Of all my comic-book crushes, the biggest was on Morpheus, hero of Neil Gaiman's landmark series The Sandman. Gaiman, now a best-selling fantasy writer, was barely known in 1988 when he revived a forgotten, gas mask-wearing 1930s comic book hero and reimagined him as a brooding demigod who rules the kingdom of dreams.
Gaiman's luminous narratives mix world mythology with urban fantasy, a stratagem that made his comic books acceptable for a thinking person's bookshelf well before the graphic novel became fashionable. (Even Norman Mailer was a fan.) In the series, Morpheus, who is also called Dream, and his siblings — Death, Destiny, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destruction — rule human consciousness. Dream quarrels with the hermaphroditic Desire, mentors the crazy Delirium and is closest to his older sister, the cheery, big-haired Goth girl Death. At times, this bickering family brings humanity to the brink of apocalypse.
DC Comics has been compiling and re-releasing Gaiman's Sandman — a series that ran through 1996 — in pricey, hardbound collector's volumes called The Absolute Sandman. In this fourth and final volume, Morpheus faces the avenging demons known as the Furies — the price he pays for killing his own son. "There are old rules," he says with inordinate calm. "The ladies are empowered to hound those who spill family blood." Morpheus, it's apparent, prefers ancient ways, even when they require his death.
Over the years, Gaiman collaborated with many accomplished artists, and their cumulative work, tending toward deep jewel tones and dramatic nightscapes, lends the books a spooky medieval feel. It's a fitting look for a series that plays on the hope that an order exists - both darkly cruel and unutterably beautiful — behind the chaos of the universe.
This huge fourth volume collects comics that ran from 1993 to 1996. It may be the best part of a series that started strong and faltered a bit in the third quarter, only to come back with one of the most emotionally complex and devastating endings in comics.
Like many of the legends Sandman draws on, Gaiman's breakout comic ends with a sense of life-affirming renewal. In life, as in dreams, individuals die but the cycle goes on — and imagination is at the center of creation.