Sandman Re-Blog Issue #17: Calliope

This one feels a little like a reset button. "Calliope" retells the story from Issue 1, about imprisoning an immortal being, but everything's better this time around.

The artwork has started to take on a life of its own and the story seems to have more focus.

I struggled a little bit with the "nice fiction" tropes Gaiman uses to tell us how evil Erasmus Fry and Richard Madoc are (nice fiction being the Barbara Kingsolver trope of "not only are they black of heart, but in case you have any doubt, they also murder Jews and eat children!") When Madoc's first act was to brutally rape Calliope, I just thought, really?

A writer's blocked author gets his hands on a thousand year old muse and THAT's the first thing he does? Apart from being improbable, it leaves no room for moral ambiguity. Madoc's not doing this because he's desperately divorced from his creativity, which is a powerful motive, but because he's just plain evil. And that has the effect of dulling some of the satire as his star rises, about how he becomes vain, moves to America, etc. His journey is not from desperate writer to king of the world to Grecian fall from grace. It's from asshole to asshole.

But moving on. As usual, the god-level intrigue is far more interesting. Calliope is the daughter of the Hecatae, the three witches.

Morpheus, that lothario, once sired a child with Calliope. The child: Orpheus! Hmm...I wonder if this story of stories will find a way to retell that most famous story? I'll never tell. Until we get there anyway.

Needless to say, file Calliope's relationship with Morpheus as: "It's complicated." We are not allowed to discover exactly how complicated in this story, but it's strong enough that when Morpheus escapes his prison, he comes to free Calliope from hers.

And then we get to one of the most famously amazing endings in the story. Morpheus apparently ascribes to the Joss Whedon credo of "give 'em what they want, in the worst way possible."

The punishment for Richard Madoc? A neverending stream of inspiration. Inspiration that washes over him like a tsunami, leaving neither room nor time for actual writing or for any sort of sane thought. Once again, Morpheus's punishment is a complete removal from reality.

This issue, for me, is what made me fall in love. This is when Sandman really stops being an alternative superhero fable, and more of a ponderous journey of ideas. It becomes mind expanding, rather than diverting. And I can't wait to read the next one.

Coming up: Cats! Thousands of Them!

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3 Responses to “ Sandman Re-Blog Issue #17: Calliope ”

  1. Madoc, a legendary Welsh prince who sailed to America. I hope he had a nicer time.
    He's not the only prince here either; the philosopher Erasmus (it says here) called himself 'Prince of the Humanists'. This makes Fry's cruel taunt to Calliope especially apt, the more so for being a quotation from the Book of Common Prayer.

    I'd venture that Fry's utter nastiness is down to the tone of this particular story. As you said, there are echoes here of the first issue of Sandman - a tale that tipped its hat more than once to penny-dreadful fiction.
    While I don't think anyone would argue that Richard Madoc is a nice person, the rape isn't a random act of cruelty. It's not enough to possess a muse; you have to have sex with them to benefit from their inspiration. Hence Calliope's nostalgia for the time when her kind were sought and wooed (and I guess Madoc's not the only one who regrets his wish). I've always wondered why that first rape is drawn the way it is - Gaiman's script just described a hand pinning down a wrist, which somehow seems more horrifying.

    The art in general is a problem for me in this issue. Malcolm Jones III really went to town with the inking, to the point of dousing everything in thick blobs of shadow. I can see why, but it makes some parts nigh-on inbisible. Nor am I a fan of the line work - panel by panel it's perfectly fine (especially in the close-ups of Erasmus Fry) but there seems to be little consistency in the way characters are drawn. Mind you, I do like Kelley Jones's Morpheus.

    And I had to smile at the critic telling his friend that a piece of genre fiction could never win the Booker. Same as it ever was.

    There are also a few nice allusions tucked into this story. I don't know if it's intentional but the Caligari reference recalls captive servants who betray their masters. Fry captures Calliope near Mt Helicon in Spring, which strikes me as a very likely nod to Brian Aldiss. On page twelve Madoc's agent is channelling Samuel Goldwyn; "...And the Madness of Crowds" refers to this wonderful book, surely an influence on Gaiman and writers like him; the TV interviewer is a dead ringer for Gaiman's friend, the writer/critic Kim Newman; even Fry's out-of-print novel Here Comes A Candle with its light-bearing maiden foreshadows his death ("...and here comes a chopper to chop off you head!"). It even resonates with the first book Madoc writes once he possesses Calliope, And My Love She Gave Me Light - THAT title being a fragment of a riddle that Gaiman wrote for an issue of The Books of Magic.

    Any thoughts on Fry's death by poison? I'd say the bezoar was at fault but for the fact that it's shown as genuine in the first scene. Why then did he die?

    It's worth noting that the Muses were not the daughters of the Hecatae in the literal sense; Calliope is calling on an aspect of the Triple Goddess for assistance. Indeed, the names she invokes - Melete, Mneme and Aiode - were the names of the Muses themselves in at least one version of the story. I'll have another think about the implications of this, but bed is calling. I'll only say that the Dream King's's conversation with Calliope spells out the beginning of something that's going to determine the shape and length of this whole tapestry Gaiman is weaving: Morpheus has changed.

  2. I do like the way Morpheus looks in this issue, he seems more terrifying and otherworldly somehow. You are absolutely right about the shadows though. I bet that looks better in the Absolute Sandman updates.

    As for Fry's death by poison, I can't remember exactly what the answer is, but I do seem to recall that being explicitly addressed in a later issue (when Rose comes to England and it turns out Madoc is her lawyer's grandfather maybe? We'll get there when we get there...)

    I think the fact that Morpheus has changed is a very important point to pick up on (am embarrassed I didn't discuss it!). I do wonder if it's an intertextual play on the part of Gaiman: as far as Morpheus is concerned, his turning point has already occurred, gradually. But the reader needs to identify an exact fulcrum in time, which of course doesn't happen in real life, but for us it's when Calliope notices he's different.

  3. That's why I still recommend 'Preludes and Nocturnes' as a starting point, at least for people who are determined to read the whole series. It's not the strongest story arc, but almost everything that happens afterwards is a result of Morpheus being changed by his experiences there.


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