In these early issues of The Sandman, the thing that I most regularly notice is that Gaiman tends to pick a single conceptual motif and thread it through multiple character arcs (I don’t think that’s an especially astute observation, as it’s a common trick that writers working with multiple plot threads try to use to build a cohesive theme). In the story “Passengers,” Gaiman takes the very obvious motif of travel and applies it to his two central characters: Dream and John Dee. Dream and Dee have literal destinations in mind (they’re racing towards the same goal: the ruby dreamstone that was confiscated from Dream by Roderick Burgess, stolen by his mistress Ethel Dee, and given to her son John Dee who used it to fuel his criminal schemes), and they’re both making use of people nearby to get them where they want to go (Dream approaches Scott Free of the Justice League International for information while Dee takes a woman named Rosemary hostage so she can drive him to the dreamstone).
At the same time these literal journeys are taking place, the people who’ve been roped into Dream and Dee’s designs go on their own smaller journeys as they change their opinions of their hijackers. It’s this shift of opinion that’s probably the most interesting textual bit of the story, as Scott begins his association wary of Dream after he’s saved from a particularly horrific nightmare recounting his time on Apokolips (as I’ve noted before, the first arc of Sandman is filled with crossovers from more popular DC properties, and “Passengers” is the heaviest with references to Jack Kirby’s New Gods mythos, the Batman series, and the Justice League), and ends it more perplexed than anything by the encounter. Rosemary begins terrified of Dee, and through conversation comes to pity him. Dee presents a pitiful figure with his emaciated, hairless body and sad, half lucid ramblings so that the reader almost comes to pity him as well.
Of course, Sandman is still very much a horror comic in these early issues, and Dee takes the inevitable homicidal turn, shooting Rosemary in the head after she delivers him to the storage unit where the dreamstone is located. It’s an unfortunate end, especially since Rosemary is the first well-sketched female character that Gaiman has included in his series (Constantine’s story in issue #3 does feature an ex-girlfriend by the name of Rachel, but her characterization is shallow and mostly filtered through the opinions of Constantine so that we don’t get a good picture of her before she’s euthanized by Dream). Rosemary’s death here feels more like an adherence to some staid horror trope about depicting the evil of the villain through casual violence. It undermines the character work that’s been done in the rest of the issue, to somewhat pointless effect; we’ve already seen from Dee’s initial escape from Arkham that he is willing to kill to get what he wants, and he’s already shown indifference to indiscriminate death when he barely reacts to the Scarecrow’s April Fool’s day prank. Following that start, the conversation with Rosemary leads the reader to believe that there might be something more interesting about John Dee than simple homicidal insanity, but the ending dashes that possibility and throws in the extra gut punch of declaring Rosemary a narrative period. John Dee’s just a villain, and we’ve proven it because he needlessly killed his hostage.
Gaiman notes in his afterword to Preludes & Nocturnes that mixing superheroes with The Sandman probably was not his most successful experiment, and I tend to agree. The cameos of Scott Free and the Martian Manhunter are interesting (if you happen to be a fan of the series where they regularly appear; I’m not), but they add little to the story (Scott’s dream introduces the problem of him searching for his real identity in the wake of whatever trauma happened to him on Apokolips, but there’s nothing approaching resolution of that problem here; likewise, the Martian Manhunter’s two page appearance is useful for establishing that Dream appears in whatever form is culturally appropriate for the person interacting with him, but this facet of his mythos gets visited multiple times over the course of the series) beyond pointing Dream towards the dreamstone.
All in all, this is a pretty weak story compared with the work that’s come before and what will come after. It’s also the last issue that has Sam Kieth as penciler (he gets a few last fun spreads, but since most of the issue is grounded in the physical world, the majority of the pages are not particularly spectacular) and the first that has Malcolm Jones III as inker (Mike Dringenberg takes over as primary penciler for some time after this issue, and Jones is his regular inker); Jones’s most notable contribution here is in the three pages detailing Scott Free’s dream, where his ink goes a long way in helping Kieth imitate the look of Jack Kirby’s signature style.
Despite the flaws that “Passengers” has on its own, it does serve as a solid introduction to the problem of Dee reclaiming the dreamstone and presenting a real threat to Dream. The next issue, “24 Hours,” will develop that problem more fully.