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Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Written by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999. 127p. $29.95; 19.95pa. ISBN 1-56389-573-0; 1-56389-629-Xpa.

Fantasy; folktales

Adults, teens, older kids; mild talk of sex (mentions "a nipple as pink as the sunset"), mild nudity

A small temple on a mountain that is neither "the most beautiful [n]or the most impressive mountain in Japan" is tended by a young monk who grows yams as his main source of food. Coveting the temple and its bounty, a female fox and a male badger compete with one another to see who can drive away the monk and take over the temple. But the monk sees through their tricks and refuses to leave. However, when the fox takes human form as one of her tricks, she falls in love with him. The badger flees, but the fox explains what the two animals had been doing, and the monk allows her to stay.

Some time later, the fox overhears three fiendish beings discussing their master's plot to kill the monk through three dreams. (Their paranoid master, the onmyoji, will inherit the monk's peace of mind if he is killed in such a way.) Unable to tell the monk what she overheard--she's cursed to die if she so much as utters a single word about the plot--she sacrifices her most treasured possession to gain an audience with the King of All Night's Dreaming, who tells her how to save the monk.

After two dark dreams and a third dream of peace, the monk finds the fox unconscious on the floor of the temple. He recognizes that she tried to protect him and determines to save her life if possible. On his way to a village that might contain a healer, he encounters an old man whom he eventually recognizes as Binzuru Harada, a wandering spirit or holy man who is charged with doing good. Although Binzuru Harada beats the monk for leaving his temple and carrying the unclean body of the fox, he also gives the monk a token of the King of All Night's Dreaming. Then the monk returns to his temple and sleeps.

The monk enters the realm of dreams, where after a variety of encounters he meets the King of All Night's Dreaming and explains his quest. Unfortunately, to save the fox means to take the death-dream back and die; but the monk loves her and readily makes the sacrifice. The fox is devastated but resolves to take revenge on the onmyoji before she accedes to the monk's last wish and seeks the Buddha.

A lengthy afterword by Gaiman describes how he got involved with this project, how the original folktale had an amazing number of parallels to his world and characters of the Dreaming, and how he adapted the story. Also, both Gaiman and Amano have detailed biographies in the front of the book.

Although this book is an illustrated book rather than a true graphic novel, it could easily be mistaken for one in a catalog of Sandman titles, and so I'm reviewing it.

The story is vintage Gaiman Sandman: possessed of the rhythms of folktales, interweaving the genuine article with Dreaming imagery, such as the two men he meets on the way--the original folktale included them, and Gaiman turned them into Cain and Abel, though of course without naming them as such. Actually, the story is so vintage Sandman that I think we've seen this pattern (if not this specific story) before: the monk travels through a changing landscape, meeting and convincing various entities that he must meet the Dream Lord, ignoring those who tell him to stop, until he reaches the Dream Lord and pleads his case. This is not necessarily a Bad Thing; Gaiman tells a folktale very well indeed, and most folktales tend to follow the same structure, so it's hard to fault him for doing that. But I have to admit, it can get a wee bit tiresome to read a whole bunch of similar-sounding folktales--try reading through a book of them someday, and you'll see what I mean. They're best in small doses. And this book is one nice small dose, and the Japanese setting is unusual and refreshing. But in a large collection of Sandman material, the story may seem redundant.

The art is something else again, delicate and fluid and often magnificent, with some pages reminiscent of the glorious art by Jon J. Muth in Moonshadow. Amano used several different techniques, including watercolor, pen-and-ink, and pencil, and employed bright colors only sparingly, so that when they do appear they're more meaningful than you'd expect. Some images are soft, muddy, and dreamy; others are sharp and precise. Some are little more than dark pencil on slightly lighter paper; others are rich and lush and complicated. Amano does different kinds of light, and the moods they create, extremely well. It's a delight to page through the book and savor the pictures--who needs the story? According to Amano's bio, this book is his "American comics debut," though this is not a piece of sequential art, so that statement is incorrect. His style might be familiar to those who've played Final Fantasy, as his artwork was central to those games. Lucky gamers! But I wish the book had been done as sequential art rather than as static illustrations. I would have loved to have seen how Amano dealt with that form. (Gaiman reported that Amano had no interest in doing it in comics form. Oh well.)

One of the more colorful of Amano's images. Pretty lush, eh?

Copyright 1999, DC Comics

Get this one for the art, or for collections that aren't quite ready for standard graphic novels but that can absorb illustrated books like this one. It obviously is of interest to anyone interested in Gaiman's work, particularly the Sandman books, and is an outstanding introduction to Amano's illustrations. Note that the nudity consists of a few bare breasts, but because the art is so fine, and the illustrations are obviously not there to titillate, I don't think this book would be objectionable to most parents--no more so than an art book with a few classic paintings depicting bare-breasted women, anyway.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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