Reading “The Kindly Ones: 8”

The structure of this issue follows a week in the life of Dream.  We’re given a sense of how this relates to the story that’s been progressing by way of a panel showing that Odin’s visit to Dream from the last issue occurs on “Wodensday” (because Gaiman can’t resist playing with dream logic, which says that each day of the week is named for a thing that may or may not be related to what’s happening in the story).  By the week’s end, Dream has his first encounter with Lyta Hall as the avatar of the Furies, and everything is finally set for the great collision of these two characters.

Now, this “week in the life” structure follows a pretty well established pattern.  In the wake of something momentous happening, storytellers typically use this device to highlight the routine of a person’s life and emphasize how ordinary it is (the first example to leaps to my mind is the narrative arc of Fruitvale Station, which follows its protagonist Oscar Grant on the last day of his life before he’s fatally shot by a police officer) before the extraordinary intrudes.  Dream’s life isn’t ordinary from a human perspective, but the tone of the issue does convey a sort of mundanity to the way Dream goes about his business.  He performs the duties of a high ranking official, and the fact that his duties revolve around dreams and stories means that things follow a logic of their own and often look silly to us as outside observers.  To Dream, who always takes everything very seriously, all of the things he does in the course of his week demand respect from him.

Things about Dream’s week that strike me as noteworthy are these: he plays a bit part in a portal world story for some children, he takes time off to watch a translated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of the two Shakespeare plays he commissioned in exchange for Shakespeare’s playwrighting career), he spends some small bit of personal time with all of his denizens, and he checks up on his properties in the waking world.  I think the first is simply good fun, but the other things that Dream does this week (all of which he does before Odin and Delirium deliver their respective warnings) are the sort of things a person does when they need to get their affairs in order.  Dream’s taking time for personal pleasure is a rare thing, but here combined with his checking in on the things he’s responsible for (which I think is different from what he means when he discusses his “responsibilities”) this seems to me like further evidence that he’s expecting his death.  There’s nothing new to that idea itself (Dream did something very similar before he went to confront Lucifer about releasing Nada, and it’s established that like the rest of the Endless he should know that killing Orpheus was eventually going to bring the Furies to him), but I’m maintaining that Dream has planned for what’s going down.

One key part of Dream’s week is a brief visit he receives from Delirium.  We’ve seen her in bits and pieces over the story as she’s slowly gathering up the wherewithal to go looking for Barnabas the dog, whom she’s misplaced since last visiting Destruction.  Delirium’s arrival here is a relatively minor event in the grand scheme of the story; she intersects with Dream at this one point and then goes on her way to find her dog, but this scene’s significant because it’s a moment of real talk between siblings.  Usually it’s Death doing the heart-to-hearts with Dream, but Delirium happens to be here, and she happens to know something about “responsibilities.”  As has been happening repeatedly throughout this story arc, Dream has been dodging certain activities by falling back on his “responsibilities,” which is a pretty neat trick that for most people doesn’t raise any particular suspicion since it fits so well in with Dream’s typical demeanor.  Though he’s not necessarily any more dutiful than the other Endless in fulfilling his role in the universe, he has the unique distinction of being the most proud of his function.  Delirium (whom we must always remember knows all the things that Destiny doesn’t), gets fed up with Dream’s excuses about his “responsibilities” and explains to him how responsibility works on a more fundamental, cosmic level.  It’s a lovely statement about how a person’s mere existence impacts the world around them in ways beyond what’s overtly acknowledged, and heavily suggests that Dream’s obsession with responsibility leads him to overlook the things of value to him and his relationships.

Delirium and Dream, deforming the universe. (Artwork by Teddy Kristiansen, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The irony here is that even if Dream doesn’t explicitly acknowledge Delirium’s point, his actions during the week leading up to Lyta Hall’s invasion of the Dreaming suggest he’s already learned this lesson, and he’s acting on it in the ways he best knows how: by making sure he has everything in order for the eventuality that he’s going to die.  After all, if a person’s existence deforms the universe, then their absence will do the same.

Hippolyta Hall as the Furies. This is all we see of her like this in the entire story. (Artwork by Teddy Kristiansen, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

Back in issue #59 there was a sequence showing the beginning of Lyta’s disconnection from reality from her perspective.  It wasn’t a total habitation of her head, but there were a number of panels illustrated to show what Lyta was seeing.  This device is an interesting one because it most directly reminds me of the convention of modern first person games to position the camera behind the player character’s eyes.  This technique’s useful for helping an audience relate to the headspace of their subject.  It also tends to create a sense of disembodiment (usually because in first person perspective games, the player character’s body isn’t visually present in the game world) where the audience forgets their own presence in a physical space.  I think this concept’s fascinating because in the real world it tends to manifest in a certain way for some people, particularly those of demographic privilege.  You see, as a white guy, I sometimes have a bad habit of not being aware of the space I occupy in public.  This usually manifests in weird things like taking up extra space on public transportation (I’ve not ridden a metro train in a couple years, but I’m sure I’ve been guilty of manspreading before) or just not being mindful of other people trying to traverse the grocery store.  A lot of this lack of awareness is tied up in cultural tropes like the male gaze where it’s simply assumed in any given visual that the eyeball is attached to a straight man.  Lyta’s appearance as the Furies works as an inversion of that ball of ideas.

Hippolyta Hall as the Fury. Note the impractically shaped half breastplate and high heeled boots. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Lyta’s history prior to her appearance in The Sandman is tied up in superhero comics; she spent some time both before and after her stint as Gaiman’s character as a superhero called (of course) the Fury.  Like with most mainstream superheroines, Lyta is drawn as conventionally attractive while wearing a costume that accentuates her figure instead of being practical adventurer garb.  She’s fully subject to the male gaze in these appearances, and Gaiman takes an opportunity to subvert that with her manifestation of the Furies by directing all the scenes with Lyta in this form from her perspective.  Every act taken by the Furies in the Dreaming is depicted from a specifically female gaze.  We only get two panels in the whole story that show even part of Lyta as the Furies, and they’re both in this issue (which is guest illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen; his work is delightful and I’m sad he didn’t do any other issues of The Sandman).  The Furies aren’t meant as something to be looked at.

Of course, Lyta is acting as the avatar of the Furies here, but it’s made clear that she isn’t precisely in control of what’s going on.  Dream recognizes the Furies as Lyta Hall, but in one scene where the two speak face to face, it’s made clear that Lyta’s own internal voice is distinct from that of the Furies (they speak only in captions, and the one box that isn’t outlined in jagged red voices Lyta’s personal rage at Dream’s responsibility for Daniel’s death).  What isn’t clear is whether Lyta’s one moment of independent speech in this issue is heard by anyone else; Dream doesn’t respond to it.  This will be more significant later, but it’s worth noting here.

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