This story is kind of a big deal in the Sandman mythos. We’ve learned bits and pieces about Orpheus in previous stories like “Calliope” and “Thermidor,” but we’ve never before gotten a full view of what transpired that created the rift between Dream and his son. Considering that Dream’s relationship with Orpheus is pretty central to plot of The Sandman, this is a big deal.
It’s perhaps ironic then that Dream once again only appears sporadically in this story (he’s only present on ten pages in the double-sized issue, and only about half of those consist of significant interactions between Dream and Orpheus) and most of the focus is on Orpheus himself. Of course, we’ve learned so much about Dream up to this point that stepping away from him and spotlighting his son actually becomes pretty effective for highlighting the parallels between the characters.
Like Dream, Orpheus has a troubling tendency to place unrealistic expectations on his lovers. We’ve seen this played out multiple times with Dream, so when Orpheus displays the same attitude towards Eurydice it’s not particularly surprising even when it’s heartbreaking. Orpheus is a young man, and as a young man we might be able to forgive his obsession with Eurydice as an ideal after her death (the long missing middle sibling of the Endless, Destruction, chides Orpheus on this point; it’s our first real experience of the character, and I already like him immensely), but it remains an unsettling characteristic. It leads me to realize that this is a story interested in showing Orpheus at his worst, and at his worst I really don’t like him as a character. This Orpheus checks all the boxes for character traits that annoy the heck out of me, from his self absorption to his insistence that everything is a matter of conspiratorial fate (nevermind the fact that we’re talking about The Sandman and everything actually is a matter of fate in the form of the story Gaiman wants to tell). The added sting that no less than five supernatural beings try to talk some sense into Orpheus only makes things more frustrating, as each failed conversation hammers home the idea that Orpheus’s problem is with his own stubbornness rather than the pain of his grief.
Despite Orpheus’s apparent flaws here, we do get to see some interesting developments with Dream. His rigidity of character is explored here in some interesting ways, as we see him refuse to do anything undignified like dance with Calliope at their son’s wedding and at the same time get to recognize some of his compassion for mortals in the way he tries to advise Orpheus on how to handle his grief (the line, “And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep,” betrays a lot of the hurt that I think Dream feels in regard to Nada particularly). In that second instance, the fact that Dream takes Orpheus’s stubbornness personally is particularly interesting, since my reading of the scene this time was that Dream is actually very much in the right, and Orpheus is the one who overreacts; that the issue ends with Dream coming back to Orpheus and formally disowning him speaks to Dream’s vindictive nature, but it doesn’t establish that Dream was actually wrong to refuse to help Orpheus in the first place. In fact, if you set aside the abandonment at the end, I really like Dream here. He comes across as someone who, while not fully cognizant of his own flaws, cares immensely about trying to help his child avoid similar pitfalls, and that’s a much warmer depiction than he usually gets.
The penciler for this issue is Bryan Talbot, whose work we last saw just two issues ago in “August.” Here he’s inked by Mark Buckingham, who puts a cleaner finish on than Stan Woch did in that earlier story. Talbot’s attention to minute details is still on display here, as the backgrounds are rich with texture even as the complexions of the characters appear decidedly less intricate in this story of immortals (one great exception is in the late scene with the Bachante, whose bodies are covered with grime, wine, and eventually blood).
Next time we’ll jump into the first issue of the series’s next long plot arc, A Game of You. It’s an interesting story in its own right, and I’ve been looking forward to picking it apart since I began this series.