Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman: Worlds' End
(DC Comics/Vertigo, 1994;
collected from The Sandman
issues 51-56, 1993)

Neil Gaiman is a storyteller, and a master at the art. The intricacy with which he has woven a tapestry of stories in the ongoing Sandman series is a credit to the craft; even when reading the entire series in one shot, it's hard to catch all the subtle threads and patterns which appear and reappear throughout the greater whole.

No volume in the collection proves this better than World's End. The book, which collects six short issues of the series, is a self-contained tapestry in its own right, a network of plots lines and characters which form a labyrinthian design. And yet, despite all of the elaborate, sometimes perplexing twists and turns, the threads never tangle and the story never falters.

The tale begins with a man driving from Seattle to Chicago. Beside him, sleeping, is a woman, a co-worker but not a friend, who's sharing the ride. Suddenly, despite the warm June night, it begins to snow. In the flurry of weather, a beast which shouldn't exist appears on the road, and the man swerves into a tree.

Injured only slightly, Brant carries his battered comrade in search of help. What he sees might have been taken for fireflies in a stand of scraggly trees, but a word from a helpful hedgehog sets him on the path to Worlds' End, a free house.

Inside the bustling inn, he finds a strangely mutable clientele, including persons from an assortment of times and places, many not of the reality we, and Brant for that matter, are familiar with. The physician who treats the injured Charlene, for instance, is a centaur. There's a party of pale undertakers from Litharge, a city concerned only with the rituals of death. The proprietress is, we suspect, a former Hindu goddess.

Everyone is there taking refuge from the storm, a sort of "reality storm" which has swept across all worlds. The price of the inn's hospitality is nothing but a story.

And stories there are, in plenty. The various characters at Brant's table tell theirs in turn, taking the reader into a variety of strange settings and adventures. But Gaiman didn't settle for a simple series of tales; no, that would be too mundane. Instead, readers will find stories within stories, tales told by the characters of other tales. Indeed, the entire volume turns out in the end to be a story told by Brant long after the events occurred.

Morpheus, or Dream, the Sandman whose series this is, appears only occasionally throughout, making rare incursions into various tales. The stories are so riveting that I didn't really miss him.

Taken individually, the stories are all fascinating. We learn of a man who slips into a city's dreams. Cluracan, an emissary of Faerie (whom we've met before in this series), relates his own adventures while on an embassy to the city of Aurelia, where the religious and civic leader is suspiciously one and the same, and where Cluracan pays the price for speaking truly and meets his sister in a dream. We meet "Jim," a young sailor from pre-World War I Australia, who meets a pair of interesting travelers on the ship Sea Witch, hears a tale of an ancient king (another story within a story), catches many fish and sees a creature of ocean legend.

Brant, wandering off on his own for a bit, is treated to a story about one of the worlds' many Americas. In this one, a young boy dreams of becoming president, and does, and he makes a difference in the job. Sounds dull? It's not. Plus, you'll love the cameos by the likes of Richard Nixon, DC hero Wildcat, John Belushi and a ubiquitous '70s icon, plus a would-be John Hinckley.

We'll also travel to the Necropolis Litharge for a tale of funeral rituals. During one such ritual we learn of an interesting food enhancement, and the participants swap stories. There's the hangman who wouldn't hang, the cheerful and hearty traveler (who tells his own story about the city's past -- a story within a story within a story within a story within a story, if I counted that right), and the funeral mistress who fled into a place she should have avoided, and who told her own stories for her apprentices' entertainment.

There are even threads leading beyond Worlds' End into the greater tapestry of the Sandman series. We meet "Hob" Gadling, an Englishman of Dream's acquaintance, aboard a sailing ship in the early 20th century. We catch a glimpse of his missing brother, Destruction, on his travels, and we are given a hint of the death of the first Despair, which was alluded to in an earlier volume. Death, as always, makes a few appearances, and the potent event which ends the storm provides foreshadowing to the Gaiman's plans for the future.

Each story is illustrated by a different artist (Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, Michael Zulli, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens and Gary Amaro), which gives each storyteller his or her own "voice." It's an effective tactic.

And Worlds' End is an amazing book. It doesn't matter if you like comic books or not; anyone who likes a good bit of storytelling should enjoy this immensely.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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