Reading “Brief Lives – Chapter 6”

If there’s a succinct way to describe issue 46, it’s that Dream briefly relapses into being a jerk, and then through the sage advice of several close friends, he gets better.  Close examination shows that it’s a little bit more complicated than that, but there you go.  For instance, the important thing to remember here is that Dream, for all of his emotional growth, still likes to maintain a very specific image: that of the impassive observer who remains unfazed by everything.  In this issue, we get to see him interacting with people on three different social levels.  There’s the approach Dream uses with his subordinates, who all maintain a healthy fear of him (it helps that most of the inhabitants of the Dreaming are also Dream’s creations, meaning they’re literally dependent on his good opinion to remain in existence), the more intimate way he relates with a close friend in his meeting with Bast, and the awkward, insecure vulnerability he has with members of his family (but only, it should be noted, the members that he feels close to; it’s unlikely you’d see Dream act in the manner he does here around Destiny or Desire).  It’s highly unusual that we get to see so many facets of Dream’s personality in a single issue.

The issue starts with Dream telling Delirium to go home. Like any sulky child with reality warping power, she literally breaks the comic panel as she goes away. (Artwork by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, and Daniel Vozzo)

The two major servants that Dream engages with here are Lucien, the Dreaming’s librarian, and Merv Pumpkinhead, a crudely built scarecrow who works as a handyman around Dream’s castle (we also get an utterly adorable page of Nuala the elf dancing in the throne room when she thinks no one is around until Dream appears behind her and tells her to stop; she actually gets Dream at his most brusque as he’s just returned from telling Delirium he’s done traveling with her, and he’s in a pretty bad mood about it).  Though Dream is very businesslike with Lucien, he makes it clear that he holds the librarian in extremely high regard (we see Dream explain to Mervyn very patiently that Lucien has his esteem because he stayed and cared for the remains of the castle after Dream was originally captured at the series’s beginning where most of the other servants went off to do their own thing).  By the same token, though Mervyn is highly critical of Dream when he thinks he’s out of earshot, Dream shows some measure of affection for the scarecrow (there’s a delightful panel where Dream smirks as he catches Mervyn trying to backpedal out of having put his foot in his mouth).  The big takeaway that I see in these interactions is that Dream, even when he’s in a bad mood, is much more empathetic to his staff than he likes to let on.  He rules the Dreaming, and this demands that he inhabit a certain persona in his office, but he really does try to understand the wants and needs of everyone around him.  Despite the distance he projects, he feels quite comfortable with his subordinates.

Someday Nuala will be an important character again, but today she’s just adorable. (Artwork by Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, & Daniel Vozzo)

Conversely, Dream’s conversation with Bast reveals his discomfort when dealing with people he considers his equals.  Bast is a very old friend whom we last saw in the Season of Mists story arc as a member of the contingent from the Egyptian pantheon that came to the Dreaming seeking ownership of the key to Hell.  In that story, you’ll recall that Bast offered Dream information on the location of his absent brother, and Dream declined.  He meets Bast in her dream here because he’s curious to get the information she offered before.  Bast admits that she lied about knowing Destruction’s whereabouts, and she eventually suggests that Dream seek out an oracle to give him a hint.  What’s interesting in this conversation is that even though Bast clearly regards Dream as a very dear, old friend, he’s constantly on guard with her.  Bast’s nature as a cat goddess leads her to assume the mannerisms of a cat, being both playful and predatory with Dream.  She doesn’t hide the fact that she finds him sexually attractive, and this tension in their relationship apparently isn’t new.  I’ve always found this particular relationship of Dream’s fascinating, because his romances so consistently end poorly for his lovers.  I think Bast is one of Dream’s few very intimate friends, and he’s always been aware that introducing a romantic or sexual element would eventually damage the relationship.  Despite how uncomfortable Dream seems to be with Bast’s advances here, he highly values her friendship, which suggests that she’s part of a very select group (we’ve seen many times before that Dream doesn’t make friends easily).

The last kind of interaction we see is between Dream and his family.  Death shows up for a couple pages to scold Dream for being mean to Delirium and driving her to close off her realm.  This exchange is fun because it lacks all the formality that tends to leak into Dream’s other interactions with people.  He’s still stiff, but his tone with Death sounds more like someone trying to avoid admitting that they did something wrong.  There’s some genuine affection here, even as Death is railing at Dream for what he’s done.  These two characters don’t interact in a way that suggests either of them is afraid of damaging their relationship.  The issue ends with Dream going to see Delirium in her realm and apologizing for what he’s done.  This conversation shows Dream at his most vulnerable throughout the entire issue, as he admits to her that the main reason he agreed to travel with her was that he hoped to run into his recent ex-girlfriend.  We’ll recall that way back in #42 Dream told Lucien that he didn’t think they’d have any success finding Destruction, but at the time it was unclear that Dream had an ulterior motivation beyond trying to get out of his funk.  It’s here, with his little sister, that Dream’s the most vulnerable, and he lays out all of his thoughts about why he made the decision to start the journey and why he decided to end it (this is a nice contrast to the last several issues where Dream’s thoughts have been mostly hidden from the reader and the people around him).  Dream was distressed by the effects of his and Delirium’s travels (Ruby’s death stands out most strongly, but Bernie Capax and Ishtar’s deaths are likely factors as well), and he thought that he needed to step away from the endeavor before more people were inadvertently hurt.

All in all, this issue provides a really concise look at the complexities of Dream’s relationships with other people.  He deals with a lot of insecurity, and he tries to hide that by being distant.

Next time, Dream and Delirium go to see Destiny, and it’s great.

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