Sandman: Hope Beyond Despair
I always love when fiction teaches me about history. Things like Doctor Who, and other supernatural and sci-fi shows often have the ability to bring stories to life others might have missed. Doctor Who and Lovecraft Country both exposed whole cultures and generations to Emmett Till. The Watchmen series introduced the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to a world that seemed to have never been taught about it or had long since forgot. In my recent exploration of the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, I learned about the one and only Emperor of The United States, Joshua Abraham Norton. As I listened to the story found in the 1991 Sandman #31: “Three Septembers & a January” (I was listening to the Audible version, which I cannot recommend enough. Emperor Norton is played by John Lithgow), I had no idea this dude was a real person. I thought he was just another fantastic and fanciful character from the endless imagination of Neil Gamian, then a long time Sandman fan clued me into the understanding that the Emperor of the United States was a totally real guy. Emperor Norton lived from 1818-1880, and was heavily involved in the San Fransisco region. He was a business man that had a trail of bad transactions virtually destroy his life, then one day in 1859 he just popped up and declared himself as "Norton the First", "Emperor of the United States" and "Protector of Mexico." This dude had no actual political or legal power, but because he made his declaration and stuck to it, people started going along with it. They might have initially just viewed him as a crazy person, or perhaps just foolish and eccentric, but eventually he became a pillar or the region. He made up his own form of currency, which people actually honored. People would come from all over to buy souvenirs of the emperor. His rule was even officially recognized by the, then, Kingdom of Hawaii. When he finally passed in 1880, they say that more than 10,000 flooded the streets for his funeral. Literally lived 40 years of my life never hearing about this guy. Comic books are cool.
Beyond just fun history though, Gaiman gives us an interesting perspective into a fictional background of the Emperor’s story. In the stand alone issue we see a battle that might have circumstance that don’t fit our lives, but a battle that many of us are facing on a regular basis. The story picks up right after Mr. Norton had lost his financial stability and status after a bad investment on a boatload of rice. He was destitute, discouraged, and in a very low place. Historically this is the time right before he declared himself Emperor, but the background is where Gaiman and Dream have a little bit more fun.
Norton is in the place where facing his losses, Despair has set her hook into Norton and is goading him toward suicide. In an effort to flaunt her power, she summons her brother Dream to witness her victory and issue a challenge to make it even sweeter.
Despair: I have a challenge for you, my brother. A simple challenge. This man Joshua, has entered my domain. His life has fallen apart. He sits in this little room, contemplating death, but he lacks the courage even for that. Life has hurt him. What can you do, with your little dreams, to redeem him?
She was flaunting the fact that once Norton had entered into the world of Despair, that dreams would be of no use. She also goes on to state that Desire and Delirium would be part of the wager as well.
Before accepting the challenge, Morpheus (Dream) walks with Norton through his dreams.
Despair: What are you doing
Dream: I am walking with him, in dreams. I am trying to understand him.
Despair: Dreams. What are dreams? Dreams are nothing my brother.
Norton: But there’s nowhere to go anymore. Nothing to dream. I don’t have anything.
The reason Norton found himself in the hooked clutches of Despair wasn’t just that he had experienced loss or failure. Norton was at the mercy of despair because he no longer had a dream. He had no desire. Nothing to focus on. For many of us, to not have a goal, project, ambition, or dream, is to not have any hope at all. There is a great emptiness that often accompanies the end of a journey. Whether that journey has ended through failure, or by success. Once what you have been focusing on is behind you, for whatever reason, you feel lost without a direction to head. Back in July I was able to write a small story in the comic book “Aceblade #5: Villain Season,” by Danny Quick. I wrote it in July. Then it was waiting from July-August for Lyle Pollard to finish the art. Then once we had that, we submitted it to Danny. Then came the waiting. Other contributors. Editing. Publishing. Kickstarting. Editing. Production. Printing. Then finally today, January 5th, 2022, I picked up my first copies of the books. I got them in my hands, mission accomplished. Then the wave hit me...”now what?” I had the next step in mind for 6 months, there was always something to look forward to, then once I had it, the loom of a lack of direction hit me. That’s honestly why this chapter is being written the same day. On the drive home from picking up the books, I called Timmy (our editor) and talked over the book production for this volume. I just needed the next task to focus on. We need that vision, that hope, that sense of direction. Without it, Despair has the potential to creep in. This isn’t just an artist or emperor thing, it’s something deep within us, and it’s something that is echoed in scripture.
The version of this verse I always remember the most is the KJV :
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” - Proverbs 29:18
But other translations equally ring true.
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” - NIV
“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”- ESV
The idea that when we don’t have a sense of direction, destruction happens, but when we have something to focus on and move towards, we are ok. Specifically in context this is about having the Word and direction of God guiding us. These verses state that without having that direction people perish, they cast off restraint, they enter into a place of destruction. But it follows by saying that keeping the Law, following wisdom’s instruction that leads to happiness, to being blessed. Following the law may not seem like a happy blessing to you, but the truth is, it’s a direction, it’s a path, it’s a clear vision. When you are actually following God’s Word and direction, it’s hard for that despairing lack of direction to come over you. It does happen though. Even to the best or most obedient. Even to those God spoke directly to. Like for real, you ever read Lamentations or Ecclesiastes?
Even more than just the Emo books of the Bible, we see the similar displaced despair in Elijah. In 1 Kings 17, God used Elijah to provide for needs. In 1 Kings 18, God used Elijah to defeat the prophets of Baal in a story that seemed like it was produced by Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. God had been clearly guiding Elijah in big ways, but then in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is threatened, doesn’t know what to do, and the despair takes hold.
“So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.” 1 Kings 19:2-5
Once Elijah felt like he didn’t know the direction, his hope went out the window. God quickly took care of him, but honestly ya’all, it doesn’t take much for despair to grab hold.
Morpheus has a solution though, “Then I will give you a dream Joshua.”
The plot point is that Dream placed the notion in Joshua’s mind of being an Emperor. That he would give him this dream to pursue, to embrace, and it would keep him from being overwhelmed by Desire, Despair, or Delirium.
Delirium is the first of the siblings to visit Morpheus once the challenge has begun, and as they sit together watching the good Emperor she states: “He ought to be mine, but he isn’t, is he? He’s so sane... except about being Emperor, of course... and I'm not even sure about that.” She continues “He’s not mine... his madness... his madness keeps him sane.” To which Morpheus replies, “And do you think he is the only one, my sister?”
Having something to focus on, even if it was something that others couldn’t understand, it helped him to not be overtaken by the overwhelming sense of madness or delirium that we can often arrive at. So often though people equate things they can’t understand in other’s lives as foolishness or madness. We may not be running around calling ourselves Emperors, but Christians do believe they are part of a kingdom, and that sounds equally weird to people. What sounds like eternal hope, peace, and purpose to some, sounds like fruit loops to another. This isn’t a new concept though, scripture teaches us that this is in fact, the norm. All throughout 1 Corinthians 1.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
The very thing that saves us and gives us strength, is what the world looks at and sees madness. Standing on this side of faith for 27 years, it looks like madness sometimes to me to, but it is truly life and I'm grateful for the life it gives me, not just in the hope of eternity, but right here and right now. One of my favorite things Jesus stated in scripture is in John 17: 3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Knowing Jesus is eternal life, even when it seems like madness to others.
The madness of Emperor Norton only seemed to help him and improve the quality of life for others around him, even in the real-life fact he’s one of the reasons we have the bridges we do from San Fran Sisco to Oakland Bay. He was happy with his life, even though it was unconventional compared to most people’s definition of success, as will most Christian’s lives be if they are actually following what scripture teaches, and that’s exactly where Desire chose to attack the good Emperor when she sent in her undead henchman, “The King of Pain.”
King of Pain: My principal sent me here with an offer for you.
The King of Pain then went into a sales pitch where he offered the Emperor all the physical pleasures and statures this world could offer.
King of Pain: Here’s the choice... five potential queens. All top drawer, genuine, sweet-as-pie aristocrats. You choose. But that’s not all I'm offering. You can’t take your new empress back to your little commercial street walk-up, can you? You give the word, Joshua, building starts tomorrow. Nice house huh (He states while holding up pictures of the women and a fine house)?
The King of Pain then tells the Emperor that all he has to do to make this happen, is to “want.”
There is some sensual sales pitches involved by the King of Pain, but the Emperor responds with great conviction.
Emperor: It is true that my rent is but 50 cents a week. It is true that my clothes were a gift from the city council. I exchange federal currency for my own, and thus I live. Many restaurants and eating houses now accept my scrip. This is my city, in my country. They treat me will here. I want nothing.
King of Pain: But you could be a real emperor, #$^%^^&#!!! You can have anything you want!
At the Emperors request, his chamberlain gives testimony to the courts decree when he was released on charges of lunacy;
Chamberlain: He said, “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.
Emperor: I am the EMPEROR of the United States, Pain. I am content to be what I am. What more than that could any man desire?
Just pausing here for a moment. This man was literally offered any woman of his choosing, a grand home, money and stature, and he turned it down because he was content to be who he was. There is an extreme beauty in that. Not only a beauty, but the reality that he was living out something most of us never really achieve in life, and something scripture teaches us that we should strive for.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Timothy 6:6-10.
There is great gain to be content with who you are in God, not financially, but because if you are content with what you have in Him, you are not constantly yearning for the next thing to possess which will make you feel a glimpse of satisfaction, but also because the things you do receive you will also be able to be truly grateful for. We should all be able to look in the face of any temptation and shut it down the way Emperor did, but also echoing all the way back to David in Psalms.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” - Psalm 23:1.
That verse isn’t saying that it’s wrong to want things, it’s saying that you will never lack what you need when God is the one you are trusting to provide. This is coming from David, who had struggled in his life with wanting things, and taking things he didn’t need or had no right to. This was a hard lesson for him to learn, and hopefully one we can learn with a little less collateral damage.
Pain then went and reported his loss to Desire and Dream, with Desire being expectingly furious. Dream then rebukes Desire;
Dream: Desire? You disappoint me. This evening's display: bringing back a dead man to offer Norton the pleasures of the world. It was not very subtle.
Some days our desires and temptations we face aren’t subtle. Some days Satan literally offers you worldwide fame, or suggests you carbo load on rocks. Some days the temptations are overwhelmingly tempting, which of course would be why they carry that name.
Being content with who you are, what you have, who your provider is, and making sure your actions truly live up to who you are called to be is a formidable opposition to any destructive desire we may face.
As we see in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
If you read through the comic, Desire literally can’t understand why her ploys didn’t work.
Desire: There was no way that he could say no. He had no protection. He should have been mine.
Dream: He has his dignity sister-brother. He is after all, an emperor.
The Emperor had desires, and they were offered to be met, but it wasn’t worth it to him to forfeit who he believed he should be, and if any of us are honest, our temporary destructive desires are never truly worth what we sacrifice for them spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
The Emperor had the ability to walk away, just like we do in anything we face.
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” - 1 Corinthians 10:13.
The story eventually wraps up with Emperor Norton passing away, and having a lovely chat with Death before she adopts his hat for herself, but as Despair looks on at Norton’s body she lamented; “I hoped that you would come back to me Joshua, but no. I would seem to have failed. You’re a pitiful madman, a Tom O’ Bedlam, dying in the gutter in the rain... but you never despaired.”
Our circumstance may suck in life. Our station may not be what we hope for, but despair doesn’t have to be our default. Hope can move us far beyond the despair before us.
“And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” - Romans 5:5
This short story from Gaiman, and of course scripture as well, gives some reflections of hope that if we can have vision, if we can be secure in who we are, and if we can rise above the destructive desires we face, there’s no despair that can truly have hold over us.