The Role of History in The Sandman

2 Mar

I have not had any experience before reading graphic novels, so reading The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman, gave me a great first impression of the genre. Throughout the novel, the stories consistently impressed me and kept my attention. One of the chapters that really impressed me was Sandman #31, Three Septembers and a January. In Three Septembers and a January, the story kept my attention by its adaptation of historical events into the Sandman universe, attention to detail, and its connection of other historical figures within the plot.

In Three Septembers and a January, one surprising fact that I learned after reading the story was that it was an adaptation of a true historical event. In real American history, Joshua Norton was a businessman who lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice. He disappeared for several years but eventually returned to San Francisco, appearing mentally unbalanced and claiming himself to be the Emperor of the United States. Gaiman takes this history and cleverly adapts it into a bet between Dream against Despair, Delirium, and Desire. It is amazing how Gaiman adapted the history into a bet, and it seems completely natural how Despair, Delirium, and Desire test Emperor Norton’s will and pride. Initially, Despair is about to take Norton because he is about to commit suicide after losing his entire fortune on Peruvian rice, but Dream saves him by giving him a dream to live for – living as the Emperor of the U.S. Later, Delirium comes and tests how sane Norton is, but despite his crazy idea of being the Emperor, he remains perfectly reasonable. Finally, Desire tries to entice Norton to lust after what appear to be prostitutes, but Norton’s dignity as the Emperor refuses to allow him to stoop that low. This plot line flowed so naturally that the first time reading it, I did not realize it was an adaptation of actual history. This adept adaptation of a historical event into The Sandman universe impressed me.

In addition to the historical context of the plots, Three Septembers and a January also impressed me by the staggering attention to detail in both the story and the artwork. In parts of the story, Emperor Norton writes taxes on his imperial subjects of 50 cents, and he writes receipts for people who pay their taxes. One of his receipts is briefly depicted in one of the art panes, and looks exactly like pictures of actual ones that have survived a few hundred years of existence. In another part of the story, Norton decrees the construction of a bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco, and later Norton shows displeasure when San Francisco is called ‘Frisco.’ I did some research, and it turns out that all of these details are based on decrees that he actually made as Emperor. Norton made an imperial declaration for the construction of the bridge and he also decreed a penalty of 25 dollars on anyone that said the word ‘Frisco.’ These small details are only few of the details everywhere in the chapter, and the overwhelming amount of research and effort it must have taken to discover and reproduce these facts grabbed my attention.

One other way that The Sandman kept my attention was the way that Gaiman almost casually connects other historical figures within the story. In Three September and a January, Norton meets Samuel Clemens, a newspaper reporter. Later in the story, Norton and Samuel are eating at a bar, and Norton tells Samuel that he should write about the frog that could jump over everything because people like to read things that will make them laugh. It is implicit that this series of events inspired Mark Twain, which was Samuel Clemens’s pen name, to write ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.’ I was very interested when I read about this in the story because I recognized Mark Twain, but I did not know whether or not he could have truly met the Emperor in history. It turns out that Mark Twain did live in San Francisco during part of Norton’s ‘reign’, so it is not impossible, although unlikely, that Gaiman’s adaptation retells how Mark Twain was inspired. Even though this event was not one of the main events of the plot, this digression caught my attention because it involved a historical figure I recognized and tied it into The Sandman universe.

The amount of history that is in Three Septembers and a January was extremely impressive to me. As a result of how much effort Gaiman made to portray historically accurate details in the actual adaptation of the history, I was constantly analyzing the story because I was eager to know which parts were actual history and which parts were fictional. However, Three Septembers and a January was not the only story that was written with these aspects. What was truly spectacular to me was that the majority of the adventures in The Sandman were written in this fashion. This style of writing inspired me to go and do research about each of the historical events to satisfy my curiosity about which parts of each chapter actually happened. As a result, the role of history and all of the different ways that Gaiman incorporated it into his stories is the most interesting and my favorite aspect of The Sandman.

by Kim Yie


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