Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Dreaming: Waking Hours #1 Review and Spoilers

Written by: G Willow Wilson

Art by: Nick Robles
Colours by: Mat Lopes
Letters by: Simon Bowland
Cover price: $3.99
Release Date: August 4, 2020

The relationship of the Sandman universe (which used to be just a weird corner of the DC universe, remember?) with William Shakespeare has always been an interesting – and fertile - one. As well as being a writer of 39 plays (more or less), the man from Stratford-upon-Avon has become a cultural symbol and a metaphor for the creative urge. It is in this context that Neil Gaiman used him in the original Sandman book. In that original run, Neil Gaiman devoted two complete issues to the great man (Shakespeare actually makes his first appearance in issue 13). The first issue (number 19), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, deals with the first performance of that particular play and explores the frequently porous relationships between dream and reality, as well as the stark trade-offs between creative vision and personal sacrifice. It won a World Fantasy Award in 1991 and rightly so. It’s a playful, witty issue but has a darkly glittering thread of tragedy running through it, too. The second issue is the final issue of the series (number 75) as a whole – a thematic mining of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, itself a meditation on a life devoted to exploring (and exploiting) the imagination from a playwright coming to the end of a long and commercially successful career who was about to retire to the country. It is hard to think of a final issue of any comic book series quite so well-produced and well-received. It’s just a wonderfully satisfying ending to The Sandman book.

Why go on about all this? Because, in The Dreaming: Waking Hours #1, writer G Willow Wilson returns the Sandman universe to the matter of Shakespeare and, in doing so, invites precisely the sort of potted contextualising I’ve just done for you. The question is, how effective is that return? Does Wilson bring anything new to the mix? Is that ‘anything’ worth bringing to the mix in the first place? All important questions, I’m sure you’ll agree. Let’s try to answer them, shall we?

Before we get into the story, let me just say that I love Nick Robles’ art. I am a big fan of the Bilquis Evely/Stepjan Sejic school of art and Robles’ work features a similar lightness of touch and his characters possess a similar sense of charm and warmth. (Well, most of them, anyway…) His panel layout and page design are nice and clear and, when things do get… ahem… nightmarish, they’re suitably disturbing, too. You will get no complaints about the art from me.

The story is a slightly different matter.  The issue starts off with our protagonist Lindy Morris climbing wooden stairs in a dream-construct house that looks like it’s been designed by M C Esher. This, the opening caption handily tells us, is the Stratford House, the place that Lindy has been dreaming about quite regularly for the last week or so. It is, however, empty – more of a frustrating maze than site of important revelation or abject horror. That Lindy’s frustrated meanderings through the house’s confusing topography reflect her real-world frustrations with her doctoral thesis becomes clearer as the story progresses.

Lindy is a lovely – and loving – character. She’s passionate about Shakespeare, clearly cares about her baby daughter (Anne Hathaway Morris – a bit too on the money, maybe?) and comes across as courteous and respectful in her meeting with the decidedly frosty Professor Dunbar. (More of her in a moment.) When she enters the dreaming for a second time and this time encounters ol’ Shakey himself (together with his wife and a whole host of other characters who may or may not have produced all or some of the bard’s work), she is suitably awed and amazed – even though, even at this early point, she knows she’s dreaming. And, when the nightmare Ruin (as pleasant and unassuming – and, let’s be clear about this, cute – an expression of subconscious dread as one could ever care to meet) makes his appearance and does his exploding body horror routine, she is suitably horrified, too.

And this is a bit of a problem. At this point in the series, although she leaves a vaguely warm feeling in my gut when I see her, there’s nothing especially memorable about Lindy as a character. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. There are plenty of everyman/everywoman characters in comics, after all. Here, though, because the story is moving with the slow, decompressed pace that most comics favour these days, and because this is only the first of five (or possibly six, I’m not sure) issues in the series, there’s simply not enough incident to make up for the character’s blandness.

And then there’s the politics. The sexual politics, to be precise. Now, I am perfectly happy to admit that, in terms of equality of outcome, there are still plenty of professional fields in which women are under-represented. I am not at all sure that the academic field of English Literature is one of them. When Lindy tells the rather snooty Professor Dunbar that the reason she asked her to be her advisor was that she thought the older woman would “understand what it’s like to be a woman in academia”, I must confess my eyebrows rose a notch and I found myself wondering just when this story is supposed to be set. I took English Literature and American Studies at a local Liverpool university in the late 90s and around half my lecturers were women, three of whom held doctorates, one of which was from the University of Oxford. 

The first woman to receive a DPhil from Oxford University was Evelyn Simpson in 1922. (And she shared some similar frustrations with our protagonist when it comes to balancing the demands of domestic life with those of rigorous academic inquiry: “I don’t believe a committee composed of men can ever be brought to understand that it is impossible to do proper research work of high quality if one has continuously to interrupt it to cook a joint and two vegetables, make gravy and the like.”) To suggest, as Wilson does here, that the situation, while still difficult for students like Lindy who have to find adequate child care and support themselves and pursue their studies, has not changed at all in 98 years is an unfortunate perpetuation of a stereotype that bears little resemblance to reality. If its intention is to build sympathy for Lindy (who is already a fairly sympathetic, if not especially interesting, character), there are, I’d argue, more effective ways of doing so – like writing a story in which Lindy is facing a more clearly-defined and immediate threat.

Again, it must be acknowledged that at least some of my misgivings here are down to the extended and serial nature of the story’s structure, but, the two or three pages in which he turns into a Cthulhu-esque tentacle monster notwithstanding, Ruin is one of the least threatening nightmares I’ve ever come across. His androgynous beauty, clear out-of-his-depth vulnerability, and his apology to Lindy for what he’s about to do all combine to blunt considerably the visual horror of his transformation. Now, there is a moment of genuine horror (that any parent would immediately understand) when, having swapped places with Lindy in the dream, he wakes up in the ‘real’ world next to Lindy’s baby girl. (Yikes!) The opportunity to explore that extraordinarily unsettling moment is ignored almost immediately, however, when, with convenient speed, Ruin finds a nearby angel with whom he is on good speaking terms and hands the baby over to him.

At the end of the issue, Dream and Lucien discover that Ruin has been let loose deliberately and that, presumably, will have grave implications going forward. But those implications are very unclear at this point and the issue’s ending is as vague and low-key as the rest of it.

Added to all this is the unfortunate issue that personally I have never found the controversies around Shakespeare’s identity or the authorship of his works remotely interesting, so Lindy’s thesis and her subsequent meeting of the party of ‘Shakespeares’ aren’t a sufficiently intriguing hook to maintain this reviewer's interest in the story on their own. (The fact that all the various ‘Shakespeares’ seem to get on with each other doesn’t help, either. A bit of spiky disagreement wouldn’t go amiss.)

Bits and Pieces:

A satisfactory but hardly gripping opening. Nick Robles’ art is excellent, and Lindy is a pleasant enough protagonist, but the story is slow, a little on the flabby side, and lacking a clear sense of threat. Wilson’s a good writer but is playing it safe here – at times too earnest, at others too respectful. That said, there is promise here. What happens to baby Anne, who released Ruin, what happens to Lindy – all these are intriguing questions that I hope will be answered in an exciting and surprising fashion over the next few issues. We shall, as always, have to see.


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