While the sixth issue of The Sandman serves as a sort of middle act for the three-part mini-arc that rounds out Dream’s quest to get his stuff back (the problem of John Dee was introduced at length last issue, and he’ll be dealt with in the next), it holds up remarkably well as a standalone story (I’ve developed a real fondness for the one-offs that Gaiman sprinkles amongst the longer story arcs that make up the majority of Sandman).
Well, I should amend that to say that it holds up well as a standalone story if you stop at Hour 23, because Hour 24 does nothing besides remind us that Dee has been waiting for Dream to show up, and the rest of the story has so little to do with their conflict that it serves only to remind us that this is the middle act where things go from bad to really bad, and all the real resolution is being saved up for the next issue. Perhaps that’s a minor thing when you remember that this is part of a serial story, and there must be hooks for readers to want to keep reading, especially since stopping a page early in this story means ending in death (the precise thing that Bette the waitress believes is the inevitable problem with stories that go on too long).
The surface level story that’s being told here is how a group of more or less strangers get manipulated and tortured to death for the amusement of a madman who happens to have complete control over their behavior. The subtext of the story is how writers treat their characters, beginning with wanting to give them all happy endings with minimal conflict and gradually introducing more and more severe types of suffering in order to see what happens. It’s an interesting meditation on the philosophy of writing, though the fact that Gaiman’s clearly still writing within the bounds of a horror book forces a decidedly negative spin on events (ironically, I think the issue set primarily in Hell has been the most optimistic so far, even if it’s an optimism born from a sort of cloying, saccharine appeal to the very human desire for things to be better than they are; that’s not a knock on the concept of hope so much as it is a knock on the way Gaiman deals with it in that particular story; he gets much better at addressing existential questions later on).
The view of Dee that we get in this story is that he’s simply bored. He doesn’t have any greater purpose in mind beyond a general sense of nihilism to what he’s doing to his captives, and his lack of direction tends to reflect rather poorly on the subtextual figure of the author that he represents. I think it’s probably best to consider Dee and not simply a stand in for the generic Author that we ascribe is writing any given story, but as a specific example of a type of bad author. Where Bette the waitress is a bad author because she never introduces conflict that might drive her characters to change in interesting ways that actually would reflect something of the human condition (her fantasy of becoming famous for depicting small town life is ironically hollow, as we rapidly learn that no one in the diner actually has or wants the squeaky clean existence that Bette imagines for them), John Dee is a bad author because he creates conflict without any greater purpose behind it. Controlling a group of bystanders so that they act out Dee’s twisted puppet show doesn’t reveal anything interesting; these people are all damaged in some way, but they’re offered no chance at confronting this damage in a way that leads to greater self awareness.
So “24 Hours” is a good horror story, but it’s lacking a greater impact than the general shock of seeing a cast of characters rapidly introduced and broken down in multiple horrific ways before their bodies are casually discarded. In the future we’ll get to see the echoes of one of these characters in other people who find themselves caught up in the intrigues of Dream and his family, but for now it’s all just relentless horror.
On the art side, this is the first issue where Mike Dringenberg is doing all the pencils, and he does a great job. Where Sam Kieth’s run is given over to surreal, almost psychedelic, panel layouts that suggest a soft, squishy texture to the edges of the world, Dringenberg’s style is much more angular and less focused on texture and detail (in many ways his work reminds me of Bill Sienkiewicz, though slightly more grounded). As the story builds momentum, the art really sells the grotesque spectacle that Dee’s amusing himself with in the diner. Dringenberg will be the regular penciler for a while yet, and his take on Dream and the rest of the Sandman cast is one of the most iconic of the series.
Next issue we’ll get to see the final showdown between Dream and Dee, in perhaps the only time Gaiman ever depicts an actual contest of power between Dream and someone else.