Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 5”

There are a lot of things that happen in this issue.  Dream chides Delirium for casually ruining a mortal’s life in the same way that Destruction did to him in the previous issue, the pair catches up with the one person on Delirium’s list who hasn’t died or disappeared, a trio of strippers discuss temple prostitution and its place within the culture of an ancient near-eastern country, one of those strippers (who’s actually the goddess of love mentioned in their discussion, and Destruction’s former lover) dances so hard she makes the strip club explode, and Desire shows up to give the incident’s lone survivor a coat because she had the misfortune of being naked when she decided to run.  These are all important features of the issue, and they’re all worth discussing in their time, but I want to set them all aside for a moment and revel in this one glorious moment:

Delirium drives a car in the waking world and absolutely terrifies Matthew the raven.

The entire feeling of Dream and Delirium’s journey up this point has been absurdly mundane, what with Dream choosing to go to a travel agent to arrange transportation (Farrell, coincidentally, has much in common with Ishtar as an ancient god who has adapted to the modern world in highly pragmatic ways) and then insisting on sticking to the arbitrary travel rule like a Let’s Player intent on doing something to make their playthrough of a familiar game more interesting (never mind that this is a journey to track down a long lost sibling which might, y’know, carry some real emotional weight for its participants).  The break with reality that is Delirium’s turn behind the wheel (I’ve always found Delirium’s apparent age in this story to be in the early teens at the latest, meaning there’s no sensible way to make her driving a car not look silly) is a really refreshing change of pace from Dream’s enforced mundanity (I’m aware there’s probably an interesting case for why Dream’s going about things in this way that doesn’t just boil down to his obsession with following the rules once they’ve been established).  Throwing Matthew into the mix as someone who’s totally unprepared for Delirium’s unpredictability (and whose status as a resident of the Dreaming presumably protects him from serious harm whether he’s aware of it or not) just ups the level of delight of the whole scene.

I seriously think this might be my favorite panel in all of The Sandman. Don’t hold me to that though. (Artwork by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, and Daniel Vozzo)

Of course, this greatest of scenes is bookended by a bunch of other really interesting stuff going on in this issue.  The reason Dream summons Matthew to instruct Delirium on how to drive a car is that her previous nearly disastrous attempts end with them being pulled over by an unfortunate policeman whom Delirium punishes for harshing her vibe by giving him endless hallucinations of bugs crawling on his skin.  This is a terrible moment, and a stark reminder that even though Delirium’s adorable and harmless to her family, she can do serious damage to the lives of mortals.  Dream’s admonishment about not being needlessly cruel and Delirium’s response that she doesn’t tell him how to do his business nicely echoes the conversation Dream has with Destruction in the previous issue about the failed pickpocket.  Whether he likes to acknowledge it or not most of the time, Dream has changed, and this subtle moment between him and Delirium feels like it’s largely due to the impact of Destruction for reasons that we’ll explore further in one of the upcoming issues.

Besides our protagonists, this issue also heavily features Tiffany, Ishtar, and Nancy, women who work at a strip club as dancers.  We’ve briefly met Tiffany previously, as Delirium sort of possessed her in the previous issue in order to better locate Ishtar the Dancing Woman.  Ever since that incident, Delirium’s taken on some of Tiffany’s physical attributes (Jill Thompson draws the two characters with nearly identical hair in this issue) to show the affinity they have.  Tiffany is uneducated, and the issue heavily implies that she’s coping with cocaine addiction, which leaves her in a highly vulnerable position similar to Delirium’s (we have to set aside the fact that Delirium’s immortal and doesn’t suffer from most human vulnerabilities).  Ishtar takes care of Tiffany in ways that mimic Dream’s relationship with his sister in this story arc to the point that it seems pretty clear that we’re meant to infer some parallels between the two characters (by the time the issue ends we’ve seen Ishtar try to feed Tiffany, soothe Tiffany’s insecurities about herself, provide mentorly guidance, and admit that she’s still not over her ex-lover).  Nancy’s a tertiary character who indirectly gives some background on Ishtar’s past as a goddess and provides a contrast to Tiffany (where it’s implied Tiffany works as a stripper because she lacks other marketable skills, Nancy is educated and has chosen the work because it fits the kind of lifestyle she wants to have).

What I find particularly fascinating about these three characters is that they’re another entry in Gaiman’s ever expanding portfolio of mundane characters living on the social fringe who undermine the dominant narrative of homogeneity in these outside spaces.  Tiffany, Ishtar, and Nancy all come to dancing with different purposes and expectations, and their situations demand dignity even as the panels depict them working for crumpled dollar bills.  Of course, Gaiman also can’t resist tossing in overtones of the maiden-mother-crone configuration that he enjoys employing so much in Sandman (Tiffany’s naivety mirrors the maiden, Ishtar with her nurturing is the mother, and Nancy’s plans to convert her experience as a stripper into a book deal when she’s deemed too old for the business has hints of the crone).

Besides all the interesting metatextual stuff going on, the point of this chapter is that Dream and Delirium finally catch up with their last remaining lead on Destruction, and it turns out that Ishtar has no idea where he is (she hasn’t even seen him in several centuries, and the way she talks with Dream suggests that their romance ended significantly earlier).  We’ll see the ramifications of this last dried up lead in the next issue, but for now it’s just interesting to note that Dream actually succeeds in warning Ishtar that something is harming the people on Delirium’s list, and Ishtar takes this information as a sign that it’s time for her to end her life.  The Sandman universe has established before, and reiterates here, that gods begin in the Dreaming and only live so long as they have someone who continues to worship them in some fashion.  Ishtar, who began as a goddess of love presiding over a cult that contemplated the mysteries of sexuality, is now a stripper who dances for the meager bits of worship she gleans from the men who frequent the club where she works.  The arc of her life is finished, and she decides that she’s going to embrace her coming end with one last display of her full glory.  It’s a pretty satisfying moment, even if the context of the scene is that everyone in the club except for Tiffany presumably dies from the ensuing explosion.

Jill Thompson and Vince Locke continue their work as the art team for this arc, but I think this issue is particularly noteworthy for the depiction of the interior of the strip club.  Locke’s inks are used to indicate shadows in the neon lights with hardly any dark outlines in these scenes; the characters look more like blobs of color and shadow than they do elsewhere, even though Thompson’s character designs are still immediately recognizable underneath.  We only see this technique here, and it’s very striking, in no small part also because of Daniel Vozzo’s colors (Vozzo’s generally stuck to a washed out, almost pastel palette for most of this arc, but the colors inside Suffragette City are super vibrant).

Next time, Dream calls the whole thing off, and we get some more moping, which is way more fun than it sounds.

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