Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. VI — Fables & Reflections
It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 6 of 10.)
The second of Sandman’s three short story collections, Fables and Reflections, is arguably the most eclectic of the bunch. It may not be the most instantly accessible (that one is Dream Country), or the most focused (World’s End), but it’s probably the most essential.
As in Season of Mists, the nature of wielding responsibility — whether over people, things, or cultures — is a prominent theme here. Rulers grapple with sustaining a culture’s golden age. A troubled man takes responsibility for the fractured remnants of his life and finds solace in insanity. Emperors are pained by the decisions they cannot avoid. And ultimately, many of these people must face the consequences of their choices: a theme utterly essential to Sandman as a whole.
This is best displayed in the story “Orpheus,” an unusual standalone short story in that it’s vital to the series-spanning story arc. “Orpheus” transforms the Greek myth into a Sandman story: Here, Orpheus is Dream’s son, and his tragic mistake — when trying to lead his deceased bride out of the Underworld, he looks upon her before it is permitted, thus losing her forever — is underscored by the involvement of the Endless. In seeking to rejoin his love, Orpheus is given eternal life, yet this is a curse, not a blessing; when he’s torn to shreds by vile creatures seeking revenge upon him for a slight, his head remains very much alive.
Most tragic of all is Dream’s treatment of his son. As ever, Dream is distant and cold, seemingly incapable of real love or compassion. (His own brother will comment on this lack of empathy and emotion in Brief Lives.) Disappointed in the choices his son has made and suffering from a hurt pride, Dream chooses to walk away from him forever. It’s not just a heartless act, it’s yet another moment during which Dream comes across like a petulant child, his wounded ego driving him down an ill-chosen path. Ultimately, these events have a deep, deep impact on the series. (Such a deep impact, this story arguably ought to have been collected in Brief Lives instead of here.)
If the most important story to the Sandman narrative here is “Orpheus,” the most impressive tale in this collection is certainly “Ramadan,” which showcases a gloriously luxuriant city in the midst of its golden age. The presentation, the art, the writing, even the unusual way it was created: all come together for one of the most respected single issues of the series. “Ramadan” is interesting not just because of its poetic beauty — and it has that in spades — but also for the way in which it turns the tables on the usual dream vs. reality fable. Rather than dream becoming reality, reality becomes dream. Wonderful.
The best of the book, though, is the charming “Three Septembers and a January,” which looks at the real life Joshua Norton through the eyes of the Endless. Norton was an insane, albeit harmless, 19th-century San Franciscan who thought he was the Emperor of the United States, and people around town loved him. Here, Dream, Desire, and Despair have a contest of sorts over which of them holds dominion over Norton. The story, equal parts cute and tragic, also manages to be an inspiring look at how we shape our own reality. Happiness and contentment come from within; our hearts, our fates, our hopes and dreams are in our own hands. They are driven by modesty, and by acceptance, and by understanding that greed, desire, and consumption are not the road to inner peace. A simple message — dare I say, quaint — yet handled with warmth and humanity, and yet another example of the multitudinous creative directions this series takes.
Other tales are equally all over the map. We visit werewolves in love, meet a young Marco Polo lost in the desert, and spend more time with Orpheus, who’s being protected by an ancestor of John Constantine (of Hellblazer fame). “August,” one of my favorites in this collection, takes a look at the nature of power and responsibility through the eyes of two men: a dwarf and Emperor Augustus of Rome.
Dream and the Endless are minor players in this volume, mere apparitions that drift in and back out again. Like passing shadows or, more appropriately, dreams. They are not the focus of these tales; rather, they provide the framework around which Gaiman explores the world inside our head, in these stories that examine universal truths and ask very human questions.
Collections like this one illustrate what a shrewd decision it was to conceive and structure Sandmanin such a way that the series could go anywhere and be anything. Gaiman himself called this the best choice he could possibly have made, and that’s the truth. While my heart resides most closely with the saga’s central tale, these short stories are each gems of their own — jewels in the crown that is one of comics’ greatest creative achievements.
Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”
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