Review by Karl Verhoven
Fables and Reflections is a series of individual tales with no connecting in-world thread other than Morpheus, Dream himself. Even that’s rather tenuous in a couple of cases.
Flicking through the book, it’s the finale that really grabs the attention due to the fine linework of P. Craig Russell, and the distinctive bright colouring applied by Digital Chameleon. It concerns the fabulous Baghdad ruled by Haroun Al-Raschid, and his concern that the city at its epoch won’t be preserved beyond his passing. It’s a vanity accorded a peculiar immortality, but a very slim tale, and as such a Sandman rarity of the art a cut above the writing.
Also slight is the short opener drawn by Kent Williams, stretching a fear of flight metaphor a little thin. Beyond that, though, this is a book of wonders and treasures to compare with the Baghdad of Haroun Al-Raschid. We drop in on Lady Johanna Constantine during the French Revolution, on Augustus Caesar sampling public opinion and a young Marco Polo in the desert. We meet Emperor Norton I of the USA, the final brother of the Endless family and, although seemingly lightweight and insignificant in context, the tale of a baby wandering through the Dreaming will have great importance to the future. And we learn the fate of Orpheus, son of Dream, whose existence was dangled before the readership some time previously.
Among the wonders is Neil Gaiman adapting his narrative voice to the needs of the stories related. Duncan Eagleson, whose comic credits are relatively few, pencils ‘The Hunt’, which takes The Princess Bride as an inspiration, the boring old grandfather gradually captivating the young grand-daughter with his tale. Multiple voices are employed for ‘A Parliament of Rooks’, delicately characterised by Jill Thompson, who’ll draw the following longer story Brief Lives, and introducing several distinctive people with background roles here, but who would sustain spin-off series The Dreaming. The Orpheus chapter is a bathetic reworking of the familiar classical legend, into which Gaiman cleverly settles his Endless characters. It’s a tragic tale of callousness and doomed love, and one of two stories excellently drawn by Bryan Talbot. Mark Buckingham inks the pencils so sympathetically it’s clear only on rare occasions that Talbot’s not solely responsible.
John Watkiss (‘Soft Places’) doesn’t quite hit the high notes, with viewpoints and page compositions that render the story dull rather than enhancing it, but Stan Woch, primarily known for inking, delivers a suitably bloody French Revolution. Shawn McManus, illustrator of the previous A Game of You draws Norton’s sad decline.
The content has been re-mastered for being spread over volumes one and two of the Sandman Omnibus, and volumes two and three of Absolute Sandman and The Annotated Sandman. There it’s in black and white accompanied, as the title indicates, by a wealth of notes citing Gaiman’s inspirations and references on a page by page, and sometimes panel by panel basis.
For those on a budget wanting to buy the paperbacks, the production tinkering is relatively minimal by this stage, so the choice amounts to preference regarding the original colouring or the updated palette in post 2010 editions.