Watchmen Does Not Work That Way

So, here’s a fun thing.

There’s a blog called The Imaginative Conservative; from what I can tell, it’s a blog devoted to writing essays from a politically conservative perspective with an eye towards remaining optimistic.  The tagline that jumps out as me is “A Conservatism of Hope.”  We could get into whether any kind of conservative mindset (political or otherwise) is founded in optimism, but I’ll let that go for the moment.  The important thing today is that one of the senior contributors wrote an essay about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, and it’s rather glorious.

Cover of the first issue of Watchmen. Note that there’s no “The” and this was an issue in a year-long miniseries. It didn’t begin as a “graphic novel.” (Image credit: Comic Vine)

First, some caveats: it’s glaringly obvious to me that the author of this essay, Bradley J. Birzer, is a novice to comics criticism.  He name checks more than a few noted writers and series (all by and about white men, natch) but doesn’t give even a cursory indicator that he’s actually read these other series, he insists on calling the series The Watchmen (I admit I’m a stickler about this myself; regular readers of my The Sandman read-through know that I’m particular about including that article; it is part of the series name after all) even though Moore and Gibbons’s work doesn’t have an article in it, and he devotes time to questioning whether a graphic novel is a distinct art form from a comic book (the question isn’t of category so much as length; in most cases graphic novels are simply collections of individual comic book issues).  I’m pointing these things out first because I want to skip over the low hanging fruit.  Everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s mean to pick on honest amateur mistakes.  Birzer’s specialty appears to be American history, and he’s probably a perfectly cromulent thinker and commentator on that topic.

I won’t, however, pull any punches with regard to his apparently genuine adoration of Zack Snyder as a filmmaker.

First, let’s take a look at what Birzer has to say about the graphic novel:

A cross between a comic book and a coffee-table book, the graphic novel has grown from novelty to mainstream in just a mere thirty years of existence. Now, it’s impossible to enter a used or new bookstore that doesn’t have a section (often quite extensive) dedicated to the graphic novel. A number of academic examinations of the graphic novel as a specific medium exist as well, but I have yet to find one that is not full of ridiculous deconstructionist language, full of “queer” or “gendered” points. I almost wrote “ideas” instead of “points” in this previous sentence, but “ideas” is simply too solid and too kind of a word to allow it to be associated with the nonsense that passes as literary theory these days—which, of course, is nothing but a scam.

Again, I maintain that most books that are categorized as “graphic novels” are simply collections of individually published comics in a series.  These books are better referred to by the terms “trade paperbacks,” “TPBs,” or simply “trades.”  There is a definite art to assembling trades (this is how I read the overwhelming majority of my comics), and some editors present far more polished collections that others (I’m thinking of the contrast between The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1, which includes letter pages from each of its collected issues, a reprint of Squirrel Girl’s first appearance, and a gallery of variant covers, and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s first Captain Marvel Vol. 1, which just has a four page character history of Carol Danvers with some highlighted artwork; these are both products put out by Marvel, but you can see clearly that the editorial teams for each book took a different approach in presentation).  When trades are put together exceptionally well, it’s even fair to view them as a unified work that you might compare to a novel(Watchmen and The Sandman are excellent examples of this).

Anyway.

I find Birzer’s glossing over of “academic examinations of the graphic novel” especially hilarious, since he apparently dismisses the field out of hand since he can’t find one example of a paper that doesn’t use a critical lens that clashes with his conservatism.  His final assertion that feminist and queer criticism isn’t legitimate is almost comical in its disdain.  I get the feeling that Birzer is utterly unaware of comics’ long history as a subversive medium.

Birzer sums up his opinion of the graphic novel with two final points:

First, it really is neither book nor movie; instead, it might be regarded as a well-expressed, well-developed, and finely-honed type of script and story-boarding that directors use when making movies.

Second, a graphic novel probably has more in common with stained glass than any book produced since the Gutenberg Bible.

I think Birzer is reaching a little bit in his attempt to categorize comics.  The form is absolutely a book; we define that medium by the presentation of a series of pages that present information which flows logically from one page in the sequence to the next.  Changing the visual language of the information to rely on sequential images instead of sequential words doesn’t make it less of a book.  We don’t suggest that picture books are some sort of hybrid between book and movie either; we just say that it’s a book that doesn’t have words.  The fact that a sequence of panels on a page bears a passing resemblance to storyboards used for planning out cinematography in a movie doesn’t mean that comics actually are storyboards.

As for Birzer’s second point of comparison between comics and stained glass, I actually don’t have a complaint.  That strikes me as a fair comparison, if only because it doesn’t smack of trying to set comics as some sort of separate, special medium outside of books.

When we finally get to Birzer’s analysis of Watchmen, it’s kind of a relief.  Discussing points of plot and character is a less daunting task than structure and form; you don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to competently examine the narrative of a comic.  Birzer’s summary of the world in which Watchmen takes place is perfectly adequate, although I think he’s stretching a little bit to compare Dr. Manhattan to Superman and the Silk Spectre to Wonder Woman (most of the Watchmen characters have direct analogs in the Charlton Comics stable which inspired it; Dr. Manhattan’s is Captain Atom, and the Silk Spectres have more in common with DC’s Black Canary).  I’d call this stretch a trivial one for the purposes of understanding the story, but I think it’s very important to highlight that Dr. Manhattan is meant to be nothing like Superman, and the only through line between the Silk Spectres and Wonder Woman is that they’re all women (I wonder if Birzer is aware of Wonder Woman’s origins as an early attempt at creating a radical feminist icon in comics; she’s a far cry from the glory-chasing Sally Jupiter who becomes a vigilante in order to try to jumpstart her career as an actress).  The comparison Birzer makes here sets up some false expectations for how these characters are supposed to function in the story.

Of course, things fall apart when he gets to Rorschach (things always fall apart when Rorschach is involved).  I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that, like with the other characters’ analogs, Birzer isn’t familiar with Rorschach’s inspirations, the Question and Mr. A.  Rorschach’s look is heavily borrowed from the Question, a detective who wears a trench coat and a flesh colored mask that totally obscures his face.  Some of his philosophy can be traced back to the Question as well, but much of it is found in Steve Ditko’s Objectivist crime fighter Mr. A.  Mr. A was a superhero whose personal code was built around Randian Objectivism; Rorschach has shades of that with his staunch individualist streak and his distrust of government authority, but it’s all complicated by deeply internalized misogyny, extreme existentialism bordering on nihilism, and possibly repressed homosexuality.  In short, Rorschach has a thoroughly complicated psychological profile that motivates him to act in immature, un-nuanced ways that alienate him from allies and adversaries alike.  Alan Moore intended to portray Rorschach as the most dysfunctional character in a cast of dysfunctional characters, but his black-and-white philosophy often gets celebrated by readers instead of noted for the critique of traditional superhero morality that it is.

All of this goes over Birzer’s head.

As I mentioned above, the character of Rorschach (aka, Walter Kovacs) is by far the most fascinating. He is relentless in his pursuit of real justice, and he alone—however brutally—maintains the ideals of righteous vengeance that the other heroes have given up, pursing [sic] normal life, marketing stardom, godhood, and even simple sloth. He must do whatever he can, even at the risk of exposing himself to law enforcement, to keep the various desires and pursuits of the heroes in check and honed for doing good. Not only is Rorschach brutal physically, he’s also brutal in his politically incorrect views of the world.

Yeah, I think he missed the point.

(An aside: I’m not judging Birzer for this reading of Rorschach; the first time I read Watchmen I had a reaction very similar to his.  Of course, I also kept revisiting the text as my politics shifted, so.)

Birzer takes his reading of Rorschach as the lone sane voice in the wilderness and uses it to extrapolate a moral about the whole work as something about “good vs. apathy.”  Again, Watchmen is a complex text, and if it has any central purpose I’m wagering that it’s more concerned with critiquing the superhero genre writ large than presenting a morality tale.  Yeah, Rorschach is one of the few characters who refuses to be complicit in the conspiracy that ends the series, but that’s weighed against the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation; it’s imperative that readers understand Watchmen tells a story where there are no good choices for its characters.  Rorschach’s moral stand, if he were to succeed, would have massively destructive consequences.  There’s no virtue to be maintained on any side.

Now, let’s pause for a moment, because Birzer wraps up his pitch for Watchmen with an incredibly sincere endorsement for Zack Snyder’s film adaptation.

Here’s Birzer:

After years of discussions and false starts, Zack Snyder, one of our greatest living film directors and a man of unsurpassed cinematic genius, bravely made a movie version of the graphic novel. If you’ve been fortunate enough to watch Snyder’s 300, Man of Steel, or Batman v. Superman, you know this is a creator who never does anything halfway. He also loves spectacle, and he’s unafraid to show the necessary and very high price for true heroism. When The Watchmen first came out, critics lambasted it, but even in the adulterated form that the studio forced upon the theatrical release (the studio being fearful audiences could not handle three-hours’ worth of the movie), genius sneaks through rather visibly at times.

I could snark about Zack Snyder, but I’ve probably done that enough this year, so here’s a sincere critique of Birzer’s sincere endorsement.

Snyder is a filmmaker who does, indeed, love spectacle.  He also loves violence, and wanton destruction, and uncritical depiction of hypermasculinity.  Snyder is a conservative filmmaker.  It’s clear he enjoys comics, and he has a passion for adapting the works that were probably formative for him when he was a young man, but his vision of these ’80s comics haven’t evolved as he’s grown older.  He is an uncritical nostalgist.  You can make a case that Snyder has some talent as a cinematographer; he produces beautiful images, and he’s fastidious about making key frames of his films resemble the comic panels to which they pay homage.  He just doesn’t appear to have any deeper understanding of the texts he’s adapting beyond “wouldn’t it be cool if?”

Birzer ends with an exhortation to his readers that they should enjoy Watchmen in either its book or film forms, which underlines his assumption that comics are just film storyboards.  For my part, I’m going to reiterate that if you want to look at a deeply complex text, you should stick with Moore and Gibbons’s original.  If you just want brain bubblegum for about three hours, you can watch Snyder’s adaptation.

Hamilton and Literary Terms

I am such a nerd.

I went to work today with an urge to listen to Hamilton in the car, which turned out to be a pretty fortuitous decision.

See, months after I’ve finally moved past the fan phase where I listened to the soundtrack daily in its completeness I still have fragments of songs come into my head unbidden at all hours of the day.  This typically isn’t a big deal; it’s just like having a chronic earworm that I can’t bring myself to be annoyed by, because even in isolation I still get gobsmacked examining Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics.  They’re packed with tons of intricate wordplay and incredibly musical flourishes.

That’s all kind of a tangent, but it serves to say that I had a bunch of Hamilton bouncing around in my head today when I went into work, and it just so happened that we’re beginning our unit on literary terms in my tenth grade classes.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Unfortunately, I didn’t put together the materials for introducing literary terms; I’m brand new at my school, and we do a sort of group planning with all the grade level teachers (plus me, as the co-teacher for a couple of the regular ed folks).  It’s a cool way to build lessons and lean on one another for support and ideas, but being the newbie means that I’m mostly just going along with what’s already been assembled.

So when we got to the point in the first class when it was time to start explaining literary terms and provide examples, my mind immediately went to Hamilton.  Sadly, I was scatterbrained and not leading that portion of the lesson, so I alternated between having examples that were probably too complex (demonstrating multiple sound devices in the same line) or included cursing (the cursing in Hamilton is one of my favorite things because it always feels like censoring it would blunt the poetry of the lines), neither of which is really good for working with teenagers (the cursing would certainly be memorable, but not really appropriate, and the complex examples would too easily create confusion between different devices).

I never had a chance to really think through some really good examples over the course of the day, but the idea stuck with me on the way home, and now I want to see if I can isolate some specific lines to present to students sometime in the future.  So that’s what I’m going to do here.  We’ll see how successful I am.

Sound Devices

  • Alliteration – “Constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen / Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” (Burr, “Guns and Ships”)
  • Repetition – “Unimportant, / There’s a million things I haven’t done, / but just you wait, just you wait…” (Hamilton, “Satisfied”)
  • Assonance – “I’m in the Cabinet, I am complicit / in watching him grabbin’ at power / and kissin’ it. / Washington isn’t gonna listen / to disciplined dissidence / this is the difference / this kid is out!” (Jefferson, “Washington on Your Side”)
  • Consonance – “The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes / everything we said in total agreement. / It’s a dream and it’s a bit of a dance / a bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance.” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Onomatopoiea – “You walked in, and my heart went boom.” (Eliza, “Helpless”)

Figurative Language

  • Imagery – “It’s the feeling of freedom, / of seeing the light. / It’s Ben Franklin with the key and the kite! / You see it right?” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Metaphor – “I’m a diamond in the rough, a shining piece of coal” (Hamilton, “My Shot”)
  • Simile – “It’s like Ben Franklin with the key and the kite. / You see it, right?” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Personification – “-Who’s your defendant? / -The new US Constitution.” (Burr & Hamilton, “Nonstop”)
  • Hyperbole – “You are the worst, Burr.” (LaFayette, “Story of Tonight (Reprise)”)

I’m sure there are other examples.  It is a two and a half hour soundtrack after all.  If you think of any that strike you as potentially good examples (or even as potentially good sections to pull out for a practice activity in identification), feel free to note them in the comments.

Reading “Chapter One: Which Occurs in the Wake of What Has Gone Before”

The final arc of The Sandman is an emotionally difficult one to read.  I find myself getting weepy pretty much every time I read it.  The important thing to understand is that this story is a funeral in three parts, plus an epilogue.  The final two issues of the series are one-off stories (issue #75 is something of a sequel to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but that’s for later), and they finish things out simply because the second Dream has to be introduced for the first story to make sense and Gaiman is just bold enough to implicitly compare the ending of The Sandman with the end of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright.

I’m digressing though (again, mostly because thinking about The Wake is an intense experience).

I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but the thing I always note about funerals is how they remind me of the funerals I’ve attended before.  Each new incident of leave taking cleaves to me in small, imperceptible ways that don’t make themselves known until it all happens again.  When I weep at funerals, I’m often weeping for multiple people at the same time.  Long after goodbye, small reminders, a thought, a turn of phrase surprises me and the tears beg to come.

This is my experience of reading The Wake.

The first time I read this story, about seven years ago, I thought it was sad, but mostly because of how it offers catharsis for Dream’s story.  Last year, when I re-read The Sandman and reached The Wake for the second time, it affected me much more deeply; half a decade hangs a lot more weight on a person’s soul than you realize.  Saying goodbye to Dream was harder, because I was saying goodbye to more family than the previous time (and for the first time, some old students; God, I wasn’t prepared for that).  Re-reading it again now, well.

I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make with all this.  I simply think that The Wake is an exquisite ending to a remarkably well told story, and because it’s essentially an exploration of all the ways we express grief it only gets better with age.

Anyway.

Besides grief (Matthew and Hob Gadling are pitiful), we also get to explore Dream’s renewal in his new aspect.  It’s an odd bit of mental gymnastics to make sense of Dream here.  His old aspect, the dark and brooding man who was most commonly referred to as Morpheus (among a host of other names he collected for himself), is who died, and yet because Dream is an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, he’s still alive.  His new aspect grew out of Daniel Hall, and Daniel’s identity still exists as a part of this Dream, but he’s more than that.  Different people react to Dream’s identity in vastly different ways: Cain at first fails to understand that the new Dream is still Dream in all the ways that matter for the sake of his office before he over corrects and assumes that Dream is still Morpheus; Matthew rejects Dream completely with the understanding that he’s not “the boss.”  Even Dream struggles to comprehend what he is in small ways; the moments of grief in this issue are interspersed with scenes showing Dream undoing the damage done by the Furies (this issue takes place the day immediately following The Kindly Ones‘s resolution), and he frequently hesitates before reacting to different situations as he seems to be processing what parts of himself are still like Morpheus; the moments where he chooses to be gentle show how different he is.

This is the most lavish drawing of Dream that we get in this arc. It’s quite good, but I always wish there were more artwork of him. Also, note the way Cain struts in the background. (Artwork by Michael Zulli)

It’s this gentleness that tempers the tragedy of Dream’s death.  It’s been a long time, but you’ll recall that many of the early Sandman stories revolved around Dream inflicting a harsh, but in some cases arguably just, punishment on various people who crossed his path (the two big examples highlighted in this issue are Alexander Burgess and Richard Madoc).  We see here that these victims of Dream’s wrath have been universally freed from their punishments.  It’s not enough to suggest that these punishments expire with Dream; he’s still around fulfilling the duties of his office.  What’s changed is Dream’s personality; the new Dream appears to lack Morpheus’s capacity for holding grudges.  I want to assert that Dream’s death teaches him mercy.  Of course, we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see that demonstrated more fully.  Here it’s only implied at best.

There are a few minor things I want to note before we move on from here.  The Endless’s visit to Letharge to retrieve the cerements for Dream’s funeral is a nice callback to that one story in Worlds’ End.  We get to the see the payoff of all the little bits of lore that were sprinkled in that previous issue, from the inhabitants’ studied respect for the family (after the previous Necropolis was razed when the Endless needed the cerements for the first Despair’s funeral and they were treated with disdain) to the catacombs where the cerements are located (recall from before the woman who discovered this room by accident and had her hand shriveled as punishment).  The cerements room is one of the major mysteries that Gaiman leaves unanswered in the original Sandman series.  The Endless are supposed to be the eldest beings in the universe, but then there’s this place where some mysterious power stores the things that are needed for putting these beings to rest.  The facts in this issue that the Endless can’t gather the cerements themselves leaves it wide open to wonder who is responsible for this duty.

Lastly, I have to gush about the artwork of this final arc.  Michael Zulli’s style is a far departure from the highly exaggerated look that Marc Hempel uses for the majority of The Kindly Ones.  Every panel is inked in a way that preserves the look of pencil sketchings, and the colors (Daniel Vozzo and Dave McKean share color credits on this issue) are done in a more subdued palette than the vibrant one of the previous arc.  It signals to the reader that this isn’t a high excitement, or even a high tension, story.  The worst has already passed, and we’re just going to deal with cleanup from here to the end.  Dream is a particularly fascinating character here, with his shift from an all black wardrobe to an all white one.  I confess that I always want there to be more story featuring the second Dream just because I want to see more artists draw him.  As it is, Zulli’s the only one to do any extensive work with the character, and it has to be good enough.

Shipwrecked! Log 1: Willow Lit it on Fire

I have a problem.

My favorite character to play in Don’t Starve is Willow the fire starter.  She’s the first character you unlock in the vanilla game, and she has a delightfully flutey voice, she’s immune to fire damage, and she has an infinite torch as her special item (in a game where spending too long in the dark will literally kill you, this is a major plus).  My best runs on Don’t Starve are usually with Willow; I’ve spent enough time playing as her that I’m mostly familiar with her little idiosyncrasies, and I feel pretty confident managing the wilderness with her (one of my favorite things to do with her is to plant a dense ring of trees around a pengull nest during the winter and then light it on fire, burning up the pengulls and netting myself some tasty pre-cooked food).

Unfortunately, Willow also has a bad habit of setting things on fire to calm herself when her sanity gets low; because she has an abnormally low sanity cap, she’s in danger of setting stuff on fire pretty much all the time during harsher game seasons.  In vanilla this isn’t such a huge deal; most of the stuff that you can build around your base camp can’t be set on fire or is typically set far enough away from the campfire that Willow can’t reach it while she’s huddling next to the flames for sanity.

This is not the case in Shipwrecked.

Now, it’s important to remember that I never played Reign of Giants, the first expansion to Don’t Starve; I have passing familiarity with it, but since I’ve never played it myself, a lot of the new mechanics (which are intended to make the game more challenging for experienced players) that carried over into Shipwrecked from Reign of Giants trip me up.

So here’s the setup for my recent playthrough: I picked Willow because I hadn’t yet unlocked any of the Shipwrecked characters and I thought maximum familiarity would be the best way to tackle survival.  I also started off doing all the things I normally do in vanilla: I looked for a spot to set up base, I gathered a bunch of basic tool materials, I built up a territory with known food spots to exploit, I was very conservative with my exploration.

This is apparently not the way to play Shipwrecked.

I did fine through the first season, which is the mild one.  I had a decent little network of islands that I could travel between, and I figured I was doing pretty well with my basic resources.

What I did not account for was the fact that getting poisoned, while by no means a deadly condition (it only drains one health every few seconds, and it apparently can’t kill you outright), is a very inconvenient one because the longer you’re poisoned, the faster your sanity depletes as well.  I had a few small fires, including one where I accidentally lit my crockpot (it’s made of stone!  You can’t light stone on fire!) while I was trying to gather the materials to make an antivenom.  I was successful in getting rid of the the poison, but it left Willow’s sanity in a terrible place.  She was way below the threshold for not being attacked by hallucinations, and the stormy season was gearing up.

So here’s the thing about the stormy season that Rachael explained to me: you need to build a shelter next to your fire so that your character can dry out when it’s constantly raining.  Being wet all the time tends to make people cranky, after all.  Of course, Willow’s sanity was already in bad shape, and the rain was coming, and wouldn’t you know it, the basic shelter is made out of logs, ropes, and palm leaves.

As soon as I got one built, Willow lit it on fire.

I wasn’t careful in how I laid out my camp, so the shelter fire quickly set everything else on fire.

At this point, Rachael, who was watching me play, started laughing hysterically because I was (quite rationally, I think) freaking out.  My storage chests had all gone up in flames, and my supplies were scattered around the camp, being blown this way and that by the constant storm.  I had nowhere to put extra materials, and it was a struggle just to sort my inventory into things I needed to try to rebuild essentials immediately and things I could risk leaving on the ground to potentially be lit on fire by Willow’s continued bout of delirium.

Once, I managed to get a new crockpot built and Willow immediately set fire to it.

I realized this was a dire situation, and Rachael suggested I just needed to try to find some place with a decent source of food and some seashells and flowers to pick (these things raise sanity).  In my rush to figure out where such a place might be among the islands I’d already found, this happened:

This is fine.

I was a little slow on the screenshot button, but this is what’s left of my tree stand that I had begun growing for harvesting wood.  Willow lit it on fire while I was running toward my boat, visible in the lower left corner.  You can see that the conflagration did wonders for Willow’s sanity, but it left me more than a little dejected.

I struggled on for three more game days after this point, fighting off nightmares, eating sweet potatoes.  I eventually succumbed, and ended up using the touchstone that I had found on the island where I set up my base.

You’d think this would have been a chance at a fresh start, but right about the time I gathered up enough materials to make a new alchemy engine, Willow lit it on fire.

It was at that point I realized there was no justice in the universe, and I had Willow provoke a fight with the neighboring monkeys, who flung poo at her until she died.

Blueberry Crumble Bars

It’s like a homemade pop tart!

Rachael made blueberry crumble thing. It is delicious.

A photo posted by Jason Jones (@jkjones21) on

We’re kind of smitten with this recipe as of late.  It makes a dessert that’s somewhat reminiscent of a straight up blueberry crumble that we like to make sometimes (that one involves copious amounts of butter being cut into the oat topping), but the end result is remarkably sturdy once chilled, and has less of a “I’m stuffing my face with fats and sugars conveyed by grains!” vibe.

The crumble layers here are pretty crumbly (even if you’re eating this chilled, you’ll want a plate handy to account for all the bits that fall off).  Still, I do think it’s kind of like a pop tart, if the pop tart crust had a texture other than stale pastry.

Modifications that Rachael makes to the recipe are pretty simple: you halve the sugar, and you add an extra cup of berries.  I think the sugar content comes out to be about the same, but the blueberry flavor is much more dominant than the sweetness this way.

As a side note, regular readers will notice I’m back to my school year posting schedule.  I’ve started my new job (by the time this post goes live I’ll have been there for about three weeks), and I’m really enjoying it.  My new school’s much bigger than the one I came from, and it often feels like I have a lot more responsibilities than I used to, but the environment’s very welcoming.  My position has me straddling a few different education teams, and I’ve found all the people I’m now working with to be very warm and helpful (and, above all, patient with the newbie).  I’m still getting to know the students, but generally I’m enjoying working with them too.  The biggest challenge I’ve encountered so far is recalibrating my standards for disrespectful behavior; I’m apparently not scandalized by some things students say (like asking me if I’m from Georgia because I don’t always speak with a Southern accent) when I should be.

I think it’s going to be a good year.

Reading “The Kindly Ones”

It makes sense that Gaiman would decide that for Dream’s death issue he would do an extended callback to the first issue where The Sandman began to feel like something unique: “The Sound of Her Wings.”  Dream’s moping on the edge of Nightmare, waiting for his sister Death to arrive, and when she does he produces a loaf of bread for her, harking back to that first time we saw the two of them together.  Dream’s progressed a long way from where he was; he knows how to apologize to people, and admit when he’s wrong, and even sometimes shows concern for the well being of others.  He’s still a mopey guy, but he’s a mopey guy with some empathy, which is a lot more than you could say about him in issue #8.  The whole quest to recover his power was fun in its own way, and it did evoke a sense of pity for Dream’s predicament, but it didn’t do much to establish Dream as someone we should like (it’s probably because of the series’s strong horror roots in that first arc; you could call Dream a mostly just character, but he was remarkably scary; the intervening sixty issues served to soften the tone of the series as a whole and the character in particular).

Death is remarkably unchanged.

“Bread?” “It’s all soggy.” “Doesn’t have to be.” “I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humor.” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Seeing as this is the point where Dream finally dies (after more than a year’s worth of issues foreshadowing the moment), it feels like there should be some big dramatic revelation here, but the reality is that everything you can glean here is just confirmation of what we’ve suspected for a while.  Death tells Dream that he set this whole thing up himself, whether he realizes it or not (we don’t have any reason to doubt her; Death has proven repeatedly to know her brother better than he knows himself), and she scolds him sharply when he tries to shove the blame off on Nuala for summoning him at a bad time (it’s really satisfying to see a character call out Dream for the one thing he does in this story that I think is really reprehensible).

Much of Death and Dream’s conversation recapitulates the sense of premeditation we’ve been gleaning from Dream’s actions.  It becomes apparent that Dream hasn’t been fully aware that he’s been setting himself up.  This is actually a really fun bit of retroactive continuity; I don’t believe for a moment that Gaiman knew from the very beginning that he was going to end the series with Dream’s death and resurrection in a new facet.  Suggesting that Dream has been planning his own demise subconsciously helps put a neat bow on all the plot threads that Gaiman pulled together to reach this climax without undermining the integrity of the individual stories as they were published, which is always a risk you take when you employ a retcon on previous stories.  It’s remarkably elegant and subtle; I’ve read through this series three times now, and I think this is the first time it’s occurred to me that Dream’s self-destruction is a late addition intended to unify his actions throughout the whole series.

Without Daniel Vozzo’s normal color scheme for unglamoured Nuala, it really doesn’t look like she’s changed appearance at all here, does it? (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Like I mentioned last time, Nuala gets a more fitting epilogue than I had originally remembered.  It’s confined to only a page, but there’s a lot of significance packed in.  You’ll remember that I was pretty irritated with Nuala’s infatuation with Dream much earlier in The Kindly Ones, especially when Gaiman put her in direct conflict with Queen Titania with Dream as the point of contention.  I felt like a love triangle was more than a little cliche and disrespectful to Nuala after Gaiman did so much to establish her as a complex secondary character; in this last page where Nuala is finally endeavoring to leave Faerie, she confronts Titania, and Gaiman fixes that previous problem.  At the moment when Titania is ready to drag Nuala back to Faerie for her desertion, the sky splits and they all realize that Dream has died.  Titania, whom Gaiman has heavily implied throughout the series is deeply in love with Dream (whether they’ve ever actually been lovers is left ambiguous), is overcome with grief and can’t bring herself to detain Nuala.  Nuala isn’t similarly moved, and she escapes Faerie to make her own path forward.  I love that Nuala, who spent pretty much all of The Kindly Ones pining over Dream, has as her ending a moment where she’s focused only on doing what’s best for herself independent of any others.  I take this last scene to suggest that Nuala is putting Dream’s rejection behind her, especially when Titania openly weeps despite possibly being in the same position.  The only mar on the scene is the fact that Marc Hempel has inexplicably drawn Nuala in a way that seems far more traditionally attractive than her unglamoured self has previously been depicted.  Her coloring is the same as when she appears without glamour in the Dreaming, but Hempel’s art doesn’t resemble Nuala as she looked back in issue #58.  Of course, Hempel’s style seems to have evolved significantly in the last few issues of the story in comparison to what he drew at the beginning, so this inconsistency might be chalked up to the style change.

The story wouldn’t be totally finished unless we also address our chief antagonist’s ending.  Hippolyta Hall appears to have lost her hold on the Furies a few issues back when it became clear that Daniel was still alive in some capacity within the Dreaming.  Her personal grievances were never that important to the engines behind the events of The Kindly Ones.  The Furies needed her as an avatar to harass Dream for Orpheus’s death, and Daniel’s disappearance served only to motivate her to seek them out; no one who manipulates Lyta through this story actually cares about her achieving her goals (this is especially true in the case of Dream once you accept that he’s just as guilty of using Lyta as Larissa or the Furies or Loki and Puck).  We leave Lyta waking from her long delirium to a newly hostile world where many beings of some consequence have a legitimate vendetta against her, and to throw salt in the wound, she has failed to recover Daniel.  Lyta’s story is tragic in a way that Dream’s can’t be; he gets what he wants, even if he doesn’t fully realize it until the end, and she simply can’t.  Even worse, she’s left alive with the worst of her endeavor left before her: a life devoid of the thing that’s most important to her, and the constant threat that results from her attempt at vengeance.

“Why am I covered in sage and honey? Also, why are you looking at me like I did something terrible? Where’s Daniel?” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

I feel a lot of sympathy for Lyta Hall; she’s the most manipulated character in the whole story, and her reward is the absolute worst.

As for Daniel, we learn in the final pages of the issue that he’s been marked as Dream’s successor.  Dream is dead, long live Dream.  It’s sensible that Dream’s death couldn’t leave a vacuum in Gaiman’s cosmology, especially when Dream is such a meticulous planner.  We’ve seen that Daniel navigates the Dreaming like he’s a native of it (he literally is; remember that Lyta was pregnant in the Dreaming for years before she gave birth to him), and from Lyta’s introduction in The Sandman it was clear that Dream had laid claim to her child for some purpose.  We now know what that purpose is.  The series’s last six issues will spend some time helping us get to know what kind of Dream Daniel will be.

I’m Playing Don’t Starve: Shipwrecked

I have a weird relationship with the survival rogue-like game Don’t Starve.  Rachael and I became interested in the game a few years ago as our Minecraft phase was winding down by way of some Let’s Plays on Youtube.  It looked like a fun, if frustrating, game, so we bought copies to play on our laptops.

This was back when the game was still in beta and you had delightful quirks like the biomes being generated as circular islands that were connected by long thin landbridges and the world needing to be manually wiped in order to get a new map (I actually really enjoyed having the same map every time I started over at first, and I’m kind of sad the game’s never had a feature introduced to retain worlds after a character dies in them).  Things like the periodic hound attacks hadn’t been implemented, and there were no story objectives yet to provide players with a set of goals beyond surviving for as long as possible, but I simply wasn’t very good at the game so I never lasted terribly long (I think my record back then was around twenty-something days).  I got bored with it after a little while and moved on to other things; Rachael reached a point where she preferred to watch Let’s Plays over playing Don’t Starve herself (she’s always enjoyed watching video games more than playing them in most cases).  I’m usually not super into Let’s Plays myself, so I haven’t spent nearly as many hours as Rachael has learning about this game.

Because of that, Rachael’s incredibly good at Don’t Starve even though she only occasionally plays it herself.  Whenever I play, I usually end up asking her how to do things because she just knows off the top of her head.

Anyway, after giving up Don’t Starve on the computer, I eventually bought it for my PS3 and PS Vita when it was on sale.  I played it on and off for a couple of months, and then put it aside again (I’ve never felt confident enough to attempt the adventure mode, though I have had a couple of games where I managed to survive a whole in-game year).  It’s become something of a fallback game for me; whenever I’m between games, there’s a strong chance I might pick up Don’t Starve to fill the gap until I find something I really want to play.  It’s always been vanilla (Reign of Giants introduces so many new challenges that I don’t even want to mess with), which I find comfortable, though somewhat repetitive at this point.

(Image credit: Don’t Starve Wiki)

Enter Shipwrecked.

It’s no secret that Rachael really likes pirates, so she was taken with Shipwrecked from the first Let’s Plays that came out about it.  I watched a few with her to see what kind of changes this expansion made to the game, but like with most serialized Let’s Plays, I eventually lost interest.  Once again, Rachael is the expert here.

Anyway, I was browsing through the online store to see if there was anything interesting on sale, and I noticed that Shipwrecked had finally been ported to PS4.  It was a five dollar expansion, so I decided to buy it on a whim; it’s fun to have the option to be piratical every once in a while.

I’ve only played for a couple hours so far, and the experience is turning out to be about what I expected.  Everything is out to kill you, and because there are some mechanics introduced that were only present in Reign of Giants before, I’m struggling a little bit with how things work in this new expansion.  Rachael’s been really helpful, offering me some advice on things I should prioritize as I go about trying to establish my base; I suspect I’m not going to last very long at first, and I might lose interest before I get into a good rhythm with it, but it’s a fun distraction.

Now if only I could write up a log of my misadventures in the vast ocean wasteland.