Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was, is, and forever will be the greatest comic book series. I exaggerate, but there’s little doubt to how influential and great the series was. Here was a comic series that felt literary and weighty, a tale with impressive world building, and above all establishing its own mythology. Just reading an issue of The Sandman felt like an entering a whole new world.
While the series had an overarching story, Sandman worked best as a collection of short stories, each having their own idiosyncrasies and narrative thrusts. My favorite story from the series came from the Dream County collection, involving William Shakespeare putting on a production of A Midnight Summer’s Dream for an unlikely audience. That was what was so great about what Gaiman was doing. He wasn’t afraid to tackle on Shakespeare, nor any other fable or myth. Sandman was a tapestry of sorts, collecting far reaching tales and making a new work out of the stray pieces.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Gaiman’s post series one-off The Sandman: The Dream Hunters takes the form of a Japanese folklore. Nor is it a surprise how well Gaiman pulls off the narrative, convincingly concocting a tale of haunting myths and evocative yearning. At once both timeless and refreshing, you won’t find another comic writer out there who can pull off such a feat.
But it would be mistake to call Dream Hunters a comic. Yes, it was printed by DC Vertigo and yes, it has illustrations (which are amazing in their own right–but more on that later) but the tale is delivered through prose, with illustrations accompanying on adjoining pages. The tale, while technically a novella, feels more like a fable from an old book.
The story is simple enough. In a feudal Japan, there lives a monk in a secluded temple, all by himself. One day a badger and a fox stumble upon him and make a wager over who can drive the monk out of his temple. Both creatures use magic in an attempt to frighten and persuade the monk. The badger turns into a man, the fox into a gang of demons, but their efforts prove futile. The monk drives the badger off in fear but discovers that the fox has fallen in love with him. Later, the fox hears of a plot to have the monk killed brought a series of dreams. To save his life, the fox makes a deal to catch his dreams and sacrifice herself.
Anyone familiar with the original series will find this tale right at home with the myth building and evocative aura that surrounds Gaiman’s prose. What makes the tale so great is that it eschews a traditional plot and instead feels like an old tale from long generations ago. Gaiman even made a claim in the afterword that the story is adapted from a story in Rev. B. W. Ashton’s Fairy Tales of Old Japan. He later conceded the tale was entirely original, but it’s a testament to its fairy tale quality that people would believe this, myself included.
But attributing all of The Dream Hunter‘s success would be a disgrace to Yoshitaka Amano. At once both graceful and poetic, his watercolor illustrations compliment the times quality of the narrative, evoking a dreamlike state that invites the reader into the setting, and allows them to feel the story in a more emotional way.
His artwork isn’t realistic like a comic book, but rather something you’d see hanging up in an art museum. The illustrations are striking in their muted colors and and clashing figures. They also have the aura of a dream, haunting and evocative. You could easily mistake them for an ancient Japanese artwork–that’s how removed they are from any modern art. This further reinforces the antique narrative of the tale.
All that I say, however, can’t do justice the work as a whole. The Dream Hunters, like any other great Sandman tale, must be experienced with a worn spine and a candle light, preferably alone. Like a dream that defies logic, you’ll get lost in a narrative that takes you to unexpected places but yet still feel like Earth. It’s what makes The Dream Hunters great literature. And all the more rewarding.