Reading “The Kindly Ones: 4”

There’s a subplot in The Kindly Ones involving Lucifer’s bar Lux in the early chapters that leaves me unsure how it fits into the larger story.  Lyta’s dinner meeting with her potential employer in issue 57 happens at Lux (we get a couple pages devoted to Lucifer being gloriously snarky to a couple who are out celebrating the woman’s birthday; he foretells that their evening won’t end happily, and a snippet from the news in issue 58 indicates that the man drowns after falling overboard on a romantic boat ride following their dinner; this whole sequence is darkly funny, but it doesn’t have much apparent relevance to the story), and now in this issue we get to see a meeting between Lucifer and one of the angels whom have been appointed to replace him as rulers of Hell, Remiel.  The last time we saw Remiel in any depth was at the end of Season of Mists when Dream agreed to let him and Duma take possession of Hell on God’s orders.  It’s worth recalling that even then, Remiel was visibly upset with his orders, and he engaged in some pretty twisted rationalization to make it palatable.

Remiel gets told, and in the background Mazikeen stays cool. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Here in the present, we find that Remiel is still super bummed about running Hell, and he’s come, among other things, to ask Lucifer if he’s ever considered returning to his old job.  This one question, which is really the most important thing to Remiel about the whole exchange if I had to judge, is wedged in between talk about the new redemptive purpose of Hell under Remiel and Duma’s supervision and Lucifer unloading a vicious analysis of Remiel’s character (Lucifer’s verdict: Remiel’s a spineless coward).  The question marks an inflection point in the conversation where Remiel has clearly lost control (honestly, he didn’t have control of the conversation before that point, but he hadn’t exhausted Lucifer’s patience yet), and it rapidly goes downhill.  When Remiel tries to reassert himself (by rashly spitting in Lucifer’s face, of all things), he’s subjected to one last humiliation when Lucifer explains that just because he gave up ruling Hell doesn’t mean he also gave up all of his vast power as the only being to ever credibly threaten God, and it’s really only God’s protection that keeps him from erasing Remiel from existence.

This whole scene is a fascinating look at a minor character dealing with a crap hand (remember, I said way back at the end of Season of Mists that Remiel was screwed over by God, who’s a jerk in Gaiman’s universe).  Lucifer’s not wrong about Remiel being a coward who just wants to save face, but I do feel bad for him; it’d be so much better if Hell could just be shut down or, barring that, letting the inhabitants run it instead of making Remiel and Duma do the job.

And for all that, I still don’t know why this scene is here at all.  It calls back to Season of Mists, but it calls back to a portion that doesn’t directly impact the ongoing plot regarding Lyta Hall and Dream (Remiel doesn’t even get around to asking Lucifer about that whole thing).

Speaking of Lyta, her descent into madness hits a new low here.  After she learned from the detectives that Daniel has been burned to death, she goes on something of a walkabout, wandering around the city having visions of mythical figures that are vaguely connected to her surroundings.  Because we’re talking about The Sandman, Lyta’s delirium isn’t just simple madness.  On some level, her interactions with the mythological are really happening, and in the course of her wanderings she encounters two of the Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale.  They’re the first ones in Lyta’s journey that are able to offer her some help in finding the Furies Kind Ladies while offering to let her be their new sister, since the last one was killed.

The scene with Stheno and Euryale is visually interesting because it’s set inside a darkened house where the sisters are dressed in a way that’s directly reminiscent of the lovers Chantal and Zelda who were residents in the boarding house where Rose Walker lived during the Doll’s House arc way back at the series’s beginning.  This is another odd callback in the middle of an issue that feels like it’s doing a lot of setup for the things that will be coming up soon.  In one sense I can see the thematic significance; Gaiman’s been building a case for a mystical connective tissue between all of his biologically female characters for a long time, so connecting the Gorgons with Chantal and Zelda almost seems like an “of course” moment, especially since their connection as lovers was originally obscured when they first appeared.  That the callback happens in this issue, where we finally learn that Daniel’s babysitter on the night he was abducted was Rose Walker, makes further sense; Rose has her own plot thread to follow (she was the keystone in Desire’s first plan to get Dream to kill a member of their family), and doing a callback to some of the weirder characters from her story goes a long way to make it all feel more tightly woven together.

Shut up, Merv. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Going back to Dream, the only real development we have in his plot here is that he finally finishes remaking the Corinthian.  We’ll see some interesting things with this character in the future, but for now he’s just there at the end, ready to go with his three creepy smiles.  For Dream’s part, the only really interesting character bit is his observation that while the Dreaming reflects his mood, he also reflects the Dreaming’s.  It’s easy to forget that the Endless are anthropomorphic personifications of universal ideas, and this means that even as we’ve been getting to know the aspects they present as the characters in the book, they also respond to larger things than just what they experience personally.  Mervyn Pumpkinhead observes that the Dreaming’s been acting strangely lately, and Dream confirms that he doesn’t really have any control over recent phenomena.  Gaiman’s universe is aware that something big is about to happen, and we’re seeing ripples of it all over the place.

Reading “Season of Mists: Epilogue”

All through Season of Mists I’ve had a recurring complaint that each successive issue in the primary story has virtually no resolution to it.  By forcing myself to re-read the series on a slower schedule so that I can approach each issue fresh and with minimal overlap with the story that surrounds it, I’ve really come to appreciate how it must have felt having to wait a whole month for what came next.  Gaiman continuously ratchets up the tension in this arc, with Dream first setting out to make amends to Nada before getting frustrated by Lucifer complicating things with his renunciation of Hell, which then spins into the various mythological figures coming to visit with the hope of acquiring control of Hell for themselves.  We still remember that reconciliation with Nada was Dream’s original goal, but that’s not been revisited since Chapter 2 (Nada’s appearance as a bargaining chip in the negotiations for Hell reminds us of this, but it isn’t in the forefront of the more recent proceedings, and it’s been tantalizingly dangling there for what seems like forever, especially if we consider that this particular story first began way back in issue #9).

When we discuss writing and the art of constructing a story with strong emotional impact, Rachael often points out that one of the most important tricks to plotting a good story is to orchestrate it so that the climaxes and resolutions for as many of the threads as possible occur in close proximity to one another (for anyone who’s inclined to think in gaming terms, it’s like implementing a chain bonus multiplier that rewards sustained successful execution of whatever game mechanic you want to think of).  It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but when it happens it’s incredibly satisfying.

All this is to say that while most of Season of Mists is semi-frustrating build up, its final chapter is a continuous string of payoffs that makes me willing to forgive all the suspense I’ve been left in for the past couple months.  Really, I think this is the issue that marks the transition from The Sandman being a really good comic to a great comic, as we’re getting here the first taste of how Gaiman will be structuring the remainder of the series: multiple issues feeding into a story arc that has a nice payoff while building in more and more ongoing threads that will be resolved in ever larger batches.

To get down to specifics of this issue, we finally get to see Nada confront Dream for what he did to her in parallel with the fates of the angels Remiel and Duma, Loki, and Lucifer.  Nada’s refusal to let Dream half ass his way through his apology to her (the number of qualifiers he employs to distance himself from his own responsibility is amazing) is so satisfying in its own right, because it’s the first time that we get to see someone besides Death set Dream straight and demand that he do better.  The most prominent motif in Dream’s character arc throughout the series is that he is a terrible ex-lover, and his realization and correction of this fact proceeds to cost him more and more.  We got a taste of this in the earlier standalone story “Calliope,” but this final encounter with Nada really crystallizes the pattern that Gaiman’s going to follow from here on out (rounding out this particular motif is the small development in this issue that Nuala, the lady from Faerie who was given to Dream as a gift, discovers here that she must stay in the Dreaming or risk the displeasure of Titania; that she will eventually fall in love with Dream should come as little surprise, but we’ll revisit her later).

Juxtaposed with Dream’s growth, we get to see Remiel and Duma assume their new roles as Lords of Hell with further meditation on how unjust their predicament is; Remiel immediately sets about trying to justify God’s decision as being about compassion, with a small discourse on how Hell will be about gradual redemption rather than simple punishment, which one of the inhabitants remarks makes the suffering even worse.  Remiel is insisting that there must be some ultimately benevolent purpose behind all the suffering, and in his refusal to accept any other explanation, he deprives the condemned of their own satisfaction, shifting the purpose of Hell away from wrestling with personal demons to one of abusing others for their own good.  The former situation is already bad, but it lacks a certain element of cruelty in comparison to the latter, and in my mind it simply reinforces the thesis that Gaiman’s character of God is a jerk who only cares about preserving his own position of power in the universe instead of enacting the kenotic principle that I think best informs our understanding of our universe’s God.

Among his other positive qualities, Dringenberg’s the only artist who really draws Lucifer to look like David Bowie. I’m going to miss that. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Lucifer has a single scene in this issue which involves him sitting on a beach in Perth, Australia, enjoying his retirement when a man who’s had a lot of senseless misfortune in his life (he lost his two sons to the Vietnam War and a car wreck, and his wife died of breast cancer) remarks that for all the bad things he’s endured, he can at least enjoy the beauty of a unique sunset every evening, so whatever god may have dealt him such a bad lot can’t be all bad.  That Lucifer grudgingly agrees about the sunsets is kind of a bittersweet ending; he’s fully justified in thinking the worst of God, especially since his story echoes Nada’s in macro: he refused to submit to the will of a greater being, and he was punished excessively for it.  It’s perhaps Dream’s saving grace that unlike God, he is capable of learning and practicing humility, even poorly.  We have to remember that even if Lucifer is allowed to walk away from Hell (it’s probably not unreasonable to consider that God could force him back in that position if he wanted to), God’s solution is to choose a couple of other victims with no pretense of apparently just punishment.

The last character to figure into this issue is Loki, whom we discover has escaped from Odin and Thor’s captivity by switching places with the lone Japanese deity Susano-o-no-Mikoto.  Dream isn’t fooled by Loki’s ploy, and he makes a decision that will have severe consequences much later because he has to stick to his rigid code regarding hospitality.  This is the development that clinches Lucifer’s revenge on Dream.  While the resolution of Season of Mists suggests that Lucifer is just happy to be in retirement, we can’t forget that he promised he would destroy Dream, and Loki will play into that plot eventually.  I see echoes of Lucifer in Loki, as a character who created mischief for someone higher up in his mythological hierarchy and was punished for it.  The inversion with Dream, who does Loki a kindness by not alerting Odin to his escape, is that Loki can’t stand being indebted to someone else, especially someone with more power than him.  In a way, I think Dream has the misfortune of being the proxy for all the rage and vengeance that these marginalized figures can’t enact against their enemies in their own cosmologies.

As for art, this issue is particularly special because it marks the last time Mike Dringenberg does pencils for The Sandman.  For me, Dringenberg’s sketchy, slightly erratic art is the definitive look of Sandman, and I’m really sad to see him off the book after this.  Future artists are still quite good in their own unique ways, but when I imagine Dream and his supporting cast, I think of Dringenberg’s designs.

Our next issue will involve a detour from the presented issue order in the trade paperbacks, as we begin a triptych of summer stories that provide a few glimpses into the Endless’ history.

Reading “Season of Mists: Chapter 2”

Last year I got it in my head that it would be fun to do a series exploring John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.  During my time in grad school I had a brief fascination with Milton that was largely spurred on by my immersion in evangelical subculture at the time.  Much of the modern understanding of the story of the Fall is derived from Milton’s work, even though many smarter people than me have pointed out that in reality, he was more or less just writing his own fanfiction about something that he really loved (seriously, when you realize that Milton includes an extended passage explaining how Adam and Eve’s digestive systems worked so that they never actually pooped in the garden, you know you’re dealing with a superfan).  Milton’s imagining of the events leading up to the Fall depicted in Genesis are quite fantastic, and well worth looking at if you have the stomach for poetry.

Lucifer is all about personal freedom. And creeptastic teeth. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

I like to think of issue #23 of The Sandman as Gaiman’s love letter to Milton’s Satan.  From the opening page depicting Dream flying through an infinite nowhere that’s evocative of the unshapen chaos that Satan traverses on his way to infiltrate the garden after he hears about the creation of humans (it’s a terrifying experience, even for a being of near infinite power) to Lucifer’s extended meditation (most of this issue is a prolonged monologue given by Lucifer while he shuts Hell down) on whether his rebellion in Heaven was actually a rebellion or just another facet of the Creator’s plan, Gaiman is riffing on ideas presented in Paradise Lost.  The entire effect of the issue, at least to me, even echoes what I thought about Book One of Paradise Lost (the first book details the aftermath of Satan’s failed rebellion and his attempt to pick up the pieces and establish his reign over Pandemonium besides the lake of fire), which was that there’s a lot about this devil guy to sympathize with (my professor in undergrad with whom I first read parts of Paradise Lost rather soundly deconstructed these feelings of sympathy in her lecture on the text, but I still think there’s a hint of admiration to be found in Milton’s voice).  In Gaiman’s writing, Lucifer comes across as imminently sympathetic.  He’s been villainized by mortals as the one responsible for their bad behavior when he honestly doesn’t give a damn, and he kind of resents the fact that for all his power in Hell, he’s still operating according to the whims of the mortals who find themselves there after they die (Lucifer insists that people who come to Hell do so because they believe they should be there, and the punishments they receive are self-directed).  Like with Milton’s Satan, you have to first accept what Gaiman’s Lucifer says at face value, but it does sound really convincing (particularly in the cosmology of The Sandman where the supernatural seems to spring from the Dreaming, which is a landscape for the collective unconscious of all mortals in the universe).

The ultimate effect is that I consciously recognize that Lucifer is still antagonizing Dream (particularly knowing what’s going to happen because he hands the key to Hell over to him), but in the moments where Lucifer steps down from his office and offers his complaint about what his existence has been like, I feel for the guy.  He’s really screwing Dream over in the process, but I don’t begrudge him deciding that he doesn’t have to be responsible for playing the adversary to a Divinity who might have manipulated him into the role in the first place.  Lucifer’s an agent of free will, and he won’t be damned if he can help it.

Besides exercising his free will (we get a lovely little scene where Lucifer demonstrates his commitment to refusing obligations that he doesn’t want by evicting a small group of fiends who don’t want to leave because they think the lord of Hell should continue fighting the bad fight, as it were; he tells them he’ll do “what he damn well likes” and sends them away), Lucifer also explores the topic of infinite punishment for finite crimes.  Besides the stubborn demons, he also has to contend with a stubborn man who insists that he must suffer for eternity to pay for his really quite gruesome litany of crimes.  Lucifer is unmoved by the catalogue, and points out that all the murders were of people who would have been long dead by this point in time anyway (he seems to have no empathy for the magnitude of suffering that the guy with the hooks in his face inflicted during his life), and everyone’s forgotten his name on top of that (it’s a nice little variation on “Ozymandias”), so the punishment has become pointless.  A little later in the issue, when Lucifer discusses his own crimes we get to see that he’s really thinking about himself, and whether it’s just that he should rule Hell for eternity because of his rebellion (he acknowledges that returning to life as an angel is out of the question probably both because he wouldn’t be welcomed back and because he’d find the servitude galling after millennia playing the bad guy for God).

Turning to the art of the issue, Kelley Jones does some incredible work with close up panels of faces in this issue.  It’s a very talky issue with a fair bit of back and forth between Lucifer and Dream, but pretty frequently Jones interjects a panel or two that consists only of a look from one of the two central characters that conveys a lot of information with just a look (also, every panel where Kelley Jones gets to draw a character’s teeth is one of my favorite because he always draws them in a way that rushes headlong into the uncanny valley, which is a wonderfully unsettling effect for a book focused on Dream and Lucifer).  Besides the lovely close-ups, Jones also draws some great hellscapes that convey the emptiness and the vastness of the place.

Next issue sees more of Jones’s signature creepy teeth and the fallout of Lucifer’s parting gift to Dream begins to make itself apparent.

Reading “A Hope in Hell”

In the first three issues of The Sandman, we observe Dream mostly through the eyes of other characters.  Even in #2 when he’s surveying the Dreaming, we spend the first half of the story watching his convalescence from Cain and Able’s perspective.  There are a couple of scenes where we get some internal monologue, but Dream feels lightly sketched there.  In “A Hope in Hell” we spend a majority of the issue inside Dream’s head, and we finally get to see him do something that he’s famous for: brooding.

The opening of this story sees Dream hanging out, playing with his dreamsand while he thinks about the fact that he’s going to be confronting Lucifer, who’s one of the most powerful entities in the ordered universe (Gaiman, being the lit nerd that he is, draws heavily from Paradise Lost in his characterization of Lucifer and Hell).  It’s a page that is purely meant as a way to introduce the problem of the issue we’re reading, but it also gives a good sense that Dream is a broody anthropomorphic entity who’s given to dramatizing everything that happens around him.  There’s also a bit of early installation weirdness here, as Dream ponders the Endless, whom he refers to as “the few others of my kind”; in the future we’ll see that though he’s very stuffy about it, Dream feels a certain affection for his siblings and almost always speaks of them in familial terms. I suppose this is probably just a case of Gaiman really wanting to introduce the concept of the Endless, and not being sure of a more elegant way to do it besides Dream doing some navel gazing (in future stories Gaiman becomes much more comfortable with using third person narration to describe action when an internal monologue would just be clunky).

Once the action begins, we’re treated to a series of scenes where Dream more or less blusters his way through Hell (though he’s regained his sand, Dream is still exceptionally weak).  Gaiman really belabors this point, which is probably necessary because Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg’s art does little to suggest that Dream’s struggling.  There’s a particularly cartoony panel where Dream slings a demon into some rock using an impressive underhanded softball pitch.  It’s glorious and totally out of sync with the dour mood that Gaiman’s trying to convey (Gaiman mentions in his afterword for the first volume of Sandman that Kieth quit the book because he felt that he wasn’t meshing with the rest of the creative team; that seems most evident in this issue, but for all the dissonance between the drawings and the narration, I can’t help loving Kieth’s art).

We get a three page cameo by Etrigan the demon, which is more a bit of novel trivia than anything (he disappears immediately before Dream reaches Pandemonium, and we never hear from him again).  The most significant thing that Etrigan does for the story is guide Dream past a battery of prison cells where a woman named Nada has been waiting for ten thousand years.  She knows Dream, and when she sees him she begs him to release her from her imprisonment.  He refuses.

Pictured: David Bowie. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

This is a significant moment because it establishes the pattern for all of Dream’s future (and past) romances: Dream loves deeply, but he just can’t seem to end any kind of relationship amicably.  We’ll get Nada’s full story in future issues, but for now all we need to know is that she gets a pretty raw deal, and Dream lacks all compassion towards her even as he confesses he still loves her.

Following this bit of foreshadowing, we reach my favorite page of this issue.  I don’t know the story of what was going on, but there are two pages that quite clearly were not penciled by Sam Kieth, and they are amazing.  I love the psychedelic quality of Kieth’s art, but these pages introduce Lucifer, and he’s obviously just David Bowie with bat wings, which is exactly how everyone should imagine Lucifer (I’m certain that John Milton, as he was composing the description of Satan in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, was imagining David Bowie, anachronism be damned).  The art looks to me like it was penciled by Mike Dringenberg, who became the primary penciler after Sam Kieth left, and it’s a nice bit of insight into what the series is going to look like over the next ten or so issues.  Unfortunately, great things must end, and we go back to Kieth’s art, which continues to be serviceable, but his Lucifer just doesn’t even compare.

We move along to the big climax of the story, where Dream finally confronts the demon who bartered for his helmet while he was trapped in the Burgesses’ basement.  This demon, Choronzon, doesn’t want to give up his prize, and suggests a contest with the stakes being Dream’s helmet against his chance to leave Hell.  The rules of the contest are vague, but they follow a structure similar to the wizard’s duel of The Sword in the Stone where one combatant proposes a form, and the other person must think of a new form to counter the strengths of the old one, carrying on in that fashion until one person is stumped.  Dream, being in a sense the avatar of stories, wins when he tricks Choronzon into playing so aggressively that he overextends and suggests that he is anti-life, marking the destruction of the entire universe.

Dream responds that he is hope.

It’s a nice sentiment that demons would fail to have a counter to hope, given that it’s an eternally optimistic position.  That the universe will eventually end is a dark thought, but hope remains that something better may come of it.

At any rate, Dream wins back his helmet and then dares the demons not to let him leave, since Hell’s central purpose of torture and punishment would become moot if its inhabitants are incapable of dreaming of heaven.

Again, demons are confounded by the idea of hope, even as it provides the foundation for their own vocation.

Reading The Choice

So, every week when I sit down to find a new tract for this series, I stop and wonder to myself what topic I should pick out (Chick.com is so helpful with a system of categories for their tracts).  This week I thought it might be interesting to see what tracts are recommended for specific locales and events, and I found that apparently the people at Chick have gotten feedback from their customers that there are a number of tracts they like to hand out at funerals.

Yes, funerals.

As in, “You’re here to mourn someone’s death, and I’m going to give you a little booklet that explains why you need Jesus or you’re going to hell when you die.”  This strikes me as hitting just a little below the belt.  Also, as someone who’s had to deal with this personally, it is incredibly tasteless to use someone’s death (especially someone you knew was not a believer) as an excuse to make an altar call.  Any mourner present who might be aware of this fact is not going to be comforted so much as steered towards thoughts of the departed’s eternal suffering and torment.

Setting that complaint aside, let’s just remember that Chick tracts and the type of evangelism they promote are a form of marketing.  I think it’s pretty scummy to try to make a hard sell when a person’s in the midst of grief.  That’s not to say that counseling and honest conversations aren’t helpful, but I maintain that what Chick does is neither honest nor designed for comforting the afflicted.

Page 6

This panel doesn’t have a whole lot of anything to do with the rest of this tract. It doesn’t make it any less infuriating. (Image credit: Chick.com)

Anyway, I’ll put away my rantbox and get out my reviewbox now (spoiler alert: I can’t afford distinct boxes, so they’re actually the same thing) so we can talk about this week’s tract: The Choice.

This tract is a very simple presentation of Chick’s gospel framed by two characters, the middle-aged and balding nonbeliever George, and some old white dude who is unnamed, but who I think may be a Jack Chick stand-in.  They’re having lunch together, and Chick proceeds to explain to George that he’s in a bad way, since he’s made an enemy of Satan just by existing.

After reading so many of these things, I feel like I’m starting to get numb to the absurdity, so there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before (although there’s a delightfully unfortunate stab at evolution where Chick claims that the devil tries to attack us through education–because God doesn’t want us to delight in and learn everything we can about his Creation).

One thing that is of note is that Chick takes a moment to tell an origin story for Satan, saying that he was originally the angel Lucifer, who fell when he rebelled against God.  Aside from the fact that this interpretation of Isaiah 14:12-14 fails to take into account that Isaiah is telling Israel what they’re going to say to the king of Babylon when their oppression ends, it’s also just a poor exegesis even in the King James Version.  Elizabethan poetry is rife with classical allusions and turns of phrase that are honestly beautiful, but don’t have anything to do with building a larger mythology.  Lucifer’s a poetic name based on the Babylonian king’s association with the morning star (Venus) that fails to reach the same heavenly apex as the sun, not a reference to the devil’s pre-fall identity.

It’s this kind of insistence on maintaining ignorance of the Bible’s history that I think drives Chick to call out education as a tool of the devil.  After all, if people learn where cultural memes originate and how they’ve been shaped and glommed onto our understanding of Christianity, then it might open things up to questioning and the realization that there are multiple ways to look at God’s interactions with humanity.

Of course, I might just be lying through my teeth because I have an axe to grind with Chick’s methods and presentation.  After all, he says that everything he tells you in this tract is true because it’s supported by the Word of God.

The problem with that, if you haven’t already noticed, is that it is not logically possible to create a foundation for belief in the Bible as the Word of God based exclusively on the Bible saying it’s the Word of God.  We call that sort of closed system a tautology, or circular reasoning, because its conclusion is derived from a premise that relies on the conclusion already being true.

Okay, I’m stepping off my rant/reviewbox.

The Choice is a wholly standard Chick tract in that it’s full of misinformation and misrepresentation about the authors’ viewpoint, and like the rest of these things should be given a wide berth, or at least read alongside multiple other sources offering points and counterpoints to Chick’s self-referential assertions.

Which, coincidentally, you probably can’t do at a funeral.