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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.
Next post: Notes on The Sandman: Act II (Eps. 1-11)
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