Eliot, then Chopin: Investigating ‘The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes’

Like the legend of the phoenix
All ends with beginnings

What keeps the planet spinning

The force of the beginning

— Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” (featuring Pharrell Williams & Nile Rogers)

When I first pitched covering Before Sandman, my first thought was, “that is a lot of comics I need to read, right now.” I felt intimidated by the breath and depth of the series. Sandman is a large modern, horror comic, spanning 75 issues, one special issue, a graphic novel and tons of what I consider non-canonical secondary works in the universe; for example, the illustrated children’s Little Endless Storybook, which features the most adorable Delirium. Not only is Sandman gigantic, it is also fantastic. Critically acclaimed, Sandman is one of the first comics to be taught with any regularity in literature classes; stupendously awarded, Sandman has won a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction—unheard of in comics—26 Eisner’s, and has been nominated for a Hugo Award; and universally praised, Sandman should be shelved next to Shakespeare, Keats, and Tolkien as first among equals. Again, I was intimidated by being assigned this beat. How does one prepare for reading and covering one of the most wildly popular, yet highly intelligent, comics ever?

Then I realized that it was simple. As in all things, start at the beginning. As we get closer to the release of Before Sandman, I realize that some of you may be rereading the series in its entirety; in the same way that people are probably scrambling to find their old copies of Ender’s Game in anticipation of the film. Over the next weeks, I will be writing about each volume of Sandman. Treating each to a long form review and reader’s response criticism. So lets start at the beginning.

Originally published as a monthly comic, running from December 1988 to March 1996, Sandman was not collected into volumes until May 1990. These volumes, and the annotated collected editions (which I love and have talked about before), collected storyarcs of Sandman as well as could be done in context of Sandman non-linear, anti-plot structure. There are ten volumes of Sandman, which collect all 75 issues and one special issue. They include:

Preludes & Nocturnes (#1-8); The Doll’s House (#8-16); Dream Country (#17-20); Seasons of Mists (#21-28); A Game of You (#32-37); Fables and Reflections (#29-31, #38-40, #50, The Sandman Special); Brief Lives (#41-49); World’s End (#51-56); The Kindly Ones (#57-69); The Wake (#70-75)

Preludes & Nocturnes

Preludes & Nocturnes is the eight-issue arc that vaulted Sandman to fame, helped Neil Gaiman find his voice for Dream, and is perhaps one of the greatest beginnings to any comicbook saga. Unique in the series for its perhaps altogether linear storyline, Preludes & Nocturnes follows Dream while he attempts to recover his powers and return to the Dreaming, after having been imprisoned for 72 years. For us though, it is important to notice that Preludes & Nocturnes while linear in nature does not follow a typical heroes journey. Sandman is not about apotheosis. Sandman is not about an ordinary person, who experiences something supernatural, is sent to the underworld to do battle with unimaginable forces, and ultimately return to the ordinary world empowered. Sandman, rather, is about a god among gods who is dragged to the ordinary world, stripped of his powers, and ultimately tested against himself before he can return to his own dimension. Sandman is about a purpose driven god being subtly trapped by his tools. Therefore, Preludes & Nocturnes is about Dream discovering that he does not need his ruby, because, as quoted from the Book of Job in the preface to “the price of wisdom is above rubies.”

“Sleep of the Just,” issue #1, kicks of Preludes & Nocturnes, setting a powerful stride and horrifying tone. In issue #1, Roderick Burgress—an occultist who comes from, as Neil Himself explains, “Aleister Crowley, twice removed,” through Dennis Wheatley’s novel The Devil Rides Out—captures Dream in 1916, in Britain during the First World War. Intending to capture Death, Burgess is disappointed and demands immortality and power, but is met only with stony silence. For most of this issue, we are met with the stony, resilient, silence of Dream, who waits patiently for 72 years to strike out and escape. So, oddly enough, it is less Dream that we are concerned with, but more the individuals who began suffering from the sleeping sickness epidemic that rocked the world the day Dream was captured.

Skillfully interwoven into the scheming, angry, and increasingly decadent plot of the Burgess family occultists, Gaiman treats us to the stories of Ellie Marstien, who wakes only four or five times a years, Daniel Bustamonte, who never sleeps at all and has becoming a waking zombie, and Unity Kincaid, who sleeps through being raped and birthing a child. These soft-focus stories are powerful representations of the effects of Burgess’ misdeeds and serves as a focus of sympathy in the issue. Ultimately, Dream escapes, curses Burgress the younger with Eternal Waking, and returns to the Dreaming, weak but free. Before leaving, Dream tells Burgress rather bluntly, “You wanted Death? Then count yourself lucky for the sake of your species and your petty planet that you did not succeed that instead you snared Death’s younger brother.” Leaving us to wonder, what would have happened?

Issues #2 and #3 are significantly weaker than “Sleep for the Just;” however, they set up the coming arc quite well. Issue #2, “Imperfect Hosts,” sees Dream return to his realm after 72 years. He is greeted by Cain & Abel, personifications of the first murder, and dragged by a gargoyle through his own realm to their dwelling. Eventually Dream, after being dejected by the decay of his Dreaming realm, realizes that he must recover his tools and sets out to find them. He first summons Hecate, the one who is three, and Dream asks them where his Pouch, Helmet, and Ruby are now. Although this scene with the Sisters is remarkable in its own merit, an excellent use of three distinct yet harmonious voices, it serves only to set up the pursuit of Dreams tools. We discover that the pouch was last in the possession of John Constantine, that the Helmet is in the possession of a demon in Hell, and that the Ruby was gifted to Dr. Destiny, by his mother, and recovered by the Justice League. Issue #3 introduces us to John Contantine, a nod at Gaiman’s relationship to Moore, and some of the most horrific, early effects of Dream’s tools. We encounter an inside out man, who has become much more like wallpaper than a human, and it is perhaps the first truly horrifying encounter of the series. We only encounter him for a few moments, but they are seared in my memory: the viscous goo of a human plastered on a wall.

Issue #4, next to issue #1, is perhaps the most famous and most vivid of the Sandman series. In “A Hope in Hell”, Dream descends into Hell to retrieve his helmet. Gaiman describes the impossible Hell in this way: “Now in Hell, wherever possible I want any structures to be built either of rock or of people. The gate [of Hell] is made of both.” Gaiman’s Hell, pulled from several mythologies, becomes much more than a set dressing for this issue. Gaiman explores, with just a page, the depths of Dream’s incalculable inhumanity after humanizing him for several issues.

In Hell, we encounter Nada, Dream’s beloved, who screaming in agony begs to be released. “Kai’ckul! Free me, Lord! You ordered me confined here! Your forgiveness can free me! I implore you…” Nada begs, “Don’t you love me?” To which Dream replies, in a way that is haunting and angry and tender all at once, “It has been ten thousand years Nada. …yes, I still love you. But I have not yet forgiven you.”

Nada’s story, explored in A Doll’s House, is a heart-breaking myth, but I’ll save that for next time. Contrasted with this inhumane grudge, we are next treated to Dream plumbing the depths of language for and understanding of what dreams are made of. In his word battle with Choronzon, a demon taken from Crowley’s mythos, Dream shifts the battle to a defensive posture. He begins by taking on forms of life, rather than destruction and ultimately ends by declaring himself “hope”. Unable to defeat hope, Choronzon is cast out and Dream is returned his helmet. But that instance of Dream embodying hope, isn’t the most important. When he is about to leave, Dream is confronted by Lucifer and a host of demons, and they ask him what power do dreams have in Hell. Gaiman, through Dream, utters perhaps the most profound statement ever found in a comic “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of heaven.” I closed the book, swooned a little, and considered then, rightly, that very same question. What power do we hold over each other with out dreams of our own escape to something better?

I’m going to skip to issue #8 now. I’ve already discussed issue #6, and #5 and #7 are continuations of the arc that we’ve been discussing. It is sufficient simply to say that Dream recovers his tools to one degree or another. Issue #8 is unique. Our hero, after traversing Hell, defeating Dr. Dee, and reestablishing his dominance as the incarnation of the dreaming world, takes a break in Washington Square Park to consider his place in the universe.

Unique in all of comics, this is a tremendously distinct issue that is at once quite, slow, and powerful; it is the subtle capstone on an ambitious project. Dream spends the day with his older sister Death, a vibrant, quirky character that sings and dances to the charms of Mary Poppins quite unexpectedly. After some somber scenes of peaceful, sad deaths, where we witness Death perform her function of helping those pass on from one plane to another, Dream realizes something important. Death’s grace, wit, and compassion, in the service of her function reminds Dream that “The Endless have their responsibilities. I have responsibilities.” And with that he stops mopping and departs to repair his realm.

This issue closes the arc of Preludes & Nocturnes in a fantastically un-comicbook way. Rather than through redemptive violence, it is through quite contemplation and through witnessing his sister’s charms that Dream is reinvigorated with a new wisdom and a new purpose. Rather than defeating a villain, Dream defeats his own sense of self-doubt and self-loathing.

To Be Continued…