Corporeality is overrated in the comic book multiverse. Grant Morrison’s theoretical conceptualizations of the infinite reality have interwoven themselves through the vein of modern storytelling, but Gaiman’s play on this concept is also well documented in Sandman and equally as influential. In the second of the Convergence collection, Gaiman evokes the concept of Dream’s intervention with humanity in an odd twist, perhaps the most notable being his antithetical construction of reality in the form of the Soft Places. While the former installment of the Convergence series (The Hunt, Sandman #38) worked to explore and remember the Old World and its endurance through time, Soft Places defeats the physicality of the Dreaming by introducing the eponymous locales as blurred points in space and time. Analogous to the Bermuda Triangle and what Gilbert in the issue refers to as “a few thousand square miles of central Australia… a field in Ireland [and] an occasional mountain in Arizona,” the Soft Places serve as the launching point for clarifying the already grayed locales of the Sandman universe. Gaiman uses the arc to critique and honor the Travel Narrative genre, and its illustrious literary corpus as well. Though most of the works are utterly fantastic, many spurred westerners to seek out the vast lands yet undiscovered, bringing Western culture out of its insular shell. The issue is self-referential in nature, allowing a young Marco Polo to confront what would be his legacy, but is not without subtle, though humorous, critiques.
The issue’s main arc focuses on the wanderings of a nineteen-year-old Marco, wandering through the Desert of Lop, with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo. Today the Desert of Lop is located in Xinjiang Uyghur, the most northwestern part of modern China, seated below Mongolia. In the time of Marco Polo and the reign of the Kublai Khan, the region was a puppet state in the Mongol empire, trading troop supplies and regional taxation for autonomy. The impetus for Marco’s journey to the region lies in the spread of Christianity. Marco is told that in his father’s encounter with Kublai Khan, the warlord expressed an interest in Christianity, and sought further proof of the faith’s vitality in the form of a boon of miracle workers and holy oil from the Chrism in Jerusalem. On their return to Venice, Niccolò and Maffeo sought Pope Gregory X to supply the aid, but were only provided a meager following of two friars who abandoned the journey shortly after their departure. Gaiman’s historical commentary of the issue follows the accounts of the journey faithfully, though it adds in sardonic language with references to the unremarkable nature of the miracles, allegedly performed by the friars. Gilbert, whom the young Marco and his future stenographer and cellmate, Rustichello of Pisa encounter, recalls St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph of Copertino, who both allegedly could fly, as able miracle workers.
Orientalism in Western literature is highly documented and a celebrated trope in the Travel Narrative. The subtle nods to the trope in Soft Places lie in Rustichello’s pet designation, Marco Millions, for the older Marco Polo that shares his cell once Marco is taken captive as a prisoner of war in 1295. Between 1923 and 1925, Eugene O’Neil penned a play of the same name, which was a comedic satire on the triumphalist accounts of the Middle East and Eastern countries. The inserted detail assumes that Marco’s stories were too fantastic to be true, but Gaiman’s account otherwise treats the material with reverence. Given the stylized telling of the story, and Rustichello’s praise for Polo’s ability “to describe the cities. Not just the land, or the trade, but the soul of the city,” Gaiman’s clever addition serves to poke fun at the skeptical tradition of Polo’s received incredulity. That being said, the Travel Narrative often boasted such fantastic descriptions and details so falsely imbued into the locales for the sheer purpose of amusement or political satire. Gulliver’s Travels (Gulliver’s name a pun for “gullible”) is the most famous of the Travel Narrative satire and served as a critique on the supremacy of Whig ideology in British parliament in the early 18th century. Thomas More’s Utopia served as a scathing chastisement for contemporary European society, which at the time was plagued by inequality and class warfare. While Orientalism was used to deconstruct Western Society by way of comparison, it also conjures the ignorance of Western Civilization towards the Far East. Gaiman’s use of the Soft Places in the issue draws attention to the elusiveness of the Orient, possibly suggesting that in further defining the world through discovery and categorization the inherent wonder of the distant locales were irrevocably lost.
The cosmology of Sandman is expounded upon in Soft Places considerably, despite the arc taking place at a point shortly after Gilbert’s departure from the Dreaming and Dream’s own escape from captivity at the hands of Roderick and Alex Burgess in Sandman #1. The Soft Places are middle points between the Dreaming and Reality, as explained by Gilbert in his conversation with Rustichello and Polo. Time in the Soft Places is wibbly wobbily, unrestricted, and fluid, resulting in wayward travelers being lost in them and subsumed by time, gradually fading away from memory (as seen in the wandering marauders that lure away travelers in the Lop Desert). Sandman’s primary pursuit in normalizing the extraordinary continues in Soft Places by defining the Dreaming further as a pocket dimension, or extradimensional plane outside of spatial reality. Combined with Morrisonian cosmology, and the insistence on the multiverse in the DC corpus, Gaiman’s Soft Places establishes credibility and realism unto the series. In the final sequence as Polo awakes in the desert, his fading memory of his time in the Soft Place suggests it’s subsequent disappearance from that location, as well as solves the riddle posed by the wandering marauders, who ask Gilbert, when coming back to reality, whether they will die or go on living their lives as if nothing ever happened. Soft Places, then, is about the interaction between the real and super-real, how mortals perceive space and time. Dream’s own subjective relationship with the physical realm he governs is further defined when it is revealed that he himself is at risk in becoming trapped in the Soft Places were he to lose too much power.
Travelogues from the Early Modern period amply reveal the curiosity and fascination that possessed the Europeans of the era, but it was Marco Polo’s actual visitation of the Far East that pioneered relationships with the region through the reintroduction of the Silk Road to Europe. In the same way that Marco Polo provided insight to the closed-off cultures of China and Mongolia, Gaiman serves in similar capacity as the Sherpa guiding the reader through the unseen world beyond our eyes. The Sandman’s adherence to realism and world building is evidence to the reader of Gaiman’s commitment to his cosmology. Dream and his siblings are not just mere fancy, but attempts at coalescing the far flung myths of Man under one umbrella, in harmony with one another. Consequently, the gods and goddesses of yesteryear embody the personalities and attributes of amplified humans, attempting to close distance between the abstract and the reasonable. Gaiman’s tales that return from the fold of mystery are heirlooms to his journeys beyond the bounds of human experience. The resulting tales that are brought back are incredible, absurd, and fanciful. Some are inevitably pushed back from the Sandman because of its sheer scope. It is a world impregnable and mysterious, like the Orient in the 13th century. Soft Places then is the starting point of rediscovery, a report that mocks the reader’s expectations of reality. In light of Modernism, and the homogenization of McWorld, Soft Places preserves the lands that melted away with time and have since been forgotten.