As I Go Along: The Sandman #6 ‘Fables and Reflections’

Note: “As I Go Along” is a new feature in which I review and discuss the best graphic novels and series that I haven’t yet had a chance to read. These are the titles your comic-loving friends have been trying to push into your hands for years, only now I’ll be doing the pushing (or telling you not to bother). The post will include spoilers for those who have not yet read the work.

“Dreams are composed of many things, my son. Of images and hopes, of fears and memories. Memories of the past, and memories of the future…”

Much like the third “Sandman” collection, “Dream Country,” “Fables and Reflections” is a collection of one-issue short stories. Most of these tales don’t contribute to the series’ major story arc other than to provide background and subtext, the exception being the collection’s middle story, “The Song of Orpheus.”

Aside from “Orpheus,” the stories in “Fables and Reflections” are divided into two groups (thematically, not in the paperback). The first group is labelled “Convergences.” Each of these issues is structured as a story within a story and explores the relationships between story and storyteller, which are often convergent, get it? The second is “Distant Mirrors,” which focuses on rulers, or more specifically, emperors, and the nature of power. I spent a whole lot of time on Wikipedia reading about his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton IMaximilien Robespierre and Saint-Just,Augustus Caesar, and  Hārūn al-Rashīd after reading these stories. Gaiman will do that, get you interested in things you’d otherwise never give a second glance.

The four “Distant Mirrors” stories show Dream (and sometimes his relatives) influencing those rulers and their actions. Everything ends up the same way we learned in history class, but in this universe the things in the middle happened a bit differently. It turns out failed businessman Joshua Abraham Norton didn’t just go mad and name himself Emperor of the United States. In fact, it all happened because Despair challenges Dream to keep Norton in his realm for the rest of his life. Rather than let Norton wallow in his pity and fall into his sister’s control, Dream allows him to believe he’s in charge. Normally, such insanity would mean the “Emperor” would be Delirium’s property, but as she points out in one of the most poignant lines I’ve ever read in a comic book (or anywhere, really), “His madness keeps him sane.”

There’s no time to talk about all the stories, so instead I’ll focus on “Thermidor,” which, along with being  my favorite, and serves as something of an introduction to “The Song of Orpheus.” Dream charges the Lady Johanna Constantine, who first appeared in “Men of Good Fortune,” with the task of removing his son’s (body free but nonetheless immortal) head from France. The leaders of the revolution seek to destroy it because they are “remaking the world… creating an age of pure reason,” and such an “object of superstition” has no place in their new “utopia.”

“Thermidor” is far and away the most political entry of the “Sandman” series thus far. Gaiman’s scathing critique of those who oversaw the “Reign of Terror” is clear. He mocks these Robespierre and Saint-Just, who had tens of thousands killed, “lost the saints and burnt the churches” in the name of reason. The juxtaposition is quite obvious: they’re seeking to destroy a single head in the name of logic as a guillotine, irrationality incarnate, sits outside the window.

Anyhow, onward to “The Song of Orpheus,” a double-issue in which we finally get the backstory of Dream’s oft-mentioned but never shown progeny, up to and including just how he ended up as an immortal head without a body. Behind the classic Greek myth of Orpheus, Gaiman layers his own characters and their motivations. In the “Sandman” version of the tale, Orpheus is the son of Dream and Calliope, the muse who you’ll recall was set free by her former lover back in “Dream Country.”

The story begins with Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice. Following the mythology, the young bride dies and Orpheus sets out to the underworld to take her back. After singing a song, Hades tells him (more or less), “sure your wife will be resurrected and you’ll both be allowed to leave the underworld on one condition: don’t look back.” Orpheus looks back, of course, because if he didn’t there would be no conflict and thus, no story.

The most important part of the story, perhaps, is the way it displays Dream’s coldness at this point in time. When his own son, whose bride has just died on the day they were to be wedded up and dies, pleads for his help, Dream flat out refuses him. Now, the Dream we’ve come to know still might not have helped, but he may at least have thought it over for a second or two. Dream has changed, and one of the best ways of displaying that is showing us a “before” picture. His growth and development will be an area of interest in the next collection, “Brief Lives,” as well.


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