Sandman Universe 1: Discussion

by Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers

Sandman Universe 1

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Drew: Of the “graphic novel” canon — that is, comics that non-comics readers have (however begrudgingly) deemed worthy of their time and interest — Sandman is far and away the longest. Persepolis and Maus constitute two volumes apiece, and Watchmen just the one, but Sandman spills into ten (or more, depending on how you count decades-later follow-ups like this one). However we diagnose that oddity — either as an unusually long, but no less novelistic “literary comic,” or as a more humble ongoing that was elevated to the pantheon of comics grownups aren’t afraid to read — I think the explanation is the same: the flexibility of Dream and his kingdom. Everybody dreams, affording Dream excuses to interact with every corner of the world, from kittens to serial killers, from William Shakespeare to the demons of Hell. And because of Dream’s role as a storyteller of sorts, the only guarantee in any issue was that it would contain a story (often wrapped up in a love letter to stories and storytelling). That is very much true of Sandman Universe 1, which spins its story off into four supporting series, but not before pausing to simply luxuriate in their worlds.

The framing story — that Daniel Hall has abandoned his post as Dream, leaving the Dreaming to fall into ruin — is most directly tied to the events of Sandman and its ongoing mythology. But Matthew’s quest to track Daniel down leads him through the worlds (and across the paths) of these other series, offering quick glimpses of what they might have to offer.

As a premise, that might feel a bit like the “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase,” but the framing story helps point us back to the pure joy of experiencing stories. Take Lucien’s narration to nobody — an apparent ritual celebrating his familiarity with stories nobody has ever heard before.

Lucien

It’s teasing the stories to come in more ways than one — he’s whetting our appetite for new stories even as he’s introducing something being amiss in the Dreaming.

That’s a clever bit of storytelling economy, and just self-aware enough that I’d just as soon credit Neil Gaiman for writing those words, but the credits on this issue are frustratingly non-specific. It seems logical enough that the writers and artists credited might simply have worked on the scenes teasing their respective series, but we don’t know for sure. Which maybe spoils some of that Auteurism that tends to accompany the lionizing of Sandman — it is, after all, easier for non-comics readers to imagine comics as having an auteur in the same way a novel does — but it also reflects the situation in the dreaming. It’s no secret that Dream was a stand-in of sorts for Gaiman, so it makes sense that other writers would step into the fold in Dream’s absence. Moreover, that recruitment of other creators reflects the kind of leadership-by-committee that the Dreaming reverts to without a leader. Granted, they never come to a decision more executive than “find Daniel,” but they feel oddly directionless. Heck, Cain can’t think of a better solution than stabbing anomalies with increasingly bigger knives.

But perhaps more to the thematic point of Sandman, without a storyteller, the denziens of the Dreaming are left only to observe the stories around them. Dora has actively chosen that role, retreating into an old woman’s dream as a kind of permanent guest/spectator, but I’m most fascinated by Matthew’s audience surrogacy. Dora might be self-aware as an audience member, but it’s Matthew’s mission to find Daniel (which I suppose we have no choice but to adopt as our own) that keeps the pages turning. And sure enough, Matthew’s presence is what drives each scene change, as he carries us from spin-off to spin-off.

I recognize that this reading elevates Gaiman to godly status while painting his collaborators as powerless observers, but I think that might really be the point of this issue. Indeed, before the issue is through, Daniel makes it clear he’s not coming back, which sure seems like the situation all of these creative teams will be in with their respective series. Gaiman is still the storyteller, but he’s not telling stories anymore. It’s a thematically tense place to launch all of these series from, which is definitely intriguing above and beyond their respective premises.

Patrick, do you care to address any of those premises, specifically? I suppose I’m most interested in Si Spurrier and Bilquis Evely’s The Dreaming, both because of my fondness of the creative team and the flexibility of the setting that I mentioned earlier, but I’m curious if any of these other scenes caught your eye.

Patrick: It is fascinating to see how Matthew experiences what amounts to a handful of zero issues, right? It’s a bunch of intriguing premises, and the only one that did leave me wanting more was Lucifer’s tale. The artistic team of Max and Sebastian Fiumara freely trade in some truly grotesque interpretations of Dante-esque imagery, which ends up being more communicative of mood than of story.

It’s a much less propulsive stretch of Sandman Universe 1, and perhaps the story’s placement in the back of the issue does it a disservice. The meditative quality of Dan Watters’ take on this story makes for a pacing and tonal shift that feels especially jarring between the upbeat “House of Whispers” story, and the goofy surreal conclusion of the “The Dreaming” story.

My favorite of the bunch was Nalo Hopkinson and Domo Stanton’s Louisiana-based story, which will be continued in House of Whispers 1. We’re obviously exposed to a lot of introductory storytelling in this issue, but Hopkinson and Stanton manage to establish their own set of parallel stories in a scant seven pages. The interwoven stories of a family gently coming to terms with their sister’s new relationship and the meddling of a pair of bayou gods unfolds clearly and naturally, in a way that feels uncannily like dreaming.

For me, it’s the page turn between Habibi discarding her cool crocodile charm and the revelation that the charm is really an ancient crocodile god. It’s a fascinatingly fluid slide from realism into fantasy.

I love that Stanton is so insistent on the look of frustration on Habibi’s face. This isn’t a contrived plot-move to get the charm back into the water, it’s an expression of Habibi’s impotent rage. What’s the effect of re-animating an crocodile god through an act of anger? The fates of these mortals and the fates of these gods are both literally and figurative bound in chains. Erzulie is more than happy to shed those chains as layers of fantasy and reality merge freely into each other.

The charm becomes a crocodile; crocodile becomes a man; the man becomes a tuxedoed man. Meanwhile, the mermaid becomes a woman and snaps the chains around his neck. Godlike characters like these need not be bound by the concerns or contrivances of earthbound mortals. How and/or why these tales will continue to intersect is super exciting to me, and I can’t wait to see where Hopkinson and Stanton take this when the series launches this fall.

And I wouldn’t normally stretch out my reading to issues that have yet to hit the stands, but there is something very freeing and empowering about these future series. To read through Sandman Universe 1 is to be dragged around by a raven on a mission. Drew pretty rightly aligns Matthew’s goals with the readers — he’s our point of entry to all these worlds and stories. But that all sorta melts away immediately after the credits page. We’re presented with four different roads to follow in the future: The Dreaming, Books of Magic, House of Whispers or Lucifer. It’s not exactly a Chose-Your-Own-Adventure™ scenario, but there is a very literal way that are being asked to chose our own adventures from here. These are all separate stories, and I love the agency to select which of those stories I’m going to follow.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

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