My entry point to The Sandman was, of all places, the penultimate story arc titled “The Kindly Ones.” The thirteen-part story is the culmination of years of intricate stories surrounding Dream of The Endless: his world, his relationships, and most importantly, his choices. To hand this story over to the uninitiated is basically saying, “here’s some out-there stuff with a ton of gravitas you’ll be unable to fully grasp. Go nuts, weirdo.” And yet, it was a comics epiphany to me. Having primarily waded in the superhero end of the pool for most of my funny book fandom, reading acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman’s sprawling epic of imagination for the first time, was an awakening.
How did I get pulled in so deep? It was 1996 and this avid comic fan and city kid found himself in the verdant expanses of Maine for camp, the summer he blossomed from sarcastic, nerdy adolescent to sarcastic, nerdy teenager. My bookshelves back home strained under the weight of overly pouched mutants and supermen reigning. As such, I of course packed my hale, teeth-gritting heroic friends to accompany me for countless nights of antisocial flashlight reading in sleeping bags. A fellow city kid stuck in the woods noticed my fat stacks of Big Two comics and, like an after-school special drug pusher, handed me “The Kindly Ones.”
Cleverly bundled with the story itself was a prologue piece entitled “The Castle” written by Gaiman with artist/letterer Kevin Nowlan, and colorist Daniel Vozzo. The eight-page story isn’t particularly groundbreaking or really even a story at all, and yet it perfectly performed its function of selling me on this strange, unfamiliar series even as it was coming to a close.
First published a year prior to “The Kindly Ones” story even beginning, “The Castle” was a part of the anthology one-shot Vertigo Jam (it was the 90’s, okay?), a smorgasbord of currently running and upcoming series from the edgy DC imprint. It was more or less an appetizer sampler of titles, except filled with mostly quality morsels as opposed to emulsified cheese product and ranch dressing. “The Castle” was a ‘hold you by the hand and get you up to speed on this acclaimed series’ affair; it was a fully loaded baked potato of exposition and character introductions. Thematically and structurally, it bears little resemblance to the actual series save for the cast and general characterizations. But that wasn’t the point, was it? It served so well at stoking interest and laying the most basic of groundwork, Gaiman knew even while writing it that he would eventually use it as a prologue when “The Kindly Ones” was collected in trade . Reading “The Castle” for the first time gave poor, young, comic book naïve Alex the brain tingles something fierce. In the intervening years I’ve often wondered why exactly it worked as well as it did, so I decided to revisit it and evaluate what precisely worked so damn well.
It opens, appropriately, in a dream. The first three panels describe the horror our dreamer faces and it’s frightening enough without having the knowledge that they thematically tie-in with the Furies in the proceeding storyline. All I knew at that point was that they were bestial women and this was a dream. Not only bestial, but faceless. Not only faceless, but brainless. Yikes. Not specific women, just mindless writhing figures of teeth and breasts. Interesting. What does this say about our narrator’s view on women and/or what part of his reality informed this imagined horror? It’s coming from a place of fear borne from guilt, suggesting a philanderous past, and blended with this mythological depiction of the vengeful and bestial woman such as the Gorgons or, of course, the Furies. Also note Nowlan’s arrangement of this attacking pack, how one straddles in between the thighs of her towering sister, herself triumphantly and almost mockingly grabbing at her breasts, while the clawed hand of yet another eclipses her groin creating some phallic imagery. It’s all rife with male insecurity of the powerful, punitive female, something that “The Kindly Ones” delights in. The second panel clearly shows that we’re viewing this from the narrator’s perspective, as Nowlan depicts that arm stretched outward, something that sets up how we’ll soon be experiencing the vast majority of the next seven pages.
Now awake, we’re no longer in a first person perspective and we see our dreamer awake. It’s worth noting that we don’t see his face either, a distancing effect to better help the reader put themselves in the story. This is an effective primer for the ever-present theme of the connectivity of dreams throughout the series and enticing premise for those new to it. We all, as readers and as dreamers, experience the binding power of stories and here in “The Castle” we will see that we all go to the same place while we dream. He’s alone now as he wakes, in a hotel room, in a very large bed, with the linens thoroughly ruffled, and every pillow with a head print. We can assume that he was thrashing in his sleep given its contents, but there’s enough little details when bundled with the imagery of his dream to hint at something more ribald. There’s this hint via the nature of the women in his dream and the condition of the room that he wasn’t either wasn’t always alone in the hotel room or that his past actions have landed him in this hotel room. There’s an overtone of guilt being conveyed here that’s simultaneously subtle in its visual representation of the room and much more blatant in the nightmare. Is it the heart or the real intent of this “please come check out our comic” anthology contribution? No, but it sets the stage for type of liminal interplay that the core series does so well.
After some very Gaiman-esque language about shadow-plays and the fear of what lies beyond our everyday reality, we’re greeted (quite literally) by a lithe bookish man. It’s immediately clear we’re back to sleep and being directly addressed by a librarian of sorts. This is a sharp tonal shift from the opening sequence into something far more whimsical. The idea that all of our daydreams and passing fancies are turned into a book to be stored in the library of dreams is exactly the type of metaphysical flair to comics I had yet to experience at this point. It is also charming as hell. The horizontal panels of the currently nameless librarian opens up to the bottom-half splash of the sprawling library itself and let me tell you this was some grade-A prime cut Alex shit at age thirteen. An impossibly large library bound only by the limits of one’s imagination is brought to life with Nowlan’s depiction of the pillared vertical library stacks. This library and its caretaker are presented as the shared story athenaeum of our minds. The conceit is fanciful and the execution effective if not groundbreaking. In five panels you have a pretty clear picture of who Lucien (though he doesn’t provide his name) is, what his function is, and where he performs it.
So far, we have a pretty good hook for a new reader. And then the vulgar talking pumpkin scarecrow shows up and we’re not quite sure what the tone of this series is, but it isn’t entirely humorless. This is important and is an early indication of just how pliable the series’ tone can be as it shifts from the morose to the awe-inspiring to the blithe. Nowlan’s composition on this page is great as he divides it diagonally between five panels on the left and the full page background reveal on the right. Each panel moves in tighter on Merv until he shouts in the last panel as the eye moves back out to the wide shot of the castle itself. Gaiman plays this largely for laughs and again, it’s all info-dump mixed with character bits (the best being Merv’s line here “Some of us aren’t afraid to call a spade a goddamn shovel”) that tell you how things work in this bizarre places: walking, talking oddities build your dreams like a bunch of teamsters. That is charming as hell, admit it. That final panel also really hammers home how absurd Merv is because his screaming head exposes that he is indeed only a hollow pumpkin on a stick that is somehow sentient and taking pleasure in a cigarette.
The procession of introductions continues in a similar manner, a sequence of up-close dialogue panels introducing a character and their function that end with a large splash of some magical location in the Dream kingdom. Next is Nuala who’s introduced with a far direr sense of imprisonment, yet another major motif of The Sandman as well as another example of tonal flexibility. Additionally, Nuala is the only other female figure presented in this story outside of the nightmare Furies. She admits she was given to the dream king, a present and a “way of removing a problem” and is now relegated to performing antiquated homemaker duties. As opposed to the threatening, powerful female totems that open the story, we now are given this far more vulnerable woman who is in want of so much more and is scaled so small in a vast throne room. It’s a big shift from the lighter tone we had just the page before even as it ends on another wondrous, endless setting. It’s apparent at this point that in addition to learning about the respective characters speaking, they are also each providing a bit of information and perspective on the Dream King. Each gives us a facet of the whole; he’s a monarch, his staff is fastidious in their duties, in his absence things went astray, and while fair, instills fear. The king is powerful and controlling, a nice set-up to the story of his ultimate downfall to follow.
The next two pages continue the trend with Matthew the raven, whom I would come to adore, and comic mainstays Cain and Abel, although I admittedly had no idea of that at the time. Sorry I wasn’t into Bronze Age horror anthologies at that age as much as I was into Blue Team X-Men members, what do you want from me? These intros hammer home what we’ve seen already, a deft subverting and blending of expectations; our talking animal (with fantastically craggy lettering!) laments his death and being kept in the dark about what his current existence really means while a worker paints the dream sky in the background. Gaiman presents a history here, a legacy of companion ravens who were once men, as well as painting The Dreaming as a place of order and structure. With this history, questions are raised, the fun kind that gets your brain trying to figure out exactly how this place operates: how do the dead find themselves in this place? If Cain, Abel, and Eve live here, do all characters from of lore? What does the king need with a raven as a servant? And of course, what happened to all the former ravens? Additionally, Nowlan does nice work with the expressive gesticulating of Matthew here especially in the last two panels with the forlorn drooping of his head. There’s some real tragic weight that signals there are real stakes in this land of imagination.
Finally we get to the big show, the Lord of the realm himself. Gaiman’s dialogue over these last two pages is again this amalgamation of straightforward briefing and thematic playfulness. This is the first time I ever saw Morpheus and it’s an impression that continues what the preceding character interactions began as it leaves more questions than answers; precisely what’s needed to stoke the embers of wanting to learn more. He’s regal, yet patient. Not quite omniscient but with an air of uncertain infinite. This Lord Morpheus is an enigmatic figure that’s surprisingly human. His actions may not always align with demeanor and his motives feel just out of reach. The What’s created here, and what especially appealed to me, is a mix of high concept ideas married with a straightforward method of delivery that belies its more complex themes. The splash reveal panel this time is an upshot making Morpheus loom large as he is wreathed by flaming candles – a fire and black motif that’s prevalent through much of the series. And he’s dressed, well, like it’s the mid-nineties. Gaiman speaks directly to the nascent reader here so overtly that I was powerless after all I had seen. “Would you like to stay longer?” the Dream King asks and a chorus in my head completes the antiphony shouting “oh hell yes!” His inviting outstretched arm is the mirror action of the first page’s outstretched arm reaching out to the horror of the wolf-women and we transition back to the waking world, but stay in that first person perspective. We’re walking between the two worlds now as reader, not fully awake enough to place ourselves back in the last panel’s third-person view, but not fully ensconced in the world of dreaming wonders.
I’m not sure what I thought The Sandman was about prior to being handed this collection, but I definitely did not think it involved Union pumpkins, infinite dream libraries, enslaved fairies, and people visiting a metaphysical location when they slept. The waking man’s experience, the framing device that puts the reader in the story, felt like it was something meant for adults, unlike the cape comics that captured my attention up until then. There was an unrelenting sense that there was something more to the story being told than what was plainly on the page. It was an early foray into realizing comic books could have subtext and that it wasn’t much of a traditional story in terms of plot meant little. It is unabashed in its purpose and the manner of execution. Does it fully arm you, or I lo those many years ago, to appreciate the myriad of ideas born from years of storytelling that culminates in the following thirteen chapters and feel the full impact of the tragic lord’s tragic end? Of course not. But it thoroughly pulls back the curtain on the most surface level aspects of a series that revels in the subtext and presents them in a manner that begs for further study. It’s akin to reading a Marvel Handbook cover to cover and becoming enraptured with the details of a character or location of a series you’ve never read before, but with so much more tonal exuberance. Whereas the OHotMU is something of a textbook, a series of facts and figures, “The Castle” takes all those stimulating bits of persons, places, and things, and sprinkles them into a narrative that shows you how they’ll be delivered. The result is an inspired glimmer of the series as a whole, a complex yet easily accessible menagerie of big ideas and rich characters.
On its surface, “The Castle” doesn’t sound like it should work: a short prologue placed before the penultimate act of a major series that’s structured less as a standalone story and more as a sequence of character introductions. It doesn’t fit in the series proper at all and yet each of its respective parts easily could even as the whole would seem obtuse. And yet…it asked things of me that comics had yet to ask. What is this story that’s not a story about? It’s as much a guidebook about how to read The Sandman as it is about understanding that things are more than they appear. “Look deeper” it whispers. The deceptively simple presentation hides the complexities of each character’s visions of their lord and of their world.
Our waking man is a blank slate for us to occupy and yet he also hides a story all his own. The Dreaming is a world of the dead, the living, the whimsical, the somber, and ultimately, all of us. How Morpheus is seen before he’s actually seen is a poetic precursor to his own “facets” speech to Matthew before his demise in the story that follows. The roles women play and the roles they’re forced to play will continue in “The Kindly Ones” as will the duality of the waking world with the dream world as it all comes crashing in on itself. It’s all there even if it isn’t immediately apparent and it let me know that questions were an innate and intimate part of what makes this new world tick. As an entry into something that always seemed larger than life, it takes you by the hand and asks if you’d like to see more.
With the smell of overcooked hot dogs and mosquito repellant hanging in the air, my summer of love was when my comic book horizons were realigned by an amiable docent called “The Castle.” I must have re-read that grand world of the literary, the mythological, and the tragic a dozen times that summer and each time I made sure not to skip the prologue that introduced me to it all, those special eight pages that transported me from the waking world to the dream world and back again.