Finally, finally, four issues into this story arc (which is only eight issues long, by the way) we get to the real plot, which is that Dream, having earned the wrath of Lucifer, is gifted with the key to Hell, and now he has to decide what to do with the damned thing. Envoys from a variety of realms arrive in the Dreaming to make their case for why they should get ownership over Hell, and Gaiman essentially spends an issue playing with every kind of mythology that he has a fondness for. Though we see seven distinct factions here, the major players are really the Norse contingent (which consists of Odin, Thor, and Loki, who like Puck is kind of a bit player right now, but will become much more significant in the future) and the demon refugees from Hell who have taken up residence in Limbo (the demons send their new leader Azazel, who was one third of the triumvirate Lucifer was toying with way back in issue #4, the Merkin, a demon who spawns spiders, and Choronzon, the guy that Dream beat in that poetry slam for his helmet the last time he was in Hell). There are also visitors from the realms of Order, Chaos, the Nile Delta gods (among whom is Bast, the cat goddess that Dream happens to be very good friends with), a single Japanese god, and also somewhat significantly the angels Remiel and Duma from the Silver City, which is where angels reside in Gaiman’s cosmology (they don’t want the key, but God said they have to go observe the proceedings).
It’s all very charming in a mish-mash-of-world-mythologies sort of way.
Of course, though we’re finally getting into what this whole arc is really about, all we get here is introductions and establishment of motives. The various factions that want Hell more or less simply want extra real estate (since in Gaiman’s world the power of immortals is tied largely to the degree to which humans believe in them, all the various gods are in pretty dire straits now, and they could really use a fallback realm when their various eschatons come about). In a couple issues we’ll actually get to see some interesting stuff as each of the contenders for Hell present Dream with something they think he wants, and thus create tension as Dream has to consider all the juicy offers.
For now though, we just see everyone show up on Dream’s doorstep after Gaiman spends about half the issue explaining that life pretty much sucks for all immortals except God and the angels (this arc is extremely hard on God in general, but considering that the macguffin is Hell itself, and we’re dealing with a Miltonian version of events that involved God setting all this stuff up to begin with, it makes pretty good sense). The funny thing about this scenario is that the first time I read this arc of The Sandman, I was still neck deep in evangelicalism, so the fact that Gaiman established the Christian God as the dominant deity in his cosmology was really gratifying at the time. Never mind the fact that we’ve seen previously in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” that the state of the world is only maintained through the power of belief, so the order in which God sits at the top, while appearing to be eternal from the way Gaiman describes the Silver City’s history, is actually quite fragile in comparison to the expanse of time and the sheer variety of beliefs that wax and wane over the course of sentient history (though this series is very human-centric, I can never shake the fact that there are entire other aspects of the Endless which exist in relation to the other intelligent species of this fictional universe). Miltonian God has always been in control simply because enough people believe this is the case.
Coincidentally, I was vaguely aware of all these caveats the first time I read Season of Mists, but I wasn’t really willing to consider the larger implications for the nature of God in Gaiman’s world. Being evangelical really primes you to look for parallels with your own theology everywhere, even at the expense of noticing how much of a stretch some of those parallels really are.
Amidst all the god talk of the issue, we also get a whimsical scene where Dream calls Death to ask for her advice, and she brushes him off because all the mortal inhabitants of Hell are returning to life since Lucifer kicked them out, and she’s extremely busy trying to correct this problem. Considering the characters we’re dealing with, it’s a pretty lighthearted moment where we get to see Dream trying to course correct for his habit of isolating himself when he has problems to deal with. That he fails miserably is only slightly important.
The art team for this issue is slightly changed from the previous two. Kelley Jones continues to do pencils, which means that everyone’s faces are creepy with teeth that always look just a little grotesque, but on inks we have P. Craig Russell, who’s notable for being a guest artist on a much later Sandman issue. Here the biggest change is that Russell’s inks aren’t nearly so heavy on faces so that it feels like you can actually see more of the grotesquery that Jones is putting into his characters. The next issue will be an interlude to shed light on that little problem that Death mentioned, which means a completely different art team, but here we get a glimpse of what Jones will be doing with the remainder of the arc, which involves many teeth, odd eyes, and a fun trick of customizing his style to fit the aesthetic of each pantheon.
Next time, we get a side story that basically has nothing to do with Dream at all, where Gaiman spends a great deal of time expounding on the horrors contained in English boarding school culture.