By Priya Sridhar

Characters die in Sandman. And when they don’t, they may wish that they were dead. Within the second arc of the series, Doll’s House, we were introduced by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and team to an entire serial killer convention, complete with flashbacks from the attendees to their finest moments: memories of human flesh played into sewing machines and bodies stored in refrigerators. One volunteer at the convention front desk reminisces on how he preys on children in amusement parks where the security is lax. An undercover journalist is found out mid-convention and suffers a horrifying fate.

Sure, the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, also took its time killing off likeable characters – and a few we didn’t like. John Dee senselessly murdered people at a diner in the infamous issue #6, including a waitress whose only crime was pouring coffee at the wrong time. We also separately learn at a different point how Dream condemned a woman to hell simply because she turned him down. Gaiman isn’t afraid to bring the horror into this horror comic.

Death herself admitted in “The Sound of Her Wings” that she is not fair… but it’s not like she kills people. Each individual reaches the end of their time, and she is always there. That’s the way things are. Her issue ends with optimism, as her talk with Dream helps him regain his purpose – but that’s not the norm for Sandman. And likeable characters still die. 

Death and senseless murder are terrifying – but by the time of the last issue of The Doll’s House, issue #16’s ’Lost Hearts’, Dream has already taken care of the serial killers, ensuring they face a spiritual justice if not a legal one. ‘Lost Hearts’ instead serves as a bookend to the start of the Doll’s House arc in the comic. Here it’s revealed that Desire of the Endless had manufactured the entire scheme to either make Dream suffer or create circumstances for his death. Desire’s plan involved raping a woman called Unity Kincaid in her sleep, in the process stripping her of powers which would have led to her being a forced of nature called “the Vortex”, which would threaten Dream’s kingdom. The powers instead were passed on down the family, to Unity’s granddaughter Rose.

Desire’s plan was to put Dream in a position where he’d need to kill Rose, unaware that she was a descendent of Desire and therefore his grand-niece. That would bring down the wrath of The Kindly Ones, who’d have the power to end Dream forever as punishment for spilling family blood. And, in hindsight, Desire’s influence was there the whole time. Rose ages slowly, still looking like a teen while well into her thirties, and she attracts incompatible people to her. Rose even attracts the child predator from the “cereal convention”, who conveniently ignores that she’s not a preteen in an amusement park.

So what undid Desire’s scheme? Something they could not comprehend, so Dream spells it out instead: Desire underestimated human fortitude and the bonds that go beyond carnal desire and Want. Rather than the Endless manipulating the humans for their schemes, the humans did something unexpected: they ignored their own desires and instead worked to help other people achieve theirs instead. Most poetically, it’s Unity who ends up foiling the scheme after Desire first used her to enact it. While dying in bed, Unity dreams, and realizes that she must find her granddaughter. Unity only knows one thing: she has to find Rose and save her. 

It doesn’t matter that she knew Rose for less than a year; Rose is her family, someone she regained in a short amount of time. Unity wanted to reunite with her family, after she woke up from the Sleeping Sickness. She said she didn’t have long to live, but wanted to meet her daughter that was adopted while she was asleep. Unity wanted to ensure that Miranda and her grandchildren would have access to the Kincaid family name, and her wealth from settlement money. 

As direct contrast, Dream does not understand how Unity was meant to be the original Vortex: he was imprisoned when Desire enacted their scheme, and he’s not the most empathetic character during these early stages in Sandman’s narrative. As a result, Unity’s declaration that she will die in Rose’s place stuns him. Dream does not quite understand the idea of selfless love, but readers can perhaps see how this plays into his longer-term development.

For their part, Desire doesn’t even make the effort, as Desire openly admits they are selfish. 

Unity has help in the rescue effort, however. She wouldn’t have arrived in time to find Dream and Rose if not for one important character: Gilbert. Just like Unity, Gilbert only knew Rose for a few weeks at most. He also insisted on accompanying her to find her brother, Jed, to become her “knight errant”. It ended up being a wise choice, as he does his best to keep her safe during the Cereal Convention and rescues her brother, getting him to a hospital in time. If Rose had been alone, she would have wandered into that hotel by herself after their rental car broke down on the road, and wouldn’t have stood a chance in that convention. 

We find out in this issue that Gilbert is not human. He is one of Dream’s creations, a place called Fiddler’s Green. Dream notes that it was unusual for Gilbert to flee the Dreaming in his absence, as Fiddler’s Green is reliable and loyal, but Gilbert explains to Dream that he came to love the humanity which visited his realm. He felt desire: he wanted to experience it for himself. Gilbert enjoyed the good and the bad, the minor victories and losses. 

Although he isn’t human, for me Gilbert is one of the most compassionate characters in the entire story. The man cannot tell a cheery story, but he puts his money where his mouth is to be gallant. He rescues a housemate from muggers and offers to walk her home – and then protects her with his life when realizing they are in a hotel with noted serial killers like the Corinthian. As a result I always mourn his death when it arrives. What makes me cry during this issue is how Gilbert stands so tall when facing his boss and creator. He knows he will probably die or suffer one of Dream’s more creative punishments. After all, Dream does not forgive deserters or those who break his rules. We saw how he handled felow runaways Brute and Glob in an earlier issue… he sentenced them to the darkness. 

Despite knowing the consequences, Gilbert shows no fear or regret. He has one request while holding a frightened Rose: “Lord, I offer my life for hers.” 

Gilbert’s compassion ends up saving him from Dream’s wrath. Quite ironically, his willingness to die for a human is what spares his life. Dream sadly tells Gilbert he cannot accept his creation’s sacrifice; Fiddler’s Green is not a vortex, and he can’t absorb Rose’s powers. He does admit, however, that Gilbert has done no harm in the human realm, and that he should not suffer punishment. Instead, Dream mandates that Gilbert resume his place in the Dreaming as Fiddler’s Green. Gilbert does so after telling Rose that he’s sorry he cannot save her, and that he was a terrible excuse for a human. 

It might seem anticlimactic in a sense, but that conversation and sacrifice of his own desires ended up saving Rose. After he takes back his place in The Dreaming, Unity arrives at the very moment Dream is about to kill Rose. A second later, and she would have seen Rose die in front of her. Gilbert was not a terrible excuse for a human being as he called himself; his minor sacrifice led to Unity’s major one. 

Rose losing her heart has ramifications in later arcs, sure: for now, though, she ends this issue with her life, and she mourns Unity and Gilbert. She refuses to believe that Gilbert was just a creation of the Dreaming, because he loved her. Platonically. Rose wonders about the fact that Unity might have died to save her, and how dreadful the loss was for her mother Miranda, after tending to a sick Unity in the real world. She doesn’t know how to process this kind of world. “Lost Hearts” introduces compassion into the world of Sandman, if not fairness. Rose doesn’t get closure but her brother gets a happy ending after his mother and sister locate him. 

For me, Lost Hearts remains my favorite issue of the Doll’s House arc. It is always worth a reread, especially for the little victories it provides, and its message of how compassion can sometimes win out over wanton cruelty.

 

Sandman #16 “The Doll’s House, Part 7: Lost Hearts”
Written by Neil Gaiman
Drawn by Mike Dringenberg
Coloured by Robbie Busch
Inked by Malcolm Jones III

Lettered by Todd Klein

 

Priya Sridhar is a critic and author whose work has been seen at websites including Book Riot. For more of her work, head across to her website hereor find her on Twitter here!

 

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