I’ve probably read the Sandman graphic novel series a dozen times. The last time I went through the whole thing was easily a dozen years ago. But if you ever have half an hour or so, we can sit down and I can tell you almost page for page what’s in it. Even the weird one-off stories like “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and all of the bizarre stories from World’s End. The point is that I have been looking forward to the Netflix special with the expected mixed emotions: excitement, worry, etc.
Part of me wants to write about what a strange experience it is to have such a niche run of comics put through the machine in the attempt to turn it into a blockbuster. And perhaps that question will hang, phantomlike, in the background. But I want to turn to a smaller, spikier question instead.
The Scene: Issue 8 of The Sandman
In the eighth issue of the Sandman, “The Sound of her Wings,” Dream spends an afternoon with his sister, Death, as she does her work. Hitherto, we had not seen what that work consists of. We had not even seen Death make an appearance in the comics. I remember reading that Neil Gaiman was getting fan-letters asking when we would get an appearance from Dream’s big brother. In any case, Death’s work turns out to be: giving mortals a hand and a kind word when they have died. And helping them on their way to whatever comes next.
One of Death’s more poignant visits (I mean for me reading at the time in the late 90s or early aughts) was to the house of an old Jewish man who is playing the violin on his sofa. He is fat, bald, and dressed traditionally in kippah, white button-down shirt, waistcoat, and trousers. He’s singing and playing a song with lyrics like:
Can you rocker Romani?
Can you patter flash?
When Death comes in with her brother, she plays along, asking Harry questions as if his singing were one half of a conversation.
The rest of the scene is almost identical, between the comic and the television show. Harry comes to terms with who she is and what her presence means for him. He says the Sh’ma. And then he continues his congenial conversational patter, barely interrupted by the inconvenience of dying: “I look so empty. I look so old. It’s good that I said the Sh’ma. My old man always said it guaranteed you a place in heaven. If you believe in heaven… So. I’m dead. Now what?”
And Death answers: “Now’s when you find out, Harry.” Dream seems to turn his back to give the pair their privacy. Behind him, outlined against the background is the shadow of a great wing that represents Death’s power to convey dead spirits between worlds.
Is it Cultural Appropriation?
It’s a moving scene. There’s something sweet about the old man’s hospitable banter, and about how Death plays along. She really is, in both the comics and the show, a delight. And the old man, too, is sweetly charismatic. One could imagine him being a favorite uncle. Always bringing out his fiddle so that people around him could strike up a dance and have a good time. And he singing and dancing among them even as he plays. But of course he would be doing that while imitating Romani dress, with scarves and bangles.
And there’s the fact that Death, heretofore the most straightforwardly lovable character in the series, plays along with this seemingly lighthearted cultural appropriation. Elsewhere in the series–the dinner party in Seasons of Mist and the dream sequence at the end of A Game of You both come to mind–when there are two or more opinions on a subject, Death’s opinion turns out to be the final word on the matter. As would only make sense.
If the show were scripted as the comic was, and we heard him singing and playing a Romani-inflected tune, would the implication be that Harry is a racist? That Death is playing along with, and thus condones, his stereotypical act? I’m not saying that the character Harry from the Sandman comics is meant to be seen as racist, nor that the scene is. But it was clearly removed from the show for a reason, and I can only assume the reason is that it had, at the very least, racist overtones.
Not if there’s No Power-Dynamic
Is there any way we can see the old man’s career as a fiddler in a positive light? Jews and Romani were the two groups most targeted by the Holocaust; a certain kinship might arise from that. A Jewish person of Eastern European descent might have learned some songs in a direct line from Romani musicians. Jews and Romani were very much in the same boat in Europe. And the crucial ingredient of cultural appropriation is that there be an unequal relationship between the two parties.
But then. We must zoom the camera lens out a bit. He likely would not have been dressing up as a Romani for his own amusement, which, under the very narrow circumstances we are discussing, would probably have been fine. But rather, he was trying to appeal to restaurant-goers and carnival-goers who would have held Jews and Romani alike in contempt. Nevertheless, as the depiction of Harry makes clear, he is living on the edge. He has to scrape by. Can we fault him for doing what he needs to do to scrape by? In such cases, the fault lies with the system. As well fault an Amazon delivery-worker for policies put in place a dozen rungs higher up the corporate ladder.
But perhaps all of this is too much depth for a series meant to have mass appeal. Perhaps these little infinitely faceted gems can be hidden among the pages of a comic book. Less so among the scenes of a mass-market television show.
Does Depicting a Moment of Cultural Appropriation Automatically Condone It?
What I worry about is that, in losing the perhaps racist overtones of Harry’s fiddle-act at the beginning of the scene, we also lose the faithfulness of the portrayal. Even depicted, as he is, with the minimum number of brushstrokes, we can see (in the comics) that he is living in a rent-controlled New York apartment with furniture that probably looked relatively nice thirty years ago. Those of us who grew up in this area will recognize the faithfulness of the portrayal, and will have an affection for it as more and more of the people who lived like this pass away. And the real estate companies that own the apartments march in and renovate them, in order to break their rent-controlled status. I, for one, can smell Harry’s apartment if I close my eyes. It smells slightly musty. But it also smells a bit like home.
We can guess that he spent his summers in the Catskills, the mountain range just north of New York that was a popular vacation spot for middle class and working class Jews before air conditioning became widely affordable. Playing violin wouldn’t have been enough to distinguish himself and to keep playing steady gigs. He would have had to make himself seem exciting and exotic, with silk scarves and such. Even so, his best season would have been the summer, and he would have scraped by at other times, scrimping from wedding to wedding. And of course such work would not offer a retirement plan. He was probably working until a year before the comic takes place. Whereupon he got too sick to make the rounds anymore.
Then Again, It’s Possible this Fiddler Just isn’t Around Anymore in 2022
But that was then. The story depicted by the comics took place in the late 80s and early 90s; as the comics themselves were being printed and sold. The TV series takes place, likewise, in the present; but that present is 30 years later. Sad to say, we don’t have a lot of European-Jewish refugee fiddlers left.
The same character–is it the same character?–in the show is a world apart. He lives in a well-kept house with huge windows that admit good light. His space is comfortable and orderly. The wood and leather of his furniture have been tended to, and there is none of the implication of dinginess and clutter. This is a violinist who made it. This is a Bell or a Vengerov, who lives in a beautiful apartment overlooking a park. Only the pictures on the wall are old and faded. He also looks slim compared to his shadow-self in the comics. The producers of the show have taken away a potentially problematic instance of cultural appropriation. But, in doing so, they have also taken away an instance of economic representation. And nobody benefits from a show or any other story sweeping poverty under the rug.
Where Do we Go from Here?
In the main, I am glad that artists in general think twice before repeating, or, in some cases, before even so much as depicting a racist or homophobic caricature in their stories. The instinct to remove Harry’s Romani act comes from a good place. And there’s plenty more coming. For those reading ahead in the comics, you know that several queer characters will later be introduced and then will die horrible deaths amid shaming and dead-naming by their relatives. Neil Gaiman has been accused of implementing the “bury your gays” trope. But he was writing at the height of the AIDS epidemic. A lot of gays were being buried. As I was curious to see how they handled this episode, so too I will be curious to see how they will handle those plots.
My point is that I think that the first half of this scene; the half that was replaced with Schubert, would have been an interesting one to discuss with the new and eager fans being brought in by the show. I’m having it here, in my way, because the showrunners chose not to go in that direction. And I’m leaving the matter here because it’s not an argument I feel comfortable making the concluding statement on.
Furthermore, the scene opens a larger question–one we never get a definitive answer to: How does Death treat people who were cruel in life? I mean chronically, habitually cruel. When death came for George Wallace, for example, or Josef Stalin, did she upbraid them for their colossal shortcomings? Or sympathize with them as she does with Harry? Perhaps a combination of the two? Or some third option?