Neil Gaiman’s Sandman featured many excellent short stories throughout its run, and those single-issue stories tended to be even more interesting when they featured historical characters…such as the Emperor of the United States in #31.
Yes, a San Francisco man, Joshua Norton, actually did proclaim himself the first U.S. emperor in the 19th century, and people humored him and played along without letting him have any real authority. He’s the perfect subject for a Sandman guest star. Gaiman chose well indeed, and he uses Norton’s story to show how dreams can defeat despair—even dreams that are completely bonkers.
And of course, with this being Sandman, dreams and despair are Dream and Despair, two of the Endless. Their siblings, Delirium and Desire, also try to claim Norton, but Dream’s inspiration gives the troubled man a way to get through life without hurting himself or anyone else. Rather, Norton becomes an eccentric public figure who, however inadvertently, delights the residents and visitors of San Francisco. He may not be contributing to society in quite the way he intends—not even close, really—but he contributes. And the right dream allows him to do that.
An utterly fascinating story that will make you want to do a Google search immediately afterward.
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Penciler: Shawn McManus
Publisher: DC Comics (Vertigo)
How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in The Sandman vol. 6: Fables & Reflections (TPB)
Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY