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: 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.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 7”

I had forgotten that interlude issues happen in The Sandman because something big’s usually about to follow them.  This issue’s the technical midpoint for The Kindly Ones, and it presents a drastic turn for both Dream and Lyta’s arcs (directly towards one another, in fact, but we’ll get into that later).

In the parade of appearances by characters from stories past, this issue begins with the witch Thessaly (now calling herself Larissa) finding Lyta on the streets of Los Angeles and bringing her home.  As you’ll recall, Larissa’s whole deal is that she’s all about female empowerment in a very literal way: she derives her magic from the moon and its three aspects (in modern depictions, these aspects are often named after three Greek goddesses associated with the moon: Artemis, Selene, and Hecate), and she takes special interest in wielding this power specifically because it’s only available to women (Wanda was excluded from Larissa’s plan to walk the moon’s road to find Barbie in her dreamland).  Larissa’s interest in protecting Lyta isn’t exactly clear at this point, but she goes to great pains to ensure that Lyta is allowed to continue her spirit journey to find the Furies unmolested.  It’s possible that Larissa has sought Lyta out specifically because the moon told her to; we see in multiple panels throughout this issue the moon in the background at key points on Lyta’s journey: when Larissa finally locates her; at Larissa’s house; when she reaches the house of the three women; when she tells them she wants to destroy Dream; and finally when she’s leaving, thinking they’ve denied her request for help.  It’s worth noting that all of these moons are depicted as waxing crescents (that is, they’re approaching a full moon) except for the last when Lyta is leaving, which is a waning crescent.  Lyta’s entire journey in this issue builds towards a climax with the three ladies (who are the Furies, and the Fates, and the moon, and any other narrative form women can take), and the moon seems to be guiding her in that direction; it doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine Larissa is helping Lyta along because it’s part of the deal she has with the moon.

Lyta’s in a bad place here. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

The turn in Lyta’s arc here hinges on the fact that the Furies don’t actually care about avenging Daniel’s kidnapping; they flat out tell Lyta that Dream hasn’t harmed her child (though it’s easy to miss; they say they wouldn’t help her if Dream had killed Daniel, implying what the reader already knows), but they are willing to help since he has killed his own son.  Lyta’s goal aligns with that of the Furies, but they have distinct reasons that will come into play later on.  For the moment Lyta’s so bent on revenge that she ignores this important fact.

While Lyta finally finds the help she’s been seeking since the second issue, Dream is finally getting the warnings he’s been sorely lacking.  Odin comes to the Dreaming to berate Dream for making any kind of deal with Loki (as we learned a couple issues ago, Loki can’t stand being beholden to anyone, and the main reason he’s been scheming to turn Lyta against Dream is because he’s angry that he owes Dream for not returning him to Odin after he originally escaped) and to warn Dream that having Loki indebted to him is only going to bring ruin.

Dream’s in a bad place too. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Dream doesn’t take this warning with the level of concern that Odin is hoping for, and it leads to a moment that throws all of Dream’s actions for some time into question.  Odin questions whether Dream, who’s apparently already heard rumors of the trouble headed his way, is lying in wait for some prey that he’s carefully manipulated to come to him or if he’s simply struck with indecision in the face of disaster.  We know from the end of Worlds’ End that Dream’s death is going to be the conclusion of this arc; what’s in doubt at this moment is who actually is engineering its passing.  Loki’s plan involving Daniel and Lyta Hall is pretty elaborate, but it’s only been enacted recently.  The Furies, who only care about avenging blood debts among family, wouldn’t bother to help Lyta unless Dream hadn’t previously killed Orpheus as a boon for helping him and Delirium locate Destruction.  We know Dream understands the implication of his decision, since getting him to kill a family member has been a scheme Desire has been working on since near The Sandman‘s beginning, and it’s reasonable to assume that all the Endless are intimately familiar with the rules of their universe.  Even though he doesn’t acknowledge it, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Dream has been setting up his own death for some time (you can have a more nuanced conversation about Gaiman’s plotting of the series; I suspect he had a vague ending in mind and gradually figured out how to pull disparate parts together rather than having some vast master plan in place from issue #1).  The why of all this is a little bit more obscure.

Besides Odin’s reprimands, Dream also gets a scolding from Fiddler’s Green which is really more of an expression of concern.  It’s becoming increasingly clear to the Dreaming’s inhabitants that Dream is dealing with depression in the wake of Orpheus’s death, and Fiddler’s Green is one of the few dreams with little enough fear of Dream to tell him to his face.  In a roundabout way, Fiddler’s Green suggests that Dream needs to take a break from all of his obligations; it’s what Fiddler’s Green did as Gilbert in the waking world when he wanted a change of pace.  It’s a poignant moment, especially when Fiddler’s Green realizes that Dream has missed his point, probably deliberately.

Dream’s in a bad place, and the consequences are going to be pretty severe.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 3”

One would expect with a kidnapping plot for the reveal of who did the kidnapping not to come so quickly, but Gaiman’s playing a longer game here, and Daniel’s abduction isn’t really the main point of the story.  Yes, it serves as a catalyst for Hippolyta Hall to act, but this isn’t a story in the vein of Taken where the retired badass goes a quest to save their child and is ultimately successful.  This issue ends with Lyta being shown a photograph of a badly burned toddler’s body, whom the detectives from last issue, Pinkerton and Fellowes, say has been identified as Daniel.  We do see Daniel being placed on a fire by the actual kidnappers Loki and Puck at the beginning of this issue, but there’s strong indication that some kind of magic is at play (Daniel looks distressed to be put in the fire, but he doesn’t appear to be in pain; he’s holding a phoenix feather; Loki and Puck, while certainly murderous, are primarily tricksters).  All that matters for the moment is that when this issue finishes Lyta believes Daniel has been murdered, and the only suspect that comes to her mind is Dream, who has honestly never done anything to assuage Lyta’s fears about him.

Aw, Hob. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

We’ll come back to Lyta (we’ll come back to Lyta a lot, in fact); besides her further descent into disconnected madness, this issue also spends some time with everyone’s favorite guy who just won’t die, Hob Gadling.  In the present, Hob is grieving over the recent death of his latest lover, Audrey (the observation about Hob’s serial monogamy might be uncouth if you overlook the fact that he’s been alive over six hundred years, and he tends to only move on after his previous lover has died).  In the grand scheme of the plot of The Kindly Ones, Hob’s appearance here is minor.  He’s bereaved, and Dream just happens to stop by to visit him, and nothing of any great significance to Lyta’s story even comes up here.  If you subdivide the space devoted to each thread in the issue, Lyta gets a full half the book (if you include the scene where we see Loki and Puck preparing to burn Daniel alive) while Hob’s appearance only takes up a third (and this is Hob’s only appearance in this story arc, compared with Lyta appearing in almost every issue of The Kindly Ones).  The significance of this scene is the way it directly echoes the last time we saw Hob in the present; Dream was preparing to confront Lucifer in Hell about releasing Nada from her imprisonment, and he didn’t expect to return.  That time, Dream shared a drink with Hob despite the fact that he was about ninety-nine years early for their regular appointment because he wanted to spend some time with someone that he considered a friend.  There’s nothing so momentous on the horizon for Dream here (we as the reader know that Lyta’s building momentum towards some kind of revenge plot, but that’s a very different thing from Dream knowing that he’s about to do something potentially suicidal), but that doesn’t stop Hob from getting a bad feeling about his friend.  As Dream rushes to leave, Hob warns him that he has the smell of death about him, and he should be careful.

Lyta’s not doing so great. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

I think this is the first place in The Kindly Ones where we get the sense that Dream knows his death is impending.  You have small hints of it in issue 57 when Dream’s remaking the Corinthian and talking about the distance between conception and execution (I think the subtext there is about Dream’s relationship with Orpheus in specific and his entire history of relationships in general), but this scene with Hob is a callback to the last time Dream thought he was going to die.  I think there’s a case to be made that Dream’s actually engineering his own death, but it’s long and complicated, and best left to be explored after we’re done with The Kindly Ones.  For now, let’s just call this the requisite foreshadowing, and move along.

Context: Lyta just broke a guy’s arm after he hit on her. While she’s distressed over the abduction of her son. Anyway, tell me this panel doesn’t look like something Sienkewicz might have drawn. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Coming back to Lyta now, her section of the issue is interesting for its stylistic construction.  Aside from the introductory page, which offers a close up on Lyta’s forehead while she shuffles through a few environments, the entire section is drawn from her perspective.  Lyta’s mental breakdown is progressing in a similar vein to how it appeared in the last issue, but here we get to look directly inside her mind, and we see just how disconnected Lyta even feels from herself.  She feels more like an impartial observer than an active agent in her own story at this point, and it’s going to come back in a big way much later (this first person perspective also offers the first opportunity to see how Lyta’s gradual slide into delirium affects her perception of things and people around her; one particularly striking panel shows how she see Carla when they have an argument, which looks to me so much like a Bill Sienkewicz creature).

Between all of Hob’s grief and Lyta’s descent into madness, we get a brief interlude where four of the Endless siblings, Destiny, Desire, Despair, and Delirium, begin to do some things, and it all seems very odd and kind of pointless at the moment, but it also seems very portentous.  Big things are happening.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 2”

The first chapter of Kindly Ones ends with the revelation that someone has kidnapped Daniel Hall.  As one might expect, this is a distressing turn for Lyta Hall, whom we established before is perhaps homicidally protective of her son.  When we return to her in issue #58, Lyta’s in a semi-comatose state, sitting on her couch while her friend Carla argues with the police about why it’s taking them so long to come investigate the kidnapping.  When a couple of detectives, Luke Pinkerton and Gordy Fellowes, do show up, they ask questions that Lyta is barely able to answer, emphasizing that Daniel’s kidnapping is highly unusual (the doors were all locked when Lyta returned home, the babysitter was dead asleep, and Lyta can’t think of anyone “real” who would want to harm her or Daniel).

What we’re going to see over the course of Lyta’s arc is a gradual erosion of her sanity as she becomes more and more desperate to find her son.  It begins here with small things like the very normal shock that she displays upon finding that Daniel’s missing, but it quickly escalates.  Lyta has a dream later in the issue where she encounters the Fates working away over a cauldron for some unspecified reason (the scene ends with them plunging Lyta into the mixture to “see what she’s made of;” we’ll see what this testing is for in a few issues, but for now its mysterious).  They chide her for having a son instead of a daughter (again, the Fates and the Furies are highly gendered beings in Gaiman’s cosmology) and answer Lyta’s confused questions in the straightforward but elusive way only mythological plot devices can (I especially like that they gripe about Lyta not following the rule of only asking three questions, a callback to the rules established way back in the Fates’ first appearance in issue #2).  A throwaway line about Lyta having already met the ones who took Daniel is nicely tantalizing, and along with the handful of clues scattered in the previous issue and this one, we can see how Lyta might begin to suspect that Dream has something to do with all of this (we mustn’t forget that when Dream freed Lyta from her dream prison, he told her that he had claim to Daniel as a child who developed mostly within a dream).  Lyta hasn’t yet made that connection, but it’s obviously coming.

That “Pop!” is the sound of Nuala’s unvoiced despair. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The other half of the issue concerns itself with Nuala of Faerie.  Her brother, Cluracan (my favorite shaggy dog of the Sandman universe) arrives in the Dreaming after having experienced the events of Worlds’ End and reported back to Queen Titania about them.  Things are a little timey-wimey here (don’t forget that at least one of the refugees in the Worlds’ End comes from eighty years in the past, so the precise location in the timeline of that arc’s events is always going to be more than a little vague), but that’s about par for the course in the Dreaming (remember Matthew’s complaints last issue that he wasn’t sure precisely how long it had been since he’s talked with Dream).  What’s significant about Cluracan’s visit is that while he’s not there on official business, he has been sent to retrieve Nuala, who’s been serving in Dream’s court since the end of Season of Mists.  We can presume that Titania understands that Dream’s death must be imminent, and she’d prefer to have her subjects not be caught up in all the unpleasantness that’s sure to ensue, but Cluracan’s too oblivious to recognize that’s what’s going on.  He doesn’t even recognize that Nuala is clearly heartbroken over the possibility of leaving Dream’s service, and takes all of her suggestions that it might be difficult to get Dream to release her in precisely the wrong way.

Cluracan misses the point, as usual. And Hempel draws another fantastic closeup panel. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The interplay here between Cluracan’s expectations of Nuala’s motivations and their reality is an interesting one.  When we first met Nuala way back in Season of Mists she was a relatively flat background character who came along with Cluracan on his diplomatic mission without knowing what her role was going to be.  She understood that she would be used as a bargaining chip, but everyone in Faerie assumed that Dream wouldn’t actually give Hell to them in the first place, so she figured it was all part of a ruse.  The revelation that she was expected to stay in the Dreaming because Titania wouldn’t hear of a gift being rejected was a shocking one.  Even more shocking for Nuala was the fact that Dream insisted she remove her glamour while in his service; this requirement appeared at the time as a mild form of comeuppance for a background character who came off as too preoccupied with appearances (just like everyone we encounter from Faerie).  At the same time, Nuala’s predicament is one of the more troubling ones in the Sandman mythos.  What happens to her in Season of Mists is entirely unfair, and our protagonist Dream piles on the cruelty by robbing her of what she thought of at the time as her last bit of dignity.  Cluracan, for all his imponderable obtuseness, recognizes the strain the circumstances put on Nuala at the time of her indenture.  What he can’t fathom is that spending time in the Dreaming, living and working among beings who have different values than those of Faerie, might influence Nuala’s outlook on her life.  And so, at every turn where it’s obvious that Nuala is stricken with misery at the thought of leaving the Dreaming, Cluracan blusters on until he gets Dream’s attention.

Dream’s involvement here is minimal, but he does grant Nuala a parting gift of one boon to be claimed at any time in the future as thanks for her service.  It’s the closest thing you get to a moment of kindness from Dream in relation to his subordinates, but it still feels remarkably cruel from Nuala’s perspective.  She’s been a very faithful background character, popping up at unexpected points in many of the stories we’ve read since her introduction, usually with little purpose other than to deliver a message or provide a moment of levity, and at this moment where Dream dismisses her without apparent thought makes plain why Nuala has been as dedicated as she’s been: she’s fallen in love with Dream.

And we all know how that usually turns out.

Reading “The Kindly Ones: 1”

I’ve been working my way through the entire original run of The Sandman for over a year now, and this post feels like a pretty important one because it marks the start of the last major story arc of the series.  The Kindly Ones is an ambitious project that spans thirteen issues and serves to explain the events that result in Dream’s death.  A multitude of previous plot threads from the other big arcs of Sandman get wound together here: Hippolyta Hall, whom Dream rescued from a fantasy world by killing the image of her late husband, goes on a quest to recover her son Daniel, who was born in a dream; the fallout of Lucifer’s abandoning Hell reaches a climax; and the consequences of Dream spilling family blood, which began with Desire’s unsuccessful machinations to get Dream to kill Rose Walker and culminated with the mercy killing of Dream’s immortal son Orpheus.  Gaiman’s been building to this story since very nearly the beginning (Rose’s grandmother, Unity Kincaid, is mentioned in a panel in the very first issue, and the three sisters who manifest as the Fates or the Furies throughout make their first appearance in the second), and it’s a remarkably satisfying bit of work.

Lyta threatens a homeless man. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

Issue #57 is primarily concerned with getting us up to speed on what’s been happening in Lyta Hall’s life since the last time we saw her in the one-off issue “The Parliament of Rooks.”  She appears to be in a relatively stable place, but it’s clear from her interactions with her friend Carla that most of her life revolves around caring for Daniel, whom we can infer has continued his practice of physically visiting the Dreaming while he sleeps.  Lyta’s contemplating taking a personal assistant job with a wealthy executive whom she suspects is simply trying to seduce her (the reason for taking this job isn’t fully apparent; Carla notes that Lyta can afford to hire a babysitter for a night, and nothing in this issue suggests that Lyta is struggling financially), but she feels reluctant about the prospect because she’s so protective of Daniel.  Lyta’s preoccupation with caring for her son is going to be a major motif for this entire story arc, and we see here in this first issue that there’s some severe rage hiding underneath her concern.  Early on Lyta accosts a mentally ill homeless man who tries to give Daniel a flower, and later when she and Carla are eating ice cream, she makes it clear that her first response to Daniel being harm wouldn’t be sorrow but an attempt to seek out vengeance on whomever hurt him.  It’s important to remember that these aren’t moments of empty posturing.  Lyta is a former superhero, and though she’s trying to live a normal life she still possesses superhuman strength.  Her moments of rage, of which she has several throughout this issue (including one directed at Daniel for inexplicably getting sand in her bed during his nap) should be taken seriously.  She’s fully capable of carrying through with her threats, so there’s an undercurrent of menace to all of her interactions with the normal people with whom she’s surrounded herself.

Well then. (Artwork by Marc Hempel, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

Besides Lyta’s story, we’re treated to an interlude that focuses on Matthew the raven.  We learn from Matthew that it’s been some time since the conclusion of the Brief Lives story arc (Matthew’s not sure precisely how long because time passes strangely in the Dreaming, but I suspect part of the vagueness of the time period has to do with the fact that we’ve spent the last six issues with a story arc that may or may not be set after this one in a series that generally tries to run contemporaneously with its publication date), and in that time Dream has been keeping to himself, or at least, not speaking to Matthew.  It’s easy to forget with Worlds’ End in between the two arcs that the last time we saw Dream in the present was immediately after he was forced to kill his son Orpheus.  Dream preferred not to let his subjects know that he was in mourning, and it’s clear here that he hasn’t confided in Matthew, who feels especially close to Dream.  Because of this distance, and Matthew’s role as adviser (it’s kind of what ravens in the Dreaming do), Matthew is experiencing a small existential crisis that drives him to ask various inhabitants of the Dreaming about their roles in Dream’s kingdom.  This sequence serves as a nice reintroduction to many of the side characters we’ve gotten to know and reveals a bit of inner motivation for them; generally, all the inhabitants of the Dreaming that Matthew encounters feel a core sense of purpose in their lives, which contrasts with Matthew’s own doubts about himself (even Mervyn Pumpkinhead, who gripes incessantly about his job as the Dreaming’s handyman, admits in a roundabout way that he’d rather not lose it).  When Matthew finally does find Dream and ask him about the long silence, Dream spends a bit of time ruminating on why he’s recreating the Corinthian, the nightmare who previously escaped into the waking world to become a serial killer, before he says that he doesn’t currently have any need for Matthew before peremptorily dismissing him back to Eve’s cave.

Speaking of Dream, this is the first time we’ve gotten to see him in person since that last time in his private chambers at the end of Brief Lives.  He appears occasionally in the stories that make up Worlds’ End, but usually as a deus ex machina or in an official capacity; there’s virtually shown of Dream that doesn’t fit with the persona he likes to maintain in the presence of people he isn’t close to.  We don’t get a whole lot here, but we do find that Dream’s remaking the Corinthian, whom he originally created before Orpheus was born, and that this is a rare thing for him to revisit something he’s done in the past.  Considering that this will ultimately be a story about Dream’s death, it’s important to note here that Dream is still in mourning here.  Later issues will further explore his mental state and give opportunities to consider his motivations for how he reacts to the conflict that’s brewing, but for now we simply get a hint that he’s still thinking of his son (understandable) and he’s associated that event with the recreation of a dream that he was also forced to kill.  Dream has displayed a pattern of letting relationships sour to the point that they become unsalvageable, and in the aftermath of Orpheus’s death he finally seems to be showing some serious regret about that bad habit.  Remaking the Corinthian is likely an attempt at redeeming in a small way one of his previous failures; it’s telling that he’s chosen something so dark, and that he’s focusing on a subordinate creature rather than trying to repair his relationships with people like Matthew, who despite being a servant isn’t fully subject to Dream’s will in the way other denizens of the Dreaming often are.

The last characters worth touching on here are the three Fates, who open the story with a scene that’s an extended play on the double meaning of “yarn” which can either be a story, like the one we’re reading, or the literal ball of yarn they’re shaping into an item of clothing (which, metaphorically, represents a person’s life; Gaiman does love to layer in his symbolism).  The Fates, made up of the maiden, mother, and crone, are going to become larger players in this story later on, which is a departure from their usual function as road signs for the plot (it’s convenient how mythical creatures who are supposed to know the future can be used to convey information about the plot ahead of time).  As always with the Fates, their appearance in this story is closely bound up with issues of gender and femaleness; they appear here as nurturers (even the crone Atropos, who chides Clotho and Lachesis for being too soft as she cuts off the end of a life that they’re spinning), and the dominant aspect they’ll be assuming later in the story as the Furies is tied up with ideas of the importance of familial bonds and protecting them (it’s no coincidence that our two most significant characters for this arc are Lyta, who is willing to kill anyone who might harm her son, and Dream, who killed his son because he did irreparable harm to him).

Reading “Playing House”

Hippolyta Hall is probably the saddest character in the whole breadth of the Sandman mythos.

She gets kidnapped by a couple of errant dreams who want to use the ghost of her dead husband as a prop in their own private little version of the Dreaming (which happens to be located inside the head of Rose Walker’s brother Jed), spends two years living in a sort of stasis where she’s perpetually pregnant and unable to effectively contemplate the horror of her situation, has Dream show up and unceremoniously shatter the dream world she’s been trapped in while dismissing her husband and telling her that he’s laying claim to her unborn child, and then is left in the ruins of a place she doesn’t even know with the expectation that she must simply carry on with her life without any help dealing with all her trauma.

And that’s just in this issue.

You tell him, Lyta. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

There’s a lot of concentrated heartbreak in store for Lyta, and the unfortunate reality is that she doesn’t ever really get a satisfying resolution.  After this issue ends, she’ll disappear from the series for several years which is probably the best thing that could happen to her.  Lyta is a character who we can always assume is about to experience something bad if Gaiman has turned his focus on her.

Because of this extreme misfortune, she develops a severe (and justifiable) distrust of Dream and his associates, which will ultimately lead to very tragic consequences for pretty much everyone.  If the ultimate point of Dream’s story is to choose whether he will change or die, you can make a pretty solid case that he sets things in motion to force a decision in this issue with the way that he treats Lyta.  We’re still very early in The Sandman‘s run, so there’s a ton of development that Dream’s yet to go through, and at this point Gaiman writes him as a callous, near-omnipotent cosmic figure who’s honestly not really that concerned with the collateral damage he causes to the physical world in pursuit of his objectives (his invasion of Jed’s dreamscape is very meticulous so as not to kill the boy, but when things become unstable enough that everyone has to evacuate, the house where Jed has been kept prisoner explodes, killing his foster parents).  It’s an interesting ending scene to an issue that alludes heavily to the previous superhero version of the Sandman (besides Dream and the Corinthian, every character who appears in this issue was previously created in connection with the Jack Kirby conception of the Sandman from the 1970s), because Dream appears in the role of the typical villain, and he proceeds to act exactly like a villain would in the same circumstances (there’s even a series of panels where Dream just laughs maniacally at the absurdity of what he’s dealing with).

Come to think, part of the fun of this issue (if you can call all the stuff that happens to Lyta and Jed fun) is the way it inverts the typical superhero narrative so that Hector, who would normally be at the center of everything being super capable, comes across as a jolly idiot who doesn’t realize how silly his life is while Lyta, who would normally be cast in the role of passive, quiet supporting character, suffers silently throughout and Dream, the villain of the month, feels more chagrined than anything that he’s been put in such a funny position.  It’s a nice critique of the genre’s conventions, though the brilliance of the story comes from the fact that it doesn’t stop there; Lyta’s really our perspective character for this issue, and Gaiman makes it clear that it’s not just Hector’s power fantasy that makes her a victim, but all of the supernatural men who have shown up and interfered with her life (I think some interesting things could be said about the fact that Lyta is the only woman in this story about people with powers screwing around with the lives of ordinary folk).

With regard to the art, this issue is guest penciled by Chris Bachalo.  I’m a big fan of Bachalo’s work, because he’s been a frequent regular artist on various X-Men books since the mid-90s, but I was honestly surprised to see that he worked on an issue of Sandman.  Bachalo’s signature style uses lots of extremely heavy lines (I want to say in recent years he usually inks his own pencils) and a very messy, chaotic page layout.  His characters rarely have realistic proportions, and at his most frenetic it can honestly be kind of difficult to follow the action on the page, simply because Bachalo loves drawing debris.  In quieter moments he has an excellent expressive style that helps convey character emotions, even if all of his faces tend to look the same.  Given all that, it’s really weird seeing his name on this issue, because while the style is certainly a little more wispy than the typical rough edges that Dringenberg prefers, nothing about this issue looks like classic Bachalo.  There’s a hint of the Bachalo chaos bubbling around in the panels showing Dream flying through Jed’s dreamscape, but for the most part it’s a very standard look and layout for the Sandman issues of the time.

Next issue we’ll take a break from Rose and Jed’s story for an interlude about one of Dream’s very few friends.