Friday, October 7, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: "A HOPE IN HELL" ( SANDMAN #4, 1989)
Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN series remains at the forefront of the Vertigo books that contributed so much of the cultivation of the superhero idiom into the form of adult, rather than juvenile, pulp.
To be sure, Gaiman's "Sandman"-- an immortal, almost conceptual being who belongs to a small family called "the Endless"-- was not a superhero as such, and most of his stories did not even participate in the combative mode that I deem the primary domain of the superhero. But Gaiman, perhaps much more than earlier groundbreakers like Moore and Miller, infused DC's superhero universe with the qualities of myth and fantastic literature. Small wonder that Gaiman received something less than a warm welcome by the elitist critics of the 1990s. The JOURNAL, which specialized in well-rounded discussions even with many creators their critics did not like, couldn't seem to get a handle on Gaiman's work, resulting in not one but two really blah JOURNAL interviews.
The overall quality of THE SANDMAN, the feature that made Gaiman famous, is to be sure uneven. In many stories the Sandman-- usually given names like 'Dream" or "Lord of Dreams"-- is a peripheral presence, looking on as misguided mortals destroy themselves in pursuit of foolish dreams. But in the earliest issues, Gaiman had to establish Dream himself as a sympathetic character. In the first issue, Dream escapes captivity after having been bound by a mortal sorceer, and in issue #4, which I'm considering here, he journeys to Hell itself, to get back a sacred helmet acquired by a demon during Dream's durance vile.
The centerpiece of the story is a word-battle between Dream and a demon named Choronzon. This form of contest seems roughly derived from the word battles of opposing bards in archaic Celtic tradition, though the implication here is that to some extent, the two supernatural beings do "become" the creatures of which they speak. This too bears a striking resemblance between the literal battles of Celtic magicians, such as the magical battle of the wizards Fruich and Rucht, cited here. Literal magical battles took place in a number of Celtic stories, but here, Gaiman is to an extent using a less directly violent, somewhat theoretical version of the transformations. Nevertheless, if Lord Dream fails to "trump" his opponent in terms of his imagined transformations, he will pay the price of becoming the demon's servant in Hell.
Throughout the story Gaiman emphasizes Dream's reliance on "hope"-- hope for his own abilities and powers, in particular. By the end of the contest, Dream asserts "Hope" as a cosmic principle that can in theory cancel out even the destruction of the universe. Even after the contest is won, and the sore-loser demons threaten to menace him anyway, Dream defeats the denizens of Hell by telling them that "the dream of Heaven," and the hope to be free of Hell, are in truth the only things that sustain them against perdition's horrors.
"A Hope in Hell" is a good, though not great, Gaiman story: clearly it functions in large part to help readers map out the "Sandman universe." However, it's still a foretaste of Gaiman's best work in the title, and paved the way for the tendency of "adult pulp" titles to find ways to express conflict that did not involve major property damage.