Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman

The Kindly Ones, three powerful beings also known as the Furies. They have the power to even harm the Endless, if they should be summoned to do so by a mortal with a just grievance...and if that member of the Endless has spilled the blood of one of their own family. When Lyta Hall's young son Daniel goes missing, she blames Dream and calls upon the Kindly Ones for aid. When they agree - for Dream has the blood of his own son on his hands - a sequence of events is set in motion which will profoundly change everything.

The Kindly Ones is the ninth of the Sandman graphic novels and is also the largest. It is a sustained storyline, originally published across thirteen issues of the title's original comics run. It was also deliberately written by Neil Gaiman to be read as a single graphic novel, a decision that provoked the ire of some readers of the comic who felt that many of the individual issues failed to satisfy when taken on their own merits. However, read as a single story it becomes clear that The Kindly Ones may be the strongest of The Sandman's long storylines.

The Kindly Ones takes no prisoners. Previously, Gaiman was careful to reintroduce older characters in a way that newer readers would still be able to follow and enjoy what was going on. He has no truck with that here, instead pulling together dozens of characters and narrative strands from earlier issues and collections. These storylines include: the aftermath of Dream's slaying of his son Orpheus, Delirium's acquisition of a talking dog named Barnabas; the saga of Lyta Hall and her infant son Daniel; the relationship between Dream and the witch Thessaly; the retirement of Lucifer as Lord of Hell and his vow to destroy Dream; Desire's long-standing ire with his/her brother; the adventures of the faerie lord Cluracan and his sister Nuala; the resurrection of the Corinthian; the misadventures of Rose Walker; and numerous subplots involving the inhabitants of the Dreaming, including Cain and Abel, the raven Matthew, the librarian Lucien and handyman Mervyn. It's a challenging juggling act which Gaiman pulls off with skill, by drawing the various narratives together in often surprising ways. The story also revisits the very beginnings of The Sandman, with the manor house where Dream spent seventy years imprisoned figuring prominently.

As well being a feast for continuity lovers, the collection also delivers its own thematic arc: this is a Greek tragedy, pure and simple. Events build slowly and with growing intensity towards an ending that is not actually that inevitable, but only becomes so when the Sandman refuses to allow himself to deviate from what he sees as his own responsibilities and obligations. A key theme referred to throughout the comics, but much more prevalent here, is that the Sandman used to be far too rigid for his own good, but has changed since his imprisonment by humans. The Kindly Ones shows how far he has changed...and how far he has to go. As a result, The Kindly Ones offers the most insight into the character of Dream himself, even when he is not actually on the page. Other characters are also well-served, with even minor players from earlier issues getting moments to shine.

The art style in the collection has attracted a lot comment. It's an interesting choice, giving the largest and most coherent Sandman storyline the most stylised and perhaps 'weird' art style in the history of the series. The juxtaposition of the heavy drama and odd art style actually works well, with the art tying in well with the more oddball moments of the story (such as Cluracan giving birth to his own nemesis).

The Kindly Ones (*****) is Neil Gaiman at the top of his game, delivering the rich and powerful climax (though not the conclusion) that The Sandman deserves. The collection is available now in the UK and USA, and as part of The Absolute Sandman, Volume IV (UK, USA).


Roland said...

It is indeed the best storyline of the Sandman series, but I don't agree with you on the art.
It is just awful! The absolute worst art of the entire series and I think it does harm to a story that is otherwise almost perfect in every aspect.
I cannot understand how Gaiman chose this for his biggest and most important storyline.

GunMetalBlue said...

@Roland: I'm pretty sure DC chose the artist, not Gaiman...especially not so early in his career.

Adam Whitehead said...

According to The Sandman Companion, by this point Gaiman had a lot of say in it. When THE KINDLY ONES started in 1994, the comic had been going for six years and had been a smash hit success for most of that time, so Gaiman had more power by that point.

Slack Bladder said...

The Kindly Ones is probably my favourite Sandman collection. It brings together everything that Gaiman had so carefully constructed over the entire series. It's beautifully plotted and, when I first read it, I found it almost unbearable to watch Dream tread the lonely path of his own destruction.

And I completely agree with you on the artwork. It works brilliantly with Gaiman's text.

Greg said...

Best arc, worst art. A complete disaster. People tolerates it because the story and to avoid critice the comic itself. Without that It will be even more despised.