Though it’s pretty easy to forget about details like this, I try to appreciate that because The Sandman was a serialized story, it was published piecemeal for over six years, and in that time Gaiman made a point of having contemporary stories happen more or less in real time. Dream escaped from his imprisonment in Sandman #1 around the same time he penned the story in 1988, and in this issue when Dream arrives to meet with Hob Gadling at their usual public house, it’s late 1989 when the Doll’s House plot line began and was supposed to be occurring. I like to take this to mean that “Men of Good Fortune” is a story that happens in the midst of the drama surrounding Rose and Jed Walker. It’s like Dream takes off from ruining Lyta Hall’s life to go meet his buddy Hob for a drink down at the pub, because whatever crazy stuff is happening, he’s not going to flake out on a standing date he’s had for six centuries.
Given all that, this story feels very similar to “Tales in the Sand,” since its connection to Doll’s House isn’t immediately apparent. My best guess is that considering the next installment of Rose and Jed’s plot line was a double-sized issue and this story has guest artists, that it was originally an editorial stopgap so the book wouldn’t have to be delayed. That doesn’t mean Gaiman didn’t already have this story planned out, but its placement always seemed kind of odd to me; there’s no real narrative reason it couldn’t have waited until Doll’s House concluded.
But again, it’s placement does present the darkly humorous idea that Dream is so wrapped up in meeting his obligations that he would drop dealing with the problem of the Dream Vortex and the AWOL dreams to make an appointment with a guy who made him really angry the last time they got together.
The basic structure of “Men of Good Fortune” is that Dream and Death, while wandering around 14th century England, decide to look in on the goings-on of a tavern, because Dream is bored, and Death thinks it would do him some good to interact with people on their own turf for a change. They overhear the ramblings of a soldier named Hob Gadling, who insists that death is something that people only do because they think they’re supposed to, and he’s decided he just isn’t going to die. Dream finds the idea amusing and asks Death to leave Hob alone so he can observe the man’s life. We then get to see a series of scenes as Dream and Hob meet once every century to discuss Hob’s fortunes and whether he regrets becoming immortal. We see Hob take a full turn on the wheel of fortune over the story’s course, with his wealth increasing for a couple of centuries before he’s left penniless and alone after a string of bad luck and then rebuild his wealth again as he gets involved in the Atlantic slave trade. By the time the story ends in 1989, Hob’s doing well enough for himself, though exactly what kind of fortunes he’s recently had are left pretty ambiguous.
Of course, for all the ways that this story is imminently concerned with Hob’s life (and a slew of historical references that are pretty fun, including a scene involving William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that sets up a separate subplot which Gaiman will develop intermittently through to Sandman‘s end), the point of Dream’s involvement is what ends up having the most relevance to the series as a whole. Where he begins the game with Hob as a way of amusing himself, we get to see gradually that Dream does develop a sort of affection for his drinking partner. I think it comes across most clearly at their meeting in 1789 when Dream, after having saved himself and Hob from assault by Johanna Constantine (one of John Constantine’s ancestors), warns Hob off from continuing in the slave trade. It’s a throwaway line, but the fact that Dream cares enough to offer Hob any advice about his life at all (after three centuries of disinterestedly listening to him talk about what he’s been up to) marks a pretty significant development in the relationship, which Hob notices. When he explains to Dream in 1889 that he thinks they continue to meet because Dream is actually lonely (there are quite a few immortal humans wandering around the world whom Dream could interview if he were really curious about the effects extreme longevity have on a person; Hob’s case isn’t particularly unique in that regard), Dream becomes agitated and storms out, insisting that he has no need for friendship from a human (it’s a nice reversal of Dream’s insistence that he and Nada can make their love work, and likely functions as a way of calling back how deeply that incident wounded him). Given that the intervening century between this scene and the next include Dream’s seven decade imprisonment, the fact that he does choose to show up has some extra layers as he very recently spent a long period where he really was lonely.
I don’t have much to say about the art in this issue. Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse provide pencils and inks, and their pages work well enough for the quiet, dialogue heavy story that Gaiman gives us. Without any significant moments of magic or fantastic happenings, the grounded look that Zulli and Parkhouse make works well in this context. If I have any complaints, Dream’s 1989 clothing looks really strange as he’s wearing sort of a pseudo-mullet that can’t seem to decide if it’s supposed to be punk rock or ’80s glam.
Next time, we’ll get to read the first double-sized issue since Sandman #1, and we’ll finally see what the deal is with the Corinthian. Also, a bunch of serial killers.