Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 6: Fables & Reflections – ***
Part One: Children Make Terrible Editors
This is a bit of a weird one because unlike the other volumes, Fables & Reflections is a curated collection of short stories that were originally scattered between longer story arcs. As such, it is the best short story collection in the series, and a demonstration of how the structure of the overall series influences perception of its narrative.
It’s difficult to suss out where particular features of a series originate in the creative process, but if I had to make a guess, I would say that a lot of my personal misgivings about this particular series’ structure likely originated from the comic format. Comics are, or traditionally have been, released as individual issues about a month apart, and much of creation of individual issues happens in the month prior to a new release. They’re episodic the same way web series, podcasts, and sitcoms often are. That means that when they finish their run and are tied together in their order of release, the resulting graphic novel may be much more ambling and discontinuous than if it were a traditional novel. There are exceptions, like Watchmen, which tell shorter stories and likely require far more advanced planning as the issues are released, but in general, any open-ended series relies heavily on the strength of individual releases and the thrill of seeing what comes next. Incorporating an overarching metanarrative that goes beyond basic unifying themes is exceedingly difficult.
I give The Sandman credit for at least trying to have a cohesive plot that remains continuous and incorporated throughout its run, but the series’ writing noticeably weakens when viewed within its larger framework. If you want a coherent story, you’ll have to skip around through Volume 1, 2, 4, possibly the Orpheus chapters in this book, 7, 9 (except for the Rose chapters), and the opening of Volume 10. Everything else in the series is disconnected from the main narrative and has little structure within the broader series. The isolated chapters, as I’ve mentioned before, work as short stories, and if they were collected in a single volume or a separate series, as this one is, I would probably like them better.
There are good short stories in The Sandman. Several of their anecdotes are compelling and artistic. This particular volume has several standout stories, especially the last one. They run the full gamut of what The Sandman has to offer in terms of its standalone chapters, from hints about character backstories, to explorations of minor characters, retellings of classic stories, invented fairy tales, historical fiction, and more abstract narratives. Some of the chapters work, some of them don’t.
My point is that as much as I harp on the short story collections, they aren’t godawful or anything like that. They have merit, but I still often don’t like them. The short stories feel like filler because while some of them are standout, I just don’t find them as compelling as the main narrative. Short stories are often like this; even a nonsense short story is cleaner than the bloviating of a bad novel, but if both are of high quality, I’ll choose the novel almost every time. More pages in a novel allows for greater exploration of a concept, and sometimes that’s worth the extra time it takes to get there. There’s enough good content in the main story of The Sandman to make me prioritize it over the short stories. When my mental energy is invested in keeping track of existing characters and their dilemmas, I can allow for occasional tangents into unrelated stories, but the longer and more obtrusive they are, the less likely I am to give a damn about them. I’m already invested in another story. These chapters and their collections become commercials, unwelcome interruptions I’m unlikely to pay attention to.
As it stands, about half of this series is short stories, and when viewed within the larger narrative, those short stories feel like filler content. Filler brings down the overall series’ flow and structure, but what irks me is that most, if not all, of the chapters could have been salvaged by cutting it up and rearranging the pieces. I don’t know if the choice to insert standalone stories and even story collections was intentional, but this volume suggests to me that it wasn’t. The series is structured like someone gave a small child a complete story and a short story collection, let them cut them up at will, then arranged them at random. This is not an effective way to tell any sort of story; the longer narrative ends up chopped to bits and padded by the short stories, which themselves lack any connection to each other or the longer narrative they interrupt and thus elicit more spite than they probably deserve. I can’t say I would unabashedly love a short story collection of The Sandman issues, but I would definitely prefer the option of viewing them and the overaching plot separately.
Part Two: Fuck Pumpkins
This volume amasses nine short stories, one of which is split into three parts. The first is a very short issue about a man’s dreams of falling that works as a sort of simple parable. Another details the life of historical figure Emperor Norton of San Francisco as told through the lens of the Sandman universe, followed a few chapters later by a story featuring Augustus Caesar. There’s a folktale about werewolves, a storytelling session about some Abrahamic lore and rooks, and a chapter featuring Marco Polo getting lost in the Dreaming. Two of the chapters feature Orpheus from Greek mythology, first as a disembodied singing head kidnapped during the French Revolution, and then in a retelling of the Orpheus myth where Dream is the titular character’s father. The final story in the collection is Ramadan, which is about a caliph who calls upon Dream to preserve the prosperous city of Baghdad.
The unifying theme for this collection is tales and their relationship to history. Similar themes are found throughout the series, largely involving the two main definitions of dreams (the whimsical stories the brain crafts in REM sleep and a person’s more grounded long-term goals and wishes). Because of the dark tone of the series, these themes have a habit of turning in on themselves to convey the often unpleasant irony of dreams becoming reality. Characters get what they ask for, but not what they want or need. In a similar twist, albeit one I think is largely unintended, many of the wildly different stories start to run together because their structure, morals, and central themes are similar enough that the trappings around them become insignificant. I wouldn’t say the line between allusion and repetition is especially fine, but somehow this series manages to make it feel that way.
Even so, there are a few standout characters who play intriguing roles within their own stories and, perhaps more importantly, recur within the larger narrative.
The first is Orpheus, essentially the same character as from the Greek myth with some alterations to his character from the source, including that in this series, he’s the main character’s son. Why someone would name their offspring after themself with just one letter changed is beyond me, but if it’s between that and spelling Morpheus Jr. with four ‘y’s and a ‘q,’ I guess ‘Orpheus’ is fine. Admittedly, I was somewhat unfamiliar with the myth’s details when I read this chapter (I remembered its premise, and that’s about it), so I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how the character “should” participate in the story according to the original. The myth itself is entertaining in that way of most persistent fables, and while I didn’t find the character himself immensely compelling even in this version, I was interested in how he played into the broader Sandman canon.
By this book, the main character being capable of reproduction should not be a surprise because Calliope mentioned it back in Volume 3. I remember thinking, “Well that’s kind of weird. He doesn’t seem like he would make a good parent.” I’m not sure why him being a parent and being a capable parent should be related in my mind, because as is clear here, I was right to question Dream’s parenting skills. He abandons his son, refusing to speak with him for thousands of years and leaving him an immortal head all that time, because… well, I’m not entirely sure what the reason for it was. Going into the underworld? Turning himself immortal? Getting ripped apart by crazy orgy ladies? Playing his lute at eleven at night while the parents were trying to catch up on Matlock reruns? One of those things probably elicited his punishment. I’m not sure the series is clear on which, though. Unsurprisingly, Dream proves to be kind of a shit father before Orpheus does any of these things, perceiving his son to be more like a curious art sculpture than a human being, much less his own offspring. He acts mostly apathetic toward Orpheus, claiming to care as he does for others throughout the series, but demonstrating a lack of compassion and empathy. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t seem concerned about his own apathy.
Daniel also appears as a recurring character, a child born from a woman named Hippolyta after she spent a considerable time in the dream world during the second book. At the end of her sequence in that volume, Dream claimed the child belonged to him because of its association with his realm. The series occasionally opts to check in on the child’s growth and development, which aren’t exceptional considering he’s about two. However, as Dream uncouthly implied, Daniel has an innate connection to the Dreaming and is capable of wandering about it at will. He only appears briefly in one of the short stories populated by other Dreaming characters, and the series seems only half-sure of what it wants to do with him. Intimidating as the idea of Dream stealing someone’s child could be, especially now that we know he is neither good with nor really even likes children, the series seems far more interested in presenting Daniel as an odd little mystery magic child. The series returns to him rarely, always as an infant or toddler and without much character definition to speak of, even though he becomes crucial in the ninth book. The line Dream gave to Hippolyta felt like a throwaway threat back in Volume 2, and while the character’s recurrence implies otherwise, what on earth Dream would use a child for is anyone’s guess.
I also need to bring up the pumpkin. Technically, the pumpkin doesn’t appear until the next book, but it’s a noteworthy pumpkin and the next review doesn’t have the space for it and I need to get this off my chest. Please enjoy this five-paragraph pumpkin-based rant.
The recurring Dreaming characters who live in Dream’s castle are Lucien, Matthew, a griffin, a dragon, a winged horse, and Merv. Lucien is Dream’s librarian, the three animal guardians (the latter of which are called a wyvern and a hippogryph for some reason) act as doormen, and Matthew is a man resurrected as a raven who Dream treats as something of a pet. Merv is an anthropomorphic pumpkin. Technically he’s a jack-o-lantern, but let’s be honest, that’s basically a pumpkin. He has an amalgam Bostonian-New Yorker-Cockney accent, and gets his own special speech bubble format and font, because of course he does. The pumpkin’s job is interesting, I suppose — he puts up the backdrops to dreams as one might wallpaper — although as he even points out in a later book, Dream himself could almost certainly do that faster and with much less effort. The pumpkin is obviously comic relief, as evidenced by the truly painful jokes involving him loudly voicing his opinions about the main character’s faults while oblivious to Dream standing right behind him.
Did I mention this fucking pumpkin gets a dramatic minigun-wielding death scene during what is supposed to be a somber climax? Because that happens. And we’re supposed to be sad about it.
I’m not saying I hate the pumpkin. Well, okay, I do hate the pumpkin, but I’m more perplexed by it than anything else. If you’ve read my other reviews, you know I love the eccentric and the bizarre, but I still value tone. If something’s going to be odd, I need there to be a reason for it. I can handle space zombies and giant cannibal worms and people with umbrellas for hands, as long as those things are established early in a story and woven into its matrix. The idea behind the pumpkin is solid; The Sandman desperately needs some humor to compliment is dour outlook on fucking everything, and the creativity of a dream world allows essentially anything to fit within the series. It astounds me, then, that the pumpkin hits every wrong mark as he topples down the stairs of narrative disappointment, heels over his stupid cucurbitan head. He’s annoying, his jokes are terrible, he looks completely out of place even in the Dreaming, and he’s obsolete the moment he appears on-screen. The pumpkin’s job within the story is to be lighthearted by poking fun at the seriousness of Dream and his realm despite its inherent lack of definition. Except, we already have Matthew for that, you useless fucking gourd. A cockney pumpkin is undoubtedly more lighthearted than a carrion bird, but if the series thought it needed that much of a tonal contrast for everything else, I feel it should have figured that out before it was over halfway through its run time.
I don’t know if fans of the series like this pumpkin, but I kind of doubt he’s a tent pole character in the public consciousness. I suppose he’s mostly harmless and doesn’t take up much space, but, spoiler alert, he gets resurrected at the end of the series after his dramatic death and I can’t help but feel personally affronted by that. If you’re going to put an annoying pumpkin in your series, at least have the decency to make it mortal. Seriously, though. Fuck pumpkins.
Part Three: City in a Bottle
There are plenty of short stories in this book which are readable, but only one I think worth discussing in much detail, and that’s Ramadan. The narrative itself has a loose, fairy-tale-like structure, essentially boiling down to a caliph requesting Dream’s help to preserve his city against time. The city is everything it should be in the caliph’s mind, but that’s also its fatal flaw — to him, it’s perfect now, but he fears that the ravages of time will leave it a husk. He goes about wandering a version of the city straight out of a fantasy, not as perfect to an external viewer as it is to the caliph, but nonetheless impressive. He’s protective and perhaps possessive of the city, to the point where he will damn it and the rest of the world just for the chance to preserve it forever.
In the end, he gets his wish, but as with many of the stories, it’s a corrupted version of his vision; the city is preserved in a bottle in Dream’s realm, but the caliph, or some proxy for him, wakes up in the war-torn ruins of late twentieth-century Baghdad. The story’s conclusion is a cold dose of reality still relevant today — perhaps even more so than at the time the story was written.
The story sidetracks into unresolved tangents, but these at least serve to flesh out the environment, which is vibrant and refreshing in light of the series’ mostly Euro-centric atmosphere. I won’t say that it’s a great representation of middle eastern Islamic culture, and I’m not qualified to judge whether it’s even good on that front. However, I will say that it resonated with me as a story about the tragedy of loss and the deep fear people have of it. The caliph is an imperfect character within the story, but his motivations are sincere and sober. He’s protective of the city to a fault, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. He’s right to fear the dangers of unforeseen events, as both he and the city suffer from them. Yet, he basically succeeds in his endeavor, preserving a version of the city that provides a hopeful glimpse at a better world. Whether it’s the past, the future, or a fiction is irrelevant; what’s more important is the brief respite from the present reality that it brings to those who view it.
The story itself could be stronger, but it’s decent enough for me to make a point of mentioning. The core appeal is its art style. Plenty of talented artists have worked on The Sandman over the years, but this single story uses bold colors, distinct lines, and rounded or tapering forms in such a way that on several occasions, I had to stop reading and say, “Wow,” solely out of respect for the visuals. The format is spot-on, even for a series as varied in its paneling as this one, and its attention to detail nicely contrasts the simplicity of the shading. It varies in what its visuals emphasize, and to powerful effect for the story’s pace. This is easily the best of the Sandman short stories, and the only one I own as an individual issue. The art in this story alone is almost worth buying the entire collection.