Neil Gaiman (text), with Kelley Jones, Malcolm Jones III, Charles Vess, and Colleen Doran (artistic rendering), The Sandman: Dream Country (DC Comics, 1992) Neil Gaiman (text), with Bryan Talbot, Stan Woch, P. Craig Russell, Shawn McManus, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, Duncan Eagleson, Kent Williams, Mark Buckingham, Vince Locke, and Dick Giordano (artistic rendering), The Sandman: Fables and Reflections (DC Comics, 1993)
Neil Gaiman (text), with Michael Allred, Gary Amaro, Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano, Tony Harris, Steve Leialoha, Vince Locke, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens, Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, and Michael Zulli (artistic rendering), The Sandman: Worlds' End (DC Comics, 1994)
After The Doll's House and before Season of Mists, Gaiman wrote four single-issue stories, exploring ideas he'd had during the longer story arcs. These four issues (plus the script for one of them) make up Dream Country.
Dream Country is introduced by Steve Ericson, who talks about dreams that aren't dreams.
"Calliope" is the first story, illustrated by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III. Calliope, whose name means "beautiful voice," is the youngest of the nine Muses of the Greeks. A writer trapped her with rituals, imprisoned her in a tower and used her for inspiration. Now that writer is very old, and he sells her to a young novelist. He, too, imprisons and uses her, for years. Her only hope for escape is her former lover, the father of her child ("That boy-child who went to Hades for his lady-love, and died in Thrace, torn apart by the Sisters of the Frenzy, for his sacrilege.") ... Dream of the Endless.
"Calliope" reads like Gaiman's darkly amused, slightly exasperated answer to the perennial question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Every writer gets this question regularly, and most of them eventually develop stock answers to it.
But "Calliope" is also a serious story, about obsession, and how one justifies things to oneself, and what one will give up to have one's wishes granted.
"A Dream of a Thousand Cats" (which my kitten Delight wants to eat) allows one Siamese to tell the story of her encounter with the Cat of Dreams (a huge night-black tom with eyes that shine red), who told her that once the Earth was ruled by giant cats. But a thousand humans dreamed, together, of a world ruled by humans, and the next day, it had always been ruled by humans. Now the Siamese travels, and tells her story, and tries to get a thousand cats to dream together...
This story reminds us that Dream is not only the master of human dreams, but of everything that dreams. He is only anthropomorphic in human settings. That is not his true shape. "Thousand Cats" reminds us too of the power of dreams, and how they can shape reality.
Also illustrated by the unrelated Joneses (Malcolm and Kelley), the art in this issue is organic and graceful, and very feline.
In "Men of Good Fortune" from The Doll's House, we saw the Sandman, at one of his meetings with Hob Gadling, notice a young man who wanted to be a great playwright. And Morpheus struck a deal with him. This story shows us the first half of Will Shakespeare's end of that bargain.
Shakespeare, his son Hamnet, and Lord Strange's Men travel to the South Downs, to put on Will's new play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But today, they will not play at an inn, and their audience will not be human. This is the first of two plays commissioned by Morpheus, which are to celebrate dreams, and he has invited those the play is about, and for. Titania, Auberon, and all their Court come to sit on the greensward and watch a story which never happened, but which is true nonetheless. And by the end of the play, the lines between actor and audience, story and reality, will have blurred considerably.
Having done a paper on Shakespeare some years ago, I was aware that Shakespeare's only son died young, and was named Hamnet (yes, it's a variant of the name Hamlet). But it never occurred to me how little Hamnet would have seen of his father, nor how Shakespeare's passion for his craft would have alienated them. It occurred to Gaiman, though, and he made that the human center of this story. There is, of course, a lot more going on, but William's relationship with his son shows the true price he has paid for his inspirations.
Gaiman put a huge amount of research into this issue (though he admits to two anachronisms, and blames one on Dream and the other on the peculiar chronology of fairy folk). So did Charles Vess, the illustrator. The artwork is simply beautiful.
"Facade" rounds out our little sojourn through the dream country. Urania Blackwell was granted superpowers in a tomb in Egypt, and became Element Girl, sidekick to Metamorpho. Now she feels that she is nothing more than a freak, and lives her life enclosed in her tiny apartment, living for the one phone call a week she gets to make to the man who arranges her monthly "disability" check. She can shape her body into any substance that exists, and all she wants to do is die. How does someone who has no blood, who simply metabolizes poisons, who cannot be damaged by a bullet, kill herself?
Perhaps Death will know.
Children, teenagers, and adults have thrilled to superhero stories for decades now. Most of us have dreamed of being Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Buffy, or whomever. Wouldn't it be wonderful, to have those powers, to be able to do, well, anything? And "Facade" answers, "No. Not necessarily."
What happens to someone who becomes so different from her fellow humans that she cannot live among them any more?
Colleen Doran and Malcolm Jones III's art makes Rainie far more human than she can believe she is.
Gaiman's script for "Calliope" is included in this volume, partly because Gaiman wished that such a thing had been published when he first got started in comics, and partially just to indulge the fans' curiosity about the process. If you're the sort who wants to go backstage after Phantom, who asks the magician how it's done, who watches "The Making of...." documentaries, you may enjoy this script. The comparison between Gaiman's ideas and intentions and Jones' execution is interesting, as are the various notations by the collaborators. If you're not that sort, you won't miss anything by skipping it. (I failed to read the script for years, and didn't mind, then read it for this review, and thoroughly enjoyed it.)
Fables and Reflections
The title of this collection refers to the two series of single-issue stories it contains. The first is Distant Mirrors, issues 29, 30, 31, and 50. These four issues are about emperors, rulers, kings ... historical ones, with accurate details. Emperor Norton I of the United States of America ("Three Septembers and a January," #31); Maxmilien Robespierre, the most powerful man in revolutionary France ("Thermidor," #29); Imperator Augustus Caesar, first Emperor of Rome ("August," #30); and Haroun al Raschid, Caliph of Baghdad ("Ramadan," #50) each have something to teach us about our own day and age. The second group of stories is Convergence, three stories in which very diverse characters come together, and tell stories. These three are "The Hunt" (#38), "Soft Places (#39), and "The Parliament of Rooks" (#40). This volume also includes "The Song of Orpheus," which was The Sandman Special #1; and "Fear of Falling," which appeared in Vertigo Preview #1.
The volume opens with the ten-page mini comic "Fear of Falling," illustrated by Kent Williams. In it, a young playwright is about to cancel the production of his first play one week before opening night. Why? Because he's afraid of falling ... as afraid of success as of failure. He falls asleep while watching Hitchcock's Vertigo (a joke, as this short was published in the preview comic that launched DC's Vertigo line of fantasy/horror comics for adults, with The Sandman as its flagship), and has a dream. Despite his fear of heights, he climbs a tall promontory, at the top of which is the Sandman. Dream tells him that, when you fall in dreams, sometimes you wake, and sometimes you die, but that there is a third option.
Gene Wolfe provides us with a social introduction to these stories. "This is Pythia. She lives in a cave it's haunted by the ghost of a giant snake and she answers questions in cryptic verse. Her answers are always true, and generally a little truer than we like."
Shawn McManus drew "Three Septembers and a January," the story about the first and only Emperor of America. (Yes, the title is a tip of the hat to Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was a good trick, as the comic came out three years before the movie.) If you've never heard of Joshua Abraham Norton, then you're in for a treat. Somewhere a little past the middle of the nineteenth century, an Englishman from Africa lost the fortune he'd made in San Francisco. Financially, he was ruined. Emotionally and intellectually ... well, he declared himself Emperor of the United States. Though no one followed his proclamations, the newspapers printed them, the city gave him his suit of state, and the shops and eateries accepted his currency. When he died, he was given a funeral with full Masonic rites, a large monument (still a tourist site today), and a funeral procession over two miles long. Later, one of the more peculiar postmodern neopaganisms venerated him. And Neil Gaiman wrote a story in which he became the playing ground, and the prize, in a contest between Dream and his three youngest siblings.
In "Thermidor" (brought to us by the pencil of Stan Woch and the pen of Dick Giordano), we meet for the first time Dream's son, or what's left of him. Johanna Constantine is hired by the Sandman to travel into revolutionary France to retrieve the immortal severed head of Orpheus. This is the time of the Reign of Terror under Maxmilien Robespierre, who wants to destroy both the head and the headhunter. But Orpheus is a singer out of myth, and his song wakes echoes in the mind and the heart.
"Thermidor" illustrates the danger of the demagogue, the lengths to which people will go in the name of "the people" or "the nation." Like the other Distant Mirrors issues, this story has an ever-increasing (and scary) relevance for people today, particularly Americans. The title, by the way, refers not to a lobster dish, but to a midsummer month on France's revolutionary calendar. The astute may have already noticed that all four titles in this set refer to months.
"The Hunt," with Duncan Eagleson and Vince Locke's artwork, is the first of the three Convergence stories. In a 1980s living room, a grandfather tells his too-hip early-teen granddaughter a story of "the old country." Young Vassily lives with his father deep in the forest until the day the gift of a gypsy peddler sends him on a search for his dream. Along the way, he encounters an extremely tall and thin librarian who wishes to purchase the book in Vassily's pack. Vassily will sell it to him only in return for his heart's desire: the duke's daughter, pictured in the miniature portrait that the gypsy gave him. His other encounters include a murderous innkeeper, Baba Yaga, a number of his own people, and the librarian's master (a tall pale man in black, of course).
Gaiman says, "If 'The Hunt' works, it will do that nice thing of having you get to the end and then want to start again at the beginning." It works. I still read it twice.
We have Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch to thank for the moving shadows and light in "August," in which Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus, spends a day as a beggar, so that he may think without the gods of Rome watching him. He thinks of prophecies, and of boundaries. This story just might explain why the Emperors of Rome turned out as they did. It might also serve as a cautionary tale for the politicians of today.
"Soft Places" is given its necessarily dreamlike quality by John Watkiss, as a young Marco Polo, crossing the Desert of Lop, falls into the soft places on the edges of the Dreaming. There he and the odd companions he meets tell stories. A charming tale, in which one hears Gilbert mention Dream's new lady-love.
"Orpheus," with Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham providing art, is a nearly straight retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, except that here, Dream is Orpheus' father (and not a Thracian prince), and it is Death's intervention that permits him to travel safely to the Underworld. If you don't know the myth, then I won't spoil it any further. But I know the myth, and have always liked this version.
In "Parliament of Rooks," elucidated by the illustrations of Jill Thompson and Vince Locke, Daniel Hall dreams his way to the House of Secrets, meeting Abel (whose home it is), his brother Cain, Eve the Raven Woman, and Matthew (her raven). Three old storytellers and an audience.... Well, what did you think they'd do? Play Parcheesi?
Finally, we come to "Ramadan." This issue instantly became a favorite among readers. P. Craig Russell's incredible imagery brings the entire tale closer to one of Scherherazade's than even its content could make it. During Ramadan, month of fasting, the Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al Raschid, looks upon his city of wonders, and knows that it is at its height. He knows, too, that any civilization which has reaches its height must fall, and he worries that it will then be forgotten. And so he calls on another monarch, the Prince of Stories, and they walk in the soukh, the marketplace, and discuss a deal. In the end, we find that this was a tale told to a small, crippled boy, by a beggar, in the bombed-out Baghdad of today.
When an unseasonable storm blows up, travelers from many worlds and plains are stranded. Through the trees, they see lights, an Inn. This is the World's End, the Inn at the End of Worlds, one of four "free houses." And, for the time being, there is nothing to do but sit around and tell stories. A creepy tale of the dreams of cities; a swashbuckling tale of the overthrow of a cruel lord; a stirring tale of the sea, and what lies beneath it; a "Horatio Alger story of some poor boy becoming president"; and the story of a funeral.... these are the stories we hear. How many others are told?
The Chaucerian framing sequences are all courtesy of the inestimable Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham, giving the Inn a warm and realistic feel.
The first story is the disturbing and mildly Lovecraftian "A Tale of Two Cities," a title which the teller of the tale acknowledges as a nod to Dickens. It's drawn by Alec Stevens. Robert loves his city, and wanders it compulsively. One day, he spots a silver road leading off through the marketplace. Working too late that night, he gets on the wrong subway train, a gleaming black and silver deco dream of a train with only one other passenger, a tall, thin, pale man in black. When he disembarks, he is no longer in the city he knows....
Next Clurican of Faerie steps up to tell a "bald and insipid narrative" of a charming (if somewhat rushed) tale of swashbuckling and intrigue. "Clurican's Tale" is given lovely, stained-glass-like images by John Watkiss. The Queen of Faerie's Envoy in Extraordinary is sent by his green monarch to ensure that the cities of the Plains do not unite. Arriving in Aurelia of the Plains, he finds that the monarch who wishes to unite them is rather a nasty sort. But Clurican of Faerie is a resourceful fellow.... While I always enjoy the story, it really needs to be at least twice as long. As it is, the clever ideas and wonderful little touches are rather too crowded together for comfort.
"Hob's Leviathan" allows a young sailor in love with the sea to tell a Kipling-styled story in which old Hob Gadling appears. Ably aided by Michael Zulli and Dick Giordano, this tale of secrets, and regret, and sea magic jumps to life. The world of the tall ships is slipping away, and young Jim knows it. But the two passengers that Jim's ship takes on have seen many things slip away, and they'll leave Jim with a little of their wisdom when they go.
Michael Allred gives a shining nimbus to the mythologized tale "The Golden Boy," a revival of a 1970s DC character named Prez, who became the US's first teenage president. Prez knows two big things: one is America, and the other is time. Having fixed all the clocks in his hometown, he has moved on to fixing his country. His story is transformed into legend and myth almost as soon as it happens, quicker than even JFK was canonized. And, once he is dead, he becomes a story himself.
It's not a political tale, even if it looks like it. Instead, it's a story of how we view our leaders, how, while they're in office, they're awful, and once they're gone, we love them. "In hindsight even Warren Gamaliel Harding looks good," Prez's predecessor tells him.
Now we reach "Cerements," a tale which, perhaps, embodies the more abstract concepts behind the Sandman series more than any other issue. Shea Anton Pensa and Vince Locke depict a story designed like an Escher print. This is Petrefax's story, the young man who is a journeyman in the Necropolis Litharge, the city where the death rituals of worlds are kept. Petrefax speaks of a funeral he attended on an assignment, where the ritual included storytelling. And when Master Hermas, who conducts the funeral, tells his tale, he speaks of the woman he learned his craft from, who once told him a tale of a coachful of prentices and a master, who were stranded by a storm at an inn where the price of haven was a tale. Here, at the sixth degree of separation, we find ourselves back where we started. And, design aside, we learn things in this tale about what happens when one of the Endless dies.
And in the final issue of Worlds' End, we finally see what has caused the storm.
Stephen King introduces this volume.
This third and final collection of short stories was Gamain's last pause for breath before plunging into the consequences of the events in Brief Lives. It was an opportunity for him to give us some last details, and get some last story ideas out of the way, and have some fun, before the final act and the coda. Hereafter there lies tragedy.