On the face of it, this shouldn’t be a very interesting issue. Dream, Delirium, and Destruction sit down for a meal and talk about a bunch of stuff, and at the end of it Destruction disappears again while Dream is left in a pretty sorry state (Delirium comes out okay, though). There is literally nothing besides conversation here.
And yet, I think this is the single most engrossing issue of The Sandman (naturally, don’t hold me to that, as it’s been a while since I read the last third of the series).
This issue is the climax of the Brief Lives arc, and it also marks the climax of the second act of the whole series. Where the first twenty-five issues spent a lot of time establishing Dream and the world that he inhabits, the middle twenty-five have gone a long way to highlight how he’s grown from the angry, vengeful anthropomorphic personification that he was way, way back in “Sleep of the Just” into someone with real empathy who’s grappling with the implications of what a shift in perspective means for the actions he takes. The last twenty-five will be mostly preoccupied with the consequences of Dream’s epiphany.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
First, let’s discuss Destruction as a character; he’s been appearing in flashbacks and small interludes throughout this arc, and I’ve largely avoided analysis up to this point because I felt like this issue was the one to dive into him with some depth. As a member of the Endless family, Destruction occupies the unique position of being the middle sibling. Over the course of the entire arc, we’ve had opportunities to see glimpses of his relationships with each of his siblings, and the general pattern that emerges is one of a peacemaker. Destruction is well-liked by all his siblings, and it’s been apparent since the entire family’s introduction back in issue 20 that his absence over the past few centuries is acutely felt. Without their brother, it’s easy to see a distinct divide between older and younger siblings; where Destiny, Death, and Dream generally approach their responsibilities as a matter of obligation to the creatures of the universe, Desire, Despair, and Delirium tend to take a more inverted view where they exercise their powers over others as a form of entertainment. It’s a philosophical divide that Destruction rejects altogether. We learn here that the reason he abandoned his office is because he realized that forces of destruction churn on without his express intervention, and, being a person who neither enjoyed his power nor felt a need to exercise it, he chose to just stop doing his job.
Instead of coordinating destruction across the universe, Destruction spends his time playing at creation. He explains to Dream and Delirium that each of the Endless define their antitheses by their nature. The concept of death requires an understanding of life, just like destiny only makes sense when contrasted with freedom. We’ve seen in several instances that Destruction’s not a particularly good creator (his poetry is trite, his sculpture is rough) but he continues to try at it because he embraces that creation is as much part of his nature as destruction. Holding two aspects within himself, Destruction’s determined that what he really represents is change. Change is a painful and necessary process, and we learn here that it’s the thing that Destruction most wants to avoid being responsible for.
Besides his philosophical outlook, we’ve also been gradually learning about Destruction’s temperament. Where Dream’s often a stick in the mud and Delirium’s usually thoughtlessly whimsical, Destruction is an eminently gentle person. In every appearance he makes, he displays a great deal of concern for people around him and for mortals in general. With such a temperament, it should be unsurprising that he would eventually decide to walk away from his realm and renounce his responsibility for all the suffering that inevitably follows in the wake of destruction.
Of course, Destruction’s outlook clashes mightily with Dream’s. We know that if Dream has one immutable quality, it’s his dedication to his responsibilities. For Dream, fulfilling obligations are everything, and he has an immensely difficult time understanding where Destruction is coming from. We’ll see this play out in the remainder of the series, as it’s quickly going to become apparent that Dream would be better off if he had any capacity for shrugging off responsibility (even here, as he and Delirium have dinner with Destruction, we learn that one of Dream’s chief motivations for continuing the search for his brother, which will have immense consequences, is that he feels guilty for Ruby’s death and doesn’t want it to have happened without a point). It’s an interesting point of contrast, because this one major difference in temperament underlines that Destruction, while extremely likeable, is so caught up with not being responsible for hurting people that he overlooks the fact that he actually hurt people by virtue of setting up a system that would impede anyone who came looking for him (it’s been building throughout the arc that the random bits of destruction that have followed all the mortals Dream and Delirium have been searching for were set in motion when Destruction last left his realm). Destruction appears at his most hypocritical when he laments Ishtar’s death in the same breath he explains he could have stopped it if he cared to resume his functions as the avatar of destruction in the universe.
You might say that if we’re going to contrast Dream and Destruction, it would be most succinct to say that Dream, who’s generally cold towards everyone, values doing right by others no matter the personal cost to himself, while Destruction, who is incredibly warm and friendly, is so focused on not being culpable for suffering that he lets others be hurt in order to avoid having to assume any responsibility. Both characters are deeply flawed, and I enjoy them both immensely.
I can’t let this issue go by without commenting on Delirium. While she’s mostly a passive observer of the conversation between Dream and Destruction, Delirium serves to summarize her journey to find Destruction (complete with a series of panels that recapitulate the full range of appearances Delirium’s adopted over the course of the story). It’s a very succinct two page sequence, and it culminates with probably my single favorite panel in The Sandman: a closeup of Delirium’s eyes both colored green (Delirium’s eyes being different colors is a hallmark of her insanity) as she recollects the way she had to pull herself together to comfort Dream following his conversation with Destiny. A recurring point in Delirium’s characterization is that her change from Delight was one necessitated by her inability to cope with the pain she experienced in the universe (by Destruction’s theory of the Endless, Delight also defined suffering, and this knowledge proved too much for her to live with), and the moment here highlights just how big the emotional cost was to Delirium. Naturally, the panel that immediately follows is a view of Dream’s face, presumably wracked with guilt that his moment of weakness caused Delirium to suffer like this. Knowing on top of that that Delirium’s journey is also ultimately a failure (Destruction wanders off to some other corner of the universe after the meeting is concluded) makes the moment incredibly poignant, and easily one of my favorites.
But even the best stories have to end eventually, and from here we’ll move into the conclusion of Brief Lives. Dream has unfinished business with Orpheus, and it’s time for Gaiman to resolve that plot thread.