Review – Neil Gaiman’s Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade

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Review – Neil Gaiman’s Free Country: A Tale of the Children’s Crusade

It says here that the Vertigo Universe will never be the same again.
Of course, it was never the same before.

In 1993 and ‘94 several Vertigo writers and artists created a huge crossover event, featuring characters from six of Vertigo’s most popular titles. The result was a little confusing and unwieldy, but there were a lot of very talented people involved, and it marked the one and only time Vertigo tried a crossover that big.

More than twenty years later, Free Country: A Tale of the Childrens Crusade, by Neil Gaiman and many talented writers and artists, has finally been collected into a hardback book, but it isn’t just a reprint: an entire chapter was created to fill in some of the gaps and smooth out the storytelling.

In the end I think it’s still a little confusing, especially if you aren’t familiar with the characters, or you haven’t read about them in twenty years. But if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman, or any of the original books (or just feeling a little nostalgic for 90s Vertigo) you should give this collection a look.

For me the main draw is Neil Gaiman. He’s got the ability to make anything sounds poetic. His introduction alone is wonderful; he looks back at what made all the artists and writers want to participate, and what he thinks caused the idea to sort of fall through in the end.

…actually, herding cats is easier than persuading writers to take part in a crossover once the rural retreat is over.

While the overarching story is a little confusing, the little stories that make up the larger whole are wonderful. We hear a retelling of the real-life Children’s Crusade; a much darker version of the Pied Piper; and lots of wonderfully creepy tales within the larger story. I loved all of them, mostly for Gaiman’s style, but also because a lot of them were illustrated by Chris Bachalo.

I’ve been a fan of Bachalo’s work since Death The High Cost of Living (published the same year Free Country first came out) and seeing Bachalo’s art paired with Gaiman’s writing again was a real treat. I like Bachalo’s current style a little better (he now gives his characters wider mouths and more defined eyes) but his quirky smiles and almost slapstick depictions of action and motion are what made me fall in love with his art in the first place. He also doesn’t go too crazy with the panels; I know some people find his non-traditional layouts hard to follow. I don’t mind them myself, but this book is pretty straightforward, layout-wise.

The story isn’t so straightforward, though it’s not the fault of the writers: I never read Black Orchid or Arcana (I know, I really should) and I don’t remember much of the Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Swamp Thing that I did read. So the characters who wander in and out of the story would have been much more interesting to me if I was more familiar with them.

It’s hardly the writers’ fault that I was only reading one Vertigo title in the 90s: Sandman. And that’s why the main story was so fun, because we catch up with Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine from Sandman: Seasons of Mists. They’re ghosts on the run from Death (though they’re not running very hard, because she’s kind of busy) and happy to do whatever they like, as long as they’re free from the boarding school that killed them, and get to have adventures together.

As it turns out, they’ve decided to be detectives, and no matter who’s writing them in this book (Neil Gaiman of course, but also Toby Litt, Rachel Pollack, Alisa Kwitney, and James Delano) they always manage to capture the two of them perfectly: young forever, kind of clueless, and perfectly comfortable with what they are.

“Are you two really ghosts?”
“Yes.”
“I just thought you’d probably call yourselves corporeally challenged, or something like that.”
“No. Just dead.”
“Fair enough.”

Aside from Bachalo, the art in the book is a little hard to appreciate, but that’s less from the skill of the artists (which is always excellent) and more from a style that was popular in 90s Vertigo titles (Sandman included) which tended to be dark, stylized, and sketchy most of the time. I’ve had friends tell me they couldn’t get into Sandman because of the art, and I get that. It was definitely a popular thing in its day.

The extra sections drawn by Peter Gross stand out in that respect: he’s trying to do a 90s Vertigo style, and he sometimes misses the mark, only because sometimes his art is much prettier and easier on the eyes that the art that was actually from the 90s.

(Mind you, none of the art in the book is bad, and all of it is better than anything I can do myself. That goes without saying, but sometimes a reviewer wants to say it.)

The extra segments in the book help to tie things together. There are still some gaps in our knowledge (many of the Power Children who are brought to Free Country leave for one reason or another, and we don’t get to see that happen, we’re just briefly told about it later) but you do get a consistent, coherent plot out of it. As Neil says in the intro about the work done by many who put this book together:

That they have done it seamlessly is a relief and a delight. That you can now read The Children’s Crusade from beginning to end, and get a story out of it, makes me surprisingly happy.

Did you read the original comics? Were you a fan of any of the books in the crossover? School us! Shout out in the comments!

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