||[Mar. 24th, 2009|08:04 pm]
100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)
#48 THE SANDMAN #19 – Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess
“Issa wossname. You know. Thingie. A play. They’re pretendin’ things.”
This issue of The Sandman, as always a story about stories, depicts William Shakespeare and his troupe performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time. It’s a story about a story that itself is about stories; a dizzying comic that threatens to leak out of its panels and pour off the page onto your skin.
Neil Gaiman’s version of Shakespeare has made a deal with Morpheus for inspiration and in return must dedicate two of his plays to subjects dictated by the King of Dreams. This is the first of them and Morpheus has requested it be about the king and queen of the fairies and, for its first performance, they and their supernatural subjects will be the audience. The trolls and goblins and pixies watch human actors portraying them and squabble over the accuracy of their performances while unable to help themselves getting caught up in the story. They even argue over its plot, especially the confused four-way romance – a love rectangle – at its centre. The trickster Puck disguises himself as the actor dressed as him and sneaks into the play. Within the play within the play an actor needs to be reminded of his lines just as Shakespeare does for entirely different reasons in the play within the comic. The actor playing Nick Bottom, himself an actor, has ideas above his station and attempts to pad the role just as Bottom does his. Two lovers speak to each other through a wall that isn’t there; by the end of the story the fourth wall between them and the audience has well and truly evaporated as well.
In the play within the play, one of the actors played by actors suggests a prologue explaining that nothing they have done is true and apologising if their performance has offended the audience. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends with an epilogue in which Puck addresses the audience and does exactly that. In Gaiman’s comic everything that happens in stories is true in some way and so Puck’s closing speech stops being part of the fiction and becomes a message just for the readers. Delivered to us out of the darkness it stops seeming apologetic and becomes chilling, a sharpened threat rather than a gentle request for applause. It’s helped greatly by Charles Vess’s artwork, making lines on pages into fine actors who perform their roles with aplomb.
Though this issue, like many of The Sandman’s best, tells a story that stands alone it also foreshadows the series’ conclusion, which ends with the second of Shakespeare’s plays about dreams. There’s a web of connections running throughout the series that makes the whole saga read better the second time around – even its best issues, of which this is definitely one.