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All of Bette’s stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories–if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.
– Sandman #6, Neil Gaiman
In a small-town diner, a group of locals finds themselves unable to leave and victims of the whims of the shabby, sad, dried-up old man in the overcoat. He’s John Dee, formerly the Justice League villain Dr. Destiny, and more recently a resident of Arkham Asylum. The massive ruby that he clutches greedily in his fist allows him to change reality, and is quickly driving the world mad. And in “24 Hours,” we get to see what a man like John Dee will do when he has access to the hopes, dreams, and desires of his doomed captives.
Although the DCU has long had a wall between it and Vertigo, this wasn’t always the case, allowing writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore to tell their dark and often mature (in the real sense of that word and not just the T&A ’n gore usage) stories using the Justice League while still building out their own little universes. Gaiman’s Sandman delved deep into DC history for issues 5 through 7 as the writer dredged up the Satellite-era villain Doctor Destiny to face off against a de-powered Lord of Dreams, Morpheus.
In Gaiman’s first arc, Morpheus spent much of the 20th century imprisoned by one-time cultist Alex Burgess, his belongings scattered to various corners of the world, upsetting his realm of the Dreaming and making the lives of a handful of mortals stranger. Lowlife crook John Dee was one such mortal, possessed of Morpheus’ ruby, which he used his scientific skill to twist and control, calling it the Materioptikon.
After his mother dies, Dee–driven mad by his confinement in Arkham and years-long inability to sleep–escapes the asylum, seizes the gem, and heads for a local diner where he spends the next 24 hours manipulating the minds of its customers as his use of the jewel causes the world to go crazy. More than anything else, it’s a story about Dee, a man cursed to no longer dream, inflicting his most capricious thoughts on a set of victims. He makes them play out his and their own sordid little fantasies, making himself storyteller, god, and voyeur to what he considers flies.
It’s a standout issue in Gaiman’s early run on the book in part because it revises Doctor Destiny–already a dangerous character–in such a frightening, grounded way. He’s pathetic and petty, destroyed in both mind and body (he’s drawn throughout by artists Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III as a balding, walking corpse with hollow, black eyes), and his motivations don’t really go all that farther than “because he can.” The story asks what would happen if you gave a complete and utter lunatic the power of a god? Well, he’d make the world crazy.
“24 Hours” was collected in the paperback Preludes and Nocturnes trade, but if you want to get the full sweep of Gaiman’s first couple of years with Sandman, you’re better off getting the first volume of the Absolute edition hardcovers.