My UPS shipment arrived yesterday, and I immediately tore into it, whereupon a truth was confirmed: The problem with anticipating something too eagerly is that you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The particular vector of disappointment here was Neil Gaiman's Endless Nights (what, you thought I'd had time to read Quicksilver already?).
Gaiman's Sandman is the single greatest work in the comic book medium, a sprawling epic composed of scores of short stories, all of which are more (the stuff in The Kindly Ones) or less (the stuff in Worlds End) directly integrated into the overarching storyline. So when the news came out that Gaiman was writing a new Sandman volume, and that it had one short story for each of the Endless, my expectations were set high.
I knew he wouldn't be able to match the scale and integration of the Sandman series proper -- the overarching plot had ended, and this would necessarily be something independent on the side. But still, there's plenty of room for standalone stories in that milieu to be superb -- "Ramadan" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" don't significantly tie into the larger storyline, but each of them stands alone as a superb short story, and there's no reason Gaiman couldn't do something of the same caliber here.
Only, he didn't. The seven stories in this collection are largely forgettable -- even though I just finished it late last night, I had to pick the book up and page through it even to remember what four of them were. I suspect that I'm probably being a bit unfair here in holding Endless Nights up against my own expectations rather than a more sensible measuring stick -- it's still a well-above-average graphic novel, for instance -- but there you are.
Let me talk a bit about the individual stories.
The Death story which starts the book is undoubtedly the strongest of the lot, and possesses story, texture of setting, a few characters, and some decent writing. If the book had been full of stories on this caliber, I might still have considered it short of greatness, but would have been fond of it nevertheless.
Next is the Desire story, which isn't quite as good as the Death story, but does still have a story and a setting and characters. (If it sounds odd that I'm talking about the mere presence of the basic building blocks of fiction as good qualities of these stories, just wait a minute.) It also has... oh, let's be juvenile here: boobies. I suppose that's par for the course for a story about Desire, but there was enough nudity that I'd be reluctant to read this on a bus. Not that I ever ride a bus, but if I did. Oddly enough, the nudity pops up in (almost?) all of the other stories, as well. I couldn't help feeling that Gaiman and/or the artists were consciously saying, "This book is for Adults, so we can use Adult Themes And Images." It feels a bit forced, though. Anyway, the Desire story: It was okay.
Next up is the Dream story, which takes place in the early days of the Universe, at a convention of the stars. Here, we see Dream being unlucky in love yet again, but in a way that adds nothing to our previous understanding of him. "Adding nothing" is really the summary of this whole story. As a story, it's a yawner; as a piece of background information for the larger epic, it's unnecessary and not very interesting.
Moving along, we come to my least favorite "story" in the book, "Fifteen Portraits of Despair." Gaiman didn't even write a story here, he just wrote little snippets of incidental text to serve as captions for the pictures, so this one really stands or falls depending on how well you like the art. (Aside: I suppose I should mention retroactively that the art in this volume is generally quite good, but fails to blow me away entirely. I do like that each story has a very distinct visual style; but I think that Worlds End, which also did the style-per-story thing, did it better.) And I don't like the art in this section at all -- it's all messy, incoherent stuff in the Dave McKean style (McKean is credited with a "designed by", even though the actual art is by Barron Storey). I've never gotten the appeal of McKean's art, so I'm the anti-audience for this little art show.
The Delirium story is... well, I'm sure it's very well-done, as such things go. The thing is, it's written entirely from the problem of insane people, so it's a mite difficult to understand what's actually happening; it's not incomprehensible, just confusing. But even once you know what's happening, it's hard to get involved in the story. When the majority of the text is the insane babbling of insane people, it's just not very interesting. It's a good portrait of insanity, but it didn't grab me.
The penultimate story is Destruction's, and it's... enh. It's got a story, it's got characters, but it utterly fails to be interesting. There's nothing really wrong with the story, but there's nothing especially great about it, either. You read the pages, then put it aside and forget all about it.
The last story, the Destiny one, is the most pointless of the lot. It's just a "Here's Destiny, in his garden. He's got this book. Everything's in it." bit. There's literally nothing more to it than that, and we've seen that several times already in the existing books. I suppose if you'd never read any of the other Sandman volumes, this could be interesting; but I don't recommend doing that, so I maintain its pointlessness under all conditions. I rank it above the Despair story only because the art here was actually attractive.
So doing the summing-up math, you're looking at two solid stories, a few mediocre ones, and two that really don't even qualify as stories. If this were a collection of Spider-Man stories by random Marvel authors, that'd be a great score; but this is Gaiman and Sandman, and he can do better. If you're a Sandman fan and aren't going to miss the $20, go ahead and buy this; there's enough in it that you'll not regret spending the money. But do keep your expectations low, because (all the media hype aside) this is a decidedly minor work.