There’s a panel in this issue of The Sandman where a pair of tiny chocolate people desperately make love as they’re melting away on Delirium’s plate after she’s brushed them and accidentally brought them to life. It’s a beautiful panel, and it has a beautiful caption in it that pretty much sums up the major theme of Brief Lives. This momentary focus on creatures who matter very little on a universal scale but matter immensely to themselves continues to repeat and echo throughout the story arc, gradually growing to encompass more and more prominent people until we see this basic desperate need for meaning reflected even in our immortal cast.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The core problem of issue #42 is that Dream has just broken up with his girlfriend who has been obliquely referenced in the last couple stories (we still don’t know much about her other than the fact that she dumped him, and Dream really liked her), and in the aftermath of this rather predictable end (of Dream’s lovers that we’ve met or heard about, none of them have ended their relationships on good terms), Dream has taken to moping about his home with a perpetual rainstorm overhead (this might be my favorite deployment of the pathetic fallacy in fiction, particularly since Dream, being an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, is himself a pathetic fallacy). Various residents of the Dreaming have different takes on this situation, ranging from Merv Pumpkinhead (who has his first speaking appearance here) writing the whole episode off as Dream striking an angsty pose because he actually enjoys playing out the narrative of the heartbroken lover to Matthew the Raven being genuinely concerned that Dream has become depressed in the wake of a bad breakup. Considering the complexities of the character, I think it’s reasonable to say that both interpretations of Dream’s melancholia can be true (in that he is legitimately feeling depressed, but he also enjoys playing a part that he’s played several times before).
While there’s a lot of room for discussion of Dream’s mental state in this issue (my opinion is that his feelings are legitimate, but he’s still affecting the same mopey attitude that Death chided him for back in issue #8), the important thing to note here is that Delirium shows up, and because of her problem and diminished capacity to deal with it, Dream makes a decision to get outside his own head for a little bit. Part of this decision seems to be motivated by his suspicion of Desire’s involvement in putting Delirium on the idea and manipulating Dream’s breakup (Desire, for their part, swears they had nothing to do with either thing; they swear an oath that’s not much explained, but which seems to be serious enough that Dream is willing to believe they’re telling the truth). Dream’s feud with Desire is still going strong, and it’s a wonderful little detail that his grief over the ended relationship, which is totally within Desire’s realm of influence, leads him to suspect his sibling meddled in the affair.
This isn’t a totally unfounded suspicion after Nada and Rose Walker, whom Desire strongly implies were put in Dream’s path deliberately as a way to screw with him, but Desire’s denial here throws into relief the ongoing ambiguity about the source of Dream’s relational failings. This is getting ahead a little bit, but the short story about Dream that Gaiman wrote for the Endless Nights collection explains that Dream’s feud with Desire began because Desire influenced one of Dream’s earliest lovers to leave him for a star (even this incident can’t entirely be pinned on Desire, since it’s pretty clear that Dream didn’t do a great job of explaining what he was to the woman; she freaks out when she learns that he’s invited her to a conference of actual stars). With that kind of baggage, it makes sense that Dream would always suspect his sibling is screwing with him even when the more obvious explanation might be that he’s too stubborn and self-absorbed to be a good romantic partner.
But that’s all history at this point, because what has changed with Delirium’s arrival in Dream’s realm is that he’s been learning a lot in the recent years about maintaining relationships with others, and his concern for his sister trumps his own self absorption. Yeah, when he informs Lucien about his decision he frames it as a lark to help get over his depression, but his interactions with Delirium when she’s working up the courage (and the presence of mind) to ask for Dream’s help finding Destruction show genuine affection and worry for her. This whole story marks a new high point in Dream’s emotional growth, and it’s barely the beginning of this story arc.
I know in my last post on this arc I mentioned that Jill Thompson’s art isn’t my favorite from The Sandman, but the work she does on this issue strikes me as particularly standout. Delirium’s a character who conveys so much more than what she says, and there are several panels in this issue where I teared up reading her expressions (I’m a sucker for Delirium; she might simply be my favorite member of the Endless) because she just looks so sad on the page. This issue also features Dream being delightfully morose and being visually frustrated by Delirium’s obvious need taking precedent over his wallowing (he also has some great stubble of sorrow in the early pages before Delirium shows up and forces a tone shift by her mere presence). The whole issue’s a visual treat, and it makes me want to reassess my judgment of Thompson.
The next issue will see Dream and Delirium setting foot in the waking world. It’s as chaotic as you might expect.