Reading “Imperfect Hosts”

The second issue of The Sandman introduces us to the Dreaming as Dream (here called Morpheus for the first time) tours his realm following his long absence.  We also get introduced to several characters who will figure more prominently as the series goes on, like Cain, Abel, and Lucien (I think most notable is the introduction of the Hecatae, the multi-aspect female entity that appears at several key points in the Sandman story to nudge events towards the series’ ultimate conclusion).  With Cain and Abel, we get a direct link to DC’s earlier horror story traditions, as they’re carry over characters from the horror books House of Mystery and House of Secrets that gained prominence in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Pictured: Cain lying through his teeth. Not pictured: Cain doing the most smug waiter impression ever. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Cain and Abel are explicitly based on the figures from Genesis, with their central dynamic in The Sandman revolving around Cain’s perennial abuse and outright murder of his timid brother.  It’s through these characters that Gaiman first begins tying Dream’s power into not only the realm of literal dreaming, but also into stories, as Abel refers to him as “the Prince of Stories” (every time Dream gets a new name, take a drink!).  We also get a bit of a look into Gaiman’s theory of story with Abel’s comment that he and his brother come from “the first story.”  When I was an evangelical reading this book for the first time (yeah, you can probably imagine how weird it was trying to process something like Sandman while working within a conservative frame of reference), I thought that was an odd claim, especially pulling from Genesis, since the first story there would be the creation of the world, not the first murder.  I think this nod towards Cain and Abel having primacy as a narrative highlights how Gaiman’s thinking of story as requiring conflict.  All of the stuff before Cain and Abel’s just scene setting (and in their DC incarnations, the brothers are stripped of any trappings that might suggest a connection with ancient mythologies; they wear deliberately anachronistic clothing and have appearances that only vaguely resemble humans, and their connection to Eve, who is another figure in the Dreaming that we won’t meet for quite some time, is rather tenuous if I recall correctly).

Besides introducing the Dreaming and demonstrating just how messed up it’s become while Dream has been away, this issue sets in motion the larger story that will preoccupy the majority of the first collected volume.  An interlude introduces us to John Dee, a recurring Justice League villain who’s currently imprisoned at Arkham Asylum who has lost the ability to dream after his last encounter with the League.  Dee will become a more significant player in three issues, but for now he’s just a sad man rotting in a cell.  Also in this story, Dream summons the Hecatae (or the Three who are One, or the Furies, or the Graces, or any of a number of various names pulled from different stories and mythologies; Gaiman’s very much fascinated with the overlap in stories across cultures, and he’s often at his most self-indulgent when he’s playing with an archetype like the maiden, mother, crone trichotomy that the Hecatae are built on), whom he asks for information on the whereabouts of the three items that were taken from him by Burgess.  The Hecatae give him the information he wants, and then they leave him to set out on his quest, which from here will be filled with the kind of character cameos and crossovers that are a hallmark of any startup series in a shared comics universe.

Unlike the first issue, which was very much designed as a standalone story with some hooks built in for larger plots, this second issue has to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of simply setting up later episodes.  Dream’s primary challenge here is simply recovering some strength and touring his domain before moving on to the task he really wants to complete, which makes this a very low conflict issue.  The secondary story where we see Cain offering Abel a genuine gift of a baby gargoyle (which is supposed to be a sign of how strangely off-kilter their relationship has become without Dream around) only to become angry at how Abel ignores the naming conventions of gargoyles (these things matter, apparently) so that he murders his brother (again) offers some drama, and the pathos that surrounds the brothers’ relationship is engaging, but it does little to reveal anything particularly new.  Again, Gaiman is playing with archetypes here, and while archetypes matter for defining the bones of stories, they’re most interesting when they’re doing more than just reiterating what the audience is already familiar with.  At best, Cain’s sudden shift back towards murderous intent in this issue signifies that Dream’s return is bringing things back into alignment so that stories are starting to go the way they were supposed to; it’s a rather dark commentary on the indifferent nature of Dream’s power, and a good reminder that while he’s our protagonist for this series, Dream is never really a hero.

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