Reading “The Tempest”

I posted my first entry in this review series of The Sandman back in March of 2015.  It began as a thing to do to fill one of my weekly blogging slots and a chance to spend some time thinking more deeply about one of my favorite comic series.  I think I originally had this grand vision of somehow writing a comprehensive critique and commentary on The Sandman; the final product obviously falls short of that.  I think in the early issues, when there was still a lot laid out ahead to consider and unravel for my readers, I was much more disciplined in my approach to the series.  I tried to judge each issue on its individual merits and do some explication.  I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of all the references Gaiman makes in his stories, so I couldn’t hope to offer a catalogue of those interesting tidbits, but I could try to tease out some thematic stuff.  Literary criticism is the thing I went to school to learn to do, even if it’s not a skill that sees much use outside of my hobbies.  Somewhere around the time I reached Season of Mists, I got into the habit of thinking about larger narrative arcs more than looking at the nitty gritty of each individual issue.  Some of those middle entries seem to my recollection to lean a little too heavily on summary; I remember expressing constant frustration that there were so many issues in a row that didn’t offer even a miniature resolution to help frame what was happening thematically (it’s one of the biggest limitations I’ve noticed in doing criticism that being unable to discuss the events of a work in full, especially when you know them, makes it incredibly difficult to offer any perspective on a text’s meaning).  In the later entries, I think I settled on discussing characters I found noteworthy specifically and eschewing other details that hadn’t caught my interest.  There are some subplots, especially in the later Sandman trades, that I don’t think I even mentioned in my coverage.

In the end, I’m not sure if this exercise is something that anyone else will find particularly enlightening.  I don’t think my insights into The Sandman are especially earth shattering, but I’ve tried to come by them honestly.  Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastically rich story with a lot of facets, kind of like the character he placed at its center.  Dream is an oftentimes infuriating character, but he’s never not fascinating.  The central question is whether he will “change or die” and even after reading through knowing the ending, it continues to be a wonderful, nuanced story.

Still, stories eventually have to end.  Like I already noted, it’s a big part of what makes meaning possible.  So the last issue of The Sandman concludes a story that Gaiman started way back in “Men of Good Fortune” about Dream’s dealings with William Shakespeare.  The fact that this three part story even exists is a source of great joy, since it amounts to fanfiction about Shakespeare.  As an English major who had a particular fondness for the English Renaissance, I get a kick out of these historical bits (courtiers during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras of England’s history were involved in some really interesting intrigues).  Shakespeare having a drink with Ben Jonson, who’s justifiably upset about Guy Fawkes Day (Jonson was a Catholic and a close friend of Fawkes, though his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot is uncertain; some scholars have speculated that Jonson’s play Volpone, meaning “the fox,” about a trickster mountebank was a covert method of mourning his friend’s execution; it makes sense when you remember that spelling rules were much more fluid than they are today) is endless entertainment for me.  Stuff like the the obscure allusion to Shakespeare’s Dark Woman, who was one of the subjects of his sonnet cycle and a person that some speculate was a real woman whom he took as a mistress while he was in London, is exciting because it’s pop culture references: 1600s edition.  All this is to say that when Gaiman starts discussing all this historical stuff about Jacobean England, I get excited because it’s stuff I recognize.

The reason this issue focuses so heavily on Shakespeare is because it’s imagining a version of events surrounding his writing of The Tempest, his last solo work.  One of the central figures in The Tempest is the old magician Prospero, whom most Shakespeare scholars agree is at least partly a stand-in for the playwright himself.  Prospero’s extensive meditations on the direction his life’s taken and his resolve to leave behind his time as a magician runs strongly parallel to Shakespeare’s own career in the theater.  Acting wasn’t a respectable profession since it was viewed as, essentially, professional lying; that the older male figure in his last play should give up his suspect powers to return to respectability easily matches with Shakespeare’s own experiences.

The twist here is that Gaiman imagines a course of events where Shakespeare wrote his final play as the second half of payment he owed to Dream for unlocking his full artistic talent.  Dream serves as a stand in for The Tempest‘s spirit Ariel, a creature who’s the source of much of Prospero’s power.  The relationship isn’t exactly the same; Dream doesn’t present himself as a servant to Shakespeare but as more of a patron.  What’s interesting here is the conversation Dream has with Shakespeare: Will wants to know why Dream commissioned this particular play (like most modern readers, Gaiman here assumes that the great stories are tragedies rather than comedies) with its facile ending that wraps everything up neatly for its characters.  Dream’s response serves as a guide to his motivations for the entirety The Sandman.  He believes he’ll never have the kind of story that Prospero has; for him there’s no escape from his life as king of a magical place outside the bounds of reality.  Dream thinks that he can neither change nor possess a story of his own.  The great irony is that we’ve just finished reading his story, and there’s plenty of evidence that he does change (I might argue that Dream’s dilemma between change and death is a false one; in many ways he manages to do both).  Of course, most of the action of The Sandman is set nearly four hundred years in the future from the events of the final issue, and Dream isn’t omniscient.  Still, we can pity Dream’s despair over his situation here and take comfort that he’s mistaken about his own fate.

He’s not Michael Zulli, but Charles Vess’s work on this final issue of The Sandman is still spectacular. I love pretty much all the issue’s splash pages showing scenes from The Tempest, though I think this one is my favorite. (Artwork by Charles Vess, colors by Daniel Vozzo, letters by Todd Klein)

Beyond Shakespeare and Dream, there’s also the metanarrative at play in this last issue.  Like I mentioned in my last entry, Gaiman is thinking about wrapping up his own long term project.  We’re reflecting on this moment twenty years later when he’s had a long, successful career outside of The Sandman, but when the series was ending it was the most significant work he’d done.  It’s easy to see Gaiman feeling some kinship with his subjects here.

As for what’s next in this space, I’m still thinking about what I might do.  There remains the collection of graphic short stories Endless Nights and the more recent Sandman: Overture within the Sandman mythos, but they’re so removed in time from the series proper (and I’ve been looking at that regularly for eighteen months now) that a break before tackling them is probably in order (besides that, the content of Endless Nights varies significantly in quality, and it was only ever published as a collected work, so I need to consider how I want to approach it as a text; Sandman: Overture is extremely good all the way through, but I don’t yet feel familiar enough with it to do an in depth analysis).  I think I’d like to continue reserving this space for comics analysis, but I’ll probably tackle a much shorter complete series next; after that, we’ll see.

Advertisements

Reading “Chapter One: Which Occurs in the Wake of What Has Gone Before”

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.

Anyway.

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.

This is the most lavish drawing of Dream that we get in this arc. It’s quite good, but I always wish there were more artwork of him. Also, note the way Cain struts in the background. (Artwork by Michael Zulli)

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.

Reading “The Kindly Ones”

It makes sense that Gaiman would decide that for Dream’s death issue he would do an extended callback to the first issue where The Sandman began to feel like something unique: “The Sound of Her Wings.”  Dream’s moping on the edge of Nightmare, waiting for his sister Death to arrive, and when she does he produces a loaf of bread for her, harking back to that first time we saw the two of them together.  Dream’s progressed a long way from where he was; he knows how to apologize to people, and admit when he’s wrong, and even sometimes shows concern for the well being of others.  He’s still a mopey guy, but he’s a mopey guy with some empathy, which is a lot more than you could say about him in issue #8.  The whole quest to recover his power was fun in its own way, and it did evoke a sense of pity for Dream’s predicament, but it didn’t do much to establish Dream as someone we should like (it’s probably because of the series’s strong horror roots in that first arc; you could call Dream a mostly just character, but he was remarkably scary; the intervening sixty issues served to soften the tone of the series as a whole and the character in particular).

Death is remarkably unchanged.

“Bread?” “It’s all soggy.” “Doesn’t have to be.” “I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humor.” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Seeing as this is the point where Dream finally dies (after more than a year’s worth of issues foreshadowing the moment), it feels like there should be some big dramatic revelation here, but the reality is that everything you can glean here is just confirmation of what we’ve suspected for a while.  Death tells Dream that he set this whole thing up himself, whether he realizes it or not (we don’t have any reason to doubt her; Death has proven repeatedly to know her brother better than he knows himself), and she scolds him sharply when he tries to shove the blame off on Nuala for summoning him at a bad time (it’s really satisfying to see a character call out Dream for the one thing he does in this story that I think is really reprehensible).

Much of Death and Dream’s conversation recapitulates the sense of premeditation we’ve been gleaning from Dream’s actions.  It becomes apparent that Dream hasn’t been fully aware that he’s been setting himself up.  This is actually a really fun bit of retroactive continuity; I don’t believe for a moment that Gaiman knew from the very beginning that he was going to end the series with Dream’s death and resurrection in a new facet.  Suggesting that Dream has been planning his own demise subconsciously helps put a neat bow on all the plot threads that Gaiman pulled together to reach this climax without undermining the integrity of the individual stories as they were published, which is always a risk you take when you employ a retcon on previous stories.  It’s remarkably elegant and subtle; I’ve read through this series three times now, and I think this is the first time it’s occurred to me that Dream’s self-destruction is a late addition intended to unify his actions throughout the whole series.

Without Daniel Vozzo’s normal color scheme for unglamoured Nuala, it really doesn’t look like she’s changed appearance at all here, does it? (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Like I mentioned last time, Nuala gets a more fitting epilogue than I had originally remembered.  It’s confined to only a page, but there’s a lot of significance packed in.  You’ll remember that I was pretty irritated with Nuala’s infatuation with Dream much earlier in The Kindly Ones, especially when Gaiman put her in direct conflict with Queen Titania with Dream as the point of contention.  I felt like a love triangle was more than a little cliche and disrespectful to Nuala after Gaiman did so much to establish her as a complex secondary character; in this last page where Nuala is finally endeavoring to leave Faerie, she confronts Titania, and Gaiman fixes that previous problem.  At the moment when Titania is ready to drag Nuala back to Faerie for her desertion, the sky splits and they all realize that Dream has died.  Titania, whom Gaiman has heavily implied throughout the series is deeply in love with Dream (whether they’ve ever actually been lovers is left ambiguous), is overcome with grief and can’t bring herself to detain Nuala.  Nuala isn’t similarly moved, and she escapes Faerie to make her own path forward.  I love that Nuala, who spent pretty much all of The Kindly Ones pining over Dream, has as her ending a moment where she’s focused only on doing what’s best for herself independent of any others.  I take this last scene to suggest that Nuala is putting Dream’s rejection behind her, especially when Titania openly weeps despite possibly being in the same position.  The only mar on the scene is the fact that Marc Hempel has inexplicably drawn Nuala in a way that seems far more traditionally attractive than her unglamoured self has previously been depicted.  Her coloring is the same as when she appears without glamour in the Dreaming, but Hempel’s art doesn’t resemble Nuala as she looked back in issue #58.  Of course, Hempel’s style seems to have evolved significantly in the last few issues of the story in comparison to what he drew at the beginning, so this inconsistency might be chalked up to the style change.

The story wouldn’t be totally finished unless we also address our chief antagonist’s ending.  Hippolyta Hall appears to have lost her hold on the Furies a few issues back when it became clear that Daniel was still alive in some capacity within the Dreaming.  Her personal grievances were never that important to the engines behind the events of The Kindly Ones.  The Furies needed her as an avatar to harass Dream for Orpheus’s death, and Daniel’s disappearance served only to motivate her to seek them out; no one who manipulates Lyta through this story actually cares about her achieving her goals (this is especially true in the case of Dream once you accept that he’s just as guilty of using Lyta as Larissa or the Furies or Loki and Puck).  We leave Lyta waking from her long delirium to a newly hostile world where many beings of some consequence have a legitimate vendetta against her, and to throw salt in the wound, she has failed to recover Daniel.  Lyta’s story is tragic in a way that Dream’s can’t be; he gets what he wants, even if he doesn’t fully realize it until the end, and she simply can’t.  Even worse, she’s left alive with the worst of her endeavor left before her: a life devoid of the thing that’s most important to her, and the constant threat that results from her attempt at vengeance.

“Why am I covered in sage and honey? Also, why are you looking at me like I did something terrible? Where’s Daniel?” (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

I feel a lot of sympathy for Lyta Hall; she’s the most manipulated character in the whole story, and her reward is the absolute worst.

As for Daniel, we learn in the final pages of the issue that he’s been marked as Dream’s successor.  Dream is dead, long live Dream.  It’s sensible that Dream’s death couldn’t leave a vacuum in Gaiman’s cosmology, especially when Dream is such a meticulous planner.  We’ve seen that Daniel navigates the Dreaming like he’s a native of it (he literally is; remember that Lyta was pregnant in the Dreaming for years before she gave birth to him), and from Lyta’s introduction in The Sandman it was clear that Dream had laid claim to her child for some purpose.  We now know what that purpose is.  The series’s last six issues will spend some time helping us get to know what kind of Dream Daniel will be.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 12”

So, when I wrote up my post for the last issue, I mistakenly said it was the end of Nuala’s story in The Kindly Ones.  I had forgotten that she does get a little bit more resolution in this issue and the next, so I want to revisit her quickly before I get into the meat of the issue, the relationship between Dream and Matthew the raven.

Yes, Nuala! Get away from that toxic environment. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Nuala’s scene in this issue is a brief one; we see her grieving her part in Dream’s doom and the fact that she’s still stuck with the glamour that Cluracan put on her to save face in front of Queen Titania.  A boggart who’s appeared to pester Nuala before shows up and recites a bad poem to entertain her.  Nuala immediately recognizes the boggart as Cluracan in disguise, and she complains to him about Dream being in danger and not returning her love.  Cluracan rather flippantly asks if she would prefer that Dream did love her and was in danger, once again highlighting how he tends to diminish his sister’s feelings.  The intended point, that it’s ridiculous for Nuala to focus on Dream’s affection while he continues to be mortally threatened by the Furies, is a fair one, but it still diminishes Nuala’s stake in the story.  I’d prefer if she hadn’t fallen in love with Dream, but that’s one of her two major motivations throughout The Kindly Ones, so we need to respect how it impacts her character.  She’s reeling from a failed confession of love, and that’s certainly something with which most people can empathize.  Nuala’s other motivation, which I think’s a far less troublesome one for the audience, is her frustration at having her own wishes constantly undermined.  It’s fitting that Cluracan’s silly poem serves to inspire Nuala to leave Faerie and go make her own way for once.

The main event of this issue is between Dream and Matthew.  Matthew has been around since the second major arc of The Sandman, The Doll’s House.  I don’t remember if I’ve gotten into his background as a character before, but it’s worth bringing up here that readers commonly believe that Matthew the raven is the supporting character Matthew Cable from the comic series Swamp Thing.  During Alan Moore’s famous run on that series, Matthew Cable became an alcoholic and a domestic abuser, and he was eventually killed off following events that play out like a fantastic version of domestic violence.  In the continuity of The Sandman, Matthew is one of the select few mortals whom Dream keeps from going into Death’s domain so that they can serve a purpose within the Dreaming.  Understanding Matthew’s mortal life provides a lot of important context for his relationship with Dream throughout The Sandman.

Because so much of Gaiman’s cosmology is informed by his extensive knowledge of folklore and mythology, it’s not surprising that he established that Dream keeps a raven as a messenger and advisor; Odin has appeared at regular intervals with his own ravens Huginn and Muninn.  In The Kindly Ones, ravens are a recurring motif, with Gaiman using them as a way to signal the impending slaughter in the Dreaming and also having Dream explain to Matthew that he’s employed a long line of ravens.  This is a question that Matthew’s wondered about for a while now (I think the first time the question comes up is during Brief Lives), and it points toward his doubts about his role in the Dreaming.  Matthew’s history is never directly discussed within The Sandman, nor is any explanation given for why he was chosen to be Dream’s new raven, and his questioning (which seriously began at the start of The Kindly Ones) suggests that he’s in the dark about his arrangement as well.  This existential crisis strikes me as notable because it emerges at just the moment when Dream is in the depths of a parallel struggle.  In The Kindly Ones‘s first chapter we find Matthew seeking out Dream to check on him and to ask for more information about the Dreaming’s line of ravens.  It’s not a very fruitful conversation for Matthew, and he comes away from it in just as broody a mood as Dream.

I think the obfuscation on Dream’s part (he dismisses Matthew rather than offering any answers) is significant because it marks a split between these characters that hasn’t been present before.  Dream doesn’t generally like to explain things if he thinks they don’t need to be known, but in the time that Matthew has been his companion, they’ve always had a slightly more open relationship than that.

This is where Matthew’s background comes into play.

Remember that Dream’s arc throughout the entire series has been a gradual development of empathy and humility.  I think that his long imprisonment in the Burgess house and the subsequent struggle to reclaim his power from John Dee do a lot to teach Dream that he would be better served to build up his interpersonal skills, and it’s no coincidence that he selects Matthew to be his new raven once he returns to his full stature.  Matthew’s mortal life ended in ruin, and he made a lot of choices that damaged people he cared about; he’s a flawed person who knows a lot about messing things up, and he’s invested in trying to be better.  These qualities make him an ideal advisor to Dream, who at least subconsciously knows he needs to learn the same lessons.

What we’ve come to understand since the end of Brief Lives and throughout The Kindly Ones is that Dream is deep into an existential crisis that he doesn’t believe he can escape.  His nature is too fixed to fully embrace the changes he needs to make to repair the relationships that he cares about, and his rejection of Matthew in that first chapter is indicative of that.

Here in chapter twelve, where Dream is ready to confront the Furies with the full knowledge that he really only has one option to get them to leave the Dreaming alone, he relents and allows Matthew to accompany him.  That Matthew remains loyal to Dream, even after he’s been mostly shut out throughout this story, is pretty heartwarming.  That the last exchange between Matthew and Dream involves Matthew insisting that Dream needs to ask nicely almost makes me want to cry.  Even when Dream’s fully aware that he’s about to die, he’s still learning how to be better from Matthew.

Besties say goodbye. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Next time, Dream dies and the aftermath begins.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 11”

This issue sees the end of Nuala’s plot line (and pretty much the end of her involvement in The Sandman; she might cameo later, but even Darkseid cameos in a few issues, so that’s not saying much), Dream’s decision to face the Furies, and Rose learning to cope with her newly restored emotional core after she receives more bad news.

Let’s get Dream out of the way first, because he more or less engulfs Nuala’s story here, and I feel like she needs a bit of summation as a character.  In this issue there are three full body shots of Dream.  They’re pretty key to communicating his state of mind throughout the issue (and they’re all beautiful pieces of art).  The first comes with the chapter title, and it’s Dream standing mostly in shadow, illuminated by (of course) moonlight, naked except for his cloak and clutching his shoulders.  Marc Hempel’s style is highly angular, and it’s always struck me as a dramatic departure from all the previous artists who worked on The Sandman, but this image takes it up to eleven.  Dream’s bare torso looks gaunt, more starved than simply slim like he’s normally portrayed.  He’s just made the decision to leave the Dreaming for the sake of a promise to Nuala, and it’s clear that this is the thing that’s finally going to seal his doom.  In the background you have Nuala looking at him, uncertain about what’s going on with Dream.  Outside scenes with his family, I think this might be the only instance in the series where Dream appears vulnerable in the presence of someone else.

I could not make this look work. Dream does it effortlessly. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

The second panel is my favorite of the issue, mostly because of its style rather than what it represents about Dream.  He’s made his decision to return to the Dreaming and face the Furies, and he arrives off of a sleek bullet train dressed in a double-breasted gray suit with a scarf around his neck, black and flame cape flowing from his shoulders, and thigh high boots.  It feels like it should be too many accessories for a suit and yet Dream just looks good in it.  This is the moment where he’s pulled together his resolve, and he’s projecting nothing but confidence again.  If we didn’t already know this story is a tragedy, we might believe for a moment that Dream’s about to set things right.

The third panel closes out the issue.  It’s a half page splash of Dream in his accoutrements of office (cloak, gloves, etc.), gazing at his raven’s skull helmet.  He’s lost the suit and now he’s just wearing his usual comfort outfit: a black t-shirt and jeans.  This is Dream tempered by the reality of his most recent encounter with the Furies, who struck him across the face with their scorpion whip.  He’s accepted that he only has one course of action to appease the Furies; all that’s left is to get things in order.  There’s no false confidence here like with Dream in the suit.  He accepts the scar left on his face by the Furies’ attack, notes that it’s what Alianora predicted would come to him in time (you’ll remember her as the woman who appeared briefly at the end of A Game of You; she’s one of those delightful mysteries that never get fully explained in the original series), and sets about doing necessary work.  It’s probably Dream at his best.

But enough about that guy; this series is about him, and a lot of stuff happens in the next two issues, so we’ll discuss more later.  Right now, I’m interested in Nuala.

It’s not really a secret that I think Nuala is, objectively, the best.  She’s a minor character in a very long series who goes through a pretty complete character arc in her handful of appearances.  Her indenture to Dream following Season of Mists is a pretty sad state of affairs, and plays in with that plot’s larger themes about the petty capriciousness of deities very well.  She’s mostly a hapless victim who just happens to be fortunate that she’s been gifted to Dream, whom we now know is actually very kind to his servants.  She fades into the background from there, popping up as one of the denizens of the Dreaming who seems to be going about their lives as well as they can; she carries a warning to Barbie about the Cuckoo during A Game of You and she makes a job for herself keeping Dream’s throne room tidy.  Nuala’s altogether quite endearing during this period, and we get the sense that she’s actually happy living away from the intrigues of Faerie.  When we see her again at the beginning of The Kindly Ones, it’s clear that she doesn’t want to go back to her old life, and we’re left to wonder what this motivation must be.  We eventually learn it’s a combination of both her feeling liberated by not having to present herself in a specific way (the imposition of a glamour to be acceptable at court) and her being in love with Dream.  The second factor is what clues us in that things can’t end well for Nuala (not after Nada, and Calliope, and Larissa, and maybe Alianora).  Women who fall in love with Dream don’t get to live happily after they part ways, and Nuala’s no exception.  She gets stuck back in Faerie, living under social rules she’s no longer accustomed to following, resenting her sovereign for being in love with the same man she is (that plot point’s a real eye-roller, since it seems to overshadow the other legitimate reasons Nuala might have for rebelling against the expectations of Titania’s court), and pining over a bit of hope that Dream’s offered her in the form of a boon, unaware that he’s incapable of giving her what she really wants.

Nuala’s doomed to have her heart broken, and even worse, Dream uses his promise to her as an excuse to let the Furies wreak havoc in the Dreaminng.  It’s not fair to Nuala that she should be made to feel like she’s done anything wrong in calling for Dream’s help (like I said, he’s perfectly capable of explaining that he’s indisposed before he comes to her side), and the last scene with her in this issue feels like it’s going to carry on after Dream’s exit with Nuala lost in the wilderness in tears over the thought that she’s both been rejected by her love and that she’s responsible for bringing harm on him.  I think Nuala’s role in Dream’s death is one of the most despicable things he does as a character, and it highlights how for all the progress Dream’s made towards taking responsibility for himself, he’s still incredibly flawed and selfish.  Nuala deserves better than to be infatuated with someone so self absorbed who’s willing to saddle her with feelings of guilt over his own self destruction.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 10”

I have to admit that after all the stuff that happens in the previous issue, this one feels just a little thin.  Things are still happening, but the vast majority of the issue centers around events in Faerie, which up until this point has been a sort of free floating thread that lacked much direct connection to what’s going on with Dream.  Really, up until this issue it wasn’t entirely clear where Gaiman was going with Nuala’s sudden reclamation by Titania.

Of course, everything falls into place pretty neatly as we hit the last row of panels, where Dream explains to Nuala the current unpleasantness with the Furies tearing the Dreaming apart and assures her that they can’t do any real damage while he remains present there.  Nuala’s observation that Dream isn’t in the Dreaming while he’s speaking with her serves as a pretty emphatic endpoint.  It’s no wonder that this issue also marks the breaking of the thread that’s been featured in the first panel of every issue of the story arc so far.  Back in #57 that thread was established as the life line of someone that the Fates were preparing to cut off, and a lot of the context of the story suggests they’re talking specifically about Dream.  The thread’s been getting pulled tighter and tighter over the course of the arc, and it finally reaches its breaking point here, which is fitting since Dream’s disappearance from the Dreaming really marks the point where he’s irreversibly doomed (this also happens to be the first issue where others begin to speak of Dream in the past tense, even though he’s not technically dead yet).

Besides a couple of brief scenes showing the Furies murdering various denizens of the Dreaming, our real focus here is on Puck and Nuala.  Puck, you’ll recall, has been Loki’s partner in the scheme to kidnap Daniel Hall, though he was curiously absent for much of that plot after his initial appearance.  Here he emerges from the shadows to congratulate the Corinthian on succeeding, and refuses to explain himself before disappearing back to Faerie, from which he’s been absent for some three hundred years.  Puck’s involvement up to this point has been mostly a mystery; his decision to stay in the mortal world didn’t actually concern Dream at all, so his alliance with Loki appears to be born mostly out of a need to entertain himself.  Puck is a trickster, and he admits in this issue that the mischief he causes is mostly motivated by his need to be true to his inherent nature.  It’s hard to view Puck as a villain in light of this explanation, even though his actions directly harm a lot of sympathetic characters.

Puck’s note about being true to himself does sting in a particularly harsh way in this issue, where Nuala creates an uproar at court by appearing before Titania without a glamour (this moment is preceded by Cluracan soliloquizing about the subversive nature of violating local custom; while a drinking buddy claims there are no taboos among the Fae court, Nuala’s entrance puts the lie to that observation quickly).  I always feel especially sympathetic to Nuala, because she’s a woman struggling to establish her own identity while other people use her as a pawn in their games.  Her introduction was as a gift to Dream from Titania, and she found herself unable to escape such a contract.  After she grew accustomed to her job as a servant in the Dreaming and even began to enjoy it, her brother Cluracan strode in to beg her release on Titania’s behalf without stopping to ask if Nuala would be happy with that arrangement.  Since returning to Faerie she’s been bristling under court customs that she finds tiring and disingenuous in comparison with the straightforward and uncapricious expectations of Dream’s household.

Cluracan once again undermines Nuala’s wishes in order to “help” her. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Nuala’s moment of rebellion feels like a direct parallel to Puck’s reappearance in this issue, and it highlights a significant double standard.  Nuala is not directly harming anyone with her desire to remain unglamoured, and her defense that she simply feels more comfortable echoes Puck’s talk of being true to his nature.  Glamours are built on the premise of careful presentation of a persona that hides the true self.  Faerie here is all about image, and Nuala has lost her taste for that game; she’d rather be a humble elf.  Puck enjoys the position of Auberon and Titania’s court jester, meaning he’s allowed to be as disrespectful and disruptive as he wishes.  He’s also left to appear like himself; never is it suggested that he or any of the other non-elf inhabitants of Faerie must be glamoured in the queen’s presence.  No one even bats an eye at Puck despite his long absence, where Nuala is so disruptive that Cluracan puts a glamour on her himself to smooth over the situation.  That this leaves Nuala stuck with an appearance she doesn’t want (apparently the rules of glamours say that they can only be removed by the person who places them) and robs her of perhaps her only avenue for escaping Faerie receives no comment in the issue, but the subtext is pretty heavy.  Nuala’s choices don’t matter to the people around her; she’s meant only to be a pretty thing in Titania’s collection.

Of course, this whole series of events serves as Nuala’s breaking point; she decides to use the boon Dream granted her when he released her from his service, and she calls him to Faerie.

At this point, I again want to reiterate that I think Dream is setting himself up to die.  Whether or not he could predict that Nuala would use her boon at the worst possible time isn’t really important.  We see Dream answer her call immediately, and he hardly attempts to explain that Nuala shouldn’t be calling on him at that particular moment.  It seems like it would be a simple matter to tell her that his realm is under attack, but he chooses instead to acquiesce when she insists that she needs to speak to him face to face.  He seals his own fate, and I don’t think it’s just because of his rigid attachment to obligation.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 9”

There’s so much going on in this issue.

Rose Walker encounters Desire in the cellar of the Burgess mansion where Dream was kept prisoner for nearly eighty years.

The Furies kill Gilbert, or Fiddler’s Green as he’s known in the Dreaming, inaugurating their assault on the Dreaming in order to punish Dream for killing Orpheus.

Dream goes to Larissa’s house to try to physically kill Lyta Hall, and we learn (twenty-three issues later!) that the ex-girlfriend who left Dream so twisted up was, in fact, Larissa herself.

The Corinthian beats the snot out of Loki and eats his eyes on the way to finally recovering Daniel Hall.

Let’s take these plot points one by one, shall we?

Family reunions can be terrible. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Rose has been in England for several issues now, sort of recapitulating the start of her original story, The Doll’s House, while also crossing paths with a variety of callbacks to Gaiman’s first Sandman story, “Sleep of the Just.”  This issue resolves those plots back at the place where it all started: Fawney Rig, the estate that belongs to the Burgess family.  Desire’s reasons for drawing Rose to Fawney Rig remain incredibly obtuse, though we might speculate that it’s a combination of compassion for family (Desire makes it clear that they fathered Rose’s mother by raping Unity Kincaid while she slept) and the general capriciousness of Desire’s nature.  Since Rose reappeared earlier in The Kindly Ones, we’ve learned that she’s been living under some sort of malaise, probably mystical in nature, that has left her the same physical age as she was when Dream removed her heart to keep from having to kill her as the Dream Vortex, and has also apparently shut down most of her emotions.  It’s been frequently demonstrated that Rose is coping with a lack of natural empathy for people around her; she notes in her journal entries and private thoughts that she never seems to get very upset when her romantic relationships end, and she’s not sure what the disconnect is.  That changes after an ill-advised encounter with her English lawyer, Jack Holdaway.  Rose invites Jack to have sex with her after they spend a day together, and he agrees without telling her that he’s already in a committed monogamous relationship.  Rose finds out by accident, and initially she has the same reaction as in previous romantic misadventures: she’s frustrated, but not terribly upset that things haven’t worked out.  Then, when she meets Desire in the cellar where Dream was trapped, Rose is inundated with sadness over Jack’s deception.  Desire literally returns Rose’s heart to her, making her whole again (and because Desire’s rather cheeky, they symbolize Rose’s restoration with a heart-shaped lighter).

The Furies feature relatively little in this issue; they’re only the focus long enough to walk through Gilbert’s death.  It’s a gruesome one, and it helps to pull together the long plot thread of the ravens congregating in the Dreaming.  For a few issues, there have been sporadic mentions of ravens appearing in the Dreaming unbidden, with no real explanation as to why they’re showing up.  It’s meant as a sign of the bad things that are coming, but Gaiman’s been careful not to explain anything about what symbolism he’s been applying to the ravens up to this point.  Here it becomes clear that he’s pulling on a medieval tradition of ravens symbolizing the portent of massive death that comes before a major battle (ravens are carrion feeders, and they’re often used in old poetry as a stark image for highlighting the human cost on battlefields).  Gilbert’s death is the first opportunity the ravens have to feed, but it won’t be the last.

Larissa’s assessment of Dream is probably more accurate than he’d care to admit. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Dream’s visit to Larissa feels to me like the narrative climax of the issue.  Rose getting her heart back and Gilbert dying are significant events too, but they don’t turn on revealing the answer to a mystery that Gaiman maintained for nearly two years during The Sandman‘s original run.  We know that Dream has a fraught history when it comes to romance, and leaving the audience to wonder for so long who it was that last broke Dream’s heart is just too tantalizing to ignore.  So here we learn that it’s Larissa, and we also learn that she’s protecting Lyta for mercenary reasons: the deal she cut with the Fates involves protecting Lyta in exchange for a few thousand years of life (Larissa notes that it’s not a whole lot, highlighting just how old she must be).  Dream arrives assuming that Larissa’s involvement is of a more personal nature; their breakup wasn’t amicable, and he figures protecting Lyta is her way of getting back at him.  On the one hand, this is a pretty self-centered assumption for Dream to make; he’s wronged multiple lovers in the past, and they’ve usually ended up getting punished by him instead.  On the other, Larissa is a very different sort of person from the women Dream has loved before: she’s ruthlessly self-interested, and we saw back in A Game of You that she’s willing to go to extreme lengths in order to get redress for a wrong that’s been committed against her, so it might not be so far-fetched to assume to she’s acting on a personal vendetta.

Either way, this is the meeting that Dream has been hoping for since he initially set out on his journey with Delirium, and like Destiny predicted (of course) it’s not a very satisfactory one.  There are definitely some deeper reasons for Dream’s actions leading up to his harassment by the Furies, but in a very direct way, this scene serves to give Dream the original result he wanted in contrast with all the ruin it’s brought about for him.  After all, his and Larissa’s entire conversation happens while Lyta Hall, the avatar of his punishment for all the people Dream has wronged over the course of the series, sleeps on a cot in the same room.

The Corinthian’s plot finishes out the issue by providing a bit of catharsis for all the terrible things that have been happening in the Dreaming.  Loki gets rightfully punished for all the mischief he’s caused, and Daniel, who has been missing and presumed dead since issue #58, is found alive.  It’s all very actiony, which is a fun twist when we take a moment to remember that the Corinthian is designed to be a really scary nightmare; his first incarnation became a serial killer when left unsupervised for a few decades after all.  This character belongs in a horror story, but he’s been cast in a buddy cop comedy with Matthew the raven, and the effect is morbidly funny.  Especially poignant is Matthew’s continued discomfort at being partnered with the Corinthian; both characters debuted in The Sandman during the Doll’s House arc, and only one of them survived the experience.  Matthew feels like he has nothing in common with the Corinthian, though Gaiman makes a point of underlining the similarities of their natures as Matthew ponders the delicious smell of Gilbert’s corpse (which he refuses to eat out of respect for his friend while Noah’s raven eats one of Gilbert’s eyes) at the same time the Corinthian delights in munching on Loki’s eyes.