When I started this project of blogging through The Sandman, I realized pretty early on that there would come a point where I’d have to decide whether I was going to follow the issue order as it appears in my set of trade paperbacks or go with the original publication order. It’s slightly more work to go by issue number and publication date (The Sandman Special in particular was a very minor headache since it’s technically part of a separate series and so its placement within The Sandman isn’t readily apparent based on issue number; for anyone who’s curious, I’ll be tackling that double-size issue in a few weeks after I finish the summer triptych that begins with this week’s story “Thermidor”), but it’s also a different experience from how I’ve read The Sandman previously, so I’m curious to see how things are different (the biggest difference I’m anticipating is going into A Game of You after learning about Dream and Orpheus’s relationship; we’ll see if that impacts how I look at that larger story later on).
All this is to say that I went from volume 4 of The Sandman to volume 6, and this small variation has preoccupied an inordinately large amount of space in my mind.
Issue #29 gives us a welcome break from the extended serial story with a standalone issue about the Lady Johanna Constantine, an ancestor of John Constantine, and her adventure in revolutionary France at the height of the Terror to recover the head of Dream’s son Orpheus. The setup is a nice callback to that really early issue of Sandman which featured John Constantine doing his grumpy magician thing. Dream appears on a total of about four pages for this issue, working pretty much entirely as a simple catalyst for the story and a much needed helper when Johanna finds herself in a tight spot. Gaiman seems to be getting back to earlier principles here (if we’re honest, it’s pretty exhausting for Dream to be the focal character in any given issue; he almost invariably ends up brooding endlessly) with the shift in focus to a mortal woman with an affinity for the supernatural. I often feel like one off Sandman stories are at their best when they treat Dream as ancillary to the plot (even when, like in this case, the fallout from events in the issue significantly impact Dream in some way).
And Johanna is a really engaging protagonist. It’s apparent that she’s a very experienced spy with a long successful personal history (most of the narration for the issue is presented in the form of excerpts from Johanna’s memoirs, which let us know from the outset that though she’ll experience some serious peril, we don’t need to worry that she’ll be genuinely threatened by the plot). This capability and safety makes Johanna a great focal character for the historical fiction that Gaiman’s playing with here, as he explores a speculative version of events that led to Robespierre’s sudden deposition from power. If we know our history, we can predict what’s going to happen to M. St. Just and M. Robespierre in a few days’ time from when this story takes place, but we’re left wondering exactly how Johanna and the head of Orpheus figure into that imminent downfall.
What we ultimately get as an answer is a resolution that’s remarkably similar to the one enacted by Dream at the conclusion of “Collectors.” St. Just and Robespierre as the story’s avatars for tyranny represent it in the forms of cynicism and fanaticism respectively. St. Just operates under no delusions that his position in the Revolution has afforded him a great deal of power which he needs to protect in order to survive, while Robespierre is something of a true believer, fully committed to his cause of rational enlightenment to the point of tolerating no kind of insubordination. Both men are portrayed with distinct motivations, but they operate in a manner that yields similar results. It’s no wonder that Orpheus’s song at the story’s conclusion has the implied effect of shattering their personal pretenses to the point of causing them to falter before the public and thus lose their heads over the matter. The result is much more definite here, but it’s hard to ignore the parallels with Dream’s punishment for the serial killers, stripping away their own delusions in a way that completely undermines their constructed sense of self. The paradox of fiction which lets us understand that “Thermidor’s” events happened long before “Collectors” while also being written after the fact leads to a nice moment of recognizing that in some ways the son is very much like his father.
In reading this issue, I had a moment of epiphany where I realized just how important the work of the inker and the colorist are to the mood of a comic story. I’ve understood this in some measure for a while, but “Thermidor” is a great example where the art’s defining characteristics are in its shading and hue. Stan Woch’s pencils are perfectly serviceable (he has a few panels of delightfully deranged faces, including one where Johanna affects a wall-eyed gaze to communicate to some sentries just how off kilter she is pretending to be), but Dick Giordano’s inks and Daniel Vozzo’s colors give each panel the gloomy, close feeling that Gaiman wants to evoke in a story about the tensions that boil over in the midst of grueling summer heat.