As I Go Along: The Sandman #8: Worlds’ End

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.

When a world ends, there’s always something left over. A story, perhaps, or a vision, or a hope. This inn is a refuge, after the lights go out. For a while.

After the action-packed collection “Brief Lives,” which revealed some oft-mentioned but (previously) never spoken history of the “lives” of The Endless, we took another step back in “Worlds’ End,” which was a collection of semi-related short stories set in the “Sandman” universe, much like “Dream Country” and “Fables and Reflections.” What sets “World’s End” apart from those collections however, is that it builds to a specific endpoint. From the beginning of the story, we know that something momentous is brewing, and that all the interesting stories we’re hearing are almost meant to distract us and prevent us from remembering that fact.

“Worlds’ End” begins with two travelers from the world we’re all familiar with, Brant Tucker and Charlene Mooney, getting into a car crash when it mysteriously begins snowing in the middle of summer. While still in a daze, a mysterious hedgehog directs Brant to an inn unlike any he (or we) are familiar with—the “Worlds’ End, a free house.”

It’s later discovered that the inn is one of four where those travelling between dimensions, can stowaway during “reality storms,” which come as the result of particularly significant events. What sets “World’s End” apart from the early short story collections is that it builds to a specific endpoint. From early on, we know that something momentous is brewing, and that all the interesting stories we’re hearing are almost meant to distract and prevent us from remembering that fact. That endpoint is the inn’s guests gathering at a window to watch an enormous funeral procession in the sky, which is led by Desire and includes most of The Endless, more than a few residents of The Dreaming, and a number of other characters Morpheus has interacted with over the course of the series. As such, the most prevalent guess as to who lies in the coffin is Morpheus himself. The procession ends with Death stopping and looking through the inn’s window as the crescent moon behind her is covered in what is likely blood.

The thing is, it’s never actually confirmed that it’s Dream’s funeral we’re seeing. At least not yet. Although that big ending is forever chugging towards us, “Worlds’ End” might just be all about Neil Gaiman reminding the reader that what’s important in a really good story is the distance, not the destination (the telling, not the ending or the stakes). Instead of telling us why people (beings is more accurate) from so many realms are caught in a reality storm (or why we should give a shit), the whole “the world is coming to an end” thing is really just a backdrop for the stories the travelers are telling.

In the end, we learn that Brant is actually recounting the stories he heard at the Worlds’ End to a regular bartender, and that Charlene has ceased to exist (as she chose to stay and work at the inn). So it turns out, what originally appeared to be the frame story, all the travelers gathering, was actually wrapped up in another frame story. Frameception.

Although the stories within “Worlds’ End” have little impact on the main arc, they’re still an incredibly diverse, fantastic read. Despite the distinctiveness that each story (and fictional storyteller) brings, these six separate issues ultimately feel like one complete volume. Somehow, the pieces of the puzzle all fit. My two favorites were indubitably the first, “A Tale of Two Cities,” which Gaiman has admitted is utterly Lovecraftian, and “Hob’s Leviathan,” just because I’ve been captivated by Hob Gadling since we first heard his life story in “The Doll’s House.”

“Worlds’ End” had its fantastic moments, but at the end of the day, the stories I most want to hear are those of The Endless. As such, I’m looking forward to “The Kindly Ones,” the longest “Sandman” collection, which fixes the spotlight back on Dream.




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.



As I Go Along: The Sandman #6 ‘Fables and Reflections’

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.

“Dreams are composed of many things, my son. Of images and hopes, of fears and memories. Memories of the past, and memories of the future…”

Much like the third “Sandman” collection, “Dream Country,” “Fables and Reflections” is a collection of one-issue short stories. Most of these tales don’t contribute to the series’ major story arc other than to provide background and subtext, the exception being the collection’s middle story, “The Song of Orpheus.”

Aside from “Orpheus,” the stories in “Fables and Reflections” are divided into two groups (thematically, not in the paperback). The first group is labelled “Convergences.” Each of these issues is structured as a story within a story and explores the relationships between story and storyteller, which are often convergent, get it? The second is “Distant Mirrors,” which focuses on rulers, or more specifically, emperors, and the nature of power. I spent a whole lot of time on Wikipedia reading about his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton IMaximilien Robespierre and Saint-Just,Augustus Caesar, and  Hārūn al-Rashīd after reading these stories. Gaiman will do that, get you interested in things you’d otherwise never give a second glance.

The four “Distant Mirrors” stories show Dream (and sometimes his relatives) influencing those rulers and their actions. Everything ends up the same way we learned in history class, but in this universe the things in the middle happened a bit differently. It turns out failed businessman Joshua Abraham Norton didn’t just go mad and name himself Emperor of the United States. In fact, it all happened because Despair challenges Dream to keep Norton in his realm for the rest of his life. Rather than let Norton wallow in his pity and fall into his sister’s control, Dream allows him to believe he’s in charge. Normally, such insanity would mean the “Emperor” would be Delirium’s property, but as she points out in one of the most poignant lines I’ve ever read in a comic book (or anywhere, really), “His madness keeps him sane.”

There’s no time to talk about all the stories, so instead I’ll focus on “Thermidor,” which, along with being  my favorite, and serves as something of an introduction to “The Song of Orpheus.” Dream charges the Lady Johanna Constantine, who first appeared in “Men of Good Fortune,” with the task of removing his son’s (body free but nonetheless immortal) head from France. The leaders of the revolution seek to destroy it because they are “remaking the world… creating an age of pure reason,” and such an “object of superstition” has no place in their new “utopia.”

“Thermidor” is far and away the most political entry of the “Sandman” series thus far. Gaiman’s scathing critique of those who oversaw the “Reign of Terror” is clear. He mocks these Robespierre and Saint-Just, who had tens of thousands killed, “lost the saints and burnt the churches” in the name of reason. The juxtaposition is quite obvious: they’re seeking to destroy a single head in the name of logic as a guillotine, irrationality incarnate, sits outside the window.

Anyhow, onward to “The Song of Orpheus,” a double-issue in which we finally get the backstory of Dream’s oft-mentioned but never shown progeny, up to and including just how he ended up as an immortal head without a body. Behind the classic Greek myth of Orpheus, Gaiman layers his own characters and their motivations. In the “Sandman” version of the tale, Orpheus is the son of Dream and Calliope, the muse who you’ll recall was set free by her former lover back in “Dream Country.”

The story begins with Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice. Following the mythology, the young bride dies and Orpheus sets out to the underworld to take her back. After singing a song, Hades tells him (more or less), “sure your wife will be resurrected and you’ll both be allowed to leave the underworld on one condition: don’t look back.” Orpheus looks back, of course, because if he didn’t there would be no conflict and thus, no story.

The most important part of the story, perhaps, is the way it displays Dream’s coldness at this point in time. When his own son, whose bride has just died on the day they were to be wedded up and dies, pleads for his help, Dream flat out refuses him. Now, the Dream we’ve come to know still might not have helped, but he may at least have thought it over for a second or two. Dream has changed, and one of the best ways of displaying that is showing us a “before” picture. His growth and development will be an area of interest in the next collection, “Brief Lives,” as well.


As I Go Along: The Sandman #5 ‘A Game of You’

Note: “As I Go Along” is a weekly 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.

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

In the fifth “Sandman” collection, Dream once again took a backseat, watching the stories’ events from afar, only intervening at the end. Once again, Gaiman takes a tiny thread from an earlier work and weaves it into an beautiful and intricate quilt.  “A Game of You” is centered around Barbie, who we first met as a resident of the same house as Rose Walker in “The Doll’s House.” At the time, she was married to a man named Ken (imagine that), but they’ve divorced, and Barbie’s moved to big, bad New York City, where she lives with many of the interesting cast of characters who make up the story. But more has changed than Barbie’s marital status and place of residence. Chief among these changes: she no longer dreams.

From the outset, it appears this is a story about Barbie’s dreams returning, and as a result, her return to The Land as Princess Barbara, and eventually the skerry’s demise. “A Game of You” is that story, but more so it is a tale, as the title implies, about the question of identity. The reader must consider who and what each character in the collection is, as the characters do themselves.

Barbie, of course, is two different people, depending on whether she is awake or asleep. In the real world, she is a New York tenement dweller struggling to find her way in life following her divorce. No one depends on her but herself, and she is having a hard time keeping even that much responsibility in line. Yet in her dreams Barbie is quite the opposite. She is a princess on a magical quest to save the known world. Everyone and everything needs and depends on her.

Each of the characters has their own “game.” Wanda is a pre-operative transexual, born Alvin Mann in what she’d likely think of as a previous life. However, Wanda is scared of surgery, or perhaps just one surgery in particular, that which would make her a woman in body as well as mind. Throughout the story, Wanda struggles with her gender, and the question of her identity, or “game of Wanda” ends with her being buried in the Midwest by her traditional, God-fearing parents, who refuse to acknowledge the existence of their “son’s” other life, shunning all mention or hints to it. Or does it? Barbie dreams of Death whispering in Wanda’s ear, only she’s in the “perfect female body.” Whatever Death whispers, it makes Wanda smile.

While this volume was missing perhaps my favorite part of the “Sandman” series: the growth and development of the immortal Dream, “A Game of You” offered up some great elements of its own to separate it from previous collections. Most notably, the pacing of the plot and its various cliffhanger endings. While every “Sandman” book begs the turn of the page and “just one issue more before bed” turning into 3, I don’t know if any of the others has made me so desperate to find out what happens next in terms of plot. Furthermore, although it seems like it’d be difficult to expand the series’ mythology when Dream’s not really around, we did learn about the “distant skerries of dream,” places like The Land, where some people return every night, as well as further proof of Dream’s power, albeit indirectly. When Thessaly brings Hazel and Foxglove into the Dreaming, she does so with witchcraft that moves the moon and has dire consequences on Earth: changing the tides and bringing an apocalyptic hurricane into New York City. Clearly, the Dreaming and “reality” are not so separate as they appear.


As I Go Along: The Sandman #4 “Seasons of Mist”

Note: “As I Go Along” is a weekly 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.

“To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.”

After a bit of a wait, the latest collection of “The Sandman” I’ve gotten to put the focus back on Dream as the central character, with, of course, a few of Neil Gaiman’s trademark jumps elsewhere mixed in. “Seasons of Mist” begins with Destiny, the oldest of the Endless, calling a “family meeting.” One member is absent, and although we don’t know anything about he/she/it yet, other than that it is sometimes referred to as “the prodigal,” I’d wager its name starts with “d” (the six members present are Death, Destiny, Dream, Desire, Delirum, and Despair).

The happy family reunion quickly turns into a family argument, as Desire tells Dream he was wrong in sending Nada to Hell for thousands of years. Recall that we saw Dream walk past his former lover during his first trip to the underworld, and that we got the full story of their relationship in the prologue of “The Doll’s House.” Dream is outraged, until in a private conversation, Death says, “condemning her to eternity in hell, just because she turned you down… That’s a really shitty thing to do.”

Think about that, the Endless, the only immortal beings in the universe, use language as colloquial as “really shitty thing to do.” Well, Death does anyway. But it’s these kinds of odd juxtapositions that make “The Sandman” so great. Anyway, the argument leads to a sequence of events that make up the bulk of the major story arc: Dream returns to Hell only to find Lucifer is busy closing it down. It seems Satan is done ruling the underworld, and he puts Dream in charge of figuring out what the hell to do with the place (see what I did there?). As such, the story sets out to answer one question: What would happen if Lucifer up and left? Or, storytelling being what it is, what would you do if you had to decide who to give the key to Hell to? Dream ends up putting a couple of angels in charge despite the pleas of a plethora of deities, demons, and demi-gods (shit, Gaiman’s got me doing the d thing now). Of course, Destiny knew that was going to happen along, it’s kind of his thing.

The main story in “Seasons of Mist” was fantastic, but my favorite issue in the collection was doubtless one of those trademark jumps. It’s the fifth story, “”In Which the Dead Return; and Charles Rowland Concludes His Education.” Charles Rowland is left at his boarding school when most everyone else has gone home. Unfortunately for Charles, this happens to be at the same time Lucifer has kicked the dead out of hell, so those that died at the school (or just didn’t have anywhere else to go) return to haunt it.

Early on, Charles sits in front of a memorial for the boys from his school that died during the “Great War.” Two of those boys end up returning to St. Hilarion’s to torment Charles. He’s rescued by one Edwin Paine, who just so happened to have died when the same boys sacrificed him to the devil in 1914. The boys thought they would get special treatment in Hell because of their actions, “but when we went to Hell… They didn’t even care. They hadn’t even known. They–they laughed at us.”

Charles ends up dying, but Death’s far too busy to take him. Charles and Edwin decide they’ve learned all they’re going to at school and leave. Although they’re dead, they plan to “see what life’s got to offer.”



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