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William Shakespeare gestures with his quill in front of a mirror, in the background stand denizens of the Dreaming and the Dreamlord himself, on the cover of The Dreaming: Waking Hours #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: DC Comics

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The newest Sandman comic is chasing the true identity of Shakespeare in the best way

The Sandman Universe fits Wilson and Robles like a glove

Of all of DC Comics’ attempts to build on its back catalog of groundbreaking comics from the late ‘80s, 2018’s The Dreaming has been its most successful. Teaming Si Spurrier’s talent for modern myth-making with world-class artist Bilquis Evely (and a few spots from equally talented folks like Matías Bergara) produced one of the most consistently awe-inspiring comics in the company’s slate.

The Dreaming wasn’t just a great revisitation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but also served as a loving interrogation, expanding on characters who were little more than pawns in the sprawling plot of the original. It ended in a blow-out finale featuring a vertical four-page spash image.

So how do you follow that performance? The Dreaming: Waking Hours #1 hit shelves this week.

Who is making The Dreaming: Waking Hours?

Waking Hours written by G. Willow Wilson (Wonder Woman, Invisible Kingdom), a household name in comics ever since she co-created Ms. Marvel. Pencils and inks are provided by Nick Robles (Doctor Mirage, Euthanauts), who draws very nice comics and, it must be said, very nice boys. In the first issue, colors are provided by Mat Lopes, and letters by Simon Bowland.

What is The Dreaming: Waking Hours about?

The first issue of the series introduce Ruin, an insecure nightmare who just wants to escape the Dreaming, and Lindy, an overworked single mom and English graduate student. Lindy’s dissertation is on Shakespeare authorship question, the theory that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write his own plays, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, winds up having a particular significance to the overall story.

A chance encounter between the two complicates both of their lives in a big way, and the adventure of Waking Hours begins.

Is The Dreaming: Waking Hours canon?

“I know which nightmare is missing,” says Dream/Daniel in The Dreaming: Waking Hours, “And it did not escape. Nothing escapes the Box. It was set loose.” DC Comics (2020). Image: G. Willow Wilson, Nick Robles/DC Comics

Waking Hours is set in the world of The Sandman, and so it’s technically set within the DC Universe, just as The Sandman occasionally featured the likes of the Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle. But we should really focus on that first bit: The world of The Sandman.

Gaiman’s original story was about the power of stories to adapt, in a world where every story was real to some extent. Any story, any mythology, any person whose life had passed more into folk memory than history, was fair game for inclusion. And Wilson’s premise is tugging at one of Gaiman’s most fertile threads: The Sandman’s version of William Shakespeare.

For two hundred years, Anti-Stratfordians have proposed that Shakespeare’s authorship was simply a front — that his plays were actually written by another figure of higher birth, better education, or greater political power who couldn’t claim credit due to scandal or conspiracy. (Or because they were a woman.) In The Sandman, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon definitely wrote his own plays, but he did so under the secret supernatural patronage of Dream of the Endless, the Prince of Stories. In exchange for the lyrical ability to become the immortal Bard, Dream commissioned two plays from Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

The Dreaming: Waking Hours is poised to dig deeper into what the work of Shakespeare means, not as a centuries-old standard of literary greatness, but as one ripple of the immense power of a personification of story itself.

Is there any required reading?

Having read the first three issues of Waking Hours, I think modern urban fantasy readers will probably find their footing easily in a setting where nightmares talk and angels walk the earth in a hoodie and shorts.

However, Waking Hours both calls back to and spoils elements of The Sandman, so if you care about that sort of thing you should read the 1989 series.

Is The Dreaming: Waking Hours good?

Ruin, a nightmare, walks out in to the rain with the infant Anne. “I know I’m just a bad dream, but I’m gonna try to fix this,” he tells her, in The Dreaming: Waking Hours #1, DC Comics (2020). Image: G. Willow Wilson, Nick Robles/DC Comics

Wilson and Robles have something special on their hands here. Robles’ characters are instantly endearing, and that feeling has not faded with subsequent issues. Ruin’s helpless attempts make good after a big mistake are quite a far cry from the other embodied nightmares — like the eye-toothed Corinthian or the sinister Judge Gallows we’ve seen in Sandman books. For a nightmare, he’s an extremely soft boy.

But what keeps me coming back to Waking Hours, the elevator pitch that I’ve been excitedly reciting to friends, is all about Lindy. It’s a little bit spoilery, so if you want to go in totally fresh, feel free to skip to the next section.

While Ruin wanders around the Waking World, Lindy has been accidentally trapped in a dream. And that dream is that she’s trapped in a house with every person who has ever been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare. Kit Marlowe, Anne Hathaway (William’s wife, not the actress), Shaykh Zubayr bin William; the place is crammed full of 16th century luminaries — and, of course, Shakespeare himself. There’s a lot of potential in that gimmick and I can’t wait to see more of Wilson’s plans for it.

One panel that popped

Lindy comes face to face with William Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway, Kit Marlowe, and Shaykh Zubayr bin William in a dream in The Dreaming: Waking Hours, DC Comics (2020). Image: G. Willow Wilson, Nick Robles/DC Comics