The Other Egg of the Phoenix:

Understanding the 50th Issue of Sandman

Neil Gaiman is one of the most renowned living comic book writers, and one of the most popular authors currently working. He is best known for his long lasting Vertigo series, Sandman, but he has written many short comics and many of his novels and short stories have also been adapted to comic form. Throughout his career, Gaiman has collaborated with two of the greatest artists in the field. The first of these, Dave McKean, crafted covers for every issue of Sandman. McKean is best known for his work on Arkham Asylum, which he is less fond of. The other artist Neil Gaiman has made a habit of working with is P. Craig Russell. Together, they are responsible for Murder Mysteries, a few Sandman shorts (written after the series had ended), the Coraline adaptation, and the fiftieth issue of Sandman, entitled Ramadan.

Ramadan, meant as a self-contained story celebrating the landmark issue, is about the King of Baghdad making a deal with Dream, or Morpheus, the god-like protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s series. In The Art of P. Craig Russell, the artist repeatedly refers to Ramadan as his favorite project to date, both in reference to Gaiman’s script and his own art. Certainly Ramadan is a fantastic example of the talented creators’ skills, and a lovely work, one which merits an in-depth look.

The title refers to the month of Ramadan, the last month of the Islamic calendar. The month of Ramadan is a deeply significant to the Muslim faith. During the month of Ramadan ,Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking during daylight, as well as from more abstract things like obscenity, idle talk, and general immorality. This period is meant as a total reaffirmation of one’s commitment to God, as shown through self-restraint. It is a time intended for re-evaluation and re-focusing, a time to cleanse the soul of impurities in the name of Allah. Gaiman’s story is set during the month of Ramadan, in ancient Baghdad, a city known to be a cultural and intellectual hot-spot during the middle ages and thought to be the largest city of this time. It is in this period that Gaiman chooses to set his tale and, indeed, the first three pages (after the frontispiece) are devoted to establishing this setting.

Neil Gaiman tells this story in a style he uses fairly frequently; it is written in a slightly old-fashioned style, notable for its faint sense of detachment. Gaiman also makes a habit of describing and ignoring surprising things, choosing to detail the décor of a box or contents of a room but comparatively ignoring the next detail (the style becomes clear later, as the narration is intended to sound like someone telling the story). He’s also sparse when it comes to describing the actions or emotions of characters, leaving that instead for the artist. Indeed when dealing with Dave McKean or P. Craig Russell, Gaiman writes not a script but a story, one which contains only the words he wishes to appear in the final project as well as cursory descriptions of actions he wishes conveyed. So while the words of Ramadan are all Gaiman, the art is all Russell. After the four first pages establish the fairy-tale tone and fantastical setting, the story begins.

The plot begins with a simple statement, Haroun Al Raschid, the King of Baghdad, is “…troubled in his soul.” P. Craig Russell is an artist with immense range; he can produce beautiful art that falls anywhere on the spectrum between photo-realistic and cartoonish and, for Ramadan, he has made a choice to depict the story in a simplified manner. Ultimately, this makes the work act as a stronger graphic and frequently Russell’s panels and border decorations (clearly inspired by both illuminated texts and middle-eastern art) seem almost one and the same. Because he’s working in such a simplistic style, P. Craig Russell employs standard visual shorthands to convey emotions. He uses shadows throughout the story to separate both Haroun Al Raschid and Dream from the clean, shadowless city of Baghdad. On this page, P. Craig Russell depicts Haroun as bathed in shadow, his eyes sunken into his head. Thus do Russell and Gaiman introduce uncertainty into this story, acting in harsh contrast to the first four pages. Russell’s depiction of Haroun is deeply reminiscent of a skull, and with that simple allusion an important tinge of mortality is introduced into the story. As the story progresses this sense of mono no aware will become increasingly important.

Neil Gaiman then takes four and a half pages to show the significance of the King’s depression. He establishes that these fits are not uncommon for the King, but that this time Haroun is not as easily consoled. Gaiman tells of how the King is normally distracted from these bouts, and of his wife, Vizier, and Poet’s attempts to distract and comfort him. All, naturally, fail. They all attempt to employ things Ramadan would seemingly preach against: sex, drink, and idle talk. Neil Gaiman’s true goal throughout these pages is not so much related to the King as it is to the City of Baghdad itself. Once again, Gaiman and Russell work together to detail the beautiful nature of the city and the fantastical adventures of its inhabitants. P. Craig Russell shows great restraint throughout this sequence, drawing the interactions of the characters as opposed to the potentially more satisfying visuals they describe. Instead, Russell chooses to enhance the scene through references to Islamic art.

When you compare Russell’s art to Islamic painting,

calligraphy,

and embroidery,

Russell’s influences become clear. The next two pages are devoted to descriptions of Haroun Al Raschid travelling through his palaces with some mysterious goal in mind. Gaiman continues to contrast curt descriptions with lengthy ones and this contrast furthers the rather atmospheric sense of ennui permeating this portion of the story. Three panels in particular are of note: the passage describes the King travelling through a labyrinth blind. Focusing on the words as opposed to the art, Russell makes the decision to literally make the words look labyrinthine. He plays with the placement of the text-filled scrolls and has them accompany a rather simple drawing. Consequently the reader is forced to turn their head as they read, creating a very real sense of motion. This is an interesting experiment, but it could be argued against. It does derail the flow of the story, especially in that it removes the reader, for just a second, from this tapestry Gaiman and Russell have been weaving.

The next page actually continues the description of Haroun’s path; the visuals described only increase in their artistic potential but seemingly showing the very same self-restraint Ramadan preaches, P. Craig Russell continues to favor Neil Gaiman’s words over his own art, never breaking from his simple, almost pictographic style. The page ends with Haroun entering a room containing “…nothing but eggs…” and here Gaiman takes a most fascinating detour. Half of the next page is devoted to describing the room and the eggs within. Eggs ranging from the size “…of a child’s smallest fingernail…” to the egg of a Rukh. Neil Gaiman specifically talks about the eggs of the phoenix:

And there was also in that room the other egg of the phoenix (for the Phoenix when its time comes to die lays two eggs, one black, one white: from the white egg hatches the Phoenix-bird itself, when its time is come, but what hatches from the black egg no one knows).

Haroun passes through this room and, as with all the others, is undistracted by the wonders within. The import of the Phoenix shall be returned to, however, it is worth noting that Haroun passes through nine rooms (if you count the stairs and the labyrinth as rooms) and Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar. Inside the final room is a glass ball, one which seems to strike fear into Haroun’s heart. Haroun walks back, up onto the roof of his palace. The narrator comments on the beauty of the night sky of Baghdad, but Haroun Al Raschid does not notice it. The King of Baghdad twice summons “The King of Dreams…” both times Haroun goes unanswered. The third time Haroun attempts to summon Dream he threatens to smash the sphere if Dream does not appear (the sphere is said to belong to Sulaiman Ben Daoud, which could be reference to the Rudyard Kipling poem The Butterfly That Stomped). Haroun explains that the sphere contains “…Nine thousand and nine ifrits, djinn, and demons…” which will be freed if the globe breaks. P. Craig Russell manages to create a very threatening tone through the use of shadow, his colourist, Digital Chameleon, uses a lovely, warmer palette, bathing the entire scene in an eerie red light. Neil Gaiman manages to add to this scene’s ambience in a fairly subtly way. Most readers, especially by the fiftieth issue, would be familiar with Neil Gaiman’s inhuman, immortal, protagonist. Morpheus is not invulnerable, and Gaiman’s subtle wording makes the scene especially threatening:

Over the years that these ifrits- – their hearts blacker than jet – - have been imprisoned, they each have sworn a mighty oath to wreak vengeance on the children of Adam our father, to destroy our work and our minds and our dreams.

Notice the choice of words. The demons aren’t just a threat to people’s lives but to their “work” this seems a reference to the great works and accomplishments that fill Baghdad. Also note the reference to “…our dreams…” which creates a faint feeling of danger for Dream (this being despite the fact that most readers will know without a doubt no harm will befall Dream, the fact that Gaiman doesn’t overdramatize this threat adds to it greatly). However Dream still fails to appear.

So, naturally, Haroun throws the globe off the roof. P Craig Russell’s art is at its best here. He intercuts panels of the sphere falling with shots of demons getting closer and closer to the edge of the panel. Now the angle on the falling sphere is rather interesting. The camera is turned on an angle, but P. Craig Russell keeps the path of the sphere at about what it would be if the camera wasn’t tilted. Frankly, he’s cheating, but it conveys the motion very well. The problem with his choice of view is a common comic-book dilemma. Without actual motion on the page, often the clearest, most easily understood views are the least dramatic. He makes up for this with the shot of the Demons, which Neil Gaiman’s script made especially threatening. In the last panel, the camera straightens as Dream catches the sphere (the path of the ball doesn’t change the way it should though, which is still cheating, but does help the flow of the thing) and the panel tilts which, coupled with a massive double-border, really emphasizes the beat. The double-border is a technique P. Craig Russell returns to frequently and these eight panels are a great example of it at work.

The format of the next page is wildly different. It has four, maybe five if you count the decor, long vertical panels. The two wider panels depict, respectively, a full body shot of Dream holding the globe and a close-up on Dream’s face. Dream feels otherworldly here; he is wreathed in shadows, which harshly contrasts the drawings of Haroun. Dream’s robe curls in that liquid manner Russell typically associates with magic. This effect resembles both the floral pattern on Dream’s robe, the cosmic nature of the sky behind him, and the stars on the pattern behind this panel. Haroun refers to Dream as having “…Dominion over that which is not, and was not, and shall never be…” this is important for our understanding of the ending. Nothing Dream owns is real. Haroun offers Dream wine, and Dream turns it down the same way Haroun Al Raschid has been turning down similar offers of food throughout the story. Dream points out it is Ramadan, saying he is of “…all faiths in… [his]… fashion…” Dream then places the globe under his robe, seemingly making it disappear. Haroun compares Dream to a Genie, and Dream’s response is one of my favorite beats in the story:

Haroun reveals he wishes to bargain with Dream and they travel to the marketplace to do so. The next page is again about capturing the wonders of Baghdad, and provides details about Haroun’s magic carpet and how it is used. As they fly, P. Craig Russell goes all out on the visuals of the city, drawing it as a bejewelled and glowing masterpiece. Haroun boasts about the city as they fly, restating and emphasizing his ownership of the city. He ties the city’s marvels to himself. Haroun Al Raschid does own the city, which makes it his to sell.

The next page is mainly one large drawing of the wonders of the marketplace. Four inset panels depict the path of the departing carpet (the panels diminish in size as the carpet distances itself from the viewer). The wonders of the marketplace continue and the next page is largely filled with the chatter of the various vendors. Haroun buys and eats grapes, which amounts to blasphemy on Ramadan. This image of the corrupt wealth is one which Gaiman has subtly associated with Haroun and Baghdad: the city is ageing, and is soon to die – at least in a metaphorical sense. And that death will fall on the shoulders of Haroun, though he seems only to hasten it, not create it entirely. Haroun points out the beauties of his city again, asking Dream if he “will buy it from [him]…” Dream does not immediately respond. He only arches his eyes. Haroun describes his vision of a future where Baghdad has gone and faded from memory. Russell beautifully captures both Haroun’s desperation and his vision.

Russell opens the next page with a beautiful shot of the city from above as Haroun explains his proposition. He tells Morpheus he can take Baghdad into the realm of dreams so long as the city lives forever. Dream agrees and, when Haroun asks him what he needs to do, Dream’s reply is “All you need do is tell your people. They follow you, after all. And yours is the dream.” And Haroun al Raschid does.

And the Baghdad on the next page is not the same as before. It is drab, and brown and the bustle of bodies are gone. The king awakes on a filthy rag, which was a flying carpet pages ago. As Haroun leaves the marketplace he sees Dream, holding the Baghdad of the past pages in a bottle. Haroun admires it lovingly before leaving.

The next (and last) page reveals the entire story is just that, a story, being told to a young Child in exchange for a coin. The story is being told in the rubble of a war torn, modern Baghdad, which in reality has seen its share of destruction. The old man telling the story refuses to embellish on the tale without further payment. The young boy listening walks home, “and he prays as he walks (cursing his one weak leg the while), prays to Allah (who made all things) that somewhere, in the darkness of dreams, abides the other Baghdad (that can never die), and the other egg of the Phoenix. But Allah alone knows all.” P. Craig Russell has said that he regrets not drawing this page more realistically. I’m inclined to agree with him. A harsher contrast between Baghdad current and passed would have really made this scene more powerful. What’s particularly important in this scene is the returning reference to “the other egg of the Phoenix.”

The phoenix is well known as a symbol of rebirth; it dies, and then leaves behind an egg in the ashes of its corpse. In some tales it does not leave behind an egg, but rather a hatchling, or even a fully formed replica of the original bird. Gaiman’s egg laying version embodies the ideas of recreation and rebirth so central to the celebration of Ramadan. The “other egg” is black, and nothing hatches from it. It acts as the exact opposite to the egg the Phoenix hatches from. It represents death and inertia, as opposed to life and evolution. So Gaiman is saying that while the magical Baghdad is a wonderful, rare thing, much as the “other egg,” the pride of Haroun’s egg collection, was, it doesn’t change. This unchanging nature is equated with Death, and one could assume that life in the “other Baghdad” is at best some kind of half-life. This significantly changes the hopeful note the story ends on. On the surface what little hope this boy has comes from the possibility of the “other Baghdad” existing. The subtext, in one fell swoop, establishes this as a false hope, and creates a new source of hope. If the two versions of the city are represented by the two Phoenix Eggs, born from the original city as the Eggs were from the Phoenix, then the ruined Baghdad must, by default, be the White Egg. Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell are masterfully and subtlety establishing hopes for this city. Hopes that, like the white egg, it may lead to change and to life. That from the ashes of old Baghdad will come some new beautiful Baghdad, made better by its rebirth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this piece. I immediately cracked open my Definitive Sandman and reread issue 50. Gonna print out your article and put in my book as a companion.

  2. So many gems or facets of the same gem in this issue! Thank you for the exposition. There are several ways you might consider the phoenix eggs, not least as a senseless eternal riddle. If the white egg hatches a fiery mythical bird that lives on (as Haroun’s glorified Baghdad achieves immortality in dream), then what is left for the other egg? By definition, no one knows. But the cold dark reality this would seem to impose on the modern Baghdad is actually tangibly powerful and hopeful. As the equal of the white egg, not only can it hatch a wonderful, permanent legacy, but it may be the more pious, down to earth option. Or perhaps the phoenix’s life cycle depends on a combination of escape and soul searching. Don’t get me started on Roqs.

    • So then the eggs establish the difference between imagination and reality, and you might notice the same contrast in Morpheus and Haroun, and maybe some other pairings as well… Despite being a distinguished 50th issue this comes in an extraordinary volume and series. My absolute favorite.

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