Because I read The Sandman about a decade after it finished running and I’ve never been much on hunting down back issues of comics, my primary experience with the series is through the trade paperbacks that have been through so many reprintings (I think my copy of volume 1 Preludes & Nocturnes is from around the 17th printing). This matters because in collecting and reprinting issues together, there are some subtle editorial decisions occurring in the background that can influence how a given story is read.
Take “Tales in the Sand” for example. In the original run, this story was associated with the first eight issues in the “Master of Dreams” story arc. Given that it’s a standalone story which doesn’t have any immediate bearing on either the first arc or the second (Nada, whom we met briefly in “A Hope in Hell,” doesn’t become plot significant until Sandman‘s third large story arc), this issue really feels like an orphan stuck between and already fitting epilogue to the last arc and the actual plot of the next. It’s because of that orphan quality that I always wonder at the way this story is packaged in the second volume The Doll’s House. Perhaps it’s just an artifact of Vertigo editorial not really being sure how best to present a collection of Sandman issues that aren’t fully connected, but I still think it’s really weird that this story gets labeled the prologue to Doll’s House. There are some faint echoes of motifs explored here in that story arc’s conclusion (we’ll see a glass heart of some significance again, and Dream’s penchant for falling in love with women that he shouldn’t is a recurring problem in pretty much all future Sandman stories), but structurally this story has little to recommend it as part of the rest of the collection.
But set all that aside for now, because this story’s still quite good, and thematic echoes are inevitable in a series as tightly plotted as Sandman.
The plot of this issue is remarkably simple: a young man from an unnamed African tribe is traveling out into the desert with his grandfather as part of his coming of age rite. In the desert, the man finds a piece of green glass in the shape of a heart, and his grandfather tells him the story of Queen Nada, who ruled the civilization of the first people, and her doomed love with Kai’ckul the Lord of Dreams.
There’s a lot made of the fact that this story is one that’s only told to young men upon their coming of age, but I can’t help wondering the purpose of it. Parts of the story are clearly history, with the explanation of the tribe’s origins, and others are myth, with the explanation of why weaverbirds are brown and revered by the tribe, but all of it is exclusively Nada’s story. She’s the driving force behind every dramatic turn, complaining that there’s no man in her kingdom who is a suitable match, going out to find a way to meet Dream again after their first encounter, and fleeing from him when she realizes that being with him will be a terrible mistake. It’s not precisely coded as a story for young men.
I don’t have any explanation for why this is, but I think it’s interesting that the issue ends with the narrator speculating that there is a version of the same story that women pass down among themselves, and that version might have different events from the ones told in the men’s story. I understand that part of the mystery is the fact that this other version exists, but I can’t help wondering how the story changes in that telling. My take on the men’s version is that it’s very woman centered, and though Nada’s fate is ultimately tragic, it’s also one that she’s more or less free to choose throughout the story. Does the women’s version do more to suggest that Nada’s agency is undermined by events, or is it different in some other way? I’m really curious about what kind of significant differences could be imparted here, and how Gaiman imagined a difference of social perspective would influence the telling.
To speak briefly on the art for this issue, Dringenberg does some interesting things with the layout of the pages. Because we’re dealing with a story within a story, it can be easy to forget that there’s a frame at all for Nada’s tale, but each page is designed so that we finished on a panel that just shows the young man and the grandfather sitting by their campfire while the grandfather tells the tale. It’s a nice way to keep the story grounded in its larger context as a bit of education for a newly matured member of this tribe, and it serves as a bit of punctuation for every scene, giving the reader a chance to see how the in-story audience is reacting to what’s happening. Besides the layout, this story also serves as the first really good demonstration of how Dream’s appearance shifts depending on who observes him. It’s a nice artistic detail that never really receives comment within the story, but I always enjoy seeing how characters in the story perceive Dream (and it allows me to justify the fact that you can imagine the Endless with pretty much whatever kind of accent you like, because the way they sound is the way you think they would sound, just like the way they look is the way you think they would look). Dringenberg and Jones are the artists for most of the Doll’s House arc, and I just can’t get enough of their style.
Next time, we’ll jump into Sandman‘s second major story arc, and the first one where Dream takes a backseat to a mortal protagonist. It’s going to be fun.