Reading “The Tempest”

I posted my first entry in this review series of The Sandman back in March of 2015.  It began as a thing to do to fill one of my weekly blogging slots and a chance to spend some time thinking more deeply about one of my favorite comic series.  I think I originally had this grand vision of somehow writing a comprehensive critique and commentary on The Sandman; the final product obviously falls short of that.  I think in the early issues, when there was still a lot laid out ahead to consider and unravel for my readers, I was much more disciplined in my approach to the series.  I tried to judge each issue on its individual merits and do some explication.  I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of all the references Gaiman makes in his stories, so I couldn’t hope to offer a catalogue of those interesting tidbits, but I could try to tease out some thematic stuff.  Literary criticism is the thing I went to school to learn to do, even if it’s not a skill that sees much use outside of my hobbies.  Somewhere around the time I reached Season of Mists, I got into the habit of thinking about larger narrative arcs more than looking at the nitty gritty of each individual issue.  Some of those middle entries seem to my recollection to lean a little too heavily on summary; I remember expressing constant frustration that there were so many issues in a row that didn’t offer even a miniature resolution to help frame what was happening thematically (it’s one of the biggest limitations I’ve noticed in doing criticism that being unable to discuss the events of a work in full, especially when you know them, makes it incredibly difficult to offer any perspective on a text’s meaning).  In the later entries, I think I settled on discussing characters I found noteworthy specifically and eschewing other details that hadn’t caught my interest.  There are some subplots, especially in the later Sandman trades, that I don’t think I even mentioned in my coverage.

In the end, I’m not sure if this exercise is something that anyone else will find particularly enlightening.  I don’t think my insights into The Sandman are especially earth shattering, but I’ve tried to come by them honestly.  Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastically rich story with a lot of facets, kind of like the character he placed at its center.  Dream is an oftentimes infuriating character, but he’s never not fascinating.  The central question is whether he will “change or die” and even after reading through knowing the ending, it continues to be a wonderful, nuanced story.

Still, stories eventually have to end.  Like I already noted, it’s a big part of what makes meaning possible.  So the last issue of The Sandman concludes a story that Gaiman started way back in “Men of Good Fortune” about Dream’s dealings with William Shakespeare.  The fact that this three part story even exists is a source of great joy, since it amounts to fanfiction about Shakespeare.  As an English major who had a particular fondness for the English Renaissance, I get a kick out of these historical bits (courtiers during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras of England’s history were involved in some really interesting intrigues).  Shakespeare having a drink with Ben Jonson, who’s justifiably upset about Guy Fawkes Day (Jonson was a Catholic and a close friend of Fawkes, though his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot is uncertain; some scholars have speculated that Jonson’s play Volpone, meaning “the fox,” about a trickster mountebank was a covert method of mourning his friend’s execution; it makes sense when you remember that spelling rules were much more fluid than they are today) is endless entertainment for me.  Stuff like the the obscure allusion to Shakespeare’s Dark Woman, who was one of the subjects of his sonnet cycle and a person that some speculate was a real woman whom he took as a mistress while he was in London, is exciting because it’s pop culture references: 1600s edition.  All this is to say that when Gaiman starts discussing all this historical stuff about Jacobean England, I get excited because it’s stuff I recognize.

The reason this issue focuses so heavily on Shakespeare is because it’s imagining a version of events surrounding his writing of The Tempest, his last solo work.  One of the central figures in The Tempest is the old magician Prospero, whom most Shakespeare scholars agree is at least partly a stand-in for the playwright himself.  Prospero’s extensive meditations on the direction his life’s taken and his resolve to leave behind his time as a magician runs strongly parallel to Shakespeare’s own career in the theater.  Acting wasn’t a respectable profession since it was viewed as, essentially, professional lying; that the older male figure in his last play should give up his suspect powers to return to respectability easily matches with Shakespeare’s own experiences.

The twist here is that Gaiman imagines a course of events where Shakespeare wrote his final play as the second half of payment he owed to Dream for unlocking his full artistic talent.  Dream serves as a stand in for The Tempest‘s spirit Ariel, a creature who’s the source of much of Prospero’s power.  The relationship isn’t exactly the same; Dream doesn’t present himself as a servant to Shakespeare but as more of a patron.  What’s interesting here is the conversation Dream has with Shakespeare: Will wants to know why Dream commissioned this particular play (like most modern readers, Gaiman here assumes that the great stories are tragedies rather than comedies) with its facile ending that wraps everything up neatly for its characters.  Dream’s response serves as a guide to his motivations for the entirety The Sandman.  He believes he’ll never have the kind of story that Prospero has; for him there’s no escape from his life as king of a magical place outside the bounds of reality.  Dream thinks that he can neither change nor possess a story of his own.  The great irony is that we’ve just finished reading his story, and there’s plenty of evidence that he does change (I might argue that Dream’s dilemma between change and death is a false one; in many ways he manages to do both).  Of course, most of the action of The Sandman is set nearly four hundred years in the future from the events of the final issue, and Dream isn’t omniscient.  Still, we can pity Dream’s despair over his situation here and take comfort that he’s mistaken about his own fate.

He’s not Michael Zulli, but Charles Vess’s work on this final issue of The Sandman is still spectacular. I love pretty much all the issue’s splash pages showing scenes from The Tempest, though I think this one is my favorite. (Artwork by Charles Vess, colors by Daniel Vozzo, letters by Todd Klein)

Beyond Shakespeare and Dream, there’s also the metanarrative at play in this last issue.  Like I mentioned in my last entry, Gaiman is thinking about wrapping up his own long term project.  We’re reflecting on this moment twenty years later when he’s had a long, successful career outside of The Sandman, but when the series was ending it was the most significant work he’d done.  It’s easy to see Gaiman feeling some kinship with his subjects here.

As for what’s next in this space, I’m still thinking about what I might do.  There remains the collection of graphic short stories Endless Nights and the more recent Sandman: Overture within the Sandman mythos, but they’re so removed in time from the series proper (and I’ve been looking at that regularly for eighteen months now) that a break before tackling them is probably in order (besides that, the content of Endless Nights varies significantly in quality, and it was only ever published as a collected work, so I need to consider how I want to approach it as a text; Sandman: Overture is extremely good all the way through, but I don’t yet feel familiar enough with it to do an in depth analysis).  I think I’d like to continue reserving this space for comics analysis, but I’ll probably tackle a much shorter complete series next; after that, we’ll see.

So I Just Saw Colonia

There is one thing you should know up front before you watch Colonia: it’s a totally watchable, highly engrossing movie, but the last twenty minutes are kind of bad.  They’re not bad in a “this movie is completely ruined” sort of way, but they just don’t really fit with the rest of the story that’s being told.  While I’m pretty sure the events of Colonia are fictional, they do revolve around a real place in Chile, Colonia Dignidad (or the Colony of Dignity), which was a commune for a religious cult that doubled as a prison camp for political prisoners of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  This commune was overseen by Paul Schäfer, an ex-Nazi who abused multiple children over the course of his tenure as a clergyman, until the mid-’90s.  Since the film’s set in 1973 just after Pinochet has seized power, the story couldn’t end with Schäfer being exposed.  That makes historical sense, but it doesn’t explain why the filmmakers felt the need to turn the last twenty minutes into an actioney chase through an airport.

Anyway.

Colonia poster.jpg

I wouldn’t say “incredible.” More like, “pretty good until they get to the airport.” (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The plot of Colonia follows Lena and Daniel, a young couple who get caught up in Pinochet’s coup.  Daniel is living in Chile helping the supporters of President Salvador Allende, and Lena is visiting him while she’s on leave from her job as a flight attendant for Lufthansa; when the coup occurs, Daniel gets taken prisoner and named as part of the opposition to Pinochet, and so he’s driven away to Colonia for interrogation.  Lena investigates Colonia and decides that she’s going to join the cult in the hope of tracking Daniel down.  Lena succeeds in finding Daniel, but she also learns that escaping from Colonia is practically impossible.  Because this is a movie, they of course get to escape eventually; the tension is more in seeing them endure the abuse that Schäfer heaps on his followers.

I could say something about Schäfer’s methods of abusing everyone, but they’re pretty well tread territory, at least for me.  He keeps the men, women, and children separate and teaches them that they all have specific roles to play in the community.  You have your typical set up of men receiving special privileges (in this case, getting to spend time with the leader and being allowed some recreational time) while women do the hard labor and get no personal freedoms, and the children exist in a perpetual state of terror as Schäfer sexually abuses them at his leisure.  It’s kind of horrifying to realize that there’s nothing here that’s new in the realm of spiritual abuse.  Still, the film is so well directed that you do feel all the dread and tension that Lena and Daniel are experiencing as prisoners in Colonia.

One thing that strikes me as particularly inexplicable is Lena and Daniel’s nationality.  I assumed that they were English throughout the movie, and so at the end when they flee to the West German embassy I was thoroughly confused.  They are apparently meant to be German like every other white person who appears, but neither of the actors speaks with a German accent.  I suppose it’s possible they simply didn’t have very good German accents and so didn’t affect them, but the contrast is striking.  Ultimately this is a minor quibble, but it still left me confused towards the end.

Overall I have very little else to say.  Colonia follows a pretty rote plot, but its acting and direction are good enough that you shouldn’t generally mind.  Even better, if you do choose to watch it you can just stop the movie after Lena and Daniel escape; that’s a perfectly satisfying place to leave them, and it saves the silliness of the airport escape and the passenger plane taking off from the airport without clearance from ground control.

So that’s a plus.

Thoughts on Runtime by S.B. Divya

The other day Fred Clark wrote a post discussing in some detail what he theorizes is the one big idea behind Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States.  In typical Slacktivist fashion Clark went to some lengths to build all the logical connections necessary to reach his conclusion: that Donald Trump is running a campaign built on the premise that some Americans are more legitimate citizens than others (always and forever, if you have the time you should give him a read).

The underlying assumption of this idea is that the criteria for determining American legitimacy follows a simple two-axis rubric: is a person’s skin white enough, and is their religion closely enough related to some form of American Protestant Christianity?  People who fail this test, either along one or both axes, are discounted as illegitimate by Trump and many of his supporters regardless of their actual status as citizens.  It’s an ugly system upholding an ugly idea.

The temptation at this point is to make some kind of facile transition where I suggest that this line of political thought is relevant because I recently read S.B. Divya’s novella Runtime which was remarkably prescient in predicting and elaborating on the discourse of 2016.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s prescient for a writer of color to recognize a pattern in political discourse that has threatened to affect them personally while white readers like myself have had the luxury of ignoring the growing tide of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia until Trump came along and mainstreamed it.  So I’m trying to resist that sentiment, even though I suspect the very act of bringing it up highlights how my own privilege has allowed me to be ignorant before the events of the last year.

Anyway, Runtime.

First, there is the necessary disclosure that I met Divya once last year when Rachael and I were in California visiting friends of ours, and we all spent a pleasant evening enjoying each other’s company.  I picked up her story because it’s in my and Rachael’s shared Kindle library, and I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for discussing the story now.

The core plot of Runtime is a sports adventure following a young Filipino-American woman named Mary Margaret Guinto (Marmeg for short) who has dreams of becoming a professional embed runner (embed running is a combination of ultramarathon and parkour performed with the help of a combination of exoskeleton and computer implant technology that enhances a person’s natural athletic abilities).  Marmeg is a talented computer programmer who’s managed to scrape together a decent kit of embed gear that she hopes will give her a chance to place in the Minerva Sierra Challenge.  Marmeg’s motivation for all this is the prize money, which she can use to pay her tuition to go to developer school and earn a reputation as a legitimate citizen so she can receive sponsorships for her racing dreams.

That’s the connection between Runtime and Trump, by the way.  In the future that Divya has imagined, American citizenship has been stratified into different tiers of licensure.  Unlicensed citizens, like Marmeg and her family, aren’t entitled to common social benefits like public education, healthcare, or retirement benefits, and the only way to become licensed is to pay a flat fee that still only confers second-class citizenship (Marmeg paid her fee as a teen, but she’s unable to pay for the college program she wants to attend because she can’t qualify for financial aid as a postnatal licensed citizen).  The system Divya’s imagined here is based primarily in economic differences, but it’s hard to ignore the historical disadvantage that children of nonwhite immigrants would have under this system.  The marginalization Marmeg experiences in the story as a postnatal licensee very easily tracks with racial animus towards immigrants and American citizens of non-European heritage.

Perhaps most frustrating about Marmeg’s experience in this story is the way she insists on doing things as legitimately as possible.  She genuinely dislikes that her gear is “filched” and that one of her methods for acquiring technology is by selling her code on the black market.  In running the Minerva Challenge, Marmeg emphasizes to herself repeatedly that she wants to do it legitimately, and when she finds herself in a situation where she needs to accept illicit help if she’s going to have a chance of success she feels highly conflicted about accepting the help.  At the story’s end, when she gets disqualified for a different breach of the race rules (which she feels justified in doing to save the life of another runner), she struggles with whether or not she should fight the disqualification because of her guilt over the cheating for which she didn’t get caught.

Marmeg, though she’s realistic about how unfair the system is to her and her family, wants to work within it as much as she possibly can.  Part of this ambition is motivated by the reality that extralegal means of getting ahead still have limitations that she can’t accept, but I think Marmeg also wants to believe that the system is legitimate.  This tension’s echoed in her strained relationship with her family’s Catholicism, as she constantly questions God about her circumstances throughout the race while also taking responsibility for her decisions to break the rules.

The great unfairness of Marmeg’s situation comes in the resolution where we see that she’s doomed to a dissatisfying life as a second-rate citizen.  Despite all her best efforts and her genuine talent, she’s unable to succeed as a runner.  She’s prepared to acquiesce to her mother’s pragmatic demands and take leave of her dreams.  It’s only in the last couple pages that we see that things will get better for Marmeg–not because of her ingenuity, but because she has the good fortune to have helped out a privileged runner whose family has the resources to elevate her.  Even the happy ending of the story is predicated on chance, further condemning the system Divya’s set as the backdrop for her tale.

If you’d like to read Runtime, it’s available at Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.

Reading “Exiles”

I have to be honest: I don’t like this Sandman story very much.  It’s a very sparse story, and Jon J Muth’s art is so strikingly minimal in comparison to Michael Zulli’s lush work on The Wake.  Really, probably the biggest weakness “Exiles” has is that it has to immediately follow on the massive catharsis Gaiman’s delivering in this last long arc.

The story in this issue follows an elderly man who has been exiled to the farthest reaches of an ancient Chinese empire.  His son was a practitioner of magic, and was executed by the Emperor for some vague reason.  The old man travels through a vast desert on the way to his new post, and in a sandstorm he gets separated from his guide and pulled into the Soft Places.  The majority of the issue is concerned with the old man’s dreams, which meander through a series of vaguely connected scenes that highlight the old man’s thoughts on his long journey.  Out of all the issues of The Sandman, I might say this one has the most dreamlike quality to it; there’s a definite arc for the character of the old man (he begins the journey adopting a stoic attitude toward his misfortune, and by the end he seems to have legitimately come to terms with it), but the actual action of the issue is minimal.  The old man has two encounters with Dream, once before his death and once after, and through these conversations he receives some comfort.

Like I said, it’s a pretty sparse story.

One cool thing that “Exiles” does: Because it’s mostly in black and white and both aspects of Dream appear, Todd Klein does this thing where Dream’s speech bubbles often get an inverted color pattern. Because Dream’s speech bubbles have been so distinct throughout the whole series, the confusion between original Dream and new Dream’s speech patterns highlights how they’re both aspects of the same person. (Artwork by Jon J Muth, letters by Todd Klein)

There is a metanarrative going on here, though.  This issue and the next deal with two different men who are coming to terms with the end of their careers.  Gaiman seems to be spending these last issues meditating on the end of a major project; by this point The Sandman had been going for about seven years, and it was a massive single piece of fiction for Gaiman (in several of his forewords from later Sandman works, Gaiman likes to note that altogether the series spans some two thousand pages).  He began The Sandman when he was in his late twenties, and it lasted well into his thirties; I’m still in my early thirties and the thought of working on a single project for that long sounds like a really big deal (I’ve been maintaining this blog for over three years now, and though most of the content isn’t directly connected, it feels like a huge personal investment for me).  I think that Gaiman was using the last couple issues to get his own closure on The Sandman.

And that’s it for this issue.  Like I said at the start, it’s not a story that I particularly enjoy, even when I see what Gaiman’s doing with it.  The next issue is the last in the main Sandman run, and it will probably be the last Sandman issue that I cover here for a while.  It’s time to move on to something else.

Thoughts on Recent Shifts in the Presidential Election

I’m setting out to write this post while listening to Kendrick Lamar, and as I’ve been trying to order my thoughts Lamar’s “Alright” came on like a bit of reassurance that the malaise that’s threatened to settle in over the past week is nothing of real consequence.

One of the things I do in my downtime at work (which is thankfully minimal; y’all, my new job is awesome) is browse the news and check in at FiveThirtyEight to see what the forecast for the 2016 presidential election looks like.  This habit has been pretty hard on my morale; the nearly eighty percent probability that Hillary Clinton will be elected president which was projected at the beginning of August has steadily declined so that at the time of this writing, it’s hovering just below sixty percent.  This is legitimately worrying stuff; events with a forty percent probability of happening occur all the time in real life.  The only question you can ask is whether FiveThirtyEight (or any other polling analyst) has a methodology that’s reliably accurate; that we’re trying to measure the outcome of a one-time event with a wide range of complex factors makes answering this question extremely difficult.  Most of the time it feels like there’s a heavy dose of fortune telling for the lay observer.

Especially confounding is all the bias present in whichever experts you want to appeal to for your answers.  For my part, I’ve been relying pretty heavily on analysis from Jamelle Bouie of Slate for guidance.  Bouie’s mantra throughout this election season has consistently been that we should pay attention to the polls; they’ve consistently predicted the results of each stage of the election (that is, back during the Republican primary, the polls said Trump would take the nomination despite disbelief from most corners of the politico world; and now in the general election season, they’ve been suggesting that Trump has a hard ceiling of about forty percent of registered voters), and they underline that the horse race between Clinton and Trump is not an especially close one regardless of what pundits want to say.

Clinton’s week of bad press with her “basket of deplorables” comment (which I maintain was the right and true thing to say) and the flap over her undisclosed pneumonia (that was avoidable and a perfect example of Clinton’s reflexive tendency towards secrecy coming back to bite her) has been a tough week to get through.  Like, I think, most people who oppose Donald Trump, I see Clinton as the best chance we have of avoiding electing a president who will be globally catastrophic (I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I continue to go back to the fact that Trump is clearly sympathetic to Russian interests, ignorant of and indifferent to the balance of power America has tried to construct with its alliances, and willing to use nuclear weaponry against America’s foreign enemies; these are not factors that are conducive to global stability).  The specter of any possibility that Clinton won’t win produces existential dread in me.

Of course, there’s more to this election that just fearing for the safety of the world.  If you back off from the apocalyptic, you’re still left with the fact that Donald Trump is the most overtly racist presidential candidate in modern memory.  He’s made it acceptable for white people to be openly racist where in the past if you wanted to express your bigotry you had to code it so you could maintain plausible deniability.  That’s not the case anymore.

I was talked with Rachael about this cluster of current events, and she pointed me towards some stuff on Twitter from the user @docrocktex26 (she goes by Propane Jane) discussing the state of the 2016 election.  A lot of what Propane Jane wrote dates back a month or two, and so doesn’t take into account the most recent events in the campaign, but I think her points are still quite salient.  Below are a couple of storified Twitter essays she’s put out that explore the importance of Black and Latinx voting blocs in preventing Trump from being elected this year.

Most of Propane Jane’s point about the significance of these demographics is effectively demonstrated in this tweet:

The “Angry White Dude” demographic isn’t big enough to overcome the coalition of people of color and women who will overwhelmingly vote against Trump.  He represents a real, overt threat to these groups’ well-being, and they aren’t going to take that lying down.  It’s highly probable that these demographics are in the process of getting out the vote to oppose Trump (based on the data available from both of Obama’s elections, Black voters are extremely mobilized when they are motivated by a presidential candidate; with Trump’s extensive anti-Latino rhetoric this past year, it makes sense that the two largest non-white demographics in the US would be highly motivated to mobilize to defeat him).

The takeaway from all this is supposed to be reassuring: people of color are very likely going to keep Trump from being elected.  Given that conclusion, the focus for white people like me now turns towards figuring out how to push back against the tide of overt racism that Trump has legitimized.  Rachael pointed out to me that probably the most effective way to do this is by using a method that women often ask male feminist allies to employ: when surrounding by your demographic peers, don’t allow social pressure to keep you from calling out racist or sexist language and behavior.  It carries a social cost (no one likes being the person to tell others they’re being jerks of one sort or another), but it’s necessary to keep casual and overt displays of bigotry from being normalized among peer groups.  I struggle to maintain this habit myself, which is no excuse.  I suppose I’m pointing it out here as a way of reminding myself that it’s a necessary commitment to being a good ally.

“This Is Worth It”

I have to admit that after the first time I read The Wicked + The Divine I wasn’t totally sold on it.  I liked the premise in theory, but finishing up the first volume left me with a lot of questions that I felt like I shouldn’t have by that point.  It took a second reading for me to get really invested in Laura and Lucifer’s story, but after that I was pretty much hooked.  I’ve wanted for the better part of 2016 to read more of this series, and getting some gift money from my family was a good excuse to go ahead and buy Volume 2.  I have not regretted this decision.

Spoilers for The Wicked + The Divine Volumes 1 and 2 will be freely discussed.

Really, I was invested in Volume 2 from the first few pages; the promise of Laura continuing to cope with her depression and idol mania in the wake of Lucifer’s death was a strong pull, and the added enticement of meeting more of the gods totally sold me (never underestimate the appeal of seeing new characters with interesting designs).

Now, here are some thoughts on the volume in no particular order.

Lucifer and Inanna seem pretty clearly modeled to resemble David Bowie and Prince respectively.  It’s kind of eerie that they’re the first two gods to die, in the same order as Bowie and Prince.  Obviously this is all coincidence; it’s not like Gillen and McKelvie knew back in 2014 that two years later the model for a couple of their characters who were supposed to die within two years would be a couple of the major deaths of 2016.  It’s still eerie though.

Clearly something is going on with Ananke that is yet to be explained; she’s manipulating Baphomet into attacking the other gods, and the rules for the Recurrence are not as hard and fast as originally implied.  I want to go with the theory that Ananke actually manipulates the gods in order to extend her own life, but I also get a vibe from her that she genuinely believes the failure of the Recurrence would be catastrophic for human civilization.  Either way, she has motives that are not what she’s presented to the public.

Aww, Baphomet. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

Tangentially, while I’m thinking about Baphomet, I have to say that he’s a pretty fascinating character.  I re-read both volumes the other night while getting ready to write up this post, and I noticed that he has a lot of trickster characteristics which actually remind me of the activities of the Satanic Temple.  Baphomet’s modus operandi appears to be scandalizing others with transgressive, but ultimately harmless, behavior much like real life Satanists.  Take his personality along with the deity he represents (Baphomet as we now recognize it is a relatively modern invention from the late 19th century; Cassandra even points this out when she alludes to Baphomet’s origins as being partly founded in the mysticism of the occultist Aleister Crowley), and there’s some strong evidence that Baphomet’s actions are meant to be sympathetic, even when he’s acting in ways that are genuinely destructive.  Beyond all that, I find it particularly interesting that one of the miracles Baphomet can perform is the equivalent of the devil on the shoulder: he snaps his fingers and his worst impulses are given voice in a way that helps him overcome his moral compass.  Baphomet isn’t evil, but his portfolio of power encourages him to be.

Contrast Baphomet with Woden.  We get an issue that spends a large amount of time explore Woden’s character and explaining some things about his powers and motivations.  As best I can tell, Woden’s portfolio prohibits him from using his power to benefit himself.  He can make fantastic tools for others, but attempts to create things for his own use apparently backfire catastrophically.  This caveat serves to explain why Woden wears a mask (clearly modeled to resemble one of the helmets that Daft Punk wear) and keeps his Valkyries around (besides the obvious creepy fetish he’s indulging); he needs proxies to use his devices or he risks serious personal injury.  All this points to Woden having a nearly inverted problem from Baphomet’s; his powers are exclusively meant to aid others, but because of his own selfishness he’s incapable of taking real joy in what he can do.  Woden’s a miserable person, and in this volume we see him do an incredibly ugly thing to a woman whom he used up and cast aside.  No amount of personal tragedy makes him sympathetic.

And while we’re discussing gods with bad deals (okay, that’s kind of all of them), I have to touch on Dionysus.  His issue here is utterly spectacular.  I love the art design, particularly as the count up motif echoes the gods’ habit of counting before they perform miracles and serves as a visual representation of the concept of a steady music beat.  One thing The Wicked + The Divine does that I find consistently amazing is come up with purely visual ways of conveying the idea of musical performance; it’s a difficult trick to pull off in comics, and McKelvie, Wilson, and Cowles always make it work here.  Anyway, I love Dionysus’s issue not just because it’s a visual treat, but also because it’s a largely positive issue about Laura letting off steam and becoming more genuine friends with the members of the Pantheon.  Then you get that stinger at the end where Dionysus explains that he hasn’t been alone in his head since his divinity manifested and he no longer is able to sleep.  I don’t know if anything more will happen with Dionysus, but if this is it for him, it’s an incredibly memorable sketch of him as a character.

I’m growing more and more curious about Tara; she’s the only member of the Pantheon who hasn’t made an appearance yet, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what her deal is.

The back end of this volume revolves heavily around the ascension of Cassandra (named after the seer who was never believed by anyone) to the twelfth spot in the Pantheon as Urðr (pronounced with a voiced ‘th’ sound), one of the three Norns (a Norse analog to the Greek Fates).  This is an interesting development since Cassandra’s defining trait since the series’s beginning has been her overwhelming skepticism of the gods; even when she ascends, her profile as Urðr molds her outlook to be one of profound nihilism.  She’s living the experience she would need to believe, but even as a god she remains incapable of believing there’s anything greater to the Recurrence.

Lucifer immediately after her ascension. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Willson)

This ultimate skepticism serves Urðr well as a foil for both Laura and, somewhat surprisingly, Lucifer.  In the first volume, before Lucifer was killed by Ananke for breaking the rules, there was a clear line of tension between Cassandra and Lucifer as influences on Laura.  Laura is an unmitigated fangirl, and it’s rather ironic that her two closest allies initially are the skeptic and the rebel, both roles that delight in undermining the sanctity of the Pantheon.  Cassandra and Lucifer actively dislike each other (rooted at least partly in Luci’s casual dismissal of Cassandra’s identity as a trans woman), but they bear remarkable similarities as gods.  I’m particularly fond of the visual parallels between them; Urðr’s design is almost a total chromatic inversion of Lucifer’s.

Urðr after her ascension. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Besides her clashes with Lucifer, Cassandra is also a character whose motivations stand in sharp contrast with Laura herself.  This volume goes a long way to help crystallize the differences between Laura, who fits the definition of a SMoF (Secret Master of Fandom) with her almost spontaneous close ties to most of the Pantheon and her ability to fangirl over pretty much all of them regardless of how their profiles and personalities clash with one another, and Cassandra, who notes in the first volume that she’s seen all the gods in action but has felt absolutely nothing about any of them.  The discovery that both Laura and Cassandra are incarnations of different gods with nearly opposed relational perspectives on the other gods goes a long way in clarifying this (to wit, Laura is Persephone, who straddles the line between the celebrated pop gods and the more esoteric underworld gods, while Cassandra is Urðr, a goddess whose chief characteristic is her insistence on the ultimate futility of finding meaning in existence; Laura finds all the gods inspiring, and Cassandra would be content if they were all shams).

The last, biggest twist of the volume is Laura’s sudden ascension as a thirteenth god in the pantheon, and her immediate murder at the fingers of Ananke.  This is a really drastic development, especially since Laura has been the point of view character since the series’s beginning.  As far as we know at this point in the story, death is a permanent thing for the gods; Laura’s position as Persephone, a goddess who splits her time between the sky and the underworld, might make for a plausible exception (to say nothing of the fact that she gives evidence to the lie that there can only be twelve gods in a Pantheon), but I’m really curious to see if that comes about.  More immediately, I’m wondering who the new perspective character could be.  Inanna wouldn’t be a bad choice since this arc has him and Laura become pretty good friends, except that he’s murdered by Baphomet at pretty much the same time Ananke is doing in Laura.  Baal is a possibility since he seems to stand apart from the rest of the Pantheon as an especially independent character (also, his unresolved drama with Inanna would make for some interesting character exploration going forward), and his friendship with Laura was growing in a way that would leave him invested in learning what happened to her.  Alternately, the focus might shift to Cassandra, since she’s still all about finding the truth, even as a fate goddess.

Either way, I’m pretty much on board to see this series to the end now.

Reading “An Epilogue: Sunday Mourning”

The last time I went to a renaissance festival, I saw a booth that said, “Ye Olde Taco Stand,” or something similar.  It was delightfully anachronistic, and pointed to the quirky nature of things like renfests.  It’s a bunch of people with relatively esoteric interests in things that may or may not relate to the actual historical period getting together to put on a day for themselves and people who want to come visit.  In a lot of ways it feels very much akin to conventions that I’ve been to, though without so much of the crowding and obnoxious waiting in line to do fun things.

In this issue of The Sandman, Gaiman takes the concept of the renfest and gently skewers it with the help of my favorite centuries old curmudgeon Hob Gadling.  This story takes place a few months after Dream’s funeral, and it just chronicles a day that Hob spends at a renaissance fair where his latest girlfriend works.  Most of the day is spent simply drinking to help cope with the cheesy environs, but in the midst of that stubbornly mundane series of events, Hob processes his own reaction to Dream’s passing.

It seems that at the heart of this story is a reflection on how time gradually erodes relationships and priorities.  Hob has lived significantly longer than most people, and the major strings of thought he focuses on here have to do with the friends he’s lost (remember that the last time we saw Hob before Dream’s funeral was in the immediate aftermath of another lover’s sudden death) and the evil things he’s done (Hob has recently started dating a Black woman, Guenevere, and this new experience has him fixated on his own culpability in the Atlantic slave trade).  It seems like the perfect sort of set up for Hob to finally decide he’s ready to die, but even after having a conversation with Death confirming that Dream’s funeral was a thing Hob really experienced, he decides to go on, unsure that he’ll ever be ready for the end.

When you break this story down to its plot points it’s a pretty thin one, but that feels okay.  Hob holds a pretty special place in The Sandman mythos as the first person Dream called his friend in the series, and it’s fitting that our last moment thinking about Dream’s passing are spent with him.  The themes that Hob meditates on here, slavery, regret, carrying on without your loved ones, echo the experiences that Dream’s had over the course of his story.  He told Hob he shouldn’t be in the slaver business in the first place, and then he ended up trapped himself.  He spent much of the series learning how to make amends for things he’d done to others before, and Hob, whose few centuries are only a fraction of Dream’s lifetime, is caught in a place now where he’s unsure how to make up for his own sins; the people he personally hurt are all long dead, unlike Dream who had the luxury of associating mostly with immortals.  Hob’s many dead friends also echo the most painful aspects of Dream’s own history; it’s arguably Nada and Orpheus who left the strongest imprints on Dream, and the only way he’s able to reach closure with them is by helping them move on.  It’s perhaps only the fact that Hob learns these lessons more quickly, if not more easily (how can persistent loss ever be easy?), that distinguishes him from his friend.

Maybe that, and the fact that unlike Dream Hob is not resistant to change for the better.

This is the look Death gives everyone who asks her a question for which Gaiman doesn’t have an answer. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The issue’s climax is an extended conversation Hob has with Death; she comes to visit him as a favor to Dream.  She confirms for him that Dream really has died, and she presents him with the option to die if he’d like.  He defers, wondering if he’ll ever be ready to do that, even with all the losses he’s experienced in his life (though Hob’s first few centuries appeared to be characterized by him being relatively carefree, it’s been well established that he’s had a long line of lovers and wives and left behind at least a few children).  Hob thinks of his life as a long, slow robbing of what he holds dear, but I see him more as being weighed down.  He has so many memories of pressing down, affecting how he sees things in the present, but he maintains this resilience to keep going on, perhaps indefinitely.  A look at the trajectory of Hob’s life suggests that even if his relationship with Gwen is successful, they’ll have a few decades at most before he’ll either need to disappear again or she’ll die and leave him behind.  It’s a painful cycle that has to bear down immensely after so many repetitions, but Hob keeps soldiering on, finding happiness in each new meeting as he sees reflected in it the memories of previous partings.

The issue ends with Hob having one last nap before he and Gwen head home for the day.  It’s a brief one, but during it he dreams of Dream.  It’s a weird moment, because this is clearly a dream that happens chronologically after Dream’s death, so the Dream Hob meets is actually a dream of Dream, although that’s not entirely clear since Destruction is also there, and for all we know it really is Destruction come to hang out with Hob and his brother.  The metaphysics of the Dream in Hob’s dream can get confusing pretty quickly, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about them.  Instead, I want to just end on the image of comfort Hob has here.  It evokes a familiar feeling for me; I occasionally dream about loved ones who are gone, and those are always really good dreams.

Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo.

Next time we’ll look at the story of an old man crossing a desert.