Neil Gaiman, Absolute Sandman -- Volume One (Vertigo, 2006)

Forget Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls graphic novel. Without any doubt at all, the absolutely best graphic novel of 2006 is Neil Gaiman's Absolute Sandman -- Volume One! And it's one of the best literary efforts of the year as well. The Sandman was the most acclaimed comics of the '90s. Now, given that Neil Gaiman has been writing professionally for over twenty years, with a extensive list of well-known novels and comics including Sandman, Neverwhere, Death: The High Cost of Living, The Books of Magic, Good Omens, and American Gods, that statement above is quite a claim by me. His latest novel, Anansi Boys has recently been released to great acclaim, and Fragile Things, his latest collection is quite enjoyable as well, but that Sandman remains his best known and arguably his greatest creative affair to date is quite amazing

The Vertigo Web site says of this very cool endeavor that it is

The first of four beautifully designed slip cased volumes, The Absolute Sandman -- Volume One collects issues #1-20 of The Sandman and features completely new coloring, approved by the author on the first 18 issues, as well as a host of never-before-seen extra material including the complete original Sandman proposal, a gallery of character designs from Gaiman and the artists who originated the look of the Sandman, and the original script for the World Fantasy Award-winning The Sandman #19, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' together with reproductions of the issue's original pencils by Charles Vess.

It is, without doubt, a reading experience which all fans of Gaiman will appreciate as it improves in every way on the quality of the original editions of the Sandman graphic novels. Now, this is not a review of the Sandman series. April Gutierrez, our Book Editor, has read the series and has signed copies of the trade paperbacks from the early '90s. so I asked her for a few words on the first twenty books which is what is in Absolute Sandman -- Volume One. Here is what she said: 'At the time I was introduced to Sandman back in college, I had a dim view of comics in general. I was little expecting the lush, layered epic tale that Gaiman had in store for me. Drawing on history, mythology, and the DC universe, Gaiman gave readers a unique, thoughtful and beautifully laid out mythos that spanned many volumes (and wonderful artists!), and elicited a wide range of emotions, not the least of which was wonder. Safe to say that Gaiman and Sandman renewed my interest in comics very nearly single handedly!' Thanks April!

Unlike April, who read the comics back when Gaiman was still producing them, I first encountered Sandman when I picked up and read the trade paperbacks of the first issues of Sandman a few years back, Gaiman I knew well as a writer -- Stardust, Neverwhere, and his various short story collections were all wonderful reads, but I must admit I wasn't at all impressed with the Sandman series when I read the trade paper editions -- the printing technology of that time sucked royally and it showed on those reproduced pages -- shitty paper, lousy inks, and truly poor colors when printed made for a lousy reading experience for me, but Absolute Sandman -- Volume One is quite another experience altogether!

First, let's note that it is a really big bugger at 13.5" tall by 8.5" wide, and an impressive 612 pages in length. As I said in reviewing the Hill House edition of Neil Gaiman's American Gods we reviewed here

I am not here to review American Gods. I am here instead to talk with you about not one, but two, of the finest editions of a novel ever printed. I do not say that lightly as I've seen many fine limited editions ranging from the affordable works of Golden Gryphon such as Kage Baker's Black Projects, White Knights -- The Company Dossiers to one by Gaiman himself that Biting Dog Press issued, Murder Mysteries: Two Plays for Voices that is both one of the coolest art objects I ever held in my hands and is quite possibly the most expensive book I've ever actually owned. Now I'm not saying that mainstream publishers such as Tor, Penguin Putnam, and Harpers Collins don't do fine quality work as they most assuredly do, but the really cool stuff comes from publishers who do relatively small runs of a given title. The trade off is, of course, that it costs more (sometimes) to do it this way, but the result in the case of American Gods (Author's Preferred Edition) is well-worth the price.

Now Vertigo is quite obviously not a small press, being part of DC Comics, a unit of Time Warner, the largest media conglomerate existing today. Surprisingly enough, this is every bit as good as anything I've seen from any of the small presses we deal with. Like the Hill House American Gods, Absolute Sandman -- Volume One comes in a slipcase to protect the actual volume itself though one would not want to soil the glorious slip case either. Eagerly slipping it out, I was amazed at the leather-like cover with an embossed Dave McKean illustration on the cover. (McKean designed the slipcase as well.) It looks like a medieval tome brought up to date -- elegant, ancient, and very expensive all at the same time. (Not to mention heavy -- it weighs in I'd say as eight pounds!) As an art object, it is indeed without match. Did I mention the raised flourishes on the spine and an embossed key and lock motif on the front and back? Or that he letters are embossed in silver, all in an appropriate old-style script? Or that there's a black silk bookmarker anchored to the center of the spine? Classy!

The contents are even better. Just imagine the difference between watching Star Wars or whatever your favorite film is on a ancient laptop -- careful, you'll get a headache squinting at that screen!!! Now imagine being invited to a showing of that same film at some state-of-the-art movie theater where the film operator ain't a pimply sixteen year-old using a worn out film copy and equipment that should be junked now, but rather is a true film tech who knows how to show a film at its very best. That is the difference between what was in print for Sandman and what is in this volume of Absolute Sandman. Brilliant colors, oversized panels, new lettering when need be -- what's not to like?

Don't forget the goodies -- the complete original Sandman proposal (!), a gallery of character designs from Gaiman and the artists who originated the look of the Sandman series, and the original script for the World Fantasy Award-winning The Sandman #19, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' together with reproductions of that issue's original pencils by Charles Vess. The price for all this? A hundred dollars. Now don't grumble -- it, like the Hill House edition of American Gods, is worth every penny of that price as there are hours upon hours of reading enjoyment here. I for one will be looking forward to the other three volumes in this set!

[Cat Eldridge]