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Serialization and empire in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.

While graphic memoirs such as Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home continue to receive resounding critical appreciation and commercial success, they remain more the exception than the norm in these still nebulous days of comics scholarship. Their autobiographical focus as well as their investment and depiction of exotic, attention grabbing topics (the Holocaust, Iranian Revolution, and sexual orientation/family dynamics, respectively) have been enough for them to be engaged and celebrated by critics formerly subscribing to the long-held belief that "comics cannot be literature." In addition, their manageable, single volume size makes them more approachable than a long-term serialized comic, especially for teachers assigning texts in the classroom and scholars writing about comics for peer-review. Owing to the inherent difficulty of discussing a project that can span dozens of issues, not enough critical attention has yet been paid to comics whose origins are in the traditional monthly format, such as Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Though individual issues of that series, such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream," have been applauded and even awarded, most critics are hesitant to attempt a discussion of the series' full seventy-five issue, seven-year run. (1)

Over the course of its monthly serial publication, The Sandman was also published in ten trade paperback volumes, containing either a full story arc or a collection of one-off issues, resembling a collection of interrelated short stories. Though it is tempting to discuss an individual arc in an article or essay, such as the Narnia-esque "A Game of You," doing so limits the type of scholarship available on the series and overlooks many aspects of the series' long-term organizational, structural, and thematic merits. While such a comprehensive approach inevitably privileges certain aspects of the series over others, discussing over-arching thematic concerns, those that appear throughout the series in addition to the numerous one-off issues, is a fruitful means to discuss Gaiman's long-term organizational structure. Since Gaiman was forced to produce a new issue each and every month and did not always know how long the series would run, the fact that an overall structure and universalizing themes, especially Gaiman's concerns with ideas of empire, can be identified from an early stage in the series is remarkable and can potentially change our understanding of serial comics publication.

While the numerous one-offs, multiple story lines, and monthly serialization seemingly make a thorough thematic and structural examination of The Sandman impossible, a close reading of the text reveals that a meticulous structure was in place from the series' early issues, dispelling claims that, unlike one-volume graphic novels, monthly comics are marred by an unfocused, "made up as you go" mentality. Starting with a brief history and comparison of the differences between monthly comics and one-volume graphic novels, this article examines scholarship on serialization, focusing on how readers' consumption habits and marketplace demands placed on authors mirror the challenges faced by comics creators. Finally, using Sandman as a case study of monthly comics, this article offers a structural analysis of the text in an effort to show how Gaiman's engagement with issues surrounding empire reveals a complex and nuanced framework that has long been deemed absent in monthly comics.

While the terms comics and graphic novels are often conflated, some working definitions are necessary in order to explain the sharp connotative difference and foreground the importance of discussing serial comics publication. For better or worse, many readers cringe at the idea of comic books, a term that for many recalls pulpy, disposable superhero drivel, poorly drawn and filled with exclamatory, derivative dialogue. Graphic novels, on the other hand, hold the potential to be taken seriously; their drawings are often black and white rather than the bright, garish colors of monthly comics, and the writing is literate and complex, akin to a "regular" novel. Most comics artists, however, prefer the comics label, and are far more likely to refer to themselves as "cartoonists" than "graphic novelists." Joe Sacco, for instance, has shown disdain for the term graphic novel for "trying to make it sound like we're really grown-up. But we are what we are....Comics is comics" (qtd. in Leith). The form in which comics have been read has undoubtedly had an impact on the attitudes and assumptions placed on them. Comic strips in newspapers were considered disposable, and the thought of collecting them for publication into book volumes would have seemed absurd. The ideas surrounding a material object's shelf life and worth value is examined at length by Michael Thompson in his work Rubbish Theory. Comic books, in Thompson's analysis, would have been labeled objects of "transient" value, that is, their value would have been expected to decrease over time. Due to an overwhelming sense of this mentality, however, monthly comics, long deemed expendable, became rarer and rarer, driving the price up. Early issues of Batman and Superman comics have been sold for millions of dollars at auction. (2) In the opening editor's note to the new printing of Walt Kelly's Pogo, Kim Thompson and Carolyn Kelly note that "[h]ard and painful as it may be to believe today, there was a time when the common assumption was that once a strip like Pogo had appeared in the newspaper, no one would ever be interested in reading it again" (ix). Comic books, too, were considered disposable, as they were often printed on cheap paper, adding fuel to the perception that they were pulpy, "low art," if they were considered art at all. As Scott McCloud points out, color comics in the newspaper boosted both sale and costs, resulting in the "four color process," marked by "bold, simple outlines" (187). The bright primary colors of comics became iconic rather than expressionistic and, while such color patterns could be readily identified with their respective heroes (red, blue, and yellow for Superman, blue and gray for Batman), the overall look of comics was considered juvenile and simplistic. Since the late seventies, due to an influx of European comics into the American publishing industry (McCloud points to Herge as an example), American comics artists began experimenting with more colors and tones. While high costs for color printing remain an ever-present factor and many of the most acclaimed comics and graphic novels are drawn in black and white, the increase of available options for artists has helped comics gain respectability as material objects.

The material culture of comic books altered the publishing landscape in the seventies and eighties as publishers began printing self-contained stories, such as George Metzger's Beyond Time and Again (1976), which was the first work marketed as a "graphic novel," and Will Eisner's A Contract With God (1978). (1) Collected editions of monthly comics also began appearing at this time. In 1973, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson of DC created an updated version of Manhunter, a DC superhero not seen since the early forties. Though Manhunter appeared in only seven issues, his success prompted DC to publish the issues in book form (Weiner 5). This practice continued in the eighties, with DC publishing collected versions of Alan Moore's The Saga of the Swamp Thing (1987) and Watchmen (1987), as well as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986). In 1986, Pantheon Books published the first version of Art Spiegelman's Mans, which had previously appeared in a monthly format in the magazine RAW. The second volume, published in 1991, was followed by a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, an honor previously unimaginable for a comic.

The means by which comics are collected has had a large impact on reading practices, especially in the case where serial comics are concerned. In most cases, publishers would gather a particular story arc for publication, making reading or revisiting older stories easier for newer generations of comics readers. In the case of The Sandman, which ran for seventy-five issues, Vertigo released ten paperback collections, starting in 1990, containing either entire story arcs (such as Lucifer relinquishing his kingdom in Season of Mists, issues 21-28) or collections of individual, one-off stories (such as Fables and Reflections, issues 29-31, 38-40, 50). Later, Vertigo released larger, leather-bound Absolute Editions, each containing supplementary material at the end of each volume, such as Caiman's scripts for several issues. The respectable publications lead credence to claims that comics are more valuable today as a form of literature than they ever have been before and are no longer automatically considered expendable and impermanent. As Julia Round maintains, factors such as "digital production and computerized, expensive and permanent binding, distribution via bookshops, pricing, franchising, and the repackaging and reissuing of previously published work" (15) have all added to the growing trend that comics could be deemed literature. This has not always been the case, however, as comics in many ways are representative of the assumptions and biases leveled against serial publication during its prime in the nineteenth century.

The inevitably shorter material shelf life of monthly comic books, especially those not collected into book form, is one of many similarities between the comics industry and the history of serial literature. Serial publication, though commonly associated with the Victorian era, actually dates back in some form to at least the 1670s. (4) As the reading public expanded in the eighteenth century, more and more fiction was released in serial form by unknown or new authors. It was not until the Victorian era, however, that the practice of serializing novels became widely popular, so much so that "a significant majority of 'original' novels published as books had appeared previously in monthly or weekly instalments [sic]" (Law 13) by the end of the nineteenth century. Much like individual comics issues later released in one-volume, graphic novel format, many novels of the Victorian era were only published after they had been serialized. Serial installments, however, were considered as impermanent and transitory as the periodicals in which they appeared, much like either monthly comic books or newspaper comic strips.

Authors utilizing serial publication faced many unique challenges in meeting the demands of their reading public. Chief among these was the dilemma of dealing with unforgiving deadlines on a consistent basis while still writing intriguing and exciting stories for readers. In addition, authors had to keep their financial wellbeing in mind and produce work consistently, even if it was not up to their own personal standards. As James West makes clear in a discussion of American serialization, "often the early chapters were running in the magazine before the final chapters had been composed" (107). If an author had not planned well, the work's concluding installments would feel rushed or inferior in comparison with the first few sections, perhaps resulting in a terminated contract or an inability to procure future outlets for publication. Creating evenly developed and organized installments was a tricky endeavor. Early installments could be plagued by an overemphasis on developing character foundations rather than formulating a cohesive narrative. J. Don Vann cites an anonymous American reviewer who criticized serial publication by noting that, "nothing can be more disadvantageous to the power of a writer than this sort of fragmented mode of publication" (3). Writers often had to meet exacting word or page lengths, a problem comics artists would face in the twentieth century with the typical twenty-four-page length for American comics. Such a rigid structure could force authors to excise material that may have added thematic intensity or cause them to add superfluous material, such as extended descriptions of settings or minor characters or an unnecessary plot summary. For comics artists, exacting page lengths could lead to cramming too much text or images onto a few pages or artificially extending a story line until the end of an issue, especially if it ended with a cliffhanger.

The cliffhanger ending was commonly used by writers to pique readers' interest and make them look forward to future installments. Wilkie Collins summarized the typical serial formula with his famed statement "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait" (qtd. in Law 184). Comics artists, not to mention television scriptwriters, have long seen the benefit of cliffhanger endings as an almost surefire way to build anticipation and guarantee readers for subsequent issues or episodes. Keeping on track with public demand required a great deal of audience awareness. John Sutherland discusses the necessity of keeping on pace with reader expectations: "the responsiveness of the sales to any slackening tension kept the novelist nervous and alert" (172). Authors were highly conscious of the necessity to adapt and adjust their work to keep readers interested in a flagging story. George Eliot, for example, moved a section of Middlemarch from the second part to the first before its serial publication, stating "It was a capital bit to end with" and that the ending "pitches the interest forward into part II" (qtd. in Vann 12). While some readers and critics shunned the supposedly gimmicky ending, Anthony Trollope saw the practice as establishing a connection between author and reader as they "move along together in full confidence with each other" (qtd. in Vann 12). Marketplace realities placed extra pressure on authors, who were expected to produce installments that could stand on their own as an individual unit and keep readers invested in the story.

Like comics artists, writers for serial publication came under fire for a general perception that their work was somehow inferior to that of other authors. While established and celebrated novelists such as Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens published serially, Graham Law maintains that by the end of the nineteenth century, a "great gulf emerged between "'serious' and 'popular' newspapers, between 'literary' and 'pulp' fiction" as well as between "'elite' and a 'mass' audience" (151), a legacy echoed in the early decades of comics. The wide-spread belief that comics are inherently inferior to other forms of literature has lingered and has only partially been dispelled, with the scholarly community and, to an extent, the general reading public regarding award-winning works such as Maus and Fun Home more the exception than the rule. Part of this reaction towards comics is due to the seemingly fluid, loosely related narrative arcs prevalent in superhero publications. As several critics have pointed out, however, the supposedly unrelated "worlds" and "universes" in comics is something of a myth. The multiple worlds model popularized in physics and philosophy, for example, claims that fiction readers construct "a three-dimensional model akin to an actual model of the scene" (Johnson-Laird 37) in order to place characters in a story and monitor their actions. For comics, the idea of the multiverse, where various seemingly incompatible narratives coexist, has gained in both popularity and critical attention. Rather than viewing multiple serial narratives as incompatible, repetitive, or careless, critics such as Karin Kukkonen have celebrated the ability for comics artists to "deploy a range of strategies to help readers navigate this multiverse of mutually incompatible realities" (42). (5) Neil Gaiman acknowledged the importance of the multiverse in regards to Sandman, stating that early in the series he "thought it would be a good idea to show where the Sandman fit into the DC Universe" (Bender 35) by including characters such as Scarecrow and locales like Gotham City's Arkham Asylum. With the quick turnaround for publication, comics artists have to navigate the rules and guidelines of such intricately designed worlds, all while continuing to tell a compelling narrative that is rigidly structured rather than episodic and haphazard. Turning to Sandman, we can see that in spite of the endemic constraints and potential pitfalls of monthly publication, such as not knowing the series' overall length, running out of or repeating ideas, and not using space and framing effectively, Gaiman utilizes the traditional monthly structure of comics to construct an artistically and narratively rich text firmly in line with theories regarding the comics multiverse.

The Sandman differs in some respects from other monthly superhero comics in that Gaiman had full creative control over the fate of his protagonist. As opposed to, say, Batman, the Sandman as a character was under Gaiman's auspices, allowing the author to kill him off in the final issues. Gaiman's amount of authorial power adds to the increased perception of creator control that has bolstered claims towards comics' respectability and status as literature. Even with that control, however, Gaiman did not begin Sandman knowing how long the story would last and faced the same constraints serial novelists did. When asked about the demands of serial writing, Gaiman remarked, "It forced me to produce a story every month, no matter what; and it allowed me to gauge audience reactions as a storyline progressed" (Bender 253). Like serial novelists, Gaiman had little room for respite; in regards to writing block, he maintained, "the main thing that got me past any block on Sandman was the relentless monthly schedule, and the knowledge that people were depending on me" (Bender 261). As another deterrent against possible writer's block, Gaiman admitted to creating "insurance" in the form of filler characters, throwaway images, and isolated scenes that he may or may not return to later. He also references an inherent difference between a serial comic and a novel, remarking, "if I'm on page 130 [of a novel] and I suddenly realize that I need a gun in a desk drawer on page 20, I can flip back and insert the gun--and when the book is published, readers will assume that that gun was always in the drawer on page 20....But if I decide in issue 40 of a comics series that I needed a gun in a drawer in issue 20, I'm screwed" (Bender 253-54). Gaiman also acknowledged putting extra pressure on himself as Sandman progressed as he sought to avoid repeating certain stylistic tendencies: "As I reached the halfway point on Sandman, however, my scripts began taking longer and longer to complete. I'd start to lay out a page and then say, 'No, I already used that panel sequence in The Doll's House, (7) or 'I already exploited that image in Season of Mists'" (Bender 260). In addition to emphasizing the demands serial publication places on authors, this reveals Caiman's encyclopedic knowledge of his own work, giving credence to an argument that he was able to formulate much of his overall structure fairly early in the series. When questioned as to why he did this, Gaiman responded, "I felt it was critical artistically to never stop--to keep moving forward" (Bender 260).

Over the course of the series, The Sandman touches on several themes with abundant frequency. Called a "story about stories" (Bender 36) by Gaiman himself, the series continuously touches on the ways in which people pass along stories, myths, and folklore. (6) For those unfamiliar with the plot and structure of Sandman, a preliminary sketch will prove useful. Sandman takes place chiefly in the twentieth century, focusing on the exploits of Dream (also known as the Sandman), (7) one of seven anthropomorphic embodiments of fundamental ideas: Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (whose former incarnation was Delight). The series follows the titular figure's attempts to rebuild and restore order in his kingdom, the Dreaming, which has been abandoned during his decades-long imprisonment by an Aleister Crowley-like mage figure (detailed in the opening story arc, Preludes and Nocturnes). As the series progresses, Dream struggles with his attempts to find meaning in his existence and duties and is at times haunted by those whom he has harmed in the past, including various lovers and his son Orpheus. The monthly format is especially fitting for the comic, as Gaiman expects audiences to show awareness not only of the classical mythologies of several pantheons (Greek/Roman, Norse, and Egyptian to name a few), but also major and minor historical figures, from Marco Polo to Haroun Al Raschid. The monthly format provides Gaiman the opportunity to jump between these various eras and realms with ease, a durability that, while not impossible to achieve in a prose novel (notably experimental, postmodern works or picaresque novels), is particularly well-suited to serial publications.

Since the Sandman is, in simplest terms, an anthropomorphic embodiment of dreams, his domain is the epicenter of all fiction and storytelling, including a vast library filled with the unwritten tomes of every author who ever lived, such as G. K. Chesterson's The Man Who Was October and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lost Road (#22: 2). (8) At the end of the series, the minor character William Shakespeare, whose legendary talents were aided by Morpheus in a shadowy deal, hears his benefactor lament, "I am Prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever" (#75: 36). Though some commentators refer to Sandman's focus on story as being the chief means in which to holistically approach the series' two-thousand-page structure, such a view elides Gaiman's frequent concerns surrounding issues of empire. Inexplicably tied to the theme of storytelling are the concerns felt by kings and rulers of kingdoms ranging from Lucifer, whose repudiation of Hell is the central focus of the Season of Mists story arc, to characters with single appearances, including Augustus Caesar in "August" and Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed emperor of America in "Three Septembers and a January."

As Sandman progresses, Gaiman returns to the empire motif with more and more frequency, revealing ongoing thematic and structural concerns. His ability to develop an intricate structure, centered on the role monarchs and rulers play in relation to their kingdoms, is all the more impressive for his inability to gauge the series' length at the outset. As mentioned earlier, The Sandman's seventy-five issues have been compiled into ten trade paperbacks, each consisting of either a mostly self-contained story arc or a collection of one-off, short story type issues. This analysis of The Sandman and its relation to serialization is three-pronged: we will first trace the theme of empire in the entire series, followed by one of the story arcs, and conclude by mentioning various individual issues in which the theme appears. This approach will display Gaiman's constant awareness and concern for issues regarding empire and the responsibilities felt by rulers and monarchs across the series' seven-year run. Serialization and empire are not diametrically opposed, of course, as the serial format actually enhances Gaiman's ability to explore relevant issues as it allows him to freely jump both geographically and temporally in various issues, as the series visits France during the Revolution, Rome, Hell, an ancient African kingdom, and other exotic locales. By briefly analyzing The Sandman from these various perspectives, we can discern that in spite of common assumptions, serial comics can be both intricately structured and thematically complex.

The Sandman treats empire more as an ongoing theme than a theoretical concept, drawing on a basic understanding of the role played by those with the power to command, as in the Latin imperium (which corresponds to the power of states over individuals) and auctoritas (an individual's own level of prestige and influence). The comic showcases various incarnations of empires and kingdoms throughout its run, though Gaiman is most concerned with the responsibilities and decisions made by those with authority and any sort of denned or undefined power over others. Hardt and Negri's examination of empire as a new form of sovereignty, one "composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule" (xii), is useful in drawing parallels between Gaiman's various emperors and rulers. Empire, much like any colonialist antecedents, wields tremendous economic and political power, constituted in a privileged class, able, if it chooses to do so, to dominate and oppress others at will. In Gaiman's universe, these powers are absolute and universal: Augustus Caesar casually asks the dwarf Lycius, "Do you know how many men I have personally killed? How many deaths I have ordered?" (#30: 10), while in another issue Maximilien Robespierre keeps a mountain of decapitated heads in a dungeon out of a macabre sense of pleasure (#29: 19). Having established the near omnipotent power and command of his various monarchs, both historical and fictional, Gaiman then turns his attention to examining the weight of responsibility felt by these rulers. By the end of the series, we can see a distinct pattern at work: after either resurrecting or rebuilding a kingdom or realm, the rulers often find themselves dissatisfied and, in some cases, afraid of their own power. Deviations from this norm, such as Robespierre, tend to meet unpleasant fates due to their own overbearing hubris and lack of awareness and appreciation for their subjects. Only in rare instances in Sandman do subjects take center stage over their respective rulers, forcing readers to examine the various domains from a top-down perspective, seeing the concerns and hesitations felt by those in charge. Throughout the series Gaiman underscores the fact that, with few exceptions, his rulers are unable to meet the demands of maintaining an empire, often doubting the very necessity of their domains yet almost universally lacking the ability or means to put an end to their growth and expansion.

Though the story frequently loops upon itself, repeating and inserting new storylines throughout, the series is largely concerned with Morpheus's rebuilding of his realm and his assessment of his role as its monarch. After breaking free from a decades-long imprisonment, Morpheus sets out to resurrect his fallen realm, collecting various items to restore his power: his pouch of sand, his helm, and a ruby containing concentrated energy. After acquiring his paraphernalia, however, Morpheus finds himself out of sorts, feeding pigeons on a park bench and bemoaning to his sister that in spite of being "more powerful than I had been in eons" he felt disappointed at his realization that "I had been sure that as soon as I had everything back I'd feel good. But inside I felt worse than when I started. I feel like... nothing" (#8: 8). Death reprimands him, telling him he is feeling sorry for himself for not being willing to find a new task or endeavor to undertake. Morpheus proceeds to accompany Death as she fulfills her duties and, by the end of the issue, is reinvigorated, fully invested in his purpose and role as Dream: "I have found the solace I sought, though not in the way I imagined" (#8: 24). For a while, Morpheus performs his duties and roles as lord of the Dreaming with dignity and seemingly with pleasure, as he prevents a catastrophic incident in the Doll's House story arc which immediately follows the opening issues. Still, as the series bears on, much of Morpheus's earlier ennui begins manifesting itself in his character, as his dark, brooding personality becomes more pronounced. Morpheus restores his kingdom but increasingly finds himself struggling with the changing world around him. After freeing his former lover Calliope from a magically charmed imprisonment similar to his own, she tells him, "You have changed, Oneiros. In the old days, you would have left me to rot forever, without turning a hair" (#17: 23). While Morpheus is always reticent and brooding, numerous characters throughout the series point out that he has changed since his imprisonment. Part of his struggle is the fact that in spite of redeeming and rebuilding his domain, Morpheus is constantly restless and uncertain about his proper role as its ruler. After watching Lucifer renounce Hell in the Season of Mists arc and his own brother Destruction abandon his realm in Brief Lives, Morpheus comes to accept that his role and time as Dream is approaching an end. After killing his son Orpheus at his request, Morpheus acknowledges that he has changed.'' Talking to Death in his final moments, he makes it clear he no longer views himself as a fit ruler: "Since I killed my son... the Dreaming has not been the same... or perhaps / was no longer the same. I still had my obligations... But even the freedom of the Dreaming can be a cage, of a kind, my sister" (#69: 6, ellipses in original). Viewing the series holistically, it becomes clear that each story arc has built in some way to the series' climax, where the realm of the Dreaming is torn apart by the Furies while Morpheus, both unable and in part unwilling to stop them, watches, knowing that only his death will save his realm. When asked to summarize The Sandman in twenty-five words or less, Gaiman answered, "The Lord of Dreams learns one must change or die, and makes his decision" (Intro. EN). By the end of the series, Morpheus has accepted that he cannot change and makes a decision, as he sees fit, in the best interest of the Dreaming. Having found and nurtured a successor, a new incarnation of Dream more able and willing to change, Morpheus is willing to accept the lessons he has learned throughout the series and be destroyed so that his kingdom will have a new beginning.

If The Sandman in its entirety revolves around the decision one ruler makes in regards to abandoning his kingdom so that renewal and rebirth may take place, that theme also receives pronounced attention in earlier story arcs, particularly Brief Lives, where Morpheus's brother Destruction explains his own rationale for abandoning his realm, and Season of Mists, which focuses on Lucifer's repudiation of Hell. Since the kingdom of Hell is shown at length in Sandman and Destruction's realm only described in passing. Season of Mists deserves extended attention, though both arcs play a pivotal role in Morpheus's growing understanding of his role and duties as a ruler. In the Season of Mists arc, Morpheus decides to return to Hell in order to free Nada, an African woman whom he imprisoned millennia before after she refused to abandon her kingdom and become his lover. Upon his arrival, however, he is surprised to find Hell emptied and abandoned. After locating Lucifer, Morpheus is shocked when the fallen angel tells him, "I've quit" (#23: 8). The two proceed to walk through Hell as Lucifer closes its many gates, telling Morpheus, "I've stopped. I've resigned. I am leaving... I am no king" (#23: 9). Lucifer explains that in spite of Hell's enormity, he has elected to shun his subjects and force them to leave, as he no longer plans on meeting his responsibility of providing a location where souls face their punishment. In Lucifer's reckoning, Hell is less a place where its tenants suffer any vengeance from an omnipotent Creator but rather where they provide torture and punishment for themselves until they have achieved some semblance of personal satisfaction and penance. In part, Lucifer explains that he has grown tired of the "honorifics" (#23: 14) expected of him as ruler of Hell and, rather than continue to meet his responsibilities, has elected to pass sovereignty of Hell to Morpheus, symbolically handing him the key to the domain. While such a bloodless and painless transition from power seems irreconcilable with many empires based in reality, Hell operates as a metaphor in Sandman, with Season of Mists acting as a consideration of how rulers respond to either their repudiation or acceptance of an empire. Morpheus is paralyzed by his possession of the key, showing rare signs of physical anger and aggression as he grimaces and breaks a mirror (#24: 10) when he returns to his own realm. Unsure of what to do, he turns to his sister Death, who calls Hell "the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things" (#24: 13). Lucifer's abdication has quickly become common knowledge, with scores of gods and goddesses from a variety of pantheons journeying to the Dreaming to barter for Hell. Morpheus is seemingly the only being in the entire story arc aside from Lucifer who has no desire for the responsibilities that come with being lord of such a realm. Even as Morpheus meets and hears offers from god after god, from Thor to Susano-o-no-Mikoto, his paralysis and indecision continues. At one point he holds the key up and drops it, bemoaning, "if only it were that easy. If I could just throw it away" (#26: 24). This, of course, is Caiman's point; dominion over others requires heavy responsibility and seeking an escape from that responsibility is a natural response to that situation. The story ends not with Morpheus making a decision but instead with a literal deus ex machina from the Creator Himself, claiming Hell must be ruled by "those who serve the Name directly" (#25: 9). Morpheus, unlike Lucifer before him, does not abandon Hell of his own volition, though his experience with the psychic paralysis of briefly having domain over such a valuable realm as well as his observation of Lucifer's decision to simply walk away are early signs of his ultimate decision in regards to his own kingdom.

Longer story arcs run the risk of alienating readers impatient to return to what they deem the "true" subject of a comic. Since the majority of Sandman's action, at least as far as the story's climax is concerned, is concentrated in the penultimate collection The Kindly Ones, Caiman had to hope that readers would quickly accept an arc's narrative and thematic relationship to the work as a whole. In regards to the Narnia-esque A Game of You arc, which Hy Bender describes as "easily the least liked collection" (117) by fans, Caiman responds that its lack of popularity "didn't surprise me. A story like Season of Mists tickles readers in the places where they like to be tickled, but I knew A Game of You would not do that; it would say things that most readers didn't want to hear" (118). The storyline, which culminates in Morpheus removing a woman's fantasy world from the realm of existence, clearly relates to Gaiman's larger concerns regarding responsibility and authority, as Morpheus feels compelled "by the terms of the compact" (#36: 20) he made at the world's creation to destroy it. Morpheus, however, is scarcely present in the arc, which accounts for part of its lack of appeal. Still, readers engaged in the serial nature of the text could rest assured that as seemingly tangential as its plot was, it would tie into Gaiman's overall structure for the series. A Game of You is a rare example of the end of a kingdom and, while Morpheus was the creator rather than everyday ruler of that realm, his ability to effectively destroy it shows him at the height of his powers and contrasts well with his paralysis during the earlier Season of Mists storyline.

One-off issues are difficult to characterize and categorize for comics scholarship. Such stories could be seen as indicative of both the pros and cons of serial publication; on the one hand, they allow the author enough time to reinvigorate him or herself and prepare a fitting continuation in a longstanding story arc, while on the other, their inclusion risks frustrating readers impatient to return to the story proper. One-offs could also be indicative of stalling and potentially ignoring the series' overall plot in order to tell an abbreviated story. In the case of Sandman, their inclusion often breaks up otherwise solidified story lines (as seen in issues such as #35, a boarding school story set in the midst of the Season of Mists arc). Throughout the series, however, issue after issue relates to empires and rulers, both real and metaphysical. (10) In an early story, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," a wandering cat tells the story of the great cat lords and ladies who hunted humans for sport. After a rogue human convinces his kind to jointly "[d]ream a world in which we are the dominant species, in which we are the kings and the queens, and the gods" (#18: 17), the cat realm ceases to exist. As Morpheus explains it to the wandering cat, humans "dreamed the world so it always was the way it is now....They changed the universe from the beginning of all things, until the end of time" (#18: 18) unless a similar occurrence happens if enough cats share the joint dream of a renewed kingdom. Unlike the many instances in Sandman where characters struggle with the decision to abandon or repudiate a kingdom, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" is an optimistic approach of a potential ruler attempting to reclaim a kingdom. Fittingly, the issue has one of the series' more optimistic endings, as a kitten who listened to the story dreams of hunting humans in a world once again ruled by cats.

In opposition to the optimism of "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" is "August," an issue showcasing a day Augustus Caesar spends dressed as a beggar in order to hide from the gods and keep his thoughts to himself. Augustus offers a concise summary of his importance, noting that humanity will always "follow leaders--queens or kings, chiefs or emperors. We tell them what to do, and they do it. We know no more than they, but still, they follow us, blindly" (#30: 14). In spite of his near omnipotent power and his status as a future god in the eyes of his subjects, Augustus admits feeling scared and apprehensive over the possible future of Rome as revealed in prophecies: "In one future, the Romans sputter and flare like Greek fire, last a few hundred years and then are gone--eaten from outside by barbarians, from inside by strange gods. In the other future the whole world becomes a province of our empire: the eagle standard will be carried through lands we have barely dreamed of (#30: 15). Haunted by memories of his uncle and adopted father, Julius Caesar, who frequently raped him during his youth, Augustus secretly wishes to plan the slow downfall of the Roman Empire and, with Morpheus's advice, he hides amongst beggars one day a year so that the gods will not have access to his innermost thoughts as he reflects on his plan. In the final pages of the story, as recorded by the dwarf Lycius who helped Augustus dress as a beggar, we learn that his will "set the bounds of the empire" and "forbade any further expansion" (#30: 24). Also, he appointed Tiberius as successor, resulting in a string of rulers who have been "successively evil, mad, foolish" (#30: 24). Unable to escape or destroy the empire in his life, Augustus takes the necessary steps to prevent the inevitable and all-consuming power of its growth. Remembering the maxim that all empires that do not expand eventually die, Augustus makes sure that the traumatic experiences of his youth, a symbolic representation of the potential abuse of power, would eventually cease.

Rather than focusing on destroying or recreating an empire, "Ramadan" details an emperor's desire to grant his world a form of immortality. In spite of his lavish palace, uncountable wealth, and omnipotent power, Haroun Al Raschid, caliph of Baghdad, finds himself "troubled in his soul" (#50: 5), deriving little pleasure from his luxurious lifestyle.

Seeking an audience with the "Lord of Sleep, the Prince of Stories" (#50: 19), the caliph threatens to unleash a swarm of demons upon the world if Morpheus does not come to him. Morpheus takes offense to his cursory summoning, reminding Al Raschid of his importance by stating "I am no steward" (#50: 20). Al Raschid, for his part, also plays the role of proud ruler, boasting of his city of "marvels" and "wonders" (#50: 23) before revealing his true purpose: a desire to sell the city to Morpheus in exchange for a promise that it will "live forever" (#50: 28). Having observed the fates of vast statue and palace ruins in the desert, the caliph knows a similar fate likely awaits Baghdad. His only means to combat that reality is by selling it, in a fashion, to the Prince of Stories, who can preserve the city's marvels for perpetuity. Morpheus agrees, and is last seen in the comic carrying a bottle capturing the city of Baghdad in vivid miniature (#50: 31). On the final page of the strip, Gaiman reveals that "Ramadan" has been presented in a frame narrative, as a beggar tells the story to an inquisitive young boy in exchange for money and cigarettes. While the boy walks away "across the bomb sites and the rubble of Baghdad," his "head is held high and his eyes are bright for behind his eyes are towers and jewels and djinn, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities and brass" (#50: 32). Only in story does the majesty of Haroun Al Raschid's realm still exist and, like the other rulers and emperors of Sandman, the caliph is aware of his duties and responsibilities as a monarch. Unlike many others, however, he does not fear the power and responsibility associated with rule, and his decision to "sell" the city to Morpheus preserves its legacy for all time.

Having examined The Sandman holistically, by story arc, and by individual issues, it is evident that serial publication, rather than being considered choppy and marred by tangential episodes, should in fact be regarded as an effective means of exploring and recapitulating themes in great detail. While comics readers have become more and more accustomed to reading longer series in trade paperback format, generally consisting of one particular story arc, they should remain aware that the themes explored in a series of issues almost undoubtedly tie into the artists' hopes and aspirations for the series in its entirety. Caiman's frequent use of historical and metaphysical emperors and rulers allows him to explore the responsibilities that accompany power and sovereignty. Morpheus, like the many other monarchs shown in the series, is forced to come to terms with his role as lord of the Dreaming and, believing himself unable to change his stoic ways and feeling a sense of guilt over his past actions, elects to abdicate his throne in favor of a new, kinder aspect of Dream. In the afterword of Absolute Sandman Volume 2, Gaiman notes that at the halfway point of the series he "knew where this thing was headed, even if nobody else did. All the pieces were now on the table" (612). From the start, Gaiman had an insight into the serial nature of his work and, while he may have been unable to anticipate every twist in its narrative or plot construction, he, like serial novelists before him, always held to following an overall structure. The series' tragic ending, in Gaiman's mind, was inevitable, as he remarks in the same afterword: "I was now just over half-way through the story I'd set out to tell. And I could still back out. I kept telling myself that, but it really wasn't true" (612). Though constructing a serial narrative could have allowed Gaiman to artificially extend the series' life, he chose to follow a degree of artistic integrity and allow the series to end when it reached its natural conclusion. As James West has remarked, "if scholars or critics are fully to understand works of literary art, they must understand the commercial factors that influenced the composition of these works" (1). Understanding the serial nature of Sandman is integral to offering an analysis or discussion of the work in its entirety. And while Gaiman's work provides one useful case study, recent and still-running comics such as Fables, The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, and the rebooted DC titles are all still ripe for critical analysis, analysis that should reflect upon the artistic and commercial demands of serial publication in comics.

THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

NOTES

(1) "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction in 1991, the first comic to do so.

(2) In November 2011, an issue of Action Comics HI (Superman's debut) owned by Nicolas Cage sold for $2.16 million.

(3) Earlier attempts had been made at bridging the perceived gulf between comics and "other" forms of literature. During the heyday of film noir in the 1940s, Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller, both aspiring novelists, sought to create a comic that was "a little more adult" (Waller, qtd. in Hajdu 164). Recalling that, "in those days, comics were considered pretty low in adult value, which is, of course, why kids loved them," Waller and Drake created an outline for their "picture novel" (164), the first novel-length work of fiction in a comics format. Their creation, // Rhymes With Lust, published in 1950 under the pseudonym Drake Waller with art by Matt Baker, was "a pulpy mix of leftist social realism and melodrama" (165) that ultimately sold only a few hundred copies, effectively closing the market for full-length comics for decades.

(4) See Wiles.

(5) For information on the act of retroactive continuity (retcon), which consists of altering or rewriting facts, e.g., bringing characters back from the dead, see Orion Ussner Kidder's "Useful Play: Historicization in Alan Moore's Supreme and Warren Ellis/John Cassaday's Planetary." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 21.1 (2010): 77-96.

(6) The "truth" of stories is something that Caiman frequently comments upon. In the "Caveat, and Warning for Travelers" before the text of American Gods, he writes, "it goes without saying that all of the people, living, dead, and otherwise in this story are fictional or used in a fictional context. Only the gods are real."

(7) Other names and titles associated with Dream are Morpheus, which is used most often, Oneiros, Lord Shaper, Kai'ckul, Lord of the Dreaming, and other variations of his title and role.

(8) All references will be to the original issue number followed by the page number

(9) Orpheus is granted reprieve from Death in the Sandman Special in order to retrieve Eurydice from Hades. After failing to do so, his body is ripped to shreds by the Bacchante, leaving only Orpheus's immortal head. Though he asks his father for death in the Special, Morpheus refuses to grant his wish until the Brief Lives story arc.

(10) At a minimum, this list includes "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" (#18), "Thermidor" (#29, French Revolution), "August" (#30, Rome), "Three Septembers and a January" (#31, Emperor Norton in America), "The Song of Orpheus" (Sandman Special, Greek myth), "Ramadan" (#50, Baghdad), "The Golden Boy" (#54, Prez and America), "Exiles" (#74, China), and "The Tempest" (#75, Morpheus and Shakespeare).

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Publication:Studies in the Novel
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Date:Sep 22, 2015
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