If you're a fan of Neil Gaiman and his Sandman series, you've probably already purchased Endless Nights. If you're a fan but you have been putting it off for fear that Gaiman's lost his edge, let me assure you that he retains his formidable powers.
If you've never heard of Neil Gaiman before, or if you've only read his novel American Gods, you have missed one of the great literary productions of the late twentieth century. Gaiman doled out the Sandman stories for DC's Vertigo line of grown-up comic books for nine years. If you paid too much attention to all of the fireworks, the nods towards mythology, literature, and classic comic books, you could have missed the fact that he was telling one hell of a story.
In his introduction, Gaiman writes that "People remember big things." Sandman was huge, in terms of its narrative ambition, the number of pages written, and the years it took to bring to fruition. As a writer, I was always most jealous of the fact that a character or plot-point, which appeared for no more than a couple of pages early into the series and seemed tangential at best, could appear years later and prove crucial to the larger storyline, the tale of Dream's emotional development which held the series together. It was either a monumentally successful improvisation or the man had an superhuman ability to keep thousands of tiny pieces in place over nearly a decade. I still don't know which it is, or which possibility would terrify me more.
What this misses, though, is Gaiman's small-scale storytelling capability. Through the Sandman series, there were a number of issues that could be read as stand-alone tales, some of which hardly involved the central protagonists of the story. These were some of the finest individual moments, because Gaiman's intuition for both pacing and character development came to the fore.
Now, years later, Gaiman has returned to the world of Sandman. Endless Nights consists of seven stories, each of which is named for and features one of the seven Endless, anthropomorphic principles which shape and maintain the universe: Dream, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destruction, and Destiny. Each story stands alone, and each is illustrated by a different artist. The styles of the art vary widely, from P. Craig Russell's high-classical comic book style in "Death and Venice" to Barron Storey's paintings for "Fifteen Portraits of Despair," as harrowing as anything in Sandman since the serial killers' convention in "The Doll's House," (the second collected volume of Sandman issues) and possibly the most terrifying piece in the entire Sandman oeuvre.
Though not all of the art (or for that matter, all of the stories) will appeal to everyone, all is of very high quality. The hardcover is itself luscious to hold, with a heft and a feel that can almost make you forget that you just paid $25 for a 160-page comic book. The last piece in the book, "Endless Nights," may appeal only to true fans of the series, but it is short. The other six chapters can be read without any external knowledge, and will without doubt appeal to people who were fed a steady diet of Weird Tales, EC Comics titles, and The Twilight Zone as children. (For the rest of you, there's quite a bit to admire here as well: I would begin with "What I've Tasted of Desire" or "Fifteen Portraits of Despair," if I was in your shoes.)
But is this the best place for newcomers to begin reading Sandman? If you prefer brief tales quickly brought to a satisfying conclusion, or if you can't yet wrap your head around buying a comic book at your age, then yes it is: these tales are as satisfying as any of the other stand-alones Gaiman has set in this universe, and will likely whet your appetite for more. If, on the other hand, you prefer epic storylines, begin with Preludes & Nocturnes, volume one of the complete Sandman, and read all ten books straight through. When you've let them settle a while, return to Endless Nights for a tasty dessert.