Neil Gaiman’s comic series Sandman is not, on the whole, about good and evil. It relates much more to stories, mythology, beings tethered to ideas and what their existence must be like, and how that existence affects the humans who cross their paths. Even when there are characters in the story who are ostensibly evil, said evil is rarely the point. As such, it’s not for the most part a story with villains. That said, there is one character in the series who is undeniably a horrible monster, and that is John Dee, aka Dr. Destiny.
Dr. Destiny was an old Justice League villain, a guy who mainly focused on power over minds and dreams to take over the world, much in the manner of a typical supervillain or mad scientist. Unfortunately, he became powerful enough that in order to stop him, the Justice League had to take away his ability to dream, which drove him absolutely insane and reduced him to a twisted shell of a man. Unfortunately, after his mother’s death, he escaped from that most cardboard of prisons, Arkham Asylum, and found the ruby which belonged to Dream of the Endless, which he had once used to power his machines. With his newfound power and insanity, he decided to drive the world as insane as he was.
It’s somewhat easy to write off the motivation of a character who is insane. After all, the logic goes, when you’re crazy, you don’t need a reason for anything. That said, realistically, mentally ill people are not 100% irrational, and tend to have plenty of reasons for what they do, even if those reasons seem incredibly flawed and convoluted to the rest of us. Dee was not a nice person to begin with, given to typically grandiose supervillain plots, and after being afflicted with the awful condition of losing his ability to dream at the hands of a group of heroes, it only seems like a small leap that his idea of revenge might be to ruin everyone else’s mind in the way his was ruined. What makes this particularly disturbing is that he’s quite good at playing mind games with people and hurting them with such games.
His first victim is the woman he forces to drive him to his destination. At first he takes her hostage, but then plays on her sympathies and convinces her he is just a harmless crazy person. In fact, he strikes up a friendship with her, gets her to confide in and trust him, to the point that she helps him of her own volition. Then, after she drops him off and wishes him a warm goodbye, he kills her. Sick, to be sure, but perhaps a bit pedestrian for a creature with the power he has inherited, which only makes the next act in his cavalcade of horror all the worse. In the issue “24 Hours,” Dee heads to a diner, in which we come to see and know its various patrons through the course of their meals while Dee sits silently in the background. We learn of their struggles, their sadnesses, their failings, and all that makes them human. From time to time, one of them will try to leave, then inexplicably decide to stay. Once Dee is ready, he begins to violate their minds, manipulating their thoughts and emotions to do whatever he wishes. He forces them to love each other, to hate each other, to reveal their darkest and most ugly secrets to one another, to revert to wild animals, to engage in sex with each other against their will, and to worship him as a king. At one point he lets them have their minds back, just so they can look upon him in horror and know what he is doing to them. One asks him why, and his only response is, “Because I can.” He finally forces them to mutilate themselves, commit suicide, and kill each other in all sorts of awful ways. My description, however, really doesn’t do the story justice. It is probably one of the most horrifying single issues of a comic book I have ever read, and the whole time, Dee sits passively, as though the whole thing is just a big experiment, which of course it is. As awful as what he has done is, it was a simple flexing of muscles, the learning of his new powers. After spending a day destroying lives, he sets about his master plan.
While the vignettes of various people throughout the world going mad and committing atrocities at Dr. Destiny’s behest are horrible to be sure, he has already done plenty to establish his principles by making the deaths in the diner absolutely personal for us. We know what is in store for the world already, and everything that comes after merely sets the stakes. Fortunately, Dee’s madness cuts both ways, and in his eagerness to destroy everyone’s dreams by killing Dream himself, he shatters the stone. Dream is actually healed by this action, and in an odd act of mercy, returns Dee’s ability to dream and sends him back to Arkham.
Dr. Destiny makes the list on the basis of creating such intense revulsion through his actions. He doesn’t merely inflict pain on others; he takes it a step further and forces others to commit atrocities against themselves. It is perhaps the most intimate and severe form of violation there is, done in as effective a manner as possible. That he does all of this in a single sitting also shows just how terrible his crimes would have been if he had been able to continue. It’s also interesting to note that the story treats Dee with an odd sense of pity, as though for all his crimes, he’s just a disturbed child in over his head. It’s true that he’s pathetic, but that only drives him to more horrible actions than the average villain commits in a lifetime.