Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Four independent short interludes following The Doll's House. As a bonus, the volume also includes the script of Calliope.

Four stories of Dream
Muse, cat, playwright, heroine
But Death's in the last

Full review: Dream Country is the third volume in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, and the first that is devoid of a unifying story arc. Instead, it contains four stories - Calliope, A Dream of a Thousand Cats, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Facade - only related by their common association with the Endless. Dream himself does not even appear in Facade, which features his older sister Death comforting a distraught failed and retired super-heroine. Though the stories are unrelated to one another, and not really explicitly related to any of the larger story arcs that are contained in several of the other volumes each story, even the story in which he does not appear, provides insight into Dream as a character.

The first story in the volume is Calliope, named after the central character, one of the nine muses of Greek mythology. The story is a harsh and brutal one as Calliope is not free, but rather has been captured and in the course of the story is transferred as a possession from one captor to another. Her new owner, the primary antagonist in the story, is an author out of ideas who keeps his beautiful muse imprisoned and repeatedly rapes her (literally) for inspiration. The story of Calliope's imprisonment to satisfy the human hunger for power and riches parallels Dream's own imprisonment at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes (read review), and Calliope's call to the weird sisters ties Dream's reality more closely into the Greek mythology that was hinted at in the opening volume of the series (if there are any doubts, Dream's alternate name of Morpheus, used frequently in the books, should dispel them). But the key element to the story is that Dream becomes involved at all - though it is established that he and Calliope had a prior relationship that ended badly, he comes to her aid nonetheless. Further, when Dream secures Calliope's freedom, he does not continue to torment her former captor, but instead shows clemency. In short, the story shows that Dream, despite being a being of endless existence, has been changed by his own captivity and its aftermath, and has become a more merciful being as a result. Despite his forbidding presence as the master of nightmares, Dream is, it seems, a less frightening entity post-capture than he may have been before.

The second story, A Dream of a Thousand Cats is, despite featuring a cute white kitten at its center, the most disturbing of the stories in the volume. Perhaps it is the fact that it features the cute white kitten, and the dreams that even such cute cats may have, that gives the story its impact. The story once again highlights human cruelty to those around us, in this case, human indifference to their pet cat's progeny leads to a dream of revenge that eventually leads to Morpheus, this time in the shape of a massive black cat. Morpheus tells a tale of a world in which cats ruled over humans, and which was eradicated by the dreams of humanity, leading to the realization that if enough cats dreamed the world back to the way it was, they would not longer be pets, but rather masters. This tale gives substance to Dream's other name Oneiros, or "He Who Shapes" which crops up several times in the volume - in Gaiman's world Dreams shape reality. In the end, the cute kitten dreams kitten dreams as his oblivious hosts comment on how cute he looks while having what seems to them to be an innocent hunting dream. But the reader knows the truth, and knowing the truth, the kitten seems not cute, but sinister, a transformation that it seems only Neil Gaiman could pull off.

The third story in the volume is probably the most famous of all the stories in The Sandman, the World Fantasy Award winning A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Shakespeare repays his end of a deal he made with Dream by presenting the performance of the first of two plays commissioned by the Sandman for an audience of creatures from the faerie realm. Though much heralded as the only comic book to win a World Fantasy Award (for short fiction in 1991), I am somewhat lukewarm about the story. Though important for establishing Dream as a character allied with, or at least conversant with the creatures of faerie such as Puck, Titania, and Oberon, and interestingly self-referential as creatures from the fairy realm watch human actors portraying themselves in a story that is like, but not completely true to reality, the story seems fairly predictable and pedestrian compared with the more original flights of fancy that make up the other stories in the series. Because of this circular quality, the entire story has dream-like elements behind dream-like elements that fold in on one another. As an English writer, it seems inevitable that Gaiman would have to include at least one Shakespeare homage in his work, but even though he brings out the inherent wildness and danger that was traditionally associated with characters of the faerie-realm that Shakespeare expunged from his version, the constraints of Shakespeare's vision serve to also constrain Gaiman. Though it is still a strong story, it is not, in my opinion, anywhere close to being the best of the Sandman stories.

The final story in the volume is Facade, and is a story in which Dream does not even appear. The prime character in the story is a lonely, scared, and desperate retired super-heroine (who fans of more obscure DC super-heroes will recognize as "Element Girl") living alone on a tiny stipend, whose only human contact is apparently a rare phone call from her agency contact who makes sure her pension checks are sent to her. She is unexpectedly called by an old friend and asked to meet for lunch, and it soon becomes clear that our retired protagonist, who goes by the name "Rainie", is not scared because she fears for her safety, but fears she will never be able to have human contact again due to the grotesque side effects of the transformation that changed her from a regular human into a super-powered being. This story element almost off-handedly calls into question the light-hearted nature of most super-hero comics by showing the terrible price that many of the costumed crusaders would pay for their prowess, and how they can lose their own humanity in the process. Soon she is visited by Death, who happened to be passing by, and the true terror of Rainie's existence comes to light - that she cannot even seem to seek the solace of death to escape an existence that has become repugnant to her. And in this exchange with Death, we learn something about Death, and about Dream at the same time: Death is merciful, even when she does not have to be, in a way that probably would not even occur to Dream unless someone suggested it to him. After all, in Calliope, Dream had to be asked to release Ric Madoc from the terrible curse he had laid upon him, and even releasing him from it proved to be no solace. This continues the theme set up in Preludes and Nocturnes and which continues to run through the series: Dream is terrible, and Death simply is.

The final section of this volume is the script for Calliope. As Gaiman explains, when he was starting out, he didn't know how to write a script for a comic book, and had to ask how it was done, eventually posing the question to comics legend Alan Moore. In what seems to be a measure of thankfulness, Gaiman includes the script to Calliope as an example for others so that they can see one way that it can be done. Gaiman is careful to note that this is not the only way to present a script for a comic book, nor is it the only way he has written scripts. It is, as he says, merely the way that Calliope was scripted. It is fairly interesting, with a handful of notes from Gaiman (that are almost illegible at times), and Kelley Jones, who was the artist who drew the issue. Since the reader will have already read the issue, there's nothing really new here, but it is a somewhat interesting look at how comics are put together.

Although Dream Country does not contain a single story arc, the individual stories are a much needed pause in the action of the series, allowing for some interesting character development. As a member of the Endless, time essentially has no meaning for Dream, and thus the stories can (and do) jump around to where it is most convenient to provide a clear view on Dream's character. But time does have meaning for the reader, and providing this interlude for the reader to get a stronger grip on exactly who Dream and Death are and a better picture of how they fit into the larger world seems almost necessary. Making this brief pause in the larger story work is the fact that each of these individual smaller stories are quite good on their own, which adds up to a strong volume that should leave the reader both satisfied by the material within it and looking forward with anticipation to the next installment in the series.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 3: Season of Mists

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1 comment:

  1. I've been reading my way through the Sandman series as well. I recently read Vol. 4 and quite enjoyed it. Hoping to move onto Vol. 5 sometime before spring starts.

    Saw this via the Graphic Novels Reading Challenge.