I keep thinking that I should re-read this series, because it was super important to me when I was in high school (and I think in college, too) and it’s important to dig up and turn over everything you’ve ever loved so you can stop loving it. I’ve re-read these books every once in a while over the last ten or fifteen years just on whims, picking one up off the shelf and reading it front to back, but I haven’t sat down and read it all the way through in a methodical way maybe ever.
It’s good that I was too much of a wimp to get any tattoos until I was like 26, because if I had started getting tattoos when I was younger, I would definitely have Dream and Death from this series on my shoulders, which would be kind of a shame as I’m not really a goth or whatever any more. I’m a hateful dried-out old punk; I’m mean to my own frustrations with the world, instead of cuddling with them under the blankets late at night, telling them that I love them even if nobody else does. I go to bed early now, wake up early, drink all the coffee and glare at the world from my kitchen table. Or I guess the futon in the living room, I don’t know, whatever, my point is, I used to love these comics. I read Sandman comics, listened to Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails, dyed my hair black, thought that words like “ethereal” and “poignant” were cool, and had no idea how to question systems of normativity- all of which are related. (It’s funny that the thing in that list that I still like the most is the first three Tori Amos albums, considering the fact that if we were going to believe in objectivity we would probably argue that, objectively, they have aged the least gracefully. But nope! My gender identity is still “Yes, Anastasia.”)
Like lots of other queers in training in the early nineties, one of the most important things in these comics was the presence of what I understood to be sympathetic queer characters. Like, in this one, I remember the character Judy- who appears in the deeply problematic 24 Hours section- to be pretty sympathetic, and actually kind of a fashion root. But on re-reading this comic today and yesterday, she actually is kind of a paper-thin dyke stereotype dressed up as something more complicated, who is immediately killed off. She hits her girlfriend and then dies.
Actually, I’m having trouble figuring out how to structure this review, because I have a bunch to say and it’s all related, so I’m going to back up. Preludes & Nocturnes is the first collection of Sandman comics, where we’re introduced to Dream, titular Sandman, who’s at the center of the series, if not its protagonist. He’s captured by some occultists at the beginning, trapped for seventy years, and then he gets out and has to find and reclaim his hat and his necklace and his purse in order to be powerful again or whatever. The way I’ve thought about this collection is that it’s not that great, it’s more of a superhero comic with three specific objectives that this character must episodically complete, except toward the middle for no reason except badass, audacious plotting, there’s this section called 24 Hours that is harsh and mean-spirited and lays the groundwork for the character depth and fearless storytelling that would characterize the rest of the series.
I know I keep saying “or whatever,” but: or whatever.
Turns out, on this reading, 24 Hours fucking wrecks it for me. When I was in high school it seemed really gritty and grown-up and fearless and stuff, the way Gaiman really digs into these characters’ psyches and has them reveal the most fucked up stuff of True Human Experience or whatever, but on this read-through I’m like, this is only gritty and fearless in the most heteronormative, middle-class, boring way imaginable. So: the plot of 24 Hours is that this magic guy, John Dee, has Dream’s magic ruby and he’s using it to make people do fucked up shit in a diner for 24 hours. There’s violence and people get dehumanized and stuff and it’s all very garish, but what I remember being the most interesting thing, the way these characters also confess their worst things and have to stare into the abyss of their own flaws, now it seems to me very, very teenage, and also very, very normative. Like, one guy tells a lady “your son, in prison, he was a ho, and I fucked him for a pack of cigarettes.” Gritty! Unless, in real life, you consider people who are or have been in those situations to be real people worth consideration and respect, and can understand that actually, that story is not about their moms or their moms’ shocked disapproval; in fact, if your perspective is like “yeah real world oppression produces prison economies that can include sex work, it sucks” then it’s pretty hard to be sympathetic toward the shocked and saddened mom here. In fact, it’s easy to hate her, for refusing to care about her kid. I ended up being like, this feels icky, why did you even bring this up in the first place if you were going to set up such a clear shame dynamic around doing sex work and around being in prison? Couldn’t you have just been like “your kid killed somebody for no reason?” I think we can all agree that it’s okay to be upset if your kid kills somebody for no reason.
Or Judy, who wears a denim jacket with patches and buttons on it and is a dyke. We find out she’s a dyke; we find out that last night she hit her girlfriend, Donna; we find out that Donna has gone to her mother’s house; Donna’s mother won’t put Donna on the phone when Judy calls; and then Judy dies. (Spoiler.) When I was little I was like “whoa, this is some intense stuff,” but now I’m like, this is the least interesting possible story you could tell about queer domestic violence. Nothing is done or said about it, we just get queer domestic violence as window dressing to provide grit. It felt inclusive to me when I didn’t know any better, but now it feels totally busted, I’m like, all you have done is referenced the fact that queers have domestic violence… too? Great, thanks for reminding me, that’s nice to think about. (Judy’s death-instead-of-resolution plotline foreshadows a plotline that happens later on in the series in which Wanda, a trans woman, also dies instead of getting any kind of resolution- except in death, which is a hate crime resolution, a non-resolution, a resolution in which she is still dead.)
Same with another character who fantasizes about paying twenty five dollars for a blowjob and then beating up the sex worker he’s paying. This takes place in a single panel and then is over. And while it’s presented as the worst thing about this character, it’s also like… Sex workers are real people in the real world and if you think that their being assaulted is a good plot point that you don’t have to resolve, that feels reprehensible to me.
It’s just a bunch of allusions to things that happen in the real world to Other People Who Aren’t Like Us, whereas the people who Are Like Us get manipulated by a magic guy with a mystical jewel and then killed. Like… okay? Also: fuck you.
I feel a little bit weird about saying this next part, but actually, I kind of liked the surrounding sections. John Constantine is cool, and he gets a whole issue; I know more about esoteric philosophy than I did when I was younger, so I think I enjoyed the first part more than I had. And I think it’s hilarious and charming how long-faced and weird Dream consistently looks throughout this whole volume, he looks hella dorky in this way that makes me feel a little bit embarrassed for everyone.
But… yeah, the horror stuff here seems a lot less fun-horror and a lot more gross-normative horror to me now than it used to. Bummer. Maybe I will get a Fuck Dream tattoo and a Fuck Death tattoo… or a STFUNG patch, idk