Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 3: Dream Country – *
Part One: Can We Return to the Plot, Please?
As you might guess from the rating, I didn’t especially like this book. I’ll admit that my issues with it are partly a matter of personal taste. I’m partial to tight, complex plots where all components are streamlined to serve the story or theme in a unique manner. This series is broken up into two major components — a main plot that follows Dream in the events after he’s captured by cultists, and a series of short stories concerning other events where Dream or the concept of dreams is central to the plot. Some of these short stories feature Dream as a character, but most rely on his participation as a minor figure in the background or a deus ex machina to resolve the other characters’ conflicts.
I use that term more in the traditional sense, by the way, rather than as a complaint about contrived endings. We like to decry the deus ex machina as a failure of narrative — which has some validity given elements of the convention being used as a haphazard fix for issues in bombastic action films — but in doing so, we also often forget that the deus ex machina is a tool. It’s simply used to accomplish a task. Sometimes that task is to enable nihilistic consumerism of sub-par products, but as its name suggests, it’s also often linked to themes in religion. The deus ex machina resolves conflict through the power of an Other, a being so omnipotent and ethereal that even the most complex interconnected issues are just petty squabbles to it. The deus ex machina is often a demonstration of the power of the spiritual Other, its disrupting nature sometimes instigated as a point of artifice or ambiguity within the story to demonstrate faith as more of a fantasy than a reality, as is the case in something like Pan’s Labyrinth or La La Land (although the latter employs its deus ex machina-type event as a dream sequence). The Sandman uses the convention intentionally in an almost literal sense, though whether the series uses it well is debatable.
This book is the first compendium in The Sandman series, following the few isolated short stories scattered in the previous two books. In particular, it features a short story about the Greek muse Calliope being held prisoner by a writer, one about a bunch of cats, a spinoff of one of the previous short stories where Dream invites the mythical beings of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to view the play, and one about an immortal who’s ashamed of her appearance. Dream appears in the first three as a bit player, often at the sidelines like a quest-giving NPC, viewed from a distance that makes him ominous and enigmatic, as he does at the start of the first book. The last short story in this volume features Death in a similar role.
There are several problems with these short stories individually, but the bigger issue is how they work within The Sandman as a framework. Structurally, these stories are meant to diverge from the main plot and play around in a part of the narrative’s world that we wouldn’t otherwise see. You could argue that the entire Sandman series is less of a cohesive narrative and more of a world and mythology established for the purpose of telling thematically-linked stories, the same way superhero comics are often invented for their characters and setups rather than their narrative arcs. I don’t think that’s really the case for The Sandman, though. The’re a clear main story and arc for Dream, and he’s emphasized as such an important figure, not just as a figurehead, but as a nuanced character, that I can’t just dismiss his subplot as a longer, broken-up short story. The chapters that explore his character are structured to bind the series together. The series has a plot outline based on Dream’s character arc.
The short stories, then, are not part of the plot of The Sandman unless they connect directly to Dream’s character arc. This doesn’t mean that they have to be part of the same timeline or even feature him as a character, but they must provide context for his character arc nonetheless, otherwise they’re isolated from everything else in the narrative. Short stories in collections are often isolated and only loosely connected to other stories in the compendium, often by theme or broader universe. I’m not actively opposed to the short stories in The Sandman, nor am I opposed to them being assembled as collections. It’s when short stories irrelevant to the plot of the series as a whole interrupt developments in the narrative and offer no unique context that I start to resent them.
Flashbacks, asides, and spinoff sequences within narratives have well-established frameworks that generally involve a few simple criteria. 1: They depict a story tangential to the broader plot. 2: This story eventually connects to that plot, either by characters or events. 3: They are short, unobtrusive, and relatively infrequent so that they enhance rather than detract from the more important narrative. 4: They’re used to show something the main plot cannot, like events that happen when the protagonist isn’t present, events that happen before the main timeline of the series, fictional stories and parables within the established world, etc. 5: The information they provide is important and contributes to the main plot in a way that compensates for the detraction and additional time necessary to establish the new smaller narrative.
The Sandman short story compendiums fail as asides to the main narrative on points 5, 3, and occasionally even 2. They would work if they were completely separated from the broader narrative, but often they are not. Events are referenced in the main plot, particularly surrounding Calliope and Dream’s son, Orpheus, with the understanding that the audience has read the short stories where these characters appear, or at least Orpheus’ backstory. The short stories provide a glut of information that is interesting on its own and occasionally referenced in Dream’s character narrative, but the problem here is that the references to the short stories are superficial. The short stories rarely inform Dream’s character or condition beyond what the audience could surmise on their own from the main narrative, but the connections to the short stories make the audience feel like they’re missing something crucial because the main narrative tends to jump around a lot. The audience ends up thinking that the short stories contain events that are part of the main plot. Sometimes this is the case, but more often it’s a deception. There are a few moments and characters in the main plot that require understanding of certain short stories, but most of the short stories have little to no relevance to the plot at large. The characters don’t ever appear again, the events are inconsequential, and the only thing that connects them to the main plot is the appearance of Dream, the theme of dreams (which is such a vague theme that it often fails to connect the short stories much at all), and the general aesthetics of the comics.
This issue is especially egregious because it’s the first such compendium, meaning it needs to establish a precedence for future similar issues. What it sets up are only four short stories, none of which builds on plot that we’re familiar with nor sets anything up that we imagine might be important for the future. From the reader’s perspective, the first short story interrupts the main plot to focus on what could be a new character like Rose, then the next one continues to interrupt it with some cats, then the next one sets up a flashback-type sequence that looks like it’ll continue a parallel story featuring Shakespeare (Shakespeare only comes back once more in the series, so it’s not really doing that), then the book throws in a character we’ve never seen before who doesn’t even interact with Dream and barely interacts with any other established character before dying, and then the volume is over. Actually, there’s also a script at the end, but this is just the script for the first short story and it functions like the images and notes in an appendix, so it’s not part of the narrative.
The most cohesive and poignant story is probably the one about cats, which is succinct and paints a dark atmosphere appropriate for the material. However, even it has significant narrative problems, not the least of which is that it hinges on a thousand cats dreaming at once being something unusual. Does the writer have any concept of how many fucking cats there are in the world, or how long cats spend sleeping? It would be harder to get a thousand cats to stay awake simultaneously. Furthermore, the goal of the exercise in rallying so many cats to one cause is based on the premise that cats used to be enormous and eat people, and having a thousand cats dream about this will change the world back to this state. Well, that seems like a rather substantial change for something that, again, should really not be difficult at all. I realize that this concept is probably meant to be more of a metaphor, the story teasing the idea of reality and dreams fluctuating, never as solid or abstract as they seem. The story certainly seems to take it seriously, though. Oddly, this is one of the short stories that comes back in the main plot at least once, referenced in a quasi-sex scene involving Dream turning into a cat person that raises more than a few questions.
Part Two: Maturity and Violence Are Not the Same Thing
The opening story illustrates one of the many shortcomings of this series, and that’s the casual way it addresses violence, especially sexual violence, for little narrative reason. I want to clarify that I don’t take issue with violence used conscientiously for a storytelling purpose – that is, in reasonable amounts, without excess or glorification, to some important point. I respect people who don’t care for unpleasant content in their entertainment, but I also don’t think censorship is the best way to address it. Whether a person can stomach material they find upsetting, or whether they even want to try, is for them to decide alone.
Violence can be used in fiction, like most things, to demonstrate a point. It’s far easier to use violence too frequently or too enthusiastically, however, than it is to not use it enough. There are few situations where more violence is necessary in a story and plenty of situations where none is needed at all. Even in stories about war or similar atrocities, violence that’s implied is often much more effective than violence shown outright. The detached description of burning bodies in Slaughterhouse Five, for instance, or Faramir’s doomed charge in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King are succinct demonstrations of the horror and sorrow that comes from total destruction.
The Sandman series seems to understand this in theory, or at least Neil Gaiman does, but its delivery leaves something to be desired. The series isn’t ultraviolent with bodies strewn about or in piles (at least not often). The actual dead bodies don’t bother me so much; dead people aren’t known for feeling much pain, and the reactions to characters dying are often appropriate. The deaths take a somber tone of remorse and futility that works within the confines of the series.
What I do mind is characters being physically tortured and raped, which the series seems to think is at best a joke and at worst a poetic inconvenience. The first characters encountered in the dream world are Cain and Abel from Abrahamic mythology, the latter of which can’t die and gets brutally beaten to death by his brother repeatedly, only to come back to life and endure more against his will. By the end of the series, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Cain when his brother dies permanently. I’m really not on board with that.
There’s also the matter of the serial murderer convention, which while initially a funny pun drags on to explore the facets of self-employed killers for an uncomfortably long time, seemingly without an intended endpoint.
The start of this book features another distasteful approach to violence that roots its way into the narrative without much self-awareness or reflection. An uninspired writer trades a bezoar for a naked woman, one of the Greek muses of myth, Calliope, and proceeds to rape and imprison her to use as inspiration for his novels. Clearly this guy is a pathetic excuse for a human being, and the story culminates in Dream punishing him and freeing the imprisoned muse. However, most of the framing is from the perspective of the writer, and beyond that, the victim is sexualized and drawn in many of the panels as the object the writer sees her to be. She’s naked and exposed, and while more sickly and disheveled than women are often portrayed when sexualized, the poses, expressions, and lighting are exploitative rather than sympathetic to the victim. The visual imagery and the framing of the narrative are indulgent in the sexual violence, and it viscerally disgusts me. I’d live a happy life if I never had to look at this short story again.
Violence is sometimes necessary to get across the horrors of a situation, but sexual violence tends to be a much sketchier area because unless it is handled delicately, it can come across in the opposite way intended. Readers want to sympathize with the victim, but it’s hard to do so when the story emphasizes them as an object rather than a human being. Getting through a story with this perspective can just be downright unpleasant, and often lacks substance beyond “how uncomfortable can we make the audience?” It serves little if any artistic function and ultimately does more harm than good. If the creators of the series wanted to depict rape in a sensitive manner, they failed utterly and entirely, even for the 1980s. The message that gets across is not, “Rape is horrific and traumatic,” but rather, “Rapists do bad things because they’re conflicted.” I’m so fucking tired of excuses for rapists in fiction (or in real life, for that matter). They’re assholes. Mystery solved.
Seriously, though, if you’ve never read this particular short story, don’t bother. It’s not worth wasting what precious minutes of your life you have.
Part Three: “Don’t Sexualize the Abuse Victim” — Or, You Know, We Can Ignore the Writer Completely
I try not to bring names into discussions of creative works when I can avoid it, partly because I think there’s a fundamental problem with assuming intent and interpretation are the same thing, and partly because I like to look at narratives before acknowledging their broader context. A narrative is never fully separated from its creators, and they’ll inevitably project parts of their worldview onto it, whether they want to or not. However, the audience is always a participant in any creative piece because they have to interpret it, so even something that’s written by a single person does not exist in isolation. Inferring a creator’s intent from the delivery of their creative works is especially sketchy, more so when it’s a piece of fiction. People lie, to themselves as much as anyone else. They’re also ignorant, fallible, and susceptible to fatigue. What someone wants to say and what they actually communicate rarely align exactly, and the more voices you throw into the mix, the more that original intent becomes obscured, sometimes to the point of irrelevance.
With that in mind, I wanted to bring up something I noticed with the annotated script that fills the role of a sort of fifth short story in this compendium. It’s one of the drafts of the first short story, Calliope, and I assume it’s the one that went out before the artists started illustrating the panels based on the notes. This script contributes to the low rating I gave this book because it’s delivered in full and seems to be at least partly intended as a contribution of the narrative structure of the series (which it serves about as well as a wet tissue might). While useful for those interested in making their own graphic novels or understanding the creative process behind them, there’s no reason for it to take up as many pages as it does. The notes are scant and often illegible, and little is changed in terms of dialogue or description in the interpretation from script to image, so it adds little new content worth exploring. The book is thin as it stands, so even if this script wasn’t released as an issue of the comics, for it to take up a fifth of the total bulk of the volume invites it to be scrutinized as a chapter.
Now, you might logically want to ask, “Why would the writer include a script to a chapter that the audience has not only already read, but one that wasn’t even that good in the first place? And why would they do this if the few notes included are largely illegible or have barely anything to do with revising the story?” I have no real answer, honestly, aside from it maybe being of interest to developing graphic novelists. If this had been a unique chapter, it might be an odd, fourth-wall breaking experiment, but because it’s a script for a chapter that already exists in the series, it feels more to me like the equivalent of a clip show, a re-hash of published material used to fill up pages. Anyone interested in the actual story (e.g., me), has little motivation to read through the whole thing (especially since, as mentioned, I really don’t like the story it depicts).
I did read it, though, and occasionally I compared described panels to their final iterations. In doing so, I found that it reflected further disinterest and ineptitude in the portrayal of Calliope than the short story alone would have conveyed. Whether this is actually the case or not, the discrepancies between the script and imagery, particularly in the sexual violence I mentioned earlier, suggest either the writer has almost no say in the visual delivery of important scenes, or if they do, they consider the books’ portrayal of sexual violence spot-on. This comes up on two notable occasions, first in Calliope’s reveal and then in the scene where she’s raped. In the first of these, the writer emphasizes in the script that they want her to look like a prisoner of war, someone who’s starving and but for her immortality would have died years ago, someone who elicits pity and sympathy, and a twinge of fear and loathing about the person who did this to her. The editor provides an annotation saying something to the effect of, “It didn’t test well with audiences; they liked sexy Caliope more.” I think the artist did genuinely try to make her look both disheveled and attractive, but the effect of the latter severely undermines the effect of the former, and the former is much more important given the rest of the chapter’s content.
The more frustrating change doesn’t even get an annotation from anybody. As I mentioned before, the rape scene is excessive and done in a way that shows pretty near everything, and yet again sexualizes the victim, showing most of her body unobscured. This is frustrating itself, but even more so in light of the script section at the end, which rather clearly specifies that the panel was to just show her hand being pinned, implying rather than demonstrating the brutality of the event.
I don’t give much credit to the concept that what’s in early drafts or source material for something is “correct” and the finished product is “wrong” just for changing that material, in the same way I don’t view an adaptation as “wrong” if it diverts from its source material. However, not all changes are for the better. That particular scene in Calliope is one of the few major differences between what is otherwise almost identical material, so the alteration seems important. The distance between the two versions of the scene is substantial and provides a very different, likely unintended tone. Yet, it gets no notes, no caveats, and not even an explanation. I almost feel like the script was included partly to relieve pressure on the writer for handling Calliope poorly – like they wanted to show their intent differed from the end product. But that still doesn’t excuse the shoddy quality of the end product itself.
I’m probably making a bigger deal out of this than I should given that most of my complaints cover all of one panel and I haven’t even addressed most of the other stories in the book. I’m sure some readers find the uncomfortable scenes in the first chapter benign or befitting the series’ tone. However, I think it’s worth discussing because I doubt I’m completely alone in my reaction. Why should we as readers settle for a story that doesn’t quite scrape rock-bottom when we could have something impactful that isn’t also tone-deaf?