Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 160 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy/historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dream Country is, for my money, where the Sandman series goes from good to genius.

The third volume isn’t an arc, but rather a series of one-shots. These one-shots beautifully illustrate the real advantage of the graphic novel medium — the freedom to take these side tracks, which are linked thematically, perhaps tangentially tied in to the main story, by the thinnest of threads, but which mostly just flesh out the author’s world. Gaiman explores themes, indulges in experiments, and it’s gorgeous.

The first story, “Calliope”, explores a captured muse. Calliope, a bonafide Greek remnant, was caught decades ago by a writer, enslaved, and forced to inspire him to greatness. But the man is old now, soon to die, and so he sells his muse to a Richard Madoc, a young man plagued by writer’s block. He’s written one great book, and his publishers are hounding him for a sequel he doesn’t have — until he trades a trichinobezoar for Calliope. Her suffering is palpable and harrowing; she appears nude, in a way (as Gaiman indicates in the script, which is included at the back of this volume) that is anything but titillating, and when Madoc rapes her “on a musty camp bed,” it’s profoundly uncomfortable for the reader, because we’ve become, somehow, complicit in his crime. As the story progresses, Madoc becomes, of course, fabulously successful — and Calliope, profoundly miserable, calls out first to the Fates, then to Morpheus, who we learn was once her lover. This is the point where the story intersects with the main plot, though we don’t yet know just how much it will — but the first hint is here, where Morpheus helps her to freedom, taking pity now where once he might not have, softened to her plight by his own recent captivity. I like “Calliope” because it’s an interesting twist on a muse story, and it attacks the question, terrifyingly present in so many writers’ hearts, about just how far we would go for success — not just for the fame and money, but for that glorious feeling of knowing what you’ve created is right. Morpheus’s punishment is apt: first he floods Madoc’s head with stories, too many stories, the blessing turned into a curse. Then, when Calliope asks that Madoc be shown mercy, Morpheus withdraws everything — Madoc ends as he began, with no ideas at all.

The second story, “Dream of a Thousand Cats”, is interesting in large part for the artwork. A small kitten goes out in the middle of the night to listen to a traveling evangelist Siamese tell a story. After her owners callously drowned kittens she bore to a stray tomcat, she begged for justice, and during a dream, traveled through a wasteland to see the Dream Lord — Morpheus again, but who here takes the form of a giant black cat (intimating that Morpheus’s form depends, in large part, upon the viewer). He tells her (and here we see the classic frame structure used quite well) that once upon a time, cats ruled the world, and humans were their playthings, until one day a prophetic human got all mankind to dream the same dream — a dream that changed the world, not just into what it is today, but so that it had always been that way. The Siamese is now traveling the world trying to accomplish the same goal, to get as many cats as she can to dream the same dream and turn things back. The story is simple, if elegantly woven, but as I said, what I love here is the artwork. The artist of this story really knows cats, the difference in build between breeds and ages and lifestyles, the expression in the faces.

The third story in the collection isn’t just my favourite in this volume, it’s one of my favourites overall. If I ever get the chance to get Neil Gaiman to sign something for me, it’ll be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

One of my grad school professors, and now my professional mentor, has a great lecture about Shakespeare’s Dream. He talks about its flawless construction, how it opens up and up, then narrows back down again, layering fantasy and reality together. Our players sleep, dream, wake — and then enter the theatrical world, a different kind of dream, and at the very end, Puck releases us all from the impossibility we so willingly bought into for two hours’ time. It’s a thing of beauty, and Gaiman builds on this structure gorgeously. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which, incidentally, was the first comic book to win a World Fantasy Award), we return to the bargain that Will made with the Dream Lord, and learn its details — in exchange for the power to write the way he does, Shakespeare will write two plays for Morpheus, one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Midsummer isn’t quite at the beginning of his career, but it’s close enough to fudge, and it’s certainly one of his first truly great plays. He wrote it the same year (probably) that he wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, and you can tell that he’s really starting to hit his stride in those three plays — so this narrative makes sense. But Morpheus doesn’t just have him write the play; he wants Shakespeare’s troupe to travel out to the countryside to perform it for a very particular and peculiar audience: the Fae themselves. And so, as the book progresses, the story opens and closes again and again like a blossoming flower, moving from the microcosm of the world of the play, out to the world of the players, alternately bickering about craft matters and trying to contain their astonishment at their audience, to an in-between place, where Titania tempts Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet with promises of glory in her realm, all the way out the entirely Other world of the immortals, where Morpheus converses with Titania and Auberon, and where the lesser fairies show themselves every bit as petty and quarreling as the mortals. They are all echoes of each other, and the framing structure of the play helps crystallize the reflections.

The thing is, I can talk all I want about the structure and the references and the cleverness, but none of that is why I adore that story so much. It’s just magic. There’s something intangible to it that just makes it such a joy to wander through. Every page is a delight, crammed with nuances, details, and clever jokes. Charles Vess illustrates — who else, to do justice to the subject matter? — and his wonderful balance of ethereal grandeur with cheeky whimsy fits the story perfectly. And then there’s the dialogue, the meanderings of truth flitting in and out of the fiction:

MORPHEUS: You have asked me why I asked you back to this plane, to see this entertainment. I… During your stay on this Earth the faerie have afforded me much diversion, and entertainment. Now you have left, for your own haunts. and I would repay you all for the amusement. And more: They shall not forget you. That was important to me: that King Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

AUBERON: We thank you, shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

MORPHEUS: Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

There’s so much brilliant in that little snippet of conversation. First, the idea of the Fae leaving our mortal realm, and taking some of the magic of it with them when they go — perhaps for the better. Our world is less wild, less dangerous now, for certain, but the departure of the Fae is part of the relentless march of Progress, and it leaves something wanting in its wake. Then there’s the statement, which could so well cover the entire series, really: “Things need not have happened to be true.” It’s a guiding principle of my life, really, as I think it is for any writer who really loves the stories she tells — and as it is for children. Stories endure where facts disintegrate, because there’s just something stronger, more sinewy and resilient, about the tale (which Shakespeare knew better than anyone, judging by what he did to the narrative of English history). The magic of this issue is just entrancing, and that’s why it’s one of my favourites.

The last story in the collection is actually the one I don’t at all care for. “Facade” is, I think, a little weak — perhaps because its claustrophobic nature makes it hard for the expansive exploration I so enjoy in the other stories, perhaps because the main character is obviously a reference, pulled from DC stock, but not one I’m familiar with, so it’s hard to make any sort of connections. Urania is a former superhero of some sort, pensioned off now that she’s no longer needed and sort of deteriorating — the government forced her to magically irradiate herself in an Egyptian temple, and the Power of Ra transformed her into Elemental Girl (or something). She’s no longer organic matter; she’s indestructible. And that means she can’t die, even though she wants to. She’s become a reclusive agoraphobe, terrified of revealing what she’s become to anyone. Death shows up and eventually gives her the secret of ending her existence. It’s not much of a story, for my preferences, and it’s the one I always forget is in this collection. I take it that folk of other sensibilities have received it better, though.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, a jewel in an amazing series. The four different explorations of storytelling all come at the overarching themes of the series from different angles, and they all illuminate something different about the nature of dreaming and its relationship to the waking world.

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