Reading “Calliope”

[trigger warning for discussions of rape]

This is a hard story to write about in a lot of ways, because it’s a pretty effective horror story, but told from the perspective of the most monstrous character.  I mean, there are things that could be said about how this issue establishes Dream’s relationship with Calliope, who will be more important down the road when Gaiman gets into his treatment of the Orpheus myth and its relevance to Sandman‘s larger ongoing story, but that’s not really what’s worth discussing here.

Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way: the protagonist of this story, Richard Madoc, buys from another man a woman, imprisons her in his home, and rapes her repeatedly as a source of inspiration for his writing.  He doesn’t think that what he’s doing is monstrous because the woman, Calliope, happens to be a mythological figure, one of the nine Muses of the Greek pantheon.  It’s a disturbing set up, mostly because of just how oblivious Madoc seems to be to the wrongness of what he’s done.  I think it’s worth picking apart how he rationalizes the way he treats Calliope.  On one hand, Madoc exhibits a real sense of fear after the first time he rapes Calliope because he’s not sure if he’s been scammed by Erasmus Fry, the man who previously enslaved her, and has now assaulted a “real” woman.  This suggests pretty early on that Madoc understands what he’s doing is wrong, but he rationalizes it by acting like there’s a moral difference between raping a human woman and a supernatural one.  To Madoc, Calliope’s mythical status makes it so she isn’t fully real to him, which easily translates into a metaphor for how men dehumanize women so that violent acts against them become easy to dismiss (this parallel becomes most apparent, I think, in the scene of Madoc’s launch party for his second novel where he can be seen explaining to a woman that he thinks of himself as a feminist writer because he wrote a well sketched female character while the reader knows that he’s keeping a woman locked in his attic as a sex slave).

For the eponymous character, Calliope actually doesn’t get much focus in this story. It’s certainly a flaw, and probably contributes to why I find this story difficult to discuss. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

There’s an undercurrent to Madoc’s interactions with women that suggest that there really isn’t a terribly big difference in his mind between “real” women and Calliope, as the montage of his ascent in the story’s middle has several panels show through body language his possessiveness of women.  Essentially, Madoc’s a creep, and the only thing that keeps him from realizing his own misogyny is the fact that he’s created an arbitrary line (which he doesn’t really respect) between how he treats “real” women and how he treats Calliope, whom exists within his mind as more of a fantasy (despite the nature of the Sandman universe dictating that she does, in fact, exist physically inside his house during her imprisonment).

Beyond all of Madoc’s latent, unacknowledged misogyny, I suppose there’s some interesting ground for discussion about the nature of inspiration, though in this particular story, where Gaiman’s envisioned the concept in such a horrific manner, I don’t know that I have much worth saying about it.  I prefer to think that inspiration is largely a result of persistent work, and not some hard to grasp, effervescent thing that strikes randomly; perhaps the severity of Madoc’s punishment for daring to cheat the metaphysical system suggests that Gaiman feels similarly.

I’ve been talking a lot about the story’s protagonist, Madoc, mostly because I can’t help being fascinated with the way he’s so thoroughly unsympathetic, but really the big character development this issue comes from Dream.  In her desperation, Calliope begs the three-in-one goddess to send her any kind of help with her predicament, even Dream whose relationship with her ended on very bad terms (readers with an interest in Greek and Roman mythology might pick up the connection to Orpheus, who’s typically described as the son of Calliope).  The three-in-one explains that Dream is currently stuck in a similar position, imprisoned by a series of men who want to exploit his power.  Once he’s free, Dream comes to help Calliope, and for the first time in the series, we get to see him display legitimate empathy with someone else. It’s telling that the circumstances for Dream’s empathizing with Calliope’s plight are so extremely similar; Dream has only begun to develop a real sense of empathy for others, and situations that most closely resemble his own experience are going to be the first ones he relates to (we’ll see Dream learning to empathize in novel ways with people who are less and less like him as the series progresses).

On the art front, this is the first issue to feature Kelley Jones as the penciler.  His distinct style, which depicts faces in a way that’s slightly grotesque in their proportions, will be featured prominently in the next long story arc Season of Mists, and works wonderfully for conveying the horror in this story.  In the notes for the script that’s included in my edition of Dream Country, Gaiman notes that Jones did such an excellent job of illustrating the famished Calliope in her introductory panel that his editor Karen Berger asked that Malcolm Jones III tone the image down in inking so it wasn’t quite so disturbing.

Next time we’ll get into what’s really the lightest story in the Dream Country collection, which is about how cats used to rule the world.

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