Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: Dream Country"

Even though I'm reviewing Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" in collected volumes, it's worth noting that "The Sandman" wasn't meant to be read like this. It was originally published as single issues of comics, not as books/graphic novels, and I've been wondering lately if I'm doing the body of work a disservice by treating it like all my other book reviews instead of going issue by issue.

However, I'm going to stick with this format because "The Sandman"--and comic books in general, actually--are discussed among fans in collective terms. People speak about the Civil War story arc in Marvel Comics; or Warren Ellis's run on "Hellblazer": or Grant Morrison's multi-title "Batman" saga. Comics are published as single issues, but they're also published sequentially as multi-part story arcs. And while readers of comics historically didn't have the option of reading anything but single issues, today's comics readers rely as much  on collected editions of story arcs as they do on single issues for consumption of the material.

Digital distribution has further blurred the lines between the single issue and the collected arcs, as you have an option of purchasing one issue at a time, getting a whole arc, or even mixing and matching to create your own narrative interpretation of a work. Comixology, for example, lets you choose to read your comics by publication history, a development I'm looking forward to discussing when I get up to "Fables and Reflections."

That said, not all issues of comics are part of story arcs. In the biz, we call these "one shots." A one shot is basically meant to be viewed as short story rather than a chapter in a novel. "Dream Country" is a collection of four "Sandman" one shots, issues 17 to 20 if you're keeping track: "Calliope," "Dream of a Thousand Cats," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Facade."

I was only five when these issues were hitting the racks in stores, but I can imagine how exciting it must have been to scurry on down to the local comic book shop, pick up an issue of "Sandman" and get one of these. Each of them is a gem. "Dream of a Thousand Cats" is my favorite "Sandman" story, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 (more on that later). I don't want to say that "this is where Sandman got good," because again, it's all better than most anything else in the medium. But I do think that the stories in "Dream Country" are where "Sandman" became consistently brilliant. They hit a high note that Gaiman & Co. sustained until the very end of the series' run.

And a note about Gaiman's "& Co." I really like the edition of "Dream Country" I have because it has a table of contents that lists the different artists for each of the issues, which my editions of "Preludes and Nocturnes" and "The Doll's House" don't do. "The Sandman" became known for its wide variety of artists and styles, but sometimes it's surprisingly difficult to discern who drew which issue, especially if you have the older collected editions. I have a mix of old and new in my collection, and it's irritating to have to squint at the fine print in the copyright info to find out who drew what. Table of contents is the way to go.

Let's break it down.

"Calliope" is about writers and where they get their ideas. Richard Madoc gets his inspiration from the muse Calliope, who he keeps as a sex slave locked in his attic. Several years pass. He wins critical acclaim, audience love, money beyond his wildest dreams, all from raping and abusing the mythological goddess of epic poetry. Dream eventually shows up to rescue her, because they were once lovers and even had a son together, and also because he had just been imprisoned for several decades and knows how awful it is. When Madoc refuses to release Calliope, Dream curses him with so many different ideas for stories that Madoc goes insane. Madoc frees Calliope to make the ideas stop torturing him, leaving him a shattered, idea-less shell of a man.

One aspect of "The Sandman" that waned as the series progressed was its horror element, and I think this story was the last one you could categorically define as "horrific." "Preludes and Nocturnes" had the visit to Hell and the diner slaughter, and "The Doll's House" had the serial killer convention. But after "Calliope," though "Sandman" was frequently scary in the psychological sense, it never really veered back into true "Hellblazer"/Clive Barker territory. And even "Calliope" resonates more for its quieter moments, like when Dream and Calliope say good-bye at the end, than for images like this:
He had no pen or paper. He wrote his ideas on a brick wall with his fingertips.
"Calliope" is a great story, and it's the first time Gaiman references Dream's son. That's going to be important later on.

What can I say about "Dream of a Thousand Cats"? I love cats. I love "The Sandman." I love that "The Sandman" did a story about cats that did for cats what "Watership Down" did for rabbits.
For death! And the world ending!
"Thousand Cats" is another frame story that features Dream as a supporting character, like "Tales from the Sand." A group of suburban housecats gather in a graveyard to hear a cat-prophet preach. The Prophet tells a story about her former life as a pampered housecat, when she was just like all of them. Her owners drown her newborn kittens in a pond because she got pregnant by a stray and the owners wanted to breed her with another purebred. She goes to the Dreaming and meets with the Cat of Dreams for guidance and advice. He tells her a story about the former Age of Cats, when cats were the size of humans and hunted little cat-sized humans in their gardens for sport.
Good times.
But the Age ended when one of the humans told the rest to dream of a world in which they were the dominant species, and one day everyone awoke to the world that we know now, where cats are just our little pets and humans rule the world. Even worse, the humans had dreamed it so that there never was an Age of Cats. They had altered reality to retcon the cat kingdom out of existence, because such is the power of a shared dream.

The Cat of Dreams tells the Prophet to spread the word among cat-kind that if they can share a dream, they can bring about the Age of Cats again. So she walks the world, telling cats to dream of a better reality, in the hope that enough of them will dream one night and they will all awake in the Golden Age again. Most of the housecats in the graveyard scoff at her story as just an entertaining bit of nonsense from a famous crazy-cat-person, but one cat in the crowd... well:
I'm crying. You can't see it, but I'm literally crying as I post this.
I love the shit out of this story. My friend R has often bemoaned the portrayal of cats in fiction, especially children's fiction, because they're almost always villains, enemies of the truly heroic animals, or sniveling, cowardly assholes ("Watership Down," "The Secret of NIMH," "Cinderella," "Homeward Bound"). This is one of the few portrayals of cats in fiction as heroes, and the fact that the Prophet is female is just icing on the cake for me.

In terms of where it fits into the "Sandman" mythos, it's a great example of what the series is getting at when it talks about the power of dreams. Dream as a character has his own set of powers, and while it's interesting to spend time with him and watch him struggle and scheme, I find "Sandman" more interesting for how Dream's existence affects those around him. This issue is the beginning of the ongoing discussion in the series: why are stories important? What do stories mean for the tellers of the tale, and for those who listen?

The discussion continues in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which has one of my favorite conceits for a story ever: William Shakespeare and his actors put on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the fairies referenced in the play.
So no pressure or anything.
Will entered into an agreement with Dream, wherein Dream will give him the ability to become the greatest storyteller in the English language, and in return Will will write two plays specifically for Dream. One is "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the other (which we don't learn until the end of the "Sandman" series) is "The Tempest."

This is the most famous issue of "The Sandman," because it won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction and was the first comic book to do so. Now, the story goes that after "Midsummer" won the award, the World Fantasy Award rules were amended so that comic books were ineligible to even be nominated in that category. I've read this on the Internet and even in some very well-regarded scholarly works (yes, scholars discuss "The Sandman," what of it?). It makes a great story because it shows how comic books are actual works of art but are still relegated to a lesser status by snobs who are out of touch with the zeitgeist.

And it's not true.

From the World Fantasy Award website:
All Fantasy is eligible, High fantasy, horror, sword & sorcery, supernatural, children's and YA books, and beyond.
Comics are eligible in the Special Award Professional category. We never made a change in the rules. 
Italicization theirs. I think they got sick of angry "Sandman" fans  bombarding them with requests to make comics eligible for regular awards again. I gather that it was like the year when "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It wasn't that there was any specific rule preventing animated films from getting nominated for Best Picture, it just hadn't ever happened before.

I'm not arguing that comic books aren't still kind of pushed into this artistic ghetto and sneered at by intellectual types. That totally happens. But comics fans have got to stop repeating this story about the World Fantasy Awards changing their rules to exclude comic books in the wake of the "Midsummer" win, because it's not true, and false claims hurt the cause more than they help it.

Now I've had to spend all that time talking about the politics surrounding the story without getting to the story itself. How very meta.

So, the story--do you like Shakespeare? Because there's a lot of Shakespeare dialog in this story. I have to confess that I enjoy Shakespeare when it's being performed, but I can't seem to follow it so well on the page, and I tend to gloss over the parts of this story that are the actors performing "Midsummer." However, what I do really enjoy in this play is the relationship between Will and his son, Hamnet, who's been feeling rather neglected since his father made a pact with the immortal anthropomorphic manifestation of dreams. Hamnet is traveling with Will and the theater troupe so that father and son can become closer, but all Will cares about is his stories. Hamnet even jokes with one of the players that if he died, his father would just make a play out of it.

That's on one side of the curtain. On the other side, the audience side, the fairies and Dream enjoy the night's entertainment. Some common fairies in the back row provide a bit of comic relief, as one of them can't follow the story and thinks Dream just brought the troupe there to be the fairies' dinner. Robin Goodfellow, called the Puck, is so excited by the play that he puts the human player to sleep and takes his place on stage. King Auberon gives a sack of gold coins to the head actor, which of course turn into dead leaves when the sun rises because fairies are assholes. And Queen Titania gives an apple to Hamnet while telling him how great life is in her kingdom, an interaction Will ignores because he's too busy watching his own play.

If you know a bit more than the average person about the life and works of Shakespeare, you may get a chill watching Hamnet and Titania together. In the play "Midsummer," one of the early plot points is that Titania adopts a human child. Hamnet plays this part in the comic's version of "Midsummer." And in real life, William Shakespeare did have a son named Hamnet who tragically died when he was just eleven years old. The implication in Gaiman's "Midsummer" is that Hamnet was stolen by the fairies, because again, fairies are assholes.

One more significant development in "Midsummer." Dream has a rather one-sided conversation with Titania, who was maybe his lover at one point (implied rather than stated). He's having doubts about the pact he made with Will, a crisis on conscience in the wake of gifting the man with stories. Dream made the pact because he wanted the old stories to live on through the ages, which is a high priority from Dream's perspective--he has a job to do as the Prince of Stories and he's going to do it to the best of his abilities. But he didn't tell Will what such a gift would cost him and Will didn't bother to ask, which is pretty typical of mortals. Not just because mortals are short-sighted, but because (as Dream fears) they wouldn't understand the costs even if they were told. Their minds aren't meant to comprehend someone like Dream.

It's a rare moment when Dream ponders his impact on people's lives and suddenly doubts that what he does is right and fair. Dream isn't usually a character who looks to the past or thinks very deeply about the decisions he makes. He's been doing this job for a long time. He knows what he's doing, thank you very much, and he will not be criticized by those who think they know better just because a couple of mortals get trampled along the way.

This is going to come back around in a big way in the next volume, "Season of Mists." Get ready.

Okay, I've spent a decent amount of time talking about the most famous (and perhaps best) issue of "Sandman." I have more to say, but there's one last story in "Dream Country" to get through, so let's move on to "Façade."

Dream isn't in this story at all. It's about a day in the life of Urania Blackwell, also known as Element Girl, a DC comics C-list superhero who now lives as a miserable shut-in because she's too ashamed to show her hideously misshapen face and body to the world. All she wants to do is die, but she's basically indestructible and can't think of any method of death that would actually destroy her.

So Dream's sister Death comes by and gives her a bit of good advice, leading to possibly the only happy ending in fiction caused by the main character's successful suicide.

It's weird to read this story right after "Midsummer." "Midsummer" is so grand and weighty, stuffed full of important historical and mythological personalities. "Façade," by contrast, is a much slower, more intimate story about an insignificant nobody dying alone in a filthy studio apartment. But I feel the two stories are thematically connected and actually flow quite well together.

First, they are both about immortality. Will enters into a pact with Dream so that his stories may live forever; and Urania enters into a pact with Ra, the Egyptian sun god, so that she too can live forever. Neither Will nor Urania understand the true costs of their pacts at first, but one of the immediate consequences in alienation. They are no longer ordinary mortals, they are special. Will becomes distant from his family in order to focus on his work, and Urania cuts herself off from the world entirely.

(An aside: I'm not familiar with the character of Element Girl in the regular DC comics, so I don't know why she isn't out there fighting crime like a regular superhero. It isn't explained in this story, and I have to assume that she just didn't have the temperament for it, as she seems like a gentle soul who maybe cracked under the pressures of crime-fighting, but that's pure speculation on my part.)

Another way these stories are connected is that both are about loss. Dream commissions "Midsummer" from Will because the fairies aren't going to visit Earth anymore, and Dream doesn't want their contributions to the world to be lost or forgotten. One consequence of this is that Will loses his son twice over, once because he neglects the boy to write the play, and then again when Hamnet dies/is taken by the fairies. When Urania becomes Element Girl, she loses her humanity and any hope for a normal life, and most of her story is her dealing with that loss.

However, what makes "Façade" special is that Urania's story has Death in it instead of Dream, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Dream as an entity is all about stories, and Urania's story has ended. Nothing happens to her and nothing ever will, so she's beyond Dream's notice and influence. The only left for her is the end. She needs to meet her death, and Death. 

Death, when she comes, tells Urania that in the end, all things die, and Death is there to meet all of them at the end. Again, this is in contrast to Dream, who is rather discriminating about those he meets directly, and very choosy about who gets his special attention. But whether you're a mortal, a god, or a galaxy, Death is there for you. But not in an ominous way, like "there's no where to hide"; more like "you don't have to go through this alone." Death holds Urania when she cries, comforts her about her miserable wreck of a life, and mediates between Ra and Urania so the former can release the latter from her immortal existence. She's quite friendly, this Death, and just wants you to get where you're going. 

It's quite a feat of narrative to end a story with a suicide and still leave the reader feeling uplifted. You don't hear about "Façade" very much in "Sandman" fandom (I imagine it comes up more among fans of the Death spin-off series), but it's as good and profound as anything else we'll see moving forward.

Final Grade: A. It's the shortest of the "Sandman" volumes, but "Dream Country" is a winner all the way around.

Next time: volume 4, "Season of Mists." We return to Hell.

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