Why do things go so horribly wrong for DC in alliterator’s latest series of Crossovers? The Bronze Age ended with Watchmen and DKR and instead of ushering in an age of “Sophisticated Suspense,” DC has one last hurrah with Darkseid and a decade of painful decisions. At least part of this was surely the creation of Vertigo Comics, DC’s mature content imprint. Was the Dark Age created by Vertigo’s brain drain? I think so- but I’ll get to that. Many strong DC titles jumped over to Vertigo: Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and title that belonged on DC proper the least, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Sandman was a sprawling epic that touched on more mythologies than you can fit in a Campbell anthology, but also a story about a dysfunctional family. The family is the Endless, the personification of the pillars of the universe. Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair etc all of them normal people (in an Orlando sort of way) and not the gargantuan cosmic characters we are accustomed to seeing as representatives of the universe. It, like Watchmen, is a wholly singular comic. Many things can be compared to a part of it, but the whole thing has too many facets to be exactly like anything else. To describe the plot in the long run is to say The Sandman was a contest between Dream and Desire, and a meditation on growing up, moving on. Issue to issue, Sandman was about the lives of people touched by the Endless.
So, even as it came into its own, The Sandman was a crossover series. Gaiman loved DC and used its characters as he saw fit to build his story. It began as many crossover comics do, Neil playing with whichever toys he wanted from the toy chest, some single panel cameos of little significance, some larger parts for smaller roles that show DC lore on equal footing in Gaiman’s head with all the other literary and cultural references. DC superheroes would come to play pivotal roles in the fate of the Endless, mostly without their knowledge despite their direct involvement. Amongst the pantheons of the gods and the denizens of the faerie kingdom, beside the ordinary folks and the other folks who never die, there, too, walked...
The first Sandman story arc details Dream’s return to power as a series of quests after spending most of the 20th century trapped in a magic circle. Merry romps around existence serve as vehicles to cameo John Constantine or Alan Moore’s hell from Swamp Thing (Jack Kirby’s Etrigan the Demon shows up there to play the Chesire Cat for a few pages) and culminate in a standoff between Dream and John Dee, Doctor Destiny, a classic JLA villain. Destiny uses Dream’s power crystal (natch) to escape from Arkham Asylum and go full on Clive Barker in a small town diner, a grim, early high water mark issue (24 Hours) commonly acknowledged as the first sign of Sandman’s true potential as a series. Constantine was his unchanging iconic self but Doctor Destiny was transformed.
Dream’s reckless treatment of the ladies comes back to haunt him in the form of Wonder Woman’s granddaughter, Hippolyta Hall. The Fury. The ‘Lyta Fury (her mother fought as The Fury during the Golden Age) was a member of Infinity Inc, the team made up of the JSA’s kids- including her husband, the Sandman. Hector Hall was the puppet of monsters who escaped the dreamlands while Dream was trapped in the circle. He and pregnant Lyta are frozen in time until freed by Dream. Dream makes bold claims over Lyta’s baby and dissolves the long deceased, just-a-dream Hector- the man has a broad streak of callousness, assuredly. This becomes a problem when Lyta calls upon her other namesake: the Erinyes, the Furies, the Kindly Ones, the infernal goddesses of vengeance.
Matthew the Raven
There’s only one raven in service to Dream at a time and none of them remember their past but for feelings. This plagues Matthew. Who was I? The other ravens were the men of legend and literature. Matthew was just a dude. Or not- Matthew is Matthew Cable, friend of Alec Holland, foe of the Swamp Thing, ex-husband of Abigail Arcane (who wants to bet her dad is a wizard?). Cable is mortally wounded in a DUI, but that doesn’t stop him from violating the Comics Code before kicking the bucket. Cable is possessed by Abigail’s father in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and assaults her in the first DC title to be published without Comics Code approval. This may explain why the Dark Age went so very dark: DC was trying to throw grit in their comics while staying within the family-friendly bounds of the Comics Code Authority, while Vertigo was free to pull all kinds of stupid shit. Matthew Cable redeems his actions (and endures some weird travesties himself while comatose) and is brought back, unknowing, as Matthew the Raven, because apparently there’s no Comicbookresources.com in the dreamlands (to be fair, this was the early 90s and the internet was a little different).
Thought you could slip by me, eh? Prez isn’t obscure enough (especially with a reboot coming up). Urania Blackwell, this one’s for you. Frequently, The Sandman would leave the lives of Dream and the rest of the Endless to focus single-issue stories about people whose lives were briefly touched by the usual gang of idiots (collected in Dream Country, Fables and Reflections- my favorite- and World’s End). Shakespeare. Augustus Caesar. Emperor Norton I. Cats. Werewolves. Marco Polo. Each of them have a story where they brush up against one of the Endless for a moment. The issue Façade deals with Element Girl’s inability to kill herself due to her superpower of invulnerability. Blackwell is essentially a Lady Metamorpho, and who needs that when you’ve got Metamorpho? Without a calling, she is despondent, unable to fit her bizarre state of being into the normal world she desperately wishes she was still a part of. Element Girl was created and cast aside, left to idle, finally given grace by Gaiman. Now that’s what I call a fucking crossover comic, right?
The Sandman had such a meteoric impact on comics in general and Vertigo in particular that the crossover element to the comic actually travels in both directions. Not only was Sandman a point of convergence for all sorts of characters from the DC universe, it became the source for several characters to have a series of their own after The Sandman’s conclusion. Death actually got a few books with Gaiman as the author. Destiny got a pretty cool apocalyptic one-off. A couple of kids wind up becoming Dead Boy Detectives. Lucifer and Mazikeen from The Sandman will beat Dream to the screen- Calilucifornicationer is due next year while the latest vehicle for displaying JGL’s milky pigeon chest is still in development.