Come Sweet Death

Now that the Sandman’s power has been fully restored after somewhere around eight decades, he decides to spend his freedom…feeding pigeons. A group of three men play soccer behind him as a pale-skinned, black-haired woman walks over to him (her clothes are likewise black).

She starts by asking him what he’s doing, and remarks that if you feed pigeons too much, you get “FAT PIGEONS!” which sparks a conversation about Mary Poppins in which Dream learns that “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” means the same thing as “peachy keen.”

It’s obvious from the way she talks to Dream that they know each other, but it isn’t quite clear yet what exactly their relationship is. When the woman’s banter does nothing to lighten Dream’s mood, she inquires as to what’s troubling him. He describes to her the details of this capture and its aftermath—how his power was returned to him. He explains that, now that his quest is over, he feels empty and disappointed.

The woman flies into a fury, taking Dream’s loaf of bread and throwing it at his head (wheat, by the way, is the Greek symbol for wisdom, and as the Book of Job declares at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes, “the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.”) She denounces him for pitying himself now that his quest is over, and for never contacting her during his ordeal. In her rage, she accuses him of being “as bad as Desire,” which is the second mention we get of other members of the Endless. Thus we learn that the woman yelling is, in fact, Dream’s older sister Death.

There have been a lot of readers of The Sandman who, at this point in the story, can’t help but ask “If Death knew that Dream was trapped by Burgess, why didn’t she do anything to help him escape?” Another question that has been asked is “In order for Burgess to die, wouldn’t Death have to make an appearance?”

The theory I like most is that each of the Endless are their own…well, people, and that they are each extremely independent. It’s not necessarily that Dream would be unappreciative if Death showed up and rescued him, but in all likelihood he’d start moping about how he couldn’t figure his own way out of the problem (if you’ve read the series before, then you know how much Dream loves to mope and brood).

As for Burgess, Neil might be suggesting that Death is not physically present when you die; that your spirit has passed on and you encounter Death in a realm between life and death. As we saw in Passengers, Dream is capable of moving through our dreams without us noticing. Out of all of the Endless, Death perhaps has the closest relationship to humanity in their waking lives, so it could be that she has the ability to traverse reality in such a way that she avoids our detection. This theory is supported by the fact that, when Dream decides to accompany Death as she carries out her duty, he mentions that “The churning crowd parts as we walk through it, looking everywhere else, but not at us.”

Death first visits an old Jew named Harry dying alone in an apartment building in New York. He’s playing the fiddle and singing

Can you rocker Romany?
Can you patter flash?
Can you rocker Romany?
Can you fake a bosh?

Death replies that, yes, she can patter Romany (which, from what I gather, means to talk to gypsies). When she asks if Harry can, he replies, “Not so well, but I can fake a bosh. Means t’play the fiddle.” He goes on to describe himself playing in clubs in his youth, and Death responds by telling him that she knows who he is, “Do you know who I am?”

When Harry recognizes her, his immediate response is one of fright. He starts to plead with her to not take him yet, but in the next moment realizes that such a request is ludicrous. He resigns himself to saying the Sh’ma—a Jewish prayer said to guarantee those who say it a place in Heaven. He dies directly afterward, and Death informs him that now is when he figures out what happens after death. As Death takes Harry, Dream hears the sound of her (invisible) wings, which is obviously where the title of this issue comes from.

Her next stop is with an up-and-coming comedian named Esmé. A good portion of Esmé’s material is poking fun at Batman, but the best part is that Neil wrote it in the way a comedian living in a world where Batman actually exists would write it. Esmé has no knowledge of any of Batman’s story, and so theorizes that Batman woke up one day, quit his job, and told his wife that he was now going to dress up like a bat and fight crime.

Unfortunately, an otherwise great comedy act is cut short. The microphone Esmé is using electrocutes her, and her spirit stands over her body furious and disappointed that she never got the chance to be really good. Death tells her that she liked the act, and then Esmé is gone.

There’s a brief transition in which Death explains to Dream that most humans aren’t very happy to see her because they fear “the Sunless Lands.” And yet we enter Dream’s realm every night without a thought even though, as Dream states, he and his realm are “far more terrible than you, my sister.” Whether the fact that she is feared or loved doesn’t appear to have any effect on Death’s overall disposition, however. As stated later in Death: The Time of Your Life, she loves everyone, and that love is in all probability an unconditional one. I’m unsure if it’s intended to be graffiti or something someone is shouting, but text behind them in this scene reads, “No one here gets out alive!” which I thought was a darkly humorous summary of life itself.

Death visits many more: A baby in its cradle (whose spirit asks, “Is that all there was? Is that all I get?” to which Death replies, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”), a man who overdosed on pills, another man lying in a ditch, an old woman in the hospital, another man who appears to have been shot or stabbed to death beneath graffiti that says “Dreams make no promises,” a woman who appears to have overdosed on drugs (possibly cocaine or heroine), a man who fell off a scaffold, and a woman lying dead at the bottom of a staircase.

As these visits are happening, Dream thinks about humanity and their reaction to Death. He doesn’t understand it because to him, “it is as natural to die as it is to be born.” He recalls a song composed by a man that he heard in a dream (the song actually has its origins in the Egyptian Book of the Dead). The general point of the song is to point out that death is a form of liberation; a celebration of one’s passing on to the next place they’re meant to go. Unfortunately, humanity has a habit of focusing on the pain that may come before that liberation. 

Through these thoughts and observing Death at her duties, Dream decides that he, like his sister, has responsibilities to perform. He resolves to return to his realm of Dreaming and get to work reconstructing it. Interspersed with this decision is Death’s last visit: a young man named Franklin who was one of the three men playing soccer at the beginning of The Sound of Her Wings. He ran into Death and Dream in the pigeon feeding scene, wherein Death informed him that he would be seeing her very soon. Franklin takes this to mean that Death is flirting with him, and is now so caught up in her that, when the soccer ball bounces out into the street, he runs after it like an idiot. A car hits him, and Death appears at his side to console him, as it would appear that Franklin is still so caught up in her that he hasn’t even realized that he’s dead. We are left with Dream returning to the Dreaming to fulfill his vow to restore it to order, which is an appropriate stopping point considering it leaves us wondering how Dream will improve on his already mystifying realm.

The Sound of Her Wings is considered by many to be the benchmark where Neil Gaiman threw out everything that wasn’t him and showed his readers his true ability as a writer. Perhaps this is because, as he puts it in The Sandman Companion, “[The Sound of Her Wings is] the one I’ve been looking forward to writing since we began […] I had more fun on this script than I’ve had on anything for a long while—one of the few times I’ve actually been irritated if anything took me away from the keyboard.”

Another reason could be that The Sound of Her Wings established a deep, emotional connection with its readers—a connection that was, perhaps, lacking in the first seven issues. Not to mention I have yet to find a Sandman fan who did not immediately fall in love with Death’s “utterly fantabulous” personality.

A fan’s quite accurate portrayal of Death.

Death’s appearance came from a friend of the artist Mike Dringenberg named Cinnamon. According to Dringenberg, “She was an ex-ballet dancer with an amazing body […] a memorable haircut, and was prone to wandering around with a little black umbrella […] Part of [the reason Death wears an ankh] came out of the ankh being in vogue at the time. I also liked the irony […] because the ankh is the Egyptian symbol for life.”

As a final note for those interested, the title of this post comes from a song by The Oddz and Voltaire on a CD entitled “Where’s Neil When You Need Him?” The CD is composed of songs based off of the works of Neil Gaiman.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

There’s No Place Like Home

To begin, panic. Sheer, bloody panic. As John Dee abuses the power of the Sandman’s dreamstone in Sound and Fury, the result causes many people across the globe to have bad dreams, which then results in chaotic murder and destruction.

In the midst of this, Dream confronts Dee and demands to know what he’s doing with the ruby and why. Dee explains that he’s driving the world mad in order to have revenge and to feel powerful. Dream pleads with Dee to stop, return the ruby to him, and repair the damage he’s done. But power corrupts the corruptible, and Dee instead decides that he will try to kill Dream and take the power for his own. The two of them enter the Dreaming to wage this battle.

Dee dreams that he is Julius Caesar, and that three soothsayers come to him. They wish upon him that all his dreams will come true, and Dee comments that he once had a dream about raping his own mother. At first, the soothsayers tell him that the dream means that he will rule the world, which pleases Dee, but then they claim otherwise. “It doesn’t mean anything,” they say. “No more than this: you had a dream about raping your mother.” Dee’s mother then appears in his dream as nothing more than a picture (which is probably all Dee had to remember her by while at Arkham Asylum), and scolds him for having such a disgusting dream.

Two monoliths appear, warning him to “beware the ideas of March,” then transforming into two hideous brides of Frankenstein before Dee subconsciously uses the power of the ruby to make them disappear. He then realizes where he is and why, and begins launching an assault on the Dreaming itself, demanding that Dream come out and confront him. This is also the point at which we see Dream’s brother Destiny for the first time, hesitant to turn the page of his all-knowing book.

Fearful for the safety of the dreamers, Dream obeys and Dee begins crushing the ruby, believing that by destroying it he will then destroy Dream. The ruby is destroyed, but instead of destroying Dream, it restores all of his power to him. Dream appears as a towering giant, and Dee a miniscule, naked figure in the palm of his hand (which becomes comical when he asks Dream if he intends to kill him while scratching his buttocks). Dream instead decides to thank Dee for his service by returning him to Arkham unharmed. Upon their return, the Scarecrow (a.k.a. Doctor Jonathan Crane) greets them, quoting Faust: “It is a comfort in wretchedness to have companions of woe.” They then walk back to Dee’s cell in a panel reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, with Dee saying “There’s no place like home.”

In a single night, Dream sets about repairing the damages Dee set in motion, which is a statement on the supreme power he now possesses. Perhaps for the first time since its opening, Arkham Asylum is silent as its inmates sleep peacefully.

No doubt, the old Dream would have simply crushed Dee’s life out for what he’d done (or done far worse things), but perhaps the reason he doesn’t is because Dee seems so insignificant to him now that his power is completely restored. And really, Dee had only been partially responsible for Dream’s weakness. It would be like killing one ant when an entire army has invaded your home, and Dream already dealt with Burgess (the queen ant in this analogy).

What’s more interesting are the ways in which Dream attempts to combat Dee. The dreams Dee has before realizing that he’s in the Dreaming are obviously meant either to deter him or make him feel feeble before Dream. Obviously, Dream probably had knowledge of the kind of dreams and nightmares Dee had in the past, and drew off of them. And when Dee offers up the fact that he had a dream about raping his mother, Dream takes full advantage of the opening in Dee’s defenses.

Alternatively, Dee’s dreams could just be his subconscious showing him (and us) his deepest fears. He wants to be king of dreams so that he can be king of the world, and therefore he wants the dreams to have meaning. If the dreams are insignificant–if they mean nothing more than that he simply had a dream about raping his mother–then that means he doesn’t have meaning; that he’s insignificant, and that scares Dee more than anything.

Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion offers some interesting tidbits about the artwork of Sound and Fury, as well. For example, Neil Gaiman had originally written that in the fourth panel of the issue, the Sandman should be completely white as he creates the ruby dreamstone. However, the idea never made it to the printed page.

Another part about the artwork that Neil himself is particularly fond of starts in Passengers, with Arkham Asylum being the frame for the first few panels. This is mirrored in Sound and Fury, where Arkham is shown within the folds of Dream’s robe.

Like Passengers and 24 Hours, Sound and Fury displays Gaiman as a writer just starting to find his voice. Unfortunately, when looked at in comparison to the former two, Sound and Fury just simply isn’t as good. Perhaps this is because there are really only two characters in the entire issue (Dream and John Dee), and we’re so used to there being multiple well-developed characters. With only two characters, there’s less room to move around and fewer possibilities for an ending readers won’t be expecting. Sound and Fury could only end one of two ways–either John Dee wins and becomes the next Sandman, or Dream wins and has all of his power restored to him. Since we’ve only just been introduced to Dream, and since he’s obviously the main character of the series, it wouldn’t make sense to kill him off this quickly (although early cancellation was certainly an issue Gaiman worried about while writing the first 8 issues).

Luckily, the issues that follow Sound and Fury become increasingly less predictable, which is part of what makes The Sandman as good as it is. While you may at least suspect what’s coming at the turn of the page, it usually happens in a way that surprises you. By the end of the Doll’s House story arch, Gaiman becomes a master at taking classic archetypes and turning them in a different direction.

Next: Death is Before Me Today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

24 Hours in 24 Pages

The sixth installment of Preludes & Nocturnes, 24 Hours, was the comic that scared many people away from The Sandman. It makes sense, considering it features a small group of people in a diner being tortured to death over a 24 hour period. However, it remains the comic that most critics (as well as Neil Gaiman himself) point to as the moment when Neil found his voice.

According to Gaiman, when he was writing 24 Hours, he attempted to “break the rules of what had been done in comics to date, to go as far as I could go” (Bender, Hy page 35). Considering the aforementioned response from readers, it’s easy to see that he succeeded in his goal.

Realizing he had exactly 24 pages to work with, Gaiman originally intended to depict one hour within the diner per page, but gave up after acknowledging the fact that he needed the first few pages to introduce Bette, Judy, Garry, Kate, Marsh, and Mark.

The 24 Hours Diner

Bette is a waitress who draws material off of the people who come into the diner, giving each customer a happy ending in her stories. She also gives us the first hint toward the ending of The Sandman in her internal monologue that states, “If you keep [stories] going long enough, they always end in death.”

Judy is a young lesbian who recently went through a fight with her girlfriend, Donna (who is one of the main characters of Sandman Volume 5: A Game of You). She waits in the diner, trying to think of a way to apologize to Donna for hitting her.

Garry and Kate are a married couple, although later panels will reveal that Garry has cheated on Kate plenty of times in the past.

Marsh is a former mailman who began stealing mail after his wife, Marsha, died. After getting caught and put in penitentiary for five years, he’s now a trucker. Bette and Marsh have been having an affair since before Marsha died.

Mark is a young man stopping in for a coffee before heading to an interview.

And in one corner sits John Dee, watching all of them, holding the ruby Dreamstone in his hand and waiting.

In the second hour, Mark discovers that he’s late for his interview and starts to rush out the door. Dee uses the power of the ruby to make him stay for another cup of coffee.

In the third hour, Dee watches an afternoon soap opera while Judy first calls Rose Walker (a friend who will have a lead role in Sandman Volume 2: The Doll’s House), and then Donna’s mother. Both leave her no closer to making amends with Donna.

The fourth hour results in a children’s TV show host informing his viewers that “we’re going to die” and that “we should slash our wrists now…and remember to slash down the wrist, boys and girls, not across the wrist.” The fact that John Dee begins laughing uncontrollably after the screen states “Please stand by: we are experiencing technical difficulties” suggests that his use of the ruby has already had an effect on the world outside the diner.

Hour 5: Dee must repeatedly use the ruby to prevent Garry and Kate from leaving, as Garry continuously comments about how strange it feels that “it seems like we must ahve been here for hours. But it seems like we just came in…” Judy writes a letter of apology to Donna, but eventually winds up with her head on the table in tears.

Hours 7 and 8: Dee exploits the diners’ wildest dreams by giving each of them what they want. Mark becomes executive director of his company, Garry has a cheap hooker in his car with every intention of beating her and driving off afterward, and Kate holds Garry’s head on a platter, knowing that she’ll never have to worry about him cheating again. Bette removes Stephen King from the bestseller lists, Judy reunites with Donna, and Marsh believes he’s drunk himself to death. In the world outside, insanity and bad dreams spread throughout the streets.

Hours 9 through 11 at the diner.

Hour 9: Dee allows Marsh to discover that Judy is lesbian. Marsh begins striking her, telling her that all she needs to “turn” her heterosexual is “a proper man to show her.”

Hour 10: Dee makes the diners worship him.

Hour 11: Dee listens to news reporters discuss the possible causes of the insanity and bad dreams.

Hour 12: Dee makes each of the diners tell a very personal story (although we only hear Kate’s, which informs us that she once performed necrophilia in a mortuary while drunk).

Hour 13: Dee watches as two of the diners “get to know each other intimately” while The Addam’s Family plays on the TV.

Hour 14: Dee turns Judy, Kate, and Bette into oracles (much like the three witches of Imperfect Hosts). He tells them to tell him his future. The first time, they tell him he is made of dust and that he will return to dust. Dissatisfied, Dee asks again. They tell him his only future is one bounded by walls and guards. Infuriated, Dee shouts, “TELL ME MY FUTURE!” They then tell him that he will take all of Dream’s power and crush him with it. Dee smiles and says that this is a very good future.

Hour 15: Dee gives the diners back their minds for a while, and Marsh demands to know why Dee is torturing them. Dee replies simply, “Because I can.”

Hour 16: These four panels, which are completely black, always confuse me. We are told that there is “murder in the dark,” and an accompanying “AAAAHH!” followed by Dee’s laughter seem to confirm this, yet when we turn the page to Hour 17, no one has died. Perhaps Dee only manipulated their minds to think they were dead, as he did previously with Marsh.

Hour 17: Marsh speaks with Bette as he pounds nails into his right hand with a hammer (Bette holds the nails in place over his hand). He tells her that Marsha knew about their affair, and that while he was in the penitentiary, he saw Bette’s son. Her son had been selling himself in Gotham but got arrested for stabbing his pimp. In prison, he sold himself (presumably to Marsh) for a pack of cigarettes.

Hour 18: Dee gives them all the minds of wolves, and Garry battles Mark for control of “the pack.” Garry kills Mark in the fight.

Hour 19: Dee tells them all the story of Snow White (this hour is prefaced with “Hour 19: He lies to them.” Neil leaves it up to the reader to decide what Dee is lying about).

Hour 20: Dee gets Judy, Bette, and Kate to sing for him. The bloody cleaver in Bette’s hand suggests that she killed Garry, as he doesn’t appear alive in any of the following panels.

Hour 21: Dee convinces Judy to jab two sharp objects (ice picks?) into her eyes so that she can “see the Glory.”

Hour 22: A single panel shows us that all of the diners are dead.

Hour 23: Dee eats a fly.

Hour 24: Dream enters the diner, and Dee is relieved that someone arrived to relieve his boredom, although he admits that Dream doesn’t look strong enough to “make it interesting.”

While I must admit to being somewhat revolted myself the first time I read 24 Hours, I read through it a second time and realized how original the story seemed. It stands independent from the classic DC comics titles, which is exactly what it needed to make it great. Because Gaiman is dealing with original characters, he can actually go into depth with them, whereas with the DC comics characters of the first five Sandman comics, he wrote them assuming readers already knew who Constantine, Martian Manhunter, and John Dee were. I can’t imagine the freedom to create original characters comes very often for those who write for DC comics, and Gaiman took full advantage of the opportunity to prove himself as a writer by taking necessary risks.

Gaiman also employs a unique archetype for 24 Hours. While Dee manipulates the minds of those in the diner, he never physically lifts a finger against any of them. They all kill themselves (or each other), but not before their dark secrets are revealed. And yet, even with these secrets, they don’t seem that different from us as readers. In the end, Gaiman hints to us that it is not Dee, but life itself that kills Bette, Judy, Kate, Marsh, Garry, and Mark. It is life itself that is killing each and every one of us. That, if anything, may be the most horrifying realization of 24 Hours.

Next: There’s No Place Like Home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

No Direction Home

The Scarecrow. Somebody needs to teach this guy about hygene.

All Arkham Asylum security guards must be horrible at their jobs. If any of them were in the least bit competent, they’d have noticed the inmate, John Dee, escaping from his cell. Instead of watching the security cameras, they’re busy watching Alfred Hitchcock. For those who have never heard Funeral March for a Marionette (better known as the Alfred Hitchcock theme), here it is.

On his way out of the asylum, John Dee stops to converse with Dr. Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. Scarecrow), who has “hung” himself as a April Fool’s Day prank. Dee explains his plan to Crane, telling him that he’s going to get his “mat-er-i-op-ti-kon” (Dream’s ruby) back and that he’ll make the entire world hail him as king. Crane admits that it sounds like a good plan, but that Dee will be back.

“We always come back here,” he says. “It’s so scary outside.”

The Silver Age Miracleman by Neil Gaiman

Dee escapes, and shortly after hijacks a car, telling the woman inside that he’s going to get his ruby back (completely giving up on trying to pronounce Materioptikon, a word that he himself created), and delivering the classic line, “Trust me. I’m a doctor.”

A transition into the dreams of Scott Free (a.k.a. Miracleman), who dreams of a series of torture devices designed by his “Granny” to test his cunning and reflexes. He wakes up from the nightmare with Dream sitting on the end of his bed. Dream asks for Scott’s help in finding his ruby, and we are lead to believe that Scott will discover his true name in return.It’s really no surprise that Gaiman would incorporate Miracleman into The Sandman, considering Miracleman was one of the first comics projects he worked on (as stated in Bring Me a Dream). The real surprise comes when Gaiman incorporates yet another classic DC Comics character into the story, J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter, who hails Dream as Lord L’Zoril. When questioned about the ruby, J’onn states that it’s probably in storage in a town called Mayhew, which is exactly where John Dee is headed.

J'onn J'onzz, the Last Martian

Oddly enough, it’s the evil mastermind who has one of the greatest quotes in Preludes and Nocturnes. While driving to the storage site, John Dee asks his driver, Rosemary, if she knows what dreams are made of. Rosemary dismisses the question, claiming that dreams are “just dreams,” but Dee denies it.

“People think dreams aren’t real because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes…”

He then explains that Dream’s ruby has the power to change dreams into matter; to manipulate the minds of others to make their wildest dreams or worst nightmares become reality. He also states that he has altered it so that only he can use it, which is why when Dream enters the storage facility and attempts to draw power from the ruby, the ruby rips what little power he had left from him instead. This allows John Dee to find the ruby with more power than it ever had before, making him a more formidable opponent.

The last few panels leave us with Dee entering a local diner and asking for a cup of coffee

Doctor Destiny. If I were him, I'd seriously reconsider giving Batman an excuse to kick his ass for 12 hours straight.

while he waits, as he puts it, for “the end of the world.” We can already tell that Dee having possession of the ruby is not a good thing, but we won’t find out just what power the ruby has over our world until the next issue, 24 Hours.

One thing I love about Passengers is that Gaiman has taken the mediocre Justice League villain John Dee and turned him into the type of villain that readers can actually respect, rather than the campy “anti-gravity discs” and “will-deadener beam” of Doctor Destiny. He’s created a completely new character that fits in with the dark world of The Sandman. On the other hand, I almost felt as if the Martian Manhunter’s role in the story could have been played by any member of the Justice League and yield the same results. Chances are it was just another one of DC’s attempts to get Justice League fans interested in The Sandman.

In the end, Passengers is the harbinger of what Sandman will become. It’s stated in the comic itself when Dream attempts to draw power from the ruby: Things have changed, it’s all uphill from here, you can’t go back. However, this is also a sign that the story of the Sandman is about to “come of age” and become more original.

Next: 24 Hours in 24 Pages

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Old Wounds and Older Games

Dream’s next stop is to Hell, searching for his helm. As Dream uses the sand of dreams to open a portal to the Underworld, he remembers “another” who fell, “his eyes still proud.” It is obvious that he speaks of Samael, better known as Lucifer. This short introduction to the fourth issue of Sandman gives us some idea of how old Dream really is, and also a notion of the power he must have.

Squatterbloat, the demon who gets his faced punched in by Dream.

Dream falls through the Naked Space into Hell, where a demon named Squatterbloat greets him, as well as poking fun at him for losing his helm and ruby. Dream is insulted enough by these jibes that, for the first and last time, we see him punch another character (Squatterbloat) in the face.

Another demon, Etrigan, appears and declares that he will guide Dream through Hell. Etrigan is another character who has appeared in previous DC comics, usually lending aid to the Justice League. A bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Etrigan shifts back and forth from his demon form and his human form, Jason Blood. Dream makes the comment that Etrigan has risen in Hell’s hierarchy, considering he now speaks in rhymes.

Etrigan. Want to be bad ass? Catch a demon and ride it.

Etrigan leads Dream through the Wood of Suicides (which used to be a grove, but now looks like a true forest), and to a place where souls are imprisoned. Here, Dream sees his past love, Nada, who has been imprisoned for ten thousand years. She pleads for him to release her, and though he loves her, he says that he has not yet forgiven her. We will, of course, find out what happened between them in Sandman: Doll’s House.

They arrive at Dis, the hell city, where Etrigan leaves Dream in the presence of Lucifer. Lucifer asks if Dream has come to accept his offer to ally the forces of Hell and the Dreaming, but Dream (again) refuses. He explains that his helm is in the possession of a demon, and that he has come to reclaim it. Lucifer explains that things have changed in Hell since Dream’s last visit; that Hell is now a triumvirate of Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Azazel. Since Dream does not know the name of the demon who has his helm, they summon all of the demons of Hell before them, and tell Dream to point out the one who has it.

Nada as she appears in "Preludes & Nocturnes."

Dream uses the dream sand to point out the demon Choronzon, who eventually admits to having the helm. However, because it was traded fairly to him by Ruthven Sykes, Dream must challenge Choronzon to a battle of wits to win it back. The game they play is, indeed, one of the oldest games in existence. The object is to name an object (it can be almost anything). Your opponent attempts to name an object that will defeat the object you’ve named. Dream and Choronzon’s game goes as follows:

Choronzon: “I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.”
Dream: “I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.”
Choronzon: “I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.”
Dream: “I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight-legged.”
Choronzon: “I am a snake, spider-devouring, poison-toothed.”
Dream: “I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.”
Choronzon: “I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.”
Dream: “I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.”
Choronzon: “I am a nova, all-exploding, planet-cremating.”
Dream: “I am the Universe–all things encompassing, all life embracing.”
Choronzon: “I am anti-life, the beast of judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?”
Dream: “I am hope.”

A digital interpretation of Choronzon.

Choronzon is unable to think of anything that could ever defeat Hope, so Dream wins. Choronzon is taken to be tortured, and Dream’s helm is returned to him. However, Lucifer  claims that dreams have no power in Hell, suggesting that–even though Dream has won–there is no reason why Lucifer should let him leave.

Dream replies that, while weakened, Lucifer is foolish to think dreams have no power in Hell. “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned could not dream of Heaven?” he asks. Lucifer realizes defeat, and allows him to pass, declaring that one day he will destroy Dream.

The epilogue of A Hope in Hell shows a security guard at Arkham Asylum giving John Dee the protective device Ruthven Sykes received in his trade with Choronzon. Dee’s mother has died, and so John inherits the device. While it no longer has any power now that the trade has ended, John thanks his mother, saying that it’s what he’s always wanted.

Lucifer eventually received his own graphic novel series as a spin-off of the Sandman.

Many reviewers have pointed to A Hope in Hell as the point at which readers began to see Gaiman’s voice, and I would tend to agree. The Lucifer of Sandman is much different than the Lucifer portrayed in many of the John Constantine: Hellblazer graphic novels (as revealed in later volumes of Sandman), and Gaiman employs only one previously created DC comics character in the issue. The worst of this issue is that the demons portrayed come off as a bit cartoony–more likely to belch loudly than to torture souls for eternity.

A Hope in Hell
is mainly the issue that shows us Dream’s incredible power. At times, we don’t know whether we should love him or fear him–should one love a being that demons fear? It also shows us his astonishing intellect–how many people would think of Hope as the one thing that could defeat the end of all things? Granted, it seems obvious when Gaiman points it out to us, but would we have thought of it were we in Dream’s position? Not many people can think that quickly. In short, A Hope in Hell sets things up for the final battle of Preludes & Nocturnes by showing us what Dream is capable of. It also shows us a few of Dream’s weaknesses–when he battles Choronzon, he doubts his own abilities, fearing that he is too weak to win. These doubts, too, make him seem more human so that we identify and sympathize with him more easily.

Next: No Direction Home

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bring Me a Dream

Dream a Little Dream of Me introduces the next Vertigo Comics character, John Constantine (the Hellblazer comics are written by Jamie Delano). Constantine is an English wizard who—most of the time—is found fighting demons. He’s had plenty of friends fall in battle, and is haunted by most of them. Despite this fact, Constantine manages to keep a fairly upbeat, cocky attitude.

Mad Hettie as she appears in The Sandman

Throughout the entire issue, it would appear that “something is trying to tell [Constantine] somebody.” When he wakes up in the morning, the radio plays Dream a Little Dream of Me and Mister Sandman. When he gets his lunch and tries to play I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Sweet Dreams plays instead. Then Mad Hettie, a two hundred and forty-seven year old witch, simply lays it out for him: the Sandman has returned. Mad Hettie has also appeared in Hellblazer comics, so it’s no surprise that she would appear in the same Sandman comic Constantine guest stars in.

As Constantine spends some days looking into it, but eventually the Sandman finds him. “John Constantine, I presume,” Dream says, and Constantine jokes that he’s not Dr. Livingstone. His wit is wasted on Dream, who doesn’t appear to have a sense of humor. He demands to know where his pouch of dream sand is, since Constantine was the last person said to have it. Ironically, Constantine informs him that he bought it in a garage sale, and that it’s probably in storage.

As the two of them set out to find the pouch, another joke is told.

Swamp Thing, who appears both in his own graphic novel series by Alan Moore as well as in several Hellblazer comics. As depicted, he's basically a man made out of plant material.

Constantine tells Dream that he should change his clothing from the usual long black robes with flames at the base to something less embarrassing. Looking at Constantine’s tan trench coat, Dream changes his appearance so that he, too, is dressed in a black trench coat. When Dream asks if this is better, Constantine replies, “I ought to introduce you to the big green bloke, you’d like him. He hasn’t got a sense of humor either.” Constantine is, of course, referring to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (this is also Neil saluting the man who gave him his start in comics working on Miracleman).

Constantine’s storage reveals a picture of him with his ex-lover, Rachel, who he believes may have taken the pouch. They drive to Rachel’s parent’s place. Things look decent enough from the outside, but nightmares run rampant on the inside due to Rachel’s unchecked use of the dream sand. First, they encounter a man who entered the house, attempting to rob it, who is now being eaten alive by dreams. Then they enter a room where Rachel’s father has been turned into sticky wallpaper (the concept is better than the artwork, as Gaiman himself admits). Before finally reaching Rachel, the Sandman must banish a group of nightmares blocking their way. Hy Bender and some other authors who have written about The Sandman claim that Dream was bluffing, but I would argue that there was really no contest. While Dream was weakened without his tools, he is still the Lord of Dreams, and therefore has absolute power over the nightmares in the house.

When they do find Rachel, she has become so addicted to the dream sand (having used it much like heroin) that she can barely speak coherent thoughts. Dream quickly retrieves the pouch, utterly disgusted by its misuse. He intends to leave Rachel to die, but Constantine demands that he do something to ease her pain. Unable to do anything else, Dream sprinkles the sand over Rachel’s face, sending her to Death painlessly with a dream of Constantine.

Dream bids Constantine farewell (after agreeing to rid Constantine of a recurring nightmare), and informs him that he is now setting out for Hell. The issue ends with Constantine singing Mister Sandman as he walks into the distance.

Dream a Little Dream of Me was a decent issue, considering it accomplished all it was intended to do. It used an already popular Vertigo comics character as a sidekick for Dream while also establishing the horrific power of dreams. Another obvious goal was to comment on drug abuse. While I used the analogy of heroin, I also wonder if the dream sand was meant to be a metaphor for methamphetamine, considering that Rachel looks every bit like a meth addict when she is first revealed to us.

The last accomplishment shows us that, despite his strong aversion to change, Dream has in fact done so. Had Constantine not convinced him otherwise, he probably would have left Rachel to die without a second thought. Yet his imprisonment has, perhaps, given him an understanding of humanity that allows him to change his mind and ease the suffering of one who may or may not deserve it. Dream has learned kindness, and will continue to display it throughout the remainder of the series.

Next: Old Wounds and Older Games

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Murderers and Librarians, Gargoyles and Witches

Meet Cain and Abel. They’re brothers. You might remember them from such classic stories as the Bible. However, what you may not know is that Cain and Abel both starred in their own DC comics series, The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets, both of which were popular 1970s horror comics.

Holy terrible writers, Batman!

We first meet the two of them in a dark house near a graveyard. Cain is trying to get Abel to open a present, but Abel is hesitant considering the fact that Cain is the kind of brother who “kills me whenever he’s, uh…mad at me, or bored, or just in a lousy m-mood.” Cain’s comical response to this is, “Let’s just let fraternal bygones be bygones.”

At this point, there’s a knock on the door. Cain rushes to see what it is, but once again Abel is hesitant, thinking it might be something nasty. It turns out that it’s Gregory the Gargoyle carrying the Lord of Dreams in his mouth. He is weak, and blacks out moments after he pleads with Cain and Abel to help him.

Dream wakes up in a bed, and Abel comes to check in on him. We learn that both Cain and Abel are actually dreams from “the first story,” and that this is Cain’s House of Mystery. Cain appears a few moments later with food, and Dream asks them if they have anything of his that he created. Although Cain denies it, Abel chimes in that they both have letters of commission, suggesting that there was some prior agreement between Dream and the brothers. Abel offers his letter, and Dream absorbs the dream material back into himself, becoming stronger.

Doctor Destiny as he appeared in some of the Justice League comics.

Here we receive an interjection. At Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Ethel Dee (who we met in Sleep of the Just) is attempting to see her son, John Dee. John is a super villain known as Doctor Destiny, who appears in a few of the Justice League of America comics. After some discussion, she convinces Dr. Huntoon to let her see John, but is horrified by how John has changed. He appears skeletal, almost alien. He claims that someone took his dreams from him.

Returning to Dream, we see him walk through the Gates of Horn and Ivory. As Dream says, the dreams that pass through the Gates of Ivory are lies, while those that pass through the Gates of Horn are truthful. This concept appears to have been first introduced to literature in Homer’s The Odyssey, although it was probably a common belief among many of the Greeks.

Passing through the Gates, Dream discovers that his castle is completely in ruins. A man with pointed ears and a garden hoe stands looking at it. This is Lucien, who also had his own three-issue comic book called Tales of Ghost Castle by Paul Levitz and Joe Orlando. As Gaiman himself puts it in The Sandman Companion, “…it occurred to me that Ghost Castle was really the Sandman’s castle during the period when Dream was imprisoned and his castle was becoming nebulous.”

In Communist Russia, MUSHROOM EATS MARIO.

Lucien informs Dream that much has changed since the time before his imprisonment. Certain dreams have simply left the Dreaming, while others have changed so dramatically that they can no longer be recognized. Cain’s present to Abel, for example, turns out to be a harmless baby gargoyle. Such kindness is against Cain’s nature, although we learn that things haven’t changed so much when Cain kills Abel for wanting to name the gargoyle Irving (names for gargoyles always begin with a “G,” as Cain informs us).

Although things like this will remain the same, Dream understands that things have changed to the point where they will never be as they were. Thus, he absorbs what remains of the Castle of Dreams back into himself, resigning himself to reconstructing it from scratch. Some power returns to him, but he will never be the same without the tools that were stolen from him.

Lucien suggests that he call the “Three-in-One” for advice, and Dream does so. This deity (or these deities) seem to have been around since the dawn of time. They make appearances in almost all of the European mythologies, and are referred to as the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. They also had their own comic series called The Witching Hour, which is exactly the time of night that Dream meets up with them. One is a young maiden, another a middle-aged maid, and the last an old crone, although they appear to all be connected at the waist.

They inform Dream that he may ask them three questions, and he will receive three answers (one answer from each of them). He asks the maiden where his pouch of sand is, and she informs him that it was last seen in the possession of John Constantine, an English wizard. The maid informs him that his crown was traded to a demon, although she will not tell him which demon. The dream ruby, the crone tells him, was taken from Doctor Destiny by the Justice League (here we get a picture of Green Lantern binding Doctor Destiny while Batman holds the dream ruby).

Dream thanks the Weird Sisters (which is something you just don’t do), and decides that it would be best to seek out Constantine first. One human, he decides, will likely be less of a threat to him in his weakened state than the armies of Hell or a league of super humans (clearly, Dream has never read a single John Constantine: Hellblazer comic in his life).

It's kind of sad that the only picture I can find of Irving is one where Abel's blood is spurting over the page as Cain murders him...

The end of this issue shows Abel’s corpse crawling out of a ditch, slowly coming back to life. As he cleans his wounds, he tells his gargoyle (who he refers to as Goldie, although he will always think of it as Irving) a story about two brothers who lived together, were very nice to each other, and would never hurt each other. As he tells the story, a single drop of blood drips from his bruised eye, and he informs Goldie that, “I’m not crying. I’m really not crying. It’s only blood…” As a result of this story, we learn that it’s possible for the inhabitants of the Dreaming to have dreams and desires. However, Cain seems to believe that every death he puts Abel through teaches his brother a new lesson. While Cain may very well love Abel, he has an abusive way of showing it.

There’s not really a major theme of Preludes and Nocturnes: Imperfect Hosts other than setting out on a journey. Dream discovers that he has lost much of himself, and goes out looking for it. He doesn’t want to change; he wants everything to be as it was, though he will find that avoiding or fighting change is a losing battle. Nevertheless, this new journey continues to present the theme of Dream’s rebirth. In Sleep of the Just, he is born into the world anew, and in Imperfect Hosts he has reached almost an adolescent stage where he begins to question who he is because he cannot be who he was. This “growing up” theme continues throughout the entire Sandman series.

Next: Bring Me a Dream.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment