"Death's a Mug's Game": Reading Life and Death in Gaiman's Sandman

[This is a short excerpt from my longer article on Gaiman that will appear in Gale/Cengage's British Writers Series XXIII next year: what follows is a brief reading of two comics from the series, which I hope will inspire people who haven't read them to pick them up!] 

Critics often ask—with all seriousness—why comics writers would write a comic instead of a traditional story or novel. Typically they see comics as a juvenile form of literature, or at best a way station for writers trying to break into more serious work. Gaiman, however, has always embraced the possibilities of what Will Eisner termed “sequential art,” and never distanced himself from the comics community that spawned his greatest success. Partly this is because for him, comics were “virgin territory.” As he goes on to explain, “When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now...But with comics I felt like—I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of.” (Ogline, Wild River Review). One of the things he can do that “nobody has ever thought of” is the sheer range of associations possible in a literary comic book. While a story or novel can allude to this or that work, a comic book can literally have several stories/characters existing simultaneously in a single frame, even in distinct worlds/times/ universes. As Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer, remarked about Sandman, “I remember finishing issues of Sandman and just sitting there trying to catch my breath, saying “What a ride this guy has taken me on. And I’d add, “how brilliantly clever.” I’m a fairly clever guy, and I knew that I was catching maybe a third of the cultural references in each issue that Neil would just casually drop in” (Bender xiii).  

 The Sandman series encompassed 75 individual comics, spanning from 1988 to 1996, along with several individual short stories and special issues. The basic story follows the ancient character of the Sandman, one of the Endless, a family of god-like creatures including Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, etc. Dream’s role is to control “The Dreaming,” the very landscape of dreams that maintains our psychic personalities. This allows him to travel from one story to another, rarely being the main attraction, but always working carefully behind the scenes in ways that often take several issues—or even several years—to bear fruit. The cast of characters is immense, including historical/literary characters such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, and Marco Polo, as well as creatures from myth, fantasy, and popular culture (even John Belushi makes an appearance). The series introduces us to Dream through the following mishap: in 1916, an English magician, Roderick Burgess, concocts a spell to ensnare Death, only to catch Dream, her younger brother. Dream (or Sandman) is stripped naked and encased in a glass case to hear the sorcerer’s demands. Instead, Dream defiantly ignores him, and remains in his prison for 72 years, escaping only when the magician’s son accidentally erases part of the magic circle enclosing the case. His first quest is to set the Dreaming back in order, which has suffered terribly in his absence. To do so, he has to join forces with Lucifer himself to win back the instruments of his office: his helmet, pouch, and ruby.

While exploring each issue and series of Sandman would require the better part of a book, focusing on two distinct issues can suggest the sheer range of the work: The Doll’s House 4, “Men of Good Fortune” and Seasons of Mists 2. These works showcase the extraordinary range of the series, as one demonstrates Gaiman’s delight in historical narratives and playful humor, while the other reveals the darker, philosophical undercurrents of the entire series. In “Men of Good Fortune,” Dream arrives with Death at an inn in 14th century England, surrounded by the banter of farmers, merchants, and poets. Death encourages Dream to listen to these conversations, and he quickly picks out a gentleman who is railing against Death: “It’s Rubbish, Death...I mean, what’s it good for, eh? Think about it” (3). Dream is intrigued, and asks the man if he will meet him in the same tavern a hundred years hence. The man, one Hob Gadling, carelessly agrees and thinks nothing more of it. The story follows their meetings in 1488, 1588, 1688, 1788, 1888, and finally 1988, as Dream follows his progress through high and low fortunes, checking his optimism at every turn. Will Hob finally renounce his life and beg for the embrace of Death? Or will he ultimately discover the true meaning of life, once the exclusive property of the Endless? 
From this synopsis several important themes dance out, chief among them the meaning of an individual life. If we could simply live beyond the span of six, seven, or eight decades, would it be long enough to collect our winnings? Hob believes that death is the ultimate card sharp, cheating people before they learn the rules, so he simply refuses to play. Once Dream returns in 1488, Hob realizes that he might be playing a “game” after all. However, he soon reveals that one hundred years doesn’t teach one much of anything; rather, he has lived more or less the same life as before, drifting from war to war as a hired mercenary. He is delighted with the small innovations of life: playing cards, handkerchiefs, and chimneys, but hasn’t been at the forefront of these advances. Ironically, a hundred years earlier he was sitting in the same inn as Geoffrey Chaucer, who spoke of his interest in writing “tavern tales told of an evening” (2). Now that Hob has taken up a partnership in the printing press, some of his first works will be those of Chaucer, though he will not understand the worth of this “fad” to posterity—or his pocketbook.  Only in 1588 does he begin to see the big picture, as his profits have thrust him into a new class with a new name to boot: Sir Robert Gadlen. Yet his ignorance shines through as he tells Dream, “The Gods have smiled on me, as they smile on all England, where no man is slave or bondsman” (10). The irony of this statement will be lost on Sir Robert when, in 1788, he hoards his riches from the Transatlantic slave trade.

However, as he goes on about his riches and new-found importance, the reader is more interested in a conversation going on just behind them: Shakespeare and Marlowe are discussing the former’s dreadful first play, Henry VI, Part 1, which Marlowe claims “should be his last” (11). Shakespeare laments that he can write nothing as deathless as Marlowe’s lines, and that he would be willing to offer up his very soul to do so. Not surprisingly, Death is all ears, and asks Sir Robert who he is. The self-satisfied gentleman dismisses him with the remark, “Acts a bit. Wrote a play...He’s crap” (12). Death sees something more in young “William Shaxberd” and leaves the inn with him; only three frames remain of 1588, three portraits of the man mistakes luck for wisdom and has forgotten how to gamble (unlike Will). As he scarfs down food, we get a final scene of him raising his glass with the pronouncement, “Everything to live for. And nowhere to go but up” (13). The magnificent coloring of this issue offers a stark contrast from the pastoral blues and greens of Elizabethan England to the shadowy purples of the Restoration: vice has invaded the land, and our resident gentleman has been reduced to penury, unable even to enter his timeless inn. As he confides to Dream, “I’ve hated every second of the last eighty years. Every bloody second. You know that?” (16). Sympathetically—or perhaps inquisitively—Dream offers him the respite of death, which he abruptly turns aside. No, death is a “mug’s game” and he insists he has “so much to live for” (16).

Yet this endless optimism is questioned in 1788—not surprisingly, only a few decades after the publication of Voltaire’s Candide, which skewered philosophical optimism—when Sir Robert, who has become rich from the slave trade, remarks, “like I said, it’s a living” (17). After four hundred years, and with the knowledge of his immorality, Sir Robert is still living day-to-day, trying to “make a living” rather than changing the world. He has no plan, no dreams, no ambitions. Indeed, for the first time in their relationship, Sir Robert realizes he doesn’t know a thing about Dream, not even his name. Only in 1888 does he finally start looking around, realizing that he’s not the only one evading death or immune from its promise. The one thing he lacks in life is companionship, as his friends inevitably die and are forgotten (he can’t even remember his once-beloved wife’s face). Only Dream remains, and it dawns on him that Dream, himself, desired a companion to share gossip with, perhaps the true nature of their game. Naturally Dream denies having such human frailties, but when he returns in 1988, he greets Robert as a friend.  So what does a man learn in a life, or in several lives? Does he learn to “win”? Or simply to hedge his bets? Is there anything to find in a thousand lives that is denied in a single lifetime? As Death tells him in 1788, “The Great Stories will always return to their original forms” (18). In other words, a hundred lives will end the same as the first and tell the same stories. Yet even a single life has the ability to surprise us, as Dream has learned of his own humanity in 1988, a fact he had stubbornly denied for a billion years. 

If life is the subject of “Men of Good Fortune,” the second part of “Season of Mists” is death—or more specifically, hell itself. Dream journeys to Lucifer’s realm to rescue his beloved, Nada, from her eternal torments. However, when he arrives he finds Hell abandoned, the front gates open, and not a damned soul in sight. The artwork in this issue is particularly extraordinary, as the fortress of Hell resembles a nightmare vision from H.R. Giger’s imagination. Yet the colors are surprisingly lush and beautiful, as if to suggest the pleasures that tempt one to this infernal domain. Visually, the work plays with space quite a bit, with moments that break out of the frame, suggesting an endless, timeless world. When Lucifer finally appears—a man with a curiously soap-opera appearance, despite his wings—he tells Dream he is closing up shop. No more hell, no more torments. He asks Dream to follow him along as he banishes the last stragglers from his realm, a task made difficult because of Hell’s staggering size. When asked how large, Lucifer merely replies, “even I couldn’t say for certain exactly how vast. It’s almost a meaningless question” (10). Indeed, as we soon learn, the sheer capacity for human beings to suffer and create suffering for others is endless and uncharted.

The first stop is to a sinner chained savagely to a rock by a thousand barbs, each one stretching his skin to the breaking point. Despite being allowed to leave, he refuses, exclaiming “You...do...not understand. I am Breschau...Breschau of Livonia. I ripped out the tongues of those who spoke against me, and cut the unborn babes from the wombs of my enemies’ women” (11). Lucifer is unmoved and unimpressed, dismissing him since his victims no longer exist and the world has forgotten his crimes. “Haven’t you tortured yourself enough?” Lucifer asks him. The question wounds Breschau, who with tears in his eyes responds, “It’s not me that is torturing me. It’s the vengeance of the Lord—did you not hear?” (12). Lucifer banishes him all the same. Hell, it seems, is less a prison than a mirror, built for narcissistic souls to stare down their shame for eternity. As he explains, “Ten billion years spent providing a place for dead mortals to torture themselves. And like all masochists they called the shots—“burn me” “freeze me” “eat me” “hurt me”...and we did” (18). In many ways, Lucifer emerges as a shadowy Batman, rounding up a universe of Jokers and Scarecrows, all of whom want to be caught and punished, impressed by the enormity of their crimes. Yet in the end, they all died, saint and sinners alike. Lucifer is tired of the war, tired of being the scapegoat: “I had never made one of them do anything. Never. They only live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them” (18).

People, it seems, mistook the metaphor for a man, as if the buying and selling of souls was a literal transaction. The realty is that he needs no souls, nor wants even the smallest piece of their lives. To die is to let go of the self and all its lusts and desires. Yet punishment is a desire, too, and the denizens of hell cling to it as their last scrap of pride. When Lucifer announces that “hell is over” (19), it is an admission of defeat: it didn’t work, the souls kept dreaming of power, fighting over their sins like so many medallions. Let the living deal with the dead, since they made them. However, one straggler remains: his faithful companion Mazikeen, a woman split in two—one half beautiful, the other half rotted away. She begs to follow him into exile, not to prolong her torments, but to assuage his own. She, it seems, is the only one who understood the purpose of hell; her sins, whatever they were, are forgotten. Thus Lucifer takes her in his arms, and in a large panel without borders (so that it seems to engulf the entire page), kisses her deeply, tongue and all. He then thanks her for her love, saying “You are very beautiful” (22). This is Lucifer’s dream, to find “beautiful” souls, without having to beat and punish and subdue. But beauty starts with the beholder, and somewhat ironically he asks for his own punishment: Dream must cut off his wings. This scene slyly suggests that Hell was Lucifer’s creation, a place sufficiently far from heaven to record the enormity of the fallen angel’s disgrace. As he explains to Dream, “and after an eternity of falling we came to this place. And I knew then there was no way that I would ever return to paradise” (15). Perhaps by removing his wings he is erasing himself, his past, and his self-defined sins. Hell ends when we stop believing in punishment and disgrace and learn to forgive—even ourselves.