I said I wasn’t going to talk about editions. I was wrong. If you want an excuse to buy the huge expensive hardcover Absolute Sandman collections, I can give you one: they’ve been digitally recolored throughout. The difference is transformational. The underlying inked art is still the same, but it’s a lot easier to see what’s going on in it.
Some examples: Old and new versions of a two-page splash panel. The penultimate and antepenultimate pages of “Men of Good Fortune.” Another comparison of old and new splash panels. (You’ll have to scroll down a few clicks.)
Odd thing: I remembered the colorwork in the original Sandman comics being much richer and subtler than it is. That’s normal; readers who’ve gotten hooked by a story always fill in details without realizing they’re doing it. But until I compared the two versions, I didn’t realize quite how much I’d been filling in the first time around. Frequently, colors functioned more like traffic signals than anything else. They were laid down in big monochrome patches in order to group objects, separate foregrounds from backgrounds, and clarify panel boundaries. A lot of detail disappeared into the murk.
I don’t mean to bash Robbie Busch, or any of the other colorists who worked on the original comic. Their job wasn’t easy. If you’re curious, read Todd Klein on old-school coloring. Besides, coloring came in at the end of the artistic process, so any delays in the earlier stages could mean the colorists got stuck with insanely short deadlines. At any rate, that’s how things worked at Valiant/Acclaim; and I don’t recall the colorists there complaining that This Never Happens at DC or Marvel.
On with the story: Sandman #1, “The Sleep of the Just.” Page numbers refer to the Absolute Sandman edition.
11-12: June 6, 1916. Wych Cross, England. Professor John Hathaway arrives at Fawney Rig, the home of Roderick Burgess, a notorious libertine and ceremonial magician. Hathaway is clutching the Magdalene Grimoire, which he’s stolen from his employers at the Royal Museum, and he’s got “supplicant” written all over him. He’s just received word that his son Edmund is dead, killed when his destroyer went down off Jutland, and he wants to talk to Burgess about a piece of ceremonial magic.
Roderick Burgess looks out at Hathaway with a malicious grin. The last time they’d talked about the Magdalene Grimoire, Hathaway had turned him down. Now the man’s bereaved and desperate, and Burgess doesn’t even try to disguise his glee. Once he’s got the book in his hands, he tells Hathaway that his magical order will be able to perform the ceremony at the next full moon—and after that, no one will ever have to die.
The first time I read Sandman, I didn’t realize what a terrible idea that was.
13: June 10th, 1916.  For Ellie Marston, Daniel Bustamonte, Stefan Wasserman, and Unity Kinkaid, this will be their last night of normal sleep and dreams. Unity dreams of a tall dark man with eyes like stars.
14: Back at Wych Cross, Roderick Burgess’s waking dreams are of power, immortality, and an end to getting razzed by Aleister Crowley (who did that a lot). Burgess and his order (the Order of Ancient Mysteries, which has no resemblance to Crowley’s O.T.O.) plan to summon and imprison Death. And even if the ceremony’s a failure, he observes to his downtrodden son Alex, they’ve still gotten Professor Hathaway to steal the Magdalene Grimoire for them from the Royal Museum where he works. They can use that fact to blackmail him, and the museum will be theirs to plunder.
Let’s look at Roderick Burgess.
When you’re talking about magic made with grimoires and spells and talismans, the sort that’s a technology for manipulating the world (as opposed to the sort that’s an expression of the real nature of the world), fiction gives us two kinds of magicians. One kind—Merlin, Stephen Strange, Harry Potter—knows what magic is, how it works, which spells to use, and what results it will get. They make their mystic gestures or wave their wands, yell “Abracadabra!” or “By Agamotto’s All-Seeing Eye!” or “Expelliarmus!”, and poof, it’s done.
The other kind of magicians we get in fiction—and the only kind we come close to having in real life—inhabit a world where magic is only partly understood, so they’re constantly having to improvise as they go along, and afterward maintain that they meant to get those results. Roderick Burgess is one of these. His genetic makeup obviously has a lot of Aleister Crowley in it, but in a larger sense he and Crowley are both examples of the unreliable magician, a semi-stock character that has the interesting property of turning up in the real world as well as in fiction.
The unreliable magician is part magus and part con artist, mixed in an indeterminate ratio. As a class, they can be described as the set of magicians for whom the answer to “How much power do they really have?” is “Greater than zero, less than they pretend, and enough to get them into trouble.” Fictionally, their name is legion, but some recent examples include John Constantine, Ethan Rayne, and Sam and Dean Winchester. In the real world, their lineage takes in Johann Georg Faust, Edward Kelly, Alessandro Cagliostro, the Comte de St. Germain, Jacob Philadelphia, Gustavus Katterfelto, and so on down the ages, until it finally alights on Crowley himself, and such modern practitioners as Alexander Cannon and Carlos Castaneda.
As a stock character, the unreliable magician dates back to the Renaissance, an era fairly obsessed with grimoires, alchemy, rare and ancient magical texts, and encoded meanings. Why? Roughly speaking, because while they were romping through the surviving texts of classical antiquity, Renaissance scholars managed to convince themselves that somewhere in all that obscure recovered knowledge and strange new learning, they were going to find out how to do Real Magic. It was only a matter of time. By and large, the seekers who had the Renaissance equivalent of tenured positions tended to have stabler careers. It was the ones that didn’t who blossomed into the great charlatans, because they had artificially inflated reputations to sustain, and backers they needed to satisfy. 
Unreliable magicians aren’t complete frauds, in the real world or in fiction. They honestly believe that magic exists. They just don’t have as much of it as they want. Until they get it, they augment what magical knowledge and power they do have with trickery, mystification, wild surmises, speculative trilingual reconstructions, uncontrolled experiments, glossed-over setbacks, and artfully modest stories about how successful they were on certain previous occasions.
This is why they make such a resilient stock character: they’ve got their own story ticking away inside them. They’re betting that they’ll make good on everything, find what they need, before they run out of time.
* * *
15-19: The order begins the ceremony. Burgess pauses for a moment, struck by what a piece of effrontery it is to try to bind Death. Then, just as quickly, he dismisses the thought. By this, we know that he isn’t acting out of simple stupidity. Whatever the result, he’s got it coming.
The ceremony starts with short, concrete, evocative offerings: A coin made from a stone. A song stolen from the dirt. A knife from under the hills. A stick Burgess stuck through a dead man’s eye. A rat’s claw. A lost name. Blood from his own veins. A feather he pulled from an angel’s wing. Some of those elements can be mapped onto the standard four elements and Tarot suits, but others can’t, and so the list breaks out of the standard magical systems and extends into unknown territory.
(Incidentally, by building new extensions onto known magical systems, Neil makes all of them, familiar and unfamiliar, seem more real. If Burgess’s ceremonial offerings had stayed within the boundaries of known magical practice, the result would feel schematic and artificial.)
Burgess realizes he’s not in control; the spell is. This is almost never a good sign. But he can’t stop, so the spell continues into its next phase, the summoning by names of power. This is good construction. A well-made ceremony is a story in its own right. This story/ceremony started with concrete, knowable objects, then expanded out into stranger territory, then sped up when Burgess realized he couldn’t stop. Only now, when he’s got the story revved up and moving, does Neil bring in the abstract lists of strange names. Too many writers would start with the invocations, which wouldn’t work nearly as well.
You don’t really need to know the magical names; it’s obvious what they’re doing. 
The ritual is a partial success. At its climax, a strange masked figure materializes inside the circle and collapses on the floor. It isn’t Death, but Burgess and his minions decide to keep him anyway. They also steal his mask, his clothing, the ruby he wore around his neck, and a small bag of sand he was carrying. Later, they fasten a glass dome over him, and keep him under a 24-hour watch. This is Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, and he’s trapped in an East Sussex basement.
After this, time slows down.
Throughout the rest of the issue, Neil ties the repercussions of Dream’s captivity to 20th C. events. This serves a couple of useful purposes. One is that it’s a much more entertaining way to let us know how much time has passed. The other is subtler. As readers, we’re a little cautious when we’re first presented with new story. It makes assertions, and for just a moment we question them, hardly aware that we’re doing it: Can I buy this for the duration of the story? Is there anything about it I dislike? It’s our moment to argue with it before we and the story settle down together.
There are various ways to ease the reader past that point. One is to get the story started before it occurs to them that it’s time to argue. Another is to tie it to a storyline already in progress that the reader’s already bought into. This issue does both, tying its events to the historic timeline and the DC continuity. By the time the story reaches “now”—or the point where “now” was when the issue was published—we’ll be forty-odd pages into it; and we’ll believe, at least for the duration of the reading, that this-that-and-the-other known event was caused by Roderick Burgess’s imprisonment of Dream of the Endless.
20-21: The sleepers we’ve seen earlier develop sleep pathologies. Three of them mimic the worldwide epidemic of Encephalitis lethargica that struck in the Teens through mid-Twenties. Ellie Marsten goes to sleep and never wakes up. Unity Kinkaid gradually follows her. At first Daniel Bustamonte is just unable to dream, but after years of resisting, he finally succumbs to endless sleep as well. Stefan Wasserman, a young soldier in the German army, has a different problem: He can’t sleep at all. He’s diagnosed as having “shell shock,” an inadequate term used to describe the disturbingly high rate of stress-related psychological problems that developed on the battlefields of WWI. A year after he’s discharged, Wasserman kills himself.
22: Burgess attempts to threaten and cajole his prisoner, and gets nowhere.
23: June, 1920. The Royal Museum takes stock of its holdings, and finds books and manuscripts missing. Professor Hathaway comes under suspicion. At the end of his rope, and painfully aware of how thoroughly he’s been used, Hathaway writes a long suicide note revealing all he knows about Roderick Burgess, then stabs himself. Simultaneously, we see Burgess and his son using a magical artifact to set fire to Hathaway’s letter from a distance. Hathaway bleeds to death while watching his confession burn to ash.
24: Roderick Burgess is cleared of any involvement in Professor Hathaway’s misuse of museum property and suicide. In an apparently unconnected event, Stefan Wasserman also kills himself.
Let’s pause here for a note on Ruthven Sykes, Roderick Burgess’s second-in-command. You’ll have noticed by now that he’s black. Why? To the best of my knowledge, for no particular reason beyond his own existence. If so, I applaud. Too often, characters are only created black, or female, or middle-aged, or gay, or, I don’t know, socialist Greek Orthodox Wampanoag, if they “need to be” for purposes of the plot. The unquestioned assumption there is that white/straight/male/etc. is the default condition, and everything else is an aberration. Yet the default condition of the real world is that people have all kinds of natural variations, no one of them more purpose-driven than any other. Hurrah for the casting director who remembers that.
25: August,1926: Young Alex Burgess finds a picture of Morpheus in a grimoire called the Paginarum Fulvarum. Aren’t Latin titles ever so sonorous and impressive? This one translates as “yellow pages.” Back when this issue came out, the phone company was running an ad campaign for the Yellow Pages that used the slogan, “If it’s out there, it’s in here,” meaning that anything that exists can be found listed in the Yellow Pages. Judging from the evidence on this page, they were right.
Later on in Sandman, the book will be referred to as the Liber Fulvarum Paginarum. It has been cited as the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum in the novel Good Omens (1990), which Neil wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and in Pratchett’s own Discworld books, where its other alternate title is the Necrotelicomnicon.
Burgess pretends he already knew it was Dream, but praises Alex “for working it out on his own.” He then predicts that if he ever dies, the Order of Ancient Mysteries will be safe in Alex’s hands, and invites Ruthven Sykes to confirm it. Sykes, who’s been his competent and hard-working second-in-command for all these years, constantly at his beck and call, smiles unpleasantly and says yes.
It’s remarkable how often new religions split over the question of whether the founding prophet’s biological offspring will inherit the mantle of leadership. The devoted but unrelated people who’ve already been helping run things tend to take it badly. Notice also that in a couple of panels on this page, Sykes is messing around with a framed photo of Burgess’s longtime mistress Ethel Cripps, which she’s inscribed Roddy—your slave in love, Ethel. Has he already been canoodling with Ethel, or is this the start of his plan to abscond with the OAM’s cash and all its best toys?
26-27: November, 1930. There’s a schism in the order. Ruthven Sykes and Ethel Cripps run off together, taking many of the order’s treasures and more than £200,000 of its cash.  Burgess declares magical war, so Sykes swaps Morpheus’ helmet with a demon in return for an amulet of protection. For the next six years, Burgess continues to throw blights and curses at Sykes, to no effect. Then Ethel Cripps walks out on Sykes, taking the magical doodads with her, and all of Sykes’s magical bills come due at once.
It’s a nice panel. The digital recoloring really brings out the details of Sykes’s exploding head.
28: July, 1939. Ellie Marsten, Daniel Bustamonte, and Unity Kinkaid still can’t wake up. In Unity’s case, that’s despite her having been raped seven years ago, carried a baby to term, and given birth. Her daughter was given up for adoption. For me, that plot setup now sticks out like a sore thumb; but the first time I read this issue it was just one more thread of many that might lead off in interesting directions.
Meanwhile, the universe is aware that Morpheus is missing, and is trying to replace him. (I love this concept: the universe, like evolutionary pressure, adapts whatever materials are on hand to make what it needs. God is a bodger.) Thus does Wesley Dodds becomes the Sandman, who runs around putting wicked people to sleep with his gas gun. 
Neil Gaiman is a tidy writer. Throughout the run of Sandman, he weaves bits and pieces of loose storyline back into the vast fabric of the DC continuity. Here on page 28 he accounts for the existence of Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, one of DC’s oldest characters. Further on he does the same for other incarnations of the Sandman by making them part of a larger story in which it’s perfectly logical that they, and Wesley Dodds, and Morpheus, have all borne that title. He likewise tidies up bits from a great many other storylines. I’ll mention them when I spot them, though I’m sure there’ll be others I’ve never noticed.
29: 1947. Roderick Burgess tries one last time to bargain with his captive, and for one last time gets nowhere. He breaks down and cries because Dream could have given him “power beyond his wildest dreams,” but refused. “I didn’t have to get so old,” he says, badly mistaken; “I shouldn’t have had to get old.” Then he dies. In the real world, 1947 is the year in which Aleister Crowley died.
30-35: 1955. Ellie and Daniel and Unity are still asleep. It’s been forty years since Morpheus was captured. Alex Burgess lives at Fawney Rig with Paul McGuire, his significant other. Paul is also the new second-in-command of the OAM, despite the fact that he’s not a magician and doesn’t even believe magic exists. Down in the basement, the house’s other inhabitant is as intransigent as ever.
1968. Seekers at the doors of perception and gates of reality come to Fawney Rig, believing Alex Burgess can teach them how to do real magic. After some years, they drift away again. The quality of the guards who keep watch on Morpheus declines.
A strange thing is happening to Alex. He’s growing to look more and more like Cain: storyteller, keeper of the House of Mystery, and a servant of Morpheus. When Alex conjures up an apparition for his followers, it’s Cain’s pet gargoyle Gregory. This all stands to reason. He is keeping a house of mystery; Dream is a guest there, however unwillingly; and he’s telling stories to his groupies. In 1970, when they’ve drifted away, he stops looking quite so much like Cain. Perhaps it’s because he’s no longer telling stories.
1972, 1978, 1982, 1988. Alex Burgess gets old. Morpheus remains intransigent. Fred and Ernie, the guards who watch him now, are mere louts. In fact, if you look closely at the center panel on page 36, you’ll see that they’re Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. I don’t know whether that was in the script.
36-39: Paul brings Alex down to talk to Morpheus. As usual, the conversation goes nowhere. But as he’s turning Alex’s wheelchair to push it out of the room, one of its wheels cuts an arc through the the magical circle. Paul doesn’t notice. He doesn’t believe in magic.
Clear back on page 22, we had Roderick Burgess telling Morpheus that the magic circle traps him incorporeally, and the locked-down glass dome traps him physically. With the circle broken, his power is no longer bottled up. He hits Ernie with a microburst of REM sleep, grabs a handful of sand out of Ernie’s dream of the beach at Eastbourne, and then pretends to collapse unconscious onto the floor. Fred and Ernie panic, thinking he’s dead and that they’ll be blamed, so they call in Paul McGuire. Paul, concerned, has them unlock the dome. Morpheus blows sand in their eyes—
40: And escapes into the Dreaming.
41-42: A starving, naked Morpheus finds food and clothing in passing dreams. There’s a lovely vignette of Mort Notkin’s recurring anxiety dream:
In Mort Notkin’s recurring dream, he goes to this swell party, but he’s dressed as a clown.
He thought it was a costume party. He didn’t know.
Everyone laughs at him: Marilyn, Elvis, even the Duke
Weird! That’s the first time a naked man has ever turned up to raid the buffet.
Dreams, go figure them.
Then Ron and Nancy turn up, and Mort’s back on familiar ground.
Some commentators think the smaller figures in the background of Mort’s dream are Jimmy Durante, Bela Lugosi, and Jane Fonda. I disagree. I think they’re Dustin Hoffman, Cary Grant, and Katherine Ross—not that it matters all that much, as long as they’re movie stars.
43: The sleepers awake. Ellie Marston is confused. Daniel Bustamonte is sane and coherent. Unity Kinkaid remembers her baby.
More analogue real-world events: some victims of the post-WWI Encephalitis lethargica epidemic were awakened in the late Sixties by giving them large doses of a new drug, L-DOPA. They weren’t as lucky as Neil’s characters, though. A few were permanently cured, but for the unfortunate remainder the benefits of the drug regimen were temporary, and they helplessly slipped back into trance-like immobility. Oliver Sacks, who was the neurologist in charge of the program, wrote a fascinating book about it: Awakenings. It’s become something of a minor classic. Check it out.
44-47: Asleep in his bedroom, Alex Burgess dreams. He walks down the long hallways of Fawney Rig, growing younger as he goes, then follows a black cat down a long spiral staircase to a room with a single ornate chair in it. The cat jumps up onto the chair, and turns into Dream of the Endless. Who is angry. Who is seventy-two years’ worth of “I am one of the primordial forces of the universe, and you bunch of two-bit hedge-wizards have been keeping me locked in a basement in East Sussex” angry.
Dream asks whether Alex has any excuse or explanation for what they’ve done to him. Alex, justly terrified, tells him they were trying to capture Death, and got him by mistake. This doesn’t help, to put it mildly. Dream tells him that he should count himself lucky, for the sake of his species and his planet, that they didn’t capture Death.
Dream is right. Having Death locked up wouldn’t make people ageless, immune to disease, or invulnerable to injury. They just wouldn’t be able to die.
Check the date on which this story starts: June 6th, 1916. The First World War is in full swing. Professor Hathaway’s son “whose destroyer was sunk last week off Jutland” was killed in the Battle of Jutland, 31 May – 01 June 1916. The combined losses of Germany and Great Britain were 25 ships sunk, 8,645 men killed, and 1,017 wounded. If Death had been imprisoned before the battle started, all those dead men would still be be alive. They’d be burned, maimed, crushed, blown to pieces, trapped in sunken wreckage, or lost in the black depths of the North Sea, but they’d be alive, and they wouldn’t be grateful for it.
It gets worse. The OAM conducted its ceremony just a couple of weeks before the opening day of the Battle of the Somme,  when Britain took 54,470 casualties in a matter of hours.  It’s the quasi-official worst day in British history. The battle would eventually rack up 1,070,000 casualties for both sides combined before it ended in November of that year. Meanwhile, the equally horrendous Battle of Verdun was grinding away and would continue to do so until mid-December, for a total of 708,000 casualties. The Austrians and Italians were slugging it out in the Alps. On the Eastern Front, the Brusilov Offensive would continue through early August, with 2,350,000 total casualties.
There were also epidemics going on—polio, typhus, etc.—and lurking just down the road were the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 that killed more than 50 million people worldwide, then Encephalitis lethargica. After that, everything goes pandemic, because if no one can die of infectious diseases, they never stop spreading. Finally, pile all that on top of the normal ailments and miseries that kill people even when nothing else is going on.
If no one can die, what all that adds up to is the Zombie Apocalypse, except these zombies would be sentient human beings, many of them would be screaming in pain, and they’d all think they’d gone to hell. That’s it for first couple of years. After that, problems of the Zombie Apocalypse would be trumped by the fact that insects and microbes weren’t dying either. That’d get really ugly.
As I said, Dream is right. They’re been unbelievably negligent, and they’re lucky they didn’t catch Death.
47-50: Dream condemns Alex Burgess to Eternal Waking: a permanent state of false awakening from one nightmare into another. I’ve experienced a temporary version of that. It purely sucks.
50: Dream says, “And I have showed him fear,” which is a reference to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. If all of you will please just Google on “what are the roots that clutch” plus “handful of dust”, you can see the pertinent passage without my having to ask the Eliot estate for permission to quote it.
More to come.
 Actually it’s June 15th, but never mind—it doesn’t affect the story. I’ll tell you later why I looked it up.
 The Renaissance provenance of the unreliable magician explains a set of odd persistent circumstances that accompany him. No matter what century he’s working in, his source texts are always written in strange, crabbed languages; they’re always super-rare old leatherbound monstrosities; no one ever just borrows a grimoire and runs it through a copier, or has a typist transcribe it; the dates the books cite are extremely difficult to reconcile with the current calendar; and they never, ever have a proper index.
 However, if you’re curious: Namtar and Allatu are Mesopotamian gods of evil and the underworld. Morax, Naberius, and Vepar first appear in Johann Weyer’s Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (1577), where they’re described, respectively, as a Great Earl and President of Hell, the most valiant Marquis of Hell, and a strong Great Duke of Hell. They’re described differently in other grimoires, but no one cares. Klesh is the Navajo word for “snake.” Maymon is the ruling angel of Saturday and the southwest wind, according to the Heptameron, or Magical Elements (1496), attributed (most likely spuriously) to Pietro d’Abano. Ashema-Deva, from the Avestan aesma-daeva, started out as the Zoroastrian demon of wrath, then became Ashmedai or Asmodeus, and under the latter name turns up in many grimoires. Maborym is a meaningless word. Finally, Horvendile (see also Aurvandil, Earendel, Eärendil, Auriwandalo, Orentil, Erentil, Horvandillus, Horwendil, etc.) could be on the list for any number of reasons; but I’ll bet you a bright shiny quarter it’s because the demiurge Horvendile is an important figure in James Branch Cabell’s work, and Neil is a big fan of Cabell.
 This is not unlike what happened to the California branch of Crowley’s O.T.O. when “Frater X” ran off with Jack Parsons‘s money and wife. One ought not make too much of the parallels, though; this is another one of those things that happens in a lot of organizations. Case in point: the O.T.O. may have talked incessantly about sex, but for actual fornication and adultery they weren’t a patch on the Fabian Society.
 The Wesley Dodds Sandman would have made a lot more sense at the time the character was formulated than it does now. Back in the Thirties, people believed that “gas” had all sorts of interesting properties we’d find difficult or impossible to duplicate now. They also believed in mysterious figures who ran around gassing people. Wesley Dodds’s crimefighting alter ego bears more than a passing resemblance to the Mad Gasser of Virginia, who supposedly terrorized Botetourt County, VA in 1933 and 1934, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, who terrorized Mattoon, IL in 1944. (In good comic book fashion, the Mattoon Mad Gasser was also referred to as “the Anesthetic Prowler” and “the Phantom Anesthetist,” which beats the heck out of DC calling the Sandman “the Grainy Gladiator.”) Both the Virginia and the Illinois episodes are now thought to have been caused by mass hysteria, but at the time they caused considerable alarm.
 Do I think Neil knew that? Heck yeah. Look how delicately he tucked in that reference to Jutland, and how specific he is about the dates. Also, getting through a British education with hearing about the Somme would be like getting through an American education without hearing about Gettysburg.
Whoops, nearly forgot: I promised I’d explain footnote #1. I knew the full moon fell on June 15th in 1916 because I’d been double-checking the dates at the beginning of the story. I wasn’t scrounging for corrections for their own sake.
 We have actual movie footage taken that morning of two companies of Tolkien’s regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, forming up in a sunken lane and moving out to attack eastward across No Man’s Land, past the brand-new Hawthorn Mine Crater. There was a low bank a few hundred feet forward of their position. Only fifty of them made it that far. It was a bad, bad morning all ’round. But I digress.