Friday, August 31, 2018

Retro Review: Just Imagine Stan Lee's Sandman (2002) Review and **SPOILERS**

Perchance, to Dream

Written By: Stan Lee 
Penciller: Walter Simonson 
Ink Art: Bob Wiacek 
Letterer: Bill Oakley 
Colorist and Separator: Lee Loughridge 
Front Cover Artists: Walter Simonson, Lee Loughridge 
Back Cover Artist: Adam Hughes 
“Just Imagine…” Initiated By: Michael Uslan 
Editor: Mike Carlin, Ivan Cohen 
Executive Editor: Dan Didio 
Cover Price: $5.95 
Cover Date: August 2002


Since I was very young, one of my most favorite characters was Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman. It was the gas mask combined with a green suit and fedora that did it, a combination almost Art Deco in its assembling. Later, I would come to love Neil Gaiman’s more ethereal Sandman—and even enjoy Simon and Kirby’s late 70s revamping of the character that was the right combination of goofy and befuddling. So I jumped at the chance to see what Stan Lee might have done with this character! Jump with me into Just Imagine Stan Lee’s Sandman, which I’ve reviewed right here!

Explain It!

I’m going to make a mind-blowing confession to all of you: I don’t think Stan Lee is that uniquely creative. He is creative, for sure, and I don’t mean to diminish his many comic book accomplishments. But those feats are notable, in part, because of the sheer volume Stan Lee (and Jack Kirby, if it needs be said) cranked out in a relatively short amount of time. And to do so, Stan had to use some pretty derivative, stock characters: a stretchy guy. A Jeckyll and Hyde type. The actual Norse God Thor. Now, I love a lot of these characters as much as anyone, and thrill to the stories penned by Stan Lee most of all. But it’s not because of the uniqueness of the characters. It’s because the pacing is so frenetic, and Kirby used a lot of foreshortening. 
You're treading dangerously close to the trademark line, buddy.
All that being said, the idea of Stan Lee reimagining Sandman is kind of exciting. I’d assumed that Stan was most familiar with the Golden Age character, and I was interested to see how he tackled the concept of…well, a creepy guy in a gas mask and fedora. Our story opens with our protagonist, Larry Wilton, an astronaut who is floating helplessly in space, dying. While passing through the veil, his life flashes before his eyes, and Larry remembers a sickly childhood that had him retreating into the fantasy world of dreams. That’s represented in a page reminiscent of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” Sunday comic strip, which is something that should be read profusely by everyone. 
Couldn't you just wet the bed like normal kids?
As he grew older and stronger, Larry had big dreams. He enrolled at M.I.T. and then became a fighter pilot in the Air Force. From there, he trained to be an astronaut and received plenty of medals. 
If you can spin for three minutes without blowing chunks, you're in.
It’s also the first time he saw this “sleeping death,” where people fall asleep and can’t be woken, then they turn purple and die. As this disease spreads and people fall right in the street, the public is understandably frazzled and gripped by widespread insomnia. 
Has nobody heard of cocaine?
The news report notes that some people have turned to religion, and a shadowy figure in a cloak named Reverend Darrk pops on screen to invite all to his parish. Uh, yeah maybe you’ll get a few takers from the Orko Appreciation Society, but it creeps me out just to look at you. Some sleepers at a hospital abruptly wake up and go on a mad rampage—something has screwed up the sleep cycle. 
"In an unrelated story, something totally related."
Might be this cloud of green mist hovering just outside the Earth’s atmosphere. I’m just saying. It seems like there might be a correlation. NASA feels the same way, and sends Larry Wilton to head a mission to deal with this fart bubble. 
I have to admit, the Church of Immaculate Blowjobs does sound intriguing.
The day before takeoff, Larry’s second in command takes him to Reverend Darrk’s church, which Larry notices is larger on the inside than the outside. This would be a particulary important thing to note, Larry, like run down to the nearest university physicist and find out what is going on! At the church, some big-boobed hussy named Morgana tries to get Larry to join, but when he sees that they won’t help a victim of the sleeping sickness that dies right in the aisle, he tells them to lump it. 
The planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do.
And now, Larry is drifting in the black void, cut off from his space shuttle. That might be a good thing, because it just exploded. But the bad thing is that he’s drifting right toward that green mist he was sent to investigate in the first place. So, in a weird way, he’s fulfilling his mission! Though I guess reporting back to base was an integral part of that. 
"You look like you could use some help, you slow sack of shit."
Instead of dying, Larry falls through some gnarly tree and into the fantasy dream world he used to hang out in when he was a sick little kid. The minute he shows up, he’s chased by some gigantic samurai named the Thief of Souls, which sets Larry to running away! With rapidity! His fleeing is joined by the pixie he used to dream about as a kid, Melana. Now she’s a hot chick wearing Bric-a-Brac, and she says she knew Larry would show up eventually! 
"No pressure, but you're kind of a big deal."
They get rid of the Thief of Souls, and then Melana explains things to Larry…well, sort of. Really, she just says, “You have much to learn,” over and over, interspersed with vague observations about this ethereal dream place. It seems that the inhabitants of this place bring us, the people of Earth, dreams…and they can bring good dreams or bad dreams. Larry’s job will be to stop the bad dreams, because they turn people into Adolf Hitler? 
So...these were just good guys infected by bad dreams? Huh.
In order to do this, Larry is given a mystical bracelet, and some magic shoes that are never explained, and a magical belt that is clearly visible but isn’t ever mentioned, and becomes the Green Lantern Sandman! 
The Nintendo™ Power Glove puts you in the action!
Melana spends about ten seconds teaching Larry a few things about his newfound abilities, which leads to some mildly cute dialogue… 
Oh, what witty banter!
…which turns very gross, very quickly. 
"What I'm trying to say is that you are obligated to fuck me."
After that, Melana’s quick to tell Larry how he can return to the waking world, which includes a mantra of some sort…are we sure this isn’t the Green Lantern? 
Sung to the tune of "Wild Thing"
Back in outer space where he was dying, Larry is rescued by some other space shuttle, and recuperates in the hospital for a little while. Because he’s a glutton for punishment, once discharged, Larry heads right over to Reverend Darrk’s weirdo church, and the reverend stops right in the middle of a mass the minute Larry slips through the door. Morgana tries to sex him up again, then Darrk takes Larry into his private chambers and tries fiddling with his new bracelet…and gets a zap for it! After this, Darrk isn’t so interested in having Larry join his slutty church, and tells Larry to scram. 
I swear, the most recent updates to the iPhone are the worst.
While strolling through the park, Larry sees someone keel over and begin turning purple from the sleeping sickness—but now, he can also see some kind of purple demon tugging the life force right out of this fella! And apparently he can also see life force now! And he knows exactly what it is! Larry kayoes the demon, and onlookers think he's the one that socked the victim, so he runs away. That night, Larry tries to catch some sleep, but winds up back in the dream world dressed in his Sandman garb, beholding all the souls stolen by the evil Dream Lord (who lives in a categorically typical evil castle.) Melana tells Larry that he’s not supposed to be there today, so he heads back to the tangible world, just in time to catch a few minions of Darrk’s attempting to chuck him out of the window! Larry is able to wake up in time, and now he has Sandman’s powers while in the real world for some reason? He grabs the hand of one of these hoodlums, and the guy melts away into a green goop—but leaves behind the tell-tale medallion of Reverend Darrk. Because it looks like a silhouette of his church, if you were wondering. 
"It was Green Gas Man? Diabolical!"
Heading over there, Larry finds the place empty, except for one of the hoods that tried to make him into street pizza. He’s dead in the aisle, a knife sticking from his chest. Larry secures himself in an old storage cupboard, then snoozes back to the dream spot. Once there, Larry is instantly chased by the Thief of Souls and…I guess all the souls that he thieved! As Larry jogs, the scene morphs into that recurring dream he had as a child: running from a purple monster on a treadmill and never gaining ground. This gives Walter Simonson another opportunity to draw an awesome splash page that says, “yes, I understand perspective very well.” 
Larry is able to dispatch some of these souls by turning the ground into green quicksand…hey! Aren’t these the souls of human beings? They might want those back! 
Bring the whole family to visit the La Brea Tar Pits in sunny California!
Then Larry turns into a green sandstorm that whooshes around and takes apart everything, including the Thief of Souls. The dream land is saved, and Larry is the hero evermore. 
All that remained in the end was his straight edge razor eyebrows.
Wait, there’s still more story to go in this thing? Sheesh, I feel like I’ve been reading this for four hours. Now that Sandman’s taken down the Thief of Souls, he gets a blue tribal tattoo that appears magically and painfully on his mouth. Then, with Melana in his arms, he takes the form of the big sandstorm again and whooshes all of the stolen souls in dream world back into the waking world by intoning his chant, all right under the Dream Lord’s outstretched hand. Now, the folks afflicted with sleeping sickness are awake! Uh, except for the ones with the souls that Larry submerged in quicksand, I guess. Those dudes are dead. 
Sucks to be them, dude!
Once back in the storage closet, Larry and Melana emerge to find Reverend Darrk, passed out before them with a knife nearby. Looks like he was about to kill Larry, but when the Thief of Souls got scattered, Darrk fell unconscious. Larry leaves him be, and he and Melana walk out of the church, looking forward to a future of adventure, laughter…and probably lots of world-threatening peril. The end. 
"Not to mention baseball season is starting up soon. Look, do you have a place you can stay?"
What? That’s not the end?? For crying out loud…okay, there is a four-page backup, “On the Street” by Michael Uslan, Richard Corben, Phil Felix and Lee Loughridge. It’s a lead-in to another book in this Just Imagine… series called Crisis…I don’t know if it’s about an event, or a character’s name, but I’m reviewing it on this site to stay tuned! 
These "squeegee men" can be such nuisances.
This book is a master class in comic book plotting and storytelling. Simonson is no newbie to the medium, and his work seems almost effortless in its simplicity. The story is really nothing special, pretty rote in parts, and flat-out confusing in others. Like, the Dream Lord wanted to steal the souls of humans…and then they would be the nightmares to turn the rest of us into Jack the Rippers? I just wasn’t clear on how that worked, or how the Sandman’s powers worked in both the dream and waking dimensions. Reverend Darrk is a hilarious character, a literal grinning druid that’s convinced people to join his church with the help of a big-breasted cohort. Whatever happened to her, anyway? And what was the point of those magic boots? Forget it, Jake. It’s dream town.
Whoa, don't blow your wad in one shot, bud!

Bits and Pieces:

Terrific plotting and some thrilling splash pages cannot assuage the fact that this story is pretty lame. Who the bad guys are in unclear, as is the titular hero's power set and motivation. Well, no, we know what his motivation is. It's just stupid as hell.


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