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 #6, Fables & Reflections, covering issues #29-31, 38-40, and 50; the Sandman Special; and a story from Vertigo Preview.
Fables & Reflections plot summary: A sort of catch-all volume, Fables & Reflections collects and re-orders scattered stories released between the Season Of Mists, A Game Of You, and Brief Lives storylines, most of which were originally cover-tagged either as Distant Mirrors (stories named after months, and about historical leaders) or Convergence (stories within stories, about the places where the dreaming and the waking world meet). After opening with “Fear Of Falling,” a short sketch about an anxious theater director, Fables & Reflections continues with: “Three Septembers And A January,” based on the true story of a San Franciscan who proclaimed himself The Emperor Of The United States; “Thermidor,” in which Lady Johanna Constantine tries to keep the head of Dream’s son Orpheus safe through the madness of The French Revolution; “The Hunt,” about a werewolf in love with a princess; “August,” named for Augustus Caesar, who spends one day each year disguised as a beggar; “Soft Places,” which has Marco Polo getting lost in the desert; “The Song Of Orpheus,” explaining The Endless’ role in the classic Greek myth; “The Parliament Of Rooks,” where Cain, Abel, and Eve tell stories to Daniel Hall; and “Ramadan,” about the lost wonders of Baghdad.
Noel: Noah, it’s hard to know where to start with Fables & Reflections, since it’s the least cohesive and most uneven of the Sandman short-story collections. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to put these stories in the order they’re in here, with “Fear Of Falling” appearing before the introduction and table of contents, “The Song Of Orpheus” appearing in the middle of the book, and the Distant Mirrors and Convergence stories all mixed together. I’m really not sure why the Distant Mirrors and Convergence pieces are set apart from each other (especially given that “Ramadan” was originally supposed to appear at the end of the Distant Mirrors run, but got delayed, so this could’ve been a chance to place it where it was meant to be); and I’m not sure why “The Song Of Orpheus” appears where it does, rather than next to the other Orpheus story, “Thermidor,” or at the end of the book, where it might have more impact. Ultimately, it isn’t that important. The Sandman stories are always full of flashbacks—and semi-flash-forwards, in the case of the foggy “Soft Places”—so it doesn’t matter that the story of Orpheus getting ripped apart appears in Fables & Reflections a few chapters after a story about Orpheus’ disembodied head. Still, if you can think of a good reason why Fables & Reflections is organized the way it is, I’d love to hear it.
And as long as I’m airing complaints, I might as well quickly dispatch the two stories in this collection that are my least favorites, so we can get into the good stuff. (And there’s a lot of good stuff in Fables & Reflections, from charming digressions to stories that are absolutely essential to both the theme and narrative of Sandman as a whole.) “Fear Of Falling” is slight by design: just a trifle about “dreams” in the feel-good sense of the word, as a man afraid to fail realizes that he has to risk falling flat on his face if he ever wants to fly. It’s nice; that’s about all I can say for it. But I wish I liked “The Hunt” more than I do. The Duncan Eagleson/Vince Locke art is beautifully spooky, with the appropriate Old World atmosphere, and the story contains many minor delights, including the appearance of the legendary Slavic witch Baba Yaga, the reappearance of the emerald heart from “Tales In The Sand,” and a partial starring role for Lucien, who goes looking for a missing book and comes across a werewolf with strange demands. Yet while I like the framing device of an old man telling this story to his granddaughter—and commenting on the importance of family history and tradition over the granddaughter’s preference for modern technology and popular culture—I tend to agree with the granddaughter that there’s not really that much to the story beyond a pat moral about people and objects returning to where they belong.
But I don’t dislike “The Hunt,” so much as I think it pales by comparison to some of the other stories here—like the two Orpheus stories, which may be where we should properly begin, given that the next book, Brief Lives, prominently features Dream’s offspring. Before we get to Orpheus, though, Noah are there any particular weak links for you in Fables & Reflections?
Noah: I’m definitely with you with “Fear Of Falling,” and I think its placement is a great example of your point about the order. It’s so slight that it never really justifies its existence, and the moral is pretty pat. Furthermore, putting it in front of the table of contents gives it a kind of primacy I don’t like. “Follow your dreams!” is an annoying thing to telegraph at the beginning of a book, and it casts a shadow over everything afterward, because it’s formatted as a kind of introduction to the rest of the text. I was more taken by “The Hunt.” I liked the grandfather’s reveal at the end, though it does pale in comparison to the twist at the end of “Ramadan,” which might be my favorite of the lot.
I’m a big fan of Roman-themed drama (I, Claudius is one of my favorite TV series), which is probably why I felt let down by “August.” Like your response to “The Hunt,” I don’t dislike it, but it didn’t move me particularly. Augustus is such an interesting figure, and he’s bland here. At this point in his life, Livia, his wife, is trying to poison him, and he’s really worried about his legacy. That’s clear from the text, but Gaiman could have brought out the tension more. Again, it’s not a failure by any means, but it doesn’t shine to me by comparison with some of the other stories.
Speaking of which, we finally get the backstory of “Calliope” from a couple of volumes back, as well as a continuation of Morpheus’ maturity as a father. “The Song Of Orpheus” is, on the face of it, a simple retelling of the Greek myth with the Endless thrown in to provide continuity. But thematically, we’re seeing a lot of stuff that has already appeared in earlier volumes (or shows up in the other stories of Fables & Reflections). Rule-following has been an ongoing issue for many of the tragic figures of Sandman. Eve points out Morpheus’ obsession with rules in “The Parliament Of Rooks,” and Orpheus’ decision to cheat death—to break the rules of life—is not so different from Roderick Burgess’ actions in Preludes & Nocturnes. “Orpheus” is a classic story, but it also fits right into Gaiman’s wheelhouse of doomed characters.
Would you agree? And what about “Thermidor?” I’m interested in your opinion of it, both on its own and as a companion piece to “Orpheus.”
Noel: I find “The Song Of Orpheus” so heartbreakingly beautiful that it’s hard for me to compare it to “Thermidor,” which is a very different, much more harrowing kind of story. It’s odd how something as simple as adding the Endless to an existing myth—and otherwise changing it very little—can bring new resonance. The moment where Orpheus looks back and sees Eurydice disappearing takes a famous image that’s been repeated in multiple mythologies, and ties it to The Sandman’s overall preoccupation with rules and choices in ways that are deeply moving. It’s especially meaningful coming before Brief Lives, which is about how people who live a very long time aren’t so different from those of us who are quickly here and gone. Everyone gets a lifetime, as Death will soon say. And it’s never long enough—because when the people we love are gone, they’re just gone.
For me, “Thermidor” is connected less to “The Song Of Orpheus” than to the rest of the Distant Mirrors cycle. I like “August” a lot more than you do, because even though it’s a little melodramatic with its big, predictable reveal that Augustus was molested by his hero, Uncle Julius, it fits well with “Thermidor,” “Three Septembers And A January,” and “Ramadan,” all of which are about the plans and pretensions of rulers. Orpheus’ appearance in “Thermidor” is a reminder that the classical persists, no matter how “modern” some try to be. It recalls that moment in “Men Of Good Fortune” where Morpheus tells Hob Gadling that all the changes to Shakespeare’s plays will be changed back eventually. The name “Thermidor” refers to a new month-name invented by the French revolutionaries, but like the revolutionaries themselves—soon to be disembodied heads, Orpheus-style—the new name doesn’t last.
My favorite of the Distant Mirrors stories is “Three Septembers And A January,” not just because it’s one of the rare “sweet” stories in the Sandman universe—celebrating the deluded instead of tormenting them—but because it fits another of the larger Sandman themes, having to do with how the universe is continually created in collaboration between gods, mortals, and the Endless. Emperor Norton imagines his own reality, and many of his San Francisco neighbors decide to honor it, because it’s such a benign, whimsical fantasy. Norton—with the help of Mark Twain and others—spins a fun little dream into a legend.
“August” also conveys this theme, in that it’s about Augustus secretly unmaking what his creepy uncle built. (And yet Augustus’ month-name lives on, as does Julius’. Such are the ways of humankind, capriciously choosing what to honor and remember.) This theme looms large in “Ramadan,” too—a story I also like a great deal.
But since you said it’s your favorite, Noah, I’ll give you first crack at it. What do you love about “Ramadan?”
Noah: I’m a bit of a sucker for Orientalism, so I would have probably enjoyed “Ramadan” regardless of its ending. It’s enjoyable to see Gaiman leave his typical Western mindset to show Morpheus exists in Afro-Asiatic cultures. (He already did this once with “Tales In The Sand” from The Doll’s House, a series highlight). But the last two pages so dramatically change the focus that I was surprised, elated, and depressed by the ending. The panels of the little boy traveling through the wreckage of Baghdad are a sucker punch to the gut, but also a beautiful reminder of what dreams can do for us. Like “A Dream Of A Thousand Cats” from Dream Country, “Ramadan” extols dreams’ power to provide hope. In a sense, the story has the same moral as “Fear Of Falling,” but instead of hitting us over the head with it, Gaiman uses the strange mirth of a crippled boy in a war zone as he thinks about what his city once was. It’s heartbreaking, but still hopeful.
Writing these columns over the past month has shown me how much I’ve missed while reading, and I’ve been glad you, Genevieve, Tasha, and Oliver have been around to point things out to me. I love your point about “the plans and pretensions of rulers.” It makes me appreciate “August” more, but it’s also a perfect way to describe Harun Al-Raschid’s story. Raschid, like Orpheus or Burgess, is looking for a way to cheat death. By having his city live forever, he keeps his name alive for eternity. He is aware that all things must pass, as he points out in his talk with Morpheus, but nonetheless, he wants to change the rules for his particular situation. It’s the human condition to want to live on, whether through works or actual immortality, and it turns out Middle Eastern Caliphs are no different than lowly Brits during the Elizabethan age (except that Hob actually gets what he wants). Change frightens us, and we typically try to find ways to stop it, instead of adapting.
Although I knew there was no way Morpheus’ deal would go well for Raschid, I was still saddened at the end of “Ramadan.” He’s not an evil character getting his comeuppance, he’s a thoughtful, heroic man searching for some way to preserve the beautiful city he created, and isn’t that laudable? Raschid’s dream was to create a city of wonders that would last forever, and he loses that dream in an effort to bring it into being. It’s the expected outcome, but those panels with him ogling his former city, now trapped in a bottle, are heartbreaking nonetheless. It doesn’t help that Morpheus has a smirk on his face as he travels back to the Dreaming. The time jump to a Baghdad ravaged by war hammers this point home. The only thing that remains is the dream of what once was, and hopefully that can provide some comfort to Baghdad’s current denizens.
A quick aside before moving on: “The plans and pretensions of rulers” is a pretty good way to describe the character arc for Morpheus as well. Even though we’ve seen him in a position of power throughout these stories, it is good to remind ourselves that he’s a king like Augustus or Raschid, and unless he adapts, he’ll lose that power.
But aside from rulers and their plans, what about the other stories in Fables & Reflections? You mentioned in the intro that the book was originally separated out into two parts, Distant Mirrors and Convergence. I feel like we’ve gotten a good sense of how the stories in Distant Mirrors relate to one another, but what’s your take on those about storytelling and the Dreaming? Does Gaiman do a good job expanding the world he’s created for us in the first five volumes?
Noel: I’d say so, particularly in the introduction of the “soft places” in “Soft Places,” which will become more significant in the upcoming World’s End arc. (In fact, the stories-within-stories of World’s End are almost an extension of Convergence, only with a framing device. But that’s a subject for next year’s Back Issues, when our Sandman read-through resumes.) That story also serves, aptly, as a meeting point between the themes of Distant Mirrors and the themes of Convergence. Marco Polo isn’t a world leader like Augustus and Raschid, but he’s met plenty of them—or will, given that he’s still a teenager in “Soft Places”—and he knows about their grand, sometimes preposterous ambitions. And given how much of Distant Mirrors is about humans and supernatural beings creating the universe together, it’s significant that “Soft Places” takes place in one of those nebulous locations where dreaming and waking coexist, and time is fluid. That’s how Marco Polo can meet a Morpheus who’s just been freed from captivity and meet a Fiddler’s Green who’s complaining about Morpheus’ new girlfriend. “Soft Places” is like Sandman in miniature: a spot for historical figures, fantasies, and abstract concepts to gather.
They gather again in “The Parliament Of Rooks,” when dreaming baby Daniel Hall wanders into the House Of Secrets, and hears Cain tell a story about birds who gather in a field and sometimes peck one of their own to death, Eve tell a story about Adam’s three wives, and Abel tell a story about how he and Cain ended up in The Dreaming. This is one of the most curious issues in the whole run of Sandman, since it’s simultaneously so fraught with potential meaning and coy about what that meaning might be. Why does Adam’s strong-willed wife Lilith look exactly like Eve? Does Abel’s story imply that he brought Cain to the Dreaming against his brother’s will? Is Cain’s story a warning to Abel to watch what he says? (Not that it would matter, since Cain would end up killing Abel again no matter what his brother said.) “The Parliament Of Rooks” almost feels like a few loosely sketched Gaiman story ideas stitched together, but for me, it’s all the more enjoyable for its openness. Plus, it spotlights Daniel Hall, who will turn out to be very important to the arc of the entire series.
The same could be said of Fables & Reflections as a whole, I suppose: that it’s just a bunch of story ideas, shoehorned between the main Sandman narrative. But I like how Gaiman uses his shorter pieces to doodle in the margins of his big story, and to draw attention to some elements that might otherwise get overlooked.
What do you think, Noah? Is this book cohesive, or is it just the equivalent of the “deleted scenes” on a DVD?
Noah: To use another analogy, the stories remind me of bottle episodes in a TV series. Bottle episodes are usually confined to a particular setting, hence the name, but they also can be breaks in the action to expand the world of their series. Most of these stories are pretty static, setting-wise, and they definitely give us a better sense of The Dreaming, reality, and how the two interact. I’m not sure I’d call Fables & Reflections cohesive, but, like you, I don’t see that as a failing. There are obvious themes that link many of the texts (rule-following, leadership, storytelling, the need for escape), and none of the stories here seem out of place or superfluous to the world Gaiman has created, which is what I think of when considering deleted scenes.
What strikes me about Fables & Reflections as a whole is where it and Dream Country fall in the series’ run. Like you, I bristle at the idea of saying these stories are “shoehorned” into the series. Gaiman has consistently shown a certain logic in crafting his narratives, and the placement of these stories is no exception. They’re meant to frame the larger setpieces, to better arm us as we delve into the complications of A Game Of You or Brief Lives. Like any good bottle episode, these stories focus on a particular aspect of characters in The Dreaming, so that when they reappear later on, we’re on firm footing as to why they act the way they do. Even pieces like “Fear Of Falling” or “A Dream Of A Thousand Cats,” which seem simply there for fun, give us a better sense of how Morpheus sees the creatures who visit his domain every night. If these stories all appeared at the end of Sandman’s run, or between some of the later volumes, they wouldn’t have the same effect. For example, knowing about Orpheus from “Calliope” made his return all the more powerful in “Thermidor.” It’s clear that Gaiman is not only a gifted writer, but also one with great forethought and insight into the construction of exactly how the series should play out.
Next time: Back Issues is on hiatus as we enter our busy, content-packed holiday best-of season. The column will return January 15, 2013, with Oliver and Noel analyzing the cosmic road trip of Brief Lives.