Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Comics Cabinet

Today I start something new. Well, new here. It's an homage (read blatant rip off) of the late lamented blog, Dave's Long Box. Now, since I don't keep my books in a long box, but rather a cabinet my father built for me back in 1983, I'm calling it The Comics Cabinet. Doesn't need my name, since I probably have the only home made comics cabinet anyway.
Like Dave's Long Box, I'm using it as an opportunity to review some of my favorite comics from throughout the years. Jim, Lee and Gwen have pretty well cornered the market on what's out now and what's coming out in the relatively near future, so I'll seize the past while I can.
As you can see, I'm starting with The Sandman. In particular, issue 30, August, which was the second chapter in the four part Distant Mirrors grouping. I like these 4 stories because they're each stand alone stories. In fact, the fourth story didn't appear until 19 issues after the first 3. The first was in issue 29, Thermidor, and told a story of Johanna Constantine (an ancestor of John Constantine) in Paris during the Reign of Terror. The third was issue 31, Three Septembers and a January, and told of the first and last Emperor of the United States. The last was issue 50, Ramadan, set in a more or less mythical Baghdad and the reign of a king named Haroun al Raschid.
One of the things I liked about this set of stories was how it showed Neil Gaiman's strength as a writer in the short story format. Each story was drawn by a different artist and inked by a different inker. The only talent that ran through each was Gaiman. Each story was set in a different reality. Thermidor factored into future stories significantly, with its appearance of Johanna Constatine and Orpheus, and Three Septembers was particularly enlightening about later intra-family fighting involving the Endless, but, as I said, each story could be read without ever reading any other Sandman stories. These were almost a respite between the larger story arcs that ran through most of the Sandman stories. In a 75 issue run, they were well situated at 30 and 20 issue intervals.
August was drawn by Bryan Talbot and inked by Stan Woch. It's the story of a day Ceasar Augustus, nearly 70 years old, spends in a Roman market disguised as a beggar. He makes this journey in the company of a dwarf actor, scion of a noble family and the only noble allowed to be an actor, because of his dwarfism. This companion allows Augustus to delve into why he's disguised.
At first it seems like Augustus might be seeking to take the pulse of Rome, much as Henry V took stock of his troops before the battle of Agincourt, but Augustus soon comes across as callous and unconcerned about any of the individual citizens of Rome, or even the Roman Empire as a whole. Instead, it turns out he's disguised to hide from the gods, particularly his late uncle, Julius Ceasar, who is believed to have become a god at his death. Ceasar had shown Augustus prophecies that predicted two possible outcomes for Rome. One was the outcome we know, with the eventual collapse and sacking by barbarians. The other showed Rome ruling the entire world for as long as ten thousand years. Ceasar had set Augustus on the course for the latter, but Ceasar had also repeatedly raped Augustus when Augustus was 16 and in Spain on a military campaign with Ceasar.
Augustus lived in fear that the god Ceasar would know his thoughts to make the former prophecy occur instead of the latter. After one nightmare Augustus had called for a storyteller to ease his mind, but Dream of the Endless appeared instead and told him, rather elliptically, that if Augustus wished to make plans to foil Ceasar, and not have the gods know his thoughts, he should disguise himself as a beggar one day each year and have those thoughts on that day because the gods only monitor kings and such.
As a fan of history, I thought it was a great what if story. Unlike most what if stories, which spin out a universe of large scale changes in what we know of history, this story makes our own reality the what if tale. Stories about how the world would be if the Confederacy had successfully left the US or if Hitler had won WWII spin off in different directions from what we know to have happened. Gaiman, though, makes us think that Rome should have ruled the world for the last two thousand years, and we're living the what if alternative.
Gaiman also develops some of the differences between the Endless and gods without bogging down the story in exposition. It's a straightforward conversation between Augustus and Dream when Augustus mistakes Dream for Apollo. I particularly liked the touch of a raven companion to Dream from the Roman history, as opposed to the raven, Matthew, who was originally a human character in The Swamp Thing (if memory serves correctly). Apollo also has animal companions, so it furthers the dialog between Dream and Augustus.
It's also one of the few times I've felt sorry for a rat, especially one that wasn't anthropomorphic. At one point in his discussion with the dwarf, while disguised as a beggar, Augustus seizes a rat that was in some garbage near where they were sitting. In an example of his speed, strength and mercilessness, even nearing 70, Augustus squeezes the rat to death. I've no great love of rats, but I felt badly for this drawn rat, not even a real live rat, who was just minding his own business foraging through garbage and ended up squished by a real shit of a guy. Of course, it turns out this crappy human being is the reason we're not all living under a Roman emperor today. Oh, the irony!
To me, short story writing is often more difficult than long form. There haven't been too many like O. Henry for good reason. Gaiman shows the skills in creating characters you want to know more about in a minimum of pages. He moves into the action for those characters, resolves the tale, and provides little gems that may show up in future stories or just provide reason to want more about those characters. Augustus never showed up in another Sandman story, nor the dwarf who narrated the tale from his own old age (he was about 22 when he went out with Augustus that day), but the story has always stuck with me over the 17 years since it was published.
The story could have been told solely for the point of how impermanent fame and glory are, as Augustus tells the dwarf that the month of August will almost certainly be renamed shortly after Augustus's death. Coming on the heals of an issue titled Thermidor, the French Revolutionaries' attempt to rename July, Gaiman is counterposing the impermanence he showed in their attempts to seize their own fame and glory by showing how wrong Augustus was in assessing the length of his own fame.
I'm thinking I'll doing this some more. Besides, it gives me a good excuse to read some of my old stuff I've been wanting to re-visit. Not all of it will be as well written as this, so there should be some oppportunities for good nit picking and belittling. That'll mostly be superheroes, I suspect.


  1. Great post Thomm, hope to see more. This makes me want to re-read the entire Sandman saga, which I will do one day.

  2. Me too. This is what you could really do if you had Hiro's power on Heroes. Stop time and read all the comics you wanted without missing a beat on everything else. Ah, geek fantasies.