The final arc of The Sandman is an emotionally difficult one to read. I find myself getting weepy pretty much every time I read it. The important thing to understand is that this story is a funeral in three parts, plus an epilogue. The final two issues of the series are one-off stories (issue #75 is something of a sequel to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but that’s for later), and they finish things out simply because the second Dream has to be introduced for the first story to make sense and Gaiman is just bold enough to implicitly compare the ending of The Sandman with the end of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright.
I’m digressing though (again, mostly because thinking about The Wake is an intense experience).
I don’t know if this is a universal experience, but the thing I always note about funerals is how they remind me of the funerals I’ve attended before. Each new incident of leave taking cleaves to me in small, imperceptible ways that don’t make themselves known until it all happens again. When I weep at funerals, I’m often weeping for multiple people at the same time. Long after goodbye, small reminders, a thought, a turn of phrase surprises me and the tears beg to come.
This is my experience of reading The Wake.
The first time I read this story, about seven years ago, I thought it was sad, but mostly because of how it offers catharsis for Dream’s story. Last year, when I re-read The Sandman and reached The Wake for the second time, it affected me much more deeply; half a decade hangs a lot more weight on a person’s soul than you realize. Saying goodbye to Dream was harder, because I was saying goodbye to more family than the previous time (and for the first time, some old students; God, I wasn’t prepared for that). Re-reading it again now, well.
I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make with all this. I simply think that The Wake is an exquisite ending to a remarkably well told story, and because it’s essentially an exploration of all the ways we express grief it only gets better with age.
Besides grief (Matthew and Hob Gadling are pitiful), we also get to explore Dream’s renewal in his new aspect. It’s an odd bit of mental gymnastics to make sense of Dream here. His old aspect, the dark and brooding man who was most commonly referred to as Morpheus (among a host of other names he collected for himself), is who died, and yet because Dream is an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept, he’s still alive. His new aspect grew out of Daniel Hall, and Daniel’s identity still exists as a part of this Dream, but he’s more than that. Different people react to Dream’s identity in vastly different ways: Cain at first fails to understand that the new Dream is still Dream in all the ways that matter for the sake of his office before he over corrects and assumes that Dream is still Morpheus; Matthew rejects Dream completely with the understanding that he’s not “the boss.” Even Dream struggles to comprehend what he is in small ways; the moments of grief in this issue are interspersed with scenes showing Dream undoing the damage done by the Furies (this issue takes place the day immediately following The Kindly Ones‘s resolution), and he frequently hesitates before reacting to different situations as he seems to be processing what parts of himself are still like Morpheus; the moments where he chooses to be gentle show how different he is.
It’s this gentleness that tempers the tragedy of Dream’s death. It’s been a long time, but you’ll recall that many of the early Sandman stories revolved around Dream inflicting a harsh, but in some cases arguably just, punishment on various people who crossed his path (the two big examples highlighted in this issue are Alexander Burgess and Richard Madoc). We see here that these victims of Dream’s wrath have been universally freed from their punishments. It’s not enough to suggest that these punishments expire with Dream; he’s still around fulfilling the duties of his office. What’s changed is Dream’s personality; the new Dream appears to lack Morpheus’s capacity for holding grudges. I want to assert that Dream’s death teaches him mercy. Of course, we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see that demonstrated more fully. Here it’s only implied at best.
There are a few minor things I want to note before we move on from here. The Endless’s visit to Letharge to retrieve the cerements for Dream’s funeral is a nice callback to that one story in Worlds’ End. We get to the see the payoff of all the little bits of lore that were sprinkled in that previous issue, from the inhabitants’ studied respect for the family (after the previous Necropolis was razed when the Endless needed the cerements for the first Despair’s funeral and they were treated with disdain) to the catacombs where the cerements are located (recall from before the woman who discovered this room by accident and had her hand shriveled as punishment). The cerements room is one of the major mysteries that Gaiman leaves unanswered in the original Sandman series. The Endless are supposed to be the eldest beings in the universe, but then there’s this place where some mysterious power stores the things that are needed for putting these beings to rest. The facts in this issue that the Endless can’t gather the cerements themselves leaves it wide open to wonder who is responsible for this duty.
Lastly, I have to gush about the artwork of this final arc. Michael Zulli’s style is a far departure from the highly exaggerated look that Marc Hempel uses for the majority of The Kindly Ones. Every panel is inked in a way that preserves the look of pencil sketchings, and the colors (Daniel Vozzo and Dave McKean share color credits on this issue) are done in a more subdued palette than the vibrant one of the previous arc. It signals to the reader that this isn’t a high excitement, or even a high tension, story. The worst has already passed, and we’re just going to deal with cleanup from here to the end. Dream is a particularly fascinating character here, with his shift from an all black wardrobe to an all white one. I confess that I always want there to be more story featuring the second Dream just because I want to see more artists draw him. As it is, Zulli’s the only one to do any extensive work with the character, and it has to be good enough.