Bitter Suite Symphony

I was waiting until I had received and read my copy of Sandman: Endless Nights to reply to Brons message and I should have written the first part of the review last week but……..

WARNING!!! Following review contains trips down memory lane.

I didn’t see the CNN piece but it brought home to mind how little we see this kind of review on British television. Can you imagine some of the Late Night panel being given a graphic novel to review? Tom Paulin might be ok with it, but the thought of Germaine Greer frantically scrubbing her hands after being made to touch one makes me go cold. But it doesn’t have to be like this. As proven in the column written by Julie Birchill, all it takes is that one graphic. The one that will disprove all the prejudices that you’ve ever had about comics and turn you into a life-long reader (I’ve read the Louis books she likes and whilst I don’t think much of them I can’t fault her love of Daniel Clowes or Terry Moore).

This was the way I began to read comics again. I’d always read comics since a child but with a limited distribution and few places to buy (mention where you bought American comics to any fellow reader in my hometown and they’ll always tell you they bought them at the same place), it had fallen by the wayside. Even after finding the early Odyssey 7 shop in Manchester all I would go in for would be the latest Dr.Who mags and the Titan reprints of 2000AD. I would totally bypass all their comics. That was until I saw the collected edition of The Dark Knight Returns on their counter, “This looks different” says I, buys a copy and that was it. I was totally blown away by the art and storyline and then started seeking out any magazine that mentioned it. Which in turn led me to finding out about stuff like Elektra: Assassin, Watchmen, Moonshadow, Cerebus etc. I was hooked again, so Kat and all of you can blame Frank Miller.

Publishers don’t help themselves in the way they promote their wares though. When was the last time you saw an ad for any graphic or comic-book in any male or female lifestyle magazines? Advertising in the trade magazines is all very well, but it’s a limited market and only leads to an incestuous relationship that goes round and round until it eats itself. Publishers need to make their books more well-known. Having sell-out movies doesn’t help very much if most bookshops treat the source material with disdain and contempt and as for comic-book shops, well………

I must declare an interest here as me and Kat used to own a comic-book shop. I had set out from the very beginning to make it as different to most comic-book shops as was possible and in this I felt we had succeeded quite well. In the first place I modeled it upon ordinary bookshops so that first-time browsers wouldn’t feel intimidated upon entering what was (to them) a different world. The shelves were all wood, everything was in alphabetical order (except the back issues which first went by publisher, then alphabetically), I kept the place clean and smelling good (except when the boiler played up. More on this later), it was well lit and although I did have a stereo no thrash or heavy metal music was allowed. The shop was geared towards selling graphic novels more than comics but I usually had about a hundred new monthly titles there every week. It was small and could get crowded, but it was in a good small mall-type place with one of the best independent bookshops in the town right next door whom I had good relations with.

All this, when I first opened, I expected to be

A: a gold-mine (I’m altruistic, not stupid)

B: a better service to the comic-book reading public

C: a good place to meet girls (this one was immediately proven to be unrealistic as I already had a partner and female readers were then a bit thin on the ground. A complete change to now apparently, as surveys have shown a lot of readers to be female. Although I am proud to say that we did have quite a few women customers who kept on returning).

I made a lot of mistakes in the first year of opening and they did have long-term repercussions, but I was new to all this and as of then there was no manual to running a comic-book shop. I managed to piss off one of the distributors, and whilst that wasn’t an immediate problem by the time of the distributor wars, and they were the only ones left standing, it was. I opened my mouth to somebody whom I thought was a fellow reader that I was opening a shop only to discover that he then went and opened another across the road from me and started slagging me off to his customers whenever he got the chance (in all honesty and truth, his shop really was a bad one. He wasn’t that interested in selling comics and had limited knowledge about them, but that didn’t stop him from ripping off his customers). Comic-book retail is still a cut-throat business and you’ll receive no help from any other shop if you tell them you’re about to open one. Instead, expect a knife in the back or at the very worst stealing your stock (the tales I could tell about some in the North-West).

The worst mistake of all though was my location, and here I’m not talking about the site but the town. The town I was in likes to think it somewhat metropolitan and worldly. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has a bad reputation and one recent survey should have had the town council resigning enmasse. It nearly reached city status during the early eighties but today its nothing but a town centre full of bars and nightclubs (with all the attending rubbish and vomit) , very little for the kids to do, and is, on the whole, just a shit-tip. Unfortunately for me, this also meant that few people in the town knew what a comic-book shop was and here’s just some of the questions I got asked weekly (even though I had a big sign saying what the shop was and although I didn’t have a window the door and the entry passage was full of comic-book posters):

“Do you do tattoos?” (No, we’re a comic-book shop)

“Are you a joke shop?” (No, we’re a comic-book shop)

“Do you do computer games?” (No, we’re a comic-book shop)

“Do you have any wrestling stuff?” (No, we’re a comic-book shop)

“Do you buy second-hand books?” (No we’re a comic-book shop)

“I’ve got a copy of Superman/Bat-Man/Spider-Man #1 in my loft” (Yeah, sure you have)

“Have you got anything with dragons/elves/fairies/monsters/girls with big breasts/big guns/girls with big breasts AND big guns ’cause I want something like that to either copy, rip-off for my student thesis, or have a tattoo done of?” (No comment).

And the biggie

“Do you do porn?”

This one was a particular bug-bear of mine. A lot of comic-book shops will supplement their income with skin-mags and videos and I’ve always hated that. I wanted an environment that children and their parents, plus women could feel welcome and comfortable in. Now comics encompass all types of genre and that includes sex. There are a lot of comics about sex and if I could I would have sold them (altruistic, not stupid, remember?). I would have made sure that they were bagged correctly and not been opened in full view. Common sense would have told me to be careful who to sell them to and whilst a lot of the sex comics out there are horrible misogynistic trash I would have hoped that my taste would have weeded them out and got the good ones in (believe it or not there are plenty of good and funny ones out there. Some of my favorites are: Omaha the Cat Dancer (a soap-opera style story. Tragically cut short when the writer and artist fell out). Black Kiss by Howard Chaykin (clichéd story about silent movie stars being vampires, but a good Elmore Leonard feel and atmosphere). Ironwood by Bill Willingham (sword and fantasy) and Slut Girl by Isutoshi (a very unfortunate title, but the story is funny and the female protagonist goes against all the usual expectations of her. I’d go into more detail but Kat wants to keep this a family friendly site so if you want to know more you’ll have to e-mail me), but customs and the distributors prevented this and so it goes. I had no truck with those who wanted me to sell skin or contact mags and I’m very pleased to have done so.
But, after eight long years of struggling I and Kat felt that enough was enough. The town and its situation wasn’t going to get any better and with the book shop closing down (very sad as it had been there since the early eighties, but with the abandonment of the N.E.T. agreement and a Waterstones opening in the centre it couldn’t cope), the tiny mall starting to become derelict with uncaring landlords (the boiler incident I mentioned earlier? Sometimes when I would open the shop it used to smell of shit and I’d think that the drains were playing up (plus we had rats in the walls). What it was was the boiler that heated my part of the complex was faulty and had been giving off carbon monoxide ever since I’d moved in. Didn’t find this out till the very end of my tenancy and it was too late by then as the complex had been swiftly sold on), plus a huge stock theft one night and that was it. Kats star had been on the up and up so we decided to move to MK and the hope of a quieter and simpler life (yeah, right )

I felt very sad to leave my customers and leave them in the tender mercies of the crappy shop that opened in my place (he does do porn, plus second hand records plus…oh why go on. It’s a bad shop), but on the whole I and Kat were very proud of it and wished it could have done better. Even though I say so myself it was a model for what a comic-book shop should be like and I received many comments that it was one of the best in the whole of the North, that and others like it may not seem much but it mattered to me.

Anyway, after all that, its time for the review

If you thought that the above was a bit melancholic then that’s all to the good as The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman and various (published by Vertigo/DC comics) is full of it. There’s an overwhelming sense of loss to each of the stories and Gaiman and the artists play upon the strength of this to create something that is at once both delicate and beautiful.

This is Gaimans first full-time revisit to his creation for a while and whilst towards the end of its regular run The Sandman was starting to feel stretched out, here it proves again how different it was in style and content. The short one-off stories for The Sandman have always been some of Gaimans best and here we have ones on the same level as Ramadan or A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Each tale is about one of the Endless and on the whole the quality is superb with a few reservations.

P.Graig Russell’s art on Deaths tale is delicate, full of meaning and humor (the reaction of the virgins when they learn of their fate). The story goes to prove that Death will take as long as it needs to do her duty. In the end she will claim us all.

Milo Manara is one my most favorite European artists and on Desire he brings his exquisite and sexy depictions of women and men with him. Gaiman uses the old age device of having the main character talk to the reader to great effect and goes to show how getting what you desire can prove costly.

Of the pre-reviews I’ve seen for the book the most criticisms have been leveled at Miguelanxo Prados’ art for Dreams Tale: Heart of a Star. Whilst it’s not to everyone’s taste I quite like it. The depiction of our own Sol as a young, clumsy but well-meaning star is very touching and funny. Strangely enough this is the most continuity-ridden of all the tales. It’s easy to forget now and then that The Sandman is rooted in the DC Universe and for those not conversant with it, some of the knowing meanings will be missed and wonder what going on. The female planet and love of Dream is the planet Oa and we see her at the beginning playing with a green flame wondering what she can do with it. Even funnier is the first representation of Despair talking to the Red Giant Rao and telling him what a great piece of conceptual art it would be to give life to an inherently unstable planet that will, one day, blow up. Even better. To let one survivor to escape so that it will remember, mourn and despair (it doesn’t exactly turn out like that). The fact that Gaiman asks Prado to make Despair look like a fat Tracey Emin makes the dig all the more insulting. We also see in this tale Delight before she turned into Delirium and how even powerful creatures like suns and the universe are uncomfortable when Death appears amongst them.

Despair: Fifteen Portraits of Despair by Barron Storey, designed by Dave McKean is the most amazing piece in the book. With art that compares with Lucian Freud I would love to see these in a gallery somewhere full size. Uncomfortable reading in the fact that we have all at some time stared into the mirror and seen Despair looking back at us.

Delirium needed an artist like Bill Sienkiwicz to illustrate it, but I wish he’d gone just a little further as he did with his own Stray Toasters book. Full of color and fish it’s the latest Sandman story with the now new representation of Dream, Daniel, coming to the aid of his sister Delirium with the help of some of her crazies. Hard to read at the beginning with all its (on purpose) fragmentation, it comes together in the end combining with a nice juxtaposition of Deliriums state of mind and rescue.

Destructions tale by Glenn Fabry has the most comic-book style feel in the book and it fails because of this. After all that has gone before it, it seems pedestrian and clichéd. I’ve never rated Fabry that much and Gaimans moral that if you seek destruction it will find you has been better told in Brief Lives. Ok but nothing special.

The final and seemingly smallest piece is Destiny. But this is the best piece in the book. Simple and short with gorgeous art by an artist not generally known for it, all it does is describe Destiny and his role as he walks around his garden, book in hand. Frank Quitelys art is understated and if given the choice of being given either a piece from this story or Storeys I’d go for anything from this.

So that’s it. Beautifully presented with the right type of lettering from Todd Klein. Well recommended but it does help if you know The Sandman universe and remember that it’s only a part of what must be now an on-going work. The CNN review says that compared to Gaimans “literary” work it is slight, but The Sandman is Gaimans longest work and the one he is most proud of. That’s the kind of attitude a lot more comic-book writers could do with.

The Sandman: Endless Nights is available from most good comic-book shops, in hardback, priced £18.95.

Ninja Beaver Head
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