Writer: John Ney Rieber
Artist: Eric Nguyen
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
With Sandman Mystery Theatre: Sleep of Reason #4, John Ney Rieber continues to tell an action-packed story that contains believable dialog, that is set in a world of great verisimilitude, and that continues to hint at great intellectual depth.
However, as with the third issue, this fourth installment does little to develop the initial themes that were put forward in the first two issues. Instead of focusing on the theme of Kieran Marshall’s struggle to fight with monsters without becoming a monster, Rieber focuses on the development of the plot—and a very convoluted plot it has become.
There are at least three threads being woven together here. If I recall them all correctly (without re-reading everything as I write this), they are:
- Wesley Dodds in 1997 attempting to rescue Dian Belmont from the Afghan warlord named Masad whose forces kidnapped her for ransom,
- Kieran Marshall in 2007 attempting to stop the same Afghan warlord who is attempting at least three things:
- Kieran Marshall’s dreams that have something to do with the above two threads as well as his own past in Chicago involving something for which he apparently needs to be redeemed.
o To take possession of Wesley’s gas gun (because it has the power to induce nightmares and/or put people in a slumber from which they will never awaken)
o To launch a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, and
o To invade Kieran Marshall’s dreams in order to launch a psychic attack against the new Sandman—which leads us to the third thread:
Actually, I’m not sure about any of the stuff involving Kieran Marshall’s dreams. I know we’re getting glimpses of some aspects of his subconscious in those scenes (and that Masad is apparently able to enter those dreams), but I’m not certain what is going on exactly. I plan on sorting it all out when I eventually re-read all the chapters.
For now, I’m not worried about not following along with the specific details. After all, “dream logic” is often confusing. Given the nature of the story, I wouldn’t expect either the dream or combat sequences to make “logical” sense. By their very nature, such sequences are usually chaotic.
I will say, though, that Rieber does a good job of combining his various threads in such a way as to have memory and dream, placement in time, and life and death blur together in a sort of “stream-of-chaos.” As the various elements merge in the story, Rieber creates a sense of temporal stasis in which history and destiny become nearly indistinguishable, and memory and dream merge together to obscure the lines between reality, fantasy, and oracular insight.
Upon this chaos, Kieran (as an artist) struggles to impose a sense of order. If he is able to do so without becoming a monster himself (without becoming part of the chaos), he will achieve the status of “hero” within a Romantic paradigm.
The technique of weaving present, past, and prophetic dreams is in direct opposition to the convention of a continuous and logical narrative. It not only permits the tangling of the book’s threads, but also of abrupt changes in subject matter without the use of transitions.
It’s a technique that was developed with greater effect in such works as William Blake’s The Four Zoas, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
The problem here isn’t that Rieber isn’t up to the task in terms of his writing skills; it’s that his story is scheduled to conclude with the next issue. I don’t believe Rieber will be able to adequately resolve his various themes and plot threads within just another 22 pages. I admire the themes that Rieber is trying to work through, but he is placing them in a plot of various threads that are too great to address in a five-issue limited series:
- The Dian Belmont kidnapping thread in 1997 has taken Wesley Dodds from Afghanistan to Kashmir.
- Ten years later, the Kieran Marshall thread has moved from Afghanistan to Jerusalem to prevent Masad from launching a terrorist attack against Israel.
Thematically, I understand the need to move the two threads from Afghanistan to Kashmir and Israel. To a large extent, the conflicts in the Middle East are all interconnected from northern India to Israel. However, to cover all of these themes in five issues is too much given the corresponding mechanizations of the plot that are also required.
Additionally, the name of the Afghan warlord, Masad, has a name that sounds a bit like Mossad, the name of Israel’s intelligence agency—which may be yet another attempt at blurring the boundaries of what’s happening in the Middle East.
For instance, I was momentarily confused when I read that Masad’s forces (Mossad’s forces?) were preparing to commit acts of terrorism within the borders of Israel since it made me think that the Israeli intelligence agency was involved in a conspiracy against the citizens of Israel. It’s an interesting digression, but there’s no time to explore it in this story.
To encompass everything that Rieber has initiated in this graphic novel, he probably needs at least eight chapters rather than the five he has (and a twelve-issue series is probably needed). Since he was only given five issues, he might have done better to keep all the action in Afghanistan and focus on having Kieran save the lives of the Afghan woman, Alia, and her brother, Omar.
There should have been a tighter parallel drawn between Wesley’s attempt to save Dian (in which he should fail) and Kieran’s attempt to save Alia and Omar (in which he should succeed).
In the first two issues, a natural parallel did seem to be developing between Kieran’s emerging situation and Wesley’s ability decades earlier to prevent becoming a monster even though he battled with monsters. Wesley avoided the problem of staring too long into the abyss by having Dian Belmont as a woman he could love as a counterbalance. Through love, Wesley made the Sandman into a hero.
Similarly, despite his monstrous appearance and the monstrous events in which he was enmeshed, it looked like Kieran was going to avoid becoming a monster by finding love with Alia and adopting her brother into his new “family”—in some sort of redemption for whatever it was that he did to his real family in Chicago.
This idea of redemption and the attainment of “heroic” status through the power of love is probably what Rieber had in mind as he worked on the story. However, I doubt he can pull it off in just one more issue—which is why this fourth installment doesn’t rate a perfect five-bullet rating. It’s not that it isn’t a very good issue, but it concludes with too much to resolve in just 22 more pages—especially thematically.
I hope I’m wrong, but the five-bullet promise of the first two issues looks to be morphing into a four-bullet conclusion to the graphic novel as a whole. Still, that achievement is better than what’s accomplished by 90 percent of the comics I read every month.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!