Illustrator: Kent Williams, Colorist: Sherilyn van Valkenburgh
Todd Faber's play 'Typhoid Mary Blues' is about to open off-Broadway. In a fit of nerves he tells one of the actors that he's closing it down. He dreams of climbing a peak and meeting a pale man at the top. He tells the stranger about a terrifying dream he had as a kid where he fell off a roof, was certain he would die, then lay stuck in his sleeping body. A talking raven accuses him of running away. Todd explains that he's scared of doing something stupid. The stranger says that not climbing will mean not falling, but falling (failing) isn't so bad. Todd shows up to rehearsals next day and carries on. He explains that he's not quitting because of his dream.
"Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes when you fall, you fly."
The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection, including murders (some of which are bloody). Just so you know.
A Game of You, three appeared after it and Ramadan came out after Brief Lives, however within this collection they are printed out of order.
Reading the stories in a different order to their first appearance does change the impact of some of them. I figure that as this is my reread I'll go through them in the order that they're available to me. I was going to say I'd go through them in the order I read them, but based on my first reading that would mean starting with Dream Country and leaving Preludes & Nocturnes until 5th, which doesn't make much sense.
Three Septembers and a January (The Sandman no. 31)
Illustrator: Shawn McManus
September 1859: Failed businessman Joshua Norton contemplates suicide. Despair summons Dream and challenges him to keep Joshua away from her, Desire and Delirium until Death comes for him. Dream agrees, though Death later points out that the elder three don't play games. Dream gives Joshua a dream and he declares himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America.
September 1864: Norton I tells Samuel Clemens (who wrote fiction as Mark Twain) that he may be poor and people may laugh at him and think him mad, but it doesn't stop him from being Emperor. Delirium tells Dream that Norton should be hers, but isn't because "his madness keeps him sane". Dream points out that he's not the only one.
September 1875: Tourists treat Norton I as a novelty. Norton meets with the King of Pain, the ghost of a travelling salesman. Pain offers Norton a beautiful Empress, all he has to do is want her. Pain's patter and vulgarity offends Norton's dignity and he angrily refuses. Desire chastises Pain for failing and Dream points out that using a dead man was unsubtle. Angered, Desire resolves to be subtle next time and swears to make Dream spill family blood, bringing the kindly ones down on him.
January 1880: Joshua Norton, first Emperor of the United States of America, dies in the rain. Despair concedes that Dream has won, but doesn't acknowledge that there was a lesson to learn. Death comes for Joshua and says that he's her favourite leader.
Norton I was a real person who lived in San Francisco. I like the way little-known history is used as a basis for this story. It's interesting that Despair goads Dream into her challenge by mentioning their brother who left the family. I suspect that the older three refusing to play games like/with the younger three is a cause of tension, and the missing brother would be in the middle of that. I especially like the end when Norton talks to Death and Death takes his plumed top hat. She's right, it is a great hat. It may be a bit of a trope for alternative girls to like top hats (did it start here?) but that doesn't mean it's not great. Though while I was in uni I decided that ladies in bowlers had better comic potential.
"I am content to be what I am. What more than that could any man desire?"
Thermidor (The Sandman no. 29)
Illustrators: Stan Woch & Dick Giordano
Lady Johanna Constantine (first seen in The Doll's House) is visited by Dream, who has a task for her. In Paris it's the second year of the Revolution, a time of terror and beheading. In disguise, Johanna carries the still-living, severed head of Orpheus, he needs to be hidden until they can escape France. To find Orpheus she slept with St. Just (a leading figure in the Revolutionary government), who takes her to a prison in an old palace. While imprisoned she meets Robespierre, the despotic idealist running France. He knows who she is and lists her past exploits, including theft and cross-dressing. Robespierre wants to destroy Orpheus's head in his quest to create an age of pure reason. In her sleep Johanna tells Dream she needs help. He can't get involved directly but his raven, Jessamy, has an idea. Robespierre takes Johanna to a store of severed heads from the executions, he dreamed it was the perfect hiding place. Johanna takes Orpheus's head from the pile and covers her ears. Orpheus sings, and the heads around him join in. The song leaves Robespierre motionless, Johanna and Orpheus flee. Robespierre loses his eloquence, his faction is deposed and he is beheaded. Johanna takes Orpheus to a Greek island and they say farewell.
Johanna may not be the most likeable character, but she's basically a Regency James Bond, which is pretty cool. There are sections from her private journals, which make clear how driven and ruthless she can be. She has no problem using male lust for her own purposes, and is adept at disguise and espionage. She has clearly had a very interesting life, full of danger and adventure. Though she and Orpheus are not together that long they are friendly and it is in her scenes with him that we see Johanna's humour.
There is some expounding on the nature of the Revolution, it is a bloody time and while St. Just represents an opportunist it is Robespierre who is dangerous for his fervent belief that what he's doing is right. As well as Johanna expressing her opinions about what's happening there's an interesting scene between St. Just and an American Revolutionary who has been imprisoned. The American describes the French Revolution as a reign of terror, and it's leaders as tyrants, he claims his rousing words have been perverted. It's a neat reminder that revolutions can go different ways.
"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly."
The Hunt (The Sandman no. 38)
Illustrators: Duncan Eagleson & Vince Locke
An old man tells his granddaughter a story of the old country and the People, though she wants to watch TV. He tells of Vassily, a young man of the People who lived in the forest with his father. After meeting an old peddler woman, Vassily sets off to find the beautiful daughter of the Duke. On the way he deals with a murderous innkeeper and meets a librarian (Lucien) who wants a missing book back. The book has come into Vassily's possession and though Lucien offers him gold the young man just wants the Duke's daughter. The granddaughter interrupts, skeptical about the story. Vassily hunts a deer, but it's killed by a young woman. He goes to her camp where he meets Baba Yaga and trades an emerald heart for a trip to the Duke's palace. Vassily is thrown in a cell and Lucien reappears to bargain, but Vassily doesn't change his price. Lucien quietly takes Vassily into the Dreaming, but Dream discovers them and Lucien admits to losing a book. Dream gets the book and takes Vassily to see the Duke's daughter. Vassily looks at her, then leaves and has a feast at Dream's castle before waking up in the forest. Vassily finds the girl who killed the deer, a werewolf like him, and they get married. The granddaughter is angry, thinking the story is a comment on her boyfriend, who isn't one of the People. As he leaves the room her grandfather reveals that he's Vassily.
The interaction between grandfather and granddaughter is a great framing device for the story, providing juxtaposition of the modern and folkloric, the way generations despair at each other. The tale of Vassily is full of odd details, some are traditional folk story fare, some are just strange. The granddaughter questions, comments on and objects to some of them,, highlighting much that sounds odd to modern ears. Of course there are a lot of details that are left out, and the things that she doesn't question give you clues to the nature of the People. The werewolf reveal doesn't come into near the end, but by then you should know what Vassily is as words and art (and especially the cover) are full of clues. It's not explicitly stated but Vassily's father probably kills the peddler woman, and Vassily eats the innkeeper who tried to kill and rob him. The grandfather gets increasingly fierce as he's interrupted, though it's not clear how serious he's being. He claims to be over 400 years old, which makes sense as he's Vassily, and his granddaughter doesn't question that. The girl's look of surprise at the end when she realises the story was true is wonderful. The story leaves you with questions about what life is like for this modern girl who is, presumably, a werewolf, but that's not what the tale is about.
"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."
August (The Sandman no. 30)
Illustrators: Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch
Augustus, heir of Julius Caesar and first Emperor of Rome, summons the dwarf Lycius. Lycius is a young nobleman and actor, the only noble allowed on the stage. Augustus is old and fearsome, he has bought peace and prosperity to Rome, but is ruthless in doing so. Augustus dislikes actors but needs Lycius's skills. They disguise themselves as beggars and sit in the marketplace. They talk of many things, much of which makes Lycius uncomfortable. There are sections, which are clearly not part of Lycius's account, showing that Augustus is haunted by something that happened when he was young. He has regular nightmares and keeps a storyteller by his room at all times. Augustus and Lycius talk of the divine Julius, who is now a god. Augustus describes how much he respected his predecessor/great-uncle/adoptive father, but he also hated him. Augustus says that the prophecies show two futures: in one Rome fails after a few centuries and sputters out, in the other Rome keeps conquering until the Empire covers the world and lasts for millennia. In answer to why they are there Augustus describes a dream. He was visited by a powerful being he initially thought was Apollo, but turned out to be someone more powerful than the gods, who knew all about his nightmares. Augustus knows he is watched by the gods of Rome, including Julius Caesar. Dream advises that one day each year he should be a beggar and then he can think unobserved. The reader learns that Julius Caesar raped the young Augustus and told him of his plans while he did. Lycius writes his journal as an old man, Augustus is dead and a god now, he and Lycius never spoke again though the Emperor returned to the marketplace each year. Lycius wonders about Augustus setting the limits of the Empire and forbidding further conquest. He also wonders about the next 4 Emperors, who were weak, foolish, mad or all three. Mostly he wonders why Augustus couldn't sleep.
I was doing an Ancient History degree when I first read this, so I found it very interesting. There's a fair bit of exposition about Augustus and Rome, which is handled well in the form of conversation, details are woven in well, blurring the lines between history and fiction (though with ancient history so much of what we know is based on stories anyway). The visuals tell their own small tales around the talking, as we watch the people walking past the seated figures. Someone steps in dung, someone urinates on the wall, people talk and they trade slaves and geese and fruit. As in the Hunt there is a sense of generations meeting, of two people discussing the world as it was and as it is. The period of time is shorter here and this is much less comforting; not only is there no familial affection, the changes are largely a result of Augustus's actions and so the white marble facade of the present is peeled back to see the grubby deeds that lie beneath. The idea that Augustus built the Empire and then purposefully ensured it would not flourish, just to spite his abuser is fascinating, and probably open to interpretation. The reveal about Julius Ceasar is foreshadowed well, a sense of something very wrong is built throughout. To a modern audience it is shocking, though part of me wonders about the Roman context, in which sexuality was understood very differently. I'm happy that I am writing and posting this in the month of August.
"You named this month after you... That will not last. In another decade this month will probably be called Tiberius..."
Soft Places (The Sandman no. 39)
Illustrator: John Watkiss
1273: Marco can't find his father's caravan in a sandstorm. He passes out and when he wakes he hears strange voices. A strange man calls to Marco. He was in a prison in Genoa, and was calling for his cellmate. When young Marco says that they are in the Desert of Lop the man recites an account of it from memory and introduces himself as Rustichello of Pisa. He says he's writing down the travels of his friend Marco Polo, young Marco says that's his name. Both decide that they're dreaming, though Marco is less confident. They meet a fat man with a campfire (Gilbert/Fiddlers Green from The Doll's House) who offers them wine. He's trying to get away from his master, who is besotted with a lady. Marco talks about his father travelling far east to the court of Kubilai Khan by accident and taking Marco with him on a second journey. Rustichello says that's already happened, he's been writing it down. They are interrupted by horsemen, who are searching for a way out of the desert, either to their own lands and times, or else to death, Gilbert can't help them. Gilbert explains that soft places are where the Dreaming overlaps with real space, and time is flexible there. Explorers like Marco mean the number of soft places has reduced a lot by Gilbert's time. Gilbert and Rustichello leave, Marco encounters a pale stranger who is clearly suffering. He gives him the last of his water and asks if he's the lord of the place, Dream confirms that he is and he's just escaped from captivity. Marco asks for help getting back and Dream is reluctant but knows what it is to feel trapped and uses his little remaining power to send Marco back to his father's caravan.
This story plays with timelines in clever ways. We are given the thirteenth century date at the start, and yet the voices Marco hears are snatches of modern songs and strange sayings clearly from different times. Young Marco encounters a man from his future and hears an account of travels he will one day make, recited from memory. This includes a description of crossing the desert he is currently stuck in, with reference to things that will happen later within this story. Rustichello recites future-Marco's rough account of the horsemen they will soon encounter. Then there's Gilbert, who is from 1992, and explains that there are very few soft places left in his present. It turns out that men like Marco, the explorers and cartographers, are partly to blame for the reduction as they "froze the world in rigid patterns". Marco encounters Dream, just escaped from captivity, from a different point in the chronology of the Sandman series. Marco realises that he is the lord of the place and repeats what he was told about him walking with his woman. Dream, preoccupied by exhaustion and better able to process this kind of thing, remarks that it isn't in important as its from a different time.
This the first time that Dream's mystery woman is mentioned, though there are no clues to her identity. We get a brief description of Dream being happy in a relationship, albeit from the viewpoint of an embarrassed third party.
"Any view of things that is not strange is false."
Illustrators: Bryan Talbot & Mark Buckingham
Chapter 2: Orpheus watches Eurydice's funeral pyre. He visits his father for help getting her back, but Dream won't get involved so Orpheus disowns him. Orpheus considers suicide and is interrupted by his uncle Olethros, who says that he should talk to his Aunt Teleute, and sends him to her house. Death lives in a modern flat, which is strange to Orpheus's Ancient Greek eyes. She tries to dissuade him, but agrees not to take him so he can retrieve his wife from the underworld.
Chapter 3: Orpheus travels to the underworld. He pays the ferryman and soothes the three-headed dog with his music. Hades and Persephone sit on giant thrones surrounded by their dead subjects. He plays for them, disturbing the order of Hades' realm, he also makes the Furies cry. Hades says Orpheus can have Eurydice back, as long as he returns to the living lands without looking at her. He nearly makes it, but convinced that he's been duped he looks back and Eurydice disappears.
Chapter 4: Orpheus plays for animals in the wilderness. Calliope tells him she's left his father and warns him to leave because the Bacchante, the sisters of frenzy, are coming. He doesn't care and tells her to leave. The Bacchante arrive, soaked in wine and blood and don't listen to Orpheus's refusals. The rip him to pieces and do gross stuff with his body. His head is thrown in a river and floats out to sea, calling Eurydice's name.
Epilogue: On a beach Orpheus sees his father. Dream comes to say goodbye, and has arranged for priests on the island to care for Orpheus. Orpheus tearfully begs his father to help him die, but Dream throws his son's angry words back at him. Dream walks away without looking back.
Here the myth of Orpheus is rewritten to fit into the Sandman cannon, which works pretty well. We already knew from Dream Country that Orpheus was Calliope and Dream's son and that he lost his love. Dream refers to Calliope as his wife (though not his queen), which is an interesting detail. We know from 'Thermidor' that Orpheus is a severed head and Johanna mentions that his head was ripped off by the women of frenzy using their bare hands. Knowing what happens in advance doesn't reduce the impact of the scenes, especially the gory Bacchante images. There were surprises for those like myself who already know the myth, for example Aristaeus, who seemed so nice at first.
It's interesting to see the Ancient Greek versions of the Endless, and this is the first time that we see the prodigal brother. Orpheus isn't suspicious that Death is the only one from his father's side that stays at the wedding, though she's clearly sad about what she has to do. The interaction between Orpheus and Olethros (whose other name/function is not used) gives an insight into the prodigal, who seems upbeat and expansive unlike most of the siblings (except Death). We see some of the siblings talk about each other, Olethros observes that Orpheus gets his stubbornness and romanticism from his father. When Orpheus tells Death that Olethros sent him she's obviously annoyed and says his uncle has a big mouth.
"Herakles... got dead drunk for a couple of weeks in Phrygia and told everyone he'd been to the Land of the Dead."
The Parliament of Rooks (The Sandman no. 40)
Illustrators: Jill Thompson & Vince Locke
This story is full of interesting little details that give you tantalising glimpses the wider (vast) Sandman universe. Matthew is surprised to see Eve away from her cave and comments on all the rules the Dreaming has, Eve says that the were made up a long time ago and making rules is part of Dream's nature. Abel's House of Secrets is full of odd little details, just like the issue itself. When Cain is suggesting stories for Abel to tell he mentions some intriguing titles: The lily that wanted to be an eye; The girl who could only drink tears, and how she fell in love with woman who had never learned to cry. Both Eve and Abel's stories are expanded tales from Genesis, the three wives of Adam comes from mythology, but Abel's tale of young Death and Dream fits well. When Matthew asks whether they're the real Cain, Abel and Eve and how that ties in with dinosaurs Abel lets slip that it wasn't Earth. Coupled with Cain's comment that none of the looked human at first, this is yet another suggestion of life and civilisations existing long before humanity or even Earth.
Dream's new woman is mentioned again in this issue. Eve doesn't approve, commenting that she isn't really his type. Another intriguing detail that gives us no information for identifying the woman. Matthew also comments that Cain sounds like Vincent Price, which is odd but certainly changed how I imagined the character.
"It's the mystery that endures not the explanation."
Ramadan (The Sandman no. 50)
Illustrator: P. Craig Russell, Colorist: Digital Chameleon
As the 50th issue Ramadan was something special. The artwork and lettering are beautifully done and it is written in the style of a tale from the Arabian Nights tradition. As we learn in the issue the Baghdad and Araby of Haroun Al Raschid is the setting for those stories, some of which are referenced. The mythical quality is highlighted, with the caliph's palace shown to be overstuffed with unlikely and magical items. The tale could have come across as over the top, except that the wondrous nature of that place and time are part of the story itself. Haroun's sacrifice to preserve his miraculous age is amazing and reminded me of the shift in reality in 'Dream of a Thousand Cats' in Dream Country. Something that I like about the comic is all the mentions of Allah and Ramadan, the religious context of the setting is not ignored or pushed to the side as it can be in other tales based on myths of the Middle East. Of course these things probably seem loaded now than they were at the time of writing due to changing views of Islam. The end -where we discover that the tale of how the mythical Baghdad turned into the historical Baghdad is being told in the modern ruins of Baghdad- pulls the rug out from under the reader in a wonderful way. I suspect that we are all a little like Hassan, our head full of the story we've just been told.
"Behind his eyes are towers and jewels and djinn, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities of brass."
Reading this collection again reinforces that Sandman stories can take place anywhere, anywhen, in settings real, mythical or purely imagined. It's a concept with such broad scope and yet so many of the stories are personal, even intimate, focusing on characters, their lives and dreams.
Months are a bit of a theme here: Three Septembers and a January, Thermidor (a month in the French Revolutionary calendar), August, and Ramadan are all titled for the months they are set in. Then there's the moon connection, Marco describes Dream as being "pale as the man in the moon" in Soft Places, which is directly referenced on the cover. The Hunt features werewolves, and another moony cover, but the moon itself is not mentioned much within the comic itself.
Leadership is another theme; Three Septembers and a January, August and Ramadan are all told from the viewpoint of rulers. Thermidor has a similar theme, but it approaches from a different angle with discussion about and depictions of Robespierre and his fall from power.
The different artistic styles add to the sense of separate stories and different settings. There are examples throughout this post. I've found, as I've gone on to read different comics, that I often recognise when the artist is someone who worked on Sandman a fair bit. There's a familiarity of style that sometimes hits me, even if I don't remember the artist's name or which bit of Sandman they drew.
The changeable nature of the Endless is shown partly in depictions of them over time, Ancient Greek in Orpheus and nineteenth century in Three Septembers and a January. In the picture I've included for the latter you can see that Delirium, who has been spending time with Chinese girls, looks southeast Asian herself.
Black gutters appear several, and I swear I can't stop noticing them now, though their usage is more varied than in previous collections. Black gutters are used to suggest a different time/place/viewpoint on the first page of Thermidor, and throughout The Hunt and August. Also in these panels it is usually nighttime. In The Hunt the panels with the grandfather and granddaughter all have black gutters, but I don't think this is meant to be oppressive, which is how the technique is used in other issues and collections. In Orpheus the gutters are black when Eurydice is threatened and dies, when Death glitzes up her house, and when Orpheus goes to the Underworld. The usage of darkness in these pages and panels is not surprising.
L'il Death and L'il Dream, as drawn by Jill Thompson, are so adorable.
Death's modern, sparsely-furnished flat is amazing. Largely because it's not what you expect and yet it's perfect for her. The goldfish and family picture on the wall are nice touches. Also Orpheus's face when he's caught with his aunt's hosiery is priceless.
Ramadan is absolutely gorgeous .
- Orpheus - Musician poet and prophet of Ancient Greek legend, son of Morpheus and Calliope, who twice lost his love to the Underworld and ends up as an immortal severed head
- Olethros - the prodigal Endless brother, whose other name is never mentioned in this collection (though if you know Greek you may be able to figure it out)
There's foreshadowing under the cut.
Next week: Brief Lives
Last week: A Game of You