Of all the standalone stories that feature in The Sandman, I’m pretty confident this is my favorite. It’s also, coincidentally, one of only two issues where Dream doesn’t appear at all (and it’s the only one-off story without Dream). Instead, the story features an obscure DC superheroine named Urania Blackwell (codename Element Girl) who lives in forced retirement after the CIA deems her too conspicuous for effective field work. Urania’s isolation has led her to develop severe depression and social anxiety to the point that she would rather die than continue living. The dilemma for Urania is the fact that her superpowers make her effectively immortal, as her body lacks all the normal vulnerabilities of a human, along with allowing her to maintain her consciousness regardless of what material she transforms herself into.
Needless to say, this is a really dark issue.
Of course, since it’s a story featured in The Sandman there has to be some connection to Gaiman’s regular cast, so Urania gets a helping hand from Death who’s wandering by from another death that’s occurred in Urania’s apartment building. Death’s appearance here is probably one of the biggest reasons I enjoy this issue so much. You’ll remember from issue 8 that I had a few complaints about Death’s characterization when she was first introduced. In that issue, Death’s primary job is to wander by and work Dream out of his moping fit by being first irrepressibly cheerful and then calling him on all his crap. The impression she gives is of a nurturing big sister who engages in all the emotional labor that Dream should be doing himself for his benefit. This story’s characterization of her is significantly different, and it helps round out Death in ways that we just don’t see in that earlier story.
Here, Death displays compassion (she just happens to overhear Urania’s complaint and comes to talk with her), but also is very matter of fact about the multifaceted nature of her identity. One of the major impressions that you get whenever Gaiman starts writing about Death is that he wants to characterize her as something that’s ultimately comforting (Death’s duties as one of the Endless involve her being present at every being’s birth and every being’s death), but when he gives Death her own voice things don’t quite work out that way. With the other Endless, Death is certainly a very cheerful presence (she’s probably the most well adjusted of the family), but she understands that the perspective for mortals is different, so she admits that she’s received very differently depending on who she’s coming to. Urania, who’s suicidal, imagines Death is a merciful thing, though Death shoots this characterization down immediately. It was an accident that she came to see Urania, and besides that, she’s only doing the job that she’s meant to do. What I’m trying to get at is that when Gaiman puts Death in a position where she can speak for herself, she reveals a much more complex character than the one that popped up in “The Sound of Her Wings.”
Besides Death’s characterization, I also have a fondness for this story because it fits into a subgenre that I think of as “what happens when reality collides with superhero logic.” Alan Moore probably did it best in Watchmen, but Gaiman’s had some excellent entries as well (the Jed Walker subplot in The Doll’s House was in the same style, though with a few more fantasy elements applied). Urania’s plight is heartbreaking as the impossibility of her powers gets shoved up against the real world limitations of transmutation powers that are entirely restricted to chemical compounds that are biologically inert. I imagine that Urania’s experience is something similar to the way that nonedible foods are often dressed up to make them look visually appealing in commercials at the expense of other senses like taste and smell. Urania can make herself look however she likes, but she has to cope with the fact that her inability to recreate her human body imposes problems that come from creating facsimiles. That problem gets weaved really convincingly in with other issues of body image and body disphoria (Urania’s difficulties revolve around the fact that she can’t make her body look the way it used to and the feeling of it has become so alien to her).
On the art side, this is the first of only two times we get to see Colleen Doran’s pencils on The Sandman. If there’s one chief emotion that I think Doran conveys through her art, it’s sadness. Urania’s face features prominently in nearly every panel of the story, and Doran never flinches from depicting it in a way that’s difficult to look at. Urania has a chronic grimace that conveys both her misery and how difficult it would be for her to interact with the outside world. Beyond that I’m struggling to convey how much I like Doran’s art in this story, and I can’t help being more than a little sad that she’s only a guest artist.
This issue wraps up the mini arc of Dream Country, which Gaiman envisioned as a small series of standalone stories meant to explore the larger world of the Endless. Next time we’ll be hitting the prologue to the long story arc Season of Mists, which will feature Dream dealing with the headaches that come when someone else with immense power decides they don’t want to do their job anymore.