I think the opening panels for “August” might be my favorite example of Gaiman’s words working perfectly with the artists’ pictures. We get a close up of a boy’s face in deep shadow, staring stoically towards the reader while Gaiman explains
The boy is sixteen.
He is not crying. He is no barbarian, no Greek to give in to his feelings, to his fears.
He waits in the darkness, listening for a footfall, for a sound.
He lies awake in the darkness.
The second panel zooms in on the boy’s face, still impassive, and then when we hit the third panel and that last caption we see in detail that he’s holding his face in his hands, squinting his eyes closed.
We’ll soon learn that this boy is the Roman Emperor Augustus, whom we meet in the story proper as an elderly man who has hired the dwarf Lycius to help him create a disguise so that he can pretend to be a beggar in the marketplace for a day. Augustus, who insists on using his birth name Caius, is a fascinating character, and certainly one of my favorite protagonists from Gaiman’s standalone Sandman stories. We get to see him in this story as a man who’s largely unrepentant for the terrible things he’s done in his lifetime (he casually reminds Lycius that he’s put so many people to death that he’s lost count, and also idly catches and crushes a rat simply as a demonstration of his physical power to echo his political power), and despite that, I always find myself sympathizing with Caius. He exists in a world where higher powers do exist, and they’re really dangerous to cross; add to this aspect of Caius’s character the fact that he was also raped by his uncle Julius when he was a boy, and he now believes that Julius has ascended to divinity for his role in elevating Rome to greatness, and we see the layers of complexity that Gaiman’s laid down here.
The real brilliance of this whole setup is that this story is a truly standalone piece of fiction; there are no ties to the larger Sandman mythos other than Dream’s appearance to Caius, which creates a situation where it’s possible to read everything as simply a straightforward, non-supernatural story about the impact of legacies. Imagine that none of the rules about the Endless’ universe apply, and there are no gods watching Caius’s every move so that he has to pretend not to be emperor, and the story still hits all the emotional and psychological beats that make it so compelling. Whether Julius actually has become a god or not in the context of the story is irrelevant, because Caius clearly thinks he has, and that leaves him in a terrible position where he constantly fears that his rapist is always watching him. Caius is dealing with some serious PTSD, and that fact makes the reality of the universe irrelevant. What it doesn’t change is the incredible implication that Caius has chosen to set up Rome’s eventual fall as a way of spiting Julius.
It occurs to me that the reason I enjoy this story so much is because it’s an example of a story that incorporates rape as a trauma, and then actually focuses on exploring how the victim copes with that experience. Caius is the most powerful man in Rome, and he still lives in fear of his fifty-years-dead uncle to the point of allowing all his decisions to be guided by that fear. That’s a really interesting thing to explore, and Gaiman does just that; it’d be far less intriguing if this were somehow a story about Julius Caesar who just happened to rape his chosen heir in the course of events leading up to his death. Of course, that’s often the way stories involving rape are framed when they involve women as the victims instead of men.
I have little to say regarding the art other than to remark that I love looking at it. Bryan Talbot is extremely meticulous in detailing faces, particularly here where the conceit that Caius and Lycius are using soap and vinegar to cover themselves in fake boils calls for particular care. That this story is also primarily set in a busy marketplace with myriad background details also makes each panel a delight to examine.
Next time we’ll finish up the Distant Mirrors group of stories with one more piece of historic fiction about Joshua Norton, the Emperor of the United States.