Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, The Collected Sandman Dustcovers (DC Comics, 1997)

"And when I am asleep the objects in my house move slowly to my side and whisper secret names, the names they usually hide. And when I fall awake I try to write them down, but real names are like sand, they spill out of my hands."
 
-- "Mixed Metaphors," Dave McKean

One of the major draws to The Sandman as a comic title -- aside from Neil Gaiman's engaging, nay, enchanting, storyline -- has always been the amazing and varied artwork that accompanied Gaiman's words. Quite a assortment of artists have given their talent over the life of the series, but only one remained constant: Dave McKean, who provided the artwork for every single issue cover (including the graphic novels). McKean's work, and his alone, greeted each and every reader who picked up the monthly issues or collected works.

Brimming with texture, colour and intensity, each cover set the tone for the volume inside, setting, in the process, new standards for comic cover art. McKean and Gaiman eschewed the customary practice of emblazoning each cover with images of the series' protagonists. Instead, you'll find surreal, fantastical imagery, with only the words The Sandman(and occasionally the arc's title) to verify you grabbed the right comic from the rack.

Unless you're a Sandman completist, it's unlikely that you have every cover already on hand (and if you do ... ignore the tiny ninja rummaging in your comic boxes; they're on an important mission). For those of us who don't, the folks at DC Comics were kind (and wise) enough to green light The Collected Sandman Dustcovers while Gaiman and McKean were still working on covers for the "The Kindly Ones" story arc. And so across the span of 200 plus gorgeous, glossy pages, we get every single cover -- issues 1 to 75, plus specials -- and a few extras (CD covers, trading cards, McKean's personal photographs) thrown in for good measure.

Prefacing the book is a short intro by Gaiman, containing what he calls the "Last Sandman Story," not an extension of the overall story as much as a coda. Set to new, realistic illustrations by McKean, Gaiman discusses his encounters with his characters -- both real (Death look-alikes) and imagined (dreams and dream-like occurrences). The words are a touching farewell of sorts to his creations.

What follows then is the meat of the book, the full colour illustrations. Each cover is presented on an odd page, with the even page holding details, smaller images and often commentary from McKean and Gaiman. The covers are, of course, gorgeous, and made all the more fascinating by the glimpses we get into their creation. For example, at one point McKean was jonesing to put a fish on the cover, but Gaiman wouldn't oblige him by putting any fish in the narrative. Finally, after several issues went by, and no fish, McKean took it upon himself to paint a fish on a string, floating in front of a rainbow (Issue 67) ... all without knowing that in the very next issue, Gaiman was writing about "rainbow-minded" Delirium walking a fish on a string (Issue 68). Talk about sharing a brain!

Such anecdotes pepper the pages, bringing the images into sharper focus (did you know Issue 51 was the first to not have a single eye in the image anywhere?). We're told who the models are (actual or imagined) for many of the images -- Gaiman, McKean's wife Clare and their friend Neil Jones appear on several covers; there's also one fashioned after a young David Bowie (Issue 4). Also of note, the art style changes deliberately with each arc, with a different inspiration for each (masks, months, Shakespearean engravings).

The single most fascinating tidbits, though, are all too easily overlooked: McKean's preferred media. He didn't start extensive computer imaging until late in the series' run, making his primary medium photography, though he also used acrylic paints, dirt, wood and silk, and made use of sculpture and collage techniques. His skill with manipulating photographs -- both with and without the aid of a computer -- is simply amazing. Particularly his ability to meld the real with the "unreal," such as a mask in place of his wife's head. McKean is also the master of found objects, putting such mundane items as broken coffee cups; dead spiders, cockroaches and birds; and plastic ivy to use.

This book is an absolute must for fans of Gaiman and McKean alike: the artwork is gorgeous, the anecdotes both amusing and insightful, and something you'll want to return to again and again, to see something you missed the last time.

"And all the nights asleep. And all the counted sheep. And all the little deaths. And all the final breaths. The rubbish I have read, detritus in my head. And just as I am sure I'm not dreaming after all, I stay and dream some more."
 
-- "Mixed Metaphors," Dave McKean

[April Gutierrez]

To get an idea of what Dave McKean is up to post-Sandman, check out some of his animation, commercials and film on Colony Media's Web site.