By Kayleigh Hearn
Content Warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault.
“Calliope,” the seventeenth issue of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy epic Sandman, features a quote so good it became the comic’s own epigram: “Writers are liars, my dear.” Surgically removed from the text, the line feels destined for naval-gazing Tumblr posts, wrist tattoos, or, well, The Quotable Sandman. You’d probably recognize the author of that quote even if you’ve never read Sandman #17, because it’s so ineffably Gaiman in what it suggests about the power of stories and the pain artists can inflict.
“Writers are liars, my dear.” Who says that, though – Dream? Desire? no, it’s Erasmus Fry, an elderly author of forgotten bestsellers who has imprisoned and sexually abused a woman in his home for decades. The lie is that he would ever free her.
Sandman #17, published nearly thirty years ago, is not the most famous issue of the series but it is one of its most relevant. In the #MeToo era its darkness has only deepened, because it’s a story about art made by hideous men. It begins with Richard Madoc, a young author unable to write the follow-up to his first novel. He bargains with Fry to possess the secret of his success: Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry, captured sixty years earlier and Fry’s prisoner ever since. Locking her in his own home, Madoc continues the cycle of abuse and rapes her. Madoc reaps the benefits of his inhumanity, writing books, selling screenplays, and directing films — until Dream, the titular Sandman and Calliope’s ex-lover, appears in his living room to demand her freedom.
With “Calliope,” Gaiman and artist Kelly Jones demystify the concept of the “muse,” the name so often given to women who have been said to inspire male (it’s almost always male) creativity. It’s a label that can be a trap for women, putting them on a pedestal but also depriving them of their own individuality or agency. As Francine Prose writes in her nonfiction book, The Lives of the Muses, “Doesn’t the idea of the muse reinforce the destructive stereotype of the creative, productive, active male and of the passive female, at once worshipped and degraded, agreeably disrobing to model or offer inspirational sex?”
That “agreeable” fantasy is destroyed here. Any romance still clinging to the idea of the artist/muse relationship is ripped away by our first glimpse of Calliope, harrowingly drawn by Jones as a naked, emaciated figure lying on the floor in an empty room. What little guilt Madoc feels over his rapes quickly evaporates; because she’s an immortal muse, it’s not like she’s actually a person, right? So, he’s entitled to do whatever he wants to her. Prose also says this: “The whole idea of muses can inspire a certain sort of man to get in touch with his inner misogynist.”
Paying attention in the Me Too era means being pummelled by reality, and being reminded of all the ways society values male “genius” over women’s safety. We always knew the monster was there, even if we didn’t realize the city-crushing enormity of it. Even limiting our laser-eyed gaze to literature, art, and comics, we can see a long line of women who have been devalued, discredited, and debased by male creatives. The abuse in “Calliope” may have seemed an extreme example in 1990, but today it is so believable it feels familiar.
There are moments in the comic that are still jolting. Madoc’s cigar-chomping movie producer, Harvey. (Harvey. My god!) The cocktail party where a woman praises Madoc: “There aren’t enough strong women in fiction” and Madoc replies, “Actually, I do tend to regard myself as a feminist writer.” The words drip with slimy irony, but what’s chilling is their real-world echo. While I was writing the first draft of this article, writer and editor Laura Hudson accused comic book writer Brian Wood of sexual misconduct; in her account, she describes her initial excitement at meeting a writer she admired: “(he wrote so many strong female characters!!!). If you think this is going to go badly, you’re correct.”
We meet Calliope decades into her captivity; any rage she once felt has since collapsed into a knowing despair. She prays to the Three-In-One, incarnated as the Elder Muses, but the old powers are unable, or unwilling, to help her. In the darkness of her thoughts, she even blames herself for being vulnerable in the moment when Fry trapped her. The shadows around her, inked by Malcolm Jones III, seem alternately annihilating and protective, the only thing shielding her from Madoc’s violating male gaze. The last time she sees Madoc, she asserts the personhood he has long denied: “I am real, Richard. I am more than a receptacle for your seed, or an inspiration for your tales. Still, it is too late now to let that concern you.”
Too late, indeed. The story can be criticized for the fact that Calliope is only saved once her pissed-off ex shows up, though her plight deliberately mirrors Dream’s own decades-long imprisonment at human hands. The punishment he inflicts on Madoc, then, can be seen as one survivor avenging another. As Madoc pleads that he needs Calliope for his ideas, Dream curses him with “IDEAS IN ABUNDANCE,” overwhelming him with so much inspiration that he mangles his fingers into bloody sausages (a wonderfully grotesque detail from Jones) trying to get them out. Calliope regains her freedom and her proper glory; she bestows mercy (though not forgiveness) on her abuser. A horror story like this cannot be said to have a happy ending, but it is a restorative one.
In the end, Richard Madoc is left with the void that is his own mind. The abrupt conclusion at least allows us the fantasy that he never skulks around in the half-shadows of a comeback tour like a disgraced comedian, nor do we ever have to see his fans popping up on Twitter, demanding “What happened to separating the art from the artist?”
Calliope only makes minor appearances in Sandman after this issue. It’s unfortunate that, for the muse of epic poetry, this is the only story she’s able to tell. When I look back on “Calliope” I think of another piece of art, an illustration by Ilya Milstein. It features a woman in a flowing dress, aiming a gun at a male artist who lies (injured? Dead?) amid portraits of her nude body. It’s titled The Muse’s Revenge.
Sandman #17: Calliope
Written by Neil Gaiman
Pencilled by Kelley Jones
Inked by Malcolm Jones III
Coloured by Daniel Vozzo
Lettered by Todd Klein
Kayleigh Hearn is the comics reviews editor for WomenWriteAbout Comics, and has written for publications including The MNT and Deadshirt. You can drop some money in her Ko-Fi account right here, and follow her on Twitter here!
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