In the same pattern as the rest of this long story arc, issue 26 of The Sandman doles out interesting developments in bits and pieces. This issue is one of my favorites in Season of Mists because it features some great one off jokes (the punchline of the page where Dream converses with Shivering Jemmy about their potential deal for the realm of Chaos acquiring Hell is terrific; the follow up gag a few pages later with Matthew the raven is even better), but it again only marginally advances the plot. I think this slower style of storytelling is the primary reason all the funny bits are so well facilitated, since Gaiman has room in each issue to do incidental scenes beyond the most essential ones for story progression (earlier Sandman stories, with their adherence to a tighter short story structure, would like reduce many of the scenes to single panels that give only a glimpse of Dream’s dealings with his guests versus the full pages of conversation that we get for all the major factions introduced in issue 24). What comes at the expense of all these luxurious character scenes is the sense of resolution at the end of the issue, which as been missing from most parts of this arc (issue 25 is a notable exception simply because it’s a side story that is only tangentially related to the stuff happening with Dream). Whether this is a good or bad trade off is largely subjective, though if I’m honest I miss the closed off feeling of the earlier issues simply from a blogging perspective (endings are just so important to examining the significance of plot and character arcs that I’ve often felt like my commentary on the last few issues has consisted largely of explanation about what’s going on and then withholding most of my insights because that would involve skipping ahead in the story).
Fortunately for us, this is the last issue that leaves us in a state of suspense for a little while, because the next issue is the technical ending of the story, with the issue following it acting as the epilogue.
But that’s getting ahead of myself.
Significant things that happen in this issue include the introduction of the Cluracan of Faerie and his sister Nuala. While Cluracan’s appearance here suggests he might be somewhat important (he’s not; in fact, he’s probably the best shaggy dog character I’ve ever seen; his recurrence in Sandman from this point forward constantly suggests that he should be of larger import to the story, but every plot directly involving him ends on a note of inconsequence for the characters we really care about) and Nuala’s casual treatment as a plot point (she’s offered to Dream as part of Faerie’s attempted bribe to avoid anyone else taking control of Hell, and she only has a small handful of lines in the issue which are all of virtually no consequence) suggests she won’t be worth remembering, these characters’ roles are quite the opposite later on. Nuala’s introduction here sets up another moving part that will play into The Sandman‘s finale, and also gives us a semi-regular female character in the book who shows real and interesting growth.
But for now they’re just window dressing.
Again, most of the scenes in this issue are simply bits of character development and opportunities for Gaiman to have vastly different personalities play off one another; Dream has a clandestine meeting with a representative of each of the major factions that want to take control of Hell, and it’s in these scenes that we get some really worthwhile character development for Dream. The ambassadors of lesser players like Order and Chaos get funny little scenes where Dream gets to be more than a little disdainful of what these different realms think he will value, while his conversations with the likes of Odin and Azazel serve to show Dream at his most politic. Dream really enjoys appearing inscrutable, but in dealing with these gods and demons you get the sense that his impassivity is much more a survival skill; Dream is powerful in his home, but there’s definitely a sense that he has more than a little respect for the people he’s dealing with. The issue’s final page, which is a scene of Dream alone contemplating all the offers made to him and then finally tossing the key to Hell away in a fit of frustration, serves to underscore how little Dream wants to be in the position he’s in. Several of the bribes he’s offered have legitimate value to him, and he gives absolutely nothing away about his preference here. It’ll all come to light in the next issue, but for now the fact that Dream doesn’t reveal any of his thoughts to the reader creates a real sense of suspense regarding his decision.
With regards to the art of this issue, I absolutely love the way Kelley Jones and George Pratt depict each of Dream’s meetings in this issue with a distinctly different style to reflect how Dream’s own appearance varies based on whom he appears to. There are, unfortunately, no fantastically creepy teeth to gawk at, but that’s not such a terrible thing in comparison to the things we do get to see (I would love an enlarged, framed copy of the panel where a confused Matthew flies off with a balloon after Dream offers it to him).
The next issue sees Dream finally make a decision and live with the consequences, and a lot of dangling threads will finally get wrapped up.