Mirrors show us a reflection and repose in stasis. We can reflect upon it, perhaps adjust our appearance to fit our whim, but ultimately the mirror captures more than just personal imagery—it captures our essence. So what then does a distant mirror show us? The Distant Mirrors story cycle contributes to the Sandman cosmology, keeping with the core of the mythos. Particularly this concerns further contextualization for Dream’s later encounter with Johanna Constantine and Desire’s dispute with Dream, which would eventually materialize in the form of a dream vortex, settled by G.K. Chesterton’s intervention. While these stories concern the Endless and their meddling, they primarily describe people attempting to interpret who they are in context with their society; but the unifying theme of the narrative cycle is more than just introspective vignettes. It is rather a collection of one shots about people that analyze the role of humans in society, how they interplay with leadership, and the consequences of leveraging, or not leveraging, power over another.
Issue #29 starts out amidst the French Revolution. Historically infamous and well documented for its bloody upheaval of the inept monarchy that preceded it, the movement was said to be so entrenched in human vitae that one would have trouble wading through the Place de la Révolution. Madame la Guillotine fueled the ironic climate as the sole agent of execution for the Reign of Terror, led by Maximilien Robespierre and his aptly named Committee for Public Safety. During the Revolution, in the name of liberty, his committee put to death between 16,000 to 40,000 individuals, some of whom were the very intellectuals that founded the principals of the new republic, and even those instrumental in iconoclastic programs such as renaming the calendar. The primary focus of the Distant Mirrors narrative is spent with Johanna Constantine in custody with St. Just, a fellow compatriot of Robespierre, discussing the state of France. Given that this story cycle is about the implications of rule instated by democracy, the primary interest is the notable conversation between Just and Thomas Paine, an American colonial philosopher known for his work The American Crisis. St. Just’s words rebuff the claims of Paine, which decry the madness of the revolution, with a justification of violence for freedom. The irony of this is that, for pure unadulterated freedom to be enjoyed, tyranny must be employed to stamp out dissonance among the masses that could compromise the status quo. St. Just’s implication is that freedom is a sum of stipulations that typify a “free” individual. These rights are restrictions, however, in and of themselves. True freedom only results in unadulterated chaos. In order to curb total anarchy, assemblies like the Committee for Public Safety, must be erected, but these sadly perpetuate a hopeless cycle of authoritarian rulers seduced by the divine right of kingship. Here in the Reign of Terror, God may not rule, but divine Reason does, and declares those that will rule in favor of her. Subsequently, Gaiman’s treatment of Caius, better known as Augustus Caesar, will mirror these authoritarian constructions via his unsavory methods to consolidate power.
American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s contribution to the drafting of the Constitution as a delegate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 illustrates an interesting counterbalance to the unlimited freedom of the later French Revolution. The “mob,” or the unruly masses, tainted Hamilton’s perception of mankind. Raised as an illegitimate son, abandoned by his father, and orphaned at 11, Hamilton had little faith in trusting the uneducated and the common man in things pertaining to politics, given their volatile, unpredictable whims. In the Constitutional Convention he promoted a stronger authoritarian government, leaving his imprint on certain articles of the constitution like the presidential veto and the longer, more weighty rule of the Senate. Like any con, it was marked with dissent and unruly fanboys, but, eventually, he conceded to progress and signed the Constitution in its completed form. (Afterward, he wrote a series of essays defending the sanctity of the Constitution in the form of the Federalist Papers.) What Sandman #29 brings to the story cycle is the issue of the mob, and whether or not it can be controlled, thereby implicating the debate between more liberal or authoritarian interpretations of government. If Reason can be grasped, an ideal touted by the French Revolution, then all mankind must do is ascend to that plateau of perfection. This modern ideal, however, came crashing down, only to be substituted for Napoleon’s absolute monarchy. Therefore, this conundrum of absolute freedom and its inevitable expressions of violence sets up the next comic, Sandman #30, and Augustus Caesar’s cynical nature. In the first republic , man was ruled, and it was good.
Distant Mirrors: August is memorable, featuring the Gaiman charm of taking the mundane and making it extraordinary. Taking place in ancient Rome, via the memoirs of Lycuis (dwarf actor and nobleman), the story concerns his day with Augustus Caesar, playing the role of beggars in the filthy marketplace of Rome. The dry humor of the issue is the most enjoyable facet of the comic, featuring Augustus, who goes by Caius during the day, commenting on the splendor of Rome, known for establishing the foundations of modern Western society. Yet around him the city filth piles up in the streets, infested with garbage, rats, and slavery. Wide disparities in wealth between rich and poor abound, and in one frame a man urinates against a wall no farther than a few feet from where they beg. (Interestingly enough, public urinals used to be common in Europe, but most have since been abolished. Some remain in Amsterdam in the red light district, however.) Civic achievements like the Temple to Mars are calculated building projects to mend the festering image of Rome, and famous, honorable men like Cicero are praised by Caius, only to be revealed that he had them killed in the same breath to ensure that order be preserved.
The conversation between Lycius and Caius yields intriguing fruit in Sandman #30. Gaiman’s portrait of Caius is one of a man living in fear, under the shadow and weight of his adopted father Julius Caesar. This raises an interesting dichotomy between Caius’s perception of worthy rule and the fear of the rule he instates. As a child, he believes with strength and conviction in the admirable exploits of his father, in awe of his achievements. These achievements are well observed by Lycius, invoking the Pax Romana that the Empire enjoys from their unrelenting expansion. Caius insists achieving legacy is the ultimate purpose of government. What one leaves behind is what people will remember. In the issue Caius longs for death, knowing that his evil, and the horrendous acts he has perpetrated, will vanish in the time of history, with only his greatness to live on. He remarks sarcastically that the months of the year are named from old emperors and with each successive Emperor they will only be overwritten in favor for the next reigning champion. The image of a stable, peaceful Rome, in reality, is a lie, filled with corruption and guided by Caius’s hands to ensure its survival through historical revisionism and power bargaining. In comparison with the legacy of his father, Caius solemnly remarks that all he has is a dysfunctional family and running sores, thoroughly aware of his aging. Groomed to be king, from the day his father sodomized him (putting him in a position of submissive obedience), Caius, clearly, has been unhappy, only living his life as an extension of his father. As a way to meditate and seek to destroy his father’s legacy, Caius grooms for himself a future for Rome that is hopelessly optimistic, thus setting up his successors for failure. Dream, coming on behalf of Terminus, the Roman god of Boundaries, is the one who incites Caius to be mortal for a day each year, to give him time to think and find peace. In the epilogue of the issue, Lycius explains that Augustus Caesar established the boundaries of Rome’s empire, thereby crippling her expansion once and for all. Caius’s wisdom is proof enough that the mob is too strong, too powerful for even Rome to subdue. In the context of society, even the most powerful men fear their power, and the might of those before them, doing what little they can to govern an unruly people.
Despite the jaundiced account of France and Rome, Sandman #31 offers hope in the form of a lunatic. The issue introduces Joshua Norton, a failed businessman in the throes of suicidal depression, in the realm of Despair, Dream’s younger sister. When she calls her older brother to her realm, she offers a challenge to him to redeem her ensnared mortal with the power of dreams, which Morpheus accepts after Despair mocks his indifference as cowardice and shame. The resulting intervention in Norton’s life is the subject of the issue, as he is given the dream of becoming the first and only Emperor of the United States. Though many thought him to be insane, he was beloved by many in the greater San Francisco area, becoming a local celebrity by issuing his own currency and even being greeted by the local police force with regal salutes. Throughout the issue, Despair, Delirium, and Desire come to check up on Norton and are unsuccessful to defeat him and the dream that Morpheus bestowed unto him. As far as a form of government, in comparison to the former issues that ridiculed societies ruled by “Reason” and Empires hungry for glory and legacy, Norton’s brand of rule is not only successful, but endearing. Without coercion or force, Norton secures the affections of his people and the admiration and respect of physical extensions of the US government, more so than any revolutionary or would-be vigilante. He also possessed great foresight, insisting the construction of a bridge across the San Francisco bay to Oakland and an underground tunnel beneath it. Both projects would materialize as the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube within a century. When Dream’s older sister comes to finally greet Norton, after he shares his victory with his incredulous younger sister Despair, Death says, “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors and heads of state in my time, Joshua. […] you know something? I think I liked you the best.” As aforementioned, though it contributes to the cosmology of the Endless, this story cycle is clearly about people. Norton is neither a megalomaniac or a man pressed to rule by burden, but carefree and living out his dream of being the ruler of his own mind.
It’s logical to see that because the Endless are comprised of the base desires exhibited by all sentient life, that occasionally a humanistic piece would find its way into the Sandman corpus. It was once said of Alan Moore that no matter how bizarre or larger than life a character may appear, as long as one invests authentic emotion into characters, the reader will always be enamored. And though Moore is not the sociable type, his narrative influence has rubbed off on many comic writers, including Gaiman, who always creates characters that are real, if not occasionally uncomfortably so. Distant Mirrors concerns the act of ruling over another, and describes the problem of rule: detaining the “mob.” Between Robespierre’s delusion and Caius’s sober pessimism, Norton’s style of rule is the most successful, becoming a ruler of himself and a man after his own dreams. True leadership derives from belief empowered by admiration. Any good manager at a job can explain that his or her employees aren’t led but follow the example of their betters. Joshua Norton, though never rich or admired for his statesmanship, was honored nonetheless for his honest candor, and remembered in death far better than any ruler before or after. After all, there is something to be admired in a man who believes in an ideal, no matter how crazy or unbelievable, especially in the postmodern age.
What I find interesting is Augustus’ account of the two futures. I was so sure that he had chosen the first future out of spite and fear with regards to his adopted father and predecessor until now: when I actually reread the content of the second future and considered where exactly and how far that Eagle standard has gone even in our time. Perhaps his addition to the legacy was instead of creating a global empire in the traditional sense, he paved the way for others like Emperor Norton to rule through vision and belief what he could not through bread and circuses and what others after him could not in fear.
Also, Emperor Norton would have made an awesome ruler: if only because he was so “mad” and so fixated on his vision that it was his ultimate reality and Dream’s ultimate gift.
Also, that scene with Augustus reminds me of Ramadan and some of Harry Edmundson-Cornell’s own observations about the two eggs of the Phoenix in his article on this site. Perhaps Imperial Rome was so potent any idea–the idea of the Pax–that it where it failed as a temporal power, it continued as a spiritual or Platonic ideal in Dream’s realm: albeit not in the same way as Baghdad.
Thanks Matt! Those are both incredible observations.
DM: August is in my top ten of favorite single issue comics for it’s deconstruction of Rome. I would say Caius’s legacy is in the building of the framework of Western Civ. Modern Europe, Colonialism, the good, the bad, Rome made it all possible. Though Greece I would say is the birthplace of discourse and democracy, it was the Romans that possessed the entrepreneurial spirit to impose their way of life on other people. I mean, in a way they pioneered globalism, which isn’t great, but one has to admit that the product of that synergy is impressive. I guess it all depends on how you look at it all.