Sandman Issue 10: Portrait of Desire

Since I’m focusing on portraits for my Sandman re-read, we’re skipping past the rest of volume 1 (which I started here) and heading straight to issue 10. Volume 2 The Doll’s House is where the motif of portraits become interesting, especially in just the first few pages. We’ll talk about the first one today: a full page portrait of Desire on the first page of the issue:

Sandman Issue 10 page 1, portrait of Desire

How do you read a graphic novel? With full page spreads like these I take more time to examine the illustration before reading the text, let it sink into me like I’m in an art gallery. (With panels I need to read the text first for direction before I fully appreciate the image.) This image puts us into the realm of the Endless right away: the background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon; white teeth gleaming, an uncomfortable oddity to the rest of the face and torso which is in shadows; gleaming red eyes; and a nebula of red not-stars around a planet-like heart.

The narration tells us that there is only one thing in the realm of Desire: this fortress, shaped in a giant “statue of Desire him-, her-, it-self”. An immense statue towering alone on a blanket of emptiness. The narration also identies the statue as a portrait “complete in all the details, built from the fancy of Desire out of blood, and flesh, and bone, and skin.” There is something cold about the statue, the dark blue tones echoing of cold marble or slate. The notion that it’s made of blood and flesh and bones and skins is slightly alarming. … did Desire dream it up? Is that what the text means with “fancy”? Or did Desire somehow acquire these materials to craft their self-portrait? … given the events of the last volume, perhaps it’s best not to ask.

The fortress/ self-portrait is called The Threshold. “Desire has always lived on the edge.” The text pairs nicely with the image as again we’re drawn to examine it; the background gives us a sense of that edge, an empty vastness marked off neatly with borders. The next page continues this theme as the fortress has “empty, echoing veins, like tunnels. You will walk them until you grow old and die without once retracing your steps.” Finally we’re drawn to the centre of the image, the heart itself, which seems almost to pulse. “There was only one place in the cathedral of its body to make its home. Desire lives in the heart.” While in most cases, the phrase “Desire lives in the heart” might be written off as sentimental muck appropriate for a greeting card, here the image is sublime again: something grand and terrifying. This affect is supported with the reference to a Cathedral, another large, echoing cavern which makes its audience feel humbled and awed in the face of something part divine, part alien. The first installation of volume 2 (following the prologue) thus begins with a firm reminder that the Endless are not human nor gods, but something else inexplicable. Something frightening.

Click here to see the second part of the Issue 10 read-along.

Sandman Issue 3: “Dream a Little Dream of Me,”

Continuing my discussion of portraits in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which I began here, in issue 3, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” we are treated to a portrait on the very first page. We see a suburban house and someone lying on the bed. The bed is in complete shadows, stark dark shading juxtaposing the lightness of the room. Only a hand is shown. The accompanying text describes decay: “Her hair comes out in clumps“; “Her skin is flaking“, “the ragged nails rip her skin when she scratches” (bold font part of original text). The narration draws the reader to assume that the text is referring to the person lying in the bed. “She’s counting to a hundred,” the narration says, alongside another text box (presented in different colours and typography) in which someone is counting. The narrative text continues: “Will she dissolve it in her mouth? Breathe it? Rub it into her skin”. The accompanying picture shows a hand reaching to bag sitting on the nightstand, open, with white power spilling from its opening. On the bedside table is a framed photo of a grinning woman, with a certificate of some sort in her hands. The woman is pretty. The picture is smashed. Lines of broken glass mar her face. And yet, the photo continues to sit on the small bedside table despite this damage.

When we turn the page, we see a shot of an alarm clock radio: “… for all of you crumblies out there, here’s one from the vaults. A real rave from the grave.” Was the narration not actually a description of the scene, but instead the DJ narrating a short section of prose before playing their next song? Our new protagonist, John Constantine, begins: “Have you ever have one of those days when something just seems to be trying to tell you somebody?” What an odd question. Flipped around like that. Instead of “somebody trying to tell you something.”  Throughout the next few panels, we see that John is haunted. By snippets of music. By dreams and nightmare. Something trying to tell him somebody. Madd Hattie, who is 247 years old, warns him that Morpheus, the Sandman, is back. John dismisses it as a fairy story.

John Constantine is another DC original with his own series, Hellblazer (although you might be more familiar with him through the film or television adaptations, especially the Keanu Reeves 2005 film and the 13 episode cancelled series produced by NBC from 2014-2015). Constantine is a sorcerer, a working-class detective, and an occultist who regularly converses with angels and demons alike.

Morpheus aka Sandman aka Dream catches up with John 3 days later, in pursuit of a leather pouch full of sand. John thinks its in storage, but after 2 hours of searching finds nothing except an old photo. It’s a picture of John with a girl. The one from the bedside table? The portrait triggers John’s memory, and so we follow the trail of crumbs (in photo form) to find Dream’s leather pouch. Again, we see the picture John has found as he and Dream are in a taxi cab: “Everyone shuts up, and Chas jolts us up the motorway. Our visitor melts into the back seat shadows. And I remember Rachel. Amazing Rachel. Junkie Rachel.” Junkie Rachel who ran out on him and stole his stuff to pawn for junkie money.

When John Constantine and Dream find Rachel, the readers are shown the same scene from the first page: a bedside table with a framed portrait, pouch on table, the rest of the room in dark impenetrable shadows. We’re shown Rachel on the next page, nearly a full spread, naked, decaying, a living corpse. At the bottom of the page John lights a cigarette, an obvious attempt to regain his balance. “Jesus. Rachel. Jesus.” Next to this panel is the photograph of the two of them again. Like with the photograph of John Dee in the last issue, the portrait here is of a past nearly forgotten, of a life and identity that can never come to be again. But while in issue 2, the new image of John Dee haunts the reader, warning of the possibilities of the future, here the haunting gives a small sense of closure. Dream gives Rachel a happy dream before she dies, of herself restored, healthy and beautiful again. “She knows he’s waiting for her,” John, the love she ran out on. By doing so, Dream restores the reality of the picture, creating a dream space that doesn’t haunt but instead allows John Constantine to move forward and walk away from this image of the past. It ends the issue on an odd optimistic note: although Dream is on his way to Hell, John walks away singing “Mister Sandman” in good cheer.

Sandman Issue 2: “Imperfect Hosts” and an Imperfect Being

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.

Depiction of Doctor Destiny from JLA Classified #32 (March 2007) i.e NOT from Sandman

If you want to see the next post in my Sandman read-along, click here.