The beginning of this story arc marks a pretty distinct shift in the structure of The Sandman‘s plotting. Where the first two story arcs felt more like a collection of interconnected stories that featured self contained plots within each issue, and the third arc was simply a series of one-shot stories, Season of Mists marks the first major arc that really fits into the graphic novel format. Each issue reads more like a chapter in a longer work, with far fewer short term resolutions offered.
That last fact becomes immediately apparent with issue #21, as the plot of the issue revolves around a meeting of the Endless which is largely pointless besides its necessity as a catalyst for jumpstarting the real plot. That Gaiman decides to lampoon this fact shamelessly by having Destiny say as much at the meeting’s open and close is appreciated, because the issue, if it were approached with less self awareness, would offer very little of interest. Significant plot details, like Dream’s botched romance with Nada and hostility towards Desire, have been addressed in earlier stories, and mostly appear here as a way to remind the reader about things that weren’t important when they were first mentioned, but now are necessary information to understand character actions and motivations. In order to have a story, Dream has to decide to visit Hell again, which we’ll remember from issue #3 he’s not inclined to do because he more or less gave Satan the middle finger on his way out the door; remembering that Nada is still trapped in Hell, and that Dream has recently developed a habit of trying to fix problems he’s inadvertently caused for people, is essential for making Dream’s visit comprehensible.
And that’s about it for the immediate story in this issue. It’s short and sweet, and hitting those points quickly gives Gaiman a wealth of space in the issue to do what is really important about it: offer a portrait of the Endless as a family and take some time to formally introduce these characters who have mostly appeared in the margins of previous stories. Those characters who have appeared before generally follow the patterns Gaiman has established in earlier stories (Desire is a selfish jerk who likes to make trouble, Despair generally avoids conflict and has a lot of unfulfilled hopes that no one seems to take very seriously, Death is the imminently sensible one, Dream suffers from a case of extreme self absorption that he is very slowly learning to overcome), while we get opportunities to see more of the eldest and youngest of the Endless, who up to this point haven’t appeared with the exception of one brief mention during the climax of Dream’s conflict with John Dee.
We learn that Destiny (who’s the only character who existed prior to Gaiman’s work on The Sandman) is essentially a proxy for the narrator. He acts very rarely in ways that directly affect the story, and always because he knows that that is what he’s supposed to do (he’s a convenient character for making things happen because the plot says they’re supposed to happen, but Gaiman thankfully makes use of him sparingly). Beyond these rare moments of interference, everything Destiny says and does is more or less just description of what’s happening around him (though other characters always seem to interpret his words as imperative rather than descriptive, which is a fun distinction). Particularly noteworthy in this appearance is Destiny’s interaction with the three Fates (Gaiman’s favorite plot device for putting characters on track without a lot of fuss), which boils down to a several page scene where the narrator’s proxy has a conversation with the narrator’s plot device that results in the narrator starting the story. As a piece of drama it’s quite dull, but as a moment of metatext, I think it’s hilarious.
We also get to meet Delirium, who, as the youngest sibling in the Endless family, is the antithesis of Destiny in pretty much every way. Where he’s stodgy and does nothing except what his book says he’s supposed to, she’s purely chaotic to the point of doing things when she’s not even aware of them herself. Delirium is the only Endless who has gone through a significant aspect change in her lifetime, since she began as the concept of Delight. The transition between these two states is a mystery about the series that Gaiman never answers within the context of the comics, but we have enough information here to know that it was a traumatic event for Delirium, and she finds it painful when her siblings remind her of it (as always, Desire takes the lead on prodding at her insecurities, but other more subtle things also come up, like the fact that Destiny’s portrait of Delirium still depicts her as Delight). Delirium won’t be a significant character for quite some time, but there’s some good groundwork here for yet another story that’s still a few years off in publication time.
Lastly we get a few tantalizing details about the seventh sibling of the Endless, whom none of the others refer to by name here. This brother decided he didn’t want to conduct his responsibilities anymore, and has been in exile for three hundred years. Though they express it in different ways, it’s apparent that all of the Endless are pretty hurt by their brother’s disappearance, and much of the family’s dysfunction seems to stem from his absence (cues like the lineup in the gallery let us know that the missing brother is also the middle sibling, and like the dynamics found in many multiple sibling families, he was the peacemaker among the collection of strong personalities). This mystery does get addressed later on, but for now it’s not particularly relevant to the story that Gaiman’s telling.
On the art side of things, we get treated to a reunion of Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III on pencils and inks. Though there’s a lot to like about all the regular art teams on the series, I still have a special place in my heart for Dringenberg and Jones, whose designs always seems like the definitive ones for me. It’s nice to see six of the Endless drawn by them. As far as I know, this is the last issue where we’ll see both of them together. Dringenberg comes back one more time for the epilogue of Season of Mists, but there he’s inked by someone different, and it significantly changes the look of the art.
Naturally, from here things will pick up as we get to see what’s meant to happen by Dream going to visit Hell again, and then everything gets very complicated for a little while.