Reading “A Tale of Two Cities”

Let’s get this out of the way early: after Brief Lives, the Sandman collection Worlds’ End is a little bit of a disappointment.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some good stories in it; I think a few of the issues are phenomenal.  No, the disappointment for me comes from the fact that this feels like a huge narrative step down from what came before.  We’ve moved from a story that’s explicitly about the inner conflicts of the Endless family to a series with a frame story that’s largely forgettable; Brant Tucker, a guy who’s remarkably bland in all respects, gets stranded at an interdimensional public house called the Worlds’ end when a freak snowstorm in June causes him to crash the car of his traveling companion Charlene Mooney, injuring them both.  To pass time during the storm, which is affecting all realities, Brant listens to other travelers stuck at the inn tell stories.  Each issue is structured around one of these stories, and they’re of varying quality.

Beyond that setup, I think I also feel a bit of enmity towards this volume simply because of the editorial decisions that were made when it was put together.  The first couple volumes of The Sandman were designed to maintain much of the integrity of each individual issue, complete with title and credit cards.  Starting with Season of Mists, the editorial approach shifted more towards presenting each collection as a unified work; credit cards aren’t present, and figuring out who worked on each individual issue usually involves flipping around the book either to the table of contents or, more annoyingly, to the back where the creator bios are located (these are often silly fake bios on top of everything else, with no direct reference to specific roles on a given issue).  Worlds’ End is the culmination of this approach; credit and title cards are gone, individual issues aren’t divided by chapter breaks, and the table of contents isn’t fully clear about each artist’s role (if there are more than two names listed I’m just resigned to the fact I’ll need to look up who did what on the internet).  It’s the most stubbornly collectivist presentation of a Sandman arc that I’ve seen, and that decision still strikes me as all the more puzzling since the frame story is such a loose excuse for doing one last series of one-off stories before building momentum towards the series’s climax.

But anyway.

You can see both the Lovecraftian elements and the unusual visuals of the story here. Those text blocks aren’t too big, but they’re really halting when you’re trying to read through the issue. (Artwork by Alec Stevens)

The tale of this issue is an incredibly sparse one.  Visually, its artist Alec Stevens uses a layout style that’s more reminiscent of picture books than of typical comics.  Instead of overlaying each panel with speech bubbles and caption boxes, each panel is cleanly nestled in white space that sets it apart from the narrative text that underscores each story beat.  Much of the action that’s conveyed in the artwork is reiterated in Gaiman’s narration, significantly slowing down the pace of the story as a whole (this is one of my least favorite Sandman stories, and I think part of it goes directly back to the way the action gets bogged down in large blocks of narrative text that often feel redundant).

The premise of the tale is that a man, Robert, who enjoys spending his free time exploring the city where he lives, one day gets trapped in the dream of his city where everything is just slightly unfamiliar.  He spends an indeterminate amount of time wandering this strange place before finally escaping.  He’s so traumatized by the event that he moves away from the city and spends the rest of his life living on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.

It strikes me very much as a shaggy dog story where Robert has an experience that’s ultimately kind of pointless, even if it does affect him personally on a deep level.  I have a hard time caring about Robert or anything that happens to him.

What does make this story interesting though is the fact that when you look at its components, it becomes pretty apparent that Gaiman’s doing a bit of a pastiche of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story.  Robert’s a relatively unremarkable man who has a brush with the underside of reality, and he’s so freaked out by realizing how tenuous his position in life is that he goes a little mad.  Small details like the way the city’s dream consists of bizarre, not-quite-familiar geography (much like Lovecraft’s obsession with the non-Euclidean geometry of the Elder Gods’ realms) and the underlying fear that these massive entities might someday wake from their sleep are total shoutouts to Lovecraft.  Even the visual structure, which irritates me as someone who prefers more conventional narrative comic styles, seems like Gaiman and Stevens’s way of riffing on Lovecraft’s purple prose that just can’t get out of the way of the story it’s telling.  While I still don’t like the story very much, I do get a kick out of what it’s doing metatextually, so there’s that.

Fortunately, the next issue features The Sandman‘s shaggiest of shaggy dogs, Cluracan of Faerie.  That story’s going to be pretty pointless too, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun.

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