Preludes and Nocturnes is the first graphic novel collecting the works of the comic The Sandman
by Neil Gaiman
. Here I offer a rather detailed synopsis of the plot, so if you wish to be surprised when reading it, stop here. Most major and some minor plot details have been included.
It begins in 1916 with the magician Roderick Burgess attempting to capture Death, so that he can wrest from this creature his immortality. However, he ends up capturing Death's little brother: Dream, also known as the Sandman, Morpheus, the Dream King, and countless other names. Burgess takes away Dream's clothes and his precious, necessary tools for running his realm, The Dreaming: his ruby, his sand pouch, and his helmet.
Burgess holds Dream hostage and says he'll release him for a price, but Dream simply ignores him and waits out his imprisonment. As a result of his lack of attention to The Dreaming, dreams becomes wilder and less controlled all over the world, and some people fall victim to "sleepy sickness"; they fall asleep and simply fail to wake up. Unity Kincaid is one such victim of the disease, and in an institution where she is kept, she is raped and has a child, without ever waking up.
In the meantime, Ethel Cripps, Roderick Burgess's mistress, is conspiring against him, and steals Dream's tools for her own benefit, with help from Ruthven Sykes. Sykes worries about the effects this might have if Dream is released, and so bargains with a demon (using Dream's helmet as collateral) for a protective amulet. Cripps steals the other possessions from Sykes.
Finally, Burgess dies of old age, and his son Alex takes over watching over Dream's prison in 1947. Alex manages to have an accident that breaks the circle imprisoning Dream, and he is released. The "sleepy sickness" victims awaken upon his release, and Dream begins to try to put his life back together. First on the agenda is punishment for Alex Burgess: Dream binds him in "eternal waking," which is a condition where he keeps having horrid dreams, waking up, realizing it was a dream, and then having that reality turn into a dream too, forever waking up. Dream leaves Alex with his nurse and lover trying to awaken him.
Dream returns to his realm, The Dreaming, exceedingly weak. He goes on a quest to get his tools back so that he can rebuild his realm, which has fallen apart in places in his absence. First he needs his pouch of sand, and John Constantine, an English magician, helps him get that.
Next he wants his helmet . . . but it is in Hell, because Sykes gave it to a demon. On his way into Hell, he has a run-in with former lover Nada, about whom we know little at this point except that he has sentenced her there and hasn't forgiven her yet. In order to get his helmet, he gets Lucifer to assemble all the demons of Hell, and Dream summons Choronzon, the demon with his helmet. They play an ancient game so that the winner may have the helmet, and Dream wins by becoming hope, which is all that is left when nothing is left. Choronzon is defeated and Dream regains his helmet, but Lucifer is angered at this defeat and is embarrassed, and swears to kill the Dream King next time he returns to Hell. The amulet of protection Ethel Cripps got from the demon no longer protects her, and she dies.
Finally Dream tries to get his ruby, but Cripps had passed it down to John Dee, who changes the ruby for his own twisted purposes. When he tries to get it back, it absorbs his power and renders him helpless. Dee then imprisons customers in a diner and uses the ruby's power to twist reality for them. When Dee begins trying to extend this effect beyond the diner, Dream comes and challenges him, but Dee destroys the ruby--trying to kill Dream, but it just frees all of the ruby's power and brings Dream back to full strength. Dream puts Dee back where he came from--the looney bin. Dream then sets about repairing the effects of Dee's insanity. Then Death is introduced: Dream's big sister. She tries to cheer him up and gets him to go on her "rounds" with her, taking dead people to the next plane. He is reminded of his responsibilities by watching her perform hers, and sets about them once again.
See the next Sandman book: The Doll's House