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.
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.
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.