Every Wednesday we’ll be running a piece on a volume of Sandman.
You can find Jason Sacks’s introduction to the series here.
You can find Mark Stack’s overview of “Preludes and Nocturnes” here.
You can find Kyle Garret’s reading of “The Doll’s House” here.
You can find Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva and Taylor Lilley’s conversation about “Dream Country” here.
You can find Michael Bettandorf and PJ Hunsicker discussing “Season of Mists” here.
You can find Ray Sonne and Alexander Lu discussing “A Game of You” here.
I often dream of falling, and I’m sure you do too. It’s one of the most universal human dreams, and its meaning is often transparent. Falling dreams are usually associated with the very human fear that our ambitions are greater than our abilities, that our own hubris is setting us up for catastrophe. The dream is as old as the Ancient Greek legend of Icarus flying too close to the sun on his waxen wings
The Sandman: Fables & Reflections begins with a story called “Fear of Falling.” The story appears before the credits page, at least in my version of the book (I have a 1993 printing of the book; your mileage may vary). Because of its placement, readers have to assume Gaiman intends this story to set the tone for everything that will follow. Like a teasing prologue, this short tale acts as a token, an avatar, a precursor for the book to come.
“Fear of Falling” is a short piece about a playwright who is workshopping The Typhoid Mary Blues. This undescribed play is discussed as being the author’s breakthrough, his chance to get national attention and ascend to the next level in his career. The national media are paying attention to the writer, and his success for the Reston his life hinges on the public perception of his play. But the playwright has a major crisis of confidence. He has a crippling fear of failure, and his lack of confidence tempts him to walk away from the project. He fears that if he falls he can never get up.
The crisis ends when the playwright takes a visit to land of dreams in order to visit Morpheus. A fateful Dream give the playwright the spark he needs: he realizes that if his worst fears are realized, he could fall. On the other hand, he could soar through blue skies. Made brave by the dream, the playwright takes a career-changing chance. He doesn’t run away from that chance. When he emerges from the realm of Morpheus, the playwright has grown away from his fears. He’s become brave. He’s grown strong. He will fly.
Yeah, “Fear of Falling” is kind of a hokey story with a rather obvious ending but it also sets the context for Fables & Reflections. As the first story in an ambitious collection, readers can easily see the playwright as a reflection of Neil Gaiman, psyching himself up for the nine stories in this book, all of which require a sophisticated knowledge on the writer’s part of history and society and the tightrope-walking skill to make those concepts come alive on the page.
We can assume the playwright of the Typhoid Mary play has set his play in the early 1900s, a time period that is relatively well understood by most people. Unlike the playwright, though, in this collection Gaiman doesn’t even have the luxury of setting his stories in one time period. Instead, the interconnected short stories here span all of human history, from the Roman era to the creation of mankind itself and back to a dreamlike Gold Rush San Francisco. In between we meet Orpheus and Augustus Caesar and the First Emperor of the United States, among many other larger-than-life figures. It’s obvious why Gaiman might have had a fear of falling.
Of course, this short story isn’t the first time Gaiman dealt with the inner life of a writer. In “Calliope”, part of the Dream Country collection, he introduced readers to Richard Badoc, who is past deadline and desperate to deliver the follow-up to his successful novel. Madoc makes a deal with another writer to buy the muse that the writer keeps in his basement. Madoc rapes the muse on a cold and dusty bed and then the ideas flow. Madoc becomes absurdly creative and successful, with his fame seeming to be never-ending, encompassing talk shows, plays, bestseller lists and Oscar wins. But that all comes crashing down when Calliope connects to Dream, who frees the muse and forces Madoc back to square zero.
Where “Calliope” can be read a cautionary tale, an interior monologue from a writer who is just starting to grapple with the complicated obligations of his fame, “Fear of Falling” can be read as just the opposite. In the context of this book, “Fear of Falling” can be read as the author psyching himself up for the stories he’s about to present. He’s steeling himself that his grand ambitions, already much loved and rewarded, will be adequate to his ambitions. The master creator had already cut his teeth with his World Fantasy Award winning take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so surely he would be able to handle ancient Rome, France during the Revolutionary era, and ancient Baghdad, right?
It would be tempting to call Fables and Reflections a kind of travelogue. It does, after all, take readers to exotic realms, real and imagined, and provides many of the enervating effects that travel is supposed to provide to us: perspective, fresh vistas and a touch of the exotic. But that virtual tourism only makes up part of this book. Much of the success of Fables and Reflections rests in the way that it subtly tells a story, or perhaps implies a back story that is just as important (or perhaps more important) than the segments presented on the printed page.
Much of the success of Fables and Reflections also rests in the way that Gaiman encompasses many different themes in these stories that resonate and spark against each other. For example, all stories in this book are about different aspects of the role of storytelling in humanity’s existence. Creativity in Fables is a destructive force, a force of naïveté and cynicism and a force for reflecting on the past and the future. Through the prism of his exploration, Gaiman delivers a set of stories that comment on ambition and humbleness, the nature of hubris, the long resonances of human history, and on many more themes. That depth of field shows a Neil Gaiman fully in control of his work, delivering thoughtful meditations on history and humanity that reveal him as a uniquely reflective and powerful writer of works that are rich in ideas.
Readers immediately see that richness in the first full story in my collection of Fables and Reflections (though the third story to appear in the monthly Sandman comics). Perhaps the most delightful story in the collection is “Three Septembers and a January”, in which Gaiman and artist Shawn McManus tell the story of Joshua Norton, first (and only) Emperor of the United States. In a thoroughly charming 24 pages, Gaiman and McManus introduce readers to a man who initially seems like he should only earn our scorn and pity.
When Norton first steps on stage, he appears ready to give in to Despair. Dream’s corpulent sibling visits the man in his fleabag San Francisco hotel room in 1859, slicing razors across her chest as a tease for Norton to do the same with his wrists. Norton’s business has fallen into bankruptcy, and it would be reasonable for him to give in to despair. But when Norton speaks with Dream, the human shows the transcendent power of dreaming and ambition:
I am Joshua Abraham Norton, entrepreneur and inventor. I dream of the dark day that fortune dealt me an evil hand. A ship full of rice… it was meant to make me truly rich. Instead it wiped me out. I dream of that. Sometimes I dream that I am still respected, still a man of worth… but then I wake. Sometimes when I sleep I am a boy in Africa once more, dreaming of the New World, where I shall make my fortune. But I came to America: the land of possibilities. And it is a land of chaos and confusion. A country without a king… a country without a king.
And though Norton is a small man, just an ordinary failed businessman, Dream grants that ordinary his grandiose dream. Norton will indeed will become the Emperor of America. That dream is a funhouse mirror reflection of the playwright’s dream of “A Dream of Falling,” and indeed of the dreams of emperors, tragic heroes and erstwhile lead characters throughout this volume.
Emperor Norton’s tale is a delight from start to finish. “Three Septembers and a January” is a love letter to hope and to optimism and a delightful paean to the transcendent power of true friendship. In a key moment in this story, Norton’s naïve optimism infects Samuel Langhorn Clemens, as Norton beseeches his friend to write about the celebrated jumping frog of Calabasas Country. That story was the beginning of the career of Mark Twain, perhaps the most important writer in American history. Norton’s joy infects the future Mark Twain, even if for only a moment, and that ultimate American cynic has the spark that launches his great career. Here again Gaiman celebrates the power of storytelling with a call-out to a man much beloved for his prowess in that area.
“Three Septembers and a January” is also a tribute to American optimism and happiness. Norton shows a joy in his life that’s simple but not simpleminded. He’s in on the joke, sort of, but he’s also in on the fact that he actually kind of is the Emperor of America. When he resists the temptations of the King of Pain in the Cobweb Palace, Norton is showing that he’s transcended his life in the flesh in a way that shows true grace. He’s emerged in his special place above our world by being thoroughly embedded in the world. Norton is immortal.
When he exists the stage, arm and arm with Death, Norton is smiling. Despite all his pain, worry and stress; despite the despair that he’s felt and despite the fact that he lies dead in the muddy streets of San Francisco during a pouring rainstorm, Norton is content. He has become, as Death calls him, one of the 36 Tzaddikim. Norton has been one of the 36 saintly men and women on whom the world sits. He is one of the secret kings of the world.
The story of Emperor Norton, of course, contrasts strongly with the story of Emperor Augustus Interestingly, “August” originally appeared one issue before “Three Septembers and a January” but in my copy of Fables & Reflections, they’re separated by several stories. (“August” was presented in the September cover-dated issue of Sandman, which means it was released in July).
Augustus, unlike Norton, is no naïf. He has reigned as the Emperor of Rome for decades, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. As we discover during his conversations with the dwarf Lycius, Augustus has been forced to scheme and manipulate for many years to keep the Roman Empire together. As the two men sit in the market square, disguised as beggars, Augustus is feeling the weight of his age and of the dreams that he is fulfilling. Augustus may look like an old man, weighted down by the pressures of his world and by all the work that his job entails, but in his head he carries a dark burden.
This story shows Augustus escaping the view of the Gods for one day and exercising his own plans. As Dream tells him:
You labor under a heavy burden; while you are emperor of Rome, the gods of Rome watch you. And you fear the gods… don’t you? But you have plans, Augustus. Plans you do not wish the gods of Rome to know. So, for a day, do not be emperor.
Augustus is tortured by a simple but painful idea: that his beloved Rome may not last forever. From that insight comes more worries: that his name will be forgotten, that everything he built will fall to waste; and that the greatness of his empire will be a mere whisper of ghosts rather than a tangible reality. Unlike Norton, Augustus is worried about his own immortality. It’s a great ironic twist that the Emperor who has no power is satisfied to be powerless while the Emperor with absolute power can’t bear the thought that power will disappear.
Rome lives on today as a dream of greatness, a towering patrician city on a hill that has inspired greatness throughout the ages. America’s founders openly admired Rome. They studied Cicero, adopted the term Senate for our higher house of government, and eventually adopted Augustus’s Roman motifs in some of the country’s key governmental buildings. Rome fell, but its dream has lived on in immortality.
For many of us with gray in our hair, no matter what we accomplish in our lives, we’re still our teenage selves inside. We still carry our insecurities, our traumas and our failures as painful relics of past catastrophes. Augustus had terrible traumas inflicted upon him when he was a teen, and those traumas led directly to his ascent as emperor. How ironic: to climb Mount Olympus, Augustus must reach as low as someone can go.
That internal conflict gives “August” much of its internal fire. “Do as I say, and I will adopt you as my son. Do what I say, and you will rule when I am gone. Do as I say, and the world will be yours.” Those words are whispered to the boy as he is tortured, and we get a deeper sense of the heaviness of his head.The tears that flow down Augustus’s cheeks during his abuse show the real and terrible pain that he feels. The tears also show the sacrifices that sometimes must be made in order to achieve absolute power.
“August” reads like a one-act play. It’s more a character study than a full story, but it’s effective because the character of Augustus is inherently fascinating. As well, artist Bryan Talbot (with inks by Stan Woch) carries the story tremendously well. Talbot and Woch bring Rome vividly to life in these pages, conveying both its earthly baseness and gorgeous transcendence. It’s a place where men can pee freely on the sides of ornate marble temples (temples for which Augustus commissioned their gaudy and ornate façades), and also a place where a slave can be freed and then boast haughtily of the slaves that he himself owns.
The glories of Rome are an interesting contrast to the glories of Baghdad in “Ramadan”, the last story in my collection and the story originally published as Sandman #50 in 1993. Published a year after the first Gulf War, and with luminous art by the brilliant P. Craig Russell, this story treads similar ground to the ideas Gaiman explores in “Augustus.”
More than any other story in this book, “Ramadan” has a dreamlike atmosphere that pulls the reader into obscure realms and doesn’t release that dream until its final heartbreaking pages. The story feels fixed and perfect, a pure distillation of a dream of paradise that seems a fever dream of a world that feels just beyond our grasp. It reads like a folktale as opposed to the one-act play feeling for “August” and the contrast is striking.
The Palace of Wisdom of Haroun Al Raschid, King of Kings, is a truly perfect place (if you’re the King). It absolutely feels like it emerged from Dream’s realm, fully grown and fully fleshed out, with impossible creatures, incredible treasures and every privilege known to man.
No matter the opulence with which he surrounds himself, no matter how much adulation he receives from his subjects and how much pleasure he receives from his harem, Haroun Al Raschid is troubled in his soul. As Gaiman and Russell tease us readers, as we wander through this spectacular palace and see “the only flight of the winged horse, made all of glass but for its eyes, which were bone” and “the place of justice and torture, where those who waited on the king’s mercy sat in durance” and past “diamonds and rubies, emeralds and sapphires, amethysts and pearls piled in promiscuous heaps, uncounted; perhaps uncountable”; as we wander with the King, we feel his worry.
After pages of excursion through a palace that feels like a voyage through his soul as much as through a physical reality, we last we see the limits to Haroun Al Raschid’s power. Though he may wish to do so, he can’t summon Dream if Dream isn’t ready to be summoned. Worst of all, like Augustus, Al Raschid is tortured by the fact that his “city of marvels, of wonders” won’t live on forever:
This is the greatest city that Allah, may he be praised from the rising of the sun in the morning until the setting of the sun in the evening, and also in the nighttime, and the hours before dawn, has seen fit with which to bless the world. And this age is the perfect age. How long can it last? How long will people remember?
Everything may soon be dust. It may be “forgotten and unremembered” and the idea tortures Al Raschid. Like Augustus, this King can’t bear to let his land sink into the abyss of memory. And in a glorious series of pages, Dream grants the King’s wish. The city of flying carpets and catlike women, of gleaming spires and opulence beyond belief, is gone. It exists only as a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of an eye. It is an artistic exploration as well as metaphorical and spiritual. It is also another meditation on storytelling and the ways that fictions and dreams enrichen the society.
It’s hard to read this story and not see a bit of the America’s involvement in Iraq in its telling. The haunting final pages of a young boy with a crutch wandering through the city implies a bombed out Baghdad that may one day contain “the other egg of the phoenix”. The magic may return.
I struggled whether to call this story optimistic or pessimistic. It shows an opulence and peace that tempt but are never fulfilled, but it also implies a Baghdad that can bounce back to its brilliance. Gaiman touches again on the theme of a fallen ruler in “Hob’s Leviathan” (part of the World’s End collection) and on optimism among rulers in “The Golden Boy” (also part of World’s End, and incidentally one of my favorite comics of all time).
Russell said of “Ramadan”:
It’s the best original script I’ve ever been given. If I had to put forward a single piece I’ve worked on as the best example of illustration AND story working together to produce a satisfying work of art it would be this one. It’s the one I’d throw on the lifeboat.
“Soft Places”, illustrated by John Watkiss, also plays with ideas of mythology and timelessness. It’s the story of Marco Polo as a young man who is lost in the desert and encounters Rustichello of Pisa, Fiddler’s Green, and Morpheus (of course) in a dreamlike space that exists right on the edge of memory or dream. Brilliantly illustrated in a wispy, loose yet solid line by John Watkiss, this story reads like a fever dream of storytelling.
With its talk of “soft places” in the world and its mixture of times out in a vast and unmapped desert, the tale – it barely has enough plot to be called a story – meanders and wanders happily like a delightful dream. Of course, a dreamlike tale is entirely appropriate in a collection of short stories that involve Morpheus, and it’s significant that the Morpheus who appears in this issue has just been freed from his captivity. Does Morpheus’s stopped influence on the world help to result in these soft places?
If so, it’s a smart bit of fictional continuity places against real world achievements – a feeling of different levels of dream that coalesce and reinforce each other. Placed after “August” and before the richly plotted “Orpheus”, “Soft Places” also acts as a breather from talk of apocalypse and journeys into Hell. It’s a pleasant quick dream between two long dreams that span the world and live forever.
In its exploration of storytelling and its feeling of timeless existence, “Soft Places” also reinforces many of the key themes that dominate Gaiman’s writing. Two other stories both echo key themes of Fables and Reflections while also resonating on history and mythology.
“Orpheus” and “Thermidor” are a diverse pair of stories that explore the myth of Orpheus, a character from Greek myth commandeered by Gaiman as the son of Morpheus and a human woman. The story of Orpheus begins at the hero’s wedding. All the members of the Endless, along with Greek Gods, demigods and royalty, attend the wedding of Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice. The nuptials and subsequent reception are events that happen so perfectly they feel a bit like a dream. That dream soon becomes a nightmare when the god Aristaeus (who is friends with Orpheus and who looks like many peoples’ visions of Bacchus or Pan) can’t conquer his godlike appetite for domination. He tries to rape the new bride. As Eurydice flees from Aristaeus, a coiled snake bites her in the ankle. In a desolate passage of the story, Eurydice quickly is visited by Orpheus’s aunt Death.
Gaiman and artists Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham follow Orpheus as the young man descends to Hell in order to bring back his beloved. Disobeying his father’s profound and well-articulated advice (“You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.”), the brash Orpheus exclaims, “She is alive in the underworld.” After a trip to visit Death (one of the most delightful scenes in this entire book), Orpheus sets off on his dreadful expedition.
In Taenarum, in the south of the Greek island of Hellas, exists the gateway to Hades. Through the gates to the Underworld Orpheus walks. Gaiman has the readers follow Orpheus in his journey into Hell in much the same way we follow Haroun Al Rachid through his journey through his castle. Gaiman takes his time leading the reader through Orpheus’s journey, with Talbot and Buckingham delivering tableaux that feel overwhelming and tragic. They also present a beautiful moment as the ferryman on the Styx cries tears of happiness hearing Orpheus play his lyre.
The scenes in Hades are haunting, and Daniel Vozzo’s colors emphasize the stark, painful beauty of the underworld. King Hades and Queen Persephone are titanic figures who rule the afterlife with an iron hand, but the beauty of great art (in the form of lyre playing) persuades Persephone to allow Orpheus to proceed. (“Thou hast made the Furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that. Thou arst disrupting my perfectly-ordered world, Orpheus.”) They just have one simple caveat: Orpheus may never look behind him to ensure that his beloved bride follows him.
Of course, if we know the story of Lot and his wife (or this classic Greek myth) we know what happens as this story reaches its climax: the tragic ending is pre-ordained. As he starts to step out of the dreadful realm and into the light, Orpheus looks behind him and discovers that his bride is left far behind him. Orpheus is desolate and distraught. His love is gone and his ambitions of love have been thwarted by the will of the gods. Finally, in an orgy of violence the Bacchae take their anger out on the young man. Orpheus is rendered limb from limb by the furies and is forced to live forever as a bodiless head. Not even Dream can help his son die.
“Orpheus” has all the dreamlike logic of a great Greek myth. It’s clear that Orpheus is paying the price of disobeying the Gods, but why should he have to disobey them, anyway? What did he do to deserve the rape and murder of his wife? What does this story say about the nature of love and devotion? It’s haunting due to its deep moral ambiguity. Gaiman delivers a new spin on an old myth, a kind of meta-commentary on the power and long history of storytelling.
In “Thermidor”, with art by Stan Woch and Dick Giordano, we revisit Orpheus some two millennia later, as the French Revolution has passed into its second year. No less heavy and serious than “Orpheus”, “Thermidor” takes place as the mighty guillotine purges all those who dare to be heretics before Robespierre and his vaunted revolution. Those who will not embrace his arbitrary quest to embrace the future must perish.
This story was published in Sandman about two years before its “prequel” and finds much of its haunting power from the mystery at its heart. Morpheus has engaged Lady Johanna Constantine (John Constantine’s ancestor) to rescue Orpheus’s head, which has been stolen to Paris.
There is much business early in the story that alludes to the complex relationship between Morpheus and Orpheus, an emphasis on tradition and hard-earned wisdom that contrasts nicely with the naïve and cynical folk wisdom of French leader Robespierre, turned horrific and deadly under his ruthless leadership. Robespierre believes “we are remaking the world, woman: we are creating an age of pure reason. We have taken the names of dead gods and kings from the days of the week and the months of the year. We have lost the saints and burnt the churches.”
Augustus is one of the kings whose name is stripped, and it shouldn’t be lost on any reader that the month of Thermidor roughly overlapped August. In the French Revolution, traditions are dead, respect for the past has been replaced by a revolutionary fervor, and in that fervor even the placement of Orpheus’s head must change in order to fit the needs of a new world. In the end, though, like the Revolution, the fate of Orpheus’s head was fated to return to its previous state. The head was mangled and bungled, but in the end tradition triumphed over the new.
The scenes of Orpehus singing here are absolutely gorgeous, with Woch delivering images that imply the pain of the songs as heard by the Revolutionaries. Robespierre and his lieutenant St. Juste are entranced by the song of history, and that proves to be the downfall both of the men and of their revolution.
Orpheus can be seen as representing many things: unrequited passion, the hubris of defying the Gods, the broken relationships between higher beings that reflect our own broken lives. In Gaiman’s hands, though, Orpheus also can represent an idea that is important to Neil Gaiman: the transcendent power of art and storytelling. Both “The Hunt” and “The Parliament of Rooks”, the two final stories in this book, are in part about the transcendent power of storytelling and how story can connect disparate people.
“The Hunt” feels to me like the last interesting story in this volume, an assertion that makes me wonder if I’m somehow missing some crucial facts that will help me get more out of it. On the surface this is a nice Old World folk legend of transformed woodland creatures and great quests. The story is a delight, and its sidebar into the world of Dream reveals another aspect of Dream (and also serves as another small call-out to Gaiman’s beloved William Shakespeare) but it’s hard to see this story as essential.
“The Parliament of Rooks” reveals some core Sandman mysteries while celebrating the world that Gaiman has created in this series. The tale gives us a chance to peer into the world of Cain and Abel, everybody’s favorite fratricidal supporting characters, and artists Jill Thompson and Vince Locke do a charming job of telling the stories in this issue in ways that convey the weird absurd complexity of them. The story of Eve and Adam’s previous wives in this story is especially haunting and interesting, showing Gaiman’s complex appreciation of folkloric history while also using the power of the two-dimensional comics page to convey power. It’s also a delight to check back in on bored mom Lyta and baby Daniel, a nice bit of subtle continuity to give readers a milepost on the way towards the series’s grand conclusion.
Of course, the Parliament of Rooks tale is the centerpiece of this story, and in some ways is a commentary on the writer’s role in society. Everybody looks upon the storyteller when he is speaking, but when he is done, will he be acclaimed or snubbed or pecked to death? It’s easy to see Gaiman in that story, thinking of his own life as walking a tightrope (and maybe delivering a story similar to the frequent musician’s lament of “too much fame.”
Which brings us full circle to where this essay began, some 5000 words ago. If “Fear of Falling” is Neil Gaiman telling himself to hold his head up and march bravely towards his creative destiny, then Fables & Recollections shows both why he was afraid and why he had no reason to be afraid. Unlike any other comic book writer that I can think of, Gaiman loved to explore history, myth and legend in his comics. As we’ve seen, in Fables and Reflections, Gaiman references Greek mythology; Shakespeare; Roman history; the French revolution; The Arabian Nights; American myth-making; and mediocre 1970s DC comics.
A lesser writer might stumble and fall taking on such a diverse and challenging set of topics. But Neil Gaiman is not a lesser writer. In Fables & Reflections we see the author climb to the top of the metaphorical tower in “Fear of Falling.” As Dream says, “Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative.” This volume is the third alternative.