The third Sandman poses some problems for me, someone who has read almost no DC comics and has only the vaguest sense of their characters and history. The vagueness and sense share a source: popular culture in general. You’d have to live in some remote part of the world, away from billboards and newspapers and televisions and radios, to avoid all references to DC characters, given how many of them have metamorphosed into stars of movies and TV shows. I was going to write a sentence in which I listed them, but then I realized I don’t know how many of the characters I’m thinking of are DC characters. Many, I’m sure, are Marvel characters. In fact, I probably have a greater sense of Marvel characters than DC characters, because the only comic I read as a kid was G.I. Joe, and that was a Marvel comic, so there were ads in it for other Marvel comics. At least, I think it was a Marvel comic. I’m pretty sure of it, in fact. I remember the rectangle in the upper left corner of every issue’s cover that showed Spider-Man or somebody, not the DC circle.
Of course, I could look all this up on Wikipedia or any of a thousand comics websites. The information is out there, as they say. (Actually no, they say, “The truth is out there,” don’t they? They being The X-Files, a show I watched a few times. Information and truth are not the same thing.) I’m typing this essay on a computer connected to the internet. In less than a minute, I could find a list of DC characters and Marvel characters, and I could cut and paste some names, and I could fake being knowledgeable. I did something similar in my first essay here, looking up the history of the Sandman character in the DC universe. But that felt like essential information, necessary to that essay, a data point from which to launch a thousand words. The names of various DC and Marvel characters that have entered the popular consciousness, and the publishing company that owns those characters, doesn’t seem so essential.
I am tempted to dart away from typing right now to go research one thing, though: the perceived difference between DC and Marvel. A friend of mine told me he grew up reading the comics of one and not the other, and that it had an effect on him. I don’t remember which one, and I don’t remember the effect. There’s an essay by Jonathan Lethem, I think, discussing this. Or maybe by Michael Chabon. Or maybe it was an interview. Or maybe…
No, I’m going to embrace my ignorance. Or at least soldier on with it intact.
The problem is John Constantine. He’s a main character in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and I know he has some sort of meaning within the DC universe, because I once saw a movie starring Keanu Reeves called Constantine, and I suspect it’s related. But I don’t remember anything about that movie except that I found it entertaining and was surprised that I didn’t hate Keanu Reeves, since he’s one of my least favorite actors. (This isn’t his fault, exactly; I think he reminds me of somebody from my childhood, somebody I found annoying, and so whenever I see him on screen my subconscious shoots shards of annoyance into my conscious brain, though without any explanation. I wish my subconscious were more polite. “Hello,” it might say to my conscious brain, “I have this little bit of repressed emotion here, and I’d like you to hold onto it for a bit,” and my conscious brain would say, “Okay, but first give me some sort of explanation,” and my subconscious would reply, “Jolly good, old sport, that’s fair. This is an annoyed memory of a boy named &#@!%, and he @&!#$ed you once, way back during @#*&^$#%, which is why you need to feel this repressed emotion.” I would be so much less neurotic if my subconscious behaved like that, but no.)
So I have no idea who John Constantine is, though I’m sure he’s got a big Wikipedia entry. I just know his name. When I first read “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, I expected him to display some sorts of superpowers. Or to become like James Bond or somebody — someone with superheroic survival skills. But he doesn’t. Constantine doesn’t do much, really, except lead Dream to his bag of sand, making him into The Sandman once again, I suppose. Dream is the interesting and powerful guy here. Perhaps this is part of the point — perhaps this is a deconstruction of the Constantine character, showing that compared to the gods, even the big shots of the mundane world are just … mundane.
Mundanity is one of the primary elements of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Or at least, that’s what sticks out to me, someone who is incapable of measuring the allusions and connections in the story, someone who must stay with what is there on the page. After the tremendous, baroque, beautiful, grotesque fantasy worlds of “Imperfect Hosts”, we’re now in the grubby real world, starting with the very first panel, a picture of an utterly nondescript house in what seems to be a row of utterly nondescript houses. The rest of the page zooms in on a squalid room and a diseased hand. The next page takes us to another place, a different hand, and this page zooms out, but the squalor of Constantine’s room is less than the squalor of the other (Rachel’s, we will learn) only because it is less cluttered.
The squalor reaches a height on page 20, our first glimpse of Rachel in all her junkie glory: naked on a bed, skin rotted and sagging, eyes hollow, hair matted. It’s a striking portrait, especially her face, which certainly looks ravaged, but also possesses a humanity and beauty that allows us to see how much has been lost. Pages 17 and 18 showed Constantine and Dream walking through a room coated with a still-living, slimey, inside-out body — a moment of fantasy that contrasts sharply then with the reality of Rachel. Within the world of the story, both are equally real: the walls are, in fact, covered with a still-living, slimey, inside-out body; and Rachel is, in fact, sitting naked in a bed, ready for her next fix of dream-sand. The sand provides her escape from both hese realities.
We enter that escape with her in the last pages, when The Sandman takes pity on her and lets her die into this dream. It’s a pastel world composed of all the clichés of peacefulness: pretty clouds, blue sky, trees and mountains, a giant sunset. It’s Rachel’s world, a landscape created from what little is left of her imagination.
The last two pages place us back in the mundane world, no glimpse of fantasy anywhere, a world between myth and dream, a respite from endless possibility and boundless imagination, where Constantine asks for a favor and gets a wish granted: relief from nightmares.
Outside the story, we the readers know that this relief can’t last, because the last words fit much portent into four small words: “Next: Going to Hell“.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.