Ok. This one is visually stunning, but the writing isn't up to scruff. I should be honest, I don't have a lot of nice things to say about this one. It was bound to happen at some point that there was an issue that disappointed me, and I'm glad to get it out of the way in Preludes and Nocturnes.
It's indicative of how clever and deep the series becomes later that I was deeply disbelieving in the fact that the characters on page 2 are nothing more than walk-ons (sadly, the Annotated Sandman confirms this). I would love if these characters reappear, or were based on historical characters.
Coming after the gross brutality in the previous issue, Gaiman's broadening of scope to the world at large feels almost unnecessary (but then I'm not reading week after week as people did when the series came out).
I do wonder, on page 3, who Gaiman refers to as their "suddenly distant God." Initially I thought it was Dream, and then I thought it was Dee, a subtle comment about humanity's need to worship something, anything in times of trouble. But in the course of my overthinking, I realized they're probably referring to God God. At which point I immediately wished they were talking about Dee instead. It's a confusing statement, because we are clearly seeing humanity give in to depravity, and depravity usually implies some sort of God-less state, so either their worship needs to be depraved, or they shouldn't be worshipping at all (unless of course they're praying to the Puritan version of God, who they love precisely because he is wicked and merciless (according to Sarah Vowell at any rate)).
It's the Dalek problem. Dee is evil because he's evil and for no other reason. This sort of made the Scooby Doo villain issue even worse for me. There could have been some cleverness or irony if John Dee's desires were more complicated in the real world, but return to their most base in the Dream World.
And as for Dream? It's disappointing to see him pretty much beg Dee for the ruby back, and he begs so PLAINTively. Dream is nothing like humble, so this doesn't feel right to me. Certainly he's desperate to get his power back, but not as desperate as he was at the beginning. And he slowly won battles through cunning and through deception and understanding of his enemies' weaknesses.
For one thing, Morpheus uses the phrase "my soul-stuff." Really, Neil? The lord of all things written or thought in the history of the Universe, and that's the word he comes up with? No.
And for another, John Dee inexplicably descends into a torrent of British slang. Aren't all the Arkham villains true blue Americans? To some extent you can blame the manifestations of the dream world for changing his speech, but he says 'cowardy custard' before even entering the Dreaming. And even if he did suddenly fancy himself British, "spineless, spittle-arsed, poxy-pale wanker," is particularly British, slang that we wouldn't even hear in the United States.
Not to mention Dee's terrible excuses for insults: "dream-puker," and "swine-scum." Zing! And out of character. After all, what is Dee but the dark reflection of Dream? He is a creator in his own way, but he chooses to use Dream's power to create situations of infinite torment, to create thoughts of immeasurable darkness. He's definitely not clichéd in his villainy. So when he suddenly starts talking like a Scooby Doo villain? Doesn't really work for me (and yes, I am aware that in the old Hanna-Barbera Superfriends cartoons, he was pretty much a Scooby Doo villain).
BUT ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL
And we see Dream show a bit of mercy, exacting no punishment greater than sending Dee back to his jail (where Scarecrow also goes strangely British with "my sainted aunt!" (It is possible that Scarecrow is an unapologetic fan of Wodehouse, but I doubt it somehow).
NEXT UP: My hero comes to town! My hero comes to town!