Illustrating a Dream: An analysis of the art of storytelling in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Dream Country

This paper is a brief look at some aspects of The Sandman, in particular issue 19 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”[1].  For any here who don’t know about The Sandman, it was a series of monthly comic books which ran from Dec ‘88 until the last issue in March ‘96.  However most of us will be more familiar with their current incarnation as a series of 10 graphic novels.  Published by DC Comics, under their Vertigo label, these groundbreaking comics have received critical acclaim, cult following as well as some degree of literary scrutiny.  While the various issues were all written by Neil Gaiman, a number of different artists were employed to illustrate the stories.  Although the term ‘illustrate’ is problematic as this paper will address.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the comic in terms of the meta-narrative and ideas of multiple and parallel realities and how this achieved through both textual referencing and the use of the art.  In particular how the art itself not only illustrates the text but is an added dimension to the narrative and supplies its own coded information for the reader.  As an additional note I owe a great deal of this paper to Jo Sanders’ article in Extrapolation on a similar topic in relation to this issue.

To begin let us briefly examine the plot elements of the narrative.  Dream, the central character of the series, commissioned two plays from a little known, failing playwright called William Shakespeare.  In exchange for these two plays, he allows Shakespeare access to the greatest stories never told which are contained in Dream’s Library.  The issue in question concerns the premier of the first play Shakespeare has written for Dream, and that of course is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This first performance is in front of an audience of Faerie containing Auberon, Titania and Puck amongst others.  Also present is Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the issue examines Shakespeare’s relationship with his son.

An analysis of this story is complicated by the number of different story elements and inter-textual, meta-textual and fractal relationships between plot, narrative and theme.  This will probably be better illustrated (no pun intended) by examining some specific instances.

The title page of the issue is not the front cover, nor the first page, but rather a couple of pages into the narrative, and in this instance depicts Dream greeting the Faerie host above the title itself.  As such the illustration, the full page splash with the three panel insert, attains greater significance not only as the title page, but because it contains no text apart from the title, and the narrative is told simply and persuasively through the artwork.  The lack of any other text, dialogue or otherwise, emphasises the artwork but also ‘draws’ focus on the title itself.  There may be one or two other art related puns but I promise to keep them to a minimum.


The title itself is an example of the complex inter- and intra-textual narrative elements used by Gaiman and his illustrators in the series.  Here it addresses four main points:

  1. Firstly it is the title, pure and simple.  This is the name of the story we are about to read.
  2. Secondly, it draws an obvious parallel to Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  I am not sure if you can see it on this slide, but the text below the title reads: ‘Written by Neil Gaiman, with additional material taken from the play by William Shakespeare’.  The action of the story constantly mirrors and mimics both Shakespeare’s reality as well as the play.
  3.  Thirdly, the title actually foreshadows and describes much of the plot, and the importance of this is usually only apparent after reading through the issue at least once.  The story occurs during midsummer, possesses a dreamlike quality and ends with a descent into darkness and night.
  4. Lastly there is the not so subtle reference to the title character, Dream.  So the title could be read as ‘This is a story about Dream on one particular Midsummer Night’


Gaiman and Vess then divide the action of the story into four distinct and discrete areas and they use various clues to help the reader navigate the rules of these differing levels of reality.  The four areas are backstage, on-stage, Royal Arbour and the Peanut gallery.  In this illustration you can see all four areas at once.  The bright sunlit back stage area, firmly in the midday reality of England as we know it.  The onstage area which represents a fictional reality, partly based on our own world, partly a narrative construction.  Then Vess has used a shading border to demarcate a division between the stage and the Royal Arbour.  This separation is also subtly emphasied by the change in colouring which signals a transition into twilight or evening time, traditionally associated with Faerie and Fey characters.  This magical evening time is further emphasised in the peanut gallery.  So there is a clear progression of narrative realities, each connected but distinct.


The first is the back-stage area.  This is firmly based in the real world, or at least the most mimetic of all of the realms of existence the series covers.  It is a normal everyday reality where the actors relate to each other as people and watch the audience from behind the stage.  However an important aspect of this backstage area is that it is also where ‘the magic happens’.  By this I mean of course where the actors actually transform themselves, through mundane means, into characters of old or fantastic origin.  In the slide we can see how one of the young male actors has completely transformed into beautiful young girl.  Sanders[2] has suggested that this reflects the influence of the Faerie presence in the backstage area, I would contend however that this is simply the human equivalent of the faerie glamour magic and despite its appearance of magic, is entirely mundane.  The bright colours emphasise that this is the waking daylight world of reality.


The second area of distinct action is that of the stage itself.  This is a curious blend of reality as we understand it and also of fantasy.  The action is physically taking place here but it isn’t real in a sense.  It is a fictional reality created by the actors for the amusement of the audience.  This fine line between  what is real and what is unreal is further complicated by the fact that the action onstage is mimicking the past actions of some of the audience members and that the people the characters are based on are actually sitting in the audience watching.  And we are never sure if the play Shakespeare has written in actually based, however loosely, on past exploits of Auberon and Titania.


The royal audience and their arbour is a third arena of action.  This of course is distinct from the human world as none of the characters here are actually human.  However they are located between the Faerie world and the human so it is something of a borderland between realities although the darkness of the cool evening colouring suggests that they rest on the Faerie side of the divide.  This distinction over reality is complicated once again by the correlation between the characters on stage and the actual royals.  One must also consider the fact that the action onstage is mimicked in certain respects by the actions of Dream, Auberon and Titania as the play concerns royalty watching a play put on by commoners just as Dream et al are watching a play put on by commoners.  Auberon and Titania are characters involved in lovers’ schemes and plights, and as we see in the issue this is a strong subtext inherent in the actions in the royal arbour. These people are otherworldly beings who inhabit a different plane of existence, yet they are physically present in the ‘real world’ of the actors.  In addition they are royalty, and as such, even if they were human, inhabit a sphere of reality removed from the common man playing the parts on stage.  So there is a significant level of inter connectivity between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction.


The last distinct area is that of the peanut gallery.  This collection of characters represent the everyman, despite their otherworldliness and like the rude mechanicals of Shakespeare’s play they provide much of the comic relief, they also supply a commentary on both the actors and the royals.  Through their comments and commentary we see beyond their strange appearance to a direct comparisons to that of the common human characters, spectators of grand affairs.  Once again this draws parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s play, as well as the human actors performing it in this story.  They are the ultimate observers and with their peculiar use of language, reminiscent of modern day colloquial language, there are parallels between the common faerie folk and the reader.  They, like the reader, are the furthest removed from the action, they are also the least humanoid and so straddle the divide beyond the objective reality of the reader as observer and commentator, and magical character part of a fictional reality.  In effect their presence further blurs the distinction between the fictive reality of The Sandman and the world of the reader, drawing one into the other whilst at the same time we are seeing the blurring of two distinct worlds within the text which interact on several different levels.


If we look at Vess’s art we can see how he delineates the two fictional realities and then communicates plot progression by manipulating those self-same rules.  So while initially the human world is present in bright daytime colours, vividly represented and the Faerie who are watching the play as it is performed sit in the gloom of a magical twilight, a colour scheme which allows for easy recognition of which reality is being represented.  However as the story progresses the human world becomes darker, noting botht the passage of time, but also how the human world is being drawn into the magical reality of the Faerie or perhaps that the realm of Faerie is intruding further and further into the base reality.

As their worlds draw closer, the parallels between the four distinct areas become stronger and the differences blur.

As the time progresses in the human world Vess illustrates this by bringing the colour scheme of the human world in sync with the Faerie twilight so the blending of the colour schemes reinforces the idea of the merging of the two realities.  This is furthered by the narrative events of the story and also by Vess’s choice to start merging the actual frames of the comic into one another.

The incursion of the Faerie into the human world in the beginning of the story is then symbolically extended further by their presence in the previously discrete backstage area during the intermission.  This is then compounded by Puck replacing the actor Dick Cowley who was portraying him on stage.  The idea of Puck playing a human playing Puck in a story about the interaction of the Faerie and human worlds gives you an idea of the multi-layered complexity of the story despite its apparent simplicity.  The fractal recursion of story within story within story can be difficult to visualise and certainly the intermingling of multiple realties can be hard to picture.  But at this stage the Faerie have infiltrated each of the different layers of reality.


Looking specifically at the Royal trio of Dream, Auberon and Titania we can tease out some important points of discussion in terms of narrative development and sub-textual information.  When we first see them, Dream greets Auberon first giving the reader the impression that Auberon is of a higher social standing than Titania.  However Vess illustrates the entrance with Titania dominating the actual frame, and Auberon apparently acting as her escort.  When we see the trio seated in the arbour it is Titania seated on Dream’s right as guest of honour not Auberon.  In fact Vess seems to have been at pains to draw Dream and Titania together as often as possible.

Several times during the course of the issue, Dream and Titania are discretely framed and Auberon is excluded, despite it being likely that he would be seen in the background.  Vess has also included several shots of Dream looking at Titania and vice versa although I will discuss this point further in a minute.


In this current frame we can see how Vess has framed the trio in a very particular way.  Dream and Titania are seated close together and are sharing a single arm rest.  Their arms are touching and there is and ease and familiarity in their contact and attitude to one another.  On the other hand Auberon is depicted as sitting separately to the other two.  In fact his right arm is forming a vertical barrier with the undergrowth that effectively frames him as a discrete unit.

We can now consider Vess’s choice of colour scheme.  Although not wonderfully reproduced in this slide, you can see how Auberon’s bright red armour sets him apart from the bluer hued and soft clothed others.  Dream and Titania also possess hair colours closer in nature than Auberon’s bright yellow.

An additional thing to consider with reference to this particular frame is that Auberon has horns on his head.  Until this point it has been easy to dismiss that simply because of his fey faerie nature, however considering the closeness of Dream and Titania, the subject matter of the play they are watching (which concerns Titania being unfaithful) and the fact that it is a Shakespearean play we can arrive at a subtle inference of cuckold.  When these points are added together Vess has cleverly implanted the idea in the reader’s head that Dream and Titania are either having or have had an affair.


When we look at the next two slides we can see how Vess has framed Dream and Titania often to the exclusion of Auberon.  Even in a frame where Auberon should be seen in the background he has been omitted almost as if he doesn’t exist in the intimate reality created by Dream and Titania.

But to exclude the consideration of text is just as damning as to exclude consideration of the artwork when analysing graphic novels.

In this frame in particular we see how Dream, normally not the most talkative of characters, has opened up to Titania and is attempting to articulate the reasons for his actions.  This has actually been prompted by an earlier point posed to him by Titania which he is now attempting to answer she had asked Would that I could fathom your motives.  There is an intimacy and ease of familiarity generated between the two, both through this unusual act on Dream’s part and through the images of their faces in close proximity.  In the bottom left panel we can see the glitter of Dream’s eye as he looks at Titania.  Whilst this is perfectly acceptable in terms of the reality of Dream’s physical description, it does carry with it the connotation of ‘a twinkle in his eye’, a representation of desire, love or of some kind of relationship.


This inference is continued in this next slide.  Auberon has clearly stated that the Faerie will not be returning, however it is Titania who is quick to invite Dream to visit them.  In this panel we must consider how the text can be interpreted in terms of the additional information supplied through out the story by Vess’s art work.  Titania’s offer “But YOU will ALWAYS be welcome in OUR land, Dream Lord.  The gates to Faerie are never FULLY closed.  Come when you wish.” On the one hand this is an entirely above board invitation from one royal to another however when we consider the fact that there is this level of intimacy between the two the text, with its emphases lends itself to a second interpretation, it could be a proposition from Titania to Dream asking him to resume their relationship.

I should mention that I have spoken to Vess about this and he told me that he always imagined Auberon in a relationship with Puck, but that may be a whole other paper.


The last aspect I wish to look at returns to the theme of the inter-relating realities.  Here we have Puck’s Adieu.  At this point the Faerie have left and the actors are asleep and so these famous last lines of the play are delivered solely for the reader.  The first panel recalls the iconic image of Hamlet talking to the skull, and yet Vess has Puck discard the mask in favour of turning to address the reader directly.  With the images zooming in whilst Puck effectively disappears into the shadows it changes the tone from the usually reassuring last lines of the play into something far more threatening and sinister.

This has the combined effect of both bringing the reader further into the fictional world of The Sandman and at the same time bringing the fictional world into the real, just as the faerie entered the Shakespearean world, now Puck is entering ours.

As I said at the beginning, this was not so much a paper trying to argue a complex critical or theoretical point, but rather showing the usefulness of paying attention to artwork when analysing comic books.

[1] Collected in Dream Country

[2] Sanders Joe, Of Storytellers and Stories in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Extrapolation Vol.45 No.3 (Fall 2004) (Brownsville: University of Texas & Texas Southmost College, 2004) p.237-248.

(Originally delivered as a paper at ICFA)


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