A few years ago, I wrote a list of the things in the world that were sure to make me happy, almost without fail. There was nothing that could transport me quite the way Neil Gaiman's series could. We are talking about the type of escape where you open the book before you are out the door of the library, and you read it on the way home.
It has been three years since I discovered the Sandman, and I was a late comer: the comics and the collections have been popular at many levels for over fifteen years now. Beyond the initial amazement and enchantment, there is a lot of things to look at. One of the first things that I noticed, having read this story in collection form, is that the comic book has a glow in the dark cover. The back cover has an advertisement for the movie Hook, which is the only two commercial advertisements in the book, although it also has some PSA's. It is odd to think of a literary masterpiece like this coming out advertising a mediocre movie and the dangers of skin cancer.
The Sandman Special tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the most famous tales of Greek Mythology. Orpheus was the best musician in all of Greece, and when his beloved, Eurydice died, he attempts to rescue her soul from Hades. As is often the case in Greek myths, this ends in Tragedy. Eurydice is not returned to life, and Orpheus is torn limb from limb by the Maenads.
This story, like many other stories and myths, was used by Neil Gaiman to ornament and develop the complex back story of the Sandman. This story especially became one of the central myths that changed the story line, as Orpheus is made the son of Morpheus, the titular Sandman, and it is his death at the hands of his own father that leads to the tragic conclusion of the series in The Kindly Ones. The intersections of the myths, both in the original and in Neil Gaiman's insertion of it into the myths of the Sandman, would need quite a bit of explaining, as well as documenting of various genealogies. In Gaiman's version, Orpheus is not killed by the Maenads, but instead stays as a disembodied head on a temple in the Aegean Sea until the pivotal events of Brief Lives, when his father, Morpheus finally grants him a mercy killing. This killing of his own flesh and blood earns Morpheus the revenge of the Furies.
All of this can be put away while reading the story, since it is relatively self-contained, and is a rewarding story in and of itself, without any knowledge of the Greek myths', or of Gaiman's extended story. What is most surprising about this story, actually, are there are no surprises. Those who have read other chapters of the Sandman know that there are often elaborate framing stories, such as World's Inn, or complicated plays on the meaning of identity, as in A Game of You, or even a mishmash of mythologies, like in Seasons of Mist. In this story, Gaiman moves the story forward in a fairly linear fashion, and keeps the story more or less on one level, with very little meta-narrative, or out of place characters or scenery. He even manages to keep Delirium from interrupting the story with out of place talk of mouse flavored ice-cream.
The story seems to be very Greek: with some exceptions, Greek culture did seem to believe in proportion, rationality, and linear story telling. This story seems to conform to that pattern much more than any other Sandman story. The art, well done by Bryan Talbot, also reflects this: while some of the art in the Sandman series was impressionistic, or otherwise distorted or unrealistic, the art in the Sandman special seems to follow Classical rules of proportion and harmony. Most of the pictures show stereotypical types of beauty: strength, health and sunny Greek scenery. Even when the story turns to the underworld and the grotesque, the art still maintains a kind of classical air to it.
Whether as a part of Greek myth, or as a part of the Sandman, or as a story to read on its own, it remains one of the comic book achievements of its era.