I think it’s safe to say that “The Sandman Universe” was meant to save Vertigo. A series of titles spun off from the imprint’s most-loved, -acclaimed, -iconic series -- done with Neil Gaiman’s blessing and input -- that would revitalize the imprint’s flagging fortunes and usher in a new golden age. Maybe that’s overselling it a bit, but “The Sandman Universe” has now outlived Vertigo itself. All of the titles are coming back for a second year, and being joined by a new (old) one: “Hellblazer.”
Of the four titles that make up “The Sandman Universe’s” initial lineup, “The Dreaming” was the easiest sell for me. Not only was it set to feature the rich supporting cast of “The Sandman,” but it was also being written by Si Spurrier. His presence alone was assurance that this wouldn’t be a simple attempt to play the hits and remind everyone of the good old days. Spurrier is a writer who is always committed to doing something new or at least differently and that’s exactly what he does with this first volume.
To get to that first volume, however, you have to get through the introductory “The Sandman Universe” one-shot which sets up all four titles. It’s more of a lead-in to “The Dreaming” given how much of that series is set up here. Things start off with Lucien in the library giving the reader a grand introduction before he notices that a book is missing. A book he can’t remember. Before he can dwell on it further, Merv Pumpkinhead barges into tell the Librarian that a major crisis is happening in the Dreaming. The sky is starting to crack and Dream/Daniel isn’t around to do anything about it. So it’s up to Matthew the Raven to find his errant master and bring him home.
It’s through Matthew’s journey that we’re introduced to the other titles, along with Dora. She’s a pugnacious, fiercely independent creature who wants nothing to do with Dream even though he may have saved her life. We also get to see the continuing education of Tim Hunter as he’s late for school and winds up with a new teacher -- the mysterious/familiar Rose. Then there’s the mysterious Erzulie and the mysterious power she states to have over the stories of girls. Lucifer’s story is last in line as we find him trying, apparently in vain, not to repeat the mistakes of his father when it comes to parenthood.
“Dreaming” notwithstanding, do any of these make me want to pick up their respective titles? The teaser for “Books of Magic” doesn’t show me anything new and ultimately just makes me roll my eyes at DC’s latest effort to make Tim Hunter the mature readers’ answer to “Harry Potter.” I can at least hold out some hope that “House of Whispers” might turn out interesting as its intro fails to provide a genuine story hook to latch onto or any real evidence that it’ll turn out to be good or bad. Ironically, the “Lucifer” section is the strongest, boasting a good setup for the series and some impressively moody art from the Fiumara brothers. If only I wasn’t determined to ignore all other “Lucifer” titles to ensure that the character’s end in Mike Carey’s series remains definitive only in my mind.
With the setup out of the way, how fares “The Dreaming” proper? Working immediately in its favor is the incredible art from Bilquis Evely. I’m familiar with her work through her “Shaft” miniseries written by David Walker, and the issues of “Wonder Woman” she did with Greg Rucka. Evely’s work here here is on another level as she not only brings incredible detail to each page, but is able to fully realize the weirdness that her writer throws at her. From the weirdest orgasm between a dream creature and a demon, to the nightmare of judicial righteousness made real, to the strange thing being born in the Dreaming, there’s something incredible awaiting the reader on every page. It’s fantastic stuff and my heart goes out to Abigail Larson who has the thankless job of filling in parts of issue #5 alongside Evely. The work she does is fine, it’s just up against art that’s just that much better.
Now, if you’re wondering that something has gone wrong with the story for me to start off praising the art like this, I can understand that. Let me start off by saying that Spurrier does exactly what I’d expect him to in this series. He gives us a mix of the familiar, the new, and takes them both in ways mostly unexpected to arrive at something that ultimately feels satisfying. To me at least.
Yeah, there are some parts where I feel like he’s leading us around by our noses and banging on about the story’s central allegory a bit too loudly… Wait. You want to know about the story’s central allegory? Well, I guess I should tell you because it’s the one thing I can see annoying, pissing off, or just plain disenchanting some fans who are going to read this. That’s because Spurrier has crafted an allegory about America right now.
It doesn’t become clear where the story is going until the second issue. That’s when we get Merv Pumpkinhead’s perspective on the chaos that Daniel’s disappearance has wrought. The handyman has always been the Dreaming’s salt-of-the-earth. Where Gaiman created a magical world of surreal fantasy, he could always use Merv to puncture the self-seriousness of it at moment’s notice. My favorite scene with the character came in “The Kindly Ones” where, when he encounters the Furies and they introduce themselves as the Eumenides, he whips out a machinegun and goes, “Well Eumenides this!”
Ah, good times. Now where was I going with this?
That’s right, with Merv being the most down-to-earth inhabitant of the Dreaming he also winds up being the one to have the hardest time when things start changing around him. Things that had been one way for centuries are suddenly taken away or stopped and he’s left frightened and adrift in their wake. It’s then that he feels that the Dreaming needs a steady hand at its helm. One to guide it through uncertain times and safely to another shore. Which is why he decides to let Judge Gallows out of the nightmare box.
Gallows was meant to be the nightmare of authoritarianism until he got too good at imposing the death sentence upon dreamers in the real world. Once he’s let out, his influence starts spreading slowly, as an advisor. It isn’t long, though, before he has his own crew imposing his order on the Dreaming. To the point where a wall is eventually erected around it and only things to make it inside are the ones that the Judge wants.
Let me be clear: Judge Gallows is not meant to be a stand-in for Trump. Gallows is the authoritarian nightmare has unleashed and he makes a convincing antagonist for this story. (And if you think that makes Merv our Trump analogue here, I think you’d be right. He’s almost as hapless and incompetent as such a stand-in would need to be.) With all of the new, weird things happening in the Dreaming -- the place where innovation is born -- it makes sense that someone would rise up to oppose all this. Gallows, however, is the ruthless, efficient face of conservatism trying to hold progress back. He can come on softly or with guns blazing, just like in real life.
Spurrier does a good job wrangling this allegory into story form even if things do get a bit on-the-nose from time to time. He may lack Gaiman’s nuance when it comes to storytelling, but he’s certainly more ambitious. Sometimes such ambition can lead to a story that falls flat on its face. Not here, though. Spurrier manages to stick the landing here and sets up a fascinating new status quo for the series to explore going forward. Even if the “insane” bit at the end rings hollow. (Warren Ellis liked doing that bit in his heyday and even then he had a hard time making it work.)
In addition to giving the story a worthy antagonist in Judge Gallows, Spurrier also finds a new way to look at the relationship of Cain and Abel, and gives us a genuinely compelling character in the form of Dora. Where it initially looks like she’s out to rebel against everything Dream created whether they deserve it or not, it eventually becomes clear that she does have her reasons. Said reasons may be good ones that also render her as a broken thing. Definitely not a useless one as we eventually find out. And not because of that awfully scary face she can whip out whenever someone pisses her off.
Even if Neil Gaiman did help bring “The Sandman Universe” into existence, “The Dreaming” is all Si Spurrier. Inventive, ambitious, demanding, unwieldy, but always satisfying when you stick it out with his stuff to the end. Which is a lot easier than usual thanks to Evely’s amazing art. “The Dreaming” is the kind of follow-up series that’s also a reinvention of the old, and all the more satisfying because it works. Vertigo may be gone, but I’m glad to see “The Dreaming” live on.
Oh, and because I couldn’t figure out where to put this in the main review, I just want to say that -- if nothing else -- Spurrier deserves praise for NOT having anyone invoke the phrase “Make the Dreaming Great Again.”