The seventh issue of Sandman wraps up most of the story arc, and our readerly expectations of such things are that they should feel climactic. And yet there’s little suspense or excitement in the narrative of “Sound and Fury”, because Dream’s character isn’t particularly well developed yet, and it’s hard to drum up a lot of concern for his fate. In previous issues, this hasn’t been too much of a problem, because so many of the characters around Dream were compelling; here, where the story’s central concern is with Dream’s battle with Dee for the ruby, the vagueness of our main character helps sap the issue of any real tension.
That would be a bigger problem in an issue that wasn’t as beautifully designed as this one, though, and in some ways the story’s flatness is an advantage. In “24 Hours“, the artwork was mostly unobtrusive — well done, but it stuck to the forms we expect of a comic, and little of the imagery really jumped out and drew attention to itself. That was as it should be in an issue that was very much about its story, the most focused and literary of Sandman’s narratives so far.
“Sound and Fury” is exactly the opposite — none of the pages follow a standard template for design, and every few pages the shape, structure, and style of panels changes radically. This is where the energy of the issue lies. The first page offers three panels without color and a fourth with only some reds and a bit of light blue shadow. The panels’ edges are jagged, like lines in a charcoal sketch, and the panels are cockeyed and asymmetrical, like photos tossed into an album. The next page continues the ascetic aesthetic. Horrible events are presented in these panels, for John Dee has used the ruby’s power to bring catastrophe and madness to the world.
Over the next few pages, color begins to seep into the panels. Dee is consistently rendered with jagged, textured lines, like a creature from a Max Beckmann painting. Even the words in his dialogue bubbles look like Expressionist scrawls.
Full color enters the pages when Dee follows Dream into his realm. The panels become even more wild in their design and arrangement. The darkness of the previous pages is countered now with color and specific moments of its very opposite: white emptiness. The drama in this issue is the drama of color. On page 11, when Dee first realizes he’s in the dreamworld, the middle third of the page shows him as a small yellow figure against a plane of white. The foundation of the dreamworld is a blank page. We encounter a similar, even more striking, use of blankness a few pages later. All of page 17 is white except for a small figure of Dee, a figure that’s repeated on the next page, the top of which is also utterly blank.
The effect is especially striking because pages 12 through 17 are the most colorful and active in the issue. Pages 12 and 13 are an especially powerful spread, a collage into which the ruby-colored, skeletal figure of Dee falls. Purely as artwork, it’s even more effective than the centerfold spread in “A Hope in Hell”, but it’s extraordinary also in being part of a multi-page sequence; the collage extends through the next two pages, then is overwhelmed by the ruby-saturated panels of pages 16 and 17, culminating in a giant pink explosion. We turn the page into the blank dreamworld after the destruction of the ruby.
Turning that page, contrast is what first grabs the eye — we move from pages dominated by white to pages dominated by darkness. Page 19 is a single panel, a striking image of a giant Dream holding a little Dee in his hand. There is now question, now, that this figure is a god.
The transformation of Dream’s image in these pages is interesting, too. Previously, he has appeared gaunt, severe, serious. Occasionally, as in his dreamworld battle with Dee, his face has been hidden by the helm that makes him look like a giant fly preparing to be an astronaut. Now, though, he looks younger and more pensive, less threatening — more Syd Barrett than Ralph Fiennes. Despite his red-pupiled eyes, on these pages there’s a gentleness and femininity to him that we haven’t seen before.
Such a representation of Dream fits well with his behavior toward Dee, who expects simply to be killed. Instead, the Sandman bestows a kind of mercy on the defeated man, bringing him out of the dreamworld and back to Arkham Asylum, where he is, finally, able to sleep — but without dreams.
Silence covers the world that Dee had filled with screams. Sleep returns, sanity returns.
There’s a tremendous unreality to the horrors Dee apparently brought about, a lack of consequence within the story’s own world. If Dee caused the sort of havoc he is said to have caused, then the entire world should be permanently shocked and shattered. Instead, normality returns with sleep, and it’s as if everyone forgets, as if some force has repaired all the damage. With the restoration of the lord to the dreamworld comes the restoration of order to the waking world and the erasure of the consequences of disorder. For a moment, at least, a perfect balance exists.
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.