Reading “Worlds’ End”

The last issue of the Worlds’ End arc feels, in a lot of ways, more like a commentary on what’s come before rather than a proper ending in itself.  We hear from Charlene, the traveling partner of forgettable protagonist Brant Tucker, as she complains that all the stories featured in this arc have been stories about men without any truly complex female characters (she even insists to Jim, who protests, that the whole point of his story is that there aren’t any women on the ship that sees the sea serpent).  It’s a moment of lampshading that I find incredibly curious, because Gaiman is taking a moment here to call attention to something that’s undeniably true about the stories he’s written in the last five issues.  I can’t tell precisely what the purpose here is supposed to be; part of it may be the fact that Gaiman has a decent track record of centering his Sandman stories on female characters who are interesting and complex, and he’s acknowledging that this arc’s not been on the same level as his previous work in that regard, and part of it may be as a way of critiquing the kind of stories he’s been telling (Charlene is very firm in her opinion that the stories are mostly pointless diversions to pass the time; I tend to agree with her on this point, especially after spending a month on this story arc and struggling with pretty much every issue to find anything of substance to say about them).  After Charlene levels her complaint, one of the patrons who’s been listening asks her if she has a story she might offer to remedy the imbalance, and she explains that her life isn’t like that.  She has a boring job, a plain apartment, and a lack of interests that all suggest a deep dissatisfaction with her life.

“You are the worst, Brant Tucker.” (Artwork by Bryan Talbot, Mark Buckingham, and Daniel Vozzo)

Charlene’s complaints all come to a head when she realizes that she lives in a way that denies human connection.  It’s a bitter moment, and following on the heels of Charlene’s critique of the stories, I can’t help but think that this moment is further commentary on the way women often get relegated to the background with their own wants and needs subsumed into basic survival.  Charlene has no stories because she doesn’t have the resources to spend on fantasies that all the men who’ve been telling tales get to indulge.  Brant, in one last jab from Gaiman that screams, “This guy is useless,” completely misses the subtext of Charlene’s breakdown and offers a clueless shrug and, “Women, huh?”  Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, there’s a lovely panel where the other patrons at the table give Brant the stinkeye for being an oaf.  It’s this moment of authorial judgment on the protagonist that inclines me to think that Gaiman is offering a small mea culpa for the lack of good female representation, even as I’m sure he was trying to do interesting things in various storytelling traditions (it’s worth noting that in his acknowledgements for Worlds’ End, Gaiman does cite several storytelling influences that he was playing with in each issue).

The second half of “Worlds’ End” concerns itself with the resolution of the reality storm that’s stranded so many people on their travels.  What we finally learn here is that Someone has Died and it’s a really big deal.  The issue’s climax features a series of double page spreads detailing a funeral procession in the night sky.  It begins with a massive Destiny, then follows with a tall, lanky man carrying a standard ahead of the casket and its bearers, then shows a crowd of mourners (many of whom are familiar from past Sandman stories, including Queen Titania, one of the angels of the Silver City, Luz and Prinado from Barbie’s dream world, Bast, Odin and Thor, Emperor Joshua Norton, Gilbert, Despair, and others), and finally Delirium and Death bringing up the rear.  We’re not told whose funeral this is, but the makeup of the mourners gives a pretty fair clue: reality has been unsettled because Dream has died.  It brings things into focus rather sharply, as we learn that like the small vigil held in Petrefax’s story from the previous issue, the massive gathering of strangers to tell stories has served as part of the observance of the death of the Prince of Stories.  Dream’s involvement in the stories that we read in Worlds’ End ranges from deus ex machina to doesn’t even appear, but they all hold significance because they’re spun out from Dream’s own realm.  Gaiman has played with the multiple meanings of Dream’s office since the beginning, and here in this arc he hits home most strongly that Dream isn’t just about the imagination but also the sharing of it (remember that within the context of The Sandman all of these tales are lived experiences rather than fabrications).

From here we’ll be moving into the last and longest arc of The Sandman, which explains all the events leading up to Dream’s death.

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