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Sandman #6 “24 Hours” Brings the Aristotle’s Unities to Comics with Grisly Results

Sandman #6 “24 Hours” Brings the Aristotle’s Unities to Comics with Grisly Results

Sandman #6SAndman6

Writer: Neil Gaiman

Penciler: Mike Dringenberg

Inker: Malcolm Jones

Colorist: Daniel Vozzo

Publisher: Vertigo

The early issues of Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus Sandman are very different in tone than his later stories which deal with Morpheus’ attempts at change and the struggle between a family of very powerful anthropomorphic entities. The first arc of Sandman “Preludes and Nocturnes” reads like a DC “mature readers” horror comic like Hellblazer or Swamp Thing. John Constantine even plays a main role in the overarching plot which is Morpheus’ quest to find his missing totems of power. One of these totems is held by John Dee (Dr. Destiny), an old Justice League villain who gets a gruesome makeover for Sandman. In Sandman #6 (titled “24 Hours”), Neil Gaiman follows Aristotle’s unities of action, place, and time perfectly. The story follows Dr. Destiny’s mischief with Morpheus’ Ruby, only occurs in the diner, and lasts for a single day. But within this structure, Gaiman and artists Dringenberg, Jones, and Vozzo pack in lots of dark irony, some psychological horror, and a chilling look at the worst of humanity.

From the first page, Sandman #6 is full of irony. The first page shows a cheery cafe with the title and creator credits written on the outside of the restaurant. It follows the superficial inner monologue of a waitress named Bette, who writes about her customers and gives “happy endings” to their personal stories. A lazy entry level worker gets to become executive vice president of a company, a lesbian woman, who she disagrees with her lifestyle, marries a handsome, upstanding young man. The art is brightly colored by Daniel Vozzo, and Dringenberg’s figures seem a little too clean. The first four pages of Sandman #6 read like an Archie comic until John Dee appears at the diner. Bette says he is stuck in a “dream world” which isn’t completely false, but she is actually the dreamer. Her obsession with happy endings is stripped bare by the end of the comic as she drives nails into the hands of her lover and learns her son has become a two-bit prostitute. Gaiman’s use of irony peels back the facades of the denizens of the diner and the reveal the darkness that humans are capable of. Bette thinks she determines the endings to her stories, but she is really just an actor in Dee’s pageant of nightmares.

Unlike film and television, it is difficult to do “jump scares” in comics. However, Dringenberg and Jones create some terrifying images to complement dr destinyGaiman’s twisted script. Their scariest image is of John Dee himself. He is pale gray with unkempt hair and completely black eyes which resemble Morpheus’, but there is no white to offset them.  Most of the time, he is naked. He brings evil and death to the diner, and the scenes that he has the most impact on are filled with shadow. The panel structure becomes more disjointed as he spreads fear and nightmares. For example, when a “girl next door” character confesses that she had sex with a dead body in a mortuary in front of her husband, her face has heavy cross hatching by Jones and is separated into several panels. Another chilling scene is when two men become feral, and one feeds on the other’s body while they fight over the women in the diner. Sandman #6 isn’t soaked in gore, but it uses occasional outbursts of graphic violence to depict the results of Dee’s manipulations of the human psyche.

What makes Sandman #6 such a strong and memorable story is its honest and graphic portrayal of human evil. The people at the diner have their problems. They are homophobic, prone to violence, or sexual abuse. John Dee is just the catalyst that amplifies their darker natures. He lets be people be their worst selves and reap the consequences from this. For example, a married man who enjoys beating up prostitutes in his convertible ends up eating another man. And they all get the death that they all to some degree want. Gaiman uses the enclosed setting to explore the best and worst bits of the characters he populates the diner. The single setting allows John Dee to reveal the characters’ happiest moments as they sing drinking songs, but then he slaughters them in the dark afterwards. Gaiman also uses the recurring motif of a fly to frame the story and reveal the characters’  (and all humans’)tragic mortality. This theme will be applied to gods and the Endless and explored in greater depth in the aptly named “Brief Lives” storyline in Sandman #41-49.

“24 Hours” is the darkest chapter of Sandman’s opening story arc, but it offers a glimpse of hope when a dog-tired Morpheus stumbles into the diner looking for his lost ruby. It is a strong horror story because of its tight, straightforward plot and unflinching presentation of true evil. And like all good horror stories, the humans are the real monsters. Gaiman finds the darkness buried inside each human being and clearly portrays it using the diner as a microcosm. He also manages to include subtle commentary on the negativity of news media and some metafictional ideas, like John Dee literally re-writing the ends of Bette’s stories. Sandman #6 chills both the mind and body and shows that Neil Gaiman is a master of horror as well as fantasy.