24 Hours With Doctor Destiny

Hey kids! Do you enjoy reading torturously evil narratives about people being trapped in slimy psychic sadomasichism? Then Sandman may be for you! One of the most acclaimed comics of all time, for ever and ever, Neil Gaiman’s exploration of dreams, evil, delights and gothic hairstyles had more than a fair share of Halloween-appropriate nightmare stories. But the one we’re most interested in talking about right now comes in issue #6. The issue: ’24 Hours’. Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read it yet.

Absolutely vicious from start to finish, 24 Hours takes a relatively minor Batman villain and a cast of five or six strangers and weaves a hideous tapestry of misery, deceit and mind-controlling rubies – and goes much further than you could ever predict it would. The basic premise of the issue is that Doctor Destiny, a madman from Arkham Asylum with a mind-controlling ruby in his possession, wants to go take over the World. But instead he goes to a diner, watches some trash TV, and then forces the other people in the diner to engage in twisted fantasies for his own interest. Although it sounds like a faintly simple premise for a story, Gaiman’s ability to descend the reader into Hell becomes more and more powerful, and more and more horrifying. More than any other issue I’ve ever read – and sure, I’ve picked up a Warren Ellis/Garth Ennis story from time-to-time – this one is so morally repugnant that it made me physically unhappy that I was still reading it. And yet, the story was so well-told that I had to keep going, to see if the people get out or not.

And I won’t tell you if they do. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

This is a fairly good hint, though.

Gaiman spends a little bit of time setting up the characters: the married couple, the unlucky-in-love lesbian, the widower, and so on. But he isn’t really concerned with that. Once he’s established that these are fairly mundane, boring people, he can get to work exploiting them and breaking them. Over the course of twenty-four hours Doctor Destiny meddles with their minds, forcing them to say and do things they wouldn’t normally do – to admit their darkest secrets and break their codes of conduct. He turns the lights off and has one of them murder the other; he has them maim themselves whilst confessing their sins. A succession of horrors await the people in that diner, and knowing that they could be saved at any moment is what makes this more than a snuff comic.

Some writers would glorify the violence through providing context. Gaiman, however, has all the characters under his thrall and can make them do whatever he wants them to do. See the meta-narrative there? Whatever, meta-narrative is a lame concept. The cast here are all under the control of somebody else, so whenever something horrible happens, the others stare at it, blankly. And that, frankly, is the most terrifying thing about the whole story. Every act Doctor Destiny makes the characters perform is shown simply, without comment. And that forces the reader to think about what’s happening right now. When two characters are forced to have sex with each other, Gaiman refuses to show us which two they are. It could be two of the men, it could be forcing the married couple to have affairs, it could be making the lesbian character have penetrative sex. We don’t know, we never find out, and Gaiman’s craft makes the scene increasingly eerie and unnerving with each re-read.

And it’s kinda funny, too. Every little irony is made, as the characters descend into enforced madness. One of Doctor Destiny’s last acts in the issue is to watch a fly buzz around his head. Carefully, slowly, he raises a hand up and grasps it, puts it in his pocket. Does he kill it? Or collect it? Just one of a series of questions Gaiman asks the readers, knowing their answers will invariably be worse than anything he could actually put in the comic.

If you can make it to issue #7 of Sandman, then you’ll be set for reading one of the best comic runs of all time. But understandably, there are quite a lot of people who never get that far. It’s a scary comic – the freak-outiest I’ve ever read. It feels so hollow, that the story bounces round in your head for a long time after you put it down and gone on with the rest of your life. Let’s put it like this: I’ve never shuddered so often while writing a review, remembering all the things that happen in Sandman #6. And now I need a hug.

So… Happy Halloween!

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