I have to be honest: I don’t like this Sandman story very much. It’s a very sparse story, and Jon J Muth’s art is so strikingly minimal in comparison to Michael Zulli’s lush work on The Wake. Really, probably the biggest weakness “Exiles” has is that it has to immediately follow on the massive catharsis Gaiman’s delivering in this last long arc.
The story in this issue follows an elderly man who has been exiled to the farthest reaches of an ancient Chinese empire. His son was a practitioner of magic, and was executed by the Emperor for some vague reason. The old man travels through a vast desert on the way to his new post, and in a sandstorm he gets separated from his guide and pulled into the Soft Places. The majority of the issue is concerned with the old man’s dreams, which meander through a series of vaguely connected scenes that highlight the old man’s thoughts on his long journey. Out of all the issues of The Sandman, I might say this one has the most dreamlike quality to it; there’s a definite arc for the character of the old man (he begins the journey adopting a stoic attitude toward his misfortune, and by the end he seems to have legitimately come to terms with it), but the actual action of the issue is minimal. The old man has two encounters with Dream, once before his death and once after, and through these conversations he receives some comfort.
Like I said, it’s a pretty sparse story.
There is a metanarrative going on here, though. This issue and the next deal with two different men who are coming to terms with the end of their careers. Gaiman seems to be spending these last issues meditating on the end of a major project; by this point The Sandman had been going for about seven years, and it was a massive single piece of fiction for Gaiman (in several of his forewords from later Sandman works, Gaiman likes to note that altogether the series spans some two thousand pages). He began The Sandman when he was in his late twenties, and it lasted well into his thirties; I’m still in my early thirties and the thought of working on a single project for that long sounds like a really big deal (I’ve been maintaining this blog for over three years now, and though most of the content isn’t directly connected, it feels like a huge personal investment for me). I think that Gaiman was using the last couple issues to get his own closure on The Sandman.
And that’s it for this issue. Like I said at the start, it’s not a story that I particularly enjoy, even when I see what Gaiman’s doing with it. The next issue is the last in the main Sandman run, and it will probably be the last Sandman issue that I cover here for a while. It’s time to move on to something else.