The Sandman Reader V: Distant Mirrors

Posted on Posted in Comic Books, Reviews/Commentary

“Distant Mirrors” as a thematic concept was meant to take place during particular months of the year. These first three stories took place in July, August, and September of their given years. A later fourth part in this storyline later appeared in “Sandman” #50, representing the month of October.

The “Distant Mirrors” arc was later commonly reprinted as part of the “Fables & Reflections” collection of shorter works outside of Gaiman’s main narrative. Thematically, Distant Mirrors has been described as being about power and politics. The role of a person’s destiny and their responsibilities was also touched on.

It might make the most sense for readers to start the “Distant Mirrors” story arc with “Sandman Special” #1. Although this issue was reprinted at a later point in most collections, it was technically published between issues #31 and #32. While not directly related to the “Distant Mirrors” storyline, it was chronologically relevant to read first.


 

Sandman Special #1: “The Song of Orpheus”
March 1991
Story Artist: Bryan Talbot (penciller), Mark Buckingham (inker)

The concept of an oversized ‘annual’ story has long been common with different Marvel or DC series, but obviously “Sandman” never really fit into the traditional mold. One could argue that “Sandman Special #1” was the closest that the series would get to such a concept. This oversized issue contained a double-length story, padded out with pin-ups to around sixty pages in total. The story was also unconventional in that it was more of an adaptation than a wholly original work, but Gaiman still put his own spin on it.

The special told the story of Orpheus, purported to be the son of Morpheus and Calliope the muse from “Sandman” #17. Orpheus was married to the beautiful Eurydice, who was tragically killed on their wedding day. Distraught, Orpheus sought help from Death to rescue his bride from the underworld. After finally getting agreement from Death, Orpheus was on his way to the underworld.

The underworld’s rulers, Hades and Persephone, were moved by Orpheus’ plea and offered him a deal. If he was able to hike out of the underworld without giving in to the temptation to look back, Eurydice would follow him back to the land of the living. Orpheus nearly made it back home, but gave in to the urge to look back while close to the end of the trek and was crushed to learn that Eurydice had indeed been trailing him. Having lost the opportunity to save Eurydice, Orpheus allowed himself to be killed by a cult-like pack known as a Bacchanalia. The story then ended with Morpheus seeming to abandon his son, but that wasn’t the end of their relationship.

In fact, the relationship would be revisited at the start of “Distant Mirrors.” The “Distant Mirrors” arc represented a return to the single issue ‘short story’ format. The three initial issues dove into personal moments in world history and provided a wealth of historical references for readers.

 

Sandman #29: “Thermidor”
August 1991
Story Artist: Stan Woch (penciller), Dick Giordano (inker)

Issue #29 took place in France during its French Revolution, specifically in the year 1794. The title “Thermidor” was a reference to the eleventh month of the revolutionary’s newly-introduced calendar. For context, that month fell during the hot late-July through late-August time period.

The story’s star was Johanna Constantine, who was first introduced back in issue #13. Morpheus came to Johanna requesting that she assist him with a mission. She accepted the request after being promised a lucrative but ambiguous reward. Her mission became clear when the story jumped ahead one month and she was seen in France carrying the head of Morpheus’ son Orpheus. While the circumstances around how he had lost his head was not clear (but readers would know from “Sandman Special” #1), it was clear that Johanna was charged with retrieving it.

The bulk of the issue’s story focused on the complications involved with transporting the head back to Orpheus’s home in Greece. En route but still in Paris, Johanna was detained by French revolutionaries. Naturally, they quizzed her about the decapitated head that she was carrying around. She made up a story regarding the head and was set free, but only for the time being.

After conferring with the head of Orpheus, Johanna realized that the threat wasn’t over. A plan was hatched and Orpheus’ head was hidden at an undisclosed location, a line ‘two heads are better than one’ somewhat foreshadowed the story’s eventual resolution. Unsurprisingly, Johanna was later detained again by a prominent revolution leader named Louis Antoine de St-Just. Johanna had crossed St-Just’s path in the past and seduced him.

That prior relationship didn’t seem to matter much though, as Johanna was taken to the prison in Luxembourg. On a historical note, the prison was actually a former royal palace. While being taken to her ‘cell,’ Johanna briefly crossed paths with the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine. Paine had helped inspire both the American and French revolutions, but had gotten on the wrong side of the French revolution’s leaders. He would manage to eventually get free and live for another fifteen years.

Another of the revolution’s main leaders, Maximillian de Robespierre, later visited Johanna with news that he knew about her past as a shady character. He continued the demand of finding the head that Johanna had hidden.

With Morpheus’s help in devising a plan (and a special drink to ensure that she remembered the plan after dreaming), Johanna eventually shared the location of Orpheus’ head with her captors. Robespierre and St-Just were led to a special chamber in the palace-prison that contained the heads of dead French aristocrats. Orpheus had been hidden amongst them. Shockingly, his head began to sing a song and was joined by the other dead heads.

Robespierre and St-Just were left stunned by the song, while Johanna covered her ears during the singing. Johanna escaped with the head of Orpheus and made her way back to Greek. The ‘zinger’ at the end of the story was that Orpheus wished that he could more-often sing the song that he had sung to Robespierre and St-Just.

Things didn’t turn out well historically for either Robespierre or St-Just. As shown in the story, they soon found themselves brought down in a coup. The story credited an ‘opening’ being created for the usurpers by Orpheus, thus putting the leaders off of their proverbial ‘game.’ In the end, both them lost their heads.

 

Sandman #30: “August”
September 1991
Story Artist: Bryan Talbot (penciller), Stan Woch (inker)

Issue #30’s “August” took place during that particular month late in the reign of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. It was an usually text-heavy story and one that only featured key but tangential interaction with Morpheus.

Morpheus had met with Augustus in a dream and told the emperor to be a beggar for one day out of the year. This behavior was intended to appease the gods and also to keep secret a plan that he had in mind. How exactly Augustus was able to keep his thoughts secret in this situation wasn’t clear, but supposedly the circumstances allowed him to hide his thoughts from the gods.

Augustus’ plan was related to his apparently knowing Rome’s future or at least a couple of possible futures. Books of prophecy had foretold both a future where Rome would crumble in a few centuries and a different future where Rome took over the entire Earth, that empire lasting far into the future. It wasn’t explicitly stated which future Augustus had selected as the ‘right’ one, but it would seem obvious in later hindsight.

Augustus’s motive for choosing the downfall of Rome was apparently somewhat driven by his dislike for his great-uncle predecessor Julius Caesar. He admitted to fearing Julius Caesar, who was shown raping a young Augustus.

This background information was told in interactions between Augustus and a dwarf named Lycius who helped Augustus appear like a beggar. Lycius used a witty combination of soap and vinegar to give the look of boils and blisters. The dwarf character was apparently based on an actual figure, although obviously this particular story was a work of fiction.

Even if the mechanisms involving Morpheus and the gods didn’t entirely make sense, this was an ambitious story by Gaiman. It made into a human character a man who would have been the most powerful man in the world in his day. It also purported to show how Morpheus helped to direct a major turn in history – nothing less than the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Sandman #31: “Three Septembers and a January”
October 1991
Story Artist: Shawn McManus (penciller), Shawn McManus (inker)

The scope of issue #31 was comparatively tighter than the prior issue. Morpheus’s sibling Despair requested his help in taunting a man named Joshua Abraham Norton. Morpheus refused to assist but eventually decided to take Norton into a dream whereby readers learned his sad back story. Having lost his fortune in a rice investment scheme that went belly-up, Norton had no dreams left until Morpheus granted him one: Becoming Emperor of the United States.

Gaiman then portrayed several small moments during Norton’s ‘reign,’ all of which were historically based. One moment involved a local newspaper publishing Norton’s proclamation of authority and the locals took to his claim, even if only in jest. Other vignettes included Norton’s relationship with the downtrodden Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco, which involved horrible living conditions and conflicts. One key element of the story was Norton’s relationship with Mark Twain, who was a newspaper writer in San Francisco at the time.

Morpheus only re-appeared a couple of times, notable near the end of the story. Once was in an effort to tempt Norton with a wife and riches, but he didn’t give into that desire. Thus, Desire was frustrated again. Finally, Norton died and the situation between Morpheus and Desire became moot. A ‘lesson’ as Morpheus said.

Death closed out the story by claiming Norton after he had suffered a heart attack. She took him off to the great beyond, confirming to Norton that everyone wondered what came after dying and eventually everyone found out.

From the time Norton became ‘Emperor’ in September 1859 until his death in 1880, he lived in poverty but was taken care of by various people and organizations in the city of San Francisco. He ate for free in the best restaurants, had low cost housing, and was generally an honored citizen.

Having been bested by Morpheus after her request at the start of the story, Desire privately threatened to bring the Kindly Ones down on Morpheus. She did frustrate Morpheus chronologically at a later point, but readers had already experienced that story in the earlier “The Doll’s House” storyline.

Gaiman’s historical notes about Norton’s death actually sold the situation short by reporting that 10,000 people attended his memorial. In fact, the number was closer to 30,000, or roughly 13% of San Francisco’s 230,000 person population at the time.

 

Sandman #50: “Ramadan”
June 1993
Story Artist: P. Craig Russell (penciller), P. Craig Russell (inker)

The stand-alone issue #50 was actually the last chapter in the four-part “Distant Mirrors” anthology and it was reprinted in the ‘Fables and Reflections’ collection. Chronologically, it would be fine to read immediately after the other “Distant Mirrors” stories since it functioned as a stand-alone story.

While issue #50 was technically reprinted in the “Absolute Sandman” volume 3 as part of the chronological reprint of the “Sandman” issues, it was thematically the final chapter in the “Distant Mirrors” story arc that was more-frequently read as part of the “Fables & Reflections” collection of stand-alone stories.

This issue featured stylized art by P. Craig Russell and concerned Gaiman giving his own take on the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights”-style stories. Readers spent the first half of the story getting to know Haroun Al Raschild, the ruler of Baghdad. Baghdad was presented as a fantastic city, beautiful and full of magic. Al Raschild had the world at his fingers but was not content. He made a surreal journey into the depths of his palace to retrieve a magical orb filed with captured demons. Al Raschild threatened to destroy the orb and unleash chaos on Earth unless Morpheus appeared. At the last possible moment, Morpheus appeared and demanded to know why Al Raschild had summoned him.

Al Raschild took Morpheus on a magic carpet ride, ultimately landing in the city marketplace where a deal was proposed. Al Raschild wanted dream to purchase Baghdad from him and take it to the Dreaming domain so that the city could never be lost. He’d traveled the world and seen the fall of prior civilizations, so he understandably wanted Baghdad to avoid such a fate. Morpheus only agreed to the deal after requiring that Al Raschild tell his people of the plan.

Soon after announcing this plan, Al Raschild woke up in the marketplace after experiencing what he thought was a dream. He remembered nothing about the deal with Morpheus. He then unknowingly ran into Morpheus, who carried a city in a bottle. Al Raschild asked Morpheus about purchasing the city and Morpheus told him that the city contained in the bottle was no longer for sale. Al Raschild then returned to his palace, but that palace was revealed to be crumbling and not at all the glorious sight that his palace had previously been.

It wasn’t until the midpoint when this story really took off, both figuratively and literally given the use of a flying magic carpet. Gaiman took pains to write the early portions in the style of the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights” stories. Al Rachild was a historical figure who lived during 763-809 A.D. The story’s name, “Ramadan,” fit into the “Distant Mirrors” theme by presenting a tale set in the month of October. An epilogue at the ending of the story appeared to reference the Gulf War that took place in January 1991 and involved the bombing of Baghdad by United States forces.

 

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