In the first three issues of The Sandman, we observe Dream mostly through the eyes of other characters. Even in #2 when he’s surveying the Dreaming, we spend the first half of the story watching his convalescence from Cain and Able’s perspective. There are a couple of scenes where we get some internal monologue, but Dream feels lightly sketched there. In “A Hope in Hell” we spend a majority of the issue inside Dream’s head, and we finally get to see him do something that he’s famous for: brooding.
The opening of this story sees Dream hanging out, playing with his dreamsand while he thinks about the fact that he’s going to be confronting Lucifer, who’s one of the most powerful entities in the ordered universe (Gaiman, being the lit nerd that he is, draws heavily from Paradise Lost in his characterization of Lucifer and Hell). It’s a page that is purely meant as a way to introduce the problem of the issue we’re reading, but it also gives a good sense that Dream is a broody anthropomorphic entity who’s given to dramatizing everything that happens around him. There’s also a bit of early installation weirdness here, as Dream ponders the Endless, whom he refers to as “the few others of my kind”; in the future we’ll see that though he’s very stuffy about it, Dream feels a certain affection for his siblings and almost always speaks of them in familial terms. I suppose this is probably just a case of Gaiman really wanting to introduce the concept of the Endless, and not being sure of a more elegant way to do it besides Dream doing some navel gazing (in future stories Gaiman becomes much more comfortable with using third person narration to describe action when an internal monologue would just be clunky).
Once the action begins, we’re treated to a series of scenes where Dream more or less blusters his way through Hell (though he’s regained his sand, Dream is still exceptionally weak). Gaiman really belabors this point, which is probably necessary because Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg’s art does little to suggest that Dream’s struggling. There’s a particularly cartoony panel where Dream slings a demon into some rock using an impressive underhanded softball pitch. It’s glorious and totally out of sync with the dour mood that Gaiman’s trying to convey (Gaiman mentions in his afterword for the first volume of Sandman that Kieth quit the book because he felt that he wasn’t meshing with the rest of the creative team; that seems most evident in this issue, but for all the dissonance between the drawings and the narration, I can’t help loving Kieth’s art).
We get a three page cameo by Etrigan the demon, which is more a bit of novel trivia than anything (he disappears immediately before Dream reaches Pandemonium, and we never hear from him again). The most significant thing that Etrigan does for the story is guide Dream past a battery of prison cells where a woman named Nada has been waiting for ten thousand years. She knows Dream, and when she sees him she begs him to release her from her imprisonment. He refuses.
This is a significant moment because it establishes the pattern for all of Dream’s future (and past) romances: Dream loves deeply, but he just can’t seem to end any kind of relationship amicably. We’ll get Nada’s full story in future issues, but for now all we need to know is that she gets a pretty raw deal, and Dream lacks all compassion towards her even as he confesses he still loves her.
Following this bit of foreshadowing, we reach my favorite page of this issue. I don’t know the story of what was going on, but there are two pages that quite clearly were not penciled by Sam Kieth, and they are amazing. I love the psychedelic quality of Kieth’s art, but these pages introduce Lucifer, and he’s obviously just David Bowie with bat wings, which is exactly how everyone should imagine Lucifer (I’m certain that John Milton, as he was composing the description of Satan in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, was imagining David Bowie, anachronism be damned). The art looks to me like it was penciled by Mike Dringenberg, who became the primary penciler after Sam Kieth left, and it’s a nice bit of insight into what the series is going to look like over the next ten or so issues. Unfortunately, great things must end, and we go back to Kieth’s art, which continues to be serviceable, but his Lucifer just doesn’t even compare.
We move along to the big climax of the story, where Dream finally confronts the demon who bartered for his helmet while he was trapped in the Burgesses’ basement. This demon, Choronzon, doesn’t want to give up his prize, and suggests a contest with the stakes being Dream’s helmet against his chance to leave Hell. The rules of the contest are vague, but they follow a structure similar to the wizard’s duel of The Sword in the Stone where one combatant proposes a form, and the other person must think of a new form to counter the strengths of the old one, carrying on in that fashion until one person is stumped. Dream, being in a sense the avatar of stories, wins when he tricks Choronzon into playing so aggressively that he overextends and suggests that he is anti-life, marking the destruction of the entire universe.
Dream responds that he is hope.
It’s a nice sentiment that demons would fail to have a counter to hope, given that it’s an eternally optimistic position. That the universe will eventually end is a dark thought, but hope remains that something better may come of it.
At any rate, Dream wins back his helmet and then dares the demons not to let him leave, since Hell’s central purpose of torture and punishment would become moot if its inhabitants are incapable of dreaming of heaven.
Again, demons are confounded by the idea of hope, even as it provides the foundation for their own vocation.