Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Sandman trade paperback #1, Preludes & Nocturnes, covering issues #1-8.
Preludes & Nocturnes plot summary: After being imprisoned by mortals for 70 years, Dream, the embodiment of dreams, also known as Morpheus or The Sandman, escapes from confinement. Weakened by captivity, he returns to his domain to find it was nearly destroyed in his absence. After learning the locations of his three stolen symbols of office—a pouch of sand, a helm, and a ruby, each of which hold some of his residual power—Dream journeys to hell and the waking world to retrieve them. With the help of supernatural problem-solver John Constantine, he retrieves the pouch. Down in hell, he battles a demon in a game of wits for his helm. After a precarious battle with the deranged Doctor Destiny, the ruby is destroyed, and its power returned to Dream. After a scolding from his older sister, Death, Dream returns home to rebuild his domain.
Noah: So Oliver, we’re at the beginning of arguably the most highly acclaimed fantasy series in comics. There’s so much to get into, but I think there are two general ways we can look at Preludes & Nocturnes: as exposition, and as a story in itself. Neil Gaiman has a hefty task in these issues in terms of world-building. He has to introduce us to Dream and his realm, and at least hint at the various other worlds that exist beyond the Dreaming, laying the groundwork for the issues to come. But Preludes & Nocturnes is also meant to tell a specific story about Dream’s liberty and revenge, which ends with his meeting Death by the fountain. I want to delve into P&N’s specific storyline, but let’s start with the expository nature of these issues. What did you make of Gaiman’s first rendering of the Sandman and his world?
Oliver: I guess that depends on when I first entered it. This is my fourth time reading Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes, and the book has had a different effect on me each time I’ve gone back to it, largely because it’s full of references that I’m learning more about every day. The entire first story arc is made of stories that are essentially mimicking other genres: classical English horror (issue #1), EC Comics horror (#2), contemporary horror (#3), dark fantasy (#4), superhero (#5), and metafiction (#6). I have a much better knowledge of these than my junior-high self did, and as I continue to learn, this series reveals even more to me.
A lot of groundwork is being laid down in terms in narrative, but Gaiman is still trying to find out how to balance the various areas of the DC Universe in his story. It’s still very much in the vein of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, with Morpheus and the Dreaming serving as the nexus where superhero comics, horror, and fantasy come together. The thing that impresses me during this most recent reading is the sheer ambition of these first eight issues. I’ve read a lot of first issues and opening arcs this past year, and nothing even comes close to Sandman. Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and the rest of the creative team are fearlessly committed to creating a sprawling, fully realized world that pushes the boundaries of what mainstream comics can be.
On the surface, it’s a fairly traditional quest narrative, but even then, Dream isn’t a conventional hero. His pride is as great as his power, and the hubris he shows in this first volume (specifically in hell) will be his undoing. In many ways, the full scope of Preludes & Nocturnes doesn’t become clear until you’ve read the entire series and have seen what all Gaiman’s story seeds grow into. Dream changes immensely over the course of the series, but what are your reactions to this first glimpse of his character?
Noah: As a quick aside, I couldn’t agree more with you. Gaiman’s genre-jumping is dizzying, and although I don’t think he’s totally successful (the Doctor Destiny storyline stands out for me as particularly clunky), it’s a testament to his gifts as a writer that he pulls so much off in the first eight issues.
Visually, my first glimpse of the character was: “Boy, does Morpheus look like Neil Gaiman.” I don’t know whose idea it was to liken the protagonist to his creator. Gaiman did some preliminary drawings, but people like Dave McKean were the ones who really started fleshing out the characters visually. (Gaiman’s afterword is a must-read on the genesis of Sandman.) Morpheus and Gaiman’s resemblance was odd to me at first, but I’ve come to find it fitting. Being the master of dreams, Morpheus is also the master of stories. He’s a sort of metaphor for the position of the author in relation to the narrative, a theme that Gaiman takes up over and over in the series, and in these issues as well. Morpheus’ relationship to the fantasy world he inhabits runs parallel to Gaiman’s relationship to the comic, and their looking alike is just a depiction of that.
The moment that brought me to this conclusion was when Morpheus meets The Martian Manhunter. For a brief moment, we see Morpheus through the eyes of someone who does not share our particular perspective (a literal alien), and his form changes dramatically. That suggests that the form we generally see, what we assume to be Morpheus’ “real” appearance, is just the one that makes the most sense to us as human observers. With that in mind, it seems logical that he would take the form of his author.
Okay, that got pretty meta. But you’re right that he isn’t a conventional hero, and a great example of this is that he remains on the sidelines for a lot of Preludes & Nocturnes. It seems like he’s mostly defined by contrast to the other characters, or in relationship to his objects, which are so important, they almost define his identity. Do you agree? If so, do you think this is a fitting way to depict the Sandman?
Oliver: I’ve picked up on the resemblance to Gaiman, but I never thought to consider that a reflection of Morpheus’ role in the narrative. I think you’re definitely on to something with that Martian Manhunter scene, which is the moment when this series actually first clicked for me. I already have a soft spot for J’onn J’onzz, but that scene is when it becomes clear that Morpheus is more of an idea than a person.
Like his six Endless siblings, Dream has a connection to other characters and objects that stems from how they reflect the concept he’s personifying. In his case, it’s storytelling. The three objects Morpheus needs to reclaim his realm all have some sort of connection to either the Sandman fairy tale or the DC universe: the pouch of sand is a reference to works by Hans Christian Andersen and E.T.A. Hoffman; the helm calls back to the Wesley Dodds Sandman of DC’s Golden Age; the ruby is a connection to the Silver Age and one of the Justice League Of America’s earliest villains. Once Morpheus gathers these items, he has the power to re-create the Dreaming. Similarly, once Gaiman has acknowledged the storytelling tradition that led up to Sandman, he’s able to break new ground and push what the medium is capable of.
In regards to that innovation, the best place to start is with the images that begin each chapter: Dave McKean’s striking covers. At a time when comic-book covers almost always featured the title’s main characters screaming, punching, and soaring, McKean’s mixed-media illustrations offer very little plot, but do incredible work in setting the mood. Just as everything is a potential storytelling tool for Morpheus, McKean takes advantage of non-traditional visual elements to create haunting covers that tell their own kind of ambiguous narrative. Like #6, with its central image of two hands pressing against a wall in darkness, surrounded by faces made from objects like a clock, a burlap sack, and a coffee mug. Most of the time, the covers don’t actually make sense on their own. After I read “24 Hours,” the purpose behind those drowning hands and broken faces became clear, capturing the suffocating effect of John Dee’s plot as well as the story’s focus on multiple characters.
Then there’s the cover to #8, the issue that introduces arguably the series’ most popular character: Death. With frizzy black hair and a sweater that falls over her left shoulder, the first image of Death is soft and alluring, with vines draped down the side of the cover to hint that her character will be used to show the wonder of life rather than the bleakness of death. After seven issues of world-building, “The Sound Of Her Wings” is our first real glimpse into the deeply personal story that develops over the course of the series. Sandman is a comic about stories, but it’s also about family, and it isn’t until the end of this first volume that the latter comes into play. What do you think Death’s debut signifies for the rest of the series?
Noah: I think Morpheus’ meeting with Death is a perfect capstone to the narrative of Preludes & Nocturnes, because it tweaks the reader’s understanding of Dream. Up until this point, he is utterly unlike any other character, in that he exists beyond them. Everyone, from John Constantine to Lucifer, was created on Morpheus’ watch, and presumably will die on his watch as well. He is Endless, which is a privileged position, and up until Death’s appearance, a lonely one.
You’re right to point out Sandman is about family, but that isn’t clear until we actually meet one of Morpheus’ kin. Her attitude, that of a concerned older sister, humanizes the character in an unexpected way. Up until now, Morpheus has felt emotions we can empathize with (anger, fear, etc.), but the character himself hasn’t been particularly empathetic. Death’s appearance brings him down to earth, in a manner of speaking, although the two of them exist in a place far removed from earthly concerns. As we’ve been discussing, Morpheus is an embodiment of a concept, and thus represents different things to different people. But to Death, he’s her brother. In a way, only she can see him for what he really is, while the finite characters can only interact with a mirage.
McKean clearly has the idea of mirage in mind with his covers, many of which seem like crosses between Joseph Cornell’s box sculptures and magicians’ illusions. Everything is on shaky ground in the Dreaming, but Death creates a certainty with her presence, and isn’t that exactly what Death is supposed to do?
I want to get to Preludes & Nocturnes as a contained story, though, since we’ll have the next couple of months to ruminate on the things we’ve brought up here. I didn’t know about the helm and ruby’s connection to DC’s history, but I’m glad you mentioned it, since it makes those objects seem less like McGuffins. I mentioned earlier that I found the Doctor Destiny plot a little weak by comparison, and on the other side, I found Dream’s trip to hell to be the most entertaining. Which part of the story worked best for you? Which one left you the coldest?
Oliver: I’ll have to agree with you and say that Morpheus in hell is my favorite part of the story. You mention that he’s not a very empathetic lead, and his pride is on full display in hell. He expects everyone to do his bidding in spite of his lack of power, and it’s nice to see him taken down a notch when he finally confronts Lucifer. Then there’s the introduction of Nada, Morpheus’ lover trapped in hell until he can forgive her for spurning him, which he isn’t yet ready for. I’m a big fan of Greek tragedy, so the combination of a trip to the underworld, a hero’s hubris, and a scorned lover is right up my alley.
Lucifer is one of this series’ most intriguing characters, so much so that he got his own 75-issue series written by Mike Carey, and Gaiman and Keith’s David Bowie-inspired vision for the co-king of hell adds a layer of glamorous mystique to the character. You’ve mentioned how Dream looks like Gaiman, but there’s also a Robert Smith influence to his appearance. Alan Moore originally modeled John Constantine after Sting, and Gaiman continues the trend of using celebrity models to bring a familiarity to the characters while lending them that added star quality.
The Doctor Destiny plot may be a bit out of sync with the rest of the story, but the strength of “24 Hours” helps make up for the underwhelming setup and resolution of the story. The first issues are plenty horrific, but none of them reach the depths of psychological terror that #6 does; Morpheus is proud and occasionally heartless, but John Dee shows just how restrained Dream is by comparison with someone who can’t stop abusing his limitless power. The book’s momentum slows down during these issues, but that’s because the first four chapters move so quickly as they introduce new information. If anything really leaves me cold, it’s the conclusion, which is fairly anticlimactic, as Dee crushes the ruby and inadvertently restores all of Dream’s power. Granted, at that point, I’m glad to see Dream finally get all of his strength back, because now the series can get to the really good stuff.
Noah: I’m with you on the ending of Doctor Destiny. When I first read it, I wasn’t sure what had happened, though on a re-read, it does seem fairly obvious. The sequence does feel kind of shrugged-off, as if Gaiman needed an answer and went with the “Whoops, it broke!” method. But I do love the little moment when Morpheus takes Dee back to his cell. Dream feels sorry for the damage his absence caused, and Dee is in many ways the living embodiment of that damage. Instead of destroying him, Dream takes pity on him, an act that will most likely reverberate as the series goes on.
John Dee is an interesting contrast—and again, we’re defining Morpheus by contrast. You’re right to note that Dream is restrained by comparison, but (and this is the one thing I love about this particular plot) restrained does not mean good. Dee can’t stop abusing his power, whereas Morpheus attempts to achieve a balance he lost years before. But Gaiman never claims this lost balance is a moral one. Morpheus should have the ruby because it belongs to him, because he is the king of the Dreaming, not because he is the most valiant, or most ethical, person to wield it. His response to Nada in hell is proof enough of that.
To your point on Lucifer, I immediately noticed the Bowie resemblance as well. Thinking about these likenesses, and the idea of the audience projecting onto these characters, it’s seems that Gaiman and Moore are making a comment on celebrity. Celebrities are now totems, their faces now embody the concepts we live by (Bowie, the shape-shifter, fits perfectly with the idea of an alluring, constantly changing evil), whereas once, we used animals and plants. It’s a testament to Gaiman’s subtlety that he never makes this comment in writing, but instead lets his illustrators do so for him. Already, in the first issues, we’re seeing a multilayered text that deserves multiple read-throughs. All of this in eight issues is quite a feat. By the end of Preludes & Nocturnes, we have a world on the mend, a hero humanized, and the seeds of future plots already bubbling to the surface. Not a bad way to begin a series, eh?
Oliver: It’s a great way to start a series, and it’s hard for me to imagine a book like Sandman surviving in today’s market, where it’s never certain whether a new book will last more than a year. Very few writers are given free rein to create a long, sprawling story of indeterminate length, and that freedom allows Gaiman to add all those layers that reveal themselves after multiple reads. I was 2 years old when this series debuted, so I have no idea how the comic-book community initially reacted to the book, but I’d love to hear how superhero fans took to this new interpretation of The Sandman back in 1989. (I’m looking at you, commenters.)
It’s interesting that all the celebrities Gaiman uses as reference are musicians, and music ultimately plays a large role throughout this series. Music is one of the earliest forms of storytelling, and it’s no surprise that Morpheus’ son is a musician of mythical renown. The title of this first collection is itself a musical reference, establishing that this is not just the beginning of a larger story (prelude), but a composition specifically designed to evoke the night (nocturne). The latter part is what intrigues me the most, with the first seven issues all serving to create a dark atmosphere that establishes this book’s horror element.
It’s nearly always nighttime in these first issues, which makes #8’s daytime story even more of a contrast. Even though it’s a story about Death, it has a sense of optimism that works to emphasize the terror surrounding it. There can’t be night without day, and Gaiman understands that moments of levity and hope are essential when building something scary. These smaller moments are where sympathy is born, building up the readers’ relationships with the characters in order to tear them apart with the most emotional impact. And surely enough, it all comes crashing down eventually.
Next week: Oliver and Genevieve Koski tackle Sandman Vol. 2, The Doll’s House, as Morpheus continues to clean house by tracking down rogue escaped dreams.