Paul Levitz once said Sandman is about storytelling, and the point by which it vacillates between mere tales and pithy sayings to the grand myth it is today. DC is full of heroes, truth be told, that walk the fine lines of morality, spirituality, and physicality, but where does Dream walk? Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, L’Zoril, among others, are his name, and, like a point existing in space perceived ad infinitum from every angle, his identity fluidly changes in the eyes of all he meets. His sister Death, one of the Endless Seven born into reality at the birth of creation, scolds him as an “Anthropomorphic Personification.” Whether or not Dream’s power is derivative from the dreamers of the world, or possesses his own innate powers bestowed to him by forces unknown, Neil Gaiman’s rendition of Kirby’s Golden Age crusader is more than a mere symbol, or even an ideal. So then what is the significance of Levitz’s statement?
I believe that he not only understands the importance of Gaiman’s work beyond that of an entertaining comic, but sees it as a deconstruction of cumulative human history, and the transcending genius of Man. Just like Dream’s ongoing flux of identity, Gaiman changes the way we view history by offering a majestic, subversive narrative that explains with wit and alacrity the nature of Man, and his power to will into existence the Endless, who govern the whims of humanity. Gaiman’s universe is extensive and pluralistic, offering a podium for every philosophy and creed. Equal footing is given to the pagan lords of Scandinavia (All-Father, Thor, Loki), the primeval African deities, and even Bastet, the Goddess of Cats of Lower Egypt. Christian mythology is acknowledged as well, though heavily influenced by William Blake, John Milton, and Dante Alighieri’s interpretations. The melting pot of supernatural power is befitting of the universe, but adds special flavoring to the work itself, distilling the essence of the Old Divine and infusing it with the new, or at least, newly forged. Though Dream is “Endless,” he is new to us, and it is here where Levitz’s comment shines.
Issue 1 begins with a secret society of occult intrigue, something Gaiman has often eclectically coveted in his storytelling, with some of the best ones landing in his short fiction anthology, Smoke and Mirrors. It is proper to start here. Secret societies are best at lending distrust to the security of the established order, for they imply directly and indirectly the cool facade that obfuscates the reality of the world. Like most, the society is after power, in this case the power over death. Instead they trap Dream, inadvertently sending the world into chaos. In many ways this is a statement, one supposes, that as man grew more sophisticated and deadly, the world changed. No longer speculating on aged aphorisms, the world traded mystery with Logic and Reason. This was a long time coming, since the Scientific Revolution, but Gaiman’s parody of the structuralist’s world of formulaic principals is biting, such as his explanation of sleeping sickness, and the world’s agreeable and “sensible” designation. Lord Morpheus’s interrogation of Roderick Burgess’s son Alex at the conclusion of “Sleep of the Just,” leads the dream lord to quote Puck’s words from A Midsummer Nights Dream, Act 3 Scene 2, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” to describe his love of material wealth and influential power. Just like the lovers lost in the forest, Dream looks down from his celestial throne and sees a child lost in madness. Once Dream dispatches his oppressor, he is wasted of power.
“Imperfect Hosts” is the point at which the mythology begins to formulate to the reader. Issue 2 introduces two the titular character, Cain and Abel, the subjects of the first story. Found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch or the Hebrew Torah, Cain is a righteous well-to-do son of the Eikons of YHWH who murders his less regarded brother for Abel’s sacrifice being prided over. Gaiman’s telling is purely archetypical, suggesting that the story is primeval and the metaphysical frame for all subsequent stories. Cain and Abel’s story introduces an oral narrative with two characters. In the story competition arises over favor, and in the rising action, Abel is murdered, supplying conflict. Between the brothers, there is an agonizing relationship depicted in which Abel’s kindhearted nature is forever in conflict with Cain’s rapacious torturing, usually ending in the former’s painful death and subsequent resurrection.
At the conclusion of “Imperfect Hosts,” Dream’s coat flares up in the cosmic winds of the dream world, depicting the flickering images of the dreamers. This last detail is often missed, and one has to consider the possibility that Gaiman makes a direct allusion to Joseph’s multicolored coat, a son of Israel in Genesis 37. Joseph amongst his brothers was ill regarded for his ability to interpret dreams, a sign of high station in the Ancient Near East. The interpretation of Omens was a common practice then, rooted in the observance of everyday occurrences, generally inconsistently and unregulated by any hierarchical oversight. Joseph’s interpretations of his dreams, and what can be construed his bragging to his elder family members, was frowned upon and a cause of contention, eventually ending in his being sold into slavery. The very same robe is then destroyed to cover up the incident, only brought back to Israel to inspect it and lament at the loss of his son. Because G.K. Chesterton is a noted influence of Gaiman, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to suspect that Dream’s coat is a homage to this Old Testament figure.
Dream’s interaction with humans is foreshadowed at the height of the arc of “Imperfect Hosts,” but his adventure with Constantine in “Dream a Little Dream of Me” illustrates Dream’s most lacking dimension: his humanity. It’s a funny thing that a cosmic entity so in tune with the dazzling fantasies of mankind could be so unfeeling and emotionally bankrupt. The unique thing about Constantine is that he too sees below the surface of humanity frequently, observing the forces that control them and govern their steps, but still manages to keep his scruples. Dream, seated in a place of power and observance, misses the little nuances of those that he is meant to steward and becomes lost in innumerable sea of subjects. Constantine in this arc shows Dream the importance of succumbing to emotion, to stave the tide of passivity and indifference. In the house that they enter to retrieve Dream’s pouch, little regard is shed for the fallen home invader. Even Constantine has to goad Dream into giving Rachel a peaceful death. Nevertheless, Dream’s final concession to Constantine, allowing him freedom from his recurring nightmares, indicates that humanity is giving him a wider rage of emotion. This could explain perhaps why Death, Dream’s older sister is so casual and relatable, as her entrusted duty puts her so near the humans that inspire the Endless.
Following Dream’s first real encounter with humans since his imprisonment, his descent into Hell introduces the first of many mythologies, and specifically how Dream’s mythological nature is static and unchanging, while the rest of the spiritual world seems content with reform and concession. In the beginning of “A Hope in Hell,” Dream is confronted by the Wood of Suicides, which he observes has grown into something resembling a forest. While this allusion to Dante’s Inferno evokes an oppressive and progressively hopeless world in the absence of inspiration, no longer emulating the classical eras that produced the pseudo-Christian epic, its introduction affirms the changing times, and the need for adaptation in the face of extinction. Unfortunately, Dream’s encounter with Nada, who is being punished in Hell for an affliction perpetrated 10,000 years ago, establishes Dream’s fickleness and his capacity for vindication. While Hell is stratified, apart from time and spatial realities, even such a place as Hell is capable of change, which has become a triumvirate in recent years. This contrasts with Dream’s emotionless walk through the underworld, unmoved by the overwhelming suffering around him.
In “Passengers”, issue 5, John Dee, properly known as Doctor Destiny, is introduced into Sandman’s world as a foil to Dream. The arc itself, serving primarily to transition Dream from Hell to his encounter with Dee, depicts the nature of Dream’s power and how it can free or enslave. In this arc, John Dee remarks that “D is for lots of things.” The list describes what Dream’s gemstone has transformed him into over the course of his life. The effect of the stone as well enforces the understanding that unlike Dream, Dee is mastered by the dreams that the Gem manipulates. This contrasts with Scott Free, whose recurring dreams that haunt him about his time spent in the X-Pit have tormented him, but also given him hope of being free one day. While Dee has many names just as Dream does, Scott Free’s name is a pun, bestowed to him by Granny Goodness meant to torture him. To escape the X-Pit all he needs to do is type in his name, but that only reinforces the identity that Granny has fused into him. Names in “Passengers” are labels that build the identity of the characters. While Dee’s harem of designations is a parody of Morpheus, Scott Free has no name, therefore being robbed of his identity and must go seek out who he is. So what does this make Dream? Each are two sides of the same coin, grand extremes that Dream walks in between. This tension draws out and brings clarity to Dream’s characters.
Of the first eight issues, “24 Hours,” issue 6, brings up the most pointed question thus far in Sandman: “Is there justice in storytelling?” Theatricality drives narrative, employing elaborate constructions and half-truths to make something fantastic seemingly convincing. This dialectic is embodied primarily through Bette, the waitress on staff at the diner who benignly gives all of her customers their own happy ending in her narratives. The irony of this is that in the real narrative of their lives they all succumb to tragically cruel deaths, ensnared by Dee’s amulet. Dee himself in this issue is reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s self appearance in the final issue of Animal Man, appearing as this capricious, self-satisfying god who writes all the diner patrons into a deadly narrative.
Again, Gaiman’s depiction of Dee as author is more terrifying when one realizes that Dee is correctly representing the true natures of his characters, whereas Bette was more concerned with achieving her naïve construction of the patron’s lives. In hour 15, when Dee gives them back their minds, it seems out of character. But he must do this in order to validate his control over them. In hour 19, Dee tells them stories, which Gaiman describes as lying to them and this final piece acts as a foil against Bette’s own aspirations at the start of the issue. By writing about her patrons, giving them the endings she desired, she effectively perpetrated the same defiling acts of Dee, by writing them into foreign situations contrary to their true natures. At the end of the day, Dee is finally confronted by Dream, foreshadowing the battle to come.
After confronting Dee, Dream attempts to talk to him to get back his gemstone but with little success. Why Morpheus talks to Dee is confusing, considering the first issue where Dream confronts Alex and punishes him for his imprisonment. Dream lacks the power to defeat him, wondering if, like Dee, he trusted too much in the stone’s abilities. Perhaps this is why Dream does not retaliate against Dee when he defeats him, only returning him to Arkham, because Dee was never in his true mind. Also, this could signify the change in Dream and his maturity and self-discovery. Another Shakespeare quote is inserted into the title of the narrative, this time from Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth, taken from Macbeth’s response to his wife’s death (“Told by an idiot, full of Sound and Fury, signifying nothing”). The battle that ensues between Dee and Dream, sheds light on the potency of the quote, suggesting that Dee’s aspirations to defeat Dream are the product of madness, being that in the end Death will consume any great achievement or accomplishment. Yet rather than ending in tragedy, Dee is finally afforded peace through Dream, who provides him a restful sleep, the first one in many years for Dee. Again, issue 7 (“Sound and Fury”), attempts to give Dream more body and definition as a character, but this time through giving grace on those that indirectly hurt him.
The final issue of the arc, Levitz explains, is the point at which the stories that have been told over the previous issues solidify into a mythology. Not that all mythologies need require more than one God or demigod, but Issue 8, “Sound of Her Wings,” establishes Dream in community with one of his own, his older sister Death. Being older already sets Death in a position of wisdom over her brother, who is disgusted with her brother’s lack of purpose and mission after going on his crusade to restore himself. Death, a young woman in her mid-twenties, is approachable and likeable, which stands as Gaiman’s greatest contribution to literature—that is, breaking down the immediacy and haunting pursuit of Death. Rather, it’s her carpe diem philosophy that leads Dream to understand the nature of his mission and what he lives to do.
The poem “Death is Before Me Today” is a wisdom proverb derived from Dialogue of a Misanthrope with His Soul, a piece of literature from Ancient Egypt. It was common in the Ancient Near East for Semitic, Mesopotamian, and Sumerian cultures to conceptualize death as a languishing rest in darkness forever. While Egyptian Eschatology was far more elaborate than all these cultures, they believed a similar end result. Dream’s recollection of the proverb is significant because many of the people groups alive during these periods thought of Death as sleep, awaiting the natural cycle of things. Then, Death was a release from pain and anguish, something which Death understands. Dreams are ongoing and constant, unrelenting and terrifying. Dream understands through interacting with his sister that his mission is to protect people and steward his realm, and not simply give up. Like any hero, people need Dream, and the talents of his brothers and sisters to do what they do. To abdicate again would simply be irresponsible.
After eight issues, whether or not Sandman has evolved beyond a simple story and into a grander, yet older tale, is hard to pin. This is because the nature of Dream’s conceptualization of his identity leads the reader to wonder if Dream is steadily becoming less godlike and more human in the process of his interaction with mortals, and having to rely on them to get back the things that once made him the king of his realm. Levitz’s statement, however, still stands, only now with the caveat that Dream may not be the kind of god he was made out to be. As this inventory of the works of Gaiman’s world unfolds, the reader cannot be guaranteed an answer to the original question proposed by Levitz. Or perhaps there was never meant to be an answer? Regardless, telling stories has never been so dubiously entertaining.