Much like with the beginning of Season of Mists, this first chapter of Brief Lives is heavily built around set up (something could probably be said about the lack of a prologue in this arc, particularly since most of the story beats here do set up nice payoffs down the road), and what we’ll eventually find is that it’s one of the last times Gaiman goes this route. As things progress, we’ll see a lot of fall out from not just what Delirium starts, but from all of the little dangling threads that have been left behind over the series’s run (we’re finally in the back half of the series proper, and the last three years of Sandman comics have a momentum that was building all the way back with “Sleep of the Just” even though it wasn’t always apparent).
Another way that this issue is similar to the beginning of Season of Mists is its preoccupation with Dream’s family. Dream’s completely off the page here, as we follow Delirium through some misadventures before she’s able to pull together enough focus to decide she wants to track down her missing brother, Destruction. We also get extended glimpses into the internal lives of the twins Desire and Despair (Despair in particular gets a good bit of development here; she was the closest to Destruction before his disappearance, and its apparent that his absence has impacted her significantly), and we also spend a few pages with the head of Orpheus, Dream’s estranged immortal son (we last saw Orpheus in The Sandman Special where Gaiman explores Orpheus’s complete backstory and shows us that Dream’s son was kind of bratty before he lost his head). I find it interesting that all our major characters here are people who have been at best neutral and at worst outright antagonists to Dream. The general impression of the Endless family has been one of supreme dysfunction up to this point (Desire is still plotting a way to get Dream to spill family blood), and the shift away from Dream’s perspective helps immensely in giving these characters a bit more complexity than we’ve previously seen.
I think it’s particularly interesting that this issue focuses so much on the younger siblings of the Endless. The few times we’ve seen the twins and Delirium before, it’s been in a context where their domains are expressed in decidedly negative ways for mortals (the most significant example is in the issue about Joshua Norton, “Three Septembers and a January,” where Dream helps the Emperor of the United States cope with three potentially disastrous mental states by giving him a dream that he can hold on to). Undoubtedly, Desire, Despair, and Delirium are extremely dangerous to mortals (we even see in this issue Desire punishing a woman for hitting on them by setting her up to eventually murder another woman she’s going to have a fling with; Despair’s more passive in her machinations, but it’s still disturbing to see her watching a pedophile who’s been caught by his wife trying to decide whether he’s able to commit suicide in order to avoid his impending punishment), but this issue takes the time to note that they do have bonds with their family (however dysfunctional it may be) and even someone like Desire, who’s pretty much always a villain up to this point in the series, has more complexity when examined from a perspective that isn’t precisely mortal in nature. All the Endless feel protective of Delirium, whose madness leads her to wander around getting into trouble, and it’s actually very touching to see Desire be the one to step in and help pull her together even while rejecting Delirium’s plan to go looking for Destruction.
The art for the majority of this arc is done by Jill Thompson and Vince Locke. It’s perfectly cromulent art, in its way, but if I’m honest it’s not the most standout work I’ve seen on The Sandman. There are moments where the characters appear with particularly expressive faces, and the constantly shifting appearance of Delirium (who has a very fluid sense of herself) is engaging, it’s not precisely the kind of art that wows me.
Next issue we finally get to catch up with Dream and see him at his most (carefully constructed) pathetic.