Through the Sandman, one recurring theme endures that tempers the fantasy offered by Gaiman and his titular protagonist. This is deconstructing the fantastic and popularizing ancient tales into pedestrian tongues. He is contextualizing tales culturally distant from our own and is wildly successful in his efforts. Like two individuals of differing nationalities converse, speaking to one another in pantomime and employing broader terminology to convey the heart of their message, Gaiman takes these epic tales and reduces them to their archetypical significance. He does what all great storytellers do and leaves no barrier of culture to stifle the reader. Sandman has always been perceived as a comic book for the intellectual, but in his revamped version of the Greek myth concerning the tragic lovers Eurydice and Orpheus, he offers the reader high classical content in bite-sized chunks.
Numbered as a Sandman Special #1, Gaiman’s Orpheus appears as a one shot, but it was published alongside the A Game of You arc and immediately following the conclusion of the Distant Mirrors collection. Thessaly is referenced during Orpheus’s travels to Hades, featuring details concerning her power over the moon and her pagan rites, and foreshadowing the events to occur later in A Game of You. Orpheus already made his debut in Distant Mirrors: Thermidor, which showed him as the talking head that decried in song the foolish civic pursuits of the French during their revolution. Likewise, it also shows Dream’s change of heart, hiring the occult investigator Johanna Constantine to aid his son discretely and save him from falling into the hands of devilish parties. The Song of Orpheus therefore serves as an origin story, cataloged by members of literary antiquity (Ovid, Virgil, and Plato to name a few) and colorfully embellished by Gaiman to finds its place within the Sandman corpus.
The tale of Orpheus contains a few reprisals of characters such as Calliope and the Endless, reminding the reader of Dream’s slow maturity in his relationships with others, especially women. It also introduces the unsettling idea that Orpheus is the only mortal son of the Endless. In ancient antiquity, the subject of half breeds is broached, with emphasis given to what the hero becomes when discovering their god-like potential.. While heroes such as Hercules have been celebrated in common culture as idealized figures and the divinity of Man, they have also been ostracized by their immortal progenitors. Hera’s constant antagonizing of the mortals that Zeus seduces is well noted in both antiquity and the New 52 Wonder Woman. The gods guilty of their lateral sexual encounters have a penchant for skipping town as well. This is the case with Orpheus’s friend Aristaeus, whose father Apollo consigned the responsibility of his child to the hands of Hermes. Orpheus’s presence in the Sandman mythos also conjures the troubling encounter Dream shared with Nada, whom he banished for not giving in to his advances. Nada’s conviction that the mortal and immortal cannot love is lost on Dream, who later bears Orpheus as his son. Though the mother Calliope bears supernatural traits, the intimidating sway of the Endless and their independence from the gods highlights the disparity between both chains of command. Clearly, something has gone wrong. Gods and lesser creatures were not meant to conjoin. In common culture the bastard son shares a similar stigma, the most famous of which being Edmund, son of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s play King Lear. The negative stereotype of the bastard implies that a bastard is an unsavory combination of natures, being the product of lust and sinfulness. Though Orpheus is neither evil nor conniving like the bastards of literary theater, he wantonly seeks to bend the rules and transgress the social boundaries that he is obligated to adhere to. He lives like one of the Endless, and acts on purely selfish reasoning. Though the Endless aren’t known for their altruistic tendencies, at the end of the day they carry out their allotted duties. Orpheus is not a manifestation of the whims and natures of men but a vessel of their power and creativity. This is why he readily abuses his powers. He is like a wealthy adolescent using their parent’s credit card, with no appreciation or knowledge of the money’s source.
In Orpheus’s call to arms to rescue his fallen lover from Hades, attention is directed to the institution of rules in Greco-roman mythos. Duty to the civic well-being of the city-state is the apex achievement of Western Civilization, and this common cultural unifier of the Mediterranean cultures also manifested itself into the common mythologies of the day. Prior to the advancement of Western Civilization, the communities of Palestine and the Near East ascribed to differing sets of moral codes, rooted primarily in bolstering the ethic of the ordered civilization. Laws were interpreted as examples of ideal society. The common culture of the Greco-roman era rooted itself further into the achievements of the individual. This is why the ethic of discovery, of education and philosophy, bloomed in the region, whereas the Arabic communities focused their attention on the hard sciences, seeking to find order in chaos. The might of the individual is key to understanding Orpheus’s plight in that his continual transgression of nature is forbidden behavior in Western society. All of his decisions to get what he desires end in tragedy. His granted immortality dooms him to eternal life without Eurydice, the thing he loves most. His journey to the underworld mocks him as a failure. The irony of Orpheus being condemned by the very laws he bent to shake himself free of the natural order is palpable. Plato himself critiqued Orpheus’s actions as the height of foolishness. He could have very well been with Eurydice if he had died, but instead he chooses to confront the gods of the underworld and openly flaunt his power to break their rules.
While Gaiman contextualizes the tale of Orpheus, there are notable advancements in Dream’s definition as a character. Thus far in the Sandman series, Dream’s presence as a superior force has ebbed and flowed. Only recently was his stature as sovereign over his realm secured in his scrupulous dealings with members of the polytheistic pantheon of varying gods and goddesses. Given that Dream’s relationship with Orpheus precedes the current state of the character, rather insightful details about Dream are revealed. Gaiman adds to the regal nature of Dream, showing him as dispassionate and prideful. When Calliope asks him to dance, Dream refuses her. This is bizarre given that Dream, above all the endless, has access to the creativity of the mortals that empower him. His ability to give Joshua Norton of the Distant Mirrors story arc the power of hope is charming, and yet he cannot conjure the passion to dance. This aside, Dream’s relationship between himself and his son tempers his regal attitude, revealing him to be actually a remarkable father, given his track record. Dream becomes very human, as he stands before his son to give him advice on how to cope with death. Even after Orpheus scorns his father, Dream appoints priests to watch over his son’s head. It is a magnificent effort, given how prideful Dream is, especially considering that he no longer desires to be with his son. Remarkably, Dream relents and softens his heart later in Sandman, when he returns to his son to give him death. In his capacity to forgive and change for the sake of others, Dream exceeds his static nature, allowing him to further adapt and survive in the modern world as the King of Dreams.
The tale of the tragic lover going down to the underworld to retrieve his lost love is a universal tale around the world. Spanning languages, cultures, and worldviews, it is surprising that such cohesion is possible. The act of the hero going to a realm that does not welcome them symbolizes the trouble humans have with rules and their constraints. It is an unnatural thing to want to bring someone back from the dead. Death being an absolute, to cheat it is vanity. It explains why modern comics are so mired in inconsistency, constantly resurrecting heroes after they died so gloriously. It cheats the journey of the hero, and ultimately truncates the legitimacy of the resurrected character. There is a loss of substance incurred, as if at each stage something is lost, in an attempt to circumvent a state that humanity sees as fundamentally wrong. For the modern audience, Gaiman reintroduces this jarring reality, contextualizing Orpheus’s desires as the product of immature love. Contemporary audiences will feel sorry for the jaded Orpheus, but at the cost of missing Dream’s point. Death is absolute and must be respected.