Friday, August 22, 2014

The Dream Merchant (Series Review)

The Dream Merchant (Series Review)
Written by Nathan Edmondson
Illustrated by Konstantin Novosadov and Anthony Hope Smith
Colors by Konstantin Novosadov and Stefano Simeone
Lettering by Jeff Powell and Joe Distefano
Image Comics

I still remember a scary dream I had when I was a little kid. The details of the dream escape me, but I was in a house and there were people there and they had heads but blank spaces where their faces should be. Almost 35 years later, the idea of heads without faces still scares the bejeezus out of me (I'm looking at you, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  That's the power of dreams. You know, on an intellectual level, that they're not "real," but that's irrelevant when you're in them, such that when you wake up from a bad dream it's hard sometimes to remember what's real and what isn't.  

For a long time, fiction has played with the idea that there's more to our dreams than just the brain processing information. Often there's a sinister element to stories involving dreams, or the idea that dreams are the gateway into a hidden world; it's frightening to think that your mind is doing things beyond your control, or that it holds secrets that elude us during our waking hours.  The Dream Merchant plays with these ideas in an interesting way, and is a haunting, compelling fantasy story in which dreams are a window into a secret world, and a hidden history.

In The Dream Merchant, Winslow is a man who has experienced vivid dreams his whole life, to the point that they've been debilitating. His dreams are so vivid that they feel more real to him than his waking life. It's the same dream every time; he finds himself floating through a strange, dusky, pink-hued world, past unusual rocky structures. He's been on drugs and under psychiatric care for much of his life, and he now finds himself in a psychiatric hospital in California. His only friends are Ziggy, a fellow patient who's schizophrenic, and Anne, a kind employee who works in the cafeteria and brings Winslow books about dreams.

One night, Winslow is awoken from a nightmare to find Anne walking in the hallway; they are confronted by three strange, shrouded figures that only somewhat have the outlines of people, and Winslow knows these creatures from his recent dreams.  Winslow and Anne make a run for it, aided by a mysterious figure we've seen before. 

Winslow and Anne make it onto a train as stowaways where they are eventually met by this figure. They end up off the train (by jumping, not the safest way to do it), and the man explains that he is not a man at all, he is known as the Dream Merchant, and he is an alien like the figures (known as Regulators) that have been chasing Winslow. The Merchant, who has personal reasons for crossing the Regulators, explains the power of dreams as something that can transcend time and space. 

Winslow's dreams, the ones that have plagued him his while life, are a window into another world, one in which the aliens (who had given up on humanity) scheme to return and take over--and they don't want anyone threatening their plans. Winslow and his knowledge represent a threat, and so they want to destroy him. 

The Merchant tries to teach Winslow about how he can control what in his dreams, and how he can hide. Winslow needs to learn how he can take back control of his subconscious, but it won't be easy. Winslow falls asleep and travels in his dream (he's now able to physically travel to another pace while dreaming) but the Regulators are there to attack him and kill anyone foolish enough to help.

Just as things look bad, he's rescued by the Merchant and Anne, and Winslow tells them that the invasion is happening now.  The current issue shows the beginning of the invasion, which of course starts in a small town. The FBI and Homeland Security are no match for the Regulators, and Winslow understandably just wants to give up but Anne rejects this and compels him to do something. Meanwhile, Winslow loses a key ally and things begin to look pretty grim indeed as the most current issue finishes.

This is a compelling and memorably-illustrated story, which works with a number of interesting ideas. The effectiveness begins with the art. Novosadov presents characters in a slightly exaggerated, fun-house mirror kind of way, which works very well for the story. Winslow is drawn in a stretched out, lanky style, and has a weariness to him. His friend Ziggy is given comically large ears and features in a way that suits what we see of his goofy personality. Anne has large, almost manga-style eyes, through which we see her reaction (as the most grounded, common-sense character) to events in the story as they unfold. The Regulators themselves are presented in a genuinely frightening way. They initially appear as floating, skinny shrouds, and when we see them, they look like men, but are not. As the story progresses, we see more of their true, monstrous nature. 

Throughout the story, the coloring helps to set the mood. Everything, even the scenes taking place in the real world, has a "dream-like" setting, as if reality itself still has a bit of unreality to it. The colors throughout the series are typically dark (not surprisingly, given importance of dreams and sleep as themes) and haunting. Winslow's dream of the alien world is gorgeous, unsettling and feels genuinely otherworldly. The tall, rocky spires and weirdly dark, pinkish skies feel haunting and compelling; it's no wonder that this world feels more like being awake to Winslow than his "real" life. 

One note about the illustrations. There was almost a year gap between issues 3 and 4 of the series, and there's a noticeable change in the art between the first 3 issues and the current issue. Novosadov's style is noticeably rougher in the most recent issue, and the last few pages of the story are illustrated by Anthony Hope-Smith. The coloring in issue 4 is also handled by Stefano Simeone (where Novosadov himself had handled the first 3 issues). The visual storytelling is still quite effective, but is an adjustment if you're reading the issues straight through.  
Dream Merchant plays with genre tropes in creative ways. It makes it clear that, notwithstanding many popular stories (Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.), finding out that you're different and ostracized for the same reason that you're "the savior" - well, it won't necessarily make your life any better. You've got the young man who discovers that his curse is really a window into secret knowledge, there's a relentless enemy, a wizened mentor, a romantic interest that also serves as a common sense-real world grounding force. 

Those "heroes' journey" elements are all here, but presented in a thoughtful way (through the prism of mental illness). Winslow is sometimes unsure whether he is dreaming or is awake. His friend Ziggy jokes about his own condition, but this idea is compelling and effectively rendered. If you weren't sure about the difference between your real life or dreams (or visions or delusions), you'd go through life with a sense of unease and uncertainty. As frightening as it would be to find out your nightmares are actually visions of an alien invasion, it would be comforting, validating to know that your dreams were real, that they were important. 

However, Winslow has a very realistic, human reaction to this. He's been told his whole life that there's something wrong with him, that he's disturbed, or crazy or delusional. But, all of a sudden, everything he vividly saw in his dreams has been proven to be true, and he's been thrust into the role of "the one" or "the savior." And oh by the way, your life is in danger and your crazy dreams are the only thing that can save the world. Winslow's reaction to this change in circumstances (confusion, fear, interest) feels realistic for that situation (and a smart commentary on hero tropes). Imagine being told that everyone who told you that you were delusional was wrong, and those dreams (that have been a curse to you) are the key to saving humanity. At certain points Winslow wants to do something to stop the invasion and be the hero, but he's understandably afraid and after a while he just wants to run away.  Nothing in his life has ever prepared him for the idea that he needs to be the hero and save the day.

It's Anne who, more than once, tells Winslow to "nut up" and stop trying to escape from this situation. She can't do what Winslow can and she hasn't been through what he's been through, but she knows that eventually there will be no escape from the Regulators and whatever they've planned for humanity. She's clear headed and resourceful, and she has a toughness that Winslow lacks. Even though it's clear that she has feelings for Winslow, when he just wants to give up and just make out with her, her frustration with (and disgust for) his weakness and willingness to just give up comes through. She's been through a lot in her life, she has a criminal record, and isn't afraid to thrust Winslow or put herself in harms way to keep Winslow on track. We don't know that much about her history, but she's an effective character here, with an important role. 

It will be interesting to see how the story concludes in the final two issues. The idea of our nightmares coming from hidden memories of an alien world is a great one, and this is a haunting, compelling story. For a compelling look at heroes, dreams, coupled with gloomy, memorable art, The Dream Merchant is worth a look. 

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