Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time for SANDMAN!!!!! This post was originally published on 7 January 2013. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Sandman by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Kieth (penciler, issues #1-5), Mike Dringenberg (penciler, issues #6-11, 14-16, 21, 28; inker, issues #1-4), Chris Bachalo (penciler, issue #12), Michael Zulli (penciler, issues #13, 53, 70-73), Kelley Jones (penciler, issue #17-18, 22-24, 26-27), Charles Vess (artist, issues #19, 62, 75), Colleen Doran (penciler, issues #20, 34), Matt Wagner (penciler, issue #25), Stan Woch (penciler, issue #29; inker, issue #30, 36), Bryan Talbot (penciler, issue #30, 36, 51-56, Sandman Special #1), Shawn McManus (artist, issues #31-33, 35-37), Duncan Eagleson (penciler, issue #38), John Watkiss (artist, issues #39, 52), Jill Thompson (penciler, issue #40-49), P. Craig Russell (artist, issue #50; inker, issue #24), Alec Stevens (artist, issue #51), Mike Allred (artist, issue #54), Shea Anton Pensa (penciler, issue #55), Gary Amaro (penciler, issue #56), Marc Hempel (artist, issues #57-61, 63, 65-69), Glyn Dillon (penciler, issue #62), Dean Ormston (penciler, issue #62), Teddy Kristiansen (artist, issue #64), Richard Case (penciler, issue #68; inker, issues #65-68), Jon J. Muth (artist/colorist, issue #74), Malcolm Jones III (inker, issues #5-12, 14-18, 20-23, 25), Steve Parkhouse (inker, issue #13), George Pratt (inker, issues #26, 28, 34), Dick Giordano (inker, issues #27, 29, 34, 47, 53, 56), Vince Locke (inker, issue #38, 40-49, 55), Mark Buckingham (inker, issues #51-56, Sandman Special #1), Steve Leialoha (inker, issue #56), Tony Harris (inker, issue #56), D’Israeli (inker, issues #58-62), Robbie Busch (colorist, issues #1-18), Steve Oliff (colorist, issues #19-22), Daniel Vozzo (colorist, issues #23-49, 51-73, 75, Sandman Special #1), Digital Chameleon (colorist, issue #50), Todd Klein (letterer, issues #1-10, 13-75, Sandman Special #1), and John Costanza (letterer, issues #11-12).
Published by DC (under the Vertigo imprint beginning with issue #47), 76 issues (#1-75 plus Sandman Special #1, which comes after issue #31), cover dated January 1989 – March 1996.
[Before I reposted this, I reached out to Neil Gaiman to ask him about the recolored Absolute Editions. I don’t know why I didn’t do this in 2013; obviously it wasn’t shyness, as I contacted Todd Klein about his lettering! I asked Mr. Gaiman about the reasoning behind the recoloring, because I had seen interviews about the fact that Daniel Vozzo was recoloring the early issues and that some of the art hadn’t transferred well to the nicer paper stock, but I wondered why the actual colors were changed. Mr. Gaiman was nice enough to write back:
“[The original comics] were printed on newsprint and the colours sank in. That was what they were designed for. When the graphic novels happened and the paper stock improved, and then improved some more, then became glorious white paper with a coated stock, the inks sat on the surface and became much more lurid and bright, and lot further from what they were meant to have been. So it was primarily technical — the recolouring had to happen so the comics looked like what had been imagined. Sam had complained a lot when the comics were originally published that details and even story points had been lost in the original colouring, and we also wanted consistency with Danny Vozzo’s colouring from Season of Mists onwards, so Danny got to recolour Sam’s art as if he were the colourist, rather than with instructions to recreate what had existed before.
I knew about the technical aspect, but I didn’t know that Vozzo colored the book as if it had never been colored, using his own ideas and trying to be consistent with his other coloring, as he did work on the bulk of the book (after he came on board with issue #23, he did the rest of the book except issues #50 and #74). I would like to thank Neil Gaiman for getting back to me, as I imagine he’s pretty busy, and I apologize for speculating about why the colors were changed. I’m not going to change anything in this post, but I’ll note where I do speculate and point out that I should shut up. That being said, I still don’t really like the recoloring, although I do get the “consistency” angle. I still think the original coloring fits the tone of the book at that time better, but that’s just a personal opinion. Vozzo is a very good colorist, and the “original” coloring he did in the single issues is quite good, but I just don’t love the recoloring. Such is life.]
SPOILERS below, naturally, but maybe not as many as you might think. I scanned artwork from the single issues unless I specifically noted it, except for issues #8-16, which I don’t own in single issues. The scans from those issues are from the first printing of “The Doll’s House,” the first trade of the series that DC published.
Sandman was the first-place finisher in both Top 100 Runs survey Brian has done on this blog, so I don’t think I really need to convince people that they should own it. [Edit: Obviously, not this blog anymore, but Sandman finished #2 in the latest poll that Brian did, in 2020.] Most comics fans already own it or have at least read enough of it. It’s been analyzed to death, I imagine. I’ve read quite a bit of the analysis, too. I’ve heard all the questions/criticisms: Is it too Goth? People who think that haven’t read enough of it, I imagine, or they’re not seeing beyond Death and Dream. Is it too deadly serious? Again, people who think that don’t have much of a sense of humor, because the comic is filled with humor, both wry and low-brow. Does Gaiman write women poorly and nobody calls him on it? Having just re-read this, I think there are some very good criticisms to be made about Gaiman’s handling of women, but comparing it to most portrayals of women in not only comics but fiction, it comes out looking quite good. Does Gaiman think his words are a bit too precious? Possibly, although many of the narrators, perhaps standing in for Gaiman, are very self-deprecating. I dunno. There’s a lot going on in Sandman, and it’s marvelously plotted, and it shifts easily between genres, and it’s about telling stories, ultimately. I don’t want to write about any of that, however.
You’ll notice a trend among the analysis: It focuses on Gaiman. Sure, the book is Gaiman’s baby (although, you’ll note, every single issue contains the credit: “Featuring characters created by Gaiman, Kieth, and Dringenberg” – no one can accuse Gaiman of hogging all the glory), but it’s also a comic book. That means, in this case, a collaboration. Gaiman has a lot of help in turning Sandman into a comic that everyone – comics geeks and people who wouldn’t dare pick up an issue of Superman lest they swoon because it’s not Proust – can enjoy. Gaiman gets the accolades and the street cred as a novelist and the Goth girls dressed like Death throwing themselves at him (I imagine that’s how it was back in the early 1990s!), but his co-workers rarely get noticed. So I’m not writing about the story in Sandman. I’m going to have some fun and write about everything but the writing. We should appreciate Sandman not just for the writing, but for the work of art that it is, and that means everyone else involved. And I’m going to do it in a bizarre but hopefully fruitful way: alphabetically. That is, after I get the lettering out of the way.
Todd Klein, letterer for 74 of 76 issues.
Klein had been working in comics for a bit over a decade when Sandman came out, and had even written some issues of Omega Men, but I’m not sure if he was the superstar he would become, and if he wasn’t, Sandman certainly would have catapulted him into the lettering stratosphere (don’t laugh – there’s definitely a lettering stratosphere!). Klein started working with Gaiman on Black Orchid, and then he moved on and did Sandman. I asked Klein about his lettering on the book, and he pointed out that he’s written quite extensively about Sandman, beginning here (Klein told me I could quote liberally from that, so I’m going to!). Even before we get to Morpheus, we see that Klein is doing some interesting things with the lettering. The caption boxes are frayed, as if we’re reading them from old, cracking paper. It’s a good effect, as it implies an ancient story that we’re just dropping into much later … which, in a way, it is. Then, of course, on page 12 of issue #1, we see the Sandman’s word balloons for the first time. As Klein notes:
Dream’s white-on-black lettering was not actually lettered that way by me, but was lettered normally (black on white), then a reverse or negative photostat was made of the lettering in DC’s production department and pasted over my lettering for each of Sandman’s balloons. This was Karen Berger’s idea. I was against it. You see, I’d worked in DC’s production department for 10 years previous to this, and I knew that the reverse stats would vary greatly in quality, sometimes being too dark and hard to read, sometimes being too light, with the letters running together, also hard to read. And it was often the case.
Klein points out that any issues with the reverse stats were corrected in the Absolute Editions, so it looks fine now. And, of course, it gave the character a distinctive “voice.” Almost as important, I think, is the way the word balloons’ borders were amorphous and, well, squiggly. It makes Morpheus “sound” more ethereal, to me. You’ll also note that Morpheus’ letters are in lower-case (well, except when they shouldn’t be, like at the beginning of sentences), in contrast to almost everyone else in the book.
One thing that Gaiman asked for and Klein delivered was the many different styles of speaking, which do wonders for the characters’ voices. John Dee “sounds” crazy because of his jagged lettering and word balloons. Lucifer’s arch lettering gives him an air of arrogant majesty. Choronzon’s word balloons imply static, fitting for a demon of Beelzebub. Klein points out that he used normal, “white-bread” lettering for Death because she seems so “normal” compared to her mopey brother. It’s when we start to meet Dream’s family that Klein really flexes his lettering muscles. After Death, the first sibling we meet is Desire, in issue #10. Klein writes that he tried to make his/her style “a little oriental, a little Art Nouveau.” It’s a very sleek style, cold and haughty, like Desire her/himself. Despair’s lettering, while “normal,” is inside ragged word balloons, implying Despair’s … well, despair.
Klein went on a honeymoon and didn’t letter issues #11 and 12, but then he returned and finished out the run. We first see the Corinthian speak with his eyes in issue #14, and while Klein doesn’t think it works too well, it doesn’t happen that often and gives us a nice contrast to his “regular” voice, as we can almost hear the eyes hiss more than when he speaks with his mouth. Issue #15 is when Rose Walker breaks down the barriers between the dreams, and Klein gives us an interesting anecdote about it:
The artist, Mike Dringenberg, followed a practice common with some artists of doing the pages out of order. I got them to letter out of order with just the script for those pages each time, and suddenly realized I was supposed to be doing all these different styles about halfway through. I had to letter some patches and corrections to make it all work, and from then on requested that I always get the full script at the beginning of each issue so I could be aware of anything I needed to be doing with the lettering.
This issue gives us Ken dreaming about money (I’m going to assume his lettering was done by Dringenberg, because it looks like it’s integrated into the artwork), Barbie’s dreams of the Cuckoo, Chantal’s dreams about a sentence, Zelda’s dream about Alice in Wonderland, and Hal’s dreams about Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe (which is lettered in “normal” fashion). Barbie’s letters speak of fantasy and even innocence, as the lettering is of a young girl trying a flashy style of cursive; Chantal’s cursive is a bit shaky but much more self-assured than Barbie’s flighty lettering, and Zelda, who doesn’t speak (at least not yet), has lettering crammed together, almost as if she’s desperate to get through it and be “silent” again. It’s a marvelous looking book, lettering-wise.
Klein continued to experiment with different styles, as he and Gaiman decided on the thought balloons with “broken tails” for the cats in issue #18 so that they weren’t exactly “talking” to each other but they could still communicate. Then he got to letter issue #21, the first part of “Season of Mists,” where we meet the rest of Dream’s family. Destiny’s speech is simple italics, and we had already seen Death, Desire, and Despair. Then we meet Delirium, and Klein writes, “Neil had a specific idea about Delirium’s style, that it represent a sort of mad variety, getting louder and softer, like something going in and out of focus. This was fun to do in small amounts, but tedious in large ones.” As tedious as it may have been, it’s a wonderful effect. The flowing lettering combined with the coloring of the word balloons shows Delirium’s state of mind even more then her rambling speeches do, especially because she’s occasionally lucid but her speech remains unusual, showing that even in her lucidity she remains Delirium. Although we’ve seen some of the speech styles before, seeing them all together helps show how different the siblings really are (Destruction gets “normal” lettering, too, although the borders of his balloons are bolder, because he’s so loud). “Season of Mists” gives us a lot of different lettering styles – we first see Matthew the raven in issue #22, for instance, and Klein, of course, gave him an unusual way of speaking: “I gave him a scratchy lettering style and a balloon border made of overlapping strokes, like untidy twigs.” In issue #24, Klein letters Order and Chaos, the former with computer-style precision, the latter with Delirium-esque insanity. Anubis and the Egyptian gods speak with archaic, uncurved letters, while Remiel uses gorgeous cursive. All of these various fonts, once again, give us an idea of how the characters speak and what their personalities are like.
After some “normal” issues (although Klein used cursive for Johanna Constantine’s journal), Gaiman brought Barbie back in “A Game of You,” so Klein went back to her dream lettering. It’s interesting, because it works really well with Shawn McManus’ artwork, and I can’t find any instance of Klein using it with the other artists on the arc – Colleen Doran and George Pratt don’t draw anything in the Cuckoo’s land, and when Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch draw the Cuckoo, she uses “normal” speech. Gaiman obviously thought that McManus was the perfect artist for the slightly whimsical yet still frightening skerry in which the Cuckoo lived, so he made sure only McManus drew those sections, and then Klein didn’t need to match up the fantastical lettering with the other artists’ more grounded work.
“Convergence” and “Brief Lives” don’t feature anything we haven’t seen before, and then we get issue #50, “Ramadan,” an artistic triumph in every way. Klein’s sensuous cursive helps create the world of Haroun al-Raschid wonderfully. It’s ornate but fanciful, much like P. Craig Russell’s gorgeous artwork and Digital Chameleon’s lush coloring. Gaiman’s lush story gives Klein a lot of amazing things to letter, and he nails it.
“Worlds’ End” again features “regular” lettering, and then “The Kindly Ones” begins. In issue #62, Klein notes that he gets to do some nice calligraphy in the Charles Vess story in the middle of the comic, and he does a nice job with the “wooden” letters that begin each page. Rose Walker writes in her journal in issue #64, and while I might get accused of sexism, her looping letters and open circles dotting the “i”s put me in the mood of a female. I think Klein did a nice job with it – it’s a terrible generalization, but I’ve seen enough young ladies’ writing to know that it’s somewhat common. When the Furies appear, we hardly ever see them speak – instead, we get caption boxes fringed with flaming red. It’s another nice touch, tied to Gaiman and Hempel’s choice to hide the Furies and show us their point of view. Then, in issue #69, we see Daniel as Dream for the first time, and of course, his word balloons retain their shape, but he has black letters on a white background. There’s nothing too unusual about the lettering in “The Wake,” but Klein points out that he used vellum overlays to avoid messing up Michael Zulli’s pencil work. I’m not sure how that works – I know what vellum overlays are, but I’m not sure how it works on comic book art – but that’s what he did!
For issue #74, Klein needed a new, “oriental” font, and as he had just begun using a computer, he found a good font for it, but ended up designing the “decorative initial caps” from his own brushwork. This is yet another gorgeously lettered issue, obviously. Then, in the final issue, Klein had to design a font for Shakespeare’s lettering, so, as he put it:
I did a lot of research (probably the most of any book up to that time in my career), to come up with this. The main problem was that, except for the signature on his will, there is no certified handwriting known for the playwright. It was a matter of finding documents from the right time period that I could crib from, and then adapt to make the text readable, as some of the letterforms then in use are no longer familiar to us.
The result, not surprisingly, is stunning.
One of the reasons why Sandman is such a marvelous work of art is Klein’s contribution. Usually, comics readers want their letterers to be like football referees – the less you notice them, the better. Klein’s work on Sandman, however, is an integral part of the way we read and appreciate the comic, and it’s nice that Klein put so much work into it. I’d encourage you to start at the beginning of his links and read through them (it’s only four pages long). It’s a nice background look at how lettering works.
Now, let’s move onto the artists. I’m going to write about the coloring, but in conjunction with the pencil and ink work. Sound good?
Mike Allred (1 issue).
Allred was one of the artists for the “Worlds’ End” arc, which featured several characters telling stories while they waited out a “reality storm,” which occurred because the Furies were busy destroying the dreamworld. “The Golden Boy” is about Prez Rickard, who was created in the early 1970s by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti and who starred in four issues of his own series before it was cancelled. This issue came very early in Allred’s career – he had already begun working on Madman, but it was before he took it to Dark Horse and it began getting him notice. (This came out slightly after his one-shot The Geek, which was another old and obscure DC property also created by Simon, and I think it came out after Tales of Ordinary Madness, which he drew and which was written by famed letterhack Malcolm Bourne.) Allred’s style is not quite as idiosyncratic as it would later become – his lines are a bit less angular than they would later be – but it’s clear he was already on his way to developing the look that made him famous. He’s a good choice for the story – Prez is clean-cut, and Allred has always been able to draw his characters to look as if they stepped off a magazine cover, whether that’s ironic or not. Allred’s style also fits well with Boss Smiley, because Allred doesn’t feel the need to clutter up the iconic image of the yellow circle with the smiling visage on it with too much detail, and in this case, it’s a good look – Boss Smiley needs to look alien but cheery, and even at this early date, Allred was good at that. Allred is able to give Boss Smiley a more human face when he’s down in the world, and of course, when Prez goes to Heaven, we see a more perfect Boss, one whose anger is shown by just a few lines, some drops of sweat, and wavy lines emanating from his head. He’s become a cartoon character, not only because he’s the boss of Prez’s world, but because Prez has dismissed him – what can Boss Smiley do to him now? The weakness of this issue comes from the tragedy, because Allred’s style is often so Pop Art that his tragic moments become cuttingly ironic, but that’s not what he’s going for when Prez’s fiancée is killed, and the rage and insanity on the assassin’s face looks too foolish. Allred draws a nice Nixon, though. Daniel Vozzo colors this issue very brightly, which isn’t surprising – it’s ultimately a very hopeful tale, and Prez is a beacon of progress in the world. Why wouldn’t it be bright? Plus, of course, Allred’s style lends itself very nicely to bright colors. Strangely enough, Death isn’t stark white in this comic – she’s definitely a bit pinker than elsewhere. I wonder why. Dream, after all, is still white.
Anyway, Allred is a fine choice for this offbeat story. As with most Sandman issues, Gaiman was able to get the artist he wanted for the story he wanted. In most cases, it worked very well.
Gary Amaro (1 issue).
Amaro only drew 10 pages of the entire epic, in the middle of issue #56, but they were important pages: Morpheus’s funeral procession past the Worlds’ End Inn. They’re beautiful pages, too. The denizens of the inn look out the window and see a sky gone mad with colors – Daniel Vozzo doing a nice job with the hues, as we get the rainbow almost flowing past the window as Amaro’s thick lines, showing the lead borders of the window panes becoming more and more abstract as our point of view expands to take in the entire sky. Then we see a blasted landscape outside the inn, with a too-big crescent moon hanging over it, and the first entity we see is Destiny, towering over the horizon with his head bowed. Amaro and inker Tony Harris (yes, that Tony Harris) give us ethereal figures, blurring into the red of the dusk. Vozzo does a very nice job over the course of the pages – he slowly turns the reddish twilight into black night, almost imperceptibly. On the next page we see the pallbearers carrying the bier, with a purple rose placed on top of it. Amaro makes the figures intangible, as we can clearly see the moon through the flag-bearer’s body, and the clouds on the ground rise a bit more to make the figures a bit more insubstantial. It’s unclear who the pall-bearers are – this scene is not repeated in “The Wake,” and we can’t see the figures very well, so I’m not sure if Gaiman had specific characters in mind or not.
The next pages show the largest mass of mourners, spread out over the two pages. Amaro uses a delicate line to make all the figures look ghostly, and Harris inks very darkly, so that everything is hauntingly lit by the moon, edged with white. The clouds are rising even more, so more of the figures are wrapped in mist, but we can recognize several of them. It appears that Alfred Hitchcock might be in the funeral procession, but Mervyn Pumpkinhead is definitely there, as is Lucien the librarian. Others include Wilkinson the shrew from “A Game of You,” Queen Titania (without her husband), Despair, Lady Bast, Remiel (or Duma – they’re angels, so they look alike), Odin, Thor, Emperor Norton I, and Martin Tenbones. It looks like Fiddler’s Green is there, but later, Daniel tries to bring him back to life and he rejects the gift, so he couldn’t be here, but perhaps Gaiman hadn’t planned yet to kill him off in “The Kindly Ones” or Amaro put him in there without Gaiman realizing it. Finally, on the last two pages, we get Delirium and Death. On the first page neither is looking at the reader, and Delirium – who brought about Dream’s demise – is turned completely away. Amaro dissipates the fog – it’s full night now – and so we see more of the sisters than the other characters. The narrator, Brant, tells us that he fell in love with Death a little, even before she turned to look at the people at the inn. Amaro turns her so she’s looking straight out at the reader, and he gives us the standard portrait of Death – frizzy, punk hair, soulful eyes, that cute nose, and small lips. She’s blue instead of her usual white, as Vozzo decides to color the entire page with a blue-ish tint. Amaro pulls away from her in three panels until we don’t see her face, just the blackness inside the triangle formed by her arms and her head. Vozzo, meanwhile, has gradually colored the moon red, so that even that illumination is gone. It’s a stunning sequence, and it’s the last pages Amaro draws in the comic.
Chris Bachalo (1 issue).
Last year, Our Dread Lord and Master let us know that Sandman #12 is Bachalo’s first published work. That’s pretty impressive. The story of Morpheus taking out Brute and Glob and telling Lyta Hall that the child she’s carrying will be important is a significant issue, as it sets in motion so much of the remaining story, and Bachalo draws it impressively. His pencil work isn’t quite as distinctive as it would later become, and Malcolm Jones inking him probably makes the lines a bit scratchier than Bachalo’s pencils were (not having seen the pencils, I can only speculate), but it’s still a nice-looking issue. The markers of his early work are here, but not as pronounced as they would be later. Bachalo tends to draw characters with long, thin noses, and that’s certainly the case here. He also draws expansive cheeks, even if the face is thin, and we see that here as well. Lyta’s face, for instance, could easily be an early model for Kathy George’s, one of the principal characters of Shade, the Changing Man, his first regular assignment. Bachalo and Jones use a lot of lines to suggest a dreaminess to the scenes with Lyta and Hector – the scenes in the “real world” are much more restrained. Overall, Bachalo doesn’t do too many radical things with layouts – the issue is based on a six-panel grid, and Bachalo plays off of that but never deviates too far from it. One thing either he or Robbie Busch, the colorist, did is swirl the backgrounds nicely, as if Hector’s realm was so chaotic that the colors practically seethed within it. The effect is one of a bowl in which you dye eggs, or a rainbow film on oil – lurid and churning, suggesting that Hector isn’t in as much control as he’d like to think. Hilariously, Bachalo begins his long association with checks in this issue, as Barnaby, the man who’s holding Jed in the cellar, wears a black-and-green checked shirt. Who knew?
This issue is one of the ones that was recolored for the Absolute Edition by Daniel Vozzo, and while not quite as wrong-headed as the earlier issues (where Busch’s sickly colors add a good deal of nuance to the artwork), it’s still not great. Vozzo makes Hector’s world far more mundane, as I noted here, and it’s too bad. One thing Vozzo does throughout is lose the coloring that backs up the panels – he simply makes the page white instead of purple or pink. Busch did this in Hector’s nightmare world to separate it from the “real” world, and it worked perfectly well. Vozzo also mutes the tumultuous swirling outside of Hector’s “dream dome,” which makes the milieu far less unsettling. Certain things are also muted – the rage of emotions that overtakes Lyta when she rushes at Morpheus, which Busch colored a bit reddish, becomes nothing more than speed lines in the Absolute Edition. Gaiman obviously approved these changes, and I think it’s because they make the book look slightly less “comic booky.” Gaiman has never been a snob about comics, but I wonder if in this case he wanted to imply that Sandman was a bit more “serious” than your regular comic book. I don’t completely think that’s the reason, because Hector’s costume, for instance, is as bright as ever, but it’s strange that he or Vozzo decided to dampen the lurid original colors. The early issues were often closer to horror than the later ones, after all, and things were a bit weird in the Dreaming. [Edit: Obviously, my speculation about why the issue was recolored in the way it was is wrong, as I noted above. If we take out my speculation about WHY the colors are the way they are, I still think the original colors make Lyta and Hector’s world far weirder than the “real” world, which is a good idea because of how Jed’s story unfolds. Vozzo’s colors are perfectly fine, but they shrink the space between the dream world and the “real” world, which I don’t love.]
Richard Case (1 issue; inked 4 issues).
Like several other artists on this list, Case didn’t even pencil an entire issue, as he drew six pages in the middle of issue #65, presumably to take some of the burden away from Marc Hempel, the main artist on “The Kindly Ones.” Case’s style is slightly different than Hempel’s, but it’s close enough that the six pages are notably different only, really, in the faces of the characters, and especially the eyes – Case’s faces a bit more rounded than Hempel’s, and he draws slightly larger and more expressive eyes. This is handy in the case of two different characters – Delirium and Nuala. Delirium wants Lucifer to help Morpheus, and Case draws her with large, beautiful eyes, almost sane, as she asks Lucifer for a favor. He doesn’t do it, of course, but it’s interesting that Case is able to give her some focus right when she needs it the most. Nuala is also asking for a favor, this time from Cluracan (which is apparently not his name, but a title), because she no longer wants to be “glamoured” and Cluracan must be the one who “unglamours” her. She gazes at Cluracan with big, tearful eyes, and pleads with him. The next time we see her (in issue #69), she is “plain” once again, so her pleas worked. On the other pages, Case draws Morpheus in his helmet, so we don’t see his face, and Case’s style, while slightly smoother than Hempel’s, is still angular enough that there’s not a noticeable difference. I’m sure Case stepped in just because Hempel couldn’t keep up, but I wonder if Gaiman asked him to draw those pages specifically because of the two young ladies asking men for favors, which seems to fit a bit more in with Case’s style than Hempel’s.
Glyn Dillon (1 issue).
Another artist who didn’t even get to draw a complete issue, Dillon drew the first nine pages of issue #62 before Charles Vess took over for a “story-within-a-story” (if there’s one thing Gaiman liked in Sandman, it was stories-within-stories!), but then, when Vess’ section was done, Dean Ormston took over. Poor Glyn Dillon – he wandered off for a sandwich while Vess was drawing, and then they couldn’t find him when it was time for him to start up again! Wait, isn’t that how comics get made?
Dillon’s clean, elegant style is in marked contrast to Marc Hempel’s more jagged work, which might be the point – Rose Walker had shown up in “The Kindly Ones” before, but this is exclusively her story, with no Lyta Hall or Morpheus or nice old women who happen to be avenging furies. So Rose heads back to England to research a book about her grandmother, and she meets – and sleeps with – her married solicitor, the nephew of the old dude whom she met in “The Doll’s House,” she speaks with Paul McGuire briefly, and then she meets three old women – she really should think twice before hanging out with three women – and one of them tells her a nice, Charles Vess-illustrated story. Dillon is drawing a “real-world” experience, and it’s a good contrast to the more horrific goings-on in “The Kindly Ones” when Hempel is drawing it (although, of course, Hempel drew plenty of scenes in the “real world,” but many of them were tinged with creepiness). Dillon draws an unusual Rose Walker – by this time, Rose ought to be in her mid-20s, I would imagine, but Dillon draws her like an adorable teenager, or at least that’s what I always thought. She looks like a fresh-faced 17-year-old way out of her depth, and I’m not sure if I like the way Dillon portrays her – Rose has been through quite a bit in her young life, so she shouldn’t look so young. Hempel actually draws her a bit better. Another reason why Dillon’s drawing of Rose is a bit off (to me) is because she does end up banging young Jack Holdaway, and this Rose Walker looks weirdly teen-ish to be doing stuff like that. When Rose eventually seduces Jack, in issue #64, she looks old enough to be doing something like that (which doesn’t make it a good idea – she might have asked if he was married before throwing herself at him, although he’s a scumbag for taking her up on the offer). Dillon’s art is very nice – his precise lines help create the idea of a very proper British nursing home – and his inks help make the old women look weathered but not decrepit, but I still get weirded out when I see his Rose Walker. I guess we all have our strange hang-ups.
Colleen Doran (2 issues).
Doran drew issues #20 and #34, and her contribution is notable for how it shows the way inking can affect the pencil work on a comic book. Doran’s pencil work is perfectly fine – it’s solid and unspectacular, and while most of the artists on Sandman can draw women who look like women, Doran does a wonderful job in issue #20 of drawing women’s clothing, which is something many artists struggle with (everyone in issue #34 is in pajamas or robes, so it’s not as impressive). The contrast between Rainie’s “skin condition” in issue #20 and the very nice clothes that she and Della are wearing is striking, making Rainie’s plight even more awful. Doran is also fastidious about the details of Rainie changing the elements of her skin, which brings home the horror of someone who can mold her features like clay. She doesn’t have a lot to do with the fantastical, but her depiction of Ra reaching for Rainie is terrifying because she draws him so “realistically.” Malcolm Jones III inks her in issue #20, and his strong lines help shape Doran’s pencil work, as he makes her “face” ash trays hard and brittle with a few simple lines but also gives us a beautiful, delicate vision of Rainie dreaming, her blonde hair translucently arrayed around her head. Robbie Busch burnishes the issue with earth tones, so that Rainie looks more out of place (she has green hair) and so that there’s a suffusion of nostalgia for better days that Rainie can never reclaim. When Death shows up, it’s natural to color the book more starkly, but Busch never forgets that Rainie must seek supplication from the sun god, so the sunset she sees when she dies is beautifully colored with oranges and browns tinged with the blue of a twilight sky. It’s a nice synthesis of pencils, inks, and colors to make a gorgeous comic.
Doran wasn’t so lucky in issue #34. George Pratt and Dick Giordano (on the final three pages) inked her, and the results are less-than-stellar in what might be the single ugliest issue of the original print run. I’m not sure if Doran’s pencils were too loose, but Pratt does her no favors, with his scratchy line contrasting wildly with her more solid style, so that everyone looks half done. Unlike Jones, Pratt either uses too few inking lines or mars the pencils with too much black, masking facial expressions and losing subtlety. There’s a starkness to Pratt’s inks that might work with a different penciler, but which fails utterly to do anything with Doran’s work. I tried to contact Gaiman about the artists on this book and when DC began letting him choose them, but he never got back to me, so I don’t know if he had reached that point here. Shawn McManus was drawing the bulk of “A Game of You,” and this issue focuses instead on events back in New York, which might be why it’s so different than McManus’ style. Perhaps that’s the point – this is brutally “realistic” in the way that the Land is not, so it’s in stark contrast to what Barbie is experiencing at that moment. But Pratt and Giordano certainly don’t do the work justice, and neither does Daniel Vozzo, who was coloring the series by this point. The first page is truly ugly, with what appears to be hastily-scratched figures (Hazel and Foxglove) and two colors – pale blue for the sheets and dirt-brown for everything else. It’s really too bad. But, because this is Sandman, the single issues aren’t the only place you can find this issue, and for the Absolute Edition, Doran inked it herself and then Vozzo recolored it. The result is amazing – Doran’s precise inks match her precise pencils, which adds so much definition to the line work it’s almost unbelievable. George’s face, for instance, is far more horrifying when Doran inks it, and when Thessaly is trying to find her way to the Land, it’s much easier to see Morpheus as he appears in the bright light. Even the fact that Doran under-inks the section with the bright light helps, because it suggests far more than Pratt’s more pragmatic approach did. Vozzo’s recoloring provides more contrast, which helps make more Doran’s art more distinct. Take the first page again – Doran does away with a lot of Pratt’s blackness, using it more judiciously but effectively. The crows that “attack” Hazel and Foxglove are much more distinct, while the ladies’ terror is more palpable. The way the crows dissipate is far clearer, and while Vozzo does keep a lot of the brown, he makes sure that Foxglove’s hair is blonde, for instance, and that Hazel’s shirt is orange, so the entire page is more legible. Obviously, not every series has the following of Sandman and DC isn’t going to put the money into “correcting” poor art jobs, but it’s nice that they allowed Doran to go back to this issue and fix things, because it really was a mistake putting Pratt on her pencils. Pratt’s a pretty good artist, but his style is almost diametrically opposed to Doran’s, and issue #34 is a travesty as a single issue. As part of the Absolute Edition … it’s quite a nice-looking issue!
Mike Dringenberg (11 issues; inked 4 issues).
Dringenberg is the closest Sandman ever had to a regular artist; he’s one of the co-creators, and he was either the penciller or inker for 13 of the first 16 issues. For the first four issues, it appears that his inks help make Sam Kieth’s naturally cartoonish art a bit less so – it’s still very much Kieth’s work, but Dringenberg tempers the whimsical nature of the pencils when he needs to, most notably in issue #3, when John Constantine hangs out with Morpheus. Despite the horror overtones of the first four issues, issue #3 is the only one that deals with a relatively innocent victim, and Dringenberg’s inks when Gaiman reveals Rachel in bed makes the drawing far more heart-breaking than Kieth could do by himself. If we consider the somewhat comedic consequences that Alexander Burgess experiences in issue #1 (horrific for Alex, of course, but morbidly humorous for the reader), it’s clear that Kieth is perfectly fine with some aspects of the story, but not others. After skipping issue #5, Dringenberg took over full pencils with the harrowing issue #6, assisted by Malcolm Jones on inks.
The change is apparent almost immediately. The first two pages of “24 Hours” are a different style than Kieth, true, but not too radical. Then, on page 3, when the Fletchers enter the diner, Dringenberg draws Garry as a hulk of a man, and the flyaway hair and block of a head he gives Garry is just … different than the way Kieth would have drawn him, but that’s okay. Dringenberg needs to make Garry a bulky guy, because later in the issue he becomes the leader of the pack, and when he turns into an animal, his bulk works to his advantage. A few pages later, Dringenberg shows John Dee for the first time, and he’s far more terrifying than when Kieth was drawing him. Kieth’s Dee was far more of a typical superhero villain – ugly, sure, but more in line with the kind of “ugly” we see in the Red Skull, for instance. Dringenberg’s Dee is a deformed monster, with stringy hair, beady and sunken eyes, and animal teeth that Dringenberg barely shows, as his mouth is drenched in Jones’ inks. He’s barely human, and it becomes clear that the book has become less of a standard horror story that DC might have published in the 1970s and more of a true horror story, one that the reader can’t escape from. Unlike Kieth, Dringenberg uses mixed media to add to the effect he’s going for – he creates collages to show the “unreality” of the fantasies of the diner’s inhabitants, much as he does later in issue #7, when Dee fights Morpheus, and then in “The Doll’s House” at any number of moments. “Sound and Fury,” in issue #7, is another example of how Dringenberg changed the look of the comic for the better, as Dee’s view of the dreamworld is a miasma of strange images, culminating in the amazing splash page of Morpheus holding Dee in his hand, which is a drawing that Sam Kieth, for all his talent (and Kieth is very talented), would not have been able to pull off with such power.
Gaiman, I’m sure, had a lot to do with the design of Death, but it’s Dringenberg who first draws her, in issue #8, and it’s that iconic representation that lasted. Death’s hair, of course, is ridiculously Eighties, but Dringenberg does a superb job showing how “human” she is compared to the stoic Morpheus, as she veers from concern to anger easily as she speaks to her droopy brother. Once again, we get some classic panels from Dringenberg, such as the panel where Morpheus looks away and in the background, we see the shadow of Death’s wings. It’s a beautiful image, and it’s largely due to Dringenberg. Then, Gaiman begins “The Doll’s House,” and Dringenberg does some stellar work there, too. He mimics Winsor McKay rather well when Jed is dreaming, and when he gets to the serial killer’s convention, he gives us some beautiful work. When the Corinthian and the two others move in to slaughter the reporter who infiltrated the convention, Dringenberg draws them with just their eyes and teeth showing, while Jones blacks out the rest and Robbie Busch colors everything blue. When the Connoisseur is recalling his victims, Dringenberg gives us a charcoal drawing of a pre-operative transsexual lying dead on the bed, a haunting silhouette in the background. And when the inhabitants of the boarding house start dreaming in issue #15, Dringenberg alters his style enough to give us different kinds of dreams – Ken’s is brutal and full of blocky drawings and harsh letters, Barbie’s is light and airy, and Dringenberg almost anticipates Shawn McManus’ renderings in “A Game of You.”
Dringenberg drew two more issues after “The Doll’s House” – issues #21 and 28, bookending “A Season of Mists.” In issue #21, he draws the entire family together for their dinner, and while his line work and Jones’ inks remain constant, Steve Oliff colors the book in rich earth tones and blacks and blues for the characters, which almost makes Dringenberg’s work look less experimental than when Busch was coloring it. In issue #28, Dringenberg is inked by George Pratt, and while the results aren’t quite as disastrous as when Pratt inks Colleen Doran, they’re still not great. How detailed Dringenberg is I don’t know, but there are certain pages where it’s clear both he and Pratt can work together well – when Loki, pretending to be Susano-o-no-Mikoto, prepares to leave, the lines are strong and clean, degrading only as Loki is forced to reveal himself. It’s a well-planned page, which makes the sloppiness of the rest of the issue particularly upsetting. Nuala’s transformation from “glamoured” to her natural state isn’t as impressive, because her “glamoured” state looks so shabby. Strangely enough, in the Absolute Edition, Dringenberg or someone else does not re-ink the pages even though Doran inked her pages that Pratt did. It’s slightly better art because the colors are brighter, but it’s still sloppy.
What makes Dringenberg such a good fit for the issues he draws is that his “base” style is very realistic, so when Morpheus moves into the “real world” in after issue #4, it’s good that Dringenberg was there instead of Kieth (Kieth has said that he didn’t think he fit in with where the book was going; perhaps he knew his skills wouldn’t translate particularly well for the “grittier” parts of the book that came after his departure, but he was quite good on the more “EC” style horror of the first few issues). Dringenberg’s rougher lines and more grounded style helped create a more solid world, and when he needed to change to make the book more horrific, he was able to do it, heightening the distorted reality of the scene as compared to his “base” style. Dringenberg is obviously flexible as an artist, and that helped make Gaiman’s scary stories more scary, as they look like they could easily take place down the street from us. This banality (in a good way) of Dringenberg’s art made the terrifying parts even more so.
Much like a lot of the early part of the book, Daniel Vozzo’s recoloring for the Absolute Edition doesn’t do Dringenberg’s work justice. Robbie Busch was a much more esoteric colorist, and his lurid colors helped with the mood, and Vozzo’s much more grounded colors don’t help. In the scene I mentioned above, where the serial killers prepare to kill the reporter, Vozzo changes the previous panel from all red to simple “normal” tones, and where Busch used all blue, Vozzo again turns the “collectors” into more normal people instead of harbingers of slaughter. The point of the story is that the serial killers are trying to act “normally,” and so when they actually kill someone, Busch understood he needed to strip away that veneer of normality. Vozzo returns it, and the serial killers are diminished. Perhaps that was Vozzo’s meaning, but it doesn’t work as well. The recoloring actually makes the artwork brighter in some places, which is a good thing, and Lee Loughridge’s recoloring on issue #16 takes the rather sloppy Dringenberg/Jones art and adds nice crispness to it, but overall, the recoloring leeches some of the weird, creepy vibe that “The Doll’s House” and “24 Hours” had in the original. Vozzo doesn’t touch the panel of Dream turning away as Death spreads her wings, because he knew that was pretty much perfect. [Edit: I didn’t speculate about why Vozzo did the colors the way he did, but I stand by my ideas about the original colors versus the recoloring.]
Dringenberg doesn’t do much comic work anymore, as he has a career doing a lot of other things, but comic book fans should appreciate him for how much he helped create the look of Sandman. Just for that, he’s a great artist.
Duncan Eagleson (1 issue).
After each long story arc, Gaiman tended to do a few short stories, and after “A Game of You,” he grouped three of them under the title of “Convergence,” with issue #38, “The Hunt,” kicking things off. Eagleson hasn’t done a lot of comics, and he’s probably most famous for this issue (if he’s famous at all), but he’s a fine artist, and this is a nicely-illustrated story of a young werewolf and the love of his life.
Eagleson and inker Vince Locke do some interesting shading in this issue, as the modern part of the story – the framing device is a grandfather telling his teenaged daughter about one of her ancestors – is shaded with some stippling and softer inks, while the actual story – which takes place hundreds of years in the past – is starker and more clearly etched, implying that things in the past were simpler and clearer. It’s not really so, of course, and Gaiman doesn’t state it outright, but it’s interesting that Eagleson and Locke shade the book differently based on the time period. Vassily and Celeste, the grandfather and granddaughter, seem somehow softened by the modern world, while Vassily in the past lives in a harsh world, where he needs to be harder and more decisive. This helps him in that time, but the artwork implies that times have changed, and Vassily has a difficult time changing with it.
Eagleson’s line work is a nice blend of precision and vagueness, as he gives things sharp boundaries but doesn’t always add unnecessary details, which allows the mood to come through nicely. When Vassily walks through the forest, for instance, the flora is sharply delineated, but in the background Eagleson leaves things amorphous, allowing Daniel Vozzo to fill the space with beautiful greens and browns. The characters’ faces are often keenly drawn, but Eagleson knows when to pull back and create a feeling, as he does when Vassily shows the old woman what he is, and Eagleson simply draws shadows on his face that Vozzo fills in. Eagleson and Locke use thick, bold lines on Vassily and his prey, showing his relationship with it and the land around him, and his Baba Yaga is hideous precisely because he emphasizes her most grotesque features at the expense of other details. But Eagleson also draws a beautiful dream palace, a charmingly goofy Lucien, and a wonderfully aristocratic Morpheus. It’s this versatility that helps make this issue beautiful to look at. It also creates a good distinction between the young Vassily, living in his element, and the elderly Vassily, trying to show his granddaughter that the old ways aren’t as old as she might think.
As Vozzo colored this, he doesn’t do much in the Absolute Edition except brighten the colors a bit, although he does make the panel where Vassily has sex with the wolf-girl a bit clearer. In the original, the blue lines superimposed on the page aren’t terribly clear, but Vozzo makes them brighter so it’s easier to see what’s going on. It’s a nice instance of the Absolute Edition improving on the original.
Marc Hempel (11 issues).
Hempel, like Dringenberg, also drew 11 issues, the most of any Sandman artist, although, as we’ve seen, he didn’t draw all of issue #68. It’s strange, because by the time Hempel came on board, the initial rush of excitement about Sandman had subsided (it never did completely, of course, but it had a bit) and the characters had been long established in the mind of comics readers, so Hempel’s contribution doesn’t seem to get as much love. Kieth and then Dringenberg had established the “look” of the characters, Chris Bachalo made Death his own in “The High Cost of Living,” the mini-series which came out a year or so before this issue did, and Charles Vess and P. Craig Russell had done such astonishing work in issues #19 and #50, respectively, that it seemed like nothing Hempel could do would change that. Plus, “The Kindly Ones,” on which he was the principal artist, while being the final giant story arc of the comic, seemed to plod on forever – it ran 13 issues and took well over a year to come out – and in a monthly (or sort-of monthly) basis, it seemed to wander. When you sit down to read it all at once, it’s amazingly well plotted, but over the course of 17 months, it doesn’t work as well. That’s not Hempel’s fault, of course (I have to imagine that Gaiman was having trouble pulling it all together, because it’s not like he wasn’t willing to use guest artists on the arc), but it did seem to color the way people view his contribution to the epic. Marc Hempel, in other words, does not come up when one thinks of iconic Sandman artists.
Which is too bad, because of course Hempel is a fine artist, and while his view of the world of Sandman might be at odds with the way it was established, it’s not a bad viewpoint. Hempel has a very angular style that creates a strange, somewhat violent world despite Vozzo’s mostly bright coloring. Hempel’s precise line doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity, which you might think doesn’t work well with a shifting world like the Dream realm, but which works well for Lyta’s story of revenge. Lyta is so sure of herself when Daniel disappears, and even as she sinks into madness and despair, Hempel’s artwork keeps the “real” world and her fantasy world sharply separated, which is perfect for the tone of her journey. As the arc moves more into Dream, Hempel’s sharp lines help continue the feeling of fantasy that he’s established, but the inks – whether Hempel is inking the page, or Richard Case, or D’Israeli – add roughness to the artwork, indicating the trouble Morpheus finds himself in. Hempel’s crisp art is a good example of what a good inker can do – whenever the inker wants to alter the mood, he simply adds some additional lines and changes the tone. In issue #57, Hempel adds deep black pools around Lyta’s eyes when she feels that something has happened to Daniel, and adding just two thick lines under her eyes as she tries to get into the apartment adds a great deal of emotional stress to the scene. In issue #59, there’s a wonderful panel of Carla screaming at Lyta, and Hempel distorts her face so that her mouth is a gaping maw, her teeth are jagged and cruel, and her eyes are insane, while D’Israeli cross-hatches across Carla’s eyes, making her even more scary.
Hempel doesn’t draw traditionally beautiful people, which is partly why he’s so good on this arc. It’s full of damaged people, from Rose Walker to Nuala, with Lyta being the most damaged. The exaggerated ugliness of some of the characters masks the ugliness that others have inside. Hempel can draw attractive people, but he’s able to shift quite well from the clean, clear lines that imply “beauty” in comic book to a more stylized “ugliness” with just a few tweaks. In a few pages in issue #68, Hal – Rose’s ex-landlord – goes from aging and desperately beautiful drag queen to an angry person whose inner ugliness shines through to a sad, defeated man who has alienated everyone in his life and can’t go back. It’s a remarkable transformation, and Hempel pulls it off wonderfully. In issue #69, we get the amazingly gaunt Morpheus, utterly defeated, and the luminescent Death, offering him his final gift. It’s a beautiful moment, and Hempel is able to shift quickly from Dream’s despair to the serenity of death.
I’ve been giving Daniel Vozzo a hard time in this essay about his recoloring of the original issues, but he does a very nice job on this arc. He brightens up the pages in the “real” world and the fantasy worlds early on, so that as the story gets progressively darker, the coloring begins to reflect that. It never gets too dark, but Vozzo starts to add more eerie greens and deep blues, as the turmoil begins to affect the Dreaming. Even something like Rose’s red hair grows a bit duller, as Rose’s journey takes its toll on her. The final issue of the arc is a marvel of purple and blue and stark white and black, and the darkness that engulfs the castle is burned away by Daniel’s ascension as the new Dream. Hempel does a wonderful job throughout, but Vozzo complements his artwork very well. The book is no longer a weird horror story, so Vozzo’s bolder coloring works quite well in the new “fantasy” version of the comic.
Hempel’s strong, bold style makes this different from the rest of the series, as most of the artists who worked on the series relied on subtlety to suggest things that Hempel places front and center. One is not necessarily better than the other – for the more horrific parts of the book, it’s probably better to use artists who aren’t as emphatic as Hempel is, but for a brash story about revenge, Hempel is a good fit. When we take this arc as a whole, we can see Hempel’s variance of style fitting the mood of Gaiman’s writing, and that’s all we can ask for in an artist – that he or she is in sync with his or her collaborator. In the case of “The Kindly One,” Hempel is. And that’s a good thing.
Kelley Jones (7 issues).
Jones was not yet 28 years old when he first drew Sandman, and he hadn’t quite made a name for himself in the industry yet. He had been around for a few years – he had drawn Micronauts in the mid-1980s – but had also worked on a lot of small press comics before drawing the two-part Deadman special in 1989. Sandman was (probably) his highest-profile work yet, and he seized the opportunity.
Jones drew one of the more famous Sandman stories, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” but his first issue was the previous issue, “Calliope.” Jones hadn’t quite become as stylized as he would later be, but we can still see the kind of artist he would be – he draws elongated figures who often look as if they’re straining against bonds only they can see. In issue #17, it’s Calliope herself, who’s lissome and sensual, twisting and turning in a strange dance as she begs Richard Madoc to release her. Later, when Madoc is inundated with ideas, we get what we might call “Jonesian” fingers – elongated, bent at awkward angles, and inhuman. In “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” Jones draws the skeletal crow, the gatekeepers, and the Cat-Morpheus himself as slightly anatomically incorrect, heightening the eerie setting. When Jones returns in “A Season of Mists,” his first page is a hellscape, where we see more “Jonesian” tropes – the ribs of humans almost breaking through the skin and the utter grotesqueries and tearing of flesh that Jones does so well. Jones draws an exaggerated Morpheus, too – his mop of hair is gigantic and even more ragged than when others draw him, and he dresses less like a Goth and more like a suave New Waver. Jones is quite good at enveloping people in capes, too – his Batman, later in the decade, is often an absolute horror figure, while Morpheus’ cape swirls around him like the tides. In the first half of the story, Gaiman spends a lot of time in Hell, so Jones is a good choice to draw it, because he’s always been good with horrific monsters. His Mazikeen is superb – he designed her, and she never looked more beautiful and terrifying as when he drew her. Jones’ drawing of Lucifer kissing Mazikeen right before exiling her from Hell is an amazing drawing, as it’s both tender and stomach-turning.
As “A Season of Mists” moved to the Dreaming and the various embassies to Morpheus, Jones had to adapt, and he did so quite well. In issue #24, we see the various emissaries, and Jones shows his versatility on the page where we see many of the gods – the Norse gods are more “stereotypically Jonesian” – Thor has giant muscles and cartoonish limbs, while Loki is as lithe as Calliope was; the Egyptian gods are regal and ancient, Susano-O-No-Mikotu is thin and stoic, while the demons are disgusting and vile. Jones redesigns Azazel per Gaiman’s instructions – according to The Annotated Sandman (volume 2), Gaiman wasn’t happy with the way Azazel was drawn in issue #4, and Jones’ redesign is more in line with what he was thinking of. Jones does a marvelous job with Azazel and also designs a freakishly grotesque Merkin (yes, it’s a joke), while Choronzon stays the same, although he looks a bit more menacing when Jones draws him.
Issues #24, 26, and 27 featured Jones’ pencil work without Malcolm Jones III on inks, and the difference is extremely noticeable. Jones III might not be a better inker than P. Craig Russell, George Pratt, and Dick Giordano, but in the case of inking Kelley Jones, he’s much better. In “Calliope” and “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” he occasionally obliterates holding lines, which doesn’t soften Jones’ artwork but does make it moodier – there’s the beautiful and harrowing drawing of Calliope from the back that almost looks like a woodcut, given the chiaroscuro that Jones III achieves with the inks. In issues #22 and 23, we get more of this thick inking, which adds some heft to the pencil work. Russell does some of this in issue #24, but his finer lines don’t mesh perfectly with Jones’ creepy style. His inks, however, help with Jones’ drawings of Remiel and Duma and the gods who visit Morpheus, and as Dream is now in an aspect of host and ruler, Russell helps make him a bit more genteel than he was when he visited Hell. The real problems comes in issues #26 and 27. I’ve already looked at Pratt’s poor inking over Colleen Doran (and, to a lesser extent, Mike Dringenberg), and while his inks over Jones aren’t as egregious, they’re certainly not all that good. Pratt’s inks make the poor angels look shabby and Bast look scruffy – he doesn’t have a precise line that works over Jones’ stylized artwork. As with issue #28, which Pratt inked over Dringenberg’s pencils, certain pages are very nice – when the Merkin cocoons Choronzon, Pratt’s inks help make it more earthy than another inker might have, and when Jemmy turns into a giant, grotesque monster, Pratt roughs up her lines quite well. The page when Susano bargains with Morpheus is well done, too – it looks Japanese, and I don’t know how much influence Pratt had on Jones’ work, but he probably had some. Giordano, as an “old-school” artist (he was 59 at the time), does little to change Jones’ pencil work – he’s certainly not as brutal as Pratt is, and it seems like he’s trying to emulate Jones III, but he seems to “humanize” the angels a bit too much, although it’s possible that’s what Gaiman and Jones wanted.
Daniel Vozzo is at it again in the Absolute Editions, but his recoloring of issues #17 and 18 isn’t as uninspired as some of the other recolorings. Basically, he makes everything bluer, exchanging Robbie Busch’s brighter colors for blues and purples. By the time “A Season of Mists” came along, Vozzo was the regular colorist (Steve Oliff colored issue #22, but Vozzo did the rest), and there’s very little recoloring in the Absolute Edition, although why Vozzo felt the need to constantly switch Morpheus’ cloak from purple to blue is beyond me. The Absolute Editions are brighter, of course, but the palette remains pretty much the same.
Jones was another one of those artists that seem to fit the story he drew perfectly, and (as I noted above) I don’t know if by this time Gaiman was able to choose his artists for the arcs. If he wasn’t yet able to, he got extremely lucky when Karen Berger or Tom Peyer picked Jones. Jones’ style fits very well with the two short stories in issues #17 and 18, and once he delves into Hell, he’s on even more comfortable turf (the entrance to Hell remains a highlight of design in the series). Jones was another good choice as “regular” artist – we’ve already seen some, and we’ll certainly see some more!
Sam Kieth (5 issues).
Sam Kieth, the third co-creator of Sandman (as he notes, he drew a “guy in a black robe” and got a co-creator credit, although I’m sure he doesn’t mind when the residuals come in), didn’t last very long on the book, as he felt that Gaiman was going somewhere different with the book than he thought, and he didn’t think he fit in very well. He was probably right; at that early point in his career, Kieth’s cartooning was much more of the 1950s EC-style horror stuff rather than the more moody stuff Gaiman was going for. In the first five issues, this really wasn’t a problem, because the story fit his style fairly well – whether by coincidence or whether Gaiman was trying to accommodate him, it’s not clear (Kieth has said that they sent Morpheus to Hell so he could “draw a bunch of weird creatures”) (all of this information can be found here, by the way). Kieth was only 25 when he started on Sandman, and while he had been kicking around the industry for five years, he had been mainly an inker and hadn’t done too much penciling. I personally don’t think Kieth’s artwork on Sandman is all that bad, because it does fit the tone of the early issues, but it probably wouldn’t have worked moving forward.
Kieth’s cartoonish style works to establish the horror tone of the book, and many fans consider the early issues the best ones anyway, so perhaps Kieth is being too hard on himself. What he does from the very beginning is give the book a fascinating look, one that – with the addition of Cain and Abel to the cast in issue #2 – clearly links this book to DC’s horror roots of the 1970s. But Kieth also brings a good sense of design to the book – even at this early a stage in his career, his layouts were very good, although occasionally a bit confusing. We see this on Page 2 of Gaiman’s epic, when Dr. Hathaway, the curator of the Royal Museum (that’s what it’s called, although I imagine it’s supposed to be the British Museum), visits Roderick Burgess. Kieth draws circular panels superimposed on the background panel of Burgess’ study, with ornate decorations surrounding one panel, giving the new reader a sense of the weirdness of Burgess’ house and life. The title page is a marvel of design, with Morpheus, cloaked and helmeted, lying insensate within the magic circle, and Kieth’s Art Deco design of the issue’s title – “Sleep of the Just” – running down the left side and bottom of the page. Of course, a good deal of the issue is seen through Morpheus’ eyes, so Kieth uses the fish-eyed lens viewpoint as he looks out from his glass prison. It’s a very cool way for us to see what’s happening in the basement. Kieth does a marvelous job showing Morpheus plundering dreams to regain strength, and it’s these two pages that also show how different his sensibility is to what Gaiman later wrote, as this might be the only time in the entire comic that Morpheus is drawn as a being who can change shape at will (although, of course, he often appears in different forms, but we don’t see him changing shape). Finally, at the end of issue #1, we get the terrifiying “eternal waking” of Alex Burgess, which is straight out of a 1950s horror comic. It’s perversely humorous, but wouldn’t really fit in later in the series.
Kieth continued this impressive design work throughout his brief stint on the book. He uses curved panel borders effectively to create a sense of motion and ambiguity – Morpheus lives in an ever-shifting realm, after all. His early depiction of the Fates is well done, because Kieth draws them as cartoons, making them seem kinder than they actually are. Gaiman elides the Moirai with the Furies in this comic, so this, their first appearance, sets the tone for their future appearances, and Kieth’s version of them helps inform the rest of the book. When other artists draw them, they look more menacing and ominous. This transformation certainly wasn’t Kieth’s intent, but it works out fairly well – readers might consider them allies when Morpheus first meets them, but it’s clear later on that they certainly are not.
As I noted above, it appears that Mike Dringenberg’s inks helped temper Kieth’s cartoonish style quite a lot in issue #3, which stars John Constantine and is the first issue that really shows the more “mature” horror of the Alan Moore-influenced DCU of 1988 rather than the EC horror of the earlier decades. Kieth’s pencil work is still evident, especially with regard to Morpheus himself and the remains of the human body smeared on the wall in Rachel’s house, but Dringenberg roughs up Kieth’s pencils quite a bit, leaching it of the morbid humor of the first two issues. It’s not a bad choice, because Rachel’s fate is so pathetic, but it does show the tension between what Gaiman was writing and the style in which Kieth drew. This tension isn’t as evident in issues #4 and 5, because they’re more in Kieth’s wheelhouse. “A Hope in Hell” is another perversely funny issue, and Kieth gets to draw a lot of creepy and slimy monsters, something he obviously can do very well. After the relative “normal” layouts of issue #3, he’s back to experimenting with circles, whorls, and jagged panels, as when Morpheus cruelly turns away from Nada. Gaiman, as I noted, was unhappy with Kieth’s design of Azazel, but the other demons are beautifully rendered, and Kieth makes Hell look far more bizarre than most depictions in the DCU at the time (perhaps it wasn’t as scary, but it was certainly bizarre). Finally, in issue #5, we see once again that there’s a bit of tension between writer’s intent and artist’s style, as John Dee certainly looks a bit too … benign, I suppose, to be a real threat. He looks like a supervillain, frankly, so when he puts on a green, fuzzy coat (which belongs to Rosemary’s husband?), he looks silly, and when he kills Rosemary, it feels out of context. Dringenberg, as I mentioned, designs Dee much better, making him truly scary. But Kieth does a fine job with the Justice League, because it’s a bit more up his alley – Scott Free’s dream is wonderfully drawn, for instance. Morpheus’ trip through the Dreaming (with a nice cameo by Mervyn Pumpkinhead) is a bit of a last hurrah of the odd design sense that Kieth brought to the book. Dringenberg was certainly better suited for the direction Gaiman was taking the book (Kieth drawing issue #6 and issue #8 would have been strange, to say the least), but Kieth’s contribution to the comic shouldn’t be overlooked, even if he’s self-deprecating about it.
Of all the coloring changes we see in the Absolute Editions, it’s the first five issues that suffer the most. This is apparent from the very first page, when Robbie Busch’s brighter colors are replaced by Daniel Vozzo’s duller ones, which are definitely more “realistic.” This matters because it changes the tone of the issues from a freaky, twisted EC horror story to a more standard adventure. The recolored pages in the first five issues are far less creepy, and it’s a shame. On the first title page, Busch’s bright, Art Deco coloring has been replaced by blue and burgundy, and Morpheus himself has been changed from an eerie creature to a dude wearing a cloak and helmet. The entire point of Wesley Dodds dressing up is to bring some brightness to the world of injustice, but Vozzo’s coloring dulls the yellow mask and green suit he wears. Vozzo hates purple (apparently), so when Morpheus is finally able to put some clothes on, the beautiful purple flames on the edges of his coat are replaced with prosaic red and orange. The purple made Morpheus look cool; Vozzo’s recoloring makes it look like he’s actually on fire. Alex’s fever dream in which he meets Morpheus, which Busch colors with sickly reds, oranges, and yellows, becomes a banal brown in the Absolute Edition, while Morpheus’ twisted judgment on Alex is brought to terrifying and darkly humorous life when Busch is coloring it, while Vozzo’s browns make it almost boring.
This continues throughout the first five issues. Anything that is bright is dulled (Gregory the gargoyle, for instance) and a great deal is converted to earth tones, which makes the entire book less disturbing. In issue #3, John Constantine’s sudden dream of falling looks “real” when Vozzo colors it, but it’s not supposed to – Busch makes it a terrifying and weird plunge from nothing into nothing. The reveal of Rachel is probably the only place where Vozzo’s recoloring really works well – because he tends to make everything duller, Rachel looks far more used up in the Absolute Edition than in the original. But it’s not worth it, because the recoloring almost ruins issue #4. There’s nothing particularly creepy or disgusting about Vozzo’s Hell – Lucifer’s palace, which Busch colors a bright and savage red, is turned brown and dull by Vozzo. It appears that Mike Dringenberg actually redrew the next two pages, which is extremely annoying. I assume it was due to where the pages fell – the original is laid out over two pages, while the Absolute Edition is unable to accommodate that set-up – but it’s astonishing that DC couldn’t figure out a better way to retain the original art. The double-page spread of Hell’s demons is all red in the original, while Vozzo actually colors many of them differently, and it looks pretty good in both versions. The biggest problem is that issue #4 is really the height of the weird tone in the first five issues, and Vozzo’s recoloring makes Hell look somewhat bland. Busch’s coloring heightened the feeling of unease and nausea – Hell was not a place where you wanted to stay for too long. Issue #5 is more of the same, with Vozzo making everything a bit duller, but it only really stands out on the page where Morpheus travels through dreams – again, the “realistic” coloring makes the Dreaming a bit less weird, and it really should be weird, shouldn’t it?
[Edit: You can just ignore the entire paragraph below this, as it’s all speculation and it’s rude. Just ignore it. MOVE ON, PEOPLE! This is one of those rare paragraphs that I really wish I hadn’t written – even if I think Vozzo doesn’t fit the tone of the Kieth issues, this is just me at my absolute dumbest, and considering how dumb I am usually, that’s saying something! I’m not going to delete this paragraph because I’m not a big coward and if someone wants to come at me because I wrote this, feel free. But know that I realize this paragraph is extremely dumb, and I feel bad about it because from everything I know about him, Gaiman is a swell guy, and he digs comics and isn’t embarrassed about them at all. So, yes, I suck. I’m very aware of it!]
I don’t know why Gaiman wanted the Busch issues recolored. As I’ve mentioned, I suspect it was slight embarrassment about the “low-brow” nature of the early issues – Sandman hadn’t quite become the literary sensation it would soon be, and it really was more of a straight horror story set firmly within the DC Universe. The combination of Kieth’s style and Busch’s lurid coloring gave it a specific tone, one that Gaiman helped along as well – whether or not Gaiman had a lot of this book plotted out early on, it was clear that he was writing something different for the first five issues than he was after that, as issue #6 is really when the tone of the book changes. Perhaps Gaiman changed the way he was writing the book because he knew Kieth wasn’t drawing it anymore. Perhaps Kieth didn’t draw it any more because he didn’t like the way the tone of the book was changing. It doesn’t really matter, because the fact is that Kieth and Busch were well suited to the first five issues (with, as I noted, the exception of issue #3, but even that isn’t too different in tone) and it seems that when DC and Gaiman went back to produce the Absolute Editions, they were somewhat embarrassed by issues #1-5. That’s too bad, but that’s the way it is. If you’ve only read Sandman in the Absolute Editions, you don’t miss too much, but you do lose something in the way the story is told. If you’re just there for Gaiman’s writing, obviously it doesn’t matter. It’s still a shame that so much has been changed.
Teddy Kristiansen (1 issue).
In the middle of “The Kindly Ones,” Teddy Kristiansen stepped in to draw issue #64, in which the Furies claim their first victim (the gryphon at the gates of the Dreaming), Rose Walker sleeps with the solicitor and then discovers he’s married, Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to help her look for Barnabas (he refuses), and the Corinthian finds out who took Daniel. So it’s a pretty crucial issue, and Kristiansen does a nice job with it. This was fairly early in Kristiansen’s career – he turned 30 in 1994 – but we can see the style that would come to define his later, greater works. It’s also not surprising why Gaiman picked him to fill in for Hempel – his work is similar to Hempel’s but different enough that it’s clear it’s a different artist. Notably, Kristiansen draws Morpheus with scragglier hair than Hempel does, and his Dream is mopier than Hempel’s. Morpheus’ face is longer and thinner, and Kristiansen inks in his eye sockets and his chin much more heavily than most artists. His Dream has almost retreated into himself, and we see the transition from a relatively active Morpheus into the passive and fatalistic aspect who allows the Furies to destroy his realm. Dream, of course, is never actually cheery, but in earlier issues of “The Kindly Ones,” he’s performing his functions and in issue #63, he’s actually dressed in his fancy robes with the flames at the hem. Kristiansen begins the transition to the Morpheus who believes he can do nothing to stop the Furies because he believes he deserves their punishment. Morpheus looks beaten when he tells Delirium that he can’t help her, and when the Furies reach his throne room, he tells them they won’t destroy his realm, and they ask him how his gryphon is doing. Kristiansen draws Morpheus, his robe falling off his shoulders, his thin chest a sicklier white than usual, his face shadowed, with no answer for the Furies. He already knows he will be unable to stop what’s going to happen, but part of it is that he doesn’t want to stop it. Kristiansen also adds some speckling to Dream’s otherwise etched features, adding a good touch of weariness to his face.
Kristiansen’s slightly rougher style works in the rest of the issue, too. Carla’s corpse is a fuzzy burnt mess, and when the Corinthian sees Loki through her eyes, the evil god looks more twisted than even when Hempel draws him. The gryphon’s death, as he quickly becomes a desiccated husk, seems to work well when Kristiansen draws it. There’s a scratchiness to the issue that, even as Kristiansen’s thin lines evoke Hempel, helps create a feeling of something passing, and even though Hempel does nice work when this storyline becomes darker, part of what he accomplishes going forward on the arc is based on what Kristiansen does here. Kristiansen’s pencils on issue #64 remain in the readers’ minds as they move forward with Hempel drawing the rest of the arc, and that helps make the dark parts to come more effective. It’s a nice trick, and I don’t know if it would have worked as well without Kristiansen drawing this issue. I imagine it was out of necessity, but it worked well within the arc itself. That’s pretty keen!
Shawn McManus (6 issues).
McManus was an unusual choice to draw “Three Septembers and a January” in issue #31, but the story turned out to be whimsical enough for his cartoony style. His Endless look out of place in 19th-century San Francisco, mainly because McManus draws them with frizzy, 1990s-type hair styles, but he gives Emperor Norton a quiet dignity and he’s good at the quirky characters like the King of Pain. Despite McManus’ style, he has always been a careful craftsman, and his heavy inks on the faces of his (human) characters lend them gravitas and even make the book feel more Victorian – Norton and the other people of San Francisco don’t have easy lives, and McManus etches all that on their faces. If that issue was an audition for “A Game of You,” McManus must have passed, because that story arc takes advantage of his strengths. He creates distinctive characters, from Wanda to Thessaly to Hazel and Foxglove, and when Barbie paints the checkerboard on her face, McManus gives her a subversive smile, which shows how much she’s changed since we last saw her in “The Doll’s House.” Unlike many other depictions of Dream, McManus’ Morpheus is powerful, even buff, even while McManus makes sure to keep the deep shadows around his eyes and mouth. It is, of course, when Martin Tenbones shows up that McManus can really show off, as his style suits the fanciful creatures of the Land far better than Mike Dringenberg, who drew Martin briefly in “The Doll’s House.”
McManus is surprisingly good at horror, too, so he’s comfortable with the more disturbing aspects of the story, like Hazel’s horrible dream of the baby eating the other baby. But he’s excellent when Barbie ends up in the Land, and Wilkinson, Luz, and Prinado begin taking her to the Brightly Shining Sea. He anthropomorphizes the animals wonderfully even as they remain animals – Prinado is utterly defeated, Luz is sad (no doubt contemplating her treachery), and Wilkinson is angry, and McManus gets those traits across very well. Meanwhile, Barbie looks both more innocent in the Land and steelier, as if she’s the princess but also the warrior. She has no idea how she’s going to survive the journey, but McManus is able to get across her determination. His black-armored soldiers of the Cuckoo are terrifying, as is the forest in which Prinado is killed. McManus is able to create a world of cheery creatures, but he’s good enough to add a layer of fear to it all. He’s best when he inks himself, too, as he adds nice thick lines to the cheery drawings, given his characters more emotive power than you might expect when you first see his style. The joy the Cuckoo feels when she wins is palpable and weirdly infectious, and Alianora, who only appears in two panels in the entire series, is stunningly beautiful and terribly sad. The way she and Morpheus look at each is full of pain and longing and regret. It’s very well done by McManus.
The interesting thing about “A Game of You” is that McManus couldn’t draw it all, so other artists had to pick up the slack. We’ve already seen Colleen Doran’s work on her issue, and Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch contributed to the double-sized issue #36. It’s unfortunate that McManus couldn’t draw the entire arc, but if he couldn’t, the artwork should have been divided better. McManus is wonderful at the parts in the Land, and I wonder if someone like Doran – without Pratt on inks – would have been a good choice to draw the scenes in the “real” world, as that would have set off the two aspects much better. As much as I like McManus’ artwork, I’m not sure if he does his best work in the funeral scene that ends the arc – it seems a bit too cute. In the same way, Talbot’s work at the beginning of issue #36, in which Barbie meets the Cuckoo, is lacking that sense of fantasy that McManus brings to the rest of the “Land” section of the book. Talbot is fine drawing the hurricane sections, but those first pages don’t work as well. If Gaiman and Karen Berger had known before the arc started that McManus couldn’t draw it all, they could have split the labor a bit more interestingly.
McManus is an interesting artist who seems like he would be limited in what he can do but is able to draw more than we might expect. It’s too bad he wasn’t able to draw the entire arc of “A Game of You,” but he brings the Land beautifully to life, which is extremely important. It certainly made the arc distinctive from the other Sandman arcs, which is what Gaiman and Berger, at this point, were trying to do.
Jon J. Muth (1 issue).
After “The Kindly Ones” and “The Wake,” Gaiman still had two stories left to tell, and so Jon J. Muth drew “Exiles,” in which we meet Master Li, who is traveling across the desert to his new home after the emperor of China banished him for the sins of his son, who rebelled against the empire. We immediately know that this is going to echo “Soft Places” in issue #39, and Li does get lost in the desert, where he meets both Morpheus and Daniel. Muth is an excellent choice to illustrate this issue – from the first page, on which he composes three panels of thick brushstrokes and delicate colors (like issue #50, Daniel Vozzo doesn’t color this issue, as Muth does it himself), it’s clear that this is a story he can do well. He continues to use heavy black and lots of negative space to create a sense of great space and loneliness in the desert, and the contrasts between the black and white make the characters and horses seem less real, as if they’re slowly fading into the sand. He uses color judiciously – the cat’s eyes, Li’s son’s robes, Daniel’s emerald – which makes them stand out even more. He also uses computer effects well, as he occasionally colors the sand or the sky a dull brown, adding to the oppressive nature of the desert (Digital Chameleon separated this, so maybe they added those effects). The contrast between Morpheus and Daniel is interesting – Morpheus has his typical crazy hair, but he also seems less formal about his functions, because he’s been at it longer than Daniel. Both are kind to Master Li, but Daniel seems more approachable and bit less enigmatic (he’s still enigmatic, but not as much as his former aspect) – Muth even gives him a hint of a smile in one panel. Muth’s abstract brushstrokes make this one of the “dreamiest” of the Sandman issues, as it truly does feel like none of the issue occurs in the real world. The Chinese desert is an extremely “soft” place, it seems, but Muth shows this in a different way than John Watkiss does, and his style is more “Asian” – for lack of a better word – than we see in issue #39. It’s a haunting issue, due far more to Muth’s artwork than Gaiman’s interesting but not particularly bizarre script. It lingers in your head long after you’ve read it, much like a dream itself.
Dean Ormston (1 issue).
Ormston drew seven pages of Sandman – the final seven pages of issue #62, which also featured the work of Glyn Dillon we saw above. I’m not entirely sure why Dillon didn’t draw the entire issue but for the fairy tale in the middle, which is drawn by Charles Vess, but Ormston finished up the issue after Rose Walker listens to the three ladies tell the story. Perhaps it’s an indication that Rose’s world has become a bit rougher after she hears the story, but that seems far too subtle doesn’t completely fit – why would Rose, who’s already been through so much, be changed so much after hearing a gruesome fairy tale? The more likely answer is that Dillon just wasn’t too fast, and DC needed to get the issue out. This doesn’t make too much sense – at this point in the series’ life, DC could have delayed an issue and nobody would have minded, and they certainly did it later in the story arc – but perhaps that was the reason. Either way, Ormston makes the ladies much more decrepit than Dillon did, with the crone particularly far more bent by age. Paul McGuire looks more ragged when Ormston draws him, and Alex Burgess looks like a broken old man (which, of course, he is). Ormston’s line is thicker and his inks heavier than Dillon’s, and it appears that far more time has passed than actually has while Rose is listening to the story. Perhaps that’s the point – time is mutable in Sandman, and maybe Rose has gotten older than she thinks while she is sitting with the three ladies. Rose looks a bit older than when Dillon draws her, but that’s partially because, as I noted, Dillon draws her somewhat young, but Ormston does give her a more world-weary look. In the absence of information about why the artists changed, I can only speculate.
Shea Anton Pensa (1 issue).
Pensa was another artist on “Worlds’ End” who drew the main story of one issue, in this case “Cerements,” where Petrefax tells his story about Litharge. It’s a crucial story in the mythology of the series, but that’s not important right now. Pensa does a fine job with the art, as his slightly cartoony style adds an interesting layer of absurdity to the idea of a city devoted entirely to the dead. There’s something odd about Litharge and its inhabitants, and Pensa’s not-quite-serious art helps Gaiman write serious stories without making it too gloomy. It’s something that Gaiman does quite well with his collaborators – in some of the more pretentious stories in Sandman, Gaiman’s artistic partner helps lighten the mood just enough to deflate the pretensions. There’s nothing “real” about Pensa’s Litharge – from the ragged Victorian clothing the people wear to the death-inspired architecture, it’s just slightly absurd, and that helps make the stories the morality tales that Gaiman wants them to be. Destruction’s story about how the previous Necropolis was destroyed is a fable, and Pensa’s creepy style helps hammer that point home. Vince Locke’s inks add more nuances to the artwork so that it becomes much darker to match the tone of the stories, but it doesn’t overwhelm Pensa’s linework, so the tension between the tone of the stories and the tone of the art is maintained. Unlike other artists on the book (but like some of them, of course), Pensa’s detailed style is needed on this kind of issue, as Gaiman needs him to create this world from the ground up and make sure that the oppressiveness and freedom of death is present in every panel. There’s nothing depressing about the Litharge the way Pensa draws it, but there is a nobility to it, and while Petrefax is slightly irreverent, Pensa does a good job showing that even though he’s not as stuffy as some of the other characters, he still respects the traditions of the Necropolis. It’s a fine line that Pensa and Gaiman walk in this issue, but they pull it off. It’s just another example of matching an artist to the story nicely, which is a hallmark of this series.
P. Craig Russell (1 issue; inked 1 issue).
“Ramadan” is a visual masterpiece, with Gaiman, Russell, Digital Chameleon (the colorist – it was a studio, so who knows who actually colored this issue), and Todd Klein all working in perfect tandem. The story itself is good, but the artwork makes it far more wondrous. Russell’s beautiful thin line art feels very well suited for a story of Haroun al Raschid and his magnificent city of Baghdad, and Gaiman gives him the freedom to bring it to life. Despite the evidence in this post, the artists in Sandman weren’t as innovative as they might have been – some were more than others, of course, but Gaiman was the star and set the tone of the book. But “Ramadan,” even though Gaiman doesn’t rein in his prose at all, is as much a visual feast as a wordy one. Russell creates Arabic backdrops that help make Baghdad more artistic and wonderful, and his architectural designs are magnificent. When Haroun al Raschid travels deep into the dungeons in search of the glass ball, Russell turns it into a harrowing journey – he gives us a panel in which the caliph descends the stairs, and Russell draws it looking down on him as he goes. The letter scroll follows his twists and turns as he navigates the darkness, and when Haroun al Raschid ascends to the roof of his palace, Russell and the colorists give us a phantasmagoria of stars in the night sky over Baghdad. Russell’s rendition of Morpheus is superb – his robe is beautifully worked with flowers and stars, while the lining of the cloak is gorgeous blue and purple. He wears his ruby on an ostentatious necklace, and Russell draws him with an exotic mien and dark, almost rogue-ish eyes. This is not unusual – every character in “Ramadan” wears magnificently designed clothing, so Morpheus is just fitting in. When Haroun al Raschid and Morpheus fly into Baghdad, Russell again flexes his artistic muscles, showing all the mysteries of the Caliphate and its marvelous inhabitants. Russell also makes the squalor of the actual Baghdad a tragic reminder of the fleeting nature of man’s creations – Haroun al Raschid doesn’t even get to preserve his Baghdad in amber, but the idea of his Baghdad.
Gaiman’s trick in this story is to make us believe that Haroun al Raschid is actually preserving the real Baghdad. In that way, Russell is the perfect artist for the story, because his linework and attention to detail makes the reader believe in this Baghdad. Yes, it’s perhaps too magnificent to be real, and of course some of the things Haroun al Raschid does in the story are fantastical, but in the world of Sandman, where strange things happen all the time, the way Gaiman pulls the rug (so to speak) out from under us when he reveals that this Baghdad does not exist is still powerful. Russell’s astonishing and detailed art makes this story feel more real, even though the fantastic takes over. Gaiman’s version of Baghdad is one that the West had of the real Baghdad, which of course was an exaggeration, but because of Russell’s beautiful work, we wish it was real.
Russell is also quite good at the more subtle moments in the story. Haroun al Raschid’s facial expressions help make the story work. Russell has a charming style, but he can “darken” things when it’s called for, and so we see that Haroun al Raschid is troubled more clearly through Russell’s work than when Gaiman tells us. The simple act of making Haroun al Raschid a silhouette but leaving his yellow eyes visible when he dismisses the great poet is enough to show us that despite his nobility, the caliph has darkness in his soul. When he’s about to throw the glass ball, Russell draws true madness in his face – he is so desperate to make his dream eternal that he’s willing to unleash great evil on the world. His childlike appreciation of the city in the bottle that Morpheus holds at the end is charming, as he’s able to rest in his broken-down palace secure in the knowledge that his wish came true. I already mentioned Dream’s rascally eyes, and it’s the last image we see of him, looking at the caliph as he walks away. As beautiful as Russell’s grand gestures are, his work with the faces of the characters is tremendous, too.
It’s not surprising that Russell was so good on “Ramadan.” His work suggests dreams and flights of fancy, and his precise and fine lines make the mythical Baghdad a magnificent and vibrant place. No wonder Haroun al Raschid wanted to preserve it!
Alec Stevens (1 issue).
The first “Worlds’ End” issue begins with the longer framing tale, and then Gaiman launches into the story about dreaming cities and Robert, the man who wandered into the city’s dream. Stevens gives us an interesting take on the story, as he creates pages with thin panels and wide gutters, in which Klein places the letters – the panels themselves remain free of letters. “Worlds’ End” specifically and Sandman in general is about stories within stories, so the fact that this is a story told by a man who’s telling someone else’s story helps make Stevens’ pages more interesting – the lack of word balloons or caption boxes in the actual artwork creates a buffer between us and Robert, making it more an archetypal tale. The thin panels add a degree of paranoia to the story, which fits the tone of Gaiman’s story – Robert gets caught in a city he doesn’t recognize, and he wanders through it, increasingly disturbed by this turn of events. The thinness of the panels also allows Stevens to focus on the eyes of characters – many panels are filled with just eyes, as Robert and other characters confront each other and look at each other desperately. So we see fear in Robert’s eyes, cold disregard in Morpheus’, and eerie kindness in Death’s (that’s Death, right?). It adds to the claustrophobia of the dreaming city – even though it’s a large place with some wide-open spaces, when Stevens closes in on the eyes of the characters, it makes the scene feel more cramped. Stevens’ style in the issue is fairly basic – it’s a very blocky, woodcut style, making the modernity of the city more archaic and oppressive. The lack of holding lines and extensive use of blacks also adds to the dream-like quality of the story. In many panels, Stevens is forced by the size to give deep shots in which Robert almost fades into the background and the city dominates, even in the thinnest of panels. The panel sizes also allows him to stretch the shadows out as Robert moves through the dream, creating an even more vertiginous feeling. When Stevens uses more vertical panels, it’s for nice effect – Morpheus looks much larger because he stands in the foreground of one of the few tall panels, and when we see the city in some of the taller panels, he gives us twisted architecture and blank skies, making Robert’s lost feeling more palpable. Death, too, gets a vertically-aligned panel, so her presence feels more important. Stevens doesn’t need to make this story all that detailed – he’s going for a mood, and the artwork helps Gaiman create this strange, unreal feeling of the dreaming city. Vozzo’s restraint in coloring the dream city is a good choice, because Robert’s waking city is colored a bit brighter, so when he enters the dream, the colors fade and make the scene more unmoored from reality.
As with many of these issues, Stevens is the right choice to draw “A Tale of Two Cities,” and one wonders if he would have been good on any of the others. Meanwhile, could another artist have captured the correct mood of Gaiman’s prose? This is why Gaiman’s choices of artists is so intriguing.
Bryan Talbot (9 issues).
Talbot only drew two full issues, but he drew parts of seven additional issues – he’s the artist who draws the framing story in “Worlds’ End,” so he gets pages in each of them. Talbot was actually one of the more established artists in the field when he worked on Sandman, as he had been working for 2000AD for several years and had by the this time completed The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, but he may not have been as well known in the States. “August,” the first of the “Distant Mirrors” stories in Sandman #30, tells of Caesar Augustus spending a day in the marketplace with the dwarf Lycius, while “The Song of Orpheus” in Sandman Special #1 is a retelling of the myth. Obviously Gaiman thought Talbot could draw a story set in the Classical Age!
One thing Talbot brings to the table is versatility. When he drew these issues, he was generally a fairly rough artist (this has changed as he’s discovered digital) but he was still able to lighten up his pencil work and create a different tone to certain scenes. This is partly a function of inking – Stan Woch is also a rougher artist, so his inks on “August” make Augustus and Lycius look awful (as they should – they’re disguising themselves as lepers), while Mark Buckingham’s thinner lines on “The Song of Orpheus” keep Talbot’s roughness from overwhelming what is a slightly more genteel story (even when the Furies rip him to pieces, the inking is still thinner than in “August”). Talbot is versatile enough, though, that when “August” flashes back to when Augustus was a boy, he and Woch soften the pencils just enough and adds plenty of black to offset the stark white with which Vozzo colors the rest, making it a memory that stands out in the old man’s mind among the fog of a long life. When Augustus dreams of Morpheus, Talbot and Woch keep him an old man, with furrowed and pocked skin, while Dream himself remains unblemished and regal. And when Julius Caesar rapes Augustus, Vozzo adds just enough color to make the memory even more vivid in the emperor’s mind, while Talbot and Woch roughen up the pristine lines from earlier in flashbacks, making this moment even more a part of Augustus’ world.
In Sandman Special #1, Talbot gets to draw a lot of different creatures, and he’s the first Sandman artist to draw Destruction, as well. Buckingham’s thinner lines make the tale feel more mythic – there is plenty that’s earthy about “The Song of Orpheus,” of course, but “August” took place at a specific time and place in the “real” world, while Orpheus’ story is firmly rooted in myth. So Buckingham’s inks help make Talbot’s pencil work slightly more fanciful, which is a plus when you’re dealing with fauns and Furies and other strange creatures. Talbot gets to draw Death in a Gothic gown and in a strange palace, and Orpheus’ trip to Hades is beautifully drawn. Talbot does use a few nice tricks, as when Death slowly fades after she gives Orpheus advice, and it’s clear that Talbot, as a smart artist, would continue to experiment with these tricks. He was probably drawing the two issues very close together (the Sandman Special, as I recall, came out two months after issue #30, although it doesn’t have a month on it – the year is 1991 – and is placed elsewhere in the Absolute Edition – it’s not even in Volume II, but shows up in Volume III after issue #40, which is cover dated August 1992), but it’s interesting to note that “The Song of Orpheus” shows a slight improvement, not in the actual pencils, but in the way he chooses to present the story. Perhaps the longer length of the Orpheus story allowed him more leeway, but “August” is laid out in a fairly mundane manner – the page where Morpheus chastises Augustus is the only truly interesting one in the book – while “The Song of Orpheus” is a bit more adventurous, for lack of a better word. Talbot gets to design a magnificent Greek-style palace for Morpheus, strange and beautiful armor for Destruction, Death’s odd ultra-modern house, and a frightening and imposing underworld. The attack of the Furies is terrifying, as Talbot creates a true sense of frenzy as the ladies tear Orpheus apart. Both issues take advantage of their environments, but “The Song of Orpheus” is lusher, as it reflects a more rural world, while Augustus’ Rome is already an oppressive urban area, full of filth and destitution.
Talbot also draws part of issue #36, part of which takes place in the Land – he’s the first artist who draws the Cuckoo, in fact. As I noted above, the division of labor in “A Game of You” isn’t handled very well – Talbot, like Colleen Doran, might have been a good choice to draw the “real-world” aspects once Barbie leaves to visit the Land, because the scenes in New York in issue #36 work quite well – George’s face is nice and gruesome, and Wanda is more masculine than McManus draws her, adding to the blurring of sexual identity that Gaiman layers into the arc. Talbot’s hurricane scenes are frenzied and dirty, capturing the chaos quite well, but the first seven pages of the issue, which shows Barbie’s meeting with the Cuckoo, don’t feel as “right” as when McManus draws the Land. Both Barbie and the Cuckoo look too “real,” which destroys the odd illusion of Barbie visiting her childhood home. It’s certainly possible that Gaiman wanted to shatter that illusion and turned to Talbot to make the Cuckoo’s introduction a bit more hard-edged than McManus would have been, but it’s still a strange choice. McManus can certainly make his characters look tough if he wants to, so I tend to think the use of Talbot in issue #36 was more of a scheduling thing. It’s too bad, because as I’ve pointed out before, the art on “A Game of You” could have been a clever way to distinguish between our world and Barbie’s skerry, but instead, it seems a bit more random.
In “Worlds’ End,” Talbot returns to the book to draw the framing story of Brant and Charlene at the inn. He once again gets to draw some fantastical creatures, and he’s once again paired with Buckingham, but in the two years since “The Song of Orpheus,” both Talbot and Buckingham got better, so Talbot isn’t quite as stark a penciller and Buckingham is able to do some more indeterminate inking, creating a softer look for the characters without losing the crispness. In issue #51, there’s a stark difference between the blizzard and the car accident – which Vozzo colors wonderfully – and the interior of the inn, which feels like a cheery place full of old friends. Talbot doesn’t have a lot to do in “Worlds’ End” – he gets to draw a few pages of each issue before the “main” artist takes over, but he does draw most of issue #56, the final chapter of the arc – and I wonder if the reason Gaiman chose him was because his somewhat stolid pencils help ground the inn and make it a safer haven, while the artists for each story are a bit more experimental (Talbot got more experimental in later years, but he wasn’t at that point yet). His ability in that regard helps make the strange creatures who populate the Worlds’ End Inn somewhat more mundane, so Brant and Charlene aren’t too freaked out by them – they’re just folks hanging out drinking while the reality storm rages around them. Talbot is a smart choice in that regard – he’s able to create a place that feels comforting, so the strange stories the people tell can’t be too spooky, because we’ll always return to the comforts of the inn. At least, that’s the way it feels to me. I could be wrong about the intent, of course!
Jill Thompson (10 issues).
Thompson is an unusual artist in that she’s quite well known for her work doing comics aimed at children, but she’s also very good at creepy horror stuff. So she’s in her element both in the Li’l Endless stories (which she first drew in Sandman #40, her first issue of the series) and Magic Trixie as well as horror books like Beasts of Burden, in which her “cute” style helps magnify the horror. She hadn’t done a lot of work in comics prior to working on Sandman, but she shows in her 10-issue run (the longest uninterrupted run by an artist on the book) that she was already able to bridge these two kinds of story.
Her first issue is “The Parliament of Rooks,” the third of the three “Convergence” stories that followed “A Game of You” and preceded “Brief Lives.” Thompson’s excellent attention to detail and “realistic” style are evident on the first two pages, as Lyta Hall puts Daniel down for a nap and makes a phone call. This is Lyta at her most beautiful and, for lack of a better word, “normal” – it’s after she was trapped in the dream dome and before she goes insane, and Thompson draws her as a regular woman, wearing a chunky sweater and acid-washed jeans (it was 1992, after all). Daniel encounters Gregory the Gargoyle on page 3, but Thompson draws him much more like a monster than we’ve seen before – his cartoony aspect is gone, and Thompson manages to make him both daunting and innocent, which is a nice trick. Cain and Abel look relatively contemporary, although Cain does look a bit more 1970s than early 1990s, while Eve looks more like a woman and less like an aspect than she usually does. Of course, Thompson shifts from the black terror of the Parliament of rooks to the unabashed sex of Eve’s story to the utter charm of the Li’l Dream and Death story without changing her style at all, which is a big strength of her art. And when Cain kills Abel, it’s actually shocking (even though we can anticipate it) because Thompson charges the scene with such violence. It’s a fine warm-up for “Brief Lives.”
With “Brief Lives,” Thompson shows even more of her versatility. As it’s a story that focuses on Delirium, Thompson fits very well, as her Delirium is both fragile and terrifying, beautiful but haunted, a punk rock goddess. Mike Dringenberg made Delirium a bit too tough and Shawn McManus, weirdly enough, made her a bit too stylish, but Thompson manages to walk a fine line with regard to Delirium’s madness. She does a marvelous job hinting at Desire’s androgyny, too, making the sibling even more disturbing. Her depiction of Dream is very modern, and he looks perhaps the most human in this arc, as it’s just after Thessaly has broken his heart and he’s moping around (it’s not very becoming, but he does look human – Thompson even gives him stubble). Destruction, another aspect, also looks very human in this arc – much more than he did when Bryan Talbot first drew him (although that’s partly because he hadn’t abandoned his realm when Talbot drew him). Thompson also changes Delirium’s hair style throughout the arc, and it seems clear that she’s making it less crazy as Delirium hangs out with Dream and feels more “human,” because when Morpheus tells her their quest is over, she goes back into her realm and when we see her next, her hair is chopped to a buzz. Thompson changes it quite often, but it seems that it’s less crazy when Delirium herself feels more grounded. It’s an interesting choice.
Just like in issue #40, Thompson is equally at ease dreaming up wild creatures in the Dreaming but she’s just as good at depicting real people. Bernie Kapax is a schlub, while Etain is decidedly unglamorous when we first see her. Thompson draws each character as a unique person, no matter how inconsequential they are. Bernie Kapax’s son is unshaven and disheveled, Pharamond is a somewhat unctuous charmer, while poor doomed Ruby is bemused by her charges and undergoes a complete transformation when she’s not working – again, this is Thompson doing visually what Gaiman is hinting at in the arc in particular and the series in general, as change is a big part of the series. Thompson’s ability to draw very down-to-earth characters makes the flights of fancy in the arc – Delirium’s creations, mainly – to stand out as fanciful but also fit in nicely with the rest of the artwork.
Thompson and Daniel Vozzo also subtly use some nice effects to change the tone of the artwork when it’s warranted. When Delirium remembers Destruction in issue #42, Thompson foregoes backgrounds and makes her work a bit sketchier, showing both the vagaries of memory and the fact that Delirium already has a fuzzy grasp of reality. On the first page of issue #43, we get some charcoal sketches that introduce us to the long-lived people who are starting to die in “Brief Lives.” The first page of issue #44 is a watercolor scene of the aurora borealis, as the Alder Man decides to turn into a bear. It’s a nice scene-setter. Later in the issue we see Tiffany and Ishtar in the strip club for the first time, and Thompson thickens her brush strokes, gets rid of holding lines, and uses chunky blocks of black set against Vozzo’s bright and “unreal” coloring, indicating the harsh lights of the club. Much of issue #45 is set inside the club, and Thompson and Vozzo are at it again, making Ishtar’s self-immolation something terrifying and primal and beautiful. It’s a bold but worthwhile choice. In issue #46, Gaiman foreshadows the “twist” in “Ramadan” when Bast wakes from her dream and she is greatly reduced, and Thompson makes her reality a harsh, ugly place, full of hard edges and rough floors. It’s a severe shift, but shows well how far Bast has fallen. Later in the same issue Morpheus visits Delirium’s realm, and Thompson uses a nice mix of multi-media effects and thick, crazed lines to create a sense of insanity. Vozzo makes the oranges and greens more sickly than usual (I assume the effects were actually drawn by Thompson and colored by Vozzo, but I’m not sure), and the brief glimpse we get of Delirium’s home is disturbing. All of these changes in the art style don’t overwhelm the page, just add a nice layer of extra meaning to Gaiman’s script.
Thompson has continued to grow as an artist, but it’s clear even in this run on Sandman that she had a lot of talent. Working on this book probably launched her into a higher stratosphere, and she’s never looked back!
Charles Vess (3 issues).
Vess drew only two issues and part of a third, but his importance to the Sandman canon is inflated because of the issues he did draw – issues #19 and #75, the two that deal with William Shakespeare’s deal with Morpheus that was struck in issue #13. Issue #19 is also famous, as it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, which didn’t exactly lead to a rule change that comics couldn’t win a World Fantasy Award, but comics can only win “Special Awards” now, because people got in a snit about a stupid comic winning the award. Vess also drew the fairy tale in issue #62 that one of the ladies tells to Rose. Vess is very good at fantasy, so it’s not surprising that he was chosen to draw these three stories.
As issue #19 came out in mid-1990 and issue #75 came out early in 1996, it’s obvious there will be differences in the artwork. The tone of the stories is different, too – “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” shows a William Shakespeare who is confident in his powers, while “The Tempest” comes at the end of a long career, when he has been beaten down by life a bit. Meanwhile, the fairy tale in issue #62 is a very dark story, and Vess adjusts accordingly. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” features a performance of the play, out in the countryside by the Long Man of Wilmington, and while there is some darkness in the story, Vess draws it as a celebration, and Steve Oliff’s colors help with that. Vess’ fine lines and attention to details make the world of 1593 come alive, and of course it’s the fairies that make the book spectacular. Vess gives us a Puck who walks a fine line between puckish and completely evil, as we see when he stays behind in the “real” world and gives the final speech as the darkness overtakes him. In that moment, while we might not know if Gaiman will ever revisit this plot thread (at this point in the narrative, readers might not have known how well Gaiman had planned everything out), but we know that if we ever see Puck again, it won’t be good news.
Vess also creates a menagerie of marvelous creatures, and it’s his excellence with faces that makes them so delightful, as Peaseblossom, Skarrow, and the unnamed giant thing talk about the play but also about eating humans and what a psycho Puck is. Vess makes their interactions fun to watch, as Skarrow gets offended that the players are making fun of Bottom for having an ass’s head and the big lunk gets angry that Peaseblossom keeps talking over the play. But it’s not all fun for Vess – he heavily inks Morpheus, for example, drenching his face in blackness. Morpheus at this time seemed much more accessible to humans, but even so, Vess implies that there is darkness in him that keeps him aloof. Titania is much lighter, but notice that Vess darkens Auberon’s face when Burbage asks him for payment. Oliff colors the entire thing magnificently, as Morpheus, Titania, and Auberon stay in the shade, keeping them pale and blue while the brightness of the players and even the other fairies dance surrounds them.
By issue #75, we get a very different Will Shakespeare and very different artwork, even as it’s distinctly Vess’. The issue begins with a marvelous painted scene of Prospero’s ship tossed by a storm. Daniel Vozzo is credited as colorist, but I wonder if Vess colors the parts of the book that show scenes from the plays, because the art looks so much like his work when Vozzo isn’t coloring his stuff, like in Stardust. The scenes from “The Tempest” are much softer and richly painted, standing in stark contrast to Will Shakespeare’s Stratford. It’s interesting to note the differences between the art – Vess’ lines are as precise in the “real” world, but there’s an unfinished quality to them – many panels show characters fading around the edges or a lack of background, as if Vess is suggesting that Shakespeare’s world is not real and Prospero’s world is. Of course, that’s a facile reading of the text, but I don’t think it’s an incorrect one. Shakespeare is, of course, older, and he looks far more weary than someone of his age should be. Vess, however, gives him a wry look on his face for a good deal of the issue, even as he drinks wine in Morpheus’ palace. The façade cracks more than a few times, of course, but it’s interesting that Shakespeare puts this look on his face so readily, as if he’s bemused by the entire world and doesn’t want to try to figure it out. Vess’ Morpheus is thinner than he was in issue #19, but the shading on his face is less severe, and his behavior toward Shakespeare seems kinder (in issue #19, he unthinkingly tells him that Marlowe is dead, while in issue #75, he invites him to his house for a drink). The issue is about Morpheus as a Prospero who can’t do what Shakespeare’s Prospero does, so of course he’s going to be sadder, and Vess makes him slightly more approachable, too. Meanwhile, Vozzo colors the book in rather drab browns, which makes the scenes from the play stand out more and also help create the mood of age and decay – Shakespeare’s world is passing him by, and as he commiserates with old friends, both mortal and immortal, Vozzo shows how much life has drained out of him. The two issues, #19 and #75, are wonderful contrasts in tone, both in the prose and the artwork.
In between, Vess drew large illustrations for the prose fairy tale the old woman tells to Rose in issue #62. As Vess doesn’t need to do any serial storytelling in the drawings, they’re a bit more expansive and static, but still very beautiful. In the first one, he shows the man in the forest watching the woman bathe in the river, and already we know the man is evil because Vess puts him in darkness while the woman is in the light. Vess isn’t subtle in the story – the man’s face is always in shadow or facing away from the reader, so he’s dehumanized as he treats the woman with nothing but cruelty before he meets his awful and just fate. When his wife rises from the bed after he’s killed her, Vess draws her as a fearsome wraith, with thin eyes, a shadowed face, and long, ethereal fingers, and then he gives us the wife/worm, with its fearsome face and the hair streaming behind her. Either Vess or Vozzo colors the drawings with a preponderance of orange and brown, making the entire thing look aged and apocalyptic – this is a horror story, like all good fairy tales, and the visual cues of the illustrations help add to the mood. It’s not surprising that Gaiman wanted Vess to draw the story – Vess is kind of the king of this kind of tale.
It’s really interesting looking at the three different ways Vess draws his issues. One is relatively merry, one is somewhat bleak, and one is horrifying, yet Vess, with the help of the colorists, manages to get each mood very well. That’s one of the reasons why he’s a great artist!
Matt Wagner (1 issue).
Wagner’s contribution to the Sandman epic is the first appearance of the so-called “Dead Boy Detectives,” who inexplicably keep showing up in stories. I guess you can’t keep good ghosts down! This is one of the rare comics that Wagner drew but didn’t write – he usually does both or sticks solely to writing. I guess when Neil Gaiman asks you to contribute to Sandman, you run to your drawing board!
Wagner is a pretty good choice to draw the saga of Charles Rowland’s lonely death, especially when you consider that Kelley Jones was the main artist on “Season of Mists.” Jones is absolutely the wrong artist for this kind of story, and Wagner’s more cartoony style fits the dark humor of the tale. He has a more simplistic drawing style than Jones – I hope that doesn’t sound insulting, because it’s not meant to be – that conveys the banality of St. Hilarion’s School for Boys (I’m not sure if Gaiman had a reason for naming the school after a relatively obscure saint or if he just liked the name) and the odd horror of the inhabitants, both living and dead. Wagner’s thick and broad brush strokes makes the people who terrorize Charles slightly goofy, but it also straddles the fine line of humor and horror that the book needs – when Charles says he’s not afraid of dying and Edwin tells him he should be, Wagner’s use of blacks and negative space make this a particularly creepy panel. Wagner does this a lot – the matron and her unborn child are horrific, and the three boys who cause Charles’ death are heavily inked, as well. Wagner also draws a terrific Death – she’s under a lot of duress thanks to Lucifer closing Hell, so Wagner draws her in 1990s-style workout clothes, with a ponytail on top of her head, a sweat band, and thigh-high socks. And, of course, after he dies, Charles’ face is shadowed just like the other dead. Wagner does some nice things with the pages – Charles’ dream has Morpheus at its center, like a spider, and the nine-panel grid with the headmaster’s mother has a lot of Giffen-esque charm as she rants about her life. I wonder if he drew this issue partly because he’s able to pack a lot into small panels, and Gaiman had a dense script. That also seems to play to Wagner’s strengths more than Jones’s. But I’m not sure.
Charles and Edwin’s sojourn at the school is a nice interlude in the middle of Morpheus’ troubles with the key to Hell. Plus, it’s always nice to see Wagner’s artwork!
John Watkiss (2 issues).
Watkiss was an inspired choice to draw the second of the three “Convergence” stories in issue #39, which introduced the idea of “Soft Places” and starred Marco Polo. Watkiss uses lines well in his artwork, as his drawings seem to flow from panel to panel, so the fact that “Soft Places” takes place in a desert means that Watkiss is very good in this issue. On the first page, Polo stumbles through a sandstorm, and Watkiss even breaks up the first panel with negative space to convey the idea of terrific winds driving Polo away from the caravan. When he awakens and staggers across the sand, it almost looks like it’s tan water, as it drips from the beleaguered Polo as he stands up. His meeting with Rustichello gives Watkiss an opportunity to draw the Pisan’s recollection of the desert of Lop, which is rendered entirely in thin horizonatal lines that form eerie figures in the night. When the two men meet Fiddler’s Green, his fire is as fluid as the sand – it begins as an intense orange where the flame is and flows up into the sky, gradually matching the color of the sand. And when the ghostly soldiers ride out of the desert and speak to the travelers, Watkiss sketches them roughly, making them ethereal and liquid as they pass. All of this sets up his meeting with Morpheus, who has just escaped from Alexander Burgess and is still weak. As Dream speaks to Polo, he becomes more and more fluid, including the one panel where he’s just vertical lines forming a face. When he sends Polo back to the caravan, he lets sand flow into the Venetian’s hands, and that takes him back to his father. Watkiss adds to this mood in the issue by clothing his characters in sweeping, flowing cloaks, which isn’t a surprise, but helps maintain this strange, half-formed haze through which Polo finds his way back to his caravan. It’s just another example of perfectly matching the artist with the story Gaiman is telling.
Watkiss returns to tell Cluracan’s tale in “Worlds’ End.” It’s not quite as impressive as “Soft Places,” but Watkiss is still a good artist, so the issue looks quite nice. His characters are dressed in medieval raiment, of course, so there are still a lot of cloaks and long coats and loose-fitting breeches that look nice under his long, thin linework. And, naturally, he does a fine job with Morpheus, who rescues Cluracan from prison. The issue demands more use of facial expressions than “Soft Places,” but Watkiss is good at that, and he gets Cluracan’s more rogue-ish nature better than the other artists who draw the fairy – Jones and Hempel, the other two artists who draw him the most, make him more of a lout, while Watkiss’ Cluracan seems kinder and more rascally than anything. It’s a very dense issue, with panels packed with characters and buildings and furniture, but Watkiss does a fine job with that, contrasting the decay of Aurelia with the airy delights of the faerie court. Watkiss makes sure that the city is cramped and almost dingy, and Daniel Vozzo, doing a fine job with the colors, changes from the brightness of Titania’s house to the more mundane hues of Aurelia. The nobility still wear bright clothing, but the rest of the city has fallen on hard times. Watkiss’ style works well when the carnifex/psychopomp enters the tomb and the dead rise to meet him, because he can draw a corpse with flowing hair and drool oozing from its mouth, and it’s a creepy moment. On the whole, the issue makes pretty good use of Watkiss’ strengths, although it’s not quite as perfect a match as “Soft Places.” But then again, that was a truly inspired pairing.
Stan Woch (1 issue; inked 2 issues).
Woch hasn’t had much of a career in comics – I imagine he has a job elsewhere – and he’s not spectacular, but he’s a perfectly fine draftsman. He inked Bryan Talbot on two other Sandman issues, and at the time, he was very similar to Talbot, although Woch used fewer hard lines and relied on inks a bit more than Talbot did. The issue he drew, “Thermidor,” tells the story of Johanna Constantine smuggling the head of Orpheus out of revolutionary France and returning him to his Greek respite place, which is where Morpheus finds him at the end of “Brief Lives.” It’s probably more notable for the links to other issues of Sandman – Johanna lives at Wych Cross, for instance – but it’s still a pretty good tale. Woch uses those heavy inks to create a good mood of oppression, which, as it’s the height of the Terror, is a good thing. He’s good at facial expressions, too, and as this issue is partly about the ways men go mad, that’s a bonus. The way St. Just quotes Thomas Paine’s words back to him and becomes almost weaselly is well done, as is the sheer lechery on the faces of the citizen guards who accost Johanna early in the issue. Woch’s Robespierre is the “star” of the show, as he expresses all the contempt and megalomania that we expect from such a contradictory character. Woch probably used a painting of him for one panel (it looks close enough), and that’s Robespierre at his most statesmanlike, but he’s also conniving and vile, and his look of surprise when the guillotine comes down is priceless. Woch’s depictions of the state of Paris in 1794 is well done, too – the little details of the headless puppet show, for instance, or the pit of heads where Orpheus rests. A comic – or book, or movie, or television show – can never quite capture the essence of the past, because none of those media can convey smell, but Woch does a good job with the squalor of the 18th century, even among the upper classes. And he does get to show off with the beautiful double-page spread when Morpheus visits Johanna in dreams and gives her some advice. Woch sticks to his style, but he makes the dream far more ethereal than Johanna’s trying reality. It’s a good contrast, and it shows some spark in Woch’s pencils that isn’t always that evident.
Michael Zulli (6 issues).
Of all the artists who worked on Sandman, the one who went through the biggest change was probably Michael Zulli, at least within the pages of the series itself (Bachalo might make a case, but he didn’t return to the book after he changed his style so radically). Zulli’s first issue, “Men of Good Fortune,” is roughly inked by Steve Parkhouse, and while we can see some of the later Zulli style – most notably in some of the poses of the characters – it’s still not very similar to what he evolved into. He wasn’t yet 30 when he drew the issue and hadn’t been working in comics for too long (and mainly on Puma Blues), so it’s not surprising that his style was still raw. His work on Hob Gadling’s tale is still good, though, as he had to draw several styles over the centuries and show how Hob and Morpheus react to each other. Like a lot of Sandman issues, it’s a dense script, and Zulli does a good job getting it all in and laying out the page in an interesting manner – he moves the reader’s eye over the page quite well, even though he’s not necessarily using “traditional” grids. Zulli does some wonderful work in the issue – when, in 1689, Hob is destitute and Morpheus asks him if he wants to die, Zulli shows some of the old Gadling stubbornness shining through as he rejects the offer. Then, in 1889, we think the prostitute who propositions Morpheus is attractive until we see her straight on, and then Zulli breaks down the illusion and shows what a rough life hookers lead. Some of the issue is a bit too sketchy, but overall, it’s a fine contribution to the epic. Vozzo’s recoloring in the Absolute Edition dulls everything, naturally, and he makes “Lushing Lou” a bit less repulsive, but he does fill in some of the sketchiness of Zulli’s pencil work, which is interesting. Parkhouse probably has something to do with Zulli’s work looking a bit rougher than it would later – by the time of “The Wake,” Zulli was working solo, and he could adjust how the inks affected the pencils.
Zulli returned in issue #53 to draw “Hob’s Leviathan” – Gaiman must have liked how he drew Hob in issue #13 – this time inked by Dick Giordano. This came out over three years after issue #13, and the evolution of Zulli’s art is evident – he has a much finer line than in “Men of Good Fortune” and Giordano’s inks don’t toughen up the pencils as much as Parkhouse’s did. Giordano still adds a lot of hatching to Zulli’s fine pencils, and it’s interesting to note the differences in tone with “Men of Good Fortune” and “Hob’s Leviathan” – issue #13 is a bit more rough-and-tumble, as it’s taking place in an ale house and at different periods when things might be tough for the inhabitants, while issue #53 occurs on the high seas, so while the inks make Zulli’s pencils a bit rougher, there’s a sense of adventure that is lacking in “Men of Good Fortune.” Zulli’s refined style of “The Wake” would probably not work on this kind of story, and Giordano’s inks add just the right amount of “realism” – the sea serpent’s scales, for instance, are tough and scabby, making it far more of this world than finer art would convey.
Zulli, however, is more in charge here than he was in 1990. He adds some nice touches to the artwork, from the borders around Jim’s (or Peggy’s) recollections of his early life to the way he depicts the Indian’s story (is the Indian Pharamond? it seems likely). The story of the king and his wife is marvelously drawn, with Zulli choosing the perfect animals – elephant, cobra, and tiger – to anchor each page. Plus, of course, the sea serpent is wonderful. It’s a beautiful story, and Vozzo’s bright coloring is marvelous, too.
Issues #70-73 form “The Wake,” Gaiman’s introduction to Daniel as Dream Lord and the wrapping-up of the main story of the series. Zulli is back, this time inking himself, and only two years after “Hob’s Leviathan,” his art has evolved into what we recognize today. There’s a beautiful precision to the lines, and while Zulli adds plenty of hatching, it’s more precise and lighter than either Parkhouse’s or Giordano’s. The interesting thing about “The Wake” is that while Zulli is a good match for the tone of the story and he does a very good job with all the characters, he’s not quite as good with the Endless. They look too much like people, and it’s a bit disconcerting. Perhaps that’s the point, but it’s still odd. Delirium, in particular, looks too old and wise to be Delirium, but maybe, in mourning, she’s able to hold it together a bit more than usual. “The Wake” is, unsurprisingly, elegiac, and Zulli’s art fits that mood wonderfully – he is able to capture the many emotions of the characters as they speak to the unseen questioner in issue #71 – Calliope and Thessaly are particularly superbly captured – and in the speeches in issue #72. By this time, Zulli was able to bring a lushness to his work that had been missing in the earlier issues, and this makes “The Wake” less bleak than it might have been. Gaiman also allows him to draw Clark Kent, Batman, J’onn J’onzz, and even Darkseid at the funeral, which is rather nice. In issue #73, we get the epilogue to “The Wake,” in which Hob meets Death and has a nice conversation with her, then dreams of Morpheus and Destruction. Zulli is still as precise as ever, but he adds more hatching to contrast the “real” world with the Dreaming, and it’s nicely done. Vozzo colors the issues well – there’s a sepulchral brightness in the main story, while the Renaissance Fair in issue #73 is colored in a more pedestrian, “realistic” manner. In some ways, it’s as funereal as issues #70-72, but the setting, Zulli’s rougher pencils, and Vozzo’s colors make it more hopeful. Hob’s conversation with Death is lit only by a candle, but unlike the reliance on blues and grays in much of “The Wake,” this is a comforting yellow, burnishing the two participants with a nostalgic glow.
“The Wake” is yet another dense story, but Zulli’s style means that he’s able to delineate quite a bit without being too confusing, so Gaiman’s script is never too packed for the artwork. As we’ve already seen many times, it’s a fine combination of words and pictures, and it’s just another example of Gaiman finding the best artist for that particular story. Gaiman was really good at that!
I’m sure this tour through the artists of Sandman was tl;dr for a lot of you, but I hope some of you stuck it out. Sandman is a tremendous work of art, and while the writing is superb, too often Gaiman gets praised to the detriment of the fine artists who helped bring his vision to life. I hope this rectified that a bit, even though I’m not quite sure I’m able to write about art as well as some others could. But it was fun to try!
Sandman, of course, has been collected in several trades, and while the Absolute Editions are superb, I hope this post has shown that the recoloring really does change the tone of some of the artwork significantly. Even some of the coloring that Daniel Vozzo originally did was changed for the Absolute Editions, so it’s not like Vozzo only affected those issues he didn’t work on. Even if the coloring isn’t 100% perfect, the artwork remains an equal partner in the epic no matter what the colors look like. If you still haven’t read Sandman, it’s probably time to get to it, and if you re-read it anytime soon, I hope this post helps you look at it a bit differently.
Hey, take a look at the archives! I’m getting there!
[I linked to the first Absolute Edition below, because despite my issues with the recoloring, it really is a superb package and a wonderful way to read this comic. Obviously, there are many ways to read this comic – the trades are available, DC has published this in several different formats, and there’s an Annotated Version, too! Anyway, if you haven’t read Sandman yet, you really should. I mean, come on!]