Horror, Tragedy & Revenge: Vertigo’s THE SANDMAN

“What does it mean to be king?” is what writer Neil Gaiman initially asked us all when he introduced his epic tale THE SANDMAN. The critically acclaimed Vertigo-printed stories utilize horror, tragedy, love and revenge, as we follow the adventures of the “Lord of Dreams” himself, adjusting to a universe of endless realms and possibilities. What makes this story so compelling is its examination of the concept of dreams in two perspectives: the visions in the minds during sleep, and the desires within us all. These stories explore the power of dreams, how they consume our thoughts, and ultimately the cost of achieving them. Throughout history, there have been instances where individuals have reached great success, only to suffer from the weight of reality.

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When the melancholic Dream aka “Morpheus” is first introduced, he has been held prisoner by an occult for 70 years, with his mystical items stolen from him. This leads to a world of sleep and nightmare related incidents that only he could remedy. His desire for freedom led to him finally escaping, but he finds that his abductor is dead, and in anger he punishes his abductor’s son with a curse of endless nightmares. His quest isn’t over, as he learns that his ruby, which holds most of his powers, has been stolen. He travels through realms, battles demons in Hell, meets John Constantine and other DC heroes before facing the nefarious Dr. Destiny. Destiny had been using the ruby to control dreams and nightmares, and is obsessed with becoming the ruler of Morpheus’ realm “Dreamworld”. In a mind-bending duel between the two, Destiny destroys the ruby, and Morpheus vanishes. The villain thinks he’s become the “King of Dreams”, but is disappointed that no one is around to applaud him. Destiny’s selfish desire to control dreams leaves him alone and small in the massive realm, until a giant Morpheus holds him in his hand. The now rejuvenated master of dreams sends Destiny to Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, and finds himself more powerful than ever. With his intense and epic mission complete, Morpheus is next seen feeding pigeons. Enter his perky sister Death, expressing her love for her favorite movie “Mary Poppins”, but she notices her brother sulking. At this point, our hero tells his adventures of revenge to his sister, but despite him achieving his goal he laments that he feels “…like nothing”. Throughout the series Morpheus’ primary arrogant and gloomy attitude softens, as years of despair wash away with every new day, but his biggest hurdle is learning to change his old ways, which can be difficult for a billion year-old god.

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This anti-climactic feeling is examined thoroughly in another character: William Shakespeare. The brilliant writer is introduced to readers as a secondary character in a tavern. He expresses to a friend his wish to “give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead”, and naturally Morpheus is curious and bargains with him to do just that. Later, we meet the Playwright again preparing a show of his new play “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, and to the delight of the troupe, they’re performing for the real inhabitants that the play is based on. In the World Fantasy Award winning issue, Morpheus ponders if it was right to make the deal with Shakespeare, as he acknowledges that mortals “only see the prize, their heart’s desire, their dream. But the price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted”. Oberon, the Fairy King, watches the play about himself and turns to Dream citing how the play is a fabrication. Morpheus responds that it doesn’t have to be true because “tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere fats are dust and ashes, and forgot”. The themes of “cost” are seen even clearer with the inclusion of Shakespeare, as he is shown to suffer from isolation on all levels. The Playwright’s success has become so massive that he considers his son Hamnet nothing more than a nuisance, and in return his son confides to a friend that his father “is very distant” citing that he “doesn’t seem like he’s really there anymore,” and he makes stories of what happens around him. Hamnet concludes that he is “less real than any of the characters” in his father’s plays, showing that Shakespeare’s eagerness and focus to succeed at his dream isolates him from his life. In his final appearance, he finishes his play for Morpheus and he himself laments “I watched my life as if it were to happen to someone else” sadly reflecting that he watched his son die, mirroring our protagonist’s confession to Death. The issue of cost is that there is always a price.

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The contrast of the melancholy outlook takes the form of Dream’s brother Destruction, appearing as a large red haired man. He enters making a drastic choice of leaving his responsibilities three hundred years before the series begins, causing conflict between him and his siblings. Destruction’s choice was due to the forthcoming “Age of Reason”, which would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb. He did not want the responsibility, instead finding a passion in highly creative or constructive projects and endeavors, and while he is shown to have little talent, he thoroughly enjoys it. In one issue, the cheerful nomad explains to Morpheus that he and their siblings are lord of opposites: life and death, dreams and reality, destruction and creation, etc. This school of thought presents a viewpoint of embracing the cost as long as you are happy. This is a drastic change from the other two examples, as both characters found their triumphs and dreams as hollow.

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Fitting enough, Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” states that “A dream itself is but a shadow”, something difficult to grasp, but the theme of dreams is only scratching the surface of what THE SANDMAN dives into, as the dark and horror themed stories turn into a fantasy epic with larger than life characters. Its transgressive take on storytelling is philosophical at times, engaging the reader with questions and examinations of life and art. Comic historian Les Daniels referrers to Gaiman’s stories as an astonishing mixture of genres “that comic books had never seen before”, and having an influence on the graphic novel medium since its inception.

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