Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Sandman is a difficult comic to discuss in any sort of critical fashion if only because it’s generated a fan base which defends the series far in excess of its virtues. By and large, it’s a strong, laudable run of some 75+ comics with a great deal of merit – of those stories, a solid third (typically the ones which, ironically, feature the book’s title characters and his clan little, if at all) are impeccable and practically beyond criticism. Another third are stories which can conceivably be described, at worst, as “capable but literate”, and then there’s that last third which is, you know, A Game of You.

It’s also fair to say that the book often seemed to lack direction, that – claims to the contrary notwithstanding – the first dozen or so issues seem to indicate that Gaiman didn’t truly know where the comic was ultimately going, it relied on character sketches at the cost of world-building, dragged its feet, was a smidgey-widge pretentious,  and so on.

The hell you say.
Really, you don’t have to go much further than the title’s second coherent arc, The Doll’s House, to see all of its strengths and weaknesses on display in a single story:  While it simultaneously introduces the series’ most intriguing single idea (the serial killer convention) and crafts a brace of well-conceived characters in the midst of a compelling, human storyline (Rose and her recently reunited family),  it then proceeds to gad it up with imprecise and ambiguous threats (oh no, it’s a “dream vortex”, should we … call the cops?), “colorful” background characters who tread water and appear to be weird for weird’s sake, indulgent interstitial stories which are admittedly exceptional but which completely fubar the pacing of the main narrative, and then let’s not forget the Little Nemo-inspired scenes of escapism which may have seemed shocking once but become increasingly goofy as the story proceeds AND the fact that the main female protagonist is TWICE in the same story threatened with rape and murder and then TWICE is saved by a magical man from dreamland …

In lieu of actual criticism, though, you tend to get relentlessly forgiving and barely-qualified praise where even the failings are celebrated as successes, such as with the AV Club’s recent review of the series which, if you don’t have time to read it, you can summarize by picturing the sound of an enthusiastic but inexpert blowjob OR, if imagination fails you completely, you can just feed a jar of mayonnaise to a bulldog.

For my part, though, the story which has always stood out as the series’ weakest point was early on, Sandman No.4 (April 1989), “A Hope in Hell” – or, as I like to call it, literally the dumbest comic I’ve ever read.

In the inconceivable event that you’ve never read Sandman before now, here’s the skinny: The Sandman is “Morpheus”, the King of Dreams, a nearly-immortal and occasionally (when the script calls for it) functionally omnipotent figure who is a member of some supernatural race of beings called The Endless and who has dominion over the world of dreams in some occasionally indistinct capacity – he either makes them, rules over them, or is the embodiment of them, or some mix thereof.

Whatever the case, dreams certainly happen when he’s otherwise occupied, such as early in his first issue where it’s revealed that Morpheus has been the captive of a Crowley-esque cult of spiritualists since the early part of the century. Escaping from his captors, the early issues of Sandman’s comic involve him retrieving the symbols of his office – a pouch of magic sand, a ruby, and his magic hat, which is in Hell.

Of course he's got a fedora.
To be fair, it’s not a magic hat, it’s a ♫ magic hel-met ♫, which I defy you not to hear in Elmer Fudd’s voice every time it’s mentioned. Spear and ♫ magic hel-met ♫.

The story in A Hope in Hell doesn’t kick in until almost halfway through the book, as first we’re introduced to the topography of Hell and some story-seeding for later issues. After an intro to the demonic host of Hell, entertainingly drawn by Sam Kieth, we’re in the ridiculous main story.

So Hell has Sandman’s ♫ magic hel-met ♫ and Lucifer, feeling  friendly, invites the Sandman to choose from among Hell’s gathered masses of messed-up looking demon dudes to find the guy who has it in his possession– and he does, it’s Choronozon, a magenta nitwit with a wide catalog of castoff costumes from touring productions of the Rocky Horror Show. Unwilling to return the ♫ magic hel-met ♫, Choronozon challenges the Sandman to – A RAP BATTLE!

It’s the rap battle for a ♫ magic hel-met ♫ to beat all rap battles for a ♫ magic hel-met ♫! Again, to be fair, it’s not exactly a scene from 8 Mile, in fact it’s slightly more contrived than a demonic rap battle – it’s an infernal poetry slam (aren’t they all). The game is allegedly called “reality” and what it involves is for both players to (A) dress up like extras from a Michael Jackson video and (B) to talk utter nonsense at each other.

Each contestant describes themselves as some sort of thing which destroys the last thing, so like Choronozon starts by being a wolf, Morpheus replies by being a guy who kills wolves, Choronozon replies by being a thing that kills guys – it’s not exactly Settlers of Cataan, although I’d fully expect to see guys in fedoras and photographers vests playing it at a card table in back of a comic shop.

The dumbest part of the battle – and remember this, it’s important – is that Choronozon decides he’s the death of the universe and Sandman replies “Oh, but I’m hope!” and everyone’s like WHAT and Satan’s record player scratches and then you hear a cat yowl and like a planter crashes to the ground or something. Hope, can you believe this guy, HOPE! Fans are rushing the field, tearing down the goalposts now.  No one knows how to crush hope, even though hopes are literally dashed every second of every day plus that one guy just said that the universe is dead so there is no hope to be had, anyway, this game is O-VER *dumps Gatorade on Sandman*

So, already this would be frustrating enough, because this is one of those situations where the characters in a story are supposed to be more clever than the readers but they act like morons and there’s nothing you can do, they ain’t real! You can’t phone ‘em up or nothing. They just gotta be dumb, and then the story ends – but it doesn’t.

Now in possession of his ♫ magic hel-met ♫, Sandman is preparing to leave Hell, but the demons of the underworld gather to stop him, even though he’s won his freedom by playing the most important game of Apples to Apples the universe has ever seen. He engineers his escape by explaining that, hey, he’s Dream and even demons gotta dream of a better place, right? Okay, peace out.

I am a Nineties alterna-comic, over-written, pretension-bolstering.

So here’s what happened, in short order – keeping in mind that the stakes of the magic rap battle was that, if he lost, demons would kill him, the Sandman manages to get out of both situations by iterating the same idea – that he represents “hope”. Both times. Literally, the book staged the same threat with the same resolution within the span of six pages. It went like this:

Demons: All right Sandman, we are going to hell of kill you now.

Sandman: But you can’t kill me, because I represent **HOPE**

Demons: OHHHH SHIIIIT SONN I guess you’re right okay see you (pause) but not before we KILL YOU!

Sandman: But you can’t kill me, because I represent **HOPE** still

Demons: OHHHH SHIIIIIIT SONN WE FORGOTTTT you mentioned that like just now, all right see ya for reals this time, bye!

Dumb as fuck, but at least the Prez issue was still forthcoming.

1 comment:

Christopher Robin said...

The winning move in this game gets even sillier later, when it's revealed that the living embodiment of the absence of hope is in fact Dream's little sister. Too bad Choronzon couldn't skip ahead to read "Season of Mists".

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