Entering the Sandman Universe, Issue 1 – “Sleep of the Just”

I’m starting a new research project today – beginning with a re-read of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I thought I’d blog about as a read along. I’m particularly interested in how many different forms of pictures are illustrated within the graphic novel. (And if you have any recommendations for examples of other picture-in-graphic novel depictions, please let me know.) My thesis is that these in-text pictures operate as a type of haunting on the characters, as their past or familiar relationships loom over them as a specter that prevents them from living properly. As I was reading the first volume today, it was nice to see that my thesis was confirmed so quickly within the first issue (and I look forward to see how it develops as the series continues).

“Sleep of the Just,” the first issue of Gaiman’s Sandman collected in Volume 1 Preludes and Nocturnes, begins with Roderick Burgess, a member of a secret occult society, and his attempt to capture and trap Death itself. The spell fails… sorta. The titular page presents a captured entity, sprawled in the middle of the circle with a black cloak wrapped around them in a way that suggests oozing blood and bodily fluids. The creature is alien-like and monstrous, bearing a mask in a shape that is reminiscent of Ripley Scott’s Aliens. Burgess announces that they’ve failed; they haven’t captured Death, but another entity.

But how does he know that? How does he take one look at Dream – as it is Dream that Burgess has captured, and not Death – and recognize him immediately for who he is? Is there a picture of Dream? If so, how did that picture come to be? Fastforward a decade and Burgess’s son, Alex, finds a picture in another grimoire, the Paginiarum Fulvarum, and recognizes that the captured creature is “Kinge of Dreames.” So there IS a picture – a tattered hand-drawn sketch shoved between the pages of the Paginarum. It also seems that Burgess Sr hasn’t come across the picture himself, using only Dream’s accoutrements (his helm, pouch, and ruby) to recognize him. But now we have further questions; namely who drew this picture and how did they meet Dream?

After his father passes, Alex hands over the reigns of the business to a personal assistant and dedicates all of his energies into an obsession with his father: “He wrote a memoir about his father; writes letters to newspapers defending his father’s reputation; is editing a volume of his father’s letters” (bold emphasis taken from the text). As the text suggests that his father’s life consumes Alex, the image accompanying it is of a portrait of Richard Burgess staring at the reader, overlooking Alex as he works at his study head down, face partially obscured by quill. I use the word consumption deliberately as “fulvarum” is likely derived from the Latin to burn, and the way which Alex interacts with both his father’s memory and the grimmore suggests this burning consumption. For instance, as it is now 1970, the quill he employs is not necessary, but one assumes is part of Alex’s obsession with his father’s magical activities. The next panel reveals that Alex then “slashed his father’s portrait with a knife”; the accompanying illustration only of a shadow of a man with a knife in hand, framed by the torn remains of the portrait (also in shadows). The third panel then states that “Alex will no longer read books on magic. Except for one. […] And he only reads one page of that book…” The close-up in the next panel then further draws attention to the fact that the picture of Dream is clearly not part of the original text; the colouring of the page is a lighter tan than the grimoire, the page is smaller, and shadowing suggests that the page is loose-leaf. Alex’s obsession, then, has turned from his father to Dream itself.

Given this obsession, the ending of the issue is particularly fitting. I won’t reveal it because of spoilers, but I will say this: it’s too bad that l Burgess Sr dies before he could receive his own just desserts.

Click here if you want to see the next post in my Sandman readalong

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