I think the important thing to remember about this last story in the Distant Mirrors arc is that it is essentially a quiet, happy story. The events of “Thermidor” deal with uproarious revolution and bloodshed, and “August” explores how the fallout of childhood trauma carry repercussions for empires, but “Three Septembers and a January” simply chronicle the peaceful life of a man who was notable for declaring himself an emperor and then being content with that assertion by itself. Yes, this story ends with a death, but it’s not one marred by violence or overshadowed by the problems of legacy; that’s a valuable thing in itself. We might say that if this triptych begins with a story about the folly of power recklessly pursued and continues with a tale about the burden imposed by power attained, then it ends with an examination of the freedom that comes when power is dismissed.
Besides the interesting comparisons that we can draw between the historical figures who center these stories, there are some interesting developments in this story with relation to The Sandman‘s ongoing narrative arc. Where Dream barely figures into either of the previous two stories, this one features the majority of the Endless engaging in a traditional contest of wills where an unfortunate mortal gets to be the locus of their games. The setup goes that Despair, having encountered Joshua Norton at the lowest point in his life after his business ventures have all collapsed leaving him financially ruined, summons Dream for a wager that Norton will eventually fall off the deep end into one of the domains of Despair, Delirium, or Desire before he ultimately dies. Dream, whose domain consists of all the stuff of imagination, is tasked with simply keeping him safe from those temptations for the natural duration of Norton’s life. Dream accepts the challenge (much to Death’s chagrin, since the elder Endless typically see the younger siblings’ games with mortals as vain, ridiculous power struggles), and succeeds in protecting Norton on the strength of the idea that Norton can declare himself Emperor of the United States and be happy with just that idea.
What’s most significant in this story for Dream is that this is another instance of him giving away his own hidden sympathy for mortals (a trait which he assiduously tries to disguise when dealing with them directly). In conversing with his siblings, Dream mostly maintains a posture that Norton is simply the subject for their game, but we also see him chide Despair and Desire for dismissing Norton’s value (he’s a little kinder to Delirium, but her involvement in the game feels more incidental than anything; she never comes across as really that interested in trying to make Norton go mad). I think this story encapsulates a significant point of contention between the elder and younger Endless; Dream (and Death and Destiny) recognizes that the Endless exist at the behest of the universe’s collective consciousness and are meant to serve that consciousness by giving it form and expression, while the younger Endless often act more in the mode of capricious classical gods who inflict suffering on mortals because it’s something to do with their power. Part of this distinction likely stems from the fact that the Endless are bounded by their domains, which leaves Desire, Despair, and Delirium a somewhat myopic view in comparison to the expansive vision the elders are afforded (after all, Destiny sees all possibility, Death sees the scope of all life, and Dream sees all imagination).
Moving on to the art, this issue serves as an introduction to Shawn McManus, who is the regular artist for the next major story arc A Game of You. I like McManus’s art a lot, because he has a tendency to draw big expressive eyes. Whenever you see someone smiling in an issue he’s illustrated, you feel like that character is really displaying genuine delight. For a story that I think is generally on the lighter side of Sandman‘s narrative spectrum, this is a good pairing. Also, and I think this is mostly incidental to this issue, I love the way McManus draws Dream with his black eyes usually connecting with and extending the shadow of his eyebrows. It’s broody the way that Dream should be, but something about it also makes him seem less foreboding than previous versions (it’s a fitting visual transition, as we’re approaching the second half of the series’s run, and Dream becomes significantly less inscrutable moving forward).
Next time we’ll look at The Sandman Special #1, which contains the full story of Orpheus and how he became estranged from his father.