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.

Reading “Exiles”

I have to be honest: I don’t like this Sandman story very much.  It’s a very sparse story, and Jon J Muth’s art is so strikingly minimal in comparison to Michael Zulli’s lush work on The Wake.  Really, probably the biggest weakness “Exiles” has is that it has to immediately follow on the massive catharsis Gaiman’s delivering in this last long arc.

The story in this issue follows an elderly man who has been exiled to the farthest reaches of an ancient Chinese empire.  His son was a practitioner of magic, and was executed by the Emperor for some vague reason.  The old man travels through a vast desert on the way to his new post, and in a sandstorm he gets separated from his guide and pulled into the Soft Places.  The majority of the issue is concerned with the old man’s dreams, which meander through a series of vaguely connected scenes that highlight the old man’s thoughts on his long journey.  Out of all the issues of The Sandman, I might say this one has the most dreamlike quality to it; there’s a definite arc for the character of the old man (he begins the journey adopting a stoic attitude toward his misfortune, and by the end he seems to have legitimately come to terms with it), but the actual action of the issue is minimal.  The old man has two encounters with Dream, once before his death and once after, and through these conversations he receives some comfort.

Like I said, it’s a pretty sparse story.

One cool thing that “Exiles” does: Because it’s mostly in black and white and both aspects of Dream appear, Todd Klein does this thing where Dream’s speech bubbles often get an inverted color pattern. Because Dream’s speech bubbles have been so distinct throughout the whole series, the confusion between original Dream and new Dream’s speech patterns highlights how they’re both aspects of the same person. (Artwork by Jon J Muth, letters by Todd Klein)

There is a metanarrative going on here, though.  This issue and the next deal with two different men who are coming to terms with the end of their careers.  Gaiman seems to be spending these last issues meditating on the end of a major project; by this point The Sandman had been going for about seven years, and it was a massive single piece of fiction for Gaiman (in several of his forewords from later Sandman works, Gaiman likes to note that altogether the series spans some two thousand pages).  He began The Sandman when he was in his late twenties, and it lasted well into his thirties; I’m still in my early thirties and the thought of working on a single project for that long sounds like a really big deal (I’ve been maintaining this blog for over three years now, and though most of the content isn’t directly connected, it feels like a huge personal investment for me).  I think that Gaiman was using the last couple issues to get his own closure on The Sandman.

And that’s it for this issue.  Like I said at the start, it’s not a story that I particularly enjoy, even when I see what Gaiman’s doing with it.  The next issue is the last in the main Sandman run, and it will probably be the last Sandman issue that I cover here for a while.  It’s time to move on to something else.

Reading “An Epilogue: Sunday Mourning”

The last time I went to a renaissance festival, I saw a booth that said, “Ye Olde Taco Stand,” or something similar.  It was delightfully anachronistic, and pointed to the quirky nature of things like renfests.  It’s a bunch of people with relatively esoteric interests in things that may or may not relate to the actual historical period getting together to put on a day for themselves and people who want to come visit.  In a lot of ways it feels very much akin to conventions that I’ve been to, though without so much of the crowding and obnoxious waiting in line to do fun things.

In this issue of The Sandman, Gaiman takes the concept of the renfest and gently skewers it with the help of my favorite centuries old curmudgeon Hob Gadling.  This story takes place a few months after Dream’s funeral, and it just chronicles a day that Hob spends at a renaissance fair where his latest girlfriend works.  Most of the day is spent simply drinking to help cope with the cheesy environs, but in the midst of that stubbornly mundane series of events, Hob processes his own reaction to Dream’s passing.

It seems that at the heart of this story is a reflection on how time gradually erodes relationships and priorities.  Hob has lived significantly longer than most people, and the major strings of thought he focuses on here have to do with the friends he’s lost (remember that the last time we saw Hob before Dream’s funeral was in the immediate aftermath of another lover’s sudden death) and the evil things he’s done (Hob has recently started dating a Black woman, Guenevere, and this new experience has him fixated on his own culpability in the Atlantic slave trade).  It seems like the perfect sort of set up for Hob to finally decide he’s ready to die, but even after having a conversation with Death confirming that Dream’s funeral was a thing Hob really experienced, he decides to go on, unsure that he’ll ever be ready for the end.

When you break this story down to its plot points it’s a pretty thin one, but that feels okay.  Hob holds a pretty special place in The Sandman mythos as the first person Dream called his friend in the series, and it’s fitting that our last moment thinking about Dream’s passing are spent with him.  The themes that Hob meditates on here, slavery, regret, carrying on without your loved ones, echo the experiences that Dream’s had over the course of his story.  He told Hob he shouldn’t be in the slaver business in the first place, and then he ended up trapped himself.  He spent much of the series learning how to make amends for things he’d done to others before, and Hob, whose few centuries are only a fraction of Dream’s lifetime, is caught in a place now where he’s unsure how to make up for his own sins; the people he personally hurt are all long dead, unlike Dream who had the luxury of associating mostly with immortals.  Hob’s many dead friends also echo the most painful aspects of Dream’s own history; it’s arguably Nada and Orpheus who left the strongest imprints on Dream, and the only way he’s able to reach closure with them is by helping them move on.  It’s perhaps only the fact that Hob learns these lessons more quickly, if not more easily (how can persistent loss ever be easy?), that distinguishes him from his friend.

Maybe that, and the fact that unlike Dream Hob is not resistant to change for the better.

This is the look Death gives everyone who asks her a question for which Gaiman doesn’t have an answer. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The issue’s climax is an extended conversation Hob has with Death; she comes to visit him as a favor to Dream.  She confirms for him that Dream really has died, and she presents him with the option to die if he’d like.  He defers, wondering if he’ll ever be ready to do that, even with all the losses he’s experienced in his life (though Hob’s first few centuries appeared to be characterized by him being relatively carefree, it’s been well established that he’s had a long line of lovers and wives and left behind at least a few children).  Hob thinks of his life as a long, slow robbing of what he holds dear, but I see him more as being weighed down.  He has so many memories of pressing down, affecting how he sees things in the present, but he maintains this resilience to keep going on, perhaps indefinitely.  A look at the trajectory of Hob’s life suggests that even if his relationship with Gwen is successful, they’ll have a few decades at most before he’ll either need to disappear again or she’ll die and leave him behind.  It’s a painful cycle that has to bear down immensely after so many repetitions, but Hob keeps soldiering on, finding happiness in each new meeting as he sees reflected in it the memories of previous partings.

The issue ends with Hob having one last nap before he and Gwen head home for the day.  It’s a brief one, but during it he dreams of Dream.  It’s a weird moment, because this is clearly a dream that happens chronologically after Dream’s death, so the Dream Hob meets is actually a dream of Dream, although that’s not entirely clear since Destruction is also there, and for all we know it really is Destruction come to hang out with Hob and his brother.  The metaphysics of the Dream in Hob’s dream can get confusing pretty quickly, so it’s probably best not to think too hard about them.  Instead, I want to just end on the image of comfort Hob has here.  It evokes a familiar feeling for me; I occasionally dream about loved ones who are gone, and those are always really good dreams.

Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo.

Next time we’ll look at the story of an old man crossing a desert.

Reading “Chapter Three: In Which We Wake”

There are three issues left in The Sandman after this one, and they’re not bad (I actually quite like the next issue, which will focus on Hob Gadling about a month after Dream’s funeral), but they feel more like a series of epilogues than the actual ending to the series.  For most intents and purposes, this is the end of the series (except that, y’know, I’m going to discuss the last three issues too in the coming weeks; it seems only fair after getting this far).

Imagine Jed trying to make conversation to his right instead. Awkward. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

In this issue we finally see Dream’s funeral, complete with eulogies from those who were closest to him (and Destiny, because I guess it was in the program that he was supposed to speak) and a send off that still makes me kind of weepy when I read it.  We also have some more fun cameos (Rose and Jed Walker are seated between Emperor Joshua Norton and Darkseid, which tickles me endlessly) and Dream having a friendly chat with his brother Destruction.  Also (and this is no small thing), Dream holds audience with Hippolyta Hall after the funeral and informs her that he forgives her for killing him.

What we’ve seen with the structure of the story up to this point is a repeating pattern of reflections from people who have known Dream with each successive iteration focusing on people who were closer and closer to him.  The first issue of this arc shows how Dream’s servants viewed him as they learn the differences between him before and after his death; the second issue gradually moves from acquaintances like the immortal homeless woman Mad Hettie to Rose Walker and Lyta Hall, whose lives were significantly changed by their encounters with him, to Dream’s previous lovers; this third issue is set aside primarily for the Endless themselves and Dream’s closest friends (and also a sampling of the apparently many other eulogies given, like one from Wesley Dodds, the DC character who was the original Sandman from the 1940s).

There’s a certain irony in the eulogies of the Endless; they’re Dream’s family, so they have pride of place as the chief speakers at his funeral, but most of them are not especially close to him.  Destiny doesn’t seem very attached to any of his younger siblings, Desire has been feuding with Dream for eons, and Despair (whose closest positive relationship among her siblings is with the absent Destruction) has always seemed only vaguely fond of Dream.  Delirium’s relationship with Dream is fairly positive since Brief Lives, but that’s an incredibly brief time in the span of their relationship.  Death, who was easily the one closest to her brother, doesn’t give a eulogy; instead she closes out the funeral with a benediction, though Gaiman leaves her actual words a mystery.  The eulogies from the first four Endless range in quality (Destiny says pretty much what you’d expect, and Desire can’t bring themself to express any genuine regret about the turn their relationship took with Dream, Despair offers a strangely moving thought on her admiration of Dream and commitment to remembering him when no one else does, and Delirium makes a typically muddled statement that’s punctuated with a moment of stark, painful clarity), but they all offer a somewhat shallow view of their brother in comparison to the complex stories other people tell about him.

Everyone’s there! Even Zulli and Gaiman! (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

Matthew the raven gets to give the last eulogy, and while it’s no longer than any of the others, it feels like a good summation of Dream.  Matthew notes that most of the time Dream acted like he was above Matthew, and on rare occasions the fact that they were friends shone through.  Dream wasn’t comfortable being intimate with people, and he often worked hard at keeping even his closest friends at a distance most of the time.  Matthew’s reflection feels especially poignant since the secondary plot of this entire arc has been Matthew’s slow processing of Dream’s death.  He was willing to die with Dream but was denied that.  He was bewildered to see so many of his other friends, like Mervyn Pumpkinhead, restored to life as though nothing had happened while the Dream he knew was irreparably lost.  He asked Dream to end his service as a raven, and was advised to wait until after the funeral to make his decision.  Now, speaking before Dream’s body, Matthew finishes his arc with acceptance of the way things must change and resolve to continue being Dream’s advisor as he learns how to navigate his duties in this new aspect of himself.  Matthew’s been sort of the reader’s surrogate throughout, and it’s comforting to see him coming to terms with what’s happened.

Gaiman ends this issue with an extended narration that addresses the reader directly as one of the many dreamers who have attended Dream’s wake and funeral.  It’s a nice bit of metanarrative that blurs the line between the two aspects of Dream’s realm that have consistently been present throughout the series: dreams while asleep and stories.  The whole of The Wake has been built around wordplay with the various meanings of the term “wake,” and in this last chapter we finish off the way every dream does.  You get the sense that there’s still more to tell, but it’s time to move on to other things and so everything ends when you’re still not quite ready.  It’s a fine way to finish Dream’s story here.

Of course, we’re not totally done with the series.  Next issue will follow Hob Gadling one last time, and then we have to wrap up those other two issues.

Reading “Chapter Two: In Which a Wake Is Held”

The structure that Gaiman’s following in this last arc is very simple.  In the previous issue we proceeded through the aftermath of the news of a person’s death.  Plans began to coalesce as they usually do; you have to organize your goodbyes after all.  This issue focuses on that peculiar waiting period that comes between the initial shock and the official funeral; whatever your personal traditions regarding the length of this interim, it’s that period of time where everything feels like it’s been put on hold.

That’s where we are in this issue.  The entirety of humanity has come to the Dreaming to see Dream off, but before the funeral proper can take place, there has to be a waiting period.  Like in real life, the ways we fill this time vary from person to person.  Some, like Matthew the raven, take a long time to process their grief, and this waiting period becomes especially painful; interactions with others are fraught, and even the customary pastime of telling stories to remember the dead feel like too much.  For others, like the Cluracan, it’s all about just passing the time while you wait to pay your respects; these people are already emotionally prepared to move on with their lives (there’s nothing wrong with this attitude).

This issue’s plot bounces between Matthew, who is coping with his grief through a series of conversations with various people of the Dreaming, and short vignettes where people who have known Dream share their memories of him.  The standout moments here come from the women who have loved Dream, including Nuala (still grappling with feelings of guilt for asking Dream to come to her at the height of the Furies’ attack), Calliope, Titania, and Larissa.

Nuala’s scene here is a relatively minor one that shifts focus to her brother the Cluracan after a page.  We learn here that during The Kindly Ones, when Nuala was visited by her brother posing as a boggart, it was actually Cluracan’s nemesis, which he accidentally spawned when he first came to the Dreaming to retrieve her.  It’s a small, dense bit of characterization that suggests to us that Cluracan really is as oblivious as he appears (the only moments of genuine comfort that he offers Nuala during her ordeal in Faerie are in the privacy of her room, which we see here was actually not him at all).  His nemesis, in contrast, seems like a perfectly likeable sort who also has the good manners not to try to kill Cluracan at Dream’s wake.  Cluracan, for his part, is rather bewildered by the encounter, and shakes it off with some heavy drinking and dancing, ignoring the fact that he’s doomed to a deadly confrontation at some point in his future.  We won’t get to see that story play out here, and Cluracan completes his character arc as the most charming shaggy dog in The Sandman.

Calliope, Titania, Larissa, and off the left, the reincarnated Nada. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The rest of Dream’s lovers play out there stories of lament to one another; there’s a panel at the start of Calliope’s sequence that establishes she, Titania, and Larissa are gathered in a small circle talking (in the same panel is a small Chinese girl whom I suspect is meant to be the reincarnated Nada).  Calliope speaks openly about her relationship with Dream, recounting the arc of it from their early infatuation through Orpheus’s birth and death, which seemed to be the breaking point for them.  Dream’s decision to turn his back on Orpheus throughout the episode with Eurydice’s death didn’t sit well with Calliope.  She railed against Dream for his callousness, which was apparently too much for him to bear.  In a pattern similar to how he reacted to Nada’s rejection, Dream shunned Calliope for expressing her anger with him.  This is where they had left off way back in the one-off story “Calliope,” where Dream is still in the early stages of learning how to make reparations to people he’s harmed unjustly.  Calliope and Dream’s romance is long dead, and at the wake she notes that she’s just there to say goodbye to a man who did her and her son each a good turn.

Titania’s reminiscence comes second in the sequence, and hers is the briefest.  She refuses to share any of her history with Dream, pointing out that her memories of them belong only to the two of them, and she expects that if the situation were reversed he wouldn’t be discussing his memories of her either.  Titania and Dream’s relationship is another of those mysteries that Gaiman never bothers to deeply explore in The Sandman, and it serves well here as an example of a different approach to grief from everyone else.  All the other mourners freely tell stories of their encounters with Dream here, but Titania chooses to be more private.  She doesn’t need to share her memories for them to remain a comfort to her, which is legitimate.

Aww, Larissa. (Artwork by Michael Zulli, colors by Daniel Vozzo)

The last of Dream’s lovers to speak in this issue is Larissa.  In a two page sequence, she tells the story of her and Dream’s romance, which happened entirely off panel sometime after A Game of You and before Brief Lives.  From her first appearance, Larissa has always had a close association with the moon, and here she uses it as the key simile for describing her time with Dream.  He loved her intensely, and as long as he directed his love towards her she was happy to reflect it (the same way the moon reflects light from the sun), but as time passed and he grew indifferent towards the relationship, she realized that she wasn’t really in love with him.  When Larissa tried to talk with Dream about this he was indifferent, and so she left him.  We know the aftermath of that relationship, although Larissa characterizes Dream in a way that sheds an interesting light on his response to being dumped.  In Brief Lives Dream spent a lot of energy appearing to be torn up over Larissa’s departure, but her account of his attitude suggests that it was mostly performative (that jives with the contrast between Dream’s grief over Orpheus’s death and his wallowing over Larissa’s departure; the former is genuine and so he keeps it private, while the latter is what he believes he’s supposed to do in such a situation and very publicly displayed).  It’s a good moment that highlights the emotional progress Dream made over the course of the series; instead of looking for ways to punish Larissa like he did with his previous lovers, Dream spent some time pouting and then moved on to other things.

Lots of other stuff happens in this issue as well; Matthew has a conversation with Dream and learns that when he was still Daniel he saved Matthew’s life; Rose Walker tells Lyta Hall that she’s pregnant (Lyta is, understandably, more aggrieved by her losing Daniel than Dream’s death); the Justice League makes a cameo (charmingly, Superman appears as Clark Kent while Batman appears as Batman; J’onn Jones the Martian Manhunter appears as himself, because he doesn’t have any identity issues); and Hob Gadling contemplates how much time he’s spent urinating in his six hundred years of life.

The next issue will be the funeral itself, and so it will be most concerned with the memories of the Endless themselves.

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.