Count Ninety-Nine & Kiss Me: Preludes & Nocturnes

I have a particular affection for the collection title of this first group of issues. It’s one of two Sandman trades that adopt the X & Y title format, the second being Fables & Reflections, which swept up some of the self-contained shorts and collected them out of their original publishing order.

Looking back on the first eight issues of Sandman and collecting them as Preludes & Nocturnes acknowledges that these pieces don’t really cohere into a larger story, not in the way later arcs will. Morpheus hunting down his three objects of power is a bit “labors of Hercules” in the sense that there’s no definite order or arc to it. Issues 5–7 connect as a larger arc, but the others have a feeling of “this and then that,” which is not the same as rising action. Issue Eight, which serves as an epilogue, ties everything together retroactively, describing an emotional arc for Dream that isn’t really on the page in the issues that proceed it, but this is really Gaiman getting his sea-legs, learning to plot an issue and across issues as well. His learning curve is remarkably steep: by the next story he’s figured out how to plot a multi-issue arc and seems to be shoring up the foundations for the whole series. But he isn’t there yet.

These issues also see Gaiman learning to be something other than a disciple of Alan Moore. Moore’s influence is felt most obviously with the appearance of John Constantine in the third issue, but Gaiman’s Constantine isn’t the shadowy schemer of Moore’s Swamp Thing, nor quite the hardscrabble magician of Jamie Delano’s early issues on Hellblazer, by then a year into its run. Moore was careful to keep Constantine at a distance: he drops in and out of the Swamp Thing’s life with only hints of where he’s been and what he’s up to. He’s in the background, sketching out a plan that ultimately falls apart and works anyway, then swaggers off taking the credit. Under Moore’s hand, John Constantine never narrates; his inner life is closed off to us. Jamie Delano amps up the character’s voice, giving us our first peek at the mess inside Constantine’s head, and Constantine’s acidic narration continues to be a defining aspect of the series for its 300-issue run, albeit sometimes done better than others.

Gaiman’s Constantine is friendlier, a bit of a bloke. He controls the narration in his issue, but not the narrative: this is a purely reactive John Constantine. To steal the title of a slightly later issue, he’s a passenger, and the reader wouldn’t be wrong to wonder why he’s here.

The answer, I think, is that he’s here to teach Gaiman something about his own protagonist. Issue three is a strong, tight story, movie quickly from genial comedy to outright horror, and it functions by moving a bit away from Dream as the center, letting us look at him rather than through him. Constantine can comment, assess, and poke fun at Dream in a way no character’s been able to so far. It’s a key lesson, and one Gaiman won’t entirely take to heart in this set of issues.

Moore’s presence is no less felt in Dream’s journey to Hell to retrieve his helm, echoing and playing off Swamp Thing’s descent to save Abbie Arcane’s soul. Kieth’s art doesn’t have the scratchy horror quality of Bissette and Totleben’s, leaning more cartoonish, and the set piece at the Hellfire Club strives for something entirely separate from Anton Arcane’s horrific realization he’s only been in hell for a matter of hours, but a harrowing of Hell is a harrowing of Hell, and there’s the undeniable sense that Gaiman is following a bit in Moore’s footsteps, not least in the way he positions Morpheus as part of but off to the side of the rest of the DC Universe, drawing in B-list heroes and C-list villains in issue five.

I’ve often wondered what the mandate was for these books to show connections to the rest of the publishing line. By all accounts, Moore was “required” to have Swamp Thing participate in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but there are no superhero cameos in Hellblazer. Morrison’s Animal Man is probably the most mainstream of the pre-Vertigo Vertigo books, with regular appearances from “regular” DC characters, and Doom Patrol gets a weird, snide drop-in from the Justice League during “The Painting That Ate Paris,” along with occasional appearances from Will Magnus, inventor of the Metal Men. Sandman has a couple superhero references left, but this may be the last time the book feels at all as if it exists in the DC Universe rather than a world of its own.

To jump back into hell, Dream’s encounter with Nada is the first time we see his appearance shift based on who’s seeing him, a trope that will be used effectively throughout the series and rendered incomprehensible in Sandman: Overture. It’s effortlessly done, here and again in his meeting with the Martian Manhunter next issue, and never commented on. It also introduces the idea of Dream’s form as fluid, mutable, which will become plot-essential at the end of this arc.

An aside: I’m glad later artists did not take up the cue to draw Lucifer as Hunky Dory-era David Bowie, because I’m not sure my young heart could’ve taken much more of this:

We get the first mention of the Endless as Dream’s family rather than his “kind,” including a preliminary list of names: Destiny, Death, Despair. The series will continue to tease out the names over time, with Desire showing up in The Doll’s House, Delirium in A Season of Mists, and the missing sibling remaining unnamed for much of the series. Again, unless you start off with Overture, in which case Hey, there he is!

We also get a shift in Mike Dringenberg from inker to artist, with some pages fully drawn by him rather than Kieth, and his inking hand felt heavier throughout. It sets up the transition in the art that’s coming soon, although issue five is Kieth’s style back on full display, and serves perhaps as an example of why he has to go. It works fine, if managing to make John Dee look grotesque without being actually scary, but it’s impossible to imagine the next issue drawn by Sam Kieth.

Which brings us to “24 Hours.”

I’ve been struggling with how to approach this issue. On one hand, it’s a masterfully done horror comic, a done-in-one issue that would fit perfectly under the EC Comics banner. Its violence is tightly controlled, rarely resorting to gore when a fleeting glimpse will do. Going back to it, I am always, every time, surprised by how little is shown. Many of the graphic images I associate with the issue were only in my head the whole time. In terms of comics technique, it’s maybe one of the best single issues Gaiman’s written, finding its closest analogue in the spy story from his run on Miracleman with Mark Buckingham.

It marks something of a limit case, for the series and for Gaiman’s career. The next arc has heavy elements of horror in our glimpses of the Corinthian and the other attendees of the Cereal Convention, but we aren’t locked in with this kind of unblinking stare. And unless there’s a story I’ve missed, Gaiman will never go back to very human horror in his work. There will be monsters and creatures and gods and ghosts, but there won’t be this kind of wanton cruelty inflicted by people upon people.

“24 Hours” also gives us the first in a long series of Neil Gaiman’s dead gay characters—you could make a case for Alex Burgess as the first, but Burgess’s suffering and punishment are never tied to his queer identity. And yes, everyone in the diner dies. Only Judy is explicitly raped, forced into mindless, animalistic heterosexuality, tough not to read as either her “natural” state or the result of being “cured” by said rape, and finally killed in a moment of religious ecstasy that evokes the dream of evangelical conversion therapists. Paired with this is Marsh’s physical punishment for a homosexual act.

This won’t be the last queer character in Sandman whose death or suffering feels tied to their sexual identity or orientation; there are enough you could legitimately do a survey of which one is worst. The time is going to come—probably during A Game of You—that I’ll have to directly address it and come to a conclusion. It’s been a while since I’ve read these comics, and I like to think I’m coming back to them with a more savvy critical apparatus on queer representation than the last time. I’d like to make my way through and reach a conclusion at the end.

I will say that, as a kid growing up in the suburbs, these were some of the first queer characters I saw in practically any media. And I know, that’s what makes the “bury your gays” trope so pernicious: it comes in the early days of explicit queer representation in media, when people are seeing their identities played out on page and screen, only to see those characters meet grisly ends. For here, only a few issues in, I’m noting it, and noting that sadly we’ll see more of it as the series moves forward.

With Dream absent for all but the last page, this is our first Morpheus-lite issue. As with the above, there will be more, and Morpheus will be absent for one, arguably two entire arcs. Again, Gaiman here is learning a trick he’ll return to later, and again, it’s one he lifts from Alan Moore. Coming this close to the end, it steps us out of the narrative a moment before we crash into the finale.

There’s a thing I think about when I’m breaking down chapters and scenes, which is to ask what the state change is. Essentially, how are things different at the end of this section from how they were at the start? If there’s no state change, it may be a sign the piece needs to be cut, or revised. Monthly comics put extra weight on the concept: if one issue fails to change the state of the story, we have a narrative that’s static across sixty days. Arguably, “24 Hours” causes no change of state within the story. As the title implies, it literally marks time. It gives Dream time to recover, gives Dee time to re-master the ruby. But within the story, it amounts to a pause.

The state change happens outside the story, with the reader. Gaiman has changed the terms of the game, left the reader unsure of what kind of thing we’re reading. I don’t say this often but, it’s useful here to think about A Game of Thrones. There’s a moment early on when Jaime Lannister pushes Bran Stark out a window. It’s a quick move, hardly dwelled on, and it sets the narrative in motion. It also announces the books (or the show, if you are not someone who “reads”) as something different. We see a kind of villain we haven’t seen in fantasy novels before, and it’s not Jaime, it’s George RR Martin. He’s shocked us out of the complacent place of the fantasy novel where wall-climbing boys are generally sacrosanct and into a story where the stakes and the rules are entirely unknown (Martin doubles down on this with the killing of Ned Stark at the end of the first book, destablizing the idea of the noble hero. The series’s later shocks have to up the gore and brutality to match these first two incidents, because these do harm to the very idea of what kind of story we’re in). “24 Hours” announces that the hero here will not always win, and that people will be irreparably harmed as a result. Note that while everything that happens in the finale is gently reset, the horrors of “24 Hours” persist, and resonate through the first half of the series.

As for the finale, it’s a clever bit of undoing. It presents itself as a climactic battle, but the battle never really happens. The terms of combat are unclear, the battlefield shifts underfoot. In the end, the ruby, the last of three McGuffins, is destroyed, initiating one final change in form. Our protagonist extends outward, past the borders of the page until the entire blank space is merely the palm of his hand. It’s a return to the endless waking of issue one: everything is contained in dream/Dream.

And we see another change in Morpheus, the second time so far he reconsiders. The first is when he acquiesces to Constantine’s wishes and euthanizes Rachel rather than letting her die in pain, and the second is here, when he opts not to punish John Dee. It’s not a resonant change—he doesn’t go back and free Alex Burgess afterward—but it does set up the theme of personal change and its limits that form the spine of the series.

Curiously, the first arc doesn’t present a hook to pull us forward. These issues will turn out to be preludes to various stories to come: Unity’s pregnancy, Lucifer’s revenge, and the impact of Judy’s death will all play out in future stories. But at the end of issue seven, things feel concluded. Status quo’s been restored. At the same time, we know so little about Morpheus as a character, he makes for a less-than-compelling reason to read on. It’s possible to imagine Sandman wrapping up quite nicely as a seven-issue miniseries.

Except that there’s issue eight.

Yes, issue eight introduces one of the most iconic characters of nineties comics. Death is, arguably, more recognizable than Dream to a certain demographic of comic book fan. With good reason. She’s a prototype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but less annoying and also she’s the anthropomorphization of fucking Death. Her appearance here marks a massive tonal shift in the book: this is the real beginning of Sandman, the epilogue that’s a prologue. If “24 Hours” represents an entirely different thing the book can do and, ultimately, won’t, “The Sound of Wings” shows us something entirely new that the book can do and consistently will. While Death makes only sporadic appearances in the series—she’s a bit like the Watcher in Marvel: when she shows up, you can be fairly sure something major is going to happen—but from here out, it’s rare we’re not guided by a female protagonist who shares a sliver of Death’s personality. Rose Walker, Barbie, Delirium, Lyta Hall—A Season of Mists may be the only story that doesn’t have female character who could plausibly be called the protagonist.

Even by the issue’s end, we don’t have what we could call an identifiable narrative hook, and it’s in this the first arc looks the most like the series as a whole. Throughout its run, no story seems to anticipate the next, and the cumulative effect, the sense of rising action, of tragic arc, is only visible in reverse. Everything that pays off in The Kindly Ones is here, but we can’t see it yet. We’re in the preludes, introduced to notes, themes, and objects that return later, charged and changed.

If there are no hanging questions within the story, there is one about the story. Simply: how much does Gaiman know about what happens from here? Is he seeding stories, or is he going back to these stories and sifting for gold? I thought about it a bit, even thought about tracking down interviews that might answer it, before deciding I didn’t need or want to know. In the world of hashtag-writing-community, there’s a split between plotters and pantsers, both of which sound awful (I can’t help hearing “plotters” as “plodders” when this discussion rears up), but imagining a binary precludes a middle, where the plan is made and constantly shifts, altered by the story as it goes. Anyway, every author knows that if someone asks if you meant to set it up that way, you say “yes.”

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara