A monk, a fox and the King of Dreams

Wednesday, June 18. 2008

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
Neil Gaiman/ Yoshitaka Amano
Vertigo 1999
128 p.

I have a confession to make. Before reading The Sandman: The Dream Hunters I had never read anything by Neil Gaiman. As Fashion so accurately remarked a while ago, it is a shame. I am aware of it and I ought to feel dreadful about it, even more so as my favourite geek owns a copy of many of his books and I would perfectly be able to name most of them. But you know the saying „So many books, so little time“ and so it came that The Dream Hunters, which I purchased in Sweden at my beloved SF Bokhandeln, was my first Gaiman. „But why?“, you probably wonder, dear readers, „didn't you pick the first volume of the Sandman series instead? It would have been more logical, if you really wanted to discover the Sandman-world.“ So true, so true, dear readers, it is a excellent question to which I can provide a simple answer. I'm extremely sensitive to artwork and colours and, as much as I like many mangaka and French or Belgian bande dessinée illustrators, I've always disliked the combination of realistic lines and primary or flashy colours so often encountered by artists of the American comic tradition. Of course, there are exceptions – such as Bill Watterson for instance, whose work I truly love – but the illustrators who worked on The Sandman unfortunately don't belong to them. „And what is so different about The Dream Hunters?“, you probably want to ask next. Well, first it is an illustrated novella rather than a graphic novel, and it is illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, who is Japanese and whose artwork I enjoy very much. And it is a spin-off, which can be read on its own without any further knowledge of the series, and it is inspired by Japanese folktales, which particularly appealed to me.

The Dream Hunters tells the story of a young Buddhist monk living a quiet life on a mountainside until a fox and a badger make a wager and try to make him leave his temple so that either the fox or the badger can take it over. But tricking the monk isn't an easy task and so it sometimes happens that the trickster somehow gets tricked as well. The monk and the fox, who has the ability to metamorphose into a beautiful young woman, thus fall in love with each other and the badger eventually has to give up. But when the fox finds out that a powerful onmyōji, a master of divination and magic, and a prophecy threaten the life of the young monk, she decides to go ask for the King of All Night's Dreaming's help and to sacrifice herself for him. I won't give you any further details about the plot as I wouldn't like to spoil it for you.

Neil Gaiman has written an exquisite and enchanting Kunstmärchen („a literary fairy tale“ as opposed to Volksmärchen „folktale“, which isn't the work of one person in particular but the product of oral tradition) about fear, love, fate, revenge and dreams. In his afterword to The Dream Hunters he claimed that he had retold a Japanese legend but later stated that it actually was a story of his own invention. Be as it may, this novella does blend traditional elements of the folktale such a linear narrative and the three attempts of the fox and and the badger to trick the monk into abandoning his temple with more modern ones like the ambiguous character of the King of All Night's Dreaming and the motivation for the onmyōji's actions. The fox and the badger themselves are two of the most important legendary creatures of Japanese folklore – kitsune and tanuki, actually a raccoon dog rather than a badger –, who often play the role of tricksters, and fox spirits are indeed known to transform into beautiful young women.

But Neil Gaiman isn't the only one who combines traditional and personal elements here, so does Yoshitaka Amano as well. While most of his pictures clearly are influenced by Japanese woodcut prints and brush painting, others reminded me of Gustave Moreau, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac or Gustav Klimt – who themselves have drawn part of their inspiration from Japanese art –, some are quite abstract and gothic fashion seem to have played a important role in the King's design (just like other depictions of Morpheus in the regular Sandman series). His chromatic range varies widely from bright orange and red tones over light blue, green and pink shades to deep browns. He also uses a lot of gold, black and white. As far as the technique is concerned, most illustrations are either watercolour paintings or charcoal drawings, which probably explain why even the most detailed ones remain so fluid. Yoshitaka Amano's artwork is sophisticated, suggestive and gorgeous and he was definitely the ideal artist for such an illustration job.

The tone of the story is a tragic yet strangely calm one and Neil Gaiman's elegant and evocative prose manages to convey all the otherworldliness of the setting without becoming confusing or unsteady. Add to this the enigmatic beauty of Yoshitaka Amano's sumptuous illustrations and you get a timeless and entrancing but sad love story.

I'm well aware of the fact that it probably wasn't a „classical“ introduction to Neil Gaiman's work, but I nonetheless took great pleasure in reading The Dream Hunters and do intend to read further books by this author (Fragile Things, his short-stories collection, could be a good second step).

N.B.: This book is definitely an evening companion and it probably would have been wiser to wait until autumn to enjoy it fully, but oh well, one can't always have everything (I can already schedule a re-reading for september or october though). And I would suggest Tōru Takemitsu's In An Autumn Garden as an appropriate musical accompaniment.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters is published by Vertigo (DC Comics).
Neil Gaiman also has a blog and Yoshitaka Amano a website with lots of pictures of his wonderful art.

Fascinating artwork and sad story: a jewel!

Thursday, December 27. 2007

The Rabbits
Shaun Tan, John Marsden
Simply Read Books, 2003
32 p.

Here it comes, dear readers: my first post-Christmas book review! Today I'd like to tell you about a fabulous picture book, The Rabbits, by Shaun Tan (pictures) and John Marsden (text), which my favourite geek presented me with. Don't get mislead by the label „picture book“, dear readers, for this isn't really children's literature – though the book has been categorized as such; more about it on Shaun Tan's website. The Rabbits deals indeed with a political issue in a sublime and poetic yet hard way and is therefore a most suitable reading for adults.

This book is an allegory of the colonisation of Australia with all the changes and the devastation it involved, the rabbits playing here their own part as well as the white men's. The story is recounted from the point of view of the colonised people, some marsupial species (probably numbats), in a few pages, from the first contact to the final question „Who will save us from the rabbits?“. Both the surrealistic pictures and the minimalistic text explore and show the depth of these creatures' sorrow and how their land methodically gets alienated by the rabbits. This tale is immensely sad but the way it is told is incredibly beautiful.

Shaun Tan's art is amazing, a work of pure sophistication yet never overloaded. To me, it seems like a mixture of Dalí's extravagant and Magritte's more serene surrealism – and de Chirico's pre-surrealism – with some elements rather remembering of Odilon Redon's mysterious symbolism, Edvard Munch's wild expressionism and Tim Burton's dark grotesque and a touch of Asian and Oceanian traditional art. It's a strange yet bewitching and unique art, exquisitely painted and coloured and masterly composed, and I love it!

John Marsden reduced his text to the core, using only short and simple sentences, which creates a interesting contrast with the very detailed pictures. In this book there is however no fight between picture and word; on the contrary, they are closely intertwined with each other. So much indeed that the handwritten and skillfully placed words are parts of the pictures.

I would recommend The Rabbits to anybody, but especially to art lovers and those looking for an original approach of colonisation. Shaun Tan has also made other books, which all seemed to be as beautiful as this one and which I'm eager to discover :-D. For more information on Shaun Tan and his work, check out his wonderfully illustrated website.

The Rabbits is published by Simply Read Books.

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