Finalizing the Doll’s House narrative plot, Neil Gaiman’s celebrated Sandman series concludes the first twenty issues with four limited one shot arcs, both harkening back earlier tales and looking forward to future ones. So far in the plot, after gaining his power, in ways both expected and unexpected, Dream has successfully tracked down his rogue dream creations and restored power to his realm at the risk of the entire human race. At this point, Gaiman introduces four single issue arcs that expound on the powers of the Endless and their interaction with humanity. Three of the four expound on Dream’s relationships with those of the physical and extraplanar realms.
His once-spurned love Calliope is the subject of the first, in which Dream makes amends pleasantly, in strange contrast to his interactions with Nada from Tales in the Sand. The second involves the plea for justice of a common house cat, who like an itinerant minister spreads her gospel to anyone that might listen in Cat-kind. Third, in what has become Gaiman’s most critically acclaimed issue, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Dream’s cordial relations with the kingly retinue of Auberon and Titania bring him to question his involvement in mankind, including the ethical ramifications of his actions. Death’s character is expounded upon as well, in the final issue, where her powers are further defined. Also, her humanity is enhanced, when she pities the suicidal Urania Blackwell, and even questions Rainie’s selfish motives underlying her desire to commit suicide. Ultimately, through each of the four issues, a common theme is strung and tethered. The Endless, being creatures united and formed from the waking whims of the created order, are composites of those they serve, capable of experiencing and feeling emotion. Dream feels sympathy for the she-cat, whose kittens are callously murdered, and is motivated to find justice for Calliope, despite their sundered love interest. Death in all her omniscience, takes notice of a single hurting woman, so desperately alone that she no longer desires to live. Unlike the previous collected editions, Dream Country collects nearly half the content as volumes #1 and #2, but the content here is par-excellence, providing some of the most memorable issues of the Sandman anthology.
Calliope’s plight is a foil for Dream in the Sandman #17. Like in earlier issues, the primary conflict present in the arc results from the interference of the human in the spiritual realm, mirroring Dream’s plight at the beginning of the series. This time a budding author, Richard Murdoc, with writer’s block approaches Erasmus Fry, an occultist and celebrated author-poet, with a Bezoar (a swallowed, impassable intestinal mass) in the attempt of writing a sequel to his first successful novel. Calliope, the youngest of the nine Muses, is revealed to have been the source of inspiration for both Fry and Homer, and now will be passed on to Richard. What follows is an ironic treatment of the nature of authenticity, putting Fry and Murdoc in the center as frauds without substance.
In the issue, Fry mentions that a Bezoar was once owned by John Dee, a magician-spy, a familiar name evoking the issue “24 Hours”, and Dr. John Dee, formally known as Dr. Destiny. After betraying Calliope’s trust and entrusting her to Murdoc, he scoffs, “Writers are liars,” an idea prompted by Dr. Destiny who tells his victims stories before killing them. This anecdote is qualified as “lying” to the victims. Writers, at least of the fiction variety, are indeed liars, skillfully crafting worlds and realms of fantasy to the amusement of others. While this is true of both Fry and Murdoc, their fictional creations are, in and of themselves, forged and counterfeit. Another instance of this inauthentic literary bravado occurs in Murdoc’s montage of success, as a patron remarks, “I loved your characterization of Aileen. There aren’t enough strong women in fiction.” (To this Murdoc replies, “Actually I do tend to regard myself as a feminist writer.”) The interchange is amusing in two ways. First, Calliope’s last 60 years of life has been spent in a state of continual flux, treated as a sex trafficked prisoner with no escape in sight. Indeed, her resolve and continual state of rebellion is reason enough to consider her a strong female protagonist. The second way the conversation snippet is amusing in that Murdoc is hardly a feminist, but actually a rapist, leveraging the continual torment of a woman to achieve his literary fame.
Dream’s encounter with Murdoc sets into motion the second act of the issue, depicting Murdoc’s fall from renown, as well as the discovery of Fry’s suicide (ironic because of his collection of Bezoars which historically were known to be antidotes to toxins). Here, Dream curses Murdoc with endless dreams of inspiration that not only drive him mad, but cause him to disfigure himself by writing his ideas on the walls with his own hands until his fingers are stub-like, worn to bloodied nubs. Like a monkey’s paw, Murdoc’s search for inspiration came at the cost of provoking the same spirit realm he perverted. In the initial screen caption featuring his working manuscript for what would become his sequel, the dialogue foreshadows his predicament:
“Your face,” he said to her. “What have you done to your face?”
Marion shrugged. “I wanted to look on the outside like I do on the inside,” she said simply, not putting down the knife.
Just like Marion, in his story, Murdoc experiences the pain of being exploited of his own ideas as well as being left bereft of inspiration upon Calliope’s exit from enslavement. Also, he is left to “look on the outside” like he does on the inside: completely abandoned of inspiration and empty of the creativity he stole from a subjugated woman.
“Dream of a Thousand Cats” introduces a new dimension of Dream’s influence, now sovereign over lower animals in the created order. As a young kitten is lured out of his home by a second, much older cat, the two are lead by another to a meeting ground, fixed in twilight midst a cemetery where another she-cat then tells her tragic story. The significance of this arc is the growing explanation of dreams and their power to influence. As the she-cat is put to bed, speechless after witnessing her litter get murdered by her antagonizing owners, she prays to her higher power to beseech the Dream Lord for justice, wisdom, and revelation. After a Dante-esque spiritual journey through the dream realm, the she-cat finally encounters Dream, forewarned by his guardians that “dreams have their price.” In the encounter, the she-cat experiences a new state of consciousness in which the primal state of the world was once wholly different, where cats ruled over humans with capricious pride. After discovering the power of dreaming, and its power to change the world, a lone human initiates a cosmic rebellion, rebooting reality into a world ruled by humans. This revelation prompts the she-cat to enter her evangelizing crusade, spreading a good news of vindication and social justice against her human overlords, thereby making possible the reality of the world one day reverting to its true nature.
The significance of the arc itself all draws back to the somber warning of Dream’s royal guard: “Dreams have their price.” Earlier in the arc, Dream offers as Lord of the Cats the wisdom, revelation, and justice, to the she-cat, presenting her with a reality, a vision of the first nature of the world. What is interesting to note, however, is that the vision itself is a dream, one which costs the she-cat her life and comfort in an effort to pursue a reality of questionable authenticity. Just like the Apostle Paul, the cat goes out to every corner of her known world spreading courageously a new faith, that at any moment can be snuffed out completely. In the trip she experiences hardship and frequent toil, along the way encountering cats of all natures and kinds with special emphasis placed on social outcasts and the disparaged masses, the sequential progression following in similar spirit Paul’s spiritual journeys across the Mediterranean in his second letter to the Corinthian churches:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
As the description of Paul’s journey is articulated, there is a parallel between this and the she-cat’s depiction of her journey, being windswept across oceans and confronting dangerous wild cats in the highgrasses.
Nearing the end, the she-cat’s relentless pursuit of justice however is called into question. Was the cat’s dream of a better world mere fantasy, a balm of hope that is enduring and real, though intangible? Or was it real? Here, Gaiman’s desire to illuminate and extract the nature of dream legitimacy is remarkable. Despite the arc being unresolved at the conclusion of the issue, the intangible hope of the Cat is made tangible, for both the she-cat and the young disciple, who vicariously experience the possibility of a new reality.
Following up on the developing interactions between Dream and those of the late middle ages, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a seminal treatment of Elizabethan theater, capturing both the historicity of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the turbulent times surrounding the budding expression of art. After a long day of travel, Will Shekespear encounters Dream at the top of a mound overlooking the Long Man of Wilmington, and arrives at the appointed time set by Dream ready to perform the first commissioned work for Dream and his audience.
Richard Burbage, and other notable members of Shekespear’s company appear anticipating the company’s rise to fame as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men while historical nuances of the play-acting in the era are expounded, poking fun at young men playing women and, more seriously, the troubled relationship between Shekespear and his son Hamnet. Their prospective audience, the Faerie, then arrive through the Long Man of Wilmington, revealed as the fictional Wendel’s Mound by Dream, implying that the Long Man historically was once associated with pagan ritual of the neolithic period. This of course conflicts with modern theories that the mound was a late creation of the Early Modern period. Nevertheless the troupe prepares unwittingly as the otherworldly retinue and host of the Faerie king and queen, Auberon and Titania, arrive in droves to watch the play unfold.
Perhaps the best moments of the issue lie in the subtle interchanges between other faerie folk. Some of them thinking they have been brought to eat the company of heroes, laugh, scoff, and question the nature of the play, drawing upon the subtext of the play’s connection to common folklore and indigenous belief in the Elizabethan era. Though hierarchical concepts present during the period, such as the Great Chain of Being, did not include the supernatural and existed rather to expound an Aristotelian view of the particular and the Divine Right of Kingship, the history of pluralism in English folk culture, going back to the Normans, would suggest that such addenda in this Old World science added such creatures. Therefore, when Auberon encounters Richard Burbage, it presents an interesting dynamic of two worlds meeting in harmony with the era that once embraced the presence of both. Concluding the show, Robin Goodfellow, the historical incarnation of Puck, mischievously interacts with the unwitting actors playing his own part, to ultimately offer in apology Puck’s final soliloquy before the players wake up midst a field caught up in a dream.
All this aside, the critical moment of the arc is featured in the asides between Dream and his royal hosts. In quick interchanges, Dream is seen regretting his interference with man, especially in Shekespear’s life, where it is implied that in becoming a preeminent playwright, Shekespear deposed Kit Marlowe, ultimately leading to his death. The ethical nature of Dream’s reign is of interest here. Earlier on, at the beginning of the series, it is Dream’s absence that propels the world into a state of chaos and modernization, thereby painting his presence and maintenance of the world order in a positive light. Here, his direct intervention leads to the death of another man. While this conundrum puts Dream in an odd circumstance it also questions his omniscience. Dream can make mistakes, or at least can wonder if such a thing is possible. Also Dream’s emotive capacity is expanded upon, now capable of expressing remorse for potential wrong doing.
Element Girl’s first and final treatment in the issue “Facade,” is both harrowing and somber, showing the now isolated and morbidly alone Urania Blackwell held up in her apartment. Throughout the issue, her only contact is Mulligan, an agent representing her at the CIA pension department, who speaks with her purely on professional grounds. The issue itself is a microcosm of Grant Morrison’s Limbo concept, a place for forgotten heroes bumped out of continuity, which predates Gaiman’s intimate treatment of metahuman continuity neglect by a month (having published Animal Man #25 in July of 1990).
When Della Potter, an old friend of Blackwell from the CIA, calls her to get lunch at an Italian bistro, the meeting is entirely superficial, based off of Della’s need to confess a scandalous relationship she started with a married co-worker rather than socially reconnect with her old friend. The irony of the situation is that both are wearing masks to hide from their true natures. Subsequently, when Blackwell comes home, emotionally devastated and traumatized, she attempts to contact Mulligan, who is no longer in her department. Resolving to kill herself, now utterly devoid of any human contact, she laments at the reality of herself being incapable of actually carrying out the act, until Death comes by taking notice of her greif.
Superficiality and physical appearance are the issue’s predominant themes, which at first look would appear at best petty and superfluous, but Gaiman captures the plight of the common human’s struggle for acceptance in a world that rewards homogeneity and high ranking standards of beauty. Whereas Dream in the previous issues is bolstered in character by his displays of empathy and remorse, Death is enhanced for her stark, yet truthful assessment of Blackwell’s obsession with physical beauty, and her own self imposed isolation. She asserts, boldly, that Blackwell has created her own hell to live in, being surrounded by masks that represent the idealized beauty that not only enslave her, but persist and follow her. Death, though graciously and reluctantly, shows her how to commit suicide by calling on the power of Amun-Re, the Sun God, to unmake her.
Given the nature of the one shot arcs and their circulation of characters from other arcs past and future, Gaiman’s work in issues #17-20 serve to consolidate the development of issues #1-16. Dream is now a hero to the abject and maligned, while Death is the frank, yet poignant friend. Looking back on the conceptualization of Dream and the other Endless, from an artistic standpoint each character introduced thus far is characteristically black and white, which reinforces their set, defined parameters that they operate out of. There are no gray areas between Dream and Death, both subject to and compelled to live out their natures statically. Yet here, a marked change is made in their growth as characters. They are depicted no longer as unchanging and endless, but human. Like any other entity they must grow, change, and cope with their surroundings, or otherwise fade into obscurity like Blackwell and die. Luckily, the Endless are still human, still interesting, and Gaiman’s skill expressly, is to make normal things into the extraordinary.