The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country
Writer: James Tynion IV
Artists: Lisandro Estherren, Yanick Paquette, Andrea Sorrentino, Francesco Francavilla, Dani, Aaron Campbell, Maria Llovet
Color Artists: Patricio Delpeche, Nathan Fairbairn, Jordie Bellaire, Francesco Francavilla, Tamra Bonvillain, Maria Llovet
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Reviewed by Steve J. Ray
The stunning Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country hardcover collected edition contains the complete first arc of the series, a gallery of all the main and variant covers, a haunting, yet beautiful dust-jacket cover by Alex Eckman-Lawn, plus a stunning hi-res print of the extremely rare 1:100 Death of the Endless cover, by Jenny Frison.
Here’s a brief synopsis from Penguin Random House:
Acclaimed writer James Tynion IV has waited his whole career to pay tribute to the mythos of The Sandman, the work that made him the writer he is today – and that time has come!
Designed to welcome new readers into one of the greatest worlds in DC’s library, The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country is a terrifying travelogue through a nation recognizable and obscene, which will show you things seen in no Sandman series ever before.
With spectacular art by Lisandro Estherren (Redneck, Strange Skies Over East Berlin) and “nightmare” sequences by comics art all-stars!
This volume collects The Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country #1-6.
This is a seriously good book and as strong a first volume as I could’ve wished for. James Tynion is one of the foremost horror writers in comics, and the incredible art teams who worked on this collection are as phenomenally talented as he is.
The main story, “Nightmare Country” is one of those tales that seem to bathe you in a slow, creeping, stream of horror that makes you feel like you’re drowning. Lisandro Estherren’s beautiful art then elevates that feeling because it’s the equivalent of sinking into sweet, delicious, but ultimately deadly honey.
The main protagonist is New York artist, Madison Flynn. She says she doesn’t dream anymore, but in waking hours she sees “The Smiling Man”, a golem-like lump of clay with three mouths, two of them where its eyes should be. When we meet her, Flynn isn’t the only person to see this creature, but she may well be the only one still alive. The duo behind the deaths of the other witnesses is hot on her trail, while the Corinthian, another nightmare with mouths for eyes, is even closer.
The reintroduction of the Corinthian sold me when Nightmare Country was first announced, as I’ve been enthralled by the character since their first appearance in Neil Gaiman’s original, legendary Sandman series. The way that this iteration of the nightmare has all the memories of the original, while they are separate entities and act and think differently, is masterfully handled.
The main antagonists, Mr. Agony and Mr. Ecstasy are ruthless, remorseless, savage assassins who thoroughly enjoy their work. It’s great that, at first, we wonder whether the two Misters are kin to The Corinthian or, even worse, just sick evil human beings (the real monsters). They’re also a loving tribute to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere characters, Messrs Croup, and Vandemar. Oh, and I’d love to be able to see all your faces when you find out who’s behind their killing spree!
The way that Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country comes across as a natural extension of Neil Gaiman’s classic series is wonderful and the appearance of other inhabitants of the Dreaming is also very welcome. The best part is that James Tynion is rewarding fans who have loved these stories for the last 30+ years, without alienating or baffling new readers.
We’re also treated to interludes in the first five chapters. I usually hate it when a comic is handled by more than one art team, but it really works within the structure of this particular narrative. These secondary “The Dreaming” stories, with art produced by different creative teams, tell the characters’ back story in gorgeous, original ways that don’t feel like an info dump or annoyingly intrusive exposition.
Anyone who knows me, or who regularly reads my reviews, knows that I’m a child of the Alan Moore era Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman epic, and all the Vertigo/DC Black Label books that followed. It’s clear that James Tynion feels the same way, and he cites The Sandman as being the reason he became a writer (See the trailer advertising the series at the bottom of this review and check out my interview with him here, or on YouTube).
Seeing Moore’s Boogey Man referenced (Swamp Thing Vol. 2, #44) alongside the Corinthian’s debut story (Sandman issues #9-16) made my heart leap with joy. Those classics, for me, were when comics grew up, so seeing these tales honored and expanded on is a delight.
The surreal quality of Lisandro Estherren’s art adds so much to the feel of this book and I don’t believe any ultra-realistic or even fully painted work would do the story as much justice. Estherren’s dream-like, cartoony style, coupled with haunting colors by Patricio Delpeche, all give readers a world that seems to be just on the wrong side of a cracked, cursed mirror.
Simon Bowland’s creative lettering also helps the nightmares sound inhuman and adds to the tension and drama. His reworking of the old “Dream Country” logo (Sandman volume three, issues #17-20, 1990, collected in book one of the new omnibus editions) is an evocative and brilliantly thoughtful plus.
Another wonderful aspect of this story is that the human characters are every bit as interesting as the dreams and nightmares that are invading their world. They’re deep, flawed, realistic, and sympathetic, which has already made me feel for them, and want to continue following their stories.
“The Cereal Convention” and “Chaste” side stories are a love letter to Neil Gaiman’s original, timeless, seminal Sandman run. We get to see more than one classic character from the original series other than the Corinthian too. The witch, Thessaly, is the star of the final chapter of the book, which leads straight into the follow-up series, Dead Boy Detectives. While she’s not a nice person, she’s a brilliant character.
The art and colors by Maria Lovet in the closing tale are similar enough in style to Estherren’s that they won’t jar readers, yet different enough that the story clearly feels like a new chapter in the ongoing series. The way she colors outside the lines adds a level of oddness and nostalgia that puts you on edge, while also reminding you of a more innocent, Ben-Day Dots era of years gone by. It’s very effective indeed.
Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country is about as good a graphic novel as anyone could ask for. It delivers shocks, horror, betrayal, violence, and dark fantasy at the highest level. This book will happily sit on the same shelf as my Sandman originals because it’s more than worthy.
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House. Images Courtesy of DC Entertainment.
Sandman Universe: Nightmare Country comes out on April 4th – ISBN: 9781779518415