Today I’m continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here. There’s only one major portrait in issue 2, “Imperfect Hosts,” but it’s a good one. The first panel on that page introduces us to a building with the following placard in front: “Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.” Are your alarm bells going off? What does the Lord of Dreams have to do with Batman and the Justice League?
Next we have an old woman, Mrs Ethel Dee, looking for her son who she hasn’t seen in a decade. The son in question is John Dee – the same name of an actual historical figure, court astronomer for Elizabeth I before leaving to pursue his passions in occult scholarship. If you’ve been following along with the dramas of the Order of Ancient Mysteries from issue 1, Ruthven Sykes, the order’s second-in-command, disappeared with the Order’s treasures, money, and Ethel Cripes, the Magus’s mistress. (The text is bolded in the script as well.) Ethel Cripes walks out on Sykes 6 years later. “She took the demon’s gift with her,” an amulet that was keeping Sykes safe.
To return to the present Mrs Ethel Dee and her missing son, Mrs Dee is armed with a photograph of the son in question, a black and white portrait of a handsome man with a chiseled square jaw and a hint of a smile on his lip. “This is my son, John Dee. I believe he’s imprisoned under his “nom-de-crime” of Doctor Destiny.” Further alarm bells should be ringing by now. Even if you’re not familiar with every single super villain in the DC or Marvel Universe, you’re probably aware that any Super Villain with a “Doctor” title, followed by an abstract noun are the worst super villains of all. (… Rest assured that my own Doc Fantasy title does not mean that I’m a super villain myself…). In the DC Universe, Doctor Destiny’s super powers is the ability to manipulate dreams. Gaiman here provides a neat retcon for the source of his powers, one that becomes a defining feature of Doctor Destiny’s character.
Arkham confirms that Doctor Destiny is indeed a patient there and Mrs Dee is led down to the bowels of the Asylum where Dee is kept locked up from society; he is too dangerous to be let out of his cell for any purpose, the guide tells her, stating: “He no longer sleeps, or dreams– in the normal sense of the word… and physically, he’s quite debilitated.” The ambiguity of this comment is intriguing. How can a man who – from the sounds of it – has wasted away be so dangerous? OR, is he dangerous because he no longer sleeps, is no longer, quite normal… or human.
Finally we are shown Dee himself: gaping mouth with broken and lost teeth; his face seems to be melting away as flecks of fluid drip from his ears, his mouth, his hands; and his eyes…. his eyes are not right, seemingly at once to be bulging and also set deep within his face; the shapes are odd, angular and pointed at the apex, and rounded at the bottom; and the colour is a soft sickly yellow with a small bead for pupils and no irises. Is this the same man… the same creature as the handsome figure in Ethel’s photograph? Instead of being haunted by the past (as the portrait in the first issue), the portrait here is of an identity long dead and forgotten; it bears no resemblance at all to the living present. Instead, it is the living creature that haunts the reader: not the echoes of the past and what he once was long ago, but instead the possible dread of a future in which John Dee escapes his cell. This isn’t the last we see of the character in Sandman of course, and for those of you re-reading the series, you know where Doctor Destiny ends up. But I won’t spoil it for those of who you are reading it for the first time.
If you want to see the next post in my Sandman read-along, click here.