By Kayleigh Hearn
Content Warning: This article contains mention of suicide.
Has anyone ever aced a question on Jeopardy!, or in a round of bar trivia, because of Sandman? Absolutely, right? Because for a comic series about the world of dreams, Sandman frequently visits our earthly plane, with Dream and the Endless entangled in human history.
“Three Septembers and a January” tells the true-ish story of Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States, a madman who was nonetheless saner than most sane men. Written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by Shawn McManus, Sandman #31 was the third in a quartet of issues (completed with #50, the acclaimed “Ramadan”) subtitled “Distant Mirrors.” Wedged between major story arcs “Season of Mists” and “Game of You,” and self-contained except for their themes about rulers and the nature of power, these stories are smaller gems in Sandman’s crown but no less bright because they show the fantastic scope of the series at its best. “Thermidor” saw the wily Joanna Constantine retrieving the head of Orpheus during the horror of the French Revolution, and “August” followed the Roman emperor Augustus as he pretended to be a beggar for a day, but “Three Septembers and a January,” about that solitary eccentric in 19th century San Francisco, is perhaps the most human and affecting of the bunch.
Before we begin, I want to mention one of those strange little coincidences that feel plucked right out of a Neil Gaiman story. Namely, the link between “Three Septembers and a January” and the last Sandman issue I covered for Shelfdust, “Calliope.” While I was rustling through Leslie Klinger’s essential The Annotated Sandman vol. 2, Gaiman’s script notes for issue #31 jumped out at me: “Every now and then I wind up with a script that I have real problems with writing. This is one of them—the last one this bad was Sandman 17, the one that turned into ‘Calliope.’” Wow, that’s kind of funny, right? Then Gaiman reveals the story this comic could have been: “The second idea was…about Ric Madoc from Sandman 17, two years on, recovering in a nursing home, and about the people who love him, and the healing power of love.”
Considering that I ended my “Calliope” article thankful that we never see Ric Madoc’s comeback tour, I’ll let you, reader, imagine what my reaction was when I found out we almost had a Sandman comic about a kidnapper-slash-rapist experiencing “the healing power of love.” (Hint: it involved a red mist clouding my vision and Bernard Herrmann strings screaming in my head.) But the story was too unwieldy, and Gaiman scrapped it in favor of his first idea. I will now bow my head and pay my respects to the dearly departed Emperor Norton I, who saved me from reading that fucking story.
It’s September, 1859. We’re introduced to Norton in a moment of despair. Quite literally, as Despair of the Endless, drawn by McManus as a hunched gargoyle on his flophouse bed, watches him contemplate suicide. Sensing the potential in Norton, she summons her brother Dream and needles him into a macabre family game. Which of the Endless – Dream, Despair, Desire, or Delirium – will claim Norton for their realm before their older sister, Death, takes him? Dream plums Norton’s psyche, and we get our first taste of the real man’s history: born in England and raised in South Africa, he emigrated to the United States as a businessman but lost his fortune and, seemingly, his reason for living. And so, Dream gives Norton a new dream. The most American dream of all, where a man can come up from nothing and declare himself Emperor of the United States.
As the title suggests, “Three Septembers and a January” skips ahead to another September five years later. Emperor Norton has become a local fixture, charging his subjects fifty cents in imperial taxes and commanding the building of a bridge across the San Francisco bay (hey, he was right about some things). Dream and Delirium watch as Norton dines with struggling writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Norton raises Clemens’ spirits by declaring him to be “official spinner of tales and teller of stories to these United States of America.” It’s a clear gesture of friendship that proves he is out of Delirium’s clouded, colorful grasp; as she notes, “His madness keeps him sane.” This scene is perhaps the best indicator of why Neil Gaiman was drawn to a person like Norton, as the emperor served as the inspiration for writers including Twain, who wrote the facsimile “King” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Robert Louis Stevenson. If Gaiman saw magic in Norton, he wasn’t the only one.
The third September shows Desire trying to ensnare Norton in their diabolical embrace. In 1875, Emperor Norton is a living monument to San Francisco, greeted by tourists and proudly decked out in a royal blue uniform and beaver hat donated by his subjects in the United States Army. Norton is drawn with kingly dignity—he really does look like he could run a state, or lead an army. McManus draws the people in this issue with fleshy, almost putty-like malleability, a stark contrast to the Endless, who are marble white and marble cold. But it never feels like McManus or Gaiman are mocking Norton or pulling faces behind his back. More questionable is the depiction of Ah How, Norton’s Chinese chamberlain. Though they attempt to subvert one stereotype (Ah How speaks in broken English to shoo away white, opium-seeking sailors, hiding his fluency) by depicting Ah How bowing subserviently and calling Norton things like “Son of Heaven,” they stumbled backwards into another.
Desire’s scene is somehow more surreal than Delirium’s, and it takes Sandman #31 into a dark place. Emperor Norton is summoned to meet the Joker to his Batman, another self-proclaimed liege known as the King of Pain. I must have thought that the King of Pain was some obscure DC Z-lister when I first read this issue years ago, but no, he was another doomed eccentric Gaiman plucked out of history. Unfortunately, as Norton realizes, the King is very dead; adorned in devilish red, he tempts Norton to indulge in the sins of the flesh. What does Norton really want? No more than any other man, but he is Emperor, and he has his dignity. Desire loses, but not before cursing out their brother and ordering the King of Pain to lick their shoes.
January comes as it must, and Emperor Norton dies suddenly, walking in the rain, in 1880. It’s a lonely death, but not a bad one, as Norton never crossed into Despair’s realm. Dream wins, but it’s Death who greets Norton with open arms on the final page. As Death says with a smile, “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I’ve met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.” It’s not hard to see why, as Norton’s appeal as an Emperor was earlier summed up by a judge who released him from charges of lunacy: “Mister Norton has shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for most fellows in the king line.”
Joshua Norton lived an American dream, but if anything about this issue sticks to the ribs, it’s that it’s somewhat naïve. Anyone can make themselves Emperor of the United States, if they’re white enough, or male enough. Would the city have embraced his flights of fancy, his monomania, if he’d been anyone else? But after Sandman’s depictions of Robespierre and Augustus, perhaps it’s saying that the only good emperor is a powerless one. Of the three, it’s certain he’s the only one who wasn’t feared, but loved. The issue ends with another trivia-busting fact: when Emperor Norton’s body lay in state, 10,000 people came to pay their respects.
Sandman #31: Three Septembers and a January
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Shawn McManus
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterers: Todd Klein and Alisa Kwitney
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!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! Kirk Longuski requested this issue be covered specifically on the site, and here we are now! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!