The Sandman Reader III: Dream Country

The four independent stories that came next in “Sandman” were later featured in the “Dream Country” collection. Each showed off Gaiman’s strength for telling one-off stories.

Sandman #17: “Calliope”

July 1990

Story Artist: Kelley Jones (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

Issue #17 featured the brutal fate and redemption of the muse Calliope, a former love of Morpheus. Calliope, like Morpheus, spent much of the twentieth century as a prisoner. In Calliope’s case, her captor was a writer named Erasmus Fry, who used her inspiration to create an illustrious career for himself. Upon retirement, he did not free Calliope as promised. Instead, he gave her to fellow writer Richard Madoc in exchange for a purported cure for an illness that he suffered from.

Madoc, like Fry, physically raped Calliope as a means of prompting creative inspiration from her. He was then successful in suddenly writing the first chapters of a book project that had otherwise been stalled. Madoc would go on to massive career success, branching out into other media and being compared to Fry’s past success.

All was working well for Madoc until Morpheus responded to Calliope’s cries for help. After Morpheus rescued her, Madoc lost his ability to generate any new ideas. A grateful Calliope wanted to rekindle their earlier relationship, but that was decided against.

One maddening aspect of the story was Madoc’s greedy nature. He had previously had success, but he had become desperate for increased fame and fortune. That desire was his undoing in the end.

One note that might not have been obvious to readers was the concept of the ‘bezoar,’ a hairball from a stomach that was believed to cure illness. Fry bartered with Madoc for a bezoar that failed to cure his later-fatal ailment.

Sandman #18: “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”

August 1990

Story Artist: Kelley Jones (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

The unusual perspective of cats provided the foundation for issue #18’s “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.” In this off-beat tale, Gaiman suggested that our world was willed into being by humans who rebelled against their former cat masters.

The protagonist of the story was a cat who had escaped from its human masters. This cat crossed paths with a cat incarnation of Morpheus and set out to try to lead a global cat rebellion. This was quite the ambition for one cat to have, and it was an ambition that was not meant to be realized. Other cats to whom she preached, being cats, seemed skeptical that dreams of cat unity could ever be realized.

This story was a fun change in pace. While not necessarily light-hearted, it had its more whimsical moments. Gaiman’s attention to detail was enjoyable, giving the cats their way of referring to things such as ‘windows’ in the human world.

Sandman #19: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

September 1990

Story Artist: Charles Vess (penciler), Charles Vess (inker)

Issue #19 was the legendary “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It first gained notoriety when it won a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991. After the win, controversy ensued when comic books were banned from the award in the future.

The story featured a lengthy appearance by William Shakespeare, who was hinted to have a deal with Morpheus back in issue #13. That deal involved Morpheus granting Shakespeare’s writing a certain everlasting longevity in exchange for the production of two plays. “A Midsummer Night’s Morpheus” was one such play, and it was performed for some of Morpheus’s fairy (i.e. faerie) friends, who were often the inspiration for some of the play’s characters.

The subplot in the story involving Shakespeare’s son Hamnet was quite compelling, with much debate among fans regarding how that character factored into Morpheus’s deal with Shakespeare. In reality, Hamnet died of the plague at age eleven. However, the story hints that Hamnet’s ‘happy ending’ involved being kidnapped by the faerie queen Titania.

The mischievous Robin Goodfellow – aka Puck – was listed as having disappeared at the end of the story. This issue was the character’s first appearance, but not the last in the series.

Sandman #20: “Facade”

October 1990

Story Artist: Colleen Doran (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

“Dream Country” ended on a sad note with “Facade” in issue #20. This story featured Death rather than Morpheus, focusing on the sad life of a forgotten superhero named Element Girl.

Element Girl first appeared in “Metamorpho” #10 in February 1967 and went on to appear in several later “Metamorpho” issues. She worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and did not seem to appear in much of anything again until Gaiman used her in “Sandman.”

By that point, Element Girl had already retired from her superhero role. Her powers had started to malfunction, leading her to withdraw from human interactions due to her perceived unattractive appearance. The sole glimmer of hope in her life rested on the prospect of a romantic connection with a CIA pension contact named Mulligan. However, after the dual setbacks of a disastrous encounter with a friend and Mulligan’s internal job transfer, Element Girl contemplated suicide. Ironically, her own powers posed a hindrance, making the act itself very challenging.

Enter Death, who initially seemed disinterested in helping Element Girl kill herself. Although Death did not play a direct role in that process, she did push Element Girl on a path that eventually made it possible. Egyptian Mythology had played into Element Girl’s creation and the god Ra was requested by her to play a part in her apparent demise.

The story ended on an additional down note by featuring the Mulligan character seeming to follow up with Element Girl. Readers – and Element Girl – would never know if he had somehow been interested in a romance. Regardless, that final bit of the story was a gut punch.

It was hard to understand Death’s position in Element Girl’s story. While she planted the seeds for how Element Girl could kill herself, she also offered advice suggesting Element Girl had created her own personal hell. That hell had been created through mental illness.

Although Element Girl remained dead in the ongoing DC Universe mythos, Gaiman did return to the character for his contribution to the “Wednesday Comics” project at DC in 2009. That story featured a throwback to her silver age-era glory days.

D.S. Christensen
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