Portrait of a Serial Murderer

Conventions exist to bring people together, even serial killers. At least that is the spin put on them in Sandman #14: “Collectors.” Those familiar with Gaiman’s catalog can attest to the diversity of his corpus, never afraid to describe the things that real people do, from the mundane to hardcore acts of sexuality. Clearly, because Sandman is not about the titular Dream, but the people who contribute to his anthropomorphic existence, the eccentricities of humanity are important to discuss, even the attendees of the “Cereal Convention,” whom Dream realizes have come about through the perversion of the Corinthian, a renegade dream broken into reality. A “Corinthian” pertains to one being profligate, in an extravagant and giddy way, and therefore is a suitable way to describe the archetypical substance of Dream’s creation as he appears in the arc. In light of this, Sandman #14 is an iconic and memorable issue, one that delves into the warped sense of reality that the killers all possess. As the dichotomy between fantasy and reality is continually transgressed, Gaiman offers poignant observations that disturb and fascinate. What do serial killers talk about at a convention? Do they enjoy dancing? What do they like to drink? Indeed, their casual intrigues are some of the most notable moments of the issue.

As the plot unfolds, it is comprised of anecdotes woven together into a larger work, each piece revealing subsequently the psyche of martyrdom in the psychopath. In the context of a convention, the story takes on an intriguing twist: placing sociopaths in a social setting to communicate with one another. In certain vignettes, such as Nimrod struggling to take the stage due to stage fright, the irony of how fragile the convention attendees’ self conception is, is potent and striking, conveying the distraught nature of their unstable minds. Rather than call themselves murderers, they refer to themselves as “collectors.” This subtly conjures associations already made with the word “collector,” causing the reader to pull up mental images of insect enthusiasts and comic book aficionados, each of them fascinated by their growing catalogs, and eager to proselytize their craft unto others. Clearly the collectors, rather than being extroverted, are hopelessly introverted, and therefore are unable to share their “gifts” and “hobbies.” Rather, they are self-indulgent, and completely enthralled with their quests and where their dreams of recognition take them. Gaiman’s clever unveiling of the nature of the men and women gathered at the conference is profoundly sardonic, painting them as enthusiasts without the desire to learn from their betters, just like any conference.

The delusional nature of the serial killer and his/her growing fascination with violence is discussed extensively, featured in panels on subjects varying from sexism to religion. Dominating the discussion of the panels is the breaking from morality and social contract subtexts to embrace vaguely Nietzschean ideals of the Übermensch and the “will to power.” Each serial murderer espouses a message of defying the natural order. In one of the panels a killer explains, “We know the Truth. We’re alive.” The transcendental significance of this is stark, and perhaps a cautionary tale against the rising saturation of violence and coping with the human condition. During the “Generation X” era, television media was often lampooned and criticized for its increasing displays of violence. To cope with disillusionment and the death of American idealism, Mike Judge created Beavis and Butthead, a talking heads television program, featuring two misanthropic youths obsessed with sexuality and violence. While the program ran, the two teenagers would review contemporary music videos, their responses ridiculing the stupidity of their own generation, while slamming the cultural expressions of their peers. “Collectors,” debuting two years before Beavis and Butthead, is more than just witty repartee between psychopaths, but a critique of the wanton pleasure seeking and postmodern expression seeking tendencies of Generation X. Ultimately each collector’s pursuit of self-discovery illuminates the failure in debauched expressions of sexual and physical conquest. Like the eyes of the Corinthian, their dark lusts are never sated, but always hunger for more, all the while telling themselves that they are heroes for succumbing to the urges.

While the Cereal Convention serves to defame and satirize the narcissism of serial killers, there is a profound human element buried within the subtext of the issue. In a conversation between Funland, a child murdering rapist, and an unnamed serial killer, Gaiman brings to the issue the only character who has not been deluded by his fantasies. “Collectors” was published only a year after the airing of the final interview between Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson and Ted Bundy, one of the most prolific serial killers in the later half of the 20th century. Much of the interview is spent on Ted asserting his conversion to Christianity, but also advocates how the use of pornography, while not being a scapegoat for his actions, leveraged considerable influence in his aggressive and violent transformation. In his words he explains how the introduction of pornography at a young age fueled his addictions:

Once you become addicted to it, and I look at this as a kind of addiction, you look for more potent, more explicit, more graphic kinds of material. Like an addiction, you keep craving something which is harder and gives you a greater sense of excitement, until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far – that jumping off point where you begin to think maybe actually doing it will give you that which is just beyond reading about it and looking at it. (Ted Bundy, January 24, 1989)

The unnamed serial killer explains how he came to the convention to understand who he was and why he did what he did. In his words the man states, “Man, I know it’s not normal for a man to go out and dismember a woman just because he wants to have sex with her.” Just like the unnamed serial killer tore up the pornographic material he utilized to feed his fantasies, he too describes the acts of killing the women he encountered as a physically realized amalgam to his original fantasies. Reading each interview side by side, it’s clear that Gaiman was referencing this material to make his point that one can only go so far before the fantasy needs to become reality. Just like any addiction out of control, the experience will only exacerbate into more gritty permutations of violence.

The Corinthian’s final moments with Dream, his master and creator, are some of the most fascinating in the comic. In the previous issues, featuring rogue dreams Brute and Glob, the dream manifestations cowered before Dream, but here things are different. The Corinthian vainly strikes at Morpheus, so convinced in his abilities that he has forgotten his place in the created Dreamscape. Before, when the killers were at their panels they describe themselves as transgressors of categories, unable to be defined and relegated to a particular realm of description. Here is also where the Corinthian reveals that he has teeth for eyes, painting a colorful word picture for the Corinthian. Each symbolize the insatiable hunger for the visually visceral and lurid, connecting violence and sexuality into one amalgam. In Ted Bundy’s interview, he states that this dynamic was a key motivator in his killings:

[…] I want to emphasize this. The most damaging kind of pornography – and I’m talking from hard, real, personal experience – is that that involves violence and sexual violence. The wedding of those two forces – as I know only too well – brings about behavior that is too terrible to describe.

Concerning the Corinthian, the sense of sight is a gratifying emotion always being stimulated, ergo the Corinthian endlessly hungers as he is subjected to vision of any kind, the most terrible kind of hunger. When Dream dispels him from the physical reality, he claims that the Corinthian’s petty nature distorted his true purpose and only served to seek self promotion. Dream then turns to the crowd before him. His sentence on the serial murderers is interesting, for Dream is not a judge of moral authority as he is comprised of the waking whims of sentient lifeforms. Yet, in his own unique way, Dream takes away from them the one thing that sustains the killers. He takes away their dreams:

“For this is my judgment on you: that you shall know, at all times and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how little that means.”

No longer fueled by narcissism and self delusion, the serial killers collectively leave, afraid to walk into the night, knowing that they can no longer cover up their inner darkness with the salve of their waking dreams of gladiatorial glory.

Gaiman’s look into the hearts of killers is fascinating and horrifying, painting a very real portrait of a very real collection of individuals. While certain archetypical literary tropes, like detective fiction, and even some facets of the Batman mythology, glorify the pursuit and apprehension of the misanthropic antagonists that prowl the streets in search of unholy thrills, little concern is given to the victims and those that suffer. Detailing the attendees of the Cereal Convention as psychopaths deluded of their own self-importance arouses feelings of anger and a cry for justice, yet also pity, seeing a hopelessly fragile and paranoid collective of human beings starved for positive attention and reinforcement. Gaiman’s portrait here serves not to glorify, or even draw attention to this haunting demographic, but stands as a silent reminder of the extravagance of human expression and the thirst for identity that is ultimately enslaving rather than freeing. Perhaps the presence of Gilbert, a homage to Catholic theologian G.K. Chesterton, in the waking reality has something to do with this. Being the anthropomorphic conceptualization of Fiddler’s Green, a fictional setting where the dead go to be joyful forever, perhaps the loss of his warmth and comfort, as well as the reality of the afterlife, has so disillusioned mankind that they no longer seek comfort in such a place. Now they vainly seek it in the fleeting pursuits of existentialism and self discovery. Whether or not this is true, “Collectors” is best construed as a warning, and so it should be unless Gaiman says otherwise.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stuart Warren is a self-taught literary historian who posts bi-weekly on his blog, Through the Eyes of Fjølne, where he teaches prospective writers the art of story crafting and character development for fiction titles. In 2010 he graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a B.A. in English, with special emphasis on Early Modern texts. There he reviewed and analyzed major works in the corpus of Shakespeare, presenting cases for theological polemics against Catholic dogmas in Macbeth and Hamlet as foundation subtexts. Though he enjoyed Tottel's Miscellany and the witty prose of the ballad poets that succeeded him, he soon discovered his love for Satire in the Early Modern cannon, in such works as More's Utopia and Voltaire's Candid, especially Swift's Gulliver’s Travels. Since college Stuart has undertaken studies in Patrology, Nordic Mythology, Deconstruction criticism, Medieval and Old English texts, and is self-taught in the Norwegian language. Currently, Stuart is in the process of submitting his first novel, Spirit of Orn, which he hopes to publish in the fall of 2014.

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