In The Sandman special “The Song of Orpheus,” we learn how Dream came to have a son, and how Orpheus was able to visit the Underworld. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Sandman.
“The Song of Orpheus”
Well. What the fuck am I supposed to say? I’m devastated, and I already knew how this fucking story ended. That, my friends, is the sign of a fantastic storyteller. Neil Gaiman, I tip my hat to you, first of all, for taking the story of Orpheus, one of the most popular Greek myths, and finding a way to re-contextualize it and DESTROY MY HEART. Bless you, Bryan Talbot, Mark Buckingham, and Daniel Vozzo, for your unbelievable contributions to the artwork for this story. I honestly think this massive, five-part issue might just be the absolute best of The Sandman. In fact, I really want to do this retelling of the Orpheus myth justice, so I’ll split this review into five parts.
I think knowing that Eurydice will die and that Orpheus will later call out to his father in a moment of anguish is what makes the very first page of “The Song of Orpheus” so sad to me. This issue begins with a very, very rare look at the Endless because we actually see them together. Dream arrives for his son’s wedding, and he acts like he is a father. It’s a behavior we’ve never seen from him before, and it’s made all the more depressing when you know that Dream will later abandon Orpheus.
Honestly, though, let’s just get to the real shit. THERE IS THE FINAL ENDLESS. HE IS RIGHT THERE. What the fuck is he? Warfare? I don’t know a “d” word that represents war or battle. Defense? No, that doesn’t make sense. Anyway, this issue’s story takes place before the missing brother chose to defect from the group. Oh god, I NEED MORE. I NEED MORE. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t say that. I remember very adamantly demanding that I learn more about how Orpheus was Dream’s son, and this is what I got in response.
Not enough sad emoticons in the world. Oh, and it’s unbearable to read Orpheus saying, “Look at her dancing. She’s so alive.” This is what it’s like to read Mark Reads and Mark Watches, isn’t it? Y’all just sit around and shake your heads at how awful I am at avoiding foolish statements like this. Now I understand.
God, the color schemes in this issue alone are amazing to me.
I think it would be too reductive to analyze Dream by human standards. He’s not human at all, even if he make take human form from time to time. That makes it difficult to sort out my feelings towards the way he treats Orpheus. We’ve seen how detached he is in the past, but he’s detached relative to what we, as humans, expect from him. We expect Dream to comfort his son after Eurydice died on her wedding day. But it’s not his nature. He’s distant, emotionally reticent, and he generally speaks with a clinical, matter-of-fact tone. Still, there’s a power in his words because of their simplicity. “She is dead. You are alive,” he tells his grieving son. “So live.” For him, it seems like the best thing he can tell Orpheus because it’s true.
But we don’t often want to hear the truth. We want to be comforted. Dream isn’t really good at that.
The mysterious Endless brother and Death are, though. Olethros, WHO ARE YOU? Okay, also, seriously, no one is better in this series at giving advice and being a good friend quite like Death is. How is it that she ended up being more empathetic than Dream? Is it because of what she does? I don’t quite understand it, but I’d like to think that her experiences with leading people to the afterlife affected her demeanor.
Again, this is a difficult issue to read because I know that Orpheus will play his song before Hades and Persephone, that he’ll earn the chance to take Eurydice back, but at the last moment, he’ll turn around and face her and lose her forever. I found it brilliant, then, that so much of chapter three was silent. It’s just these massive, stoic panels of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld, full of muted colors and shadows. I love that Orpheus’s playing makes the ferryman cry. But I got chills when Orpheus wandered into a sea of dead souls, their bodies colorless and decayed. It is such a haunting detail. In the underworld, there’s almost nothing here to tell one person apart from another, and there is certainly no way Orpheus would recognize his dead wife.
This entire chapter is beautifully written and drawn, and it conveys the sheer enormity of Orpheus’s musical ability through images and words. Do you realize how awesome that is? We don’t hear a note of the song he sings, but we understand why Hades eventually makes a deal with Orpheus. And it’s still agonizing to see him turn around at the very last moment, just seconds before he succeeds, to watch his love disappear before his eyes.
His friends are the animals. He plays music for animals and no one else. Why is this so gut wrenching to me??? He has spent years alone, and he even rejects the company of his own mother. This is a man completely ruined by what has happened to him. Then the Bacchaante come after him, tear him apart (HOLY SHIT IT’S SO GRAPHIC) and his head is cast into the ocean. The parallel to the opening dream image of this issue is not lost on me. Orpheus rests in the sea, and he calls out one name over and over again: Eurydice. She does not answer. I cannot imagine a more tragic story.
And that’s because Gaiman chooses to change and manipulate the Orpheus myth in a way that weaves in Dream’s own life, and this epilogue furthers the idea of the importance of stories. We’ve been told the Orpheus myth for so many years, and Gaiman found a way to give it life through heartbreak. Dream arrives to bid his son goodbye for the last time, and now the events involving Orpheus in a past issue suddenly make sense. Orpheus rejected his father when Dream wouldn’t go to the underworld to get Eurydice. And now Dream rejects his own son’s head on a beach, promising him he’ll never see him again. This is one of those behavioral qualities of Dream that’s quite human: he is stubborn as all hell. Remember how he treated Nada? It’s a very similar reaction here.
Orpheus watched through tear-stung eyes until he was out of sight. His father never even tried to look back.
Oh, you have to be kidding me. Way to punch me right in the feelings.
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