fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Sandman (Vol. 3): Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

SANDMAN DREAM COUNTRYNeil Gaiman’s Dream Country, the third volume in his THE SANDMAN series, is a collection of four stand-alone stories. I think it makes for a great introduction to the world of Sandman because each story is incredibly different from the one that precedes it; therefore, this particular volume is more likely to include at least one story that appeals to new readers who may be put off by a volume collecting only a single storyline. In fact, I recommend that readers new to THE SANDMAN start with either volume three or volume two; though I certainly enjoy Volume I now that I love the world of Sandman, I believe it isn’t always the best volume to bring in new readers. Dream Country, on the other hand, shows the wide variety of art and genre and storytelling of which Gaiman and the SANDMAN artists, a rotating cast, are capable.

The first issue in the collection, THE SANDMAN #17, is entitled “Calliope,” and it’s my least favorite story to read in this volume; however, thematically, I find the story powerful. Richard Madoc is the main male character, and after one highly successful novel, he now has writer’s block. Out of desperation, he turns to an older writer who has been successful his entire life. This writer’s success? He has a muse. In fact, he has one of THE muses: Calliope. He captured her and has imprisoned her in his mansion, literally raping her in order to subdue his muse and make her his servant and slave. Now old and no longer wanting to write, he makes a deal with the young writer Madoc, who takes Calliope to his home, imprisons her, and rapes her just as her previous “owner” did. The ideas burst forth, and he writes novel after novel to great acclaim.

sandman v3 1I have given merely the premise of the story. And I’ve made clear why I don’t enjoy reading it: Any story with a rape scene, obviously, is difficult to read (or should be). However, Gaiman’s decision to include a rape in his story is a good one because of what he seems to be saying about the writer, or artist of any kind, and those he uses as sources for subject matter. In fact, he reminds me of the literary critic Wayne Booth’s discussion of the ethical obligations a writer has to those around him. I use him deliberately here since Gaiman seems to focus on the ethical failure of the male author in both this story and the third story in this volume. I won’t give away anymore plot points for “Calliope” except to say that she must call out for help to a variety of people, some who help and some who do not. Sandman comes when Calliope calls, and at that point, the story really takes off.

There’s not much to say about my second favorite story in this volume, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” THE SANDMAN issue #18. The premise of the story sells itself: The entire story is about cats and told from the perspective of cats. The artist Kelley Jones asked to write this issue because he wanted the challenge both of drawing cats and of drawing the entire comic as if we are looking at everything through the eyes of cats which are mere inches from the ground (Bender*). Therefore, though we see a few human beings, we see only their feet and legs whenever they appear. Visually, this issue is fantastic. Also of visual significance is that when we see Dream in this issue, we see him as a black cat who speaks using the usual dark, distinctive speech bubbles we’re familiar with from Dream’s other appearances throughout THE SANDMAN. We learn, therefore, that Dream, or Morpheus, really does change appearance based on who is imagining the Sandman. In this issue, we find out about the true history of cats that is no longer true, the incredible power possible through dreaming, and the difficulties of tapping into that power.

sandman v3 5My favorite issue in this volume is the third issue in this collection — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” THE SANDMAN issue #19 — which, not surprisingly, is based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This issue is one of the best in the entire Sandman series, and as far as I know, it still holds the distinction of being the only monthly issue of a comic ever to win a literary award — The 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story (Bender). This story is absolutely brilliant, complex, touching, thematically rich, beautifully drawn and colored, and so on. If you know a Shakespeare fan who doubts the intellectual power of comics and the unique artistic possibilities of this art form, this one issue might be the right comic to place in his hands (In fact, teaching the original play, along with a movie adaptation and this comic is in my future plans for my college writing course).

The story is not just a retelling of the play: During the course of the comic, the play is performed, but we see only parts of the play. Throughout the rest of the comic, we witness conversations taking place, both in the audience and behind the stage. The premise is that Shakespeare has an obligation to Dream, and this performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will fulfill half that obligation. Shakespeare’s company is confused when they are told to set up the performance on Sussex Downs, far from the city and absent an audience. But they do as they’re told, and as the play is about to begin, Dream leads out into the field the fairies and creatures about whom the play is written. In other words, Shakespeare and his players are about to perform not only for Oberon and Titania, but also, and perhaps even more dangerously, for Puck himself.

As in the first issue of this volume, “Calliope,” about the writer and his obligation to those around him, this issue touches on the writer and his responsibilities to his family and how his dedication to his art impacts his family relationships; in the case of this story, the focus is on Shakespeare’s relationship with his son. The son is barely in the story at all, but much of the story’s emotional power comes from his presence. I was fascinated to find out more about this part of the story when I read Bender’s conversation with Gaiman about the comic (see * below). The most important passage involving Shakespeare’s son is when he is talking about his father to other actors, but Gaiman revealed in conversation that this passage was later added because of the excellent advice given to him by Karen Berger, the great Vertigo editor (and DC talent scout for British writers and artists). Berger said to him, according to Gaiman, “What you’ve written lacks a human center of any kind. It’s of interest only to Shakespeare scholars.” So, Gaiman added this scene, and when you read the comic for the first time, make sure you look for it: You’ll see how it really does give the story heart.

sandman v3 4There’s much more to appreciate, from the shift in lighting through the course of the comic to the way Gaiman works to tell enough about the play and show just the right scenes to help a reader enjoy the comic even if he’s never read the play or hasn’t read it in a long time. I like that it makes people WANT to read Shakespeare, too (there’s more and more research showing that reading comics leads to more reading of ALL kinds and not just of comics). Puck as an audience member is fantastic, and he manages to show us that he is true to his nature. We get insight into the way men dressed as women for their parts, and the way they talk to each other is based on Gaiman’s research into the men who played the female roles at that time period (Bender). It strikes me as an excellent way for those who teach Shakespeare to “show” certain aspects of a contemporary performance of a Shakespearean play and to talk about using older stories to tell new stories: Just as Shakespeare borrows from the past, so does Gaiman. Also, as a whole the art by Charles Vess is beautiful: This issue deserves to be published separately as a hardback, oversized edition, perhaps with the play printed in the back. If the thought of buying a TPB collection of only four comics seems to be expensive, consider that this one issue alone is worth the price. The story in this issue even builds off of and elaborates some of the themes in Shakespeare’s play. How else can I put it? This one comic by Gaiman is a masterpiece.

sandman v3 facadeThe final story is a difficult one to discuss because of the controversy surrounding the ending, which, read superficially, seems to suggest that Gaiman shows a woman who is depressed primarily because of her looks. However, “Facade,” issue #20 of Sandman, is not about “feminine beauty” according to Gaiman. In fact, he continues, “it could just as easily have been about a male character” (Bender). “Facade” is about the DC character Element Girl from DC comics, but even if you don’t know who she is, it’s a powerful story about becoming isolated and feeling more like an object, a surface, than a person. Sandman’s sister, the always-cheerful Death, puts in an appearance, and the conversation that follows tells us a little about Element Girl and even more about finding meaning in life after living for a long time. Time hangs heavy on most of us at some point, and the story seems to ask, “How does one deal, not with momentary boredom, but with years of monotony and isolation?” It’s a strange, haunting story, with striking visual elements and an ending that will disturb readers. Is the ending the right one for the story? I think it is for this character even though it may be the wrong ending for those she represents. And this tension is unsettling. At the very least, this story is certainly thought-provoking.

Dream Country is not merely another top-notch collection in the SANDMAN series; it shows Gaiman improving his story-telling techniques, as well as working to match the right stories with the right artists. We also gain insight into Sandman’s past as well as how he’s changed since he escaped his imprisonment, which we read about in the first volume. In Dream Country, we get hints that he has a variety of past lovers, possibly both Titania and Calliope. However, his empathy for others, something that we’ll see developed even more in volume four, Season of Mists, is already in evidence here as he comes when Calliope calls him. Also of interest is Gaiman’s continued focus on the role of the artist and the storyteller: His stories are often about human storytellers and reveal Gaiman’s thoughts on his own profession. THE SANDMAN series is particularly suited to such explorations since the titular character is the Lord of Dreams, the source of the stories that we both desire and can’t resist. With eyes closed, we all enter Dream Country.

*The Sandman Companion (1999) by Hy Bender

~Brad Hawley

Vol 3 features four stand-alone stories in the Sandman universe, “Calliope,” “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Facade.” After the introductory Vol 1, in which we learn about Morpheus and his quest to regain his position and powers as Lord of the Dreaming, and Vol 2, in which the young girl Rose Walker is at the center of a mysterious power struggle because she is a dream vortex, in Vol 3 Gaiman treat us to several very different stories in which Dream is continuously lurking in the corners of each story but rarely take center stage. 

“Calliope” is a story about a writer who runs into writer’s block after a successful first novel. He seeks help from an older, established writer who is willing to share his ‘Muse’ for the price of a ‘trichinobezoar.’ What’s that, you ask? Well, you’ll have to read to find out. And when we talk about having a Muse, this is a very literal manifestation. Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN is infused with classical mythologies, writers, storytellers, and the often heavy burden of the artist to create stories.

What sacrifices must a writer make to come up with a steady flow of stories to remain successful? This story is a fairly extreme metaphor for the creative process, one that I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on since I have always been exclusively a consumer of stories, not a creator. It strikes me as a very painstaking process, and it takes great courage to put your work out there for the public to either love or hate, praise or pillory, or perhaps worst of all, ignore. It may take a year or more of daily sweat, blood & tears to write a book, a couple days for someone to read it, and just an hour or two for a reviewer to trash it. So if you saw a shortcut available, the temptation would be great indeed.

“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a very dreamlike fable about the history of cats and humans told from the cats’ perspective. It’s quite quirky and whimsical and features Morpheus is a feline guise. You won’t think of cats the same way again, nor the power of collective dreaming.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the centerpiece of this volume, a multi-layered retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play, in which the Bard himself is one of the players, while the audience includes Auberon and Titania of the Faerie kingdom, watching and commenting on Shakespeare’s dramatic interpretation of themselves. The whole performance is orchestrated in English countryside by Morpheus, a relationship that first developed in “Men of Good Fortune” in Vol 2. It’s wonderful to see how Gaiman carefully staged the beginnings of this story earlier without revealing what was to come. Just as in Calliope, the theme of the artist and what he must sacrifice to produce great works is explored, with an unexpectedly personal touch at the end.

“Facade” is strange and ghastly story, quite different from the first three. It’s about a deathly-looking woman name Raine who sits in her dank and lonely apartment, festooned with white masks. She looks both pale, scaly, and corpse-like. Later we see her body is even stranger and more powerful than initially hinted at, and only after reading Brad’s review did I find out she is a DC character named Element Girl. But this is no super-hero tale. Raine is pathologically afraid of going outside, interacting with people, or doing anything other than smoking and brooding. She calls her case-worker to ask when her monthly check is coming, just to alleviate her crushing loneliness and despair. It’s pretty grim stuff, and I wasn’t sure where the story was going, but then a surprise character shows up, and has the most fascinating conversation with Raine about life, death, and choices. It reframes the story completely, and the ending is thought-provoking and ambiguous. It’s definitely hard to assess this story, but it does have thematic ties with previous volumes.

~Stuart Starosta


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

    View all posts
  • Stuart Starosta

    STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

    View all posts