“If you leaf through the series, you’ll find either an image of a heart or the word HEART in virtually every issue. Hearts are a major part of what Sandman is about.” -Neil Gaiman (interview with Hy Bender)
Gaiman’s words should be kept in mind as one continues to read what is essentially a horror comic. As we peer into the abyss, Gaiman makes sure we know we are not alone. I think Gaiman always offers hope through the possibility of human connection, often established through the power of telling stories. Keep these words of hope in mind as I summarize some stories that sound solely horrific; my overview can be misleading since I’m trying not to give spoilers. Assume the missing spoilers are often the essential moments in the stories when Gaiman surprises us with hope. In other words, he surprises us with his own heart, the heart of a storyteller.
Gaiman has made two key comments about Sandman: The Doll’s House: First, he says that he was training his readers to be prepared for any type of story that he might want to write and put into this multi-genre series, even stories that hardly involve the main character, Sandman. Secondly, he says that this collection of seemingly unrelated stories is actually unified through the focus on the relationships between men and women and the different stories they tell. I must warn, however, Gaiman does not have men coming out looking very good in their relationships with women. He’s not didactic or simplistic and many good men are shown, but the masculine figure, the masculine drive — more often than not represented by Dream himself — is seen as selfish and uncaring.
Before the first issue in the collection (#9), there’s a summary of the first story arc. It should be read carefully because, surprisingly, it tells more of the story than we get in the first volume. There’s a reasonable explanation for this extensive summary, the only one of its kind in any of the collections: The Doll’s House was actually the FIRST collection to be published! The practice of publishing story arcs automatically as trades was not common at the time, and since DC believed issues 8-16 were Gaiman’s strongest, they published those first. Therefore, they requested that Gaiman summarize THE SANDMAN story thus far before readers began issue 8. Note that current collections include 9-16 instead of 8-16. Since The Doll’s House sold so well and readers started buying the monthly issues more regularly, DC decided to then publish what are now volumes 1 and 3 in the same month. After volume 3, however, they proceeded to publish everything Gaiman wrote. Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN and Moore’s Watchmen are probably the main reasons DC and Marvel started collecting trades on a regular basis. This shift to trades also meant that entire comic book arcs were becoming accessible to buyers in regular book stores.
Issue 9, “Tales in the Sand,” immediately announces to the audience that they can no longer anticipate what Gaiman will do. In my last review, I discussed issue 8 — the story that focused on Dream and Death. It shifted the mood of THE SANDMAN to a quiet series of exchanges between brother and sister; however, issue 9 shifts genres completely: The issue is a beautifully illustrated and written African fable. Gaiman’s voice sounds very different here compared to the previous stories, and one feels as if this story were a true African fable that Gaiman found somewhere. Gaiman says he had been reading many African fables at the time, and his ability to mimic with respect and with a feel for a genuinely different culture is stunning. As the story starts, we witness two figures walking across the sand: As part of his coming-of-age, a male tribe member who has just reached adulthood is taken out into the desert alone by an older member who tells a ritual story about a great Queen from their tribe’s past. This queen, Nada, encountered Dream ages and ages ago. We are told of their relationship and its impact on the Queen’s city and people. Since we met Nada briefly in the previous volume, we now start to see how all these stories that Gaiman is writing come together.
“Tales in the Sand” is my second favorite story in this volume. One of the most interesting aspects of the story — like many in SANDMAN — is the way Gaiman uses it to hint at what isn’t said. What isn’t said in this story is important, because Gaiman is placing us within a culture using an oral tradition. This story is not to be written down. Part of its magic is in the telling, the connection between storyteller and listener, both members of the tribe. Each man hears the story once, and if he lives long enough, tells it once. That’s it. But what isn’t heard? The women’s side of the story. Gaiman greatly emphasizes his desire for us to think about this missing version of the story as told by women. He ends issue #9 with these words that make clear his interest in the difference between the stories told by men and the stories told by women:
“There is another version of the Tale. That is the tale the women tell each other, in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn. And in that version of the tale perhaps things happened differently. But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.”
I think that these words told to us by the narrator of THE SANDMAN series are crucial because they suggest that our narrator, like Dream, is male since he doesn’t know what the women’s story is. And as we’ve seen with Death’s chastising of Dream in issue #8, men often need to see the world through the eyes of a woman. The reasons are numerous, as Gaiman will suggest, depending on the story.
“The Doll’s House” is a major story arc that comprises the rest of the volume except one other story, my favorite, about two significant men Dream meets. The major story of “The Doll’s House,” however, is focused on women — three women in fact. The oldest of the three is Unity Kinkaid. Her daughter is Miranda Walker, and Miranda’s daughter is Rose. Unity is a character introduced to us in issue #1 as one of four people across the globe who were given to us as examples of the variety of experiences undergone by people who were touched in some way by the sleepy sickness when Dream was captured. In other words, Unity (yes, all the names have significance!) has a special connection with Dream, and her granddaughter Rose is the main character of this story arc. All these influences resonate throughout the series. Consider issue #1 the dropping of a stone in a still pool: The ripples will eventually travel outward across the pool of the entire series.
Our accidental hero, Rose, is called a vortex of the dreaming (I don’t want to explain too much what all that entails), but as a result, she finds drawn to her four creatures of the dreaming that went wandering while the Sandman was imprisoned. To track them down, Dream and his Poe-inspired raven, Matthew, merely keep tabs on Rose in order to find and return to their rightful places the four missing inhabitants of the Dreaming.
Issue ten, “The Doll’s House,” starts with Desire calling on Despair as we start to better understand the delightfully dysfunctional family that is The Endless. This issue also sees Unity reunited with her daughter and granddaughter for the first time. Rose wanders around, first looking at an actual Dollhouse, and secondly, running into three graces/witches that Dream consulted in volume one (the three-in-one witches mirror the three mortal women of the story). Dream also finds out which specific creatures have left his realm.
Another, larger Doll’s house, makes its appearance on the first page of issue eleven, “Moving In.” Rose temporarily rents a room in a house full of strange characters as she seeks out her missing younger brother Jed. Among the people living there are even a couple who call themselves Ken and Barbie (perfect inhabitants of a dollhouse), as well a strange man named Gilbert who looks oddly like the great writer G. K. Chesterton. We also start finding out what three of the four missing characters are up to: The Corinthian, a nightmare created by Dream, is on his way to a serial killer convention, which ends up being one of the most disturbing and funny ideas in the series since Gaimain uses it as a parody of comic book conventions. Below this paragraph is a picture of The Corinthian registering for the amusingly titled “Cereal Convention.” He is meeting a big fan of his, another serial killer, named Fun Land, who in the original submitted draft of this issue actually wore Mickey Mouse ears and talked about going to Disney Land to kill kids! DC obviously would not publish that version of the comic; surprisingly, however, the final changes are very minor. It’s still obvious that this killer is talking about Disney Land. I am surprised DC let it go to press even with the eventual changes.Two other characters who have escaped the dreaming are Brute and Glob, an odd team, who have captured the ghost of the superhero Sandman created by Simon and Kirby in the 1970s. All three are involved with Jed in what becomes a hysterical parody of Simon and Kirby’s Sandman series, which had Brute, Glob, and Jed as regular characters. I’ve already mentioned in this review the fourth creature missing from the Dreaming, but I won’t tell you which one he/she is — the fun is in guessing.
Issues twelve and fourteen through sixteen play out the rest of the plot involving Rose’s role as the vortex and the way it intersects with Dream’s dealings with the four missing creatures, each of whom is dealt with in a different way. For example, one is dealt with harshly, and we are satisfied because he is a nightmare on earth; and another is dealt with kindly, and we are touched — this arc ends appropriately on the kindlier tale, as we would expect, since Gaiman has a way of ending his nightmares with pleasant dreams. However, the dreams are hard-earned. Gaiman doesn’t sugar-coat his endings.
In the end, sacrifices must be made, but substitutes are always possible: I think Gaiman is at his greatest in alluding to the sacrifices that recur in story after story on the level of myth and in our daily lives, since myth grows out of our daily lives. For example, on a grand level, Christ is a final sacrifice, but in the everyday world, a parent sacrifices for a child daily. The story of sacrifice continues and is a story central to the meaning we give to our lives. Note also in the key final moment to which I vaguely refer, the male Dream has to have the meaning of stories, the possibility of stories, explained to him by a woman. Dream says, “I do not understand.” And the woman responds, “Of course you don’t. You’re obviously not very bright, but I shouldn’t let it bother you.” She says it kindly and with a smile on her face, sounding much like Death talking to her younger brother whom she loves very much, and returning us to Gaiman’s interest in the interactions between men and women.
The book ends with two scenes: One is in the waking world, with those who live, those who wake from the Dreaming, having to deal with the reality of their survival and what it cost. Secondly, in the realm of The Endless, the book ends by letting us see how Sandman deals with his sister Desire, the central sibling other than Dream in this particular story arc. Desire is crucial to every issue of this volume.
This aspect of the volume is somewhat mind-bogling to me, and it’s an excellent example of the reason why I love THE SANDMAN as much as I do. I mentioned that the entire volume can be read as a series of stories about the differences between the stories told by men and stories told by women. But the book can also be read as about the Heart, which is related to, but not identical to, Desire. So, one could go back and read the volume focusing solely on the nature of Desire and the role it/she plays in the story, particularly since we are told that the personified Desire was meddling in the affairs of Dream. However, we can also read the book in terms of Dreams, as every volume can, or in terms of Nightmares, or myth, or criminal behavior, or . . . . Gaiman writes stories that can be read on multiple levels, and they all intersect in some sort of Escher-like design (like one might find in a dream, perhaps).
All of the above should be evidence of Gaiman’s brilliance, but keep in mind I haven’t yet even mentioned my favorite issue in the arc! Issue thirteen is a much-praised issue: “Men of Good Fortune.” It has a simple premise: How would a man react if granted immortality? The story opens in a bar with Death and Dream observing the people, including this guy Chaucer who is having a pint and discussing poetry. But their attention is focused on this one guy named Robert Gadling — “Hob” — who says, “Nobody has to die.” Dream and Death come to a silent agreement to let Hob live. Dream tells Hob he’ll see him in 100 years time in that exact place and every 100 years after.
That’s the premise, and though I’ve told it to you, I haven’t told you anything important in the story, because, as always, it’s the way in which Gaiman tells his tales that is important. The story will do several things: It tells us something, or several
things, about human nature and the passage of time. Gaiman also uses the story to reveal more about the character of Dream, since the series is still early in its development. Finally, the story gives us a chance to watch Dream meet the struggling writer Will Shaxberd. We see Dream and Will walk off to have a discussion, but we must wait for a future issue to find out what they discussed (In Volume Three, I’ll discuss one of the greatest issues in the entire SANDMAN series, an issue about Shakespeare and one of his greatest plays). This issue about Hob is my favorite one in this volume because of it gets one to think about mortality and if it would really be a gift to live forever. I think some people would like it, and others would not find the gift to be a gift at all. Gaiman doesn’t tell us which he thinks it is or should be — he gets us to think about it for ourselves.
Perhaps that is the true genius of THE SANDMAN — by contemplating the Dreaming and The Endless and others that are immortal, Gaiman gets us to think about how we give meaning to our all-too-short mortal lives. In the end, as Gaiman knows well, we find meaning through the stories we read and hear and the stories we tell.