running an experiment on whether this will have any effect whatsoever pic.twitter.com/SBJDVwFtgj— Quinta Jurecic (@qjurecic) September 13, 2021
Consider adding a guide to pronouncing your name to your online profile pages—especially if you have reason to believe that people likely to say it aloud, including those from other linguistic cultures, might have trouble with it.
I recognize that personal-profile real estate is scarce and sacred, so just as I feel about advertising your preferred pronouns, I don’t consider this extra work obligatory for all. I do only ask for its consideration as a tool to help people address or refer to you in the ways you prefer.
In my day job, I have the good fortune to interact every day with colleagues from all around the world. This doesn’t merely expose me to the brilliant diversity of human naming conventions; it challenges me to participate as an accurate and respectful invoker of all those names, as fundamental office politesse. And in a related bit of good fortune, my workplace lets employees attach a recording of themselves pronouncing their own name to their company-intranet home page. If set, this recording appears as an orange “Play” button by the employee’s name. I always appreciate seeing it there, especially before a meeting, or a presentation where I plan to offer a shout-out to a colleague.
I have used this feature with my own name. Experience teaches me that pretty much everyone gets “Jason” right on the first try*, but “McIntosh” often leaves people guessing as to the hidden vowel, and where the stress goes. Years ago, in fact, I added a pronunciation guide to my personal homepage, linking to a recording behind my name’s transliteration into IPA. While that link’s text might be a bit too obscure, I felt right about the link itself then, and I still do today.
And yet, despite what seems like obvious utility to me, online platforms that increasingly concern themselves with pronoun display give surprisingly short shrift to basic pronunciation. My employer’s profile-management webpage offers its pronunciation-upload tool underneath a set of pronoun-display options that take up far more vertical space, including explanations for their existence and links to more information. One can see a similar effect in tools like Slack, where administrators can set up pronoun display with a top-level toggle, but name-pronunciation is available only as a custom field—and thus, I expect, very rarely set up.
I suppose this is at least in fact an effect of novelty, what with the entire notion of pronoun display being only a few years old, and the conversation around it still feeling fresh. But its high relative importance versus name-pronunciation still seems strange to me, because pronunciation help seems so much more generally applicable for my day-to-day interactions!
Perhaps this won’t always be the case, but as of today, I can use various social cues and conventions to almost always correctly guess at a non-correction-worthy third-person pronoun for someone I have just met. When I do get it wrong, I apologize, course-correct, and move on. Those old-fashioned proper nouns, however, prove a slipperier challenge: one very easy for me to get wrong, even when they’re printed right there in front of me, and with the person’s appearance or other cues offering little if any help.
You certainly don’t need to use a fancy tool or upload a recording someplace to make this work! Any profile offering a free-text field makes this possible. My inspiration for today’s post, in fact, came from Quinta Jurecic’s Twitter profile, which (as of autumn 2021) contains a text-friendly phonetic guide to “Quinta Jurecic”. (The partial use of an emoji-based rebus, while non-standard, makes it especially memorable!) This sort of phonetic spelling is what I use when I email people to confirm my planned pronunciation prior to a name-dropping them in a public presentation, if I can’t find a recording or guide elsewhere.
You could make the argument that it is not a person’s responsibility to constantly—or even passively—teach other people to pronounce their name correctly, and that this is especially true when the name belongs to a marginalized or “foreign” person operating within a hegemonic culture. You would not be wrong! I would never insist that anyone do extra work to save me a little research. I merely wish to bring attention to the option for personal consideration, and state a further wish that more online platforms that center the display of names also provide tools that encourage mindfulness and confidence regarding the respectful pronunciation of those names.
* More frequently than you might guess, people tag me with entirely different names. “Justin” is far and away my most popular sincere misnomer. But this does not strike me as a pronunciation problem—and as I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, I feel too amused to issue a correction when it happens, most times.
My final Sandman post for the time being, having listened to all 25 currently published hours of Audible’s radio-play adaptation of this personally formative comics epic. (If they produce more episodes in the future, I reserve the right to write more about it. I do not foresee myself giving the same treatment to the upcoming television adaptation.)
As always: this merely records my own reactions to this dramatization of a personally beloved printed work, and does not strive for any objective or thorough review of its content.
A Game of You
This is the first Sandman arc that I read in its original, monthly, serialized format, rather than as a tidily bound collection. Like Season of Mists, I didn’t remember it very well, but for a wholly different reason: I never really had a chance to re-read and savor it as a whole work. Each issue ended up in the trash shortly after I read it, alongside every other used-up periodical in the house. (I was 17; I didn’t make the rules.)
Since I never owned the collection, I thought very little of purchasing a digital edition on Comixology before cueing up these Audible episodes. It took the work of just an evening or two to absorb. How much shorter it seemed than it did in my memories, where reading the whole work took half a year!
My confession: I wish I hadn’t done this, at least not before listening. A Game of You is a terribly sad story, the first real tragedy of the greater Sandman epic, with losses that feel much more profound than the gruesome deaths that pepper the earlier stories. Experiencing it twice so rapidly in two different formats left me utterly exhausted. My fresh exposure to the original material also made the adaptation’s divergence from the printed text stand out all the more, and some of these creative decisions didn’t sit right with me.
I feel a lot better equipped today to appreciate the themes of this storyline. Just as its title suggests, A Game of You plays with shifting, slippery, uncertain identities, both mundane and fantastic. Its includes a lesbian whose one-night stand leaves her pregnant, a scene where three womens’ individualty blurs as they adopt an aspect of triple-bodied Hecate, and an antagonistic dream-creature who colonizes and subsumes the childhood memories of unwitting sleepers.
And then there’s Wanda, a fiery transwoman who knows precisely who she is, but roils with subconscious anxiety that she hasn’t gone far enough to claim it. The radio play excises this quality from her, leaving her contribution to the theme as—just being transgender, I guess?
I understand the reason for the change. The comic explores Wanda’s fears through a focus on the particulars of her anatomy in ways that may have seemed sympathetic 30 years ago, but come across as distasteful today. In this adaptation, Wanda’s nightmares about operating rooms carry additional narration stating outright that she has a generalized phobia of medicine, for no particular reason. Her conversation with Dead George about the old gods’ gender essentialism remains, but with the dialogue rebalanced to give Wanda a lot more say, and to suggest that George is merely an ignorant troll rather than a truth-speaker from beyond the veil.
Alongside her neighbors Hazel and Foxglove, Wanda feels very dear to me. The three women may have been the first openly queer characters presented to me in new fiction with wholeness and respect, instead of an invitation to gawk or laugh. And coming in from a fresh re-read, I couldn’t help feel that poor Wanda, who already loses so much in this story, would have even more taken away from her by this radio play.
One particular change around Wanda felt particularly sad. In the final chapter of the comic story Barbie briefly humors Wanda’s aunt by using Wanda’s birth-assigned gender in conversation. But as soon as she starts speaking candidly and from the heart, she reverts back to Wanda’s correct identifiers—an act of love, more than mere defiance. The older woman, touched by Barbie’s sincerity, stops “correcting” her for the moment and comforts her instead. It’s a subtle, powerful moment.
But the radio play removes this as well. This version of Barbie doesn’t give Wanda’s aunt an inch, refusing to recognize (what we would today call) Wanda’s deadname, and pushing every wrong-side-up pronoun back at her—the way we’d expect any true friend in the twenty-first century to stand up to a closed-minded attitude. This makes a fraught scene much more palatable to modern listeners—and it’s poorer for it.
Look, A Game of You isn’t even about Wanda; my hangups about her treatment here are really just an expression of my exhaustion with the way I mishandled my own exposure to it. This story means a lot to me, and it’s so much sadder than I remembered, and the radio drama preserves that well enough that I cried a little at the end, despite all my misgivings.
Barbie’s final lines, spoken directly to the reader, echo profoundly through time, and through the three decades of lived experience that now separate she and I. Or rather, the kid I was when I first read her story, and the person I am now. She and Wanda and Martin Tenbones and all the others have been part of me, all this time, and that’s why I wanted to listen to all of this in the first place.
On the other women:
Hazel’s voice actor turns in a great performance, sounding just like I’d imagine her. Foxglove’s actor punches her up with a New Yawk accent which I did not hear on the page, but I will absolutely allow, and I hope to hear more of it should this play roll into Act III.
Hazel’s ignorance about how babies are made must make her look like a goddamned idiot to modern young listeners or readers. I half-expected Gaiman’s narrator-voice to wander in with a reminder that the non-existence of the internet only begins to describe the cultural and knowledge gaps a marginalized person faced in 1991 that they would not have today.
I really admire how the story presents Thessaly to us as a sexy-nerdy witch—the radio play includes new narration suggesting that the listener probably knows a Thessaly, all mousy hair and big glasses and art-history books—and then slowly reveals her as so witchy that she is no longer entirely human. We naturally assume her motivation for hunting the Cuckoo is to save Barbie, but we come to learn it’s actually because she sees the Cuckoo as a potential threat to her own unnaturally extended life. She does not care about any collateral damage she might wreak in her quest, and ends up directly causing mass death and destruction across two worlds—all because a bird looked at her funny one time.
On that note, and for the second time in this Audible-driven re-read of The Sandman, I found another Watchmen nod: this time, to a side-story of an unlikely friendship that forms between two (or three) dissimilar characters, and who at the height of their bond are slain in a stroke by an apocalypse pulled onto New York City by a monomaniacal antihero. Huh.
I just this moment understood that during their little moon-walking trick, Foxglove, Hazel, and Thessaly respectively repeat the Maiden, Mother, and Crone theme that echoes down the whole length of The Sandman—though you wouldn’t know it to look at any of them, as is the intent. Morpheus himself recognizes this, and drops a clue when he calls Foxglove “little maiden”. And that seems pretty weird, in the moment! “Maiden”? According to whose definition, exactly? Well, the same inflexibly ancient ones that wouldn’t recognize Wanda as a woman either, says George. All their empires long since reduced to the blowing sands that make the Caliph shudder, a few stories downstream.
Great story. I’m laughing as I type this! “Great story,” after all of the above. Okay. Well, it is.
Definitely my first encounter with the idea of Baba Yaga in any medium.
Given the adaptation’s willingness to sand down dicey language, I was a little surprised it kept Grandpa’s old-world muttering about Gypsies and Roma and Jews intact. But he also rants about Michael Jackson and so on, so, who listens to him anyway.
The Soft Places
As delicious as any other example of secret-history fiction found in The Sandman.
This story and the next one concern residents of The Dreaming passing the time out of earshot from Morpheus, casting wry judgment on his new girlfriend without dropping her name. Oh boy, do I ever recall the fun my online friends had speculating about this mysterious woman’s identity! An early and joyous communal fan experience, for me.
The Parliament of Ravens
With this episode and the next one, the adapted Sandman feels like it’s celebrating its own conclusion-for-now, having a bit of fun with its own theme song: this time, having it play from baby Daniel’s toy music box.
Little Daniel and Goldie cooing at each other in the comic is adorable but the effect here, performed by adult actors talking like pre-verbal babies, is just a bit hard to listen to.
A big reach here: this adapts the 50th issue of The Sandman, printed after the Brief Lives arc. But Act II clearly wanted to go out on a high note, just like Act I did, and we have to allow it. The theme song sidles in with a magnificently corny Arabian kick.
Ramadan might contain my very favorite artwork of any single Sandman issue. This time, I do not regret refreshing my memory first. Not that I needed to—I have much more clear recollection of buying and savoring this single issue in my university dorm room, years after A Game of You began. Truly a treasure.
My only note about this marvelous adaptation is its completely understandable choice to leap clear over a certain eyebrow-raising panel from the comic’s earlier pages, not even trying to retune its text—the only time the otherwise panel-faithful play does this, to my recollection. Unlike other omissions I have mentioned, this one does not diminish the tale at all.
I don’t expect I’ll have to much else to say about The Sandman for a while. I had a good time writing these last half-dozen articles. If they whet your appetite enough to pursue any of the referred work, I hope you enjoy reading or listening to it. While neither is flawless, especially as they communicate across a thirty-year gap, this comics series is very important to me, and taking in this lush and quite unexpected audio adaptation has made me feel happy, and fortunate.
Continuing my personal and subjective experience of listening to Audible’s radio-play adaptation of The Sandman. This post breaks into Act II, released in late 2021, adapting more than twenty Sandman issues from the early 1990s—including the point at which I first started reading the monthly comics.
As before, I aim only to present responses, not reviews. I do my best to avoid major spoilers.
Where Act I contains Sandman stories I felt deeply familiar with, Act II starts to cover ground I didn’t know nearly as well. Of the two major story arcs adapted here, Season of Mists occupies a liminal space in my relationship with the original comics, while A Game of You is both very special to me but also barely remembered, for reasons I will eventually explicate. I ended up preparing myself for the listening of either one in very different ways, which… well, I’ll get to that too.
A bit of self-discovery I made with this listen: I enjoy most of the one-issue Sandman stories more than any of the long-form story arcs. I certainly find a half-hour, self-contained radio play much more satisfying than an hours-long epic that spans several listening sessions, so I wonder how much of this reaction comes from the Audible production retroactively coloring my appreciation of the comics. But I feel pretty sure it’s true anyway.
The production quality of Act II suggests that the radio adaptation’s creators spent all their star-power budget on the actors voicing the stories’ fantastic characters: the Endless, the Norse pantheon, the hordes of Hell, and so on. But after Season of Mists, Act II largely stars ordinary human characters, relegating the gods, angels, and immortals to the wings. And with notable exceptions, the skill and range of the actors voicing these mortals drops from exquisite to merely cromulent. Nothing to really complain about—I still feel so happy this adaptation even exists, and produced amidst a global pandemic, yet—but still noticeable.
Act II also feels a little more free than its predecessor to edit the original material for 21st century decorum. Much of this happens around the ensemble of queer women who star in A Game of You, but all the stories seem to get a bit of trimming here and there. The rougher edges from the comic book that Act I seemed to take pride in leaving untouched instead get sanded down, here. I generally sympathize with these decisions, even when the changes left me aware of things gone missing.
Season of Mists
I remember how excited I felt buy to the Season of Mists trade paperback just as it hit the shelves for the first time in 1992, a whole year into my personal Sandman fandom. It would at last plug most of the gap yawning between The Doll’s House and the point at which I began to read the monthly comic. And: I read it straight through exactly once, and put it away. I didn’t like it!
My copy lies in an unlabeled box in the basement, and I found myself both too impatient to dig it out and too miserly to spend the ten dollars or whatever on a fresh digital copy. So, I went into this listen nearly thirty years removed from a text I’d read a single time, of which I only remembered a few scraps of content plus my overall negative reaction.
The good news first: This story rules, actually. It’s so fun! Because I came into it essentially free of comparative experience or expectations, I took barely any notes; I simply enjoyed this devilishly delightful court intrigue featuring a truly sprawling cast of larger-than-life characters. (There goes the acting budget, again.) It’s not perfect; I wasn’t comfortable with how the imprisoned Nada has little to do for most of the storyline other than sob pitifully, for example. But I did find so much to like, and quite a bit more than I thought I would, given my recollection of it.
My new appreciation for this story hinges on what I now see as a misapprehension I held about Season of Mists’s implications for the whole epic’s overall cosmology. Between this storyline and 1991’s Orpheus one-shot (not yet adapted by Audible), I misread that every being in The Sandman’s universe went to Hell when they died. I thought that these books wanted me to accept that each soul gently escorted away by Death, that spunky goth girl, was immediately hurled into eternal torment! That sat really poorly with me.
Thanks to this fresh approach to the material, I now understand that the dead of The Sandman’s world go to whatever afterlife they expect.* The shades filling Hades’s caverns in Orpheus are ancient Greeks who had no reason to imagine ending up anywhere else, you see. And similarly, every permanent resident of Hell died believing they belonged nowhere else. Season of Mists makes this clear from the start, and from many angles: the narrator’s description of the Infernal plane, the protagonists’ interview with one of the veteran damned, and Lucifer’s own monologuing.
Season of Mists depicts the damned as spiritual masochists, reveling in a mixture of justified hopelessness and the license to blame their everlasting misery on forces entirely outside their control. They certainly do not represent every mortal that ever lived; merely those who ache to feel their self-assessed sins scoured out of them, forever. They are having the time of their lives, in Hell!
An aside: How funny to hear a new, big-budget comic book adaptation prominently featuring professionally cast visions of Thor, Odin, and Loki who act nothing at all like their most obvious popular-culture representations today. This Thor’s horny, drunken loutishness can’t help but sound like a deliberate troll of the MCU. Of course, all these guys were Marvel properties back in 1990 as well, so Gaiman et al may have been tweaking the competition back then too—but the stakes were so much lower!
A more regrettable aside: The hapless schmuck at the end who, when faced with Hell’s surprise new management, whines “Oh no, it’s so much worse!” immediately reminded me of the guy from Rathergood’s (extremely NSFW) animated short The Wanky Shit Demon and I laughed. (This is one of the few notes I did take about Season of Mists. I’m sorry.)
I initially felt thrilled to hear this, quite sure that I’d somehow managed to never read the original comic—wow, a whole story about Lady Johanna Constantine, after her teasing introduction in Men of Good Fortune—but it turns out that of course I’d read it; it appears in the Fables & Reflections collection, after all, and I comfortably recognize every other story printed there. I had simply neglected to remember this one.
The Reign of Terror setting probably didn’t appeal to me, and the out-of-order way I originally read the early comics robbed the main character of any special significance. Similarly, I felt quite familiar with The Sandman’s Orpheus by the time I read this, so I never felt the shock of his introduction here. Only the story’s wonderfully unsettling climax jogged my memory, with Orpheus leading a choir of severed heads in song.
The radio adaptation fans its tail out a bit during this scene. Where the comic simply depicts Orpheus with his mouth open for a few panels while Lady Johanna adds narration about the mind-bending power of his song, the audio play has him really sing something lengthly, haunting, and Greek. As I write this, I do not know whether the song is original to this production, or if Orpheus’s voice-actor performs it—but it’s a very cool, surprising moment. And then the play reprises the whole song again after the episode ends, just so we can hear it unburdened with overlaid acting and narration!
A marvelous story in a wonderful setting. One of my favorites, and such a pleasure to hear acted out.
The man whom the comics introduce as “The dwarf Lycius” is here presented as “Lycius the Little”. Several other instances of the D-word are quietly excised from this adaptation, save one, after which Lycius boldly asks Augustus to call him by his name instead.
Removing the crass diminishment that characters throw at Lycius beforehand makes his retort seem a little less audacious than it does in the original text. While it doesn’t affect the story in any appreciable way, it does foreshadow the more complicated retuning that the adaptation will apply to Wanda in A Game of You.
Three Septembers and a January
Before this listen, I had never noticed the monthly progression—slightly disguised—in the titles of these three one-off stories.
This one’s another favorite, and a special one: the very first Sandman story I read. It happened to be the most recent monthly copy in my local comic shop when my new friends on GEnie’s online comix forum convinced me to give this series a look.
I feel certain that I hadn’t heard of Emperor Norton prior to this story, but I don’t recall ever feeling surprised at learning of his non-fictional status—did Gaiman mention it in the letter column? Did my online friends talk about it? Either way, my knowledge of His Excellency’s true story begins here.
Another notable line-edit for modern tastes: instead of dropping into velly solly feigned ignorance of English when an opium addict accosts him, Norton’s envoy Ah How now calls him a fool and tells him to get lost! I snorted. Good old Ah How, you tell ‘em.
Relatedly, the comic depicts Delirium as a Chinese woman when she drops in on Dream to describe her visits with the most desperate of San Francisco’s immigrant population. The radio play keeps all her dialog, but opts not to mention her appearance, even though it many times describes how Morpheus’s own likeness shifts to match his perceiver’s frame of reference. I can understand the edit, but feels like a cool little detail lost; I think it’s the first time the comic book suggests that all the Endless, not just Dream, have fluid appearances.
My thoughts on the adapted A Game of You, the first full Sandman arc I read in serialized form, will need to wait until my next post.
* Except, perhaps, for atheists; in “Facade”, Death tells Element Girl outright that the oblivion she craves is “not an option.” But Death, focused on inevitable departures while very uninterested in discussing destinations, makes this ambiguity fit.
This article completes my notes from listening to Act I of Audible’s The Sandman adaptation, covering four one-shot stories that round out this production. As before, these notes represent my subjective response to listening through this new take on an old favorite, and do not intend to provide thorough or objective critique.
These four stories are collected in print as Dream Country. I purchased this volume from New England Comics in Boston in 1992, where I had it signed by the author and a couple of its artists. I was 18, and utterly unworldly. I had ridden from Bangor, Maine to meet these creators, and found their greeting genuine and warm, even though they’d been meeting queued-up fans for hours. Everything else about the trip was quite awkward, but that moment will always mean a lot to me. I am not certain if I still own the book.
The announcer stating the title of this episode left me thunderstruck. Calliope is also the name of the first piece of amateur interactive fiction I shared with the world in 1999. Enough time has passed between then and now that I had forgotten any connection between this comic book and my embarrassingly dorky game, but of course one directly inspired the other.
Oh no… And I didn’t realize until literally right now that the plot of my later game The Warbler’s Nest absolutely takes inspiration from the upcoming Sandman story arc A Game of You. My goodness! Well, I’ll have more to say about that when we get to it.
Back to Calliope, the Sandman story: on one level, a rather self-indulgent tale about the pain of writer’s block, taken to horrific extremes. I loved an early moment when a fan, handing a bit of gnarly plot-device to the frustrated author, asks him “When— what do you need it for?” The narration does not spell out that he was, of course, about to ask “When is your next book coming out?” and then thought better of it. And then he can’t help but ask anyway, a bare moment later in the conversation! Fannish anti-pattern behavior written and portrayed with wince-worthy accuracy.
Listening through the stories in publication order for the first time, I see clearly that Calliope’s more subtle structure as an authorial do-over of the very first Sandman story, more tidily told. Even Dream remarks on the curious similarity, right before he gives the this story almost exactly the same ending as the earlier one.
As with the first story, Calliope’s villains have captured a mythical being through magical trickery, and proceed to pass it down through generations. But this time, they have a good (very, very bad) motivation to keep their captive locked up and abused: the desperate authors have enslaved her to act as their personal, literal muse, using shockingly casual brutality to force inspiration out of her. The wizards back in issue one, by contrast, passively held Dream in a dungeon for 70 years due to a mere sunk-cost fallacy. Poor Calliope’s situation is so much more terrible, and therefore that much more compelling.
Calliope’s trauma also echoes Jed’s, as seen in The Doll’s House, concluded directly before this story. Gee, there sure is a strong theme in Sandman’s first two years of undeserving people (mortal and otherwise) being locked up in basements and attics for years at a time.
The end of the story alarmed me once more when Maddoc, his mind sundering under Dream’s retributive curse, babbles “Keats’s biography—from the lamia’s viewpoint!” A spot of research showed me that Tim Powers published The Stress of Her Regard in 1989, the same year that this story saw print—so that line of inspiration, at least, seems unlikely.
A Dream of a Thousand Cats
I didn’t grow up around cats, so as a comics-reading teenager I didn’t understand what the wise seer-cat was talking about as she described her species’s natural ability to sense adjacent realities, sometimes tracking and stalking things in them invisible to humans. Today I’ve lived around cats for a good quarter-century, and I get it now.
I don’t have a lot else to say about this one. The radio adaptation played it just as I remembered it. An early fan-favorite story, at least among the online communities of the day. Simple and memorable, with a perfect ending that will delightfully poison the way you see every sleeping kitten for the rest of your life.
Perhaps the weakest of The Sandman’s one-shot stories, right before one of the best. The performers and producers do all that they can with the material, but it still took me a while to get through.
This story stars Element Girl, a D-list superhero from the late 1960s. According to her Wikipedia page, her Death-assisted suicide in The Sandman was the highlight of her brief, depressing career. Facade feels like the product of a comics writer wanting to take a swing at a superhero-deconstruction story—imagine trying to live a normal life looking like a barely-human freak, even if you did have mystical control over all the elements—using his established comics series as its vehicle, and getting permission to kill off an acceptably obscure character.
At least this gives Death her second significant appearance in the series—and arguably the first time we get a direct perspective on her work and her methods, instead of observing her by way of her brother. And, except for a fleeting mention in the upcoming Season of Mists storyline, I believe that this story represents the last time that The Sandman explicitly sets itself within the DC universe.
This radio adaption wisely transposes the original published order of its last two stories, so that Act I can go out on A Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of this dreary thing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It feels like cheating to call perhaps the best of the one-off Sandman stories, even though it deserves it. You see, nothing horrific happens, for once. We are invited to see a play, and we do. We explore layers under the layers, and none of them carry booby-traps to shock or upset us, even as we are surrounded by all sorts of narsty creatures with such sharp teeth. Audible’s adaptation preserves all the charm and wonder of the original comic.
Dream acts like a total dick to Shakespeare at one point, and Queen Titania’s wandering eye finding poor Hamnet, a danger muffled by fantasy and history, feels at least as sweet as it does foreboding. Everything else about this story is pure delight.
When I visited New England Comics that day in 1992, they had decorated the shop’s window with a display celebrating The Sandman—including copies of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both lay open at either end of the window, suggesting the display’s other elements as spilling out of their pages. Four more years would pass before Gaiman et al would see their own Tempest published, concluding the saga.
I wonder if Audible’s adaptation will get that far, having crossed the original epic’s halfway point with Act II’s publication this year? After those stories comes Brief Lives, and then we move soon enough into the apocalyptic slog of The Kindly Ones, followed by a lengthy epilogue. Close to a third of The Sandman’s total length is given over to chronicling Morpheus’s long-foreshadowed downfall, and as I recall, it’s not pretty. How will it play in the ears? Nothing to do but wait.
In the meantime, you can bet I have carried on to Act II. I will continue to post my notes in Fogknife, as I go.
My employer’s New York City offices have started to welcome those who wish to show up in person ahead of the company’s mandatory return-to-office date, still a few months away. I initially poked in out of curiosity, and then to excavate my desk and get situated, and finally to figure out how the on-site dining options worked. This last step got its hooks into me; last week I showed up three days out of five, quite literally coming for the lunch and staying for the work. I have seen this effect spread; my floor seems a little more full every day, leading to the sincere pleasure of meeting work-colleagues in person for the first time since my mid-summer hire date.
On one recent day, I met three workspace-neighbors in a short span of time, and without thinking offered a handshake to each. In every case, a barely perceptible beat passed before they returned the gesture. This left me feeling a little awkward, aware of how enthusiastically I wanted to transgress against a pandemic-era norm. (For what it’s worth, this thrice-over identical reaction came from two men and a woman, of varying ages.)
And so, I made a Twitter poll, and I left it up for one day, and this is how it begging-your-pardon shook out:
Meeting a coworker in-person for the first time. You both know you're both vaccinated, due to office rules. Do you offer to shake hands, like in the old days?— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) October 12, 2021
Among twenty-five respondents, there existed a tidy two-to-one vote against the idea of shaking hands with a coworker, even if you both know that you are both vaccinated. This is not what I expected to see. While obviously not at all a scientific survey, these lopsided results still gave me pause.
In casual conversation around this poll, I picked up an undercurrent that plenty of my colleagues abhorred shaking hands, and that they have for their whole lives! They have merely tolerated it as an unavoidable social obligation, all this time. My friends offered a range of reasons, including distaste for a perceived macho ritual, the aversion to unnecessary touch that neuro-diverse people commonly have, or simply discomfort when people squeeze too hard.
I cannot exactly recall where or from whom I learned handshaking etiquette while quite young—and to be firm about it, like a man!—but I’ve rather enjoyed the little ritual ever since. I have eagerly clasped and squeezed hands of every sort, beyond count. And yet, before this month, I never pondered how many of these hands’ owners didn’t enjoy the contact nearly as much.
Today, I have begun to experiment with not shaking hands, instead opting for the little palm-to-breastbone bow—more of an exaggerated nod, really—that I took up over the pandemic. I’ve had plenty of chance to practice, while the office continues filling up. Most people accept this maneuver without comment, but I left at least one person awkwardly pumping a ghost-hand in the air, suggesting I should still read the situation a little closer and apply the old methods when requested.
Here is my tumble of notes from listening through the adapted The Doll’s House storyline from Audible’s The Sandman radio play. As I wrote last time, this is the Sandman arc I have the most familiarity with, by dint of it being the contents of the first Sandman trade paperback I purchased as a hungry teenager. So: lots of notes.
The original comics use the pronoun “it” for androgynous Desire. This may have been the best choice in 1989, when the concept of non-binary gender identities seemed a little more fantastic, to most readers, than it does today. Wisely, Dirk Maggs’s normally hyper-faithful adaptation draws a line in the (begging your pardon) sand here, quietly substituting “they”, which I felt just as quietly relieved to hear.
I also appreciated the narrator making sure we understood that Desire is not so much non-binary as all-gendered. And that had to have made them a challenge to cast properly! Desire is portrayed here by a transgender actor whose vocal style I’d describe as “feminine-pitched masculine”, and who delivers Desire’s lines with a dangerous, raspy edge. Probably the full inverse from what I’d have assumed, and therefore delightfully—and appropriately—arresting.
Only upon this listen did I get the joke that the sole feature of Desire’s realm is a thousand-foot-tall statue-fortress shaped like Desire’s own glorious body not just because Desire exhibits supreme vanity, but also because it is an apt metaphor for an all-consuming, obsessive attention set upon a single object—human or otherwise—that blanks out the rest of one’s world into a gray fog. Small-d desire’s purest and uncut form, and Desire of the Endless’s stock-in-trade. And definitely the sort of thing I needed to be a little older to fully understand.
Also only upon this listen does it become clear that The Doll’s House sets up Desire as the whole series’s principal antagonist. I have no idea for how long this remains true, and it presents me with an unexpectedly fresh aspect of this series to keep in mind as I continue this listen-through.
I was surprised to see Hippolyta, who becomes a key character later in The Sandman, introduced here as a disillusioned superhero—further proving that the book keeps at least one pale toe in the DC realms for a while yet. But we’re done palling around with the Justice League; Lyta’s world sees her own costumed capers almost as a fetish or sexual identity, something she “came out of the closet” about in college, and which she now begins to feel ready to move on from. I now recognize this take as flirting with Watchmen.
In his portrayal of the title character, James McAvoy crystallizes the inhuman callousness Dream displays when, flush with victory over the rebellious Brute and Glob, he banishes Hector’s ghost in front of his horrified wife. Lyta has every reason to believe that Dream just casually killed her husband. (I mean, he sort of did.) And then he has the gall to claim her unborn baby as a citizen of the Dreaming, with a promise to return for it later! As an oh-by-the-way! It does strengthen Lyta’s vengeful motivation, set to unfold several storylines in the future.
I did find this scene little hard to square with the tenderness and sympathy Dream shows Rose later in The Doll’s House. It’s true that other characters again and again describe Dream’s heartlessness; elsewhere in this production we see the cruelty he shows Queen Nada, as well as his oblivious trampling of Shakespeare’s spirit. But both of those happened centuries before, and we see just as much evidence that he has softened a great deal, since. One imagines that, in the heat of the moment, he showed an edge of his older, far more terrible self.
Or: maybe he just has a thing for younger women. I did revisit the pages of Rose’s near-execution, in the comics, and Dream is embracing her, like a lover. He looks ready to kiss her, not kill her. Rose, both terrified and furious, demands tearfully that he just do whatever he’s going to do. Do you know what? I think he was a split-second away from making a big mistake—and Rose is far luckier at her unexpected rescue than she knows, given what tends to happen to the women whom Dream embraces.
An aside, stemming from that same first visit to the printed Doll’s House in ages: I easily recognize now that little Jed’s dreams, with the clear-line art, the numbered panels, and the boy always waking up with a start at the end, are all in reference to Little Nemo in Slumberland! This doesn’t come across at all in the radio play, and I don’t blame its producers for not trying to force it.
The various scenes of the Corinthian and his colleagues doing their thing are as horrible in content as anything that happened in Dee’s diner, but they’re far shorter, vignettes of no more than a page at a time. Thankfully, this also makes for an easier listen than the events of “24 Hours”.
I read The Doll’s House a few months before I attended my very first large-scale fan gathering, 1992’s PhilCon. I had no idea that the depicted “cereal convention” satirized any kind of real-world events that long-time comic book readers might be familiar with. This made for a slightly more alarming first-time fan-con experience than I might have otherwise had.
After the adaptation revealed its willingness to update Desire’s pronouns to match contemporary tastes, I wondered how it’d handle another outmoded term an upcoming scene held, where one con-goer monologues about his obsession with—to use the book’s language—”preoperative transsexuals”. And lo, he here speaks instead of “congenital eunuchs.” To which his interlocutor, reasonably, says “Huh?”, and he merely repeats himself, offering no further explanation. This works fairly well with the grim humor already present in the framing conversation, honestly.
Having read Lolita and then diving into its popular critique over the summer, seeing young Rose and middle-aged Gilbert go road-tripping and checking into a weird-Americana motel together got my guard up! But, besides Rose having ten years on poor old Dolores, Gilbert entirely deserves the trust she gives him. He is perhaps the best person in the entire epic, every bit the knight-errant he claims to be.
The actor playing Gilbert really sells the character by simply sitting up close to his microphone. His breathing is softly audible for all the dialogues he’s present in. Gilbert is an expansive man, not merely corpulent but possessing a large, embracing spirit—only appropriate, given the nature of his true identity. Hearing his breath softly fill the sound-space conveyed this so succinctly.
“Dream vortex” is a terribly corny name for the story’s macguffin, but I do appreciate it as a concept: it gives a tidy excuse for what would otherwise be an unacceptable level of coincidence in how the A and B and C plots all collide so rapidly. It’s a vortex! It pulls in dreams and sets them to swirling around it! Dreams like the ones we are now reading-or-hearing! Sure, fine, carry on.
I love the head-fake early on where we think we know where the story’s going, and then the title character immediately derails it. If I may paraphrase: Lucien says “Oh dear, we must find out who the vortex is, my lord!” and Dream says “Eh? No, I already know that. In fact, if you look closely, you can see her standing right over there,” and then gestures at the “camera”, since Rose, dreaming, provides our point of view. So good.
It seems strange that Dream would delay taking care of that vortex, an imminent threat to the Dreaming, and go off hunting for a handful of decades-missing dream-creatures instead. But we know he finds the work of killing the vortex necessary-but-distasteful, and also that he immediately knows the vortex’s identity and can reach it whenever he wants. So, on reflection, I think he is simply procrastinating! Solving the missing-dream mystery is more fun and interesting, and he can tell himself that he’s got a pin in the vortex meanwhile. Just gonna improve his mood with a spot of cleaning, first…
This adaptation has quite a lot of fun making Gaiman-as-narrator read aloud descriptions of all of Dream’s costume changes, including the one at the climax of The Doll’s House: garbed in an ultra-black cloak, but leaving his pale chest bare, “as is traditional for an executioner”. I caught that reference.
“What happened?” “You died. Let me help you up.” Such a great line.
Most unexpected cameo: Porpentine! Or her name, anyway, several times, during Barbie’s dreams. A spot of research tells me it’s an archaic form of “porcupine”, but I’ve only known it as the name of the inimitable interactive fiction creator.
Barbie and her dreams take center stage during A Game of You, which won’t start unfurling for another dozen episodes or so. I am not sure I ever made that connection, during my initial out-of-order reading of all the early Sandman stories.
Please allow me to present some notes I took while listening to Audible’s recent radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, which I discovered earlier this month. I’ve finished listening to “Act I”, adapting the original comic book’s first twenty issues. They map one-to-one onto audio episodes, albeit with a bit of reordering. This post covers the first nine episodes.
These notes neither review nor summarize any of these stories. They simply present my wholly subjective reactions to my first “read-through” of The Sandman in many years, albeit in a non-textual format.
In some ways, even though I feel deeply familiar with the source, this audio production gives me my first ever true cover-to-cover tour through The Sandman, since I read the first half of the original 75 serialized comics out of order. As a teenager living in central Maine in the early 1990s, I could only buy trade-paperback editions of back issues as I happened to encounter them in bookstores, and even then only if I could afford them. So while I started to read the monthly chapters around their halfway point, with the A Game of You storyline, my experience with The Sandman’s initial stories involved buying and reading The Doll’s House first. I wouldn’t read the first story arc (More than Rubies) for another year, and it took me several years to finally obtain and read all the stories published before A Game of You.
As a result, I feel deeply familiar with The Doll’s House, comfortable with all the other early stories, and frankly pretty shaky with everything that happened after that—since for the most part I obtained and read the latter stories not as bound, bookshelf-ready collections, but as monthly “floppies”, none of which survived long after my purchase of them. (Each one quickly binned by my fastidiously tidy mother, or simply lost in one of my annual house-moves.)
Thus, these notes contain far more reaction to hearing the adapted Doll’s House than to any other story. In fact, I have so many notes about that story that I’ll split them into a separate post, after this one.
The acting and audio production throughout this adaptation is superb. I had a great time listening to all twenty episodes, and am eager to hear Act II as soon as I post these notes.
I would recommend this radio play to anyone—so long as they know what they’re getting into. This is a hyper-faithful adaptation of the source comics, starting with the first panel of the first page of the first issue and carrying on from there. It makes no attempt to streamline away any of The Sandman’s more awkward or dated material; it’s all here, performed by professional actors and sound engineers.
That includes way more gory horror than I had remembered, as well as lots of tonally strange references to circa-1990 DC superhero plotlines; the heroes even get guest-star roles in The Sandman from time to time. I do believe that both of these aspects get toned down as the series progresses, but they’re quite prominent in these early stories.
More Than Rubies
My summary to friends in a chat room: “The Batmobile running over an Italian horror movie”. Dream’s introductory storyline is such a mess, in every sense.
I wrote last time about the slow, shaky start with the Golden Dawn-type magicians who capture Dream and then can’t think of anything to do with him, and he responds by literally doing absolutely nothing, for three generations. The rest of The Sandman does build on this base, but it still seems such a weirdly static way to kick off a comic-book saga.
The rest of this first storyline becomes a Clive Barker-style horror tale set solidly within the DC universe, so we get to hang out with Martian Manhunter for a while, and John Constantine gets an entire episode all to himself. Arkham Asylum plays a prominent role, and the script seems a little confused about whether Gotham and New York are the same place or not.
It’s one thing to see all this stuff in the original comics, and understand it as artifacts of Gaiman et al letting The Sandman find its legs over its first several months. It’s quite another to hear every bit of it carefully produced and voice-acted 30 years later, warts and all. Entertaining, certainly, but very strange.
I had the strongest visceral reaction to the episode “24 Hours”, where John Dee (“Dr. Destiny”, on loan from DC’s rogues gallery) uses Dream’s ruby to manipulate the inhabitants of a diner into madness and murder. The original comic book was gruesome fun to read, but listening to it as a well-budgeted audio production, full of professionally acted suffering punctured by extremely specific sound effects, is another matter entirely. I imagined newcomers to the story getting to this part—when we have barely met Dream and no other Endless—and having no idea why they’re being subjected to all this.
The radio play’s more linear presentation than the two-dimensional comics page also clarifies the scale of the global mayhem Dee causes at the same time, with the whole world gone homicidally, apocalyptically insane. It sounds magnitudes worse than Thanos’s “Snap” from the Marvel movies—and yet everything goes back to normal by the next issue. Future episodes lightly retcon all this, suggesting that the effects of Dee’s madness upon the waking world did not extend beyond the diner. (This includes episodes later in this same audio production, again reflecting its ride-or-die literalist-adaptation stance.)
The kindly nurse asking Dee if his messed-up appearance is due to “the Big A” (that’s AIDS, kids) is perhaps the most interestingly dated bit in this whole production, aside from the way the script will literally mention 1989 now and again as the story’s present day.
And then we get to three one-episode stories:
The Sound of Her Wings
My goodness, I had no idea how much Death comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl upon her introduction. Our first sight of her is a spunky goth breezing across mopey Dream in cinematic Washington Square Park, bopping around and quoting Mary Poppins at him before we have any idea who this weird kid even is.
And I say “kid” because I learn from the narration—read aloud, throughout this production, by Neil Gaiman himself—that we are meant to see Death’s human incarnation as a girl in her mid-to-late teens. That’d put her at right around my age when I read these books for the first time, when she absolutely struck me as much older than that! But, I was a very sheltered kid.
This story marks the point where The Sandman starts to find its own voice, apart from all the “DCU” stuff, and it is the story I would show grown-ups in my life when I wanted to impress them with this comic book series that I really liked. It never worked. “I don’t get it,” my dad said. “She just goes around killing people?”
Tales in the Sand
A great story, and in retrospect it shows The Sandman exploring new storytelling modes with a rapidity that must have seemed so wonderfully bracing to those reading the monthlies, long ago.
(Sudden suspicion: was the desert’s “green glass” supposed to be Kryptonite or something? Would hyper-nerds of 1989 recognize a deep-cut DC reference here? I don’t want to know.)
Men of Good Fortune
Another fantastic stand-alone story. Also the first time the Audible adaptation deviates from publication order, placing this before The Doll’s House where it originally served as an intermission within it.
It’s a little uncomfortable living in 2021 and admiring ol’ Hob, whose supernaturally lengthy career contains some amount of implied murder and a full century of overt slave-trading. I know he shows up later in the series, and cannot recall offhand if he somehow pays penance.
When I first read this story, the name “Johanna Constantine” rang no bells for me. How fun to hear her show up here, and better recognize her place in the grand scheme of things. Her presence also shows that Gaiman doesn’t completely divorce The Sandman from the DC universe the moment that More than Rubies concluded—a mistaken idea I held, based on my out-of-order original reading, until I started listening to this audio production.
Technically Death’s second appearance, but the setting constrains her so much (to say nothing of the costuming) that I’m not sure it counts. I actually forgot all about her role here when writing my notes for the later Facade episode, the second story that unquestionably focuses on her.
I’ll get to all that next time.
I have discovered the existence of a radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, the epic punk-gothic fantasy that originally ran as a monthly comic book from the late 1980s through the middle 1990s, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by many. As I write this, I am only forty minutes into the first 12-hour installment, which was released without my noticing in July 2020. I feel like I can already see the whole shape of it, and I have to write some stuff down.
Look, first of all: I already love this so much that I feel personally, somewhat uncomfortably pandered to. The Sandman is a very important work to me. I followed the story real-time for the later two-thirds of its monthly run, guided to it as a teenager by the new and strange voices I found on dial-up online comics forums. My very first, very awkward in-person fan experiences happened at a Sandman book signing my dad patiently drove me to, in a city four hours from home. (And it was at this signing I bought all the early chapters I’d missed.) In a real sense I cemented much of my young-adult personality around this slowly unfolding fantasy, even though I was far too sheltered and naive to appreciate any of the literary, mythological, or rock-and-roll references that it builds upon.
(Friends, its original comics-run had a letter column, which I am positive I wrote to, perhaps multiple times. I did discuss every month’s new issue at 1200 baud with that little forum of online fans, which Gaiman himself would visit from time to time. I coded a Morpheus NPC with a crude AI script on a MUD that I hung out on; he’d swan around and stare at you silent judgment, mostly. I tried to get a favorite philosophy professor into the book; he politely demurred. I never took up an ankh as accoutrement, but I did wear mostly black for many years. And so on.)
Just minutes into listening to this new adaptation, I felt amazed, delighted, and slightly worried to discover that it begins at the beginning: with the saga’s slow, awkward start as an early 20th century “weird fiction” pastiche, peppered with cameos from second-stringer DC Comics superheroes. The Sandman’s original, lengthy prologue features page after page of Aleister Crowley-style magicians holding debased rituals in gothic mansions with the title character technically present but barely having any lines at all—and, so far, this radio-drama adaptation positively luxuriates in acting out every single panel of it, not feeling any hurry at all to introduce us to the protagonists. I can’t help but wonder what a listener unfamiliar with the source material would make of this sleepy pace.
And I love every minute of it, so far. The Sandman collections I own are all packed away right now, so I’m left to rack my memory for the next, very different, and often extremely strange places the story goes as soon as it jettisons those silly wizards and the Endless finally take the stage. I wonder how much this work’s adapters commit to making it a circa-1990 period piece, modulo the parts set in 19th century San Francisco, or the Garden of Eden, or the recycled pages of a DC pre-code Vault of Horror knock-off. Will Matthew the Raven be there, and will his actor get his crinkly word balloons right? My goodness!
I came across this new play through a bus-stop poster advertising its second installment, which Audible just recently released. Because it has the title The Sandman: Act II, I thought it might be an audio-only sequel to the printed comics. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned about its role as an adaptation, the twelve hours of prior content, and the fact that the first act is—as a Halloween gift—free, for a time.
It doesn’t surprise me that I missed its arrival in mid-2020, and for reasons beyond all the distractions afoot then. The Sandman strikes me as a deeply Generation X-anchored work: younger than the Boomer fantasy franchises that continue to receive one pop-culture retread after another, but too old to generate fresh conversation in modern online venues I inhabit. And this why I, who often feel like I occupy this same in-between gravity well, feel pandered to. But I’m going to put my headphones back in now, and get back to enjoying it. If I have more to say about it, I’ll say it here.
This article includes mention of sexual violence.
It has interested me for some time that both of these two observations seem to hold true:
In real life, my culture considers premeditated murder one of the very worst crimes possible, probably the single worst thing you can do to another person, and almost always deserving of the harshest punishment.
In my culture’s fiction, murder is an exciting crime, but often not an especially terrible one. Make-believe murderers—whether gangsters, serial killers, or genocidal space warlords—typically embody a fun or sexy kind of evil. The crime itself might even be kind of fun, as with the “cozy mystery” sub-genre typified by media like Murder, She Wrote.
Fiction does have non-murderous crimes my culture considers heinously unforgivable when they happen within stories, like sexual violence, or overt racism. A fictional murderer who bolsters their practice with rape or bigotry loses all sexy-fun cred, permanently demoted to only the hateful kind of villain, even if a memorable one.
I once heard, on an episode of “This American Life”, an interview with a woman who had lost her father to homicide, as a child. Ever since then, the disconnect inherent within murder-based entertainment stood out for her. In an attempt to convey what the ubiquity of light-hearted murder in popular culture felt like for her, she offered an illustration: Imagine, instead of Murder Mystery Party kits, one could purchase plans to hold a Rape Mystery Party. Gather your friends for a role-playing event where, whoops, haha, someone got raped! Everyone have fun finding the rapist!
I had no counterargument to this woman’s thought experiment, when I first heard it years ago, and I still don’t. Both rape and murder are among the worst imaginable interpersonal crimes—but if forced to rank them in awfulness, it feels correct that murder should edge out everything else. And yet, it’s often nothing in our entertainment; the make-believe people we spend so much time with kill each other constantly, in singles or by the boatload, as a fundamental and versatile plot device.
I’m certainly not against any depiction of death—even gnarly, ill-intended death—in fiction! But I find that as I get older I have less and less patience for cheap death. I’m at the point now where I have a lot of trouble watching a Star Wars show. Just all those lives snuffed out, in so many numbers, constantly, and nobody on-screen even seems to care or feel anything. It all looks like a weird nightmare, to me.
I don’t think it’s true that people en masse secretly approve of murder and want to see more of it in real life, or anything like that. And the disgust and distress that sexual violence reliably elicits in audiences shows that fiction doesn’t by its nature wipe away the awfulness of the most vile crimes. So why this disconnect between reality and fiction—in fact, one of the worst things that can happen in reality, and one of the most unremarkably common turns of events in fiction?
In my most recent thinking, it comes down to existential uneasiness, and how that hits so differently in real life versus fiction.
Death is something bound to happen to literally every person and animal and probably every other thing we know and love. Nobody is truly okay with this. I doubt that even people at peace with their own mortality are okay with this, not really. We don’t want to lose anyone, and we mourn when we do, again and again. The closer to the loss, the more it hurts. In this light, murder takes our grim shared situation and makes it so much worse, robbing one of our fellow brief sparks of what little time they had left. It is grossly unfair, the most unfair single act you could visit on someone, and everyone who loved them. So there’s that.
Death also plays a starring role in the majority of our stories, of course—think of the old saw “What’s the last story you heard where nobody died?”—with fiction giving us a way to examine death at a safe remove, abstracted from deeply personal existential terror. Our view of killing, I do believe, gets changed along with it. In the silvery moonlight of fiction, murder is simply the single most absolutely inevitable thing happening slightly ahead of schedule, due to a fellow mortal’s initiative. And when you look at it that way, it’s… kind of funny.
The humorist Gene Weingarten has a theory that joking and laughter is, at root, shouting in the face of death. I think something like that is happening here. It’s always at least a little bit fun to watch pretend people get killed, even in the most tragic scripted circumstances. It makes us feel a little less alone in both our own mortality and our ceaseless grief, past and future, for all our loved ones.
Fictionalized rape, by contrast, has none of this going for it. Sexual violence is not a universal or inevitable experience for all living things. In the murky twilight of fiction, where murder becomes a mere acceleration of timetables, rape remains an unspeakably terrible way to hurt someone—because audiences instinctually know that it didn’t have to happen to them, not then or ever. In this context, it easily takes murder’s place as the most grossly unfair act one person can perpetrate upon another.
It may be that personal trauma has helped bring me to a place where I don’t feel so easily or automatically entertained by visions of one person destroying another person’s body, the ultimate non-consensual act. I imagine histories for these characters, even the ones with no names, the gun-toting mooks the hero cuts down or flings from a plane or whatnot. I think of all the time they spent developing their mind and muscles for decades, only to get them punctured, crushed, or shredded beyond shape and function in a split second, because someone else chose to violate their bodies—bodies as precious and unique as the bodies of everyone I love. It is horror.
And I do like horror, sometimes… but only when it knows it’s horror.
I read Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s Providence after it received several recent mentions on my Twitter timeline. Its twelve constituent issues were published by Avatar Press between 2015 and 2017, so I’m not certain why I ran into excitement over it now. It does remind me how conversations about 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return still spontaneously break out in online spaces I inhabit, and as these works have similar appeal, maybe I just happened to overhear a similar burst of ongoing discussion about the comic book.
The story takes place partially in Providence, Rhode Island, a city I lived in for less than two years, but about which I have so many fond memories and associations. Providence appears here in its aspect as the hometown of H. P. Lovecraft, with a story set during his lifetime. I don’t count myself an especial HPL fan, and I make the obligatory genuflections to acknowledge the deeply problematic aspects of his work. But I do admit to feeling a slight special connection to him through our century-removed mutual love for gray old New England, and for this city in particular. And anyway, as a participant in 21st century western culture, I soak in HPL-derived stories and media whether I like it or not—just like you. This latter fact turns into a central theme of Providence.
Wikipedia tells me that Providence “is both a prequel and sequel to” two other comics projects by Moore. I did not know that until just now, so I can offer my deep enjoyment of this work as proof that one needn’t have read the others first. The past Moore work I instead compared this to was From Hell (which I’ve written about before). Both works play in the secret history subgenre of fantasy, with each putting forth the notion that magicians in centuries past engaged in sinister necromancy in order to fundamentally change the reality of the reader’s time. But that turns into a bit of a fake-out here!
For much of the work’s first two acts, I enjoyed Providence as a another modern “Lovecraft remix”, continuing the tradition of decanting that writer’s core concepts of cosmic horror into new stories palatable to a more tolerant and diverse 21st century readership. I’ve written about various recent examples in Fogknife before, including Night in the Woods, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, and The Outside*. As with these other works, Providence declares its independence from the source by making the protagonist someone that bigoted Lovecraft himself would reel at. In this case, Robert Black is queer and Jewish—albeit closeted about both, living as he does in early 20th century America.
I had a great time following the would-be novelist Black as he rambles around New England in an investigatory mode classic to the genre, meeting weird people doing weird things. He does not let the fact he often barely escapes from these interviews alive stop him from charming and befriending almost every subject. He’s a great guy—and perhaps a bit of a naive doofus, not connecting the extremely clear dots even as he writes them out longhand in the diary and scrapbook whose reproduction makes up about a third of Providence’s content. (This, too, reminded me of Moore’s extensive endnotes in From Hell, but in this case all presented wonderfully in-character).
The book quickly makes a sort of running gag of Black writing out “story ideas” for his novel that quite precisely describe the way every chapter drives him deeper into intractable peril. Deliciously, this starts to get less funny by degrees, his self-deceptive cover-story of merely conducting research for a novel growing ever thinner. As Black continues to congratulate himself on his own inventive imagination, it dawns on the reader how his subconscious desperately bangs at the mental partition, begging for his conscious mind to put two and two together. But alas—and in accordance to the rules of the genre that Black himself happily writes out—the sanity-preserving parts of his mind know precisely what they’re doing by absolutely refusing to know what they’re doing.
Similarly, the initial half of the story invites any reader with even a passing familiarity with the source material to feel familiar, even cozy. When Black spends a day hobnobbing with a community of fish-people, or shares a hypnotic dream with a scholar where an army of friendly cats bear them aloft over shadowy dangers, I recognize the Lovecraftian referents and feel quite grounded. But then, thrillingly, that ground gives way completely when Black at last arrives in the eponymous city for the final act, where occurs a meeting that speeds his own adventures to their wholly unavoidable close, and then shuts the book on literally everything else over a two-issue epilogue.
Horrible story! So much fun, and deeply, dizzyingly disturbing. Really just awful. It’ll make you feel terrible. I loved it, and I shall now vanish for a time into its panel-by-panel annotation fansite.
The remainder of this post discusses the ending of “Providence”, so stop here if you want no spoilers. For the record, the work contains a fair amount of explicit sex, both consensual and otherwise, as well as gory violence. I purchased and read it on my iPad as twelve individual issues via Comixology.
The epilogue of Providence left me feeling profoundly mournful. After some hours of quiet meditation in the dark—I could not possibly sleep, not after reading the final three issues last night—I realized how tightly it aligned with my fears about climate change.
The handful of survivors in the last pages find themselves in a world suddenly and radically transformed, perhaps due in small part to their own actions but mostly through larger societal and historical forces they had no say in. The horror was all around them for all their lives, and nobody seemed to care, at least until it was far too late for caring.
The new world seems to allow humans to exist, but only indifferently; the days of the earth as nurturing mother have come to an end. The survivors discuss the rationality of suicide, or escaping by embracing violent madness—with examples of both flowering graphically all around them. But in the end, they assert and retain their humanity by making the least sensible and most human choice of all: they decide to accept their new circumstances, and adapt as best they can.
And this, too, is my stance in the face of the non-metaphorical cataclysm already well underway. It’s all I have. I carry hope and optimism of a sort, but any hope for an alternate future—for an “elder sign” that would avert disaster entirely—has long since been carried away from me, in torn and fluttering pages, by the river of apparent inevitability.
This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
* I just realized all of these works are either written or significantly co-written by women, so how about that.
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