This is it. The kick-off for our reading Sandman post. It was written by our very own Glyph and THANK YOU GLYPH!
Our assignment was to read the first four issues: Sleep of the Just, Imperfect Hosts, Dream a Little Dream of Me, and A Hope in Hell.
Now, given that most of us have read most of these, I don’t know that using the same spoiler rules that we have for Fringe are appropriate. I’m wondering how we think that spoilers ought to be encrypted… on the one hand, there’s the school of thought that says “rot13 *EVERYTHING*!” but on the other there is the school that says there’s no problem with pointing out such things as “pay attention to the speech given by this character, it *REALLY* comes back to haunt all of us” or “look at the details of this picture because we’ll see this, this, this, and this again.”
Here’s my idea for the absolute spoilers, though: please rot13 them. That’s a simple encryption that will allow the folks who want to avoid spoilers to avoid them and allow the people who want to argue them to argue them. As for the less absolute spoilers, I’ve rot13ed them for this post but want to hear from you whether I’ve overdone it (note: all rot13ing was me rot13ing the footnotes that glyph included. If you don’t like that part, blame me and not him).
We good? We good! Everybody who has done the reading, see you after the cut!
Preludes and Nocturnes
#1 Sleep of the Just
First line of the story: “Wake up, sir. We’re here.”
June 6, 1916. A museum curator arrives at a gothic mansion for a meeting with an Aleister Crowley stand-in named Roderick Burgess. He provides an occult book, which Burgess and his “Order of Ancient Mysteries” intend to use in a ritual to bind Death.
June 10, 1916. We see a series of 1-panel simultaneous vignettes; children all over the world, in scenes that pertain to dream or nightmare, either literal or figurative – the one that gets me each time is poor Stefan Wasserman, a German soldier preparing to re-enter the meatgrinder at Verdun. As if “He lied about his age to enlist. He’s 14” wouldn’t be bad enough, Gaiman prefaces Stefan’s age with the word “almost”. Foreboding –
Midnight – Roderick Burgess and his young son Alex descend stairs into the mansion’s basement for the ritual. There’s several character moments here – Burgess notes that whether the ritual succeeds or fails, Hathaway’s ethical lapse subjects him to Burgess’ future manipulation; and his reference to a rivalry with Crowley lets us know that Burgess’ motives and character are not pure.
More revealing is the moment when young Alex mistakenly addresses him as ‘Father’ and is brusquely corrected to ‘Magus’. The image of Alex, wide-eyed and illuminated only by candelabra as he descends into the unknown, with the only thing more terrifying the bald, robed ‘magus’ behind him, is extremely effective in not only letting us know what kind of childhood Alex has probably had, but in giving us in Alex a relatable window into the…
Basement, occult ceremony. As he performs the ritual, Burgess realizes that “…he couldn’t stop now. Not even if he wanted to.” If we doubted before that Burgess was more than just a fraud, or that what he intended to do was a bad idea, we no longer doubt these things.
The ritual appears to be a success – a humanoid black-robed figure appears in the magic circle, and collapses. It has a head that looks like Giger’s ‘Alien’ wearing a steampunk gas mask. This is quickly revealed to be a helmet, with Burgess and his acolytes remove. The figure also has a small pouch and a red gem. Burgess disappointedly notes that this is not Death, and takes the 3 aforementioned items.
We return to the children in the previous vignettes – the children we saw before are now suffering chronic sleep disturbances, either not sleeping at all, or not waking up. Something is clearly wrong.
A page of Burgess addressing the prisoner, from prisoner’s POV. We see the prisoner’s thoughts, white text in black thought bubbles. Their terseness (“Trapped.” “Observe.” “Threats.” “Patience.”) starts to give us some window into the prisoner’s mind – alien, cold, analytic.
We jump forward 10 years – in the interval, museum curator Hathaway commits suicide amidst scandal and attempts to expose Burgess in the process, but Burgess escapes punishment via black magic; the sleep-disturbed children we saw before, were just the vanguard of an epidemic of sleepy sickness. There was a real-world epidemic of this illness at roughly the time of the events in the comic (some victims were the subject of the book/movie Awakenings). Poor Stefan Wasserman commits suicide.
August 1926 – Alex locates a picture of the prisoner in the occult book Paginarum Fulvarum (a bad joke – “Yellow Pages”) identifying him as Dream. We get foreshadowing when Burgess’ second-in-command Ruthven Sykes idly picks up a photo of Burgess’ mistress Ethel Cripps (inscribed “Your slave in love”), as Burgess pontificates on the prisoner’s identity as one of the “Endless” and naming one of the Endless as “Desire”. (Vs Qrfver vf va snpg oruvaq gur ebznagvp nssnvef gung yrnq gb gur Beqre’f fpuvfz, guvf jbhyq or gur svefg gvzr jr frr Qrfver zrqqyr va Qernz’f nssnvef.)
1930, Sykes and Cripps are now lovers, and abscond with the helmet, ruby and pouch. Sykes and Burgess engage in magical war (this is also loosely based on Aleister Crowley, who had a falling out with a former friend named Samuel Mathers and suspected him of using magic against him). Sykes trades the helmet to an unseen, presumably non-human entity (based on its speech), for an amulet of protection. However, Cripps leaves Sykes in 1936 and takes the amulet with her, at which point Sykes is magically, gruesomely killed ‘Scanners’-style by Burgess.
1939 – we revisit the remaining surviving sleep disorder victims; we learn that one, Unity Kincaid was raped and delivered a girl, all while asleep. The baby was given up for adoption and the scandal hushed. We also see a new character, Wesley Dodds, who is compelled by his dreams to become a masked crime fighter who puts criminals to sleep with gas. This character is the original DC Comics Sandman, who may have been inspired in part by the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. What we are seeing here is both a retcon of the original comics’ Sandman origin story; and also a hint of what will be a recurring theme in this story – that stories and archetypes must repeat; it is a fundamental rule of this universe.
1955. Roderick Burgess is 8 years dead and his son Alex runs the Order of Ancient Mysteries, on through the psychedelic sixties. He is no more successful at manipulating his prisoner than his father was. He grows old.
1988. One last attempt to threaten or cajole the prisoner. Alex’s wheelchair breaks the mystical circle entrapping Dream, and he escapes. We see him travel through the dreams of one Mort Notkin, and help himself to some of Col. Sanders’ fried chicken, and clothe himself. He seeks REVENGE.
The victims of the sleepy sickness begin to wake up.
An elderly Alex Burgess dreams. He follows a black cat through halls and up stairs, growing younger in appearance as he goes, so that by the time he reaches a throne in a tower, he appears to be the young boy that we first saw. The cat is, of course, Dream. (Zbecurhf jvyy nccrne ntnva nf n png yngre va gur frevrf.)
Dream chastises Alex, telling him “I was…I am…the Lord of this Realm of Dream and Nightmare” and “Lord, what fools these mortals be”. Upon learning that Roderick Burgess’ original plan was to ensnare Death, he identifies himself as Death’s younger brother, and implies that had the attempt to capture Death been successful, the human race and/or planet would have been wiped out. (Abgr gur ercuenfvat bs grafrf orgjrra “jnf/nz”. Vf Qernz fvzcyl bhg bs fbegf nsgre fhpu n ybat pbasvarzrag? Be vf ur nyernql dhrfgvbavat uvf rkvfgrapr & ebyr? Naq gubfr bs lbh gung unir nyernql ernq gur frevrf xabj jul guvf dhbgr sebz N Zvqfhzzre Avtug’f Qernz vf fb ncg.)
He then takes his revenge, giving Alex “Eternal Waking” – presumably, Alex will sleep the rest of his life, chain-smoking one nightmare after another after another; each time he “wakes”, it will only be into the next nightmare.
Last words of the story, from Alex’s lover Paul to Alex – “Please wake up. Please…?” bookending the story’s first words nicely.
As a first issue, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. We are not given an origin story for our protagonist – we open in media res. We learn some things about him primarily via the effects that his imprisonment has on the rest of the world in his absence.
#2 Imperfect Hosts
I’m going to skim a bit here, as this is a place-setting issue more than anything else.
We are introduced to two brothers, Cain and Abel, who are DC universe characters. When I first read these stories I was unaware of that, and only knew them as versions of their biblical namesakes. Abel is fat, and stutters; Cain is thin, and quite mean to Abel (more on that in a moment). A gargoyle named Gregory brings an exhausted Dream (named by Abel as “The Prince of Stories” and by Cain as “Prince Morpheus”, and I’ll call him that from here on out) to their doorstep.
As Morpheus recovers, we learn through his thoughts that the punishment of “Eternal Waking” that he gave Alex Burgess used up the last of his strength, and he fell exhausted in the Shifting Zones. (Gur obeqreynaqf bs Qernz’f ernyz; gurfr jvyy pebc hc ntnva yngre.) Morpheus asks Cain and Abel for any objects he may have created, and after some hemming and hawing that establishes Cain as both the smarter and the less-honest of the two brothers, receives their letters of commission, which have Morpheus’ signature. Morpheus destroys the letters to release the power he placed into them at their creation. This concept of objects imbued with the essence of their creator is appropriate thematically to a story about stories, since any author or creator leaves a piece of himself in his creations. (Vg jvyy nyfb cebir gb or vzcbegnag gb gur erfbyhgvba bs guvf fgbelyvar.) Abel asks Morpheus where he has been; he replies “I have been imprisoned”, and a cut takes us to…
Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. I am going to go out on a limb and assume this location needs no introduction. A 90-year old woman named Ethel Dee is seeking her son, John Dee, AKA “Doctor Destiny”. I’ll let others more familiar with Dr. Destiny’s history fill in the blanks in comments; suffice to say that if he’s in Arkham, he is both extremely dangerous, and extremely insane. We are told that he no longer sleeps nor dreams, and this is presumably one cause of his hideous physical appearance. Gur uvfgbevpny Wbua Qrr jnf na vagrerfgvat sryybj.
Cut back to Morpheus’ realm, referred to by Abel as “The Dreamtime”.. Having been nursed back to health by Cain and Abel, Morpheus makes his way through the “The Gates of Horn and Ivory” where he discovers his castle in ruins. He encounters his servant Lucien; we know that Lucien is faithful and trustworthy, as he appears to be the sole remaining caretaker. He fills Morpheus in on the whereabouts of some of his realm’s denizens(Bs gurfr, Oehgr naq Tybo jvyy ghea bhg gb or vagrteny gb yngre riragf), and we see, presumably simultaneously, Cain murder Abel (Ur trgf orggre) for failing to give Cain’s gift – a baby gargoyle – a name appropriately beginning with the letter‘G’.
Back to Morpheus and Lucien – Morpheus unmakes his castle, then summons the Hecate for assistance in locating his helmet, pouch and ruby.
Now, a bit about the Hecate (or Fates, or Weird Sisters, et al)– these 3 gals pop up in various guises all over the place in Roman, Greek, Norse, English and Welsh mythologies (and probably others for all I know) – you may have encountered them as the witches in Macbeth. I first encountered them as “Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch” in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Their Sandman depiction is very, very close to Alexander’s depiction in appearance, speech patterns, personality and behavior (constantly-shifting personas between maiden/mother/crone, eating disgusting snacks), so they were familiar to me here. Amongst their other aspects, they are fortune-tellers. But they are never to be fully trusted, as their answers are often misleading or incomplete.
Morpheus asks each one for the location of one of his missing objects, and they each provide one answer. The pouch is with an Englishman, John Constantine. The helmet is with a demon, no longer on the mortal plane. The ruby was passed from Ethel Cripps (Dee) to her son, John Dee, who used it to ill-ends, until he was stopped by superheroes. The superheroes may know where it is.
So, we have our quest! Morpheus chooses to go after the pouch first, reasoning that its last known possessor is only a human, not a superhero or demon, so presumably it will be the least difficult task; once the pouch is in his possession, he will be better-equipped to take on bigger challenges. Here again we get a glimpse into his character – he is methodical and cautious, ordering his next steps in what appears to him to be the safest, soundest strategy.
#3 Dream a Little Dream of Me
Suburbia, row house. A mostly-unseen woman has Morpheus’ pouch; from the squalid images and description we are given, it is apparent she is using the sand in the pouch like a drug, and is hopelessly addicted to it.
New location & character – London, John Constantine. Again, I will let others more familiar with Constantine expound on him in the comments. I myself was only passingly familiar with this character, but he is an archetype – the rumpled, seedy PI from a noir novel transplanted into the world of the occult – so you’ll know him immediately anyway. Sardonic, cynical, cocky, usually at a disadvantage, drawn to trouble, always on the lookout for the angle. Think Rupert Giles in young ‘Ripper’ mode, with a bit of Spike’s tendency to stave off boredom by picking hopeless fights.
Constantine is going about his day but a series of strange coincidences – overheard songs all about dreams and an encounter with a bag lady named ‘Mad Hettie’ – who claims to be 247 years old (and Constantine agrees) – indicate that Morpheus (also referred to by Hettie as ‘Sandman’ and Oneiromancer) has returned. Constantine makes a mental note to look into it, but doesn’t get around to it.
3 days later, Morpheus shows up on Constantine’s doorstep, seeking the pouch, which Constantine purchased at a garage sale and says is in storage. They will go retrieve it, but he asks Morpheus to change clothes so they don’t draw attention, and makes a reference to the ”big green bloke”. Constantine’s characteristic cockiness is toned down just enough to let you know that he respects/fears Morpheus (though this doesn’t stop him from making “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” jokes).
While searching the storage space for the pouch, Constantine finds a photo of himself and a woman, and realizes he knows where the pouch may be.
Constantine and Morpheus travel by cab to the suburban home we saw at the issue’s outset, while Constantine’s narration tells us of the woman: Rachel, an old lover and a junkie. She stole many of Constantine’s possessions, and presumably the pouch as well.
They arrive at the house; Morpheus confirms the pouch is there, and that the house is dangerous. He tells Constantine to leave, but Constantine declines – he claims to be intrigued because of his past history with Rachel, though it’s clear he’s a naturally curious person anyway, and probably a bit of an adrenaline junkie himself.
They pass through darkened room after darkened hallway (Morpheus can see in the dark, natch), encountering various horrors caused by the presence/use of the pouch – a burglar on the floor being mentally consumed by dreams; Rachel’s still-living father, exploded inside-out on the living-room walls and ceiling; some sort of weird monstrous dream ectoplasm which recognizes Morpheus as lord and master.
They reach the master bedroom. Rachel is here. She is horrific, wasted from her addiction to the dream-sand; naked, with sores, hair gone in clumps, yet Constantine (and we) can still see the beauty she once was.
Morpheus retrieves his pouch and prepares to leave, his objective met. Constantine tells Morpheus he can’t just leave Rachel in her current state, but Morpheus sees no reason why not – he bluntly states that she will die soon, naturally, and painfully. Not particularly concerned with mortal suffering is our Morpheus at this point (in this, he reminds me a bit of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen).
Constantine explodes at his callousness, and Morpheus assents, asking Constantine to leave. Morpheus doses her with some of the dream-sand, and in her mind she’s whole and young again, with Constantine, in “the best of all possible worlds”.
In our world, Morpheus pulls the sheet over her body. (Guvf vf gur svefg vafgnapr jr frr bs Zbecurhf serrvat n cevfbare; guvf jvyy or n erpheevat gurzr bs gur frevrf – cerfhznoyl nf n erfhyg bs uvf bja rkcrevraprf va vffhr #1, Zbecurhf trarenyyl qvfyvxrf gur vqrn bs vzcevfbazrag.)
Sniff. Hang on. I don’t know why that scene is so effective for me – maybe it’s because Constantine and Rachel are archetypes – the seedy PI and the femme fatale, who loved him in her own way, yet inevitably comes to a bad end. In any case the shorthand we get here easily evokes their whole romance.
Anyway, Morpheus prepares to leave, but Constantine asks him for a favor – for 10 years, ever since unspecified events at “Newcastle”, he’s been plagued by terrible nightmares. He asks Morpheus for relief, which Morpheus grants, then leaves. Constantine walks back to the cab, singing. We get the sense that this is probably as close to a “happy ending” as Constantine’s adventures ever get.
#4 A Hope In Hell
One of the more common criticisms against the stories collected in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is that they are a little unsure because Gaiman was still finding a voice for himself and the series. I personally disagree with this critique, and this issue, #4, is part of why. Not only does this issue serve as setup for the ‘Season of Mists’ arc, widely recognized as one of the great ones, it is a terrific story in its own right, and the first one to really blow me away.
So, Morpheus is going to Hell to retrieve his helmet, and he is not hopeful that it will go well. It’s not entirely clear to me why he chooses to go after the helmet next, rather than the ruby; after all, the ruby is on earth, where he just was – maybe Lucifer is a known quantity, but superheroes are not, having risen to prominence during Morpheus’ captivity.
He’s greeted at Hell’s gates by 2 demons, and we learn that rhyming is an indication of status amongst demons. One of the demons, Etrigan, takes Morpheus to meet Lucifer. On their way thorugh Hell, they pass the Wood of Suicides, from Dante’s Inferno, and Morpheus notes that it has grown since his last visit, from a grove, to a forest. It is unclear how long it has been since Morpheus was last in hell, so I am unsure if this is a reference to simple population growth, or an explosion in suicide rates during the interval.
Etrigan also appears to have ulterior motives as the route he chooses takes them past souls imprisoned on a cliffside. One of these prisoners, Nada, apparently a former (on the order of “ten thousand years”) lover, recognizes Morpheus (calling him “Kai’ckul” and “Dreamlord”), and begs him for release; Morpheus (who appears to Nada as dark-skinned, so we know now that he appears to different people in different ways) refuses to grant forgiveness or freedom. Ten thousand years – the man can hold a grudge, it seems. (Vg jnf abg pyrne gb zr hcba zl vavgvny ernq gung Anqn, nf yngre erirnyrq, vf srznyr. V jbaqre vs gung jnf fhccbfrq gb or nzovthbhf ng guvf cbvag, be vf vg whfg onq neg be zl bja snvyvat?)
They proceed to the hellcity, Dis. I originally didn’t catch this as another Dante reference; I simply thought of the prefix “dis-“, indicating reversal or negation/lack/deprivation, which works well for a hellcity too.
There Morpheus meets Lucifer Morningstar, who’s supposed to look like young David Bowie but to me looks more like young Mick Jagger. Maybe it’s the hair. Lucifer fills Morpheus in – Hell is now ruled by a triumvirate. Morpheus explains he is here to retrieve his helm, but cannot identify the demon who has it, so Lucifer summons ALL of them. Oops.
Morpheus is able to use his sand to identify the demon in possession of the helm, Choronzon. But since Choronzon got the helmet fair and square in a trade, Morpheus must fight him for it. As Choronzon is the challenged, he chooses the battlefield:
A dank dive called The Hellfire Club, which is among other things a reference to this. Choronzon and Morpheus are now dressed in spiffy suits. They engage in a contest similar to transformation combat, but instead of actually transforming (as in the Disney movie “Sword in the Stone’ or the book on which it’s based) players simply speak their turns – so, sort of like a rap battle – and as in a rap battle, hesitation or lack of imagination or nerve means a loss of the contest.
This leads us to the first truly great line of the series – Morpheus shifts tactics mid-game and lets Choronzon go on the offensive, each turn ramping up the physical measures and countermeasures, until Morpheus sets a
metaphysical trap and Choronzon, a denizen of Hell for whom “hope” is an alien concept, walks right into it.
Our hero gets his helm, but he’s not home free yet. Lucifer asks why they should let him leave, and Morpheus springs the same trap again, since “dream” can be synonymous with “hope”:
LUCIFER: The million Lords of Hell stand arrayed about you. Tell us, why should we let you leave? Helmet or no, you have no power here. What power have dreams in Hell?
MORPHEUS: You say that I have no power? Perhaps you speak truly. But, you say that dreams have no power here? Tell me, Lucifer Morningstar, ask yourselves, all of you. What power would Hell have if those imprisoned here could not dream of Heaven?
So Hell lets Morpheus go; but Lucifer, stung by the loss of face (for what is Lucifer Morningstar if not proud?), swears his destruction.
Now that is an exit, folks.
Epilogue: Back at Arkham, we learn Ethel Dee has died and left John Dee an amulet, which sharp-eyed (ha!) readers will recall as the amulet of protection that Ethel took from Ruthven Sykes when she left him, and which Sykes had obtained in trade for Morpheus’ helmet. This is probably not good.
So, what do we know about Morpheus so far? He’s extremely old (10,000 + years); cold to the point of callous; proud and vindictive; stubborn, cautious and calculating. And he has a million names & faces. As far as modern ‘heroes’ go, he’s an unusual one.