As I Go Along: The Sandman #7 ‘Brief Lives’

Note: “As I Go Along” is a new feature in which I review and discuss the best graphic novels and series that I haven’t yet had a chance to read. These are the titles your comic-loving friends have been trying to push into your hands for years, only now I’ll be doing the pushing (or telling you not to bother). The post will include spoilers for those who have not yet read the work.

I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend…I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds don’t last; and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.

It’s been a while since we’ve had a collection that focused on Morpheus as its central character. Perhaps even better is the increased “screen time” for the rest of the Endless family, namely Delirium and Destruction. Up to this point we’d heard a whole lot about “The Prodigal” without ever seeing him or getting any explanation as to why he disappeared beyond small hints.

As I’ve often said, one of my favorite parts of the “Sandman” series is that we get to see growth, change, and development—in short, humanity—in characters that are “Endless” (both in name and life span). In “Brief Lives,” Dream and Delirium embark on an (ultimately successful, sort of) quest to find their brother. Along the way, explanations of each of the Endless’ motives and feelings regarding the search do much to increase their depth and relatability. Change is the major theme of this story arc, and as a result, it’s one of the best yet, right up there with “Preludes and Nocturnes.”

First off, there’s Delirium. This whole shebang is her idea, and the impetus for it all is change. What else? We’ve been told before that Delirium has changed, but we get our first glimpse into the “before” period in chapter two.

Delirium was once Delight. Her name, and thus her function was different, and it’s clear her new form isn’t the easier to handle of the two. She recalls going to see Destruction in the early stages of her transition. He told her things are changing, and she knows it to be true, but is nonetheless comforted by her brother’s presence. But now he’s been gone for 300 years and she hopes finding him will bring more change, this time for the better.

Of course, the main attraction here is Dream and his changes, although the long-awaited introduction of Destruction came in a close second. Dream initially embarks on the quest not out of any desire to find his brother or help his sister, but because he needs to take his mind off the end of yet another failed love affair. The lost lover is never named, but writers like Gaiman don’t make so many hints at such a mystery without ultimately unveiling the secret.

Although he refuses to acknowledge it, at least outwardly, Dream’s imprisonment changed him. The muse Calliope pointed it out back in “Dream Country,” with Morpheus responding that he had “learned much in recent times.” A few more characters made note of Dream’s evolution in “Brief Lives.” Opheus, Dream and Calliope’s son, says something similar when he and his father speak about Dream’s freeing Calliope. But Dream responds “I doubt it.” When Delirium first visits his realm, Dream apologizes for being a bad host. At first, Delirium thinks he is mocking her, but when asks why he would do that, she responds “You’ve never apologized to me. You just act like you know stuff I don’t know that makes everything you do okay.”

Of course, actions speak louder than words. The fact that Dream grants Orpheus a boon, the gift of death, is near amazing considering he refused to even see his son for millennia. More interesting however is that the ever-stoic Morpheus quite literally crumbles to his knees when Destiny tells him something he already knew: that the only way he will find Destruction is with Orpheus’s help. This event paves the way for the most interesting moment of Delirium’s change as well. When she sees the effect Destiny’s words have had on Dream, she momentarily changes back to Delight to confront him, saying “Do you know why I stopped being Delight, my brother? I do. There are things not in your book. There are paths outside this garden. You would do well to remember that.” It seems Delight can collect herself for small periods if need be, though she says it’s very painful.

In the middle of their journey, Dream quits when he recognizes the human cost their quest is having. Most searches for a long lost sibling don’t involve a body count. The old Dream would not have been agitated by the deaths of a few measly humans, and Destruction points to Dream’s distress as proof of his having changed. These deaths are a part of another aspect of the collection’s major theme: the brevity of life (or “Brief Lives”).

Of all the characters in the “Sandman” universe only the Endless have lives that are anything but brief. Recall that even Gods can die when the living stop believing in them, and that although he lived for thousands of years, Dream calls Orpheus life “short.” The fact of the matter is that it’s all relative. Everything in existence will consider their lives brief when faced with the end. There’s Ruby, whose average human lifespan comes to an abrupt conclusion in a fire, and Bernie Capax, who screams “Not yet” when he sees a building about to collapse on him, despite having lived 15,000 years. When Death comes to claim Capax, she explains “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime.”

Even for the Endless, things are not so cut and dry. In Chapter 8 it is revealed that Despair was once destroyed and “another aspect of one of us had to reassume the position.” Dream notes that this was the only time such a thing occurred, but it still goes to show that even the individual forms of these “Endless” beings can die. Although they will be eventually reborn, it creates a philosophical conundrum: is the new aspect the “same” as the old one? Destruction explains that it is this infinite cycle that caused him to abandon his position, saying “After all, it wouldn’t have done for another version of me to have been dumped into the same mess all over again.”

I could go on and on about “Brief Lives,” it was a true masterpiece on so many levels. I just hope the rest of the series can even approach the impossibly high bar this collection has set.



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