It begins with a wrong number.
Pull back a few pages and it begins with someone waking. We’re not privy to his dreams, we’ll only be privy to descriptions of dreams for a while yet before we’re allowed entry into the kingdom proper, but yes, we begin by waking outside of Wych Cross, England, in the midst of war.
The first issue of Sandman is double-sized and sprawls across a century. It’s a bold opening move, and establishes the kind of scope we’re dealing with. A century gone in a snap, because what’s a hundred years to a being that’s Endless? Delivery on the promise of scale in issue one will be deferred somewhat, but if the rest of the first storyline often points us down roads the series won’t pursue, issue one provides a preliminary map for the kind of project Gaiman’s embarking upon.
A momentary side-step to talk about Sam Keith’s art. By the time I got around to these issues, I was already a fan of Keith’s due to The Maxx, another dream-centered series that tends to defy description or summary, made even weirder if you remember that it was coming out as an animated series on MTV at the same time the early issues were printing. Keith’s figures tend to be chunky, rounded, suggesting a tamed Simon Bisley. But when I picked up the Preludes & Nocturnes trade, I found myself squinting simply to make out what was happening on the page. The art was murky, and not in a way that was evocative. It wasn’t until the pages were remastered for the Absolute editions that Keith’s art was dredged up from under the fuzziness of cheap printing and made bright where it was meant to be bright, shadowy where shadows were intended.
Keith would bail off the title after a few issues—there’s a quote from him somewhere I think about feeling like Hendrix in the Beatles—but it’d be a mistake to discount his impact on the lasting aesthetic of the series. Later pencilers like Kelley Jones, Sean McManus, P. Craig Russell, and Mark Hempel (not to mention Chris Bachalo, particularly on the Death minis) are very much in line with Keith’s style, if pushing it in different directions. A touch of cartoonish style will run through the series throughout, intercut with sketchier styles that run closer to what would become an identifiable house style on early Vertigo books.
As for the story, as mentioned it starts with a wrong number, a botched ritual, and by extension the first of the series’s unreliable books. The series never gets around to explaining how it is the Order of Ancient Mysteries ends up invoking Dream rather than Death, but a precedent is set here. The Magdalene Grimoire that Burgess covets is somehow flawed, not to be trusted. We’ll see this echo in the library of Dream, but also in the series’s most important book, the one Destiny is chained to. Books, Gaiman tells us from the outset, are complicated tricks, dangerous objects.
If Gaiman’s take on books is clearly defined, his opinions on magic are fuzzier. The magicians that show up over the course of the series tend to run from mildly unsavory (John Constantine) to extremely abrasive (Thessaly), if none come off as bad as Roderick Burgess. But it made me wonder about Gaiman’s other portrayals of magic, and so after five pages of a proper Sandman comic, I jumped ship to his Books of Magic miniseries, launched well into Sandman’s run, looking for answers.
Things to know about Books of Magic: yes, sure, Tim Hunter is sort of Harry Potter seven years before the first Harry Potter book sees print. I know there are people who get very upset about this fact, to this day. Practically speaking, a tempermental British twelve year old who is a magical chosen one is the whole list of the similarities between the two, and I don’t think Rowling needs to kick any royalties in Gaiman’s direction. The similarities are enough that the ubiquity of the Potter books really limited what DC could do with Tim Hunter, which is cosmically unfair, but we did get the excellent fifty issue run by John Ney Rieber, and solid if sometimes short-lived interpretations by Peter Gross, Dylan Horrocks, and Si Spurrier, so that’s not so bad.
Another thing to note is the art is gorgeous. Each of the four prestige-format issues is done by a different artist. John Bolton, Scott Hampton, and Paul Johnson all have somewhat similar styles painted art with wide open composition, and for the third book, set in Faerie, frequent Gaiman collaborator Charles Vess manages to make the fey lands feel more solid than anything else in the series.
A third thing about the Books of Magic series: there are zero books. At no point in four double-sized issue does anyone crack a tome. While Sandman begins with a book of magic, the Books of Magic series is itself intended to be the magical reference text for the DCU. Or possibly not: we’ll get to the continuity issues around the Vertigo imprint split when we get there. The story is less a story than it is a map, running through the history of magic in DC Comics, dropping in on all current magic users circa 1990, wending through the various realms that are not quite our own. If one of Gaiman’s go-to narrative structures is The Canterbury Tales, another is the story-as-a-map (catch me in a certain mood and I will argue that American Gods is essentially a map with a plot tacked onto the end, and is better as the former than the latter). The character of Tim Hunter is barely sketched out here; he’s a vehicle, our eyes on the ground. His character gets developed primarily by Rieber in the ongoing series that launches later.
I’d be curious to learn the intention behind the original series. Every once in a while, DC savvies to the fact their magical characters have undergone serious power-creep and either tries to codify magic use within the DCU. Maybe the most notable version of this was Michael Moorcock laying out a “magic bible” for DC around 2004–2005. Or they up and kill a whole lot of magic users, since it’s generally easy enough to bring them back. If Books of Magic was intended to be a canonical base for who was still a practitioner of magic within DC’s superhero line, it never really got used that way.
If it’s tough to incorporate Books of Magic into DC canon, it’s an equal mistake to project its canonical status back to 1987 and the first issue of Sandman. Later, it will become commercially useful to DC to imagine a kind of Gaimanverse that connects all his work for the company—indeed, the new edition of Books of Magic I picked up for this re-read has a “Sandman Universe Classics” banner across the top, referring to the sub-imprint launched by DC two years ago, including The Dreaming, Books of Magic, Lucifer, and House of Whispers, as the last gasp of Vertigo Comics—but that idea doesn’t realistically hold water until, at the earliest, The Children’s Crusade crossover in 1993.
I supposed we’ll have to talk about The Children’s Crusade later, too. Sigh.
So my side-trip into Books of Magic didn’t bring back anything of particular value, and we’re left with what’s on the page. Dream is invoked via a series of symbols, which tracks with the way the Endless communicate amongst themselves through the rest of the series. But the gallery symbols that represent the Endless siblings tend not to double as mundane objects. Gaiman’s doing a straightforward MacBeth riff here, the “old eye of newt, wing of bat” routine, and he’s careful to make it read as relatively silly, performative, and greedy, an approach to magic that contrast with versions that come along later in the series.
What follows the ritual is a rush across the 20th century, but it feels worth the time to note which 20th century the issue surveys. As hard as it is to keep the fact in mind, Sandman was, at its beginning, a comic taking place within DC continuity, albeit in a moment, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, where that continuity was still re-forming. Issue one’s quick scan of seventy years includes only one nod to DC superheroes, with a three panel appearance by the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds. In a quiet but very durable retcon, Gaiman weaves his new character into the origin of one of DC’s oldest heroes. Morpheus as inspiration for one of the original members of the Justice Society will manage to cross back over into the main line of DC Comics, largely through a storyline in James Robinson’s Starman that arguably makes Sandman Mystery Theatre DC canon by incorporating a couple pages by series artist Guy Davis.
But it isn’t Morpheus who inspires Wesley Dodds so much as it is his absence. Dream is an empty spot through most of the issue, the eye around which the story rages. This theme of absence vs. presence will run throughout the series; whole issues, sometimes entire arcs, will pass without Dream making more than a cameo. When Morpheus reappears in this issue, he snatches the narrative from the omniscient narrator who’s led us this far. He takes the story in hand, dashes through the kingdom of Dream, only its outskirts for now, and, fortified, returns to our world for his first act as the story’s protagonist rather than as its victim: revenge on his captor.
Of course it isn’t, really. His captor’s been dead decades, and Morpheus’s vengeance is hollow and petty. Vengeance of an immortal on a mere human can’t help but feel that way, and Gaiman underlines that here with the shift from Roderick Burgess to his somewhat hapless and elderly son. The first thing we see Morpheus doing is a fairly reprehensible act, even if it’s one that fits well within the language of superhero comics. As the series moves forward, we’ll see that this is the kind of thing Morpheus often does, or did, at least. He is, as someone will call him later, a bit of a prig. He’s prone to pettiness and not so much vengeful as he is vindictive. If the series is a chronicle of the limits to which Morpheus can become better, Gaiman starts us out at what could be the last low point. Morpheus is not a good guy, not a hero. His understanding of things exists outside of our ken.
And then there’s the form the vengeance takes. “I’ll give you a gift,” says Morpheus. What he grants Alex Burgess is a dream of eternal waking, a new permanent state, in the liminal space between dream and reality. The depiction by Sam Keith is Sandman’s first real brush with graphic horror, a promise of more and worse to come, but the dream itself isn’t unlike what Gaiman offers his readers. The series will continue to operate in that liminality, mixing dreams and deities and dull reality so that the reader’s never entirely sure of the ground they stand on. Even the serial nature of comic books amplifies this sense: pick up an issue and immerse in it for a half hour, carry it with you in your head to work, through dinner, back into dreams, waiting for the next issue to drop. And not every story concludes, especially here, in the world of Big Two Comics. There are cancellations, creative and editorial shifts, bankruptcies and copyright issues. There are stories that need to be rescued by large scale wank-a-thons, stories that end only in the hopeful realms of fan fiction—where they can never be sanctified by being labeled “canon.” By the time Morpheus delivers his gift, his revenge and his curse, we’re already marked with it. We pull back out of Alex Burgess’s permanent dream to a near-identical reiteration of the issue’s first panel, but the car is gone. There’s no one arriving, we’re already here. Again, we’re implored to wake up.
But were we sleeping? Have we been here before, and have we left? Can we? Is it real?