The Daily Comic Book Coffee, number 29: Today’s coffee-drinking artwork is from what Entertainment Weekly referred to as “the scariest horror comic of all time.” Sandman #6 is penciled by Mike Dringenberg, inked by Malcolm Jones III, written by Neil Gaiman, lettered by Todd Klein, and colored by Robbie Busch, published by DC Comics with a June 1989 cover date.
Sandman was the story of Dream, aka Morpheus, and his siblings, the immortal Endless. The first story arc Preludes and Nocturnes sees Dream, who has spent 70 years as the prisoner of an occult society, finally breaking free. Dream must then search out his various lost objects of power.
Among these artifacts is a mystical ruby, which has fallen into the hands of John Dee, the super-villain Doctor Destiny. “24 Hours” sees Dee using the ruby’s powers to slowly drive insane the patrons of a diner, torture them, and finally force them to murder each other. It is definitely one of the most disturbing comic book stories I have ever read.
The story grew out of Gaiman’s idea of doing a 24 hour long story within 24 pages. As he explained to EW in 2017:
“Suddenly I went, ‘Hang on. I’ll stay in one location, and awful things are going to happen in this one location over 24 hours.’ And it came into focus suddenly and beautifully. I knew roughly what had to happen in each hour and just brought a bunch of people onto the stage and destroyed them. And it was an awful thing. It was like, ‘Okay, where does my imagination go? What would I do to these people?’ And then going, ‘This needs to be relentless. It needs to be horrible. And it can never be torture porn. You can never enjoy what is happening to these people.’”
Dringenberg & Jones superbly illustrate Gaiman’s unsettling tale, suffusing it with menace. Both the plot and the artwork begin very low key, with the diner patrons having their morning coffee, unaware that John Dee is crouched in a corner booth, waiting. As the issue progresses the tension and horror of Gaiman’s writing and Dringenberg’s storytelling gradually escalate, eventually becoming almost unbearable.
The lettering by Klein and the coloring by Busch also play key roles in generating the mood of the story. Especially the coloring. Busch’s color work is definitely a vital part of creating the unnerving atmosphere of “24 Hours.”