Sandman Meditations – Preludes & Nocturnes

Sleep of the Just

Prolegomenon – You should not expect expertise. There are other sources of that, encyclopedias and annotations, websites and Wikipedia entries, oracles and seers. I’m here for an experiment: to see what happens when someone who has only basic experience with comics and graphic novels encounters one of the classics of the field.

preludes and nocturnes

Wake up, Sir. We’re here.

The first words. Encased in a bubble, they emanate from a mansion in a panel labeled, “June 6th, 1916, Wych Cross, England.” The foreground of the panel shows gargoyles on stone pillars between the sharp tops of iron fence posts. The mansion is the middle ground of the image, full of blues and browns; the background gives us silhouettes of barren trees and flying birds.

Those first words gain significance throughout “Sleep of the Just”, the first of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories. (There were other Sandmans — E.T.A. Hoffman’s, the Mr. Sandman implored by so many singers to bring them a dream, the DC superhero Wesley Dodds who first appeared in 1939, the later DC Sandman of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from the mid-1970s.) There will be symmetry — this first Sandman story ends with the same view of the mansion (now with deeper blues and more purples) and this dialogue: “…we’re here. It’s all right. So wake up. Please wake up. Please…?”

I keep coming back to that June 6th, 1916 date. It’s so specific that I can’t help wanting to find significance in it. Is The Sandman, I wonder, akin to a Thomas Pynchon novel, where every name and date, every (it seems!) noun contains an allusion, a hint, a clue, a wink? (I hope not. Much as I can admire the extraordinary intellect such construction requires, I don’t find puzzles compelling.) June 6th is most meaningful to me for two things: it is my grandmother’s birthday, and in 1944 it was D-Day. I look on Wikipedia to see if there might be something else, but though there are many events from June 6th throughout history, according to Wikipedia (at least at the moment when I consult it), nothing happened on June 6, 1916.

I’ll go with that, because it relieves me. The date has no obvious meaning, which suggests The Sandman is not an obsessively allusive puzzle, and so I am happy. I can move on, keep reading, not get bogged down in particulars.

The first page of the first Sandman contains seven panels superimposed on one large panel. The large panel shows Dr. John Hathaway, dressed in a blue suit, walking up to the mansion. The reigning colors here are blue and brown, and the background panel is almost equally both, with the bottom half brown (ground) and the top bright blue (sky). This is in sharp contrast to later, much darker pages.

The first five panels zoom in. I wonder if there is a specific term for such an effect in a comic, something other than zoom, which comes from photography and film. I am sure that I will keep falling back on cinematic terms as I write about The Sandman, because I have much more background with film than with any other visual medium, and comics seem to me like elaborate storyboards. I suppose I read them that way, too, converting their images and words in my mind into a movie. This does them a certain disservice, because the arrangement and interaction of panels is not the same as the linear movement of one film frame into the next, or even one film sequence into the next. I force myself to slow down, to look at a page as a page and not a blueprint for movement.

The second page of “Sleep of the Just” at first seems like an abstract painting — yellow, blue, orange, crimson, green. I am aware first of the forms on the page as forms, not forms corresponding to a representation of things. The panels overlap, and a round panel at the top left corner of the page, showing a yellow face inside a gunmetal-blue decoration, could almost be an item in the room depicted in the central panel on the page. We have entered the mansion, and it is disorienting. The clutter of the top two-thirds of the page resolves itself in sharp diagonals at the bottom of the page as Roderick Burgess, Lord Magus, receives the Magdalene Grimoire from Dr. Hathaway. The powers that will shape the rest of the story are about to be unleashed.

Page three offers sturdy rectangular order in opposition to page two’s round chaos, and we meet the four dreamers who will fall into decades of sleep when Roderick Burgess attempts to capture Death and instead imprisons Dream.

The next four pages plunge us into darkness as Alex Burgess watches his father try to kidnap a god. The margins of these pages are decorated with a frame, and when Dream arrives at the summoning, he enters over the frame on the seventh page: borders have been broken.

And now we have our title page, a single panel of Dream (who, on a first read, we assume is Death) in a physical form resembling a particularly hideous sci-fi movie alien. The Art Nouveau type and decorations of the title remind us of the story’s era, for though 1916 is past the heyday of Art Nouveau, the characters are hardly men of their time — their occultism is distinctly antiquarian.

Alternations of light and darkness continue through “Sleep of the Just”, though darkness is most prevalent. The brightest moments come with dreamworlds: on page 11, a 3-panel zoom on the sleeping face of Unity Kincaid, the panel’s colors a muted red (hair, lips), white (skin), and black (outlines, shadows). Brightness returns when Dream escapes from his imprisonment on page 30, his body itself containing the binary: pure black at his back, pure white at his front — the only color he possesses is a blue in his hair. A pastel blue and green light radiates in front of him. The power of this light radiates through the next pages, with pages 31 and 32 containing only a few colors each, and Dream represented as black and white (plus blue in his hair) until he gains clothing. Page 33 brings in more colors as the dreamers wake, and 34 continues the brightness as Alex Burgess sleeps and Dream begins his revenge, but the remaining six pages of the story are as dark as the earlier pages depicting the ritual that trapped Dream. The decorative borders from those pages return, too, though they are never complete — Dream remains between worlds, because his tools have been stolen from him.

We began with five words and then end with thirteen that mostly echo the original five. The path is glimpsed, the story set in motion, the storyteller’s art unleashed as the reader’s new reality, banishing quotidian life to a memory or dream: Wake up. We’re here.

Imperfect Hosts

Throughout the second Sandman, I kept wishing the characters would stop talking.

Everything in a comic is visual, but though we pull the words off the page with the same eyes that perceive the pictures, they serve different functions and go to different parts, I suppose, of our brains.  Were we to be dropped into the diegesis, we’d still perceive the characters and settings through our eyes, but the words that they speak would enter through another organ: our ears.  Same thing if the comic were a movie, or at least a movie since the advent of the talkies.

Silent movies separated the image and the words, with title frames falling between visual scenes.  Comics make them simultaneous.  Speech and thought bubbles are visual artifacts, but they are more than that, too, because our brains translate them into an approximation of an aural experience.

But first they are visual, and again and again as I looked at “Imperfect Hosts”, the words and images seemed to be fighting for dominance.  Just look at the first page — the left side has plenty of room for images, but the right side feels like half the image is bubbled (it’s not, strictly and statistically, but the images are so cramped by the words that this is the impression).

Gaiman and the artists will get better at balancing words and images as the series continues, and even in “Imperfect Hosts”, I find the image that dominates page 7 particularly interesting in its balance of words and picture: the realm of Dream as a kind of canyon of junk, a landfill against a flat blue sky, pieces of what might be earth suspended as jellyfish stepping stones in a straight line heading off, perhaps, to infinity.  The words (white text against a black background) sit in four ragged boxes that also seem to float in the crevasse, the last three boxes moving vertically down in counter-balance to all the diagonal lines in the rest of the image.

“Imperfect Hosts” is a particularly transitional story in the series, winding dynamos that will send energy through many more issues, alluding back through almost five decades of DC characters and tales.  It’s expositional and yakky, with a strange mix of pictures that are cartoonish and pictures that are more in the dark and evocative style of the first issue.  The shifts of visual tone are appropriate to a series that absorbs and transmutes the story-dreams of as many cultural moments as Sandman does.  Dream, working his way back to his realm and his power, must make his way through a mosaic of styles.  He is what unifies the variegations, but he is still weak in “Imperfect Hosts”, still recovering, more subject to the chaos than master of it.  Consider the portrait of his face on page 13 — he looks at his dessicated castle while faithful servant Lucien says, “Breaks your heart, my lord, doesn’t it?” The face that has been menacing or pensive or mysterious in every image up to here is now almost comic: the sharp lines of mouth and eyes have turned to soft ovals, the spikey hair now looks like some sort of wig.  This is no god, no man of power and mystery — he looks like some guy who got lost after a disappointing rave.

It’s an entirely appropriate portrait, we discover, on page 16.  In the first of three rectangular middle panels, Dream looks again vulnerable, but more thoughtful than shocked. He holds a representation of the castle in his hand and stares at it.  The next panel gives us a more familiar version of his face: eyes shadowed, mouth a straight line of determination, and the castle is now a bit of smoke escaping from his clenched fist.  In the third panel he is a silhouette, Lucien’s face foregrounded.  Dream says, “Some power returns to me, simply by being here.  But I placed too much of myself in the tools.  And they are gone.”

I placed too much of myself in the tools. Yes, there it is — an explanation of the page 13 face.  The ruined castle had been his hope of finding himself, but he saw that all he had counted on having preserved was, instead, lost.  The hollow slackness of the face evokes the epiphany.  It is not until he crushes the image of the castle in his hand that Dream regains his standard countenance.

We end not with him, but with Abel, who is once again reborn, his resurrection paralleling the progress of Dream.  The last page is pathetic in a strict sense, the adjective of pathos, evoking both pity and sadness, as Abel sits with the baby gargoyle Cain gave him, the naming of which Cain seems to have used as an excuse to murder Abel yet again.  Abel says he’ll follow the rule that all gargoyle names must begin with G and call this one “Goldie”, but “I’ll think of you as Irving, really, in my heart,” and thus he negotiates the rules of the reality he lives in with the world of free desire he can hold in his heart: “It’s a secret story,” he says, and narrates a tale in which two brothers love each other and “would never hurt each other” and are forever happy.  A secret story, a secret world of the heart.  “I’m really not crying,” he says.  “It’s only blood, little brother” — reality (blood) and perception (tears) mingle in meaning, and for a moment, silhouetted against a bright red background, Abel seems to contain equal parts of what is real and what is dreamed.

Dream a Little Dream of Me

he third Sandman poses some problems for me, someone who has read almost no DC comics and has only the vaguest sense of their characters and history. The vagueness and sense share a source: popular culture in general. You’d have to live in some remote part of the world, away from billboards and newspapers and televisions and radios, to avoid all references to DC characters, given how many of them have metamorphosed into stars of movies and TV shows. I was going to write a sentence in which I listed them, but then I realized I don’t know how many of the characters I’m thinking of are DC characters.  Many, I’m sure, are Marvel characters. In fact, I probably have a greater sense of Marvel characters than DC characters, because the only comic I read as a kid was G.I. Joe, and that was a Marvel comic, so there were ads in it for other Marvel comics. At least, I think it was a Marvel comic.  I’m pretty sure of it, in fact. I remember the rectangle in the upper left corner of every issue’s cover that showed Spider-Man or somebody, not the DC circle.

Of course, I could look all this up on Wikipedia or any of a thousand comics websites.  The information is out there, as they say.  (Actually no, they say, “The truth is out there,” don’t they?  They being The X-Files, a show I watched a few times.  Information and truth are not the same thing.)  I’m typing this essay on a computer connected to the internet.  In less than a minute, I could find a list of DC characters and Marvel characters, and I could cut and paste some names, and I could fake being knowledgeable. I did something similar in my first essay here, looking up the history of the Sandman character in the DC universe. But that felt like essential information, necessary to that essay, a data point from which to launch a thousand words.  The names of various DC and Marvel characters that have entered the popular consciousness, and the publishing company that owns those characters, doesn’t seem so essential.

I am tempted to dart away from typing right now to go research one thing, though: the perceived difference between DC and Marvel.  A friend of mine told me he grew up reading the comics of one and not the other, and that it had an effect on him.  I don’t remember which one, and I don’t remember the effect. There’s an essay by Jonathan Lethem, I think, discussing this. Or maybe by Michael Chabon. Or maybe it was an interview.  Or maybe…

No, I’m going to embrace my ignorance.  Or at least soldier on with it intact.

The problem is John Constantine. He’s a main character in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and I know he has some sort of meaning within the DC universe, because I once saw a movie starring Keanu Reeves called Constantine, and I suspect it’s related.  But I don’t remember anything about that movie except that I found it entertaining and was surprised that I didn’t hate Keanu Reeves, since he’s one of my least favorite actors.  (This isn’t his fault, exactly; I think he reminds me of somebody from my childhood, somebody I found annoying, and so whenever I see him on screen my subconscious shoots shards of annoyance into my conscious brain, though without any explanation. I wish my subconscious were more polite.  “Hello,” it might say to my conscious brain, “I have this little bit of repressed emotion here, and I’d like you to hold onto it for a bit,” and my conscious brain would say, “Okay, but first give me some sort of explanation,” and my subconscious would reply, “Jolly good, old sport, that’s fair.  This is an annoyed memory of a boy named &#@!%, and he @&!#$ed you once, way back during @#*&^$#%, which is why you need to feel this repressed emotion.”  I would be so much less neurotic if my subconscious behaved like that, but no.)

So I have no idea who John Constantine is, though I’m sure he’s got a big Wikipedia entry.  I just know his name. When I first read “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, I expected him to display some sorts of superpowers.  Or to become like James Bond or somebody — someone with superheroic survival skills.  But he doesn’t.  Constantine doesn’t do much, really, except lead Dream to his bag of sand, making him into The Sandman once again, I suppose.  Dream is the interesting and powerful guy here. Perhaps this is part of the point — perhaps this is a deconstruction of the Constantine character, showing that compared to the gods, even the big shots of the mundane world are just … mundane.

Mundanity is one of the primary elements of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.  Or at least, that’s what sticks out to me, someone who is incapable of measuring the allusions and connections in the story, someone who must stay with what is there on the page.  After the tremendous, baroque, beautiful, grotesque fantasy worlds of “Imperfect Hosts”, we’re now in the grubby real world, starting with the very first panel, a picture of an utterly nondescript house in what seems to be a row of utterly nondescript houses.  The rest of the page zooms in on a squalid room and a diseased hand.  The next page takes us to another place, a different hand, and this page zooms out, but the squalor of Constantine’s room is less than the squalor of the other (Rachel’s, we will learn) only because it is less cluttered.

The squalor reaches a height on page 20, our first glimpse of Rachel in all her junkie glory: naked on a bed, skin rotted and sagging, eyes hollow, hair matted.  It’s a striking portrait, especially her face, which certainly looks ravaged, but also possesses a humanity and beauty that allows us to see how much has been lost.  Pages 17 and 18 showed Constantine and Dream walking through a room coated with a still-living, slimey, inside-out body — a moment of fantasy that contrasts sharply then with the reality of Rachel. Within the world of the story, both are equally real: the walls are, in fact, covered with a still-living, slimey, inside-out body; and Rachel is, in fact, sitting naked in a bed, ready for her next fix of dream-sand.  The sand provides her escape from both hese realities.

We enter that escape with her in the last pages, when The Sandman takes pity on her and lets her die into this dream.  It’s a pastel world composed of all the clichés of peacefulness: pretty clouds, blue sky, trees and mountains, a giant sunset.  It’s Rachel’s world, a landscape created from what little is left of her imagination.

The last two pages place us back in the mundane world, no glimpse of fantasy anywhere, a world between myth and dream, a respite from endless possibility and boundless imagination, where Constantine asks for a favor and gets a wish granted: relief from nightmares.

Outside the story, we the readers know that this relief can’t last, because the last words fit much portent into four small words: Next: Going to Hell”.

A Hope in Hell

“A Hope in Hell” feels like a turning point, a moment when the creators of The Sandman took a new step forward in the progress of their work and skills. There is a drama to the story that emanates not from any one element, but from a coordination of structures.  We have seen strengths of art and writing throughout the first three stories, but it is not until the fourth that these strengths are both consistent and cooperative enough to create a sense of depth greater than anything that can be pointed to in a single panel or on a single page.

The plot is as simple as the plot of “Dream a Little Dream of Me“, but there is a heft to it here that was lacking in the earlier tale.  Partly, that’s because there is more opportunity for imaginative leaps in a story of Dream going to visit the realm of Lucifer than in a story of Dream wandering through the mundane world.  Hell is vast, baroque, surprising, and we as readers know that anything could happen there.  Many creators need some limits to help their imaginations flower, but Gaiman and his collaborators seem to thrive best, at least in these early issues, when exploring realms of limitless possibility.

Paging through “A Hope in Hell” without even reading it is a pleasurable, exciting experience; each page seems designed to provide its own visual impact.  And then we come to the two-page spread that is pages 12 and 13 (the centerfold of the original 24-page issue, I assume).  The pages leading up to it have screamed with color (Hell is a vivid place), but these pages are muted: a drab grey background and foreground of muddy red, brown, and grey figures.  But what figures they are!  Tentacled, many-eyed, mushroom-like demons, each one individual in its grotesquerie, crowd their way toward the central pillar where Dream stands with the three lords of hell, Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Azazel.  It’s a scene out of a particular sinister moment in the works of Dr. Seuss or Gahan Wilson, and the sudden lack of color forces us to focus on their forms.  Color becomes an element of pacing, pulling us up short and slowing us down.  It’s like a musical composition in which a bunch of virtuoso horns suddenly stop and give way to Yo-Yo Ma on cello.

The quest plot is, indeed, simple, but that doesn’t mean the story is not filled with riches.  There are hints of political intrigue in the addition of Beelzebub and Azazel as equal partners of Lucifer, who previously ruled Hell alone.  The game Dream plays with the demon Choronzon to regain his helm is clever and much more satisfying than a wham-bam fight to the death might have been.  The first and last pages hint at mysteries we have only begun to glimpse.  This is efficient, creative storytelling; it knows the expectations we bring to certain stories, the narratives we have absorbed through years of exposure to popular culture, and it guides those expectations toward new directions.

All of this is impressive, but what most sticks with me from “A Hope in Hell” are two things Dream says.  First, the three words with which he wins the game with Choronzon: “I am hope.”  Choronzon can not think of a way to usurp hope, and so he loses the game and is handed over to the twins Agony and Ecstasy.  Lucifer then threatens to keep Dream in hell, and says, “Helmet or no, you have no power here — what power have dreams in hell?”  Dream’s response is simple: “What power would hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of heaven?”  And so he is able to leave, to return to his realm, because the rulers of hell need his realm to give their own realm meaning.

The idea of something needing its opposite in order to possess meaning itself is common to all sorts of philosophies, but I keep coming back to the idea as it’s expressed here because, like the word “hope” in the game, it tells us something about power in this world, and perhaps in our own.

The game with Choronzon is partly predicated on opposites, but unequal ones.  Once it moves beyond hunters and prey, it gets larger, even metaphysical: a world is trumped by a nova, the universe is trumped by “anti-life, the beast of judgment … the dark at the end of everything.”  Hope, though, has no opposite Choronzon can conceive.  We, of course, who are not demons, might conceive of antidotes to hope — the real world seems to offer them up every day — but hope is alien to Choronzon; he lives in its opposite, like air, which, too, can only be seen in certain conditions or with certain instruments.  We are defined not only by polarities, but by the limits of what we can imagine.

The realm of Dream is not, we learn here, merely the realm of what is seen by sleepers.  It is also the realm of what is imagined and what is yearned for.  The realm of desire and, indeed, hope.

Perhaps this offers, too, a moral vision of storytelling.  Stories are not merely structured dreams, but items from the land of imagination and desire, and no matter the horror, nihilism, or cynicism of the events and characters within them, those stories originate from the same place as hope.  Could it be that the act of telling a story itself is an expression of hope, regardless of what the story contains?  Could it be that the act of imagining is, no matter its darkness, no matter its despair, an act that springs from idealism, even joy?  The assumption of the storyteller is that someone will hear the story, that someone will receive the tale.  The assumption of imagination is that things can be otherwise.

Otherwise.  Jane Kenyon once wrote a poem that achieves an extraordinary power from that word (“I got out of bed/ on two strong legs./  It might have been/ otherwise”).  Change is a recurring theme in these first issues of The Sandman the fact of it something Dream continues to adjust to, and yet it is also the source of his power and sustenance, his vitality.  Change and hope are intimate relations; their power in Dream’s life, and his power over them, remains a central question for the story.  He is exploring the limits now — first, in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, with Rachel, whose imagination had been hollowed out by The Sandman’s sand, her hopes flattened into cliché; then with Choronzon and the demons, whose entire existence requires all that is the opposite of it.  In hell, a hope is the worst torture, but so long as it contains that power — so long as imagination maintains its sharp edge — Dream can be free.

Passengers

In 1969, Robert Silverberg won a Nebula Award for a story called “Passengers” that begins with these sentences: “There are only fragments of me left now.  Chunks of memory have broken free and drifted away like calved glaciers.”

Silverberg’s story is quite different* from the Sandman story Neil Gaiman named “Passengers”, but those opening sentences have resonance here.  Dream is still trying to recover from his imprisonment, still trying to gain strength, still trying to find the artifacts of his power.  Perhaps more than Silverberg it is T.S. Eliot we should invoke, one of the last lines of “The Waste Land”: These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

Eliot’s complex allusions, his collage of high and low art, offers some parallel with Gaiman’s “Passengers”, for once again we have a story rich with references.  The magpie impulse of “The Waste Land” plucks items from a wide landscape of Western textuality; “Passengers” is more focused, plundering the history of D.C. comics more than anything else, though that history itself sought resonances — John Dee, the alter-ego of Dr. Destiny, is also the name of an astrologer, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, a man who has appeared in all sorts of literatures through the centuries, and who was named by H.P. Lovecraft as a translator of The Necronomicon.  It’s appropriate, then, that D.C.’s Dee was imprisoned in Arkham Asylum, since it was Lovecraft who created Arkham, Massachusetts.

“Passengers” opens with views of the exterior and interior of Arkham Asylum, where guards are watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It’s a nice touch, as if Lovecraft’s dour vision has been infected by Hitchcock’s morbid wit.

There’s no need to go over all the Justice League references, but it’s good to know they’re there. For someone like me, mostly ignorant of the characters and their history, the effect is to create a sense of a vast world beyond the pages of this particular Sandman issue.  I know enough to know there is something out there, but not enough to know what it all is.  This is not a complaint; indeed, I think the haziness of my knowledge is helpful because it creates an impression of a world beyond the borders of these pages, but it does not distract my focus on this particular story with lots of thoughts of details from decades of D.C. history.  It’s a different feeling than I had when reading “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, where my ignorance of the history of John Constantine felt like a handicap — with “Passengers”, Gaiman presents a story that can be enjoyed by both the ignorant and the informed.

“Passengers” sets up two parallel stories with four pages each: John Dee escaping from Arkham Asylum to search for the ruby that will, he thinks, allow him to make everyone in the world insane and let him become the ruler of everything; a flashback/dream of Scott Free, who seeks a real name rather than a joke name created by his grandmother.  At the end of the fourth page, each story gains its second main character.  For Dee, it’s a woman named Rosemary, who drives the car he’s hijacked.  For Scott, it’s Dream.

The passengers of the title are mostly literal: Dee is a passenger in Rosemary’s car, The Sandman is a passenger in people’s dreams.  It’s this last concept that is, for me, the issue’s greatest concept, a sense-of-wonder bit of wow that lightly echoes the game Dream played with the demon Choronzon in the previous issue.  There’s a similar surreal flow to the movement of the logic: as Dream and Choronzon danced from idea to idea, so Dream now travels by wending his way not through the solid geography of the woken world, but through the associative maps in dreamers’ minds.  The illustration of this movement on page 18 is colorful and dynamic, shaped like the blades of a fan, scored with blurs, as if everything is ethereal or plasmic — swelling and surging, never static, never still.  (It makes me want an entire story devoted to dream travel.  Is it possible to get everywhere?  Is any location undreamed?)

Dee’s drive with Rosemary provides some exposition and some movement, but one panel in particular sticks out to me.  Page 12 offers six rectangular panels of equal size, and in the fifth panel, Rosemary asks Dee about why he looks the way he does: emaciated, hollowed out, more skeleton than person.  “Look, John,” she says, “I’m a nurse.  You can tell me, I don’t freak.  Is it the Big A?”  “Big A?” he asks.  “AIDS,” she says.  The panel depicts the car on a road and behind it a large, dilapidated sign for a movie theatre.  The sign, its letters falling off, proclaims “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” and, in smaller letters, “PLUS CO-HIT: ZOMBY WOOF.”  It’s as if the horrors of the past, both serious and silly, have been left behind, left to rot, and Rosemary’s suspicions hint at the new horrors of the real world.  But those horrors are unknown to John Dee, who has never heard of them, and who is ravaged by something much more metaphysical, though its basic source is the traditional devil of greed.

As Dream and Dee get closer to the object of their shared desire, the ruby, the colors of the pages grow ever more rich and red.  Dream is surprised, though, for unlike the tools he has sought previously, the ruby has been tainted by its time away from him.  Once again, Dream encounters unanticipated changes in the world, and it nearly kills him.

The final page of this issue is, as before, preparation for the next.  Dee, now reunited with the ruby, enters an all-night diner and orders a cup of coffee.  The waitress asks him what he’s waiting around for, and he says, “Oh, you know.  The usual.  The end of the world.”

An all-night diner seems like an appropriate spot to wait for such a thing — a place out of time, a place where the landscape is banal even in dreams.  The end of the world.  No big deal.  Time for another cup of coffee, or maybe a slice of blueberry pie.

* Silverberg’s is a story of alien abduction, or rather alien inhabitation: humans become hosts to aliens who take over their bodies and minds for a little while, making them do all sorts of things.  In the end, the narrator can’t go home with a woman because he’s suddenly gained a passenger who makes him go home with a man.  The story can be read, perhaps (and among other readings), as a kind of allegory for the decades when homosexual behavior was thought to be something in need of a “cure” — as if homosexuals really wanted people of the opposite sex, but the “passenger” of their disease took control of the wheel and drove them in another direction.

24 Hours

Sometimes we speak of writers “weaving a web” or creating a “web of story” — a metaphor that suggests not just interconnections of plot, character, theme, imagery, but also suggests something that gets caught.  Webs are more than complex, elegant designs; they are traps.  Traps of attention, of imagination.  Readers, in this metaphor, are flies.

The metaphor is given life in “24 Hours” right from the first words: “Hour 1: The flies walked into the web.”  John Dee, sitting in the darkness of himself at a back corner of a diner, thinks of the patrons as flies.  The power of the ruby gives him the ability to shape people’s lives any way he chooses.  The power he has stolen from Dream is the power of the storyteller.

“Passengers” ended with Dee at the diner in rain and darkness.  He said he was waiting for the end of the world.  “24 Hours” begins with the diner in clear daylight, and it begins with an aspiring storyteller: Bette, a waitress who writes stories about the people she meets at work.  She makes sure all of her stories have happy endings.  Bette gets through her drab days by thinking about being a writer as a kind of secret identity — being a waitress is just a disguise, a front she must maintain to be able to do her real work, her writing.  All the people she serves are not just customers, they’re raw material for her imaginings.  She’s only “really” a waitress in the way that Superman is “really” Clark Kent.

It’s a kind of power fantasy — where the customers may, on the surface, seem to have power over Bette, paying her money to serve them, she has the real power: the power to imagine their lives and shape their stories.  She imagines that if she tells anybody she’s a writer, they’ll no longer talk to her (“He’d spoke to her easy as anything, just as if he was really talking to a waitress.  Tell them you’re a writer and they shut up tighter than clams.”)  If Bette ever did tell anyone she was a writer, she might find the response different from what she imagines — plenty of people do exactly the opposite of shut up in the presence of a writer, and instead offer whatever they consider to be the most interesting elements of their life as something that would, they’re certain, make a wonderful story.  But Bette is as committed to the secrecy of her writerly identity as she is to that identity itself — indeed, the secrecy is inextricable from the identity.  In the secrecy lies the power.

The narration of “24 Hours” heightens our awareness of this issue being a story, because it uses a technique known to literary critics as “free indirect discourse” (or “free indirect speech”), a technique generally considered to have been especially refined by such writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf — critic James Wood, in his book How Fiction Works, has even gone so far as to say that “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style”.  Free indirect discourse gives us a character’s thoughts through third-person narration, but does not use such terms as “she thought” or “she wondered” to foreground the fact that the thoughts are reported by the narrator (which is what defines indirect discourse).  The effect is intimate, subjective, and tremendously narrative: we feel, as readers, included in both a consciousness and a story that is told.  We are not outside the story, watching it happen, with characters’ actions, speech, and thoughts presented as objects that we observe; rather, the story and a character’s thoughts and words are united in a single narration, with the story told through the character’s point of view but still in third-person.

By using free indirect discourse, Gaiman presents us with Bette’s world through her story of that world.  On the fourth page, we learn something especially important about her perception and her stories: “All Bette’s stories have happy endings.  That’s because she knows where to stop.  She’s realized the real problem with stories — if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”

Death, to Bette, is sadness, and so her stories must avoid it.  Thus, her stories must end before the ending — her stories must never wait for the end of the world.

On the next page, Bette’s attention shifts to John Dee, a grotesque figure of darkness.  His ruby begins shining.  Bette determines to write a story about this character.  “And in her story,” the narration tells us, “she’ll make him happy.”

We turn the page and leave free indirect discourse behind, returning to the more objective presentation of characters through action and reported speech and thoughts.  We begin, though, a story about Dee’s happiness.  Bette wants to write a story in which he becomes happy, but her conception of happiness is entirely the opposite of his — happiness to her is a world without pain and death.  Happiness to Dee is a world filled with both.  And that is the story we get next.

Throughout the rest of “24 Hours”, Dee asserts his power as a kind of storyteller, though one very different from Bette. He shapes people’s motivations, turning them into characters who do not desire to leave a diner. He changes plots — a television show for children shifts from giving instructions on what to do for birthdays to instructions on how to effectively slit your own wrists. Narrative pacing is all about the manipulation of the characters’ and readers’ perception of time, and Dee alters that, making what we readers are told is an hour feel to the characters much longer or shorter. Character is defined by consistency — we perceive someone as a character because there are certain behaviors we expect of them, certain thoughts and habits we think of as “theirs”, and Dee changes these, too, making the people around him into blank slates for his whims.

In the end, like most storytellers, he is a narcissist: he wants to know what his characters have to say to him, the all-powerful god of their world; he wants worship and sacrifice, he wants to know what his story means: “Tell me my future,” he says to them, and he keeps asking until they tell him what he wants to hear: that he has stolen the power of dreams and will kill the dream-lord.

He makes his characters suffer.  He makes them murder and torture.He begins to think of them as animals in the most basic sense, as a pack with a leader, and determines a clear separation of genders: nervous females and hungry, horny males whose instinct for sex is indistinguishable from their instinct to kill.  Then he tells them stories and makes them sing songs.  Finally, he makes them worship him.  He is their god, and he lets them experience the euphoria of unquestioning belief as they revel in their own blood.  He has taken them through horror stories, folktales, musicals, religious pageantry.  What else is there?  He stands in the silent hours of his characters’ deaths and the only relief to the silence is a fly that he kills and then eats.  William Golding began Lord of the Flies with an epigraph from Shakespeare: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods — they kill us for their sport.”  Dee adds a coda: And then they kill flies for a snack.

Having exerted his power over everyone, Dee grows bored.  What is there left for a storyteller to do when all the characters arrive at what Bette knew to be the real end of stories, death?

Just then, a weak and pallid Sandman arrives, and the promise of another story appears: “Next: Dream’s End.”

Bette was wrong. Death is not always the end.

Bette was wrong, too, in believing that stories are linear, that they progress from point A to B, that certain of those points suggest eternal happiness and the last point, Z, is the sadness of death.  Sometimes stories wrap around themselves.Sometimes they metastasize.  Sometimes the end is not The End but rather the beginning. And sometimes story is just another word for dream.

Sound and Fury

The seventh issue of Sandman wraps up most of the story arc, and our readerly expectations of such things are that they should feel climactic.  And yet there’s little suspense or excitement in the narrative of “Sound and Fury”, because Dream’s character isn’t particularly well developed yet, and it’s hard to drum up a lot of concern for his fate.  In previous issues, this hasn’t been too much of a problem, because so many of the characters around Dream were compelling; here, where the story’s central concern is with Dream’s battle with Dee for the ruby, the vagueness of our main character helps sap the issue of any real tension.

That would be a bigger problem in an issue that wasn’t as beautifully designed as this one, though, and in some ways the story’s flatness is an advantage.  In “24 Hours”, the artwork was mostly unobtrusive — well done, but it stuck to the forms we expect of a comic, and little of the imagery really jumped out and drew attention to itself.  That was as it should be in an issue that was very much about its story, the most focused and literary of Sandman’s narratives so far.

“Sound and Fury” is exactly the opposite — none of the pages follow a standard template for design, and every few pages the shape, structure, and style of panels changes radically.  This is where the energy of the issue lies.  The first page offers three panels without color and a fourth with only some reds and a bit of light blue shadow.  The panels’ edges are jagged, like lines in a charcoal sketch, and the panels are cockeyed and asymmetrical, like photos tossed into an album.  The next page continues the ascetic aesthetic.  Horrible events are presented in these panels, for John Dee has used the ruby’s power to bring catastrophe and madness to the world.

Over the next few pages, color begins to seep into the panels.  Dee is consistently rendered with jagged, textured lines, like a creature from a Max Beckmann painting.  Even the words in his dialogue bubbles look like Expressionist scrawls.

Full color enters the pages when Dee follows Dream into his realm.  The panels become even more wild in their design and arrangement.  The darkness of the previous pages is countered now with color and specific moments of its very opposite: white emptiness.  The drama in this issue is the drama of color.  On page 11, when Dee first realizes he’s in the dreamworld, the middle third of the page shows him as a small yellow figure against a plane of white.  The foundation of the dreamworld is a blank page.  We encounter a similar, even more striking, use of blankness a few pages later.  All of page 17 is white except for a small figure of Dee, a figure that’s repeated on the next page, the top of which is also utterly blank.

The effect is especially striking because pages 12 through 17 are the most colorful and active in the issue.  Pages 12 and 13 are an especially powerful spread, a collage into which the ruby-colored, skeletal figure of Dee falls.  Purely as artwork, it’s even more effective than the centerfold spread in “A Hope in Hell”, but it’s extraordinary also in being part of a multi-page sequence; the collage extends through the next two pages, then is overwhelmed by the ruby-saturated panels of pages 16 and 17, culminating in a giant pink explosion.  We turn the page into the blank dreamworld after the destruction of the ruby.

Turning that page, contrast is what first grabs the eye — we move from pages dominated by white to pages dominated by darkness.  Page 19 is a single panel, a striking image of a giant Dream holding a little Dee in his hand.  There is now question, now, that this figure is a god.

The transformation of Dream’s image in these pages is interesting, too.  Previously, he has appeared gaunt, severe, serious.  Occasionally, as in his dreamworld battle with Dee, his face has been hidden by the helm that makes him look like a giant fly preparing to be an astronaut.  Now, though, he looks younger and more pensive, less threatening — more Syd Barrett than Ralph Fiennes.  Despite his red-pupiled eyes, on these pages there’s a gentleness and femininity to him that we haven’t seen before.

Such a representation of Dream fits well with his behavior toward Dee, who expects simply to be killed.  Instead, the Sandman bestows a kind of mercy on the defeated man, bringing him out of the dreamworld and back to Arkham Asylum, where he is, finally, able to sleep — but without dreams.

Silence covers the world that Dee had filled with screams.  Sleep returns, sanity returns.

There’s a tremendous unreality to the horrors Dee apparently brought about, a lack of consequence within the story’s own world.  If Dee caused the sort of havoc he is said to have caused, then the entire world should be permanently shocked and shattered.  Instead, normality returns with sleep, and it’s as if everyone forgets, as if some force has repaired all the damage.  With the restoration of the lord to the dreamworld comes the restoration of order to the waking world and the erasure of the consequences of disorder.  For a moment, at least, a perfect balance exists.

The Sound of Her Wings

With the eighth issue, the Sandman is free for the first time of all the concerns that occupied him previously, and so “The Sound of Her Wings” is a kind of coda to the tale up to this point.  It’s a particularly interesting issue in that it has no overt conflict; what conflict there is exists within Dream himself.

This issue luxuriates in the freedom from a need to advance the plot.  For the first time, we get some glimpses of Dream as a character, someone with complex thoughts and feeling.  Though the story ranges across time and space, it feels as focused as “24 Hours” because it is primarily a dialogue between Dream and his sister, whom we eventually discover is Death, the god Roderick Burgess tried to imprison in the first issue, when he instead summoned and captured Dream.

Death seems like a nice woman.  She’s not morose or vindictive, and certainly not terrifying in her affect or presentation.  She wonders why people are so seldom happy to see her.  She’s sensitive and thoughtful, apparently a good sister.  We know nothing, though, of her realm.  We see her welcome people to their deaths, but the afterlife remains mysterious.  A Jewish man says to her, “It’s good that I said the Sh’ma.  My old man always said it guaranteed you a place in heaven.  If you believe in heaven…  So.  I’m dead.  Now what?”  Death replies, “Now’s when you find out, Harry.”

Harry finds out, but we don’t — instead, we see Dream standing against a dark blue background with black, charcoal-like shadows radiating across it, and two thought bubbles: “She draws him close,” and “From the darkness I hear the beating of mighty wings…”

Further visits to people who will die prove no more illuminating.  Death admits a certain sadness that people are so frightened of her and “the sunless lands,” then expresses some surprise that people enter Dream’s realm every night without fear.  To which her brother adds, “And I am far more terrible than you, my sister.”

How the world of dreams is far more terrible than the world of death we do not know; it is an assertion that, at this point in the series at least, we must take at face value.  What we see, though, on the page after this dialogue, is the awfulness Death can bring to the living — she takes a baby’s life, and the mother collapses in grief beside the crib.  Death places an absolute separation between people.  Dreamers dream alone, but there is always an expectation of return.  More often than not, people wake from sleep.  Death is, though, the realm from which no traveler returns.  It is not only mysterious, the land of the unknown; it is final.

Dream’s struggle in this issue is not with his sister, who functions here primarily as a foil for him, but rather with himself.  Having freed himself, having restored his realm, he lacks any sense of direction or motivation.  It’s as if he’s become a stereotypical angsty adolescent.  There is, indeed, a sense of rebirth for him, and not only for him — for the story, as well.  It has moved from infancy to wild teenagerdom, and now it stands ready for some sort of adulthood.  There is a sense that anything could happen, that Dream could shape his life in any way he chooses.  Such possibility is difficult for storytellers, because stories thrive on limitations.  Every word in a story ends whatever infinite paths existed before that word was uttered; every word narrows the possibilities for what words might follow.  It’s not surprising that art often thrives in conditions of aesthetic limit or scarcity, that many artists choose certain rules and regulations for themselves, that form is not something every creator rejects, but rather something many choose.  Sonnets have survived centuries.

The last page of “The Sound of Her Wings” explodes with lively colors: red, yellow, green.  The final image of Dream here is one of joy and youthfulness — he has found the peace he needed, the peace that will allow him to return to his realm and the many tasks waiting for him there: “There is much to do in my kingdom,” he thinks.  “Much to restore.  Much to create.”

Having accompanied his sister on her rounds, seen her at her work, talked with her, he is now able to accept his own purpose and work.  The world of dreams needs the world of death, its counterpart, its sibling, to remind it of its meaning.  A creator who faces infinite possibilities needs not only some form, but some purpose, and even some responsibility.  It’s as if Dream is saying to himself: This is who I am, this is what I am meant to be.  It’s as if to rebuild himself and restore himself he must accept himself.

And then the dream-stories can begin again.

Author: Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. The Mumpsimus. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.