Reading “The Sound of Her Wings”

In the entirety of the Sandman series, this story stands out as one of the most significant for its introduction of Dream’s older sister Death.  Back when I was in college and first introduced to the series, Death was the character that everyone talked about.  She was funny, caring, invariably drawn as attractive, and just generally regarded as one of the most appealing characters in the entirety of the Sandman mythos.  Death’s popularity led to Neil Gaiman writing a couple of spinoff miniseries starring her, which is a pretty big deal since other spinoffs from The Sandman never enjoyed having Gaiman as the writer.  At any rate, Death was the breakout character in the series, primarily because she offered such a great foil to Dream’s morose attitude about everything, and her appearance in a given story typically enlivens things significantly.

She is irrepressibly cheerful. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

“The Sound of Her Wings” is a very simple story, placed as a sort of epilogue to Dream’s quest to regain his tools of office.  Following the showdown with John Dee in the previous issue, Dream is feeling mopey since he no longer has a clear objective that he’s working towards after his long imprisonment.  He sits in a city square feeding pigeons, and then his sister comes to visit him and berates him for whining about what is essentially a fit of boredom before inviting him to join her as she carries out her duty to meet people at their moments of death and guide them into “the sunless lands.”  Dream interprets Death’s visit as a reminder that he has work to do as the anthropomorphic embodiment of a universal concept, and stops moping so he can get back to work.

I think the most important thing about this story in the context of the series is that it marks a tonal shift away from pure horror.  Things continue to be pretty dark, but by this point I feel like Gaiman realized that the world he was building was better served as a contemporary fantasy with elements of horror rather than as something that had to be horrific with every single issue.  This story is Gaiman taking a step back from all the weirdness of Dream’s revenge narrative (in many ways that’s what the first seven issues of The Sandman are: Dream’s attempt to get revenge for a wrong that was perpetrated by someone he can’t punish), and expanding his world while giving readers a chance to see that Dream is not an infallible protagonist with whom the author always sympathizes.  Just set aside the fact that Death’s part in this story is that of a proto-manic pixie dream girl.

Actually, don’t set that aside, because it’s an interesting point that I’ve been mulling over recently in regards to the way women are often characterized in fiction.  Death is an extremely popular character, but her first appearance includes a lot of features of the emotionally healthy woman who helps the mopey guy see that he’s being silly to act all broody.  Death approaches Dream without any sort of introduction, which creates a bit of ambiguity for a few pages where the reader isn’t supposed to know who she is, and she begins cracking these absurd jokes about Mary Poppins, which feels like the same shtick that Natalie Portman does for Zach Braff in Garden State with her pet hamster.  It’s certainly well-done in this context, but it’s still not something really unique in a character.  I mean, you even see it in action movies like Age of Ultron (which I really enjoyed) with Black Widow, who besides any of the other problems that crop up with her plot line in that movie, serves as a sort of emotional anchor for all these needy men who revolve around her (many props to Cara Ellison’s recent tumblr on the subject; it put Black Widow’s characterization in Age of Ultron in a whole new light for me).  Death’s doing the same job as these other women, just with the luxury of appearing in a critically beloved series.  I’m not entirely sure at this point whether it’s worth giving Gaiman a pass because he wrote this story twenty-five years ago and Death is a remarkably well-sketched character given her template, or if this flaw is one that detracts from the series since it’s more apparent in the context of current conversations about women in fiction that Death really is of a type that writers have been using for a long time.

Nonetheless, this story also marks the last time for quite a few issues that Dream stars as the central protagonist.  In the next arc, he’ll be a major player, but he’ll be hanging around the periphery of someone else’s story, which I’ve said before is where he operates best.

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