Common wisdom (including that of the author itself) is that issue #8 of Sandman, the first Death story, is when Neil Gaiman first “found his voice” on the series. That’s certainly true to a certain extent, and of particular elements of the book – but to my mind, in the middle of the subsequent storyline (one which, I still feel upon re-reading, shows the series stuttering a little bit in firmly establishing itself), we’re given an issue that rather more successfully defines and exemplifies the best characteristics of what still remains perhaps the finest long-form achievement in the history of the medium – issue #13, “Men of Good Fortune”.
A standalone done-in-one tale, its placing as a “break” in the middle of The Doll’s House seems odd – but it almost feels like the book needs it, because it does such an important job of establishing that it lives in a much, much wider world than the set of characters and places we’ve so far been following. Elements that wouldn’t become important until much later – talk of a “delegation from Faerie”, the first appearance of Johanna Constantine, further hints at Death’s character, and the seeds of William Shakespeare’s relevance – are planted here, as if Gaiman is saying “Right. This thing’s going to run and run. And here’s a few examples of how I’m going to play with it.”
It’s just so bloody clever, too. Without actually looking it up, I’m not sure how loosely Gaiman plays with time in order to conveniently have centennial encounters in years ending in ’89 allow for cameo appearances by Geoffrey Chaucer and a chummy Shakespeare and Marlowe, but I’d bet it’s not by very much. Conveniently catching the Bard prior to his fame and his friend at the height of his, Gaiman is able to draw parallels (explicitly referenced in the dialogue) with the latter’s Doctor Faustus in the Shakespeare/Morpheus deal that we first see hinted at here, while at the same time leading us to wonder slightly on the nature of the unwitting “arrangement” between Death and Hob. The tone and atmosphere of each successive decade (not to mention the common threads of general conversation between them), meanwhile, just feel so spot on – this is the furthest from lazy writing that you can imagine, with so much care and attention devoted to the setting as well as dialogue that is largely a joy from start to finish (“Now the chap next to him with the broken leg, bent as a pewter ducat – he’s a good playwright.”)
Part of that latter point, of course, is down to the introduction of Hob Gadling – unashamedly my favourite of the series’ stellar cast of characters, and here he demonstrates exactly why. Not without his flaws (most notably the manner in which he chooses to make his eighteenth-century fortune, something for which the series rightly never allows him to make full restitution), he’s nevertheless a brilliant and deeply human pair of eyes through which to view the series, and its lead character. He’s also, I’d argue, one of the first truly unique voices that Gaiman is able to bring out – after all, as the only person (with the possible exception of Matthew) that Dream can truly call “friend”, he needs to be a strong character, and he is. And even now, even having read it countless times, the final page is still just utterly lovely.
Of course, anyone reading Sandman for the first time nowadays will always come at it from the angle of knowing what a monumental series it’s supposed to be, and so are more likely to have the preconception that it’ll turn into something magnificent. And I can’t even claim to have read this story in sequence when I did first embark on the series – The Doll’s House was missing from the borrowed set of trades I read. Nevertheless, it’s clear looking back that #13 is an important milestone in the series’ history, the second big “moment” (after #8) to hint that this was going to be something special – and arguably (despite Hob’s relatively unimportant role in actual events) the first true indication of what the whole thing was all about. It absolutely nails it, in other words, and it’s fair to say that comics are very rarely as good as this one.