1 August 2013

Dream Country

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 sexual violence and suicide. Just so you know.

Dream Country collects 4 standalone single-issue stories and were published in the order presented in the collection. They provided a gap between the story arcs of The Doll's House and Season of Mists. They were also an opportunity to tell smaller stories.

Penciller - Kelley Jones, Inker - Malcolm Jones III
Rick Madoc, a successful debut novelist, can't write anything. In desperation he makes a deal with cranky old writer Erasmus Fry. Rick exchanges an illicitly-obtained bezoar (a hairy biological specimen reputed to have the power to counteract poison) for a real life Muse. Calliope, one of the nine muses of Ancient Greek myth, was captured by Fry in the 1920s and is traded to Rick. After raping her Rick's inspiration flows and he speedily writes his second novel. Calliope prays to the Maiden, Mother and Crone for help. She learns that her former lover, Oneiros, has also been captured by humans and couldn't help her even if he'd wanted to. Over the next three years Ric Madoc becomes famous for writing novels, poetry, plays and films. In 1990 Calliope is visited by Morpheus (called Oneiros by the Ancient Greeks) and begs him to make Ric release her. Morpheus confronts Ric, who angers the Dream Lord with his self-centred attitude and his reliance on Calliope for ideas. Dream ensures that Ric is bombarded by more ideas than he can handle and it drives him mad. Ric is helped by an old acquaintance and frees Calliope. Once she's released Calliope asks Morpheus to stop punishing Ric, who no longer has any ideas and is left empty.

This dark story has the wrong punished at the end, but it's not comforting. Rick is the main viewpoint character and is initially positioned as the hero, which is at odds with his actions. It is clear that Rick doesn't think of Calliope as real, so therefore what he does to her isn't wrong. This de-humanising of a victim is sadly not unusual, and at least here Rick is shown to be wrong in his attitude. Towards the end, three years after he first got her, Rick is surprised to learn Calliope had a son and she points out that she is more than something for him to use. The scene between Calliope and Dream is awkward, she is simply happy to be free while he holds himself aloof. She doesn't want ongoing vengeance, a difference between them. The stream of ideas that overwhelms Rick is interesting, his words convey glimpses of fantastical worlds of story, yet the pictures show a man going insane on a dark street.

A Dream of A Thousand Cats
Penciller - Kelley Jones, Inker - Malcolm Jones III
A white kitten escapes from home at night and accompanies a ginger cat to the local graveyard to hear a talk by a Siamese. The Siamese describes how her contented life as a pet was ruined when her owners drowned her kittens (fathered by a ginger tom). In a dream she traveled through the cat-version of the Dreaming to a cave at the centre, where she speaks to the Cat of Dreams. He reveals to her a reality in which cats are huge and rule the world, and small humans are slaves and prey. In this world a human spreads the word amongst his fellows that they could be free of cat tyranny if they dream the world into a new form. As soon as the humans achieved that everything changed so that humans became the dominant species. The Cat of Dreams tells the Siamese that the humans' dream changed things so that humans had always been dominant. The Siamese understands that the cats can do it too. If enough of them, even only a thousand, can dream of the mighty cat ladies and lords then they will return to that paradise. She travels the world spreading her message to cats. As the audience breaks up opinion is mixed and largely skeptical or pessimistic, but the little white kitten believes.

There's something wonderful and unsettling about this story. The idea that dreams, the collective stories that we tell ourselves, have power over reality is a common theme in Sandman and seems both brilliant and terrible. The journeys of the brave Siamese make her sympathetic, her goal to debase humanity is understandable, much though I'd hope it doesn't work. The final panel shows the kitten's owners cooing over it whilst it dreams of hunting humans.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Art by Charles Vess, Coloured by Steve Oliff
Will Shekespear tours with a theatre troupe, and his young son Hamnet. They travel from London to Wilmington, a place on the Sussex downs with a huge chalk figure cut into a hillside, which turns out to be portal. Here Will meets his shadowy patron and performs the new comedy he has written for him. The audience are King Auberon and Queen Titania of the Fey, along with a host of their fairy subjects. The play is A Midsummer Nights Dream and we see it from multiple viewpoints: behind the scenes among the actors, the performance itself, and the reaction of the many-shaped fairy audience. Dream (called Lord Shaper by the fairies) sits with Titania and Auberon, who left Earth centuries before. During the interval the real Puck, Auberon's dangerous hobgoblin, trades places with the actor playing him. Titania shows an interest in young Hamnet, who is fed up of having a father more interested in stories than his family. We learn that Dream has commissioned another play from Will, at the end of his career. Will learns that his friend and fellow playwright Kit Marlowe has just been killed and starts to doubt his deal. When the play ends the fairies return to Faerie, but Puck decides to stay on Earth to sow mischief. The final panel says that Hamnet Shakespeare died 3 years later.

In this World Fantasy Award winning comic William Shakespeare is portrayed as a man, rather than a genius. His deal with Dream has given him what he always wanted, however he only sees what he wants and not the consequences of what he wants. Will is man in love with stories, who mines his own life for inspiration, and he's a playwright who must contend with the realities of patrons and actors, obligations and egos. Some realities of Elizabethan theatre are shown, including the male actresses, working and living somewhere between male and female. This backstage human element is shown alongside dialogue and scenes from Midsummer Night's Dream itself. The third element of the story is utterly fantastical, Dream's reasons for commissioning a play about fairies and inviting them to watch it are no doubt more complicated than nostalgia for a time when they lived on Earth. The fairies themselves seem rapt by a play which depicts things that never happened, but are nonetheless true. This is a repetition of the theme of shared stories creating reality. The real Titania's interest in Hamnet is more sinister than that of her onstage counterpart, fairies love human children. The real Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, is clearly far more dangerous and creepy than the mischievous imp of the play.

Penciller: Colleen Doran, Inker: Malcolm Jones III 
Rainie Blackwell lives a life of isolation and depression in an apartment full of masks. She can turn into any element and is pretty much indestructable, but she looks freakish and never goes out anymore. She worked for the Company and was meant to be an American hero; the Ancient Egyptian sungod Ra gave her powers, but the change has clearly ruined her life. Her only contact with the outside world are brief telephone conversations from the Company employee who processes her pension cheques. She is delighted and terrified when an old friend wants to meet up. She creates a mask of her former face and and covers herself up to look normal. The trip out doesn't go well as Rainie sees her friend react to unusual people with disgust, her mask of normality literally falls away causing her to flee. At her apartment Rainie hopelessly contemplates suicide, but her powers mean she probably can't achieve it. She is visited by a friendly, understanding woman who turns out to be Death. Death lends a sympathetic ear. She won't give Rainie death, but tells her to speak to Ra (the sun) and ask him to grant it. Rainie stares at the sun, begs for release, and is granted it.

This is a powerful story about loneliness and depression. I know that Rainie is Element Girl, but I don't know anything about the character as a superhero. Rainie's depression seems to be deeply rooted in her changed circumstances, which she blames on her changed looks, and has been fed by her isolation. It's likely that Rainie got caught in a cycle of self-hatred, fear and loneliness that made it harder for her to cope with other people, whilst desperately needing their acceptance. Written before the internet was ubiquitous, the telephone becomes a symbol of the human contact she craves and fears. The appearance of Death lightens the oppressive atmosphere, she is always herself, no matter the circumstances and whether people welcome her or not. Rainie's reaction to Death shows just how much she wants to die. The ending should be sad, and it is sad that someone's life gets so bad they no longer want to live, but it's clear that Rainie is happy with the outcome.

Calliope Script
Included at the end of the collection is the comic script for Calliope. Neil Gaiman prefaces this by pointing out that scripts can be done in a variety of different ways, and suggests what some of those different ways are. Gaiman is very specific throughout the script, but at the start says Jones can change things if the changes will make it better. This is the first time these two worked together, so there's some neat introductory details too. It's interesting to flip back to forth to compare script to page, and see what changes have been made by Kelley Jones, and how much the info in the script is translated into art. It's also interesting to read about Gaiman's state of mind at the time of writing and how much trouble he had had with other scripts at that point in the Sandman run. Mostly it seems that Gaiman provides more specific background details than what is seen on the page, which makes sense. For backgrounds I'd imagine that atmosphere is more important than details. There are instances of major changes by Jones, especially that the rape of Calliope, which is shown moreexplicitly than the script specifies.
It's possibly a bit odd that the first graphic novel that I ever bought had a script in the back. It means that for as long as I've been reading comics (and I enjoy several but don't consider myself a full comic fan) I've had some idea of how they're made.

This is the first graphic novel I read. I was 17 and had recently come into an awareness of graphic novels as things you could buy from a bookshop (I don't even know if there was a comic book shop in my home town). This is also when I discovered that comics weren't just about superheroes. As a slimmer (and cheaper) volume Dream Country seemed like a good starting point.
Liking Ancient Greek myths I found 'Calliope' interesting, though it made me uncomfortable and I doubt I understood the full implications on the first read. This was the first time I actually saw Dream on page, and he came across as aloof, proud and scary when angered.
The idea that cats could be quietly working against us is one that I find worryingly plausible, probably as a result of reading this.
I know I didn't understand the full implications of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' when I first read it, it has enough depth that it rewards rereading. The Shakespeare play was (and remains) one of my favourites, and I was doing Theatre Studies around that time and was involved in some scenes for A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of a showcase. I enjoyed reading the comic and was fascinated by the different kinds of fairies, both the lordly, graceful monarchs and the monstrous-looking subjects and their chatter.
I sympathised with Rainie, because there were times when I felt very isolated as a teenager, however welcoming death was a strange concept to me. I now have more understanding of how can depression do that to people.

In 'Calliope' we see a Classical Greek version of the Maiden, Mother and Crone. They clearly have an association with the Muses in this aspect.They wear wavy, Classical drapery which looks like it's in motion, echoing an ancient style of sculpture. Also, it might just be me, but I reckon the Maiden looks like a young Maggie Smith. According to the script the Crone is based on Jones' neighbour.

The visual theme of sleeping faces reappears in 'Calliope' and 'A Dream of A Thousand Cats'. To the right is a poster for Ric Madoc's movie, here it isn't associated with Dream or dreams as in other places, however the dark eyes are certainly reminiscent of the the King of Dreams. When you consider the origin of the screenplay it's interesting that the faces look either angry or sad.
Below is a panel that transitions between the world ruled by cats and the world rules by humans. As in other volumes it's used to convey the power of dreams, however here the humans look calmer and more serene than in other versions. Perhaps it's because these humans are using dreams to change/correct their reality. What's also interesting is that when it's just faces like this you can't tell whether the humans are the naked prey of the cat world or people with clothes, cars and jobs in modern human civilisation.

Since reading 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' I've seen Charles Vess's art used to illustrate various other fairy scenes. In fact fairies and Charles Vess have become linked in my mind. At the top of the post you can see the title page for the comic; a chalk carving opens a giant door to reveal a fairy host lead by their King and Queen. Vess's skill can be seen in depictions of humans too, especially the male actresses. They are skilfully drawn to look like men wearing dresses who are convincingly playing women.
The sense of time passing is made clear by the colours. It is afternoon when the troupe arrives at their grassy performance site. It is evening when the fairies arrive and the stars are coming out (unless the briefly glimpsed stars are in fact glittering members of the fay court). The background goes from light blues and oranges to darker blues as the night draws on. Below we see scenes from the beginning and end of the comic and the play from the same angle, the changed light is clear.

In Facade black and white gutters (the spaces between the panels) are used to add to the mood. Most of the comic has black gutters as we are shown Rainie's depression, and they certainly add to the oppressive atmosphere of her alone in her apartment. The more traditional white gutters are used on the pages where Rainie is outside her apartment, even when things go badly for her, they add to a sense of larger space. The black gutters return once she's back inside her own space and contemplating suicide. White gutters are used again for the last few pages, when Rainie figures out who Death is and as Death explains a bit about herself and guides Rainie to the end she wants. Without the reader necessarily realising why, the atmosphere is lightened by Death's presence.

And then there's Death herself: friendly, understanding, upbeat and informal.

  • Calliope: Ancient Greek Muse of epic poetry, had a relationship with Dream that ended badly 
  • Gryphon, Dragon & Hippogriff: The three gatekeepers of Dream's castle, seen around the cave in 'A Dream of A Thousand Cats'
  • William Shakespeare: Famous Elizabethan playwright (briefly seen in The Doll's House), who made a deal with Dream to create great stories
  • Auberon and Titania: King and Queen of Faerie, not like they are in the play, yet not so different either
  • Puck: A hobgoblin who is dangerous as much as mischievous and who stays on Earth "confusticate and vex" mortals
A little bit of foreshadowing under the cut. Only a couple of points each from 'Calliope' and 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

Last week: The Doll's House
Next week: Season of Mists

The Maiden, Mother and Crone mention that not only did Calliope have a relationship with Morpheus, she also had his son. The son isn't directly named but based on the brief description of his life it's clear that it's Orpheus. At the end of 'Calliope' when Rick is vaguely trying to remember a name he can't figure out if it's Morpheus or Orpheus. Dream's son will feature in later collections and play an important part in Morpheus's eventual fate.

After he frees her, Calliope observes that Morpheus has changed, before he would have left her trapped. It's clear their relationship ended badly (surprise, surprise) and each held a grudge. He doesn't acknowledge her comment about change, but admits that he's learned a lot recently and no longer hates her. Sounds like change to me, but of course that's a major theme of the overall series.

Dream talks to Titania about the deal he made with Shakespeare. He gave Will the talent and career the playwright always wanted, and in return gets two plays that glorify dreams. When Will hears that his friend and idol Kit Marlowe has died he fears that the deal was the cause. Hamnett Shakespare complains that his father is distant and only cares about stories, he mentions that his twin sister Judith jokes that if he died their father would simply write a play called 'Hamnett'. Titania's interest in Hamnett is clear and you have to wonder whether he was taken rather than dying. Dream realises that Will did not fully understand the deal and wonders if what he has done is right, which shows Dream has more concern for humans than some of his younger siblings (especially Desire).

Puck doesn't return through Wendell's portal withe the other fairies. He disappears into the darkness, red eyes and white teeth, with a truly creepy recitation of the final speech of the Shakespeare play. Puck will return in The Kindly Ones, it's not clear what he's been doing in between but his role as a trickster and child-thief will be put to use.

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