Revisiting Sandman
 

Revisiting Sandman #3

sandman1This 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 Morpheus, king of dreams, he had just recovered the three artifacts of his power: his mask, his pouch, and his dream crystal. With the destruction of the crystal at the hands of Dr. Destiny, Morpheus’s power returns to him in full, making him more powerful than he has been in centuries. What follows is a single issue that is most likely the most important issue in the first volume, and possibly the most important issue in the entire series.

When “Sound of Her Wings” opens, Morpheus is sitting and moping and feeding pigeons. After completing his revenge on his captors and retrieving his belongings, he is listless and unmotivated, unsure of what to do next. Enter his big sister, Death, who offers him the opportunity to accompany her on her work that day and talk. Within 22 pages, which ultimately feel way too short, we are transported around the world, as Dream watches Death guide people into the afterlife. While this is happening, Death guides Morpheus and gives him direction, ultimately creating a beautiful sibling interaction that is remarkably sweet, considering the two characters are eternal representations of metaphysical concepts.

This issue is notable for a number of reasons. In the afterward of Preludes and NocturnesNeil Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue to the preceding stories, and in this sense, it’s very true. The first seven issues of the collection are a self-contained story documenting Morpheus’s imprisonment, escape, and recovery. Once this is complete, we the readers are left as unsure of the future as Morpheus is. While Gaiman could have just jumped through time to start a new story in the following issue, he instead chooses to slow down the pacing and explore what makes Morpheus tick.

Additionally, this issue is important because of its introduction of Death, who would go on to be a major fan favorite. Morpheus’s big sister is everything he is not, and that is wonderful. Where Morpheus is dark, brooding, and morose, Death is happy, perky, and energetic. This first appearance shows Death smiling and talking about Mary Poppins, and I don’t know about you, but in all my musings and thoughts on death, this persona is most unlike anything I’ve imagined. This juxtaposition is especially striking, considering that Death’s job is to literally guide people through their deaths. It makes sense within the context of the story, I guess. As Morpheus says, “It is as natural to die as it is to be born.” It is humanity that cowers in fear of death, when really, it’s just one more phase of life. In this sense, Death’s appearance and demeanor fits very well.

As to why people glommed onto her as a character, I think that some of that has to do with her reactions to those around her. We see her being stern and disapproving, when she first talks to Morpheus, to cool and comforting a few pages later, when an infant asks, “is that all I get?” While Morpheus is the king of Dreams, and the main character of entire series, it is Death that provides the pathos within these pages, and it is that pathos that engages us as the readers.

Or, maybe, she just gives people hope. Maybe, when we die, we’re greeted by a goth girl wearing an Ankh around her neck, who guides us to the afterlife amid the sound of her wings.

Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue, and it certainly serves that purpose. It caps off the previous stories, providing some much needed closure and bridging a gap to the storyline that follows. Additionally, though, it bridges an even wider gap, between who Morpheus was, and who he becomes in the rest of the series. It’s a single, self-contained issue that, as I said earlier, feels way too short, but it’s an issue that everyone should read. Even more so, it’s an issue that would be a great introduction to the series for someone who has never read any other issues.

This concludes our revisit of Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Sandman. Overall, this is a terrific opening to a terrific series, and Gaiman does a fantastic job of drawing us into the world and making us want to stay. In the next installment, I’ll head into the second volume, The Doll’s House, which finds Dream continuing to rebuild his realm.

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Revisiting Sandman #2

sandman1

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.

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Revisiting Sandman #1

 

Kindly-OnesI found my first Sandman comic in a quarter bin. Now, I know that the quarter bin is usually the domain of my cohort, but for the purposes of this column, and subsequent columns in this series, I need to establish my foundation. I didn’t start with Sandman #1, though I admit that would have been a great place to start. No, I started with Sandman #57, the first issue of the “The Kindly Ones.” I had recently pulled a few issues of Bone out of the quarter bin at the local antique shop that sold some comics, and I was digging through the rest of the books trying to find more, when I came across this issue. The cover told me nothing about the comic itself, but I had heard enough about the book to be intrigued. I also knew who Neil Gaiman was from Good Omens, a book that my friend told me I had to read, but I hadn’t actually read yet. For a quarter, I thought, why not? I ended up buying the four or so issues that were hidden within the bin, all random issues from “The Kindly Ones”, and devouring them that night. I was blown away by the universe Gaiman had built, and I knew that what I was reading, even four or five years after it was published, was something special. Looking back, I can say that that moment was the genesis of my love for the works of Neil Gaiman, something that continues to this day.

Jump ahead a year or two. Rhys and I had this system where we would share comics. We would each buy different books on our monthly pull list and swap titles that we thought the other would be interested in. If we were considering adding a title to our pull list, we would ask the other if he intended to, so that we wouldn’t end up doubling up on issues, unless we really, really, really wanted our own copies. We would do the same with any graphic novels or trade paperbacks we purchased, a system which eventually led to my reintroduction to Sandman. At one point, after Rhys has traveled with his family to Cheyenne, Wyoming, he returned with a copy of the “Preludes and Nocturnes”, the first collection of Sandman comics. I, of course, snatched up the opportunity to borrow the book, and if I wasn’t hooked before, it wasn’t long before I was hopelessly addicted to the story and all it presented.

Which leads me to this week and this week’s column, the first in what I hope will be a series of terrific columns focusing on one of my favorite comic books series ever. But, first, a little more backstory. I don’t sleep very well at night. I’m an anxious person by nature, and it’s hard to turn that off. My mind is just too active with all of the different things I need to do throughout the day, and when it comes time for me to slow down and drift off, I become fixated on my life outside my bed. And it ends up taking me forever to start shutting that stuff down.

sandman1One of the ways I’ve found to solve this problem is to focus my mind on something else. While my mind may remain active, if I can narrow down its activity to a single point, it is much easier to drive that course to slumber. Lately, I’ve been re-reading “Preludes and Nocturnes”. I’ve had it on my phone for a few years now, ever since DC released the digital version on the Amazon store. When I bought a Kindle Fire, it was one of the first purchases I made to try out comics on a tablet, and now, re-reading it years later, I’m still blown away by the fact that I can hold an entire graphic novel in the palm of my hand. Crotchety-old-man-isms aside, though, I’m amazed to find that I enjoy this comic as much as I do, despite the fact that I’ve read it a million times before.

It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that appeals to me, and I know that smarter people than I have probably written dissertations on the series, but there’s something about it that just grabs me and refuses to let go. The first issue starts out simply enough. A secret society of wizards is attempting to capture Death, but instead, they capture her brother, Morpheus, the King of Dreams. He spends over seventy years in captivity, until a slight oversight sets him free. He enacts revenge on his captor and returns to his domain, the Dreaming, broken, exhausted, and nearly dead. This entire story is told through the words of Gaiman set against the beautiful backdrops of penciler Sam Keith’s simple, yet complex, imagery. The artistry of the panels can sometimes make the action hard to follow, but even that is a rare situation. Most of the time, the comic is engrossing on multiple levels. From the dialogue to the plot to the artwork to the colors, the entire book just works. As the story progresses into the second issue, and we’re introduced to Cain and Abel, two of the inhabitants of the Dreaming, and through these interactions, Gaiman begins to develop the mythos of the story that engrossed me so much as a teenager and continues to do so now.

What I’m loving more than anything with this read-through, though, is how important DC Continuity was to Gaiman, when he developed the story. Wesley Dodd, the original Sandman from 1939, had long since fallen into obscurity. With this new Sandman series, though, Gaiman weaved Dodd into the mythos, creating something entirely unique at the same time. Suddenly, all of those old Sandman stories weren’t just classic, silly Golden Age stories about a guy in a business suit and a gas mask, he was the charge of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, affecting what little he could of the world from his glass prison. Later Sandman stories featuring Dodd, both in this Sandman series, and other mini-series set in the 1930s would continue to cement this symbiotic relationship between the two, creating something altogether unique and interesting.

It’s something that neither of the two big companies would likely do in the current industry, and I think that’s a shame. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that anyone could do it quite as well as Gaiman did in this series. Maybe it’s good they don’t try. Though, to be fair, James Robinson did an amazing job of that in his Starman revival, which to this day remains my favorite example of retroactive continuity done right. But, again, modern comics have no place for anything like this, and that makes me a little sad. I know that the industry is geared toward casting the widest net possible for potential fans, and I’m okay with that.

I can understand and appreciate that sentiment. It just makes me a little sad.

Not a lot happens in the first two issues of Sandman in the grand scheme of things. We’re introduced to characters, and Gaiman starts building his worlds, and ultimately we’re hooked, and engrossed, and we want to read more. Thankfully, there is more. Gaiman wrote 75 issues of this series, and these first two issues merely scratch the surface. I have read on, and I know the truth: there is so much more to come. And, personally, I am so excited to revisit it.

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