memorable performance-art ad campaign that, from billboards and subway cars, exhorted the populace to mistrust certain flowers, refuse to wear their glasses, and otherwise "think like Amano."

The Sandman-comics franchise marches on in stories penned by other writers (and in a new release from DC, The Sandman Companion, a literary reference guide for completists). But though Gaiman himself has been keeping busy with fiction and scriptwriting -- most recently authoring the English-language screenplay for the Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke -- The Dream Hunters marks the first time in three years that he has returned to the central character of his comic-book universe: Morpheus, the pale and pensive King of Dreams.

This book, unlike his earlier Sandman work, is not a comic but a story told in prose, with lavish -- indeed, almost claustrophobic -- illustrations by Amano. The plot, whose adaptation Gaiman discusses in the book's afterword, is based on a Japanese fairy tale: after falling in love with a young Buddhist monk, a fox decides she must try to save him from a dangerous wizard who plans to assassinate the monk by sending him three evil dreams. The fox sets out to find the person who can help her: the deity known as the King of All Night's Dreaming. The ending is, inevitably, tragic; as the Dream King warns his supplicator at the outset, "He is only a human, while you are a fox. These things rarely end happily."

The concept of using the Japanese fairy tale seems a good one. In his work on The Sandman, Gaiman often played with the idea that since the king of all dreams can also be viewed as the king of all stories, his character has a universality that allows him entry into the mythological traditions of all human cultures. And Amano's accompanying paintings meld Eastern and Western influences, from a color-saturated composition that suggests Gustav Klimt to a psychedelic landscape checkered with violent reds to a vast abstract background of golden watercolor blotches into which tiny human figures seem to fade away. The frequently abstract and unfinished quality of the paintings creates the impression that the story, like its characters, is wandering circularly through dreams.

The book's text bears Gaiman's trademark lyricism and admirable felicity in turning a phrase. But it falls short in some of the dimensions that mark his best work in short stories and comics: subtle characterization, inspired pacing, polished dialogue. This may be partly because Gaiman's great genius is as a synthesizer. Some of his most vibrant writing has come about in his mixing of icons to delineate a modern popular mythology -- magical battles staged in the London subway system, or the fertility goddess Ishtar dancing in a modern-day strip club. The constraints set up by the goal of "retelling" the Japanese folk tale here limit the range of his imagination, and though the result is graceful enough, it feels slightly anemic.

The Dream Hunters also seems somewhat uneasy in the ill-defined space it occupies between comic book and text-with-lots-of-pictures -- the way each page of story is faced by a full-page illustration creates the comic-book expectation that the images will depict action and carry the narrative forward. But Amano's images, attractive and inventive as they are, are repetitive, generalized depictions of the characters, and they actually slow the story down. Although the project will doubtless do wonders in demonstrating the commercial viability of the marriage of "fine art" to comics storytelling, those who are looking for a new adventure in Gaiman's old, vigorous Sandman style are likely to be disappointed.

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