Flowers, Fire, and Dreams in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture #1, Part 2

In the next part of The Sandman Overture Issue #1, we now get to focus on Morpheus’ tools in trade: dreams. After transitioning to page fourteen, what we have waiting for us is something that looks like a white-washed sketch of London, England: an aesthetic almost reminiscent of Eddie Campbell’s drawing style in From Hell. It is here that we learn something possibly new about at least some of the denizens of the Dreaming. In a regimented page with panels that look like part of a giant window we are introduced to one George Portcullis: the manager of an office that keeps changing locations. Yet what is really intriguing about George is that the captions–which are also windows–describe his nature even before we see that his face is a window on panel (or window) seven.

The narrative describes George, on panel one, as having “a most peculiar and reoccurring dream.” It is in panel two that we are made aware that George is the dream of someone or something else: and is not George when he is awake. At the same time on panel eleven of page fourteen, George also seems to know that the current position of the Office is “at a corner of Stopcock Yard” that he “is certain was demolished fifty years ago,” and believes that he “has not brewed a teapot since his schooldays” on page seven, panel one. These statements seem to contradict each other: unless George is a construct that is given memories by Dream or by whose very nature as a window himself sees and mirrors the vestiges of sights and experiences from those who pass through the Office. I do know that, whatever else, this scene makes me really wonder if it’s just George that is like this or if all of Dream’s creations are dreams attached to particular mortal consciousnesses.

Perhaps over time, when people and creatures die, most of them–save those that end up in Hell–go into Dream’s realm: or so many beings believe in them that they become potent myths in their own right. Certainly in Dream Country’s “Calliope,” A Game of You, and Brief Lives we see indications that the gods themselves were formed by the beliefs of mortals in the Dreaming and that they, mortals, immortals, and other fictional creations always go back there when their lives are over. Or it is also possible that George and “the gentleman with the burning visage” who sits at George’s desk before his shift (all of which is mentioned on page seventeen) are specialized and just adapted for the function of guarding what turns out to be Dream’s–or Morpheus’– “London Office.”

But whatever the case, by pages seventeen and eighteen we see some traditional square and rectangular comics panels surrounded by Escher-like cross-thatching: which, at times, seems to contain some hidden word optical illusions. For instance, under the panels where Morpheus introduces himself to George and prepares for business on page seventeen, you can make out the words (which were the hardest for me personally to decipher) “Where dreams” followed by the words underneath page eighteen where the Corinthian is being led into Dream’s office which are “live now.” Then above page nineteen with Dream asking the Corinthian if he remembers the time of his creation and his purpose there is a “But” and “sometimes” below page twenty where Dream confronts the Corinthian about violating the rules with regards to stepping out of the Dreaming. Finally, over page twenty-one where the Office temporarily becomes black and white again without Dream there is “some dreams” and  below on the left-hand corner of page twenty-two where Dream leaves and the Corinthian decides to run and change the world is the largely etched word “DIE.”

“Where dreams live now, but sometimes some dreams die.”

This almost subliminal arrangement is an excellent metaphor for how the subconscious and, consequently, the Dreaming functions. However, I am getting ahead of myself because there is also what happens in the panels themselves to consider. We have Morpheus, dressed in the manner of an Edwardian upper-class gentleman–with top hat, overcoat, vest, and even a tie with his Ruby on it–meeting George for what, at least to George, seems to be the first time: the Master finally coming to utilize his London Office on page seventeen. Morpheus, as usual, is cold and yet also courteous to his servant: a courtesy that he extends to the Corinthian on page eighteen when a portal opens from the Dirty Donkey pub to the Office where Morpheus tells the former that “I thought it best if we talked privately.”

On page nineteen, on the top panel we see the Corinthian from Morpheus’ perspective as the latter steeples his fingers in front of him: making a shape not unlike that of his deceased plant incarnation’s visage. It is in this scene that we get a nice rehashing of why Morpheus created the Corinthian: specifically as a humanoid Nightmare to reflect humanity’s own darkness. Ironically, unlike in A Doll’s House, Dream doesn’t seem to believe that the Corinthian fails to fulfill his “worst,” but is more concerned with another area of his focus: specifically breaking the rules. Morpheus is, or has since his Endless Nights youth become a stickler for the rules.

Morpheus has called the Corinthian to him because the humanoid nightmare has exceeded his bounds. Instead of inspiring fear and pure horror in dreamers, he instead leaves the boundaries of the Dreaming and actually kills them for pleasure. This is something completely unacceptable to the Lord of the Dreams and it is a matter that he plans to deal with. The fact that Morpheus is more concerned with the breaking of cosmological rules is no new development in his character: however what we do get on page nineteen, panel four and page twenty, panels one and two is that the boundaries “between the waking and the Dreaming” were set “long ago, back when all this” I assume Creation as it looks now “was void.” But what is even more intriguing is that when the Corinthian asks Morpheus if he created the rules, Morpheus tells him that he didn’t, in fact, set them: rather it was by an unknown body known as the Council of the First Circle and they were actually suggestions more than anything else.

“Rules,” he tells the Corinthian on page twenty, panel one, “There must always be rules.” It is these same rules that Morpheus not only lives by, but they are also the ones that force him to remain with the magicians in 1916 in Preludes and Nocturnes (in addition to his pride in not calling his sister for help) and the principles that he will inevitably–if not knowingly and purposefully–violate in Brief Lives sometime later on: even leading to his own self-destruction when he decides to adhere to them and not break through Thessaly’s mystical circle–the same circle used to imprison him–that protects Lyta Hall in The Kindly Ones. Even as Dream upholds the rules and enforces his own, they will eventually break him and facilitate his change into something else: into, as always, Dream … but no longer Morpheus.

I do find one matter intriguing with regards to dreams leaving the Dreaming and going to the waking world when you consider some of the information revealed in the aforementioned Dream Country, A Game of YouBrief Lives, and The Worlds’ End: in which most of Earth’s gods are actually revealed to be dreams that mortals created made incarnate. These gods migrated to Earth in order to deal with their followers only–when times, attitudes and paradigms changed–to return to the Dreaming and dream stuff from whence they came.

So at first I wondered if this “Council of the First Circle” may have been set by these gods with some of the Endless’ input into the case after a time. But the fact of the matter is that these rules that “were set so long ago, back when all was void” could not have been created by mortal-made gods that didn’t exist yet. I conjecture that, if anything, this Council of the First Circle that made this suggestion was sat upon by the likes of the representatives from the Silver City, Hell, Order, Chaos, and even the Fae. As for dreams, perhaps each dream–humanoid or otherwise–is different in construction and purpose. For instance, the actual inhabitants of the Dreaming may be forbidden to truly enter the waking world while these gods and beings created by humankind are allowed access because of how they are made.

What complicates this even further is that in Brief Lives we see deceased humans–or at least immortals born on Earth–coming into the Dreaming or through it after they die and Death takes them. Perhaps all things–gods and mortals–come from Dream: but in retrospect this no way contradicts the idea that their roles might have been predetermined by Morpheus, the Council of the First Circle, or the Universe itself. Certainly, the London Office does not seem to be a normal part of the Dreaming nor are its maintainers “normal dreams”: as though made specifically to create a certain kind of anonymity.

The Corinthian seems to understand some of the implications. As he puts it on page twenty, panel five, with regards to why Morpheus wanted to make a private meeting between them away from his Castle and his other fellow dreams, “You don’t want me to show them that we are unstoppable. That we cannot be harmed. That there is nothing to stop us from taking whatever we want for ourselves.” This sentence hearkens back to my point about where gods come from and how Morpheus’ dreams would be the equivalent of these if they all stepped out from the Dreaming into the waking world … or so it would seem if you take into account what happened to Martin Tenbones in A Game of You: what with being a gigantic dog that gets gunned down by police officers and all.

Instead, if you have read The Sandman series, you know where this is going. In his usual coldly polite and cordial manner, Morpheus informs the Corinthian that the only reason they are having their conversation in the Office is because he does not want his friends to have to see him get uncreated. This was another part where I held my breath: wondering if the Corinthian had been unmade before. However, instead of this happening: from pages twenty-one to twenty-two we see two things.

First, on panel three of page twenty-one we see that the Corinthian stores his knives in his eye sockets–which are actually two throats with tongues where there should be sinuses and veins in a human skull (where you can see that Neil Gaiman thought over the Corinthian’s eyeball-eating anatomy)–and then on panel five you see Morpheus blink out of existence for a few moments: leaving the Office white and black-line sketched again and without the colour and depth he provided. Obviously, he has already sensed his “own death galaxies away” or the equivalent force thereof. In fact when we look at this scene, it is as though we are seeing a brief glimpse of what the Dreaming will resemble at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes: lacklustre and degenerated to its bare-bones without proper maintenance.

And then on page twenty-two: Morpheus pulls another trademark move. After proclaiming that he has to leave and ignoring the Corinthian’s insistence for a trial by his peers–which the former would have ignored anyway as those are not his rules–Morpheus leaves the Corinthian and doesn’t bother to do anything about him. He doesn’t even bind him. Perhaps, as Morpheus believed, he thought he would be back before the Nightmare could do any more harm, or he underestimated what he could do in the waking world in that time or, let’s face it, Morpheus just didn’t care about human life.

But look at that last scene on page twenty-two: specifically panel five. You see the Corinthian’s plans come into fruition. After Morpheus steps into the rosy, surreal, pastel haze of the Dreaming proper beyond the door on panel two above, the Corinthian tells George, “I’m not going to stop running until I’ve reshaped the world to look like me.” Ironically enough, the Nightmare that exceeds his bounds, who was slated to be unmade will now not only keep killing people in the waking world and breaking the rules, but will also reshape a paradigm of that world into his own image: of killing and death. It is a larger version of the escaped Brute and Glob’s plans: almost putting them to shame. For while the latter eventually plan to make a new Dreaming and a Sandman after Morpheus’ disappearance, the Corinthian wants to make a new waking world that will affect the Dreaming.

In many ways, I suspect that this whole interaction in the Office is the main reason why, seventy years later, Morpheus partially blames himself more than the Corinthian for the latter’s actions in creating a Serial Killer paradigm to the point of a “Cereal Convention” in A Doll’s House: beginning to learn that the letter of the law and the spirit of it can be two entirely different things and that perhaps even in 1915 Morpheus did not keep up on all of his responsibilities. Still, if the window’s reflection in one of the Corinthian’s lenses and the one of his fanged eye in the other is symbolic of anything, none of this will bode well.

And in our next and final article on The Sandman Overture #1, we move on from other worlds and metaphysical hints and dream musings in order to examine another element of what it is to truly be one of the Endless.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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1 Comment

  1. And speaking of dreams that were once mortals, I can think of a few more. Arguably Eve, Cain, and Abel, as well perhaps Lucien were all living beings before they became archetypes that forever dwell in the realm of Dream. And Matthew, as well as Dream’s other previous ravens, were mortal beings too at one time. So there does seem to be at least some, if not all overlap between Dreaming denizens and mortals that have passed on: either through some deal with Morpheus at the time or just through the nature and the relation of the Dreaming and waking worlds themselves … forever fine a distinction that really is.

    I’m also pondering as to whether or not Hell even had a place in the briefly mentioned Council of the First Circle. Hell did exist before Lucifer and it is really fun to think about how Lucifer may have been the actual representative of the Silver City during this time that Morpheus alludes to. After all, Morpheus does mention in Season of Mists that he knew Lucifer, or of him, before the archangel fell. He was, at the time, the most powerful archangel in existence for the Presence in the Silver City and probably why he was chosen to govern Hell later on to begin with. The fanboy in me would totally love to see a pre-Fall Lucifer representing the Silver City on that Council and talking to some very young, almost child-form Endless. What an image. :)

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