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Friday 24 October 2003

Dark, Silly, and Endless Nights

  • Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night..., edited by Art Spiegelman & Françoise Mouly (HarperCollins/RAW Junior, 2003)

  • The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman et al (Vertigo/DC Comics, 2003)

  • Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

In 2000, I reviewed the first Little Lit anthology by editors Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly and, despite its superlative design, found it a condescending and patronizing collection of stories that sneered at its intended audience. Ostensibly for children, it was redolent of false nostalgia and seemed utterly irrelevant and outdated: a crotchety adult's idea of what children would enjoy. I never even glanced at the second volume in the series, but I decided to give the third a read to see if things had changed.

Much to my surprise and delight, they had. It Was a Dark and Silly Night... is admirably enchanting and fun. The concept this time around is to fashion a story around the title — hence, almost every story has the same title. And there's no denying the earnest passion that suffuses this book.

Once again, the package itself is beautiful: a stylish cover by Spiegelman, playfully chaotic endpapers by Martin Handford, classically elegant design by Mouly, — and eye-grabbing artwork by an impressive array of cartoonists and illustrators.

The first story, by Lemony Snicket and Richard Sala, is an amusing fairy-tale gothic take on the legend of the Yeti. J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh provide a gorgeously illustrated tale of greed and penguins; alas, the all too obvious script didn't measure up to the wonderful graphics. Next up is a one-page farcical game by Tony Millionaire aimed at the very young; again, with beautiful art. William Joyce provides an outlandishly pulpish homage to Winsor McKay. Neil Gaiman and Gahan Wilson take some fun-loving kids to a ghoulish party that enthusiastically lives up to the "silly" of the title. The editors found a classic 1952 science-fiction farce by legendary weirdo cartoonist Basil Wolverton that fit their theme quite nicely; great stuff, and it's nice to see some of Wolverton's more obscure material being reprinted. Joos Swarte, in a visual style heavily influenced by Hergé, creates a robustly energetic goofball comedy. The anthology then runs out of steam a little bit with the next three contributions: Carlos Nine's rambling and choppy faux fairy tale; Kaz's unfunny and stiff comedy (although Kaz must be applauded for the relentlessness of his visual gags); and Barbara McClintock's humorless "find the differences" diptych. Things pick up with the book's penultimate selection, Patrick McDonnell's playfully naive watercolor tone poem. It Was a Dark and Silly Night... ends with the book's third game, "Make Your Own Dark and Silly Tale" by R. Sikoryak, a fun activity for adults to share with beginning readers.

All that said, this third Little Lit book still carries a slight whiff of postmodern snottiness, as if the editors couldn't bring themselves to present stories that weren't aware of themselves as fiction - as if they thought that fiction that believes in itself is somehow embarrassing. There were some exceptions this time around (notably, the Gaiman/Wilson collaboration), but I think that a few more unabashedly thrilling tales thrown into the mix would enliven this series.

Most of the pieces here are quite good, but taken together they produce a slightly off-putting aura of self-conscious formalism that distracts from the fun. Compared to the first volume, It Was a Dark and Silly Night... is an immense improvement, but I'd like to see this series loosen up a bit more. I'd like it to give itself up entirely to its premise. It's getting closer, and certainly Little Lit has become an intriguing endeavor, but this series is such a great concept — reclaiming, with high-quality anthologies, the comics medium for young readers — that it's a bit frustrating to see it not fully live up to its potential.

Neil Gaiman's popular comics series The Sandman ran from 1988 to 1996. It ended not because of cancellation due to poor sales, as is usually the case with American comics, but because the writer had reached the end of the story he wanted to tell.

More than any monthly comics series in recent decades, The Sandman captured the attention of the world outside the comics ghetto: it won fantasy awards, was the subject of magazine articles, was collected in trade paperbacks that sold briskly both in and outside of the comics market, and so on. It was a zeitgeist series that, with its darkly garbed, pale-skinned supernatural protagonists, easily appealed not only to the widespread Goth scene of the 1990s but also to a still-growing general audience. Building on the critical success of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Gaiman took a similar approach: lyrical, text-heavy narratives, stories rich with cultural allusions of all kinds, the combination of intimate character pieces with epic mythmaking.

The Sandman was the story of Morpheus, or Dream, of the seven Endless siblings (whose names all begin with the letter "D"). In Endless Nights, Gaiman revisits this family, telling seven new stories that, respectively, focus on each sibling. As revealed in Gaiman's introduction, his publisher successfully wooed him into writing this sequence of stories by assembling a dream team of international cartoonists with whom Gaiman couldn't resist collaborating.

"Death and Venice" spotlights the second most popular Endless sibling, the Goth wet dream Death. Illustrated by P. Craig Russell — who had also illustrated one of the most arresting issues of The Sandman, the Arabian Nights-flavored "Ramadan" (#50) — it poignantly blends history and fantasy. Russell's skillful penchant for outré fairy tales provides an ideal atmosphere for this decadent tale of a group of eighteenth-century revelers who cheat Death for a hundred and fifty years.

The Italian superstar of erotic comics Milo Manara illustrates Desire's story, "What I've Tasted of Desire". Robustly lustful, garishly violent, and tenderly bittersweet, this medieval period piece evokes decadent historical films such as Bertrand Tavernier's Que la fête commence... and Ken Russell's The Devils — and is a superlative addition to the canon of decadent historicals.

Dream himself is the protagonist of "The Heart of a Star", illustrated by Miguelanxo Prado. This is the collection's jewel. A decadent masterpiece in the tradition of Michael Moorcock's Legends from the End of Time, it tells of a gathering of archetypal entities at the dawn of time. It works beautifully as strange and mythic fantasy, but DC Comics aficionados will get even more pleasure out of it. It's a tenderly painful melodrama of romantic dreams gone awry that mythologizes in the most awesomely grandiose way the very foundations of the DC Universe — without ever explicitly revealing that it's doing so. But the clues are in plain sight for those in the know. It's the most poignant piece in the book, and also the one most imbued with unabashed sense of wonder.

Despair's "Fifteen Portraits of Despair" — with graphics by Barron Storey and Dave McKean — is a series of unsatisfying vignettes. I found them overly wordy, and the pseudo-Bill Sienkiewicz expressionistic artwork failed to resonate with me. In addition, the whole structure seemed somewhat gratuitous. Perhaps I was waiting for a payoff that simply was not intended.

Following his imitators, Bill Sienkiewicz himself tackles Delirium's "Going Inside". This is an overly confusing tale of kidnapping and mental withdrawal whose ultimate meaning escaped my grasp.

Destruction stars in "On the Peninsula". Destruction — with his sister Delirium (who, in ages past, used to be known as Delight) in tow, contemplates changing his name and nature while the US government investigates a peninsula whose hills contain debris and artefacts from various possible futures. The art here is somewhat flat and uninspired — i.e., unlike the art in all the other stories, it does not attempt to visually convey the nature of its Endless protagonist — and while the ideas and characters are all interesting, "On the Peninsula" nevertheless feels underdeveloped, like a sketchy first draft rather than a fully realized tale.

The most visually beautiful piece in the book is Destiny's "Endless Nights", with artwork by Frank Quitely. Unfortunately, the story is an overly simplistic, predictable, and pedantic exploration of predestination and doesn't really tell a story. Gorgeous to look at, though.

Decadence seems to bring out the best in Gaiman, as the three strongest selections are the first three — Death, Desire, and Dream — all of which explore decadent themes in different ways: the libertine selfishness of "Death and Venice", the orgiastic excesses of "What I've Tasted of Desire”, the wry postmodern ennui of "The Heart of a Star".

It's quite evident that, in this book, Gaiman consciously attempted to create tales suited to the widely divergent styles of his collaborators. In that regard, the results are impressive. Despite the fact that these stories all share the same writer, they are told in seven different styles and voices — but not so disparate as to not form a whole. It's an enchantingly complex whole, but a whole nevertheless. Gaiman's ambitions were high, and he may not have succeeded in all of them, but when he does hit the right note the results are fabulous and memorable. All in all, The Sandman: Endless Nights is a fascinating mosaic exploring Neil Gaiman's personal corner of the DC Universe.

Addendum, 26 October:

It has come to my attention that, in my review of The Sandman: Endless Nights, I too off-handedly characterize Barron Storey as being an "imitator" of Bill Sienkiewicz. Perhaps that word is a bit strong, but I do stand by its intention in this context, although I could have, and should have, phrased things differently. While Sienkiewicz learned from Storey, Sienkiewicz, as a cartoonist and not simply an illustrator, innovated by incorporating that style -- along with several other styles -- in a bold new approach to comics storytelling. Storey, whose work and accomplishments I do not mean to disparage or overlook in any way, only came to sequential cartooning after Sienkiewicz paved the way in comics such as Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, and Daredevil: Love and War. I apologize for not being clearer in the review itself.

Claude Lalumière edited three 2003 anthologies: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic, Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk. His criticism is featured regularly in The Montreal Gazette, Black Gate, Flesh & Blood, and Infinity Plus. He's the editor and publisher of the webzine Lost Pages. In Autumn 2003, his fiction will appear in Intracities, On Spec, and the final issue of Fiction Inferno.

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