In the forward to The Absolute Sandman, Volume One Paul Levitz quipped that Sandman was an unfolding dialectic that narrowed the lines between folk tale and myth. Since the beginning of this narrative, Levitz speculated that the mythical elements of Sandman began in “The Sound of Her Wings,” Sandman #8. While this is certainly accurate, taking into account the introduction of Death, Dream’s older sister, as a plot device emphasizing the enlarging scope of the universe, much has transpired since in Sandman. Issue #21 begins the Season of Mists narrative cycle, an arc instigated by the abdication of Lucifer Morningstar from his throne in Hell. Rather than underscoring the alacrity of Dream’s wit and power, including his ability to escape compromising binds, this scales him back against the endless plains of the Miltonian underworld, and he is made to be indefinably small.
The opening issues of Sandman ably painted a portrait of Dream, the all-powerful Lord Morpheus, manifesting himself among mortals as a reckoning force. This did well to illustrate Dream’s command of reality, yet as the issues have progressed, Dream’s expansion in character has led to a dwindling of power over the sprawling psychic realms. In the grand scheme of a growing pantheon, Dream is beginning to share his stage with many supernatural creatures and powers, all formidable and intriguing. While Levitz’s statement that issue #8 introduced something more to comics than just another would be hero, or semi-divine messenger-agent, I contend that the fluid cosmology of Sandman never truly expanded until the Endless were contextualized into a world interwoven with other beings of immense cosmic leverage. As members of Dream’s family are introduced, the weight of Dream’s finite nature is compounded, but it is not only until the Season of Mists narrative cycle that Neil Gaiman’s mythology is fully advanced, wholly comprehensive, and frighteningly intriguing.
The prologue of the Season of Mists cycle in issue #21 introduces Destiny’s first prolonged appearance, only briefly mentioned in Sandman #7, as an agent of control. His arbor, strewn with the ruins of Corinthian columns lost in time, is host to a myriad of pathways that all mortals, and even the Endless, walk upon, save himself who is presented as existing outside of spatial reality. Destiny may appear to be a deistic manifestation of god, but Gaiman grounds this eldest of the Endless in the thrall of YHWH, deconstructing the beginning of John’s Gospel, augmenting the meaning of “Word” as Jesus Christ to being the physical Book of Destiny that is forever chained to Destiny’s hands. As he walks beyond his garden, into a desolate desert wilderness, he confronts the Wyrd Sisters (the fates) like Macbeth in his eponymous Shakespeare play, thereby instigating the primary plot of Season of Mists. Vague predictions ring out through the Sisters in the arid landscapes, which troubles Destiny. Living outside of spacial reality, beginnings and endings do not exist in his realm, so when the Sisters insinuate that a conflict of great purport is set to initiate, the plot moves forward. While this is standard fare for storytelling, it is notable that the prologue harkens to other preexisting cosmologies spanning Western folk myth and Near East Semitic religion. The inclusion of these universes then dilutes the novelty of Dream’s fictional universe. This isn’t necessarily bad, however. It only shows that Dream, and his extant family members are not the only supernatural players in the pluralistic Sandman universe.
The majority of issue #21 devotes itself to defining the relationships of the Endless with one another. Thus far Dream has only shared a close relationship with his older sister, Death, and occasional brushes with other family members like Desire. However, what is defined in this issue is the humanity of their interpersonal relationships. Desire and Despair are now twins, each working in tandem with one another to instigate the ebbing flows of human emotion. Much of the arguing is fed by Desire who thrives off the passion of others, while Despair sullenly implies that they used to be more civil to one another when Destruction, the prodigal sibling of the Endless, had not yet abandoned his post. Together they argue and prattle like any other family, but more importantly they further define Dream as an individual among his contemporaries. Dream stops appearing as an omnipotent being, imbued with mystery and near cosmic powers, but is now brooding and petty, like a young Tim Burton fresh out of art school. At the end of the meeting Death honestly confides in Dream, critiquing his handling of Nada as unfair, as well as indicating how little Dream understands women and their passions. Assuming that she turned him down for the quality of his gift of godhood, and not for the moral qualms she had toward the affair, he punished her for insubordination, which is strange in light of the fact that he initiated their relationship. His resolve to save her from her punishment in Hell then begins the primary plot, and the sole reason for the family meeting: to provoke Dream to action.
Dream’s conscience, leading him to save Nada from her continuing torment, evokes from him a stirring emotional display of regret and fear. Having shamed the ruler of Hell in Sandman #4, Dream is suddenly aware of his mortality, which seems an idiosyncratic characterization in the Sandman universe given that Dream is an anthropomorphic construct rooted in the minds of all waking things. No longer is Dream an abstract representation of something else, but a physical person, grounded in reality. This move from omnipresent being to a spiritual entity mythologizes Dream, now taking the likeness of Gods and Goddesses in the reigning pantheons. It is hard to say whether this detracts from Dream’s characterization or amplifies it. If anything, watching the Dream Lord sit on his throne, wrapped in spiced Arabic blankets and decorative lamps like a brooding djinn, and weep for his nascent creation amplifies his humanity, but minimizes him as a transcending, eternal consciousness.
The latter half of this issue deals with the harrowing meeting of biblical figures Lucifer Morningstar and Cain, coming on behalf of Dream to send his tidings of arrival. Within the universe of Milton’s supernatural landscape, other biblical allusions are offered, such as the mark of protection placed on Cain for slaying his brother Abel at the dawn of man. Historically this mark has been mired in debate as to what it actually represented. Later emendations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would give this meaning racist connotations, associating the mark with skin color, primarily in reference to the Native Americans. Gaiman civilly, and gracefully treats the mark with elegance, rendering it a circle, one of the most ancient signs of completion. Consequently, the numerology of the Ancient Near East is replete with numbers representative of completion, thereby giving a modern edge on an ancient designation of divine perfection. After observing the symbol, Lucifer mocks it. At the conclusion of the issue Lucifer offers that in the span of Hell’s unchanging history, something momentous is about to occur. This is of interest because it parallels the story of Dream thus far in Sandman: an immutable entity on the precipice of change.
Gaiman’s treatment of Hell to this point has been a deconstruction, somewhat dethroning classical medieval conceptions of Hell in favor of a modern permutation. Dante’s Hell, and Milton’s subsequent mutation, presented gloomy underworlds ruled by demonic hierarchies, torturing sinners and malcontents out of vindictive satisfaction. Revealed through Lucifer’s dialogue in issue #23, the imposed judgment on sinners is exacted purely at the bequest of the mortals that arrive, seeking to punish themselves for the evils they feel responsible for. Also, Hell is envisioned as an inverted reflection of the heavenly realm. While this would reinforce the dualism between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, in actuality it mocks such preconceived notions. As readers who have been indoctrinated with the winner-takes-all toss up between good and evil in classical western traditions, the reader is tempted to interpret this observation of inversion and embrace it. Gaiman takes this notion and sets it on its head. When consulting his characterization of Lucifer, the never ending battle of the cosmos is revealed to be a farce, with the Judeo-Christian YHWH forever the reigning champ. This is not only consistent with Gaiman’s admiration and respect for G.K. Chesterton, a protestant theologian (though swaying Catholic in his later years) but also with his short stories, notably “Murder Mysteries” in his short fiction anthology Smoke and Mirrors.
Predestination and human choice are also brought up between Dream and Lucifer, who listlessly shuffles through his realm cleaning house before he leaves. Though Milton’s Lucifer is classically considered the prototype for the Byronic hero, historically Lucifer has been largely portrayed as an allegory to human freedom and agency. Gaiman discards both interpretations, describing him as a rogue agent routed by his old boss’s sovereignty. YHWH, who also wrote Destiny’s book, is the master over spatial reality, at least as Lucifer’s direct report. So rather then causing chaos, in the created order, Lucifer is the stooge who actuates change in the history of mankind. Opposite of this, the mortals that enter Hell are bound by circumstances completely opposite of Lucifer. Entering a realm that worships the power of complete, unrestricted autonomy, they submit themselves to endless punishment and suffering, when in reality they should be clamoring for the things that they most desired in life. Ironically, their perpetual taste for pain is actually the burden of Hell. Demons only exist then to gratify mortals the masochistic rewards for their evil in life that they have the power to walk away from at any moment (as seen in the encounter with Breschau of Livonia). Oddly enough Dream, who will never taste Hell, is gifted it by Lucifer himself at the conclusion of the issue in the form of the keys to Hell, described by his older sister Death as, “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate.” His punishment, to Lucifer’s vengeful delight, is elegant and simple: host a dinner party.
Issue #24 then lays the foundation of the coming conflict, though Gaiman does so in a way that merits explanation. Of all the supernatural forces careening through the universe, the Endless thus far in Sandman are seemingly the most relatable. As they represent the waking qualities of the living creatures in the universe, the Endless are always mutating and changing styles with the human counterparts that compile them. This fluidity of the Endless starkly contrasts against the aging pantheons that come to visit Dream at his home. The Æsir still wear their dated garments, and fight their own battles that have droned on in stagnation since the dawn of man. The other supernatural creatures that arrive don’t fare well either. Anubis and the Shinto deity Susanoo-no-Mikoto still wear their ceremonial garb as if plucked from their extant cultures now thousands of years dead, or otherwise since culturally revised. The sudden appearance of land, history’s most prized commodity, then is the actuator that brings all these beings into council, and quite possibly could change them for the better. The only supernatural force to remain static in the whole affair at the outset appears to be the angels Remiel and Duma, who are sent as agents of Heaven to observe the transaction.
Season of Mists is most likely what Levitz was thinking when he contemplated the striking distinctions between folk tales and myth, considering the give and take shared between them before something gives way into lasting memory. Unlike other standing comic universes, locations, settings, and periods are not allegorical in Sandman, but are rooted in concrete physical places that can be visited at any time. In light of this, Gaiman’s treatment of the physical, and very real, gods that allegedly inhabit the physical plane are cosmopolitan and intermingled, like co-workers from separate departments meeting each other at company parties. If memory serves, Thor attempts to make a pass at Bast, and even if it didn’t happen I am certain that Neil Gaiman would probably gossip about it nonetheless.