This installment is part of an ongoing series in which Christopher re-reads and analyzes one of the greatest comic book series of this or any age. Truth be told, he thinks way too hard about this series, but it’s okay: he knows that other people think way too hard about this series as well. He likes to justify his thoughts by telling himself that he is writing this series for those people.
When last we left Sandman, Morpheus, the King of Dreams, had escaped his captivity and returned to his realm to find it destitute and destroyed from the years he had been imprisoned. He is distraught to find that not only is his realm crumbling, but he also lacks the power to rebuild it. What follows is three stories, which involve Morpheus searching for three artifacts of his power: his sand pouch, his helm, and his dream crystal. These three artifacts were stolen from him by Roderick Burgess, at the beginning of his imprisonment.
Finding the first artifact takes him to England, where he meets up with John Constantine, who was the last known person to possess his pouch. Constantine tells him that the pouch was stolen from him by his ex-girlfriend, Rachel. When Morpheus and Constantine finally track her down, she is a shell of a person, under the control of dreams and addicted to the sand within Morpheus’s pouch. The fight is a short one, though, as Morpheus is the king of dreams, and this is his domain.
Through this story, we are given a glimpse into Morpheus’s personality primarily through the conversation he has with Constantine over Rachel’s fate. Morpheus is content to let her wither away, while Constantine insists that Morpheus help her. There a neutrality present in Morpheus’s response that makes it creepy as all get out. He’s not malicious in his decision to leave her alone, he just doesn’t care. Even when he chooses to give her peace in death, it’s not out of mercy or compassion. To him, her fate doesn’t matter. Interestingly enough, this portrayal is one of the things that makes Gaiman’s Morpheus so compelling. In a universe where main characters typically fall into two basic camps: heroes and villains, Morpheus is something else entirely, choosing between benevolence and malevolence as easily as someone might choose between soup and salad.
His pouch obtained, Morpheus heads to Hell, where he hopes to find the second artifact: his helm, which has come into the possession of a demon. In this story, Gaiman continues to build on the mythology he started creating with the first two issues of Sandman. On his way to meet Lucifer, Morpheus passes a cell, where an African woman begs him to save her. She refers to him as “Lord Kai’ckul,” to which he changes form to respond to her, creating the idea that Morpheus is the king of all dreams in all cultures, not just Europeans. The interchange is less than a page long, but it speaks volumes about Morpheus’s true power and status.
After meeting up with Lucifer, Morpheus is surprised to find out that the prince of darkness has relinquished total and complete control of Hell, splitting power equally among himself and two other rulers. In a show of force, the three rulers of Hell call forth the entire host of demons to have an audience with Morpheus, who demands his helm back. The demon who has claimed the helm challenges Morpheus to a battle of wits. If Morpheus wins, he gets his helm back. If he loses, he remains a resident of Hell for eternity. As with the previous story, the demon is no match for Morpheus, who wins easily. In one final show of force, Morpheus calmly walks past a million demons, as Lucifer vows to someday destroy him.
The final story of the trilogy follows Morpheus to a small town outside of Gotham City, where he hopes to reclaim his crystal from Doctor Destiny, a silver-age Justice League villain, who has been imprisoned in Arkham Asylum for decades. Back in the 1960s, Doctor Destiny created a machine to create reality from the fabric of dreams. In an interesting retcon, Gaiman establishes that Destiny used Morpheus’s crystal to power his machine. In the process, however, he modified the crystal in such a way that it no longer responds to Morpheus. When Destiny escapes Arkham, he becomes Morpheus’s most powerful foe yet, as he chooses to meet Morpheus in the realm of dreams.
Before the final battle, however, we are treated to my favorite story out of the first volume. “24 Hours” follows the experience of a group of patrons of a roadside diner, as Doctor Destiny uses the power of the crystal to shape their experiences and perspectives. The story takes place over an entire day, as Destiny toys with them and shapes them into his playthings, ultimately forcing them all to either kill each other or commit suicide. It’s a remarkably dark story that displays some of the more twisted elements of Gaiman’s storytelling. It’s a horror comic story in the classic sense of the term, and it’s one of the only comic books I have ever read that has truly scared me. It feels very similar to “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, which I talked about a few weeks ago. A group of people become the toys of an all-powerful being, and the parallels are more than striking. More importantly, though, the story showcases the ambivalent nature of Morpheus’s power. While Morpheus is neutral in the use of his power, Doctor Destiny has no such neutrality. He is a malevolent and unbalanced force, and being able to wield the power of dreams to serve his own purposes creates a truly terrifying picture.
When Morpheus and Destiny finally do meet in battle, it’s the most interesting battle of the three stories, as Morpheus is clearly outclassed in terms of power. Destiny’s control over the dream realm using the crystal is so great, and his mind so unbalanced, that Morpheus’s pleas fall on deaf ears. It’s only through the manipulation of Destiny’s own hubris that Morpheus is victorious. After Destiny destroys the crystal, thinking it will destroy Morpheus, the King of Dream’s full power is released from the crystal and returns to him, making him more powerful than he has been in centuries. With his full power unlocked, Morpheus returns Destiny to Gotham. And in a brief show of mercy, Morpheus returns Destiny’s ability dream. It creates a nice parallel to the previous story, as it shows that the power of dreams is not nearly as important as the person who wields it.
Overall, these three stories each serve an interesting function within the Sandman mythos that Gaiman has created. In each one, a different element of Morpheus’s power is showcased, revealing to the reader that he is not only powerful, but one of the most powerful entities in the DCU. Whether he is going toe-to-toe with Doctor Destiny or standing up to the entire force of Hell, Morpheus is a force to be reckoned with, and this is made all the more potent by his calm and unfeeling demeanor. He is a force you don’t want to mess with, and this idea is cemented more and more with each story. It’s a testament to Gaiman’s abilities as both a storyteller and a worldbuilder.
In the next installment of Revisiting Sandman, we’ll be looking at only one story, but it’s an important one: the first appearance of Morpheus’s sister, Death.