Neil Gaiman (text), with Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III (artistic rendering),
If you have read my previous Sandman review, of Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House, you already know that The Sandman is a remarkable graphic novel series revolving around the anthropomorphic personification of dreaming and stories.
Well, here I go again, this time reviewing volumes four, five, and seven. (Don't worry, I'll be back with three and six; there is a reason.)
The first two volumes of The Sandman are horror stories, really. Nasty, awful, nightmarish things happened to a variety of people. Some of them deserved it, and some of them didn't. That's horror for you.
These three volumes are quest stories. Some of the scenes (Breschau's punishments, Charles Rowland's school holidays, any scene with George in it, the Corinthian and the Oran Oatan) are creepy in one way or another, yes. It's Neil Gaiman, you're not going to escape that. But it's not what these stories are about. Dream quests to make amends, and to rid himself of unwanted property. Barbie quests after the salvation of a land she has forgotten. Delirium quests to find her lost, beloved brother.
What do you you quest after, in Dream's Realm?
Season of Mists
"To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devils his due." --Hob Gadling's toast
When his sister Death shames him with it, Dream finally admits that he was wrong to condemn Nada to Hell, ten thousand years ago, for refusing to be his queen. Having owned up, the only thing he can do is to go and release her and tell her that she is forgiven. There's only one problem: Lucifer has sworn to destroy Morpheus for embarrassing him before all the Hordes of Hell. Nonetheless, to Hell Morpheus will go.
But when he gets there, he find the Hell of Lucifer empty, and its resigning master locking the last gates. Rather than fight him, Lucifer gives Dream a gift, the Key to Hell. Dream doesn't want it... but everyone else does.
Gaiman began planning this story when he was writing issue 4, which depicted the Sandman going to Hell to retrieve his Helm, lost these many years and in the posession of a demon. On that fateful visit to Hell, Morpheus sees Nada, his old love, whom he still loves but has never forgiven. At the time, we got no further story on her. Five months later, we got her backstory, in "Tales in the Sand." Nada had been an African queen who had refused Dream because it was not given to mortals to love the Endless. Having watched her city destroyed, she died rather than bring more danger upon the people. Having died, she let Dream sentence her to Hell, until he should stand before her and tell her that she was forgiven, rather than be his Queen of Dreams.
And, a year after that, we finally found out what happened next.
This collection is a feast for lovers of mythology, even those who (like me) are sticklers for accuracy. Odin cannot think or remember without Huginn and Muninn, the ravens Thought and Memory. Thor is redheaded and bearded. Loki is handsome despite the scars around his mouth. Egyptian, Japanese, and Judeo-Christian figures are similarly well depicted. And the representatives of Queen Titania are simply charming.
Season of Mists also introduces us to two more members of Dream's family, and introduces us more thoroughly to the members of whom we are already aware. Destiny and Delirium are the oldest and youngest of the Endless; Destiny is a tall figure in a grey robe, chained to a book; his youngest sister (who used to be called Delight) is a childlike waif with mad-colored hair and odd-colored eyes. The brief essays describing each of the Endless are both lovely and enlightening.
But, we become aware, there is one of the Endless to whom we have not been introduced, and whose name has not yet been revealed. Nor is it here: he is known only as "the prodigal."
In previous stories, Dream has shown a very limited range of emotions. Now, we see that range expanded. He is shocked, touched, wistful, worried, and dumbstruck. It's a measure of how much he has changed, and is changing, that we see so much when he's under stress. He dons again his obdurate mask, as soon as he can, but we can see a little tenderness gleaming through the cracks in his armor.
Hell, in the world of The Sandman, is not a place where a vengeful deity sends those who have offended Him. Instead, it is a place where dead mortals choose to go (presumably without realizing that the choice is theirs) if they believe that they have sinned. It is, perhaps, also less of a place than a state of mind.
If Hell is not what we expect, then what is Lucifer? He is neither the Root of All Evil ("'The Devil made me do it.' I have never made one of them do anything. Never," he protests), nor soul-monger ("How can anyone own a soul?" he asks). Instead, he is disillusioned and world-weary, and ready to try something new. He is cruel enough to giggle at what he's putting Dream through, and kind enough to compliment the Daughter of Lilith who loves him. He is embittered at the realization that even his great rebellion is part of his Creator's plan, but not so much that he cannot appreciate a sunset as His work.
The artwork... I can only praise Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III so many times. Their styles and Gaiman's are well-suited. But this volume also features a number of other artists. Kelley Jones' gods and demons, and especially his Lucifer, are wonderful. Matt Wagner's returned dead are disgusting, charming, or horrifying, exactly when and how they ought to be. My only complaint on the artwork is that the shadows are sometimes too thick and black, losing some expression and character.
Episode four of this story follows Gaiman's tradition of inserting a seemingly separate story which serves to point up the central themes of the greater story. Edwin Paine and Charles Rowland, a dead boy and a dying boy, show us that we don't have to stay anywhere forever.
Harlan Ellison introduces this volume with a pointed essay on perfection and excellence.
A Game of You
Once upon a time, Barbie lived in Florida, with her husband Ken. Then, one night, her housemate Rose Walker discovered what it meant to be a Vortex of Dream, and Barbie lost some things. She lost her husband, her meaning, and her dreams. One she is well rid of, one she is searching for, and the last has come searching for her. Because, when she dreamt, Barbie became Princess Barbara, the Saviour of the Land, who protected it from the Cuckoo. Now Barbie finds her old dreams impinging on her new life, and the only way out is to complete the quest she started when it was "only a dream."
Once Barbie was one of the weird housemates of Rose. Now she has a cast of weird housemates herself, including the lesbian couple upstairs (one of whom is haunted by what was, and the other by what may be), the several-thousand-year-old witch, the preoperative male-to-female transsexual, and the minion of her dream-adversary.
The Sandman intentionally alternated between masculine stories and feminine stories, and between stories comfortable for comics readers and ones that made them uncomfortable. A Game of You is generally considered to be the most uncomfortable story in the Sandman library, and certainly it explores the concepts of femininity and femaleness in a way no other Sandman story does. But the reason it's so uncomfortable for so many fans is probably that it explores the concept of identity.
"Identity blurs on the Moon's Road... In the pale light of the Moon, I play the Game of You. Whoever I am. Whoever you are. All sense of where I am, who I am, and where I'm going, has been swallowed by the dark. And I walk through the stars and sky... a trinity of dreams beneath the moon."
Names are important here: names that are the same, names that are different, names that are not. Can you change your identity by changing your name, by playing the game of you?
Nobody who hasn't played that game will find it comfortable; neither will some who have played it. Comfortable, no. Fascinating, yes.
A Game of You alternates between levels of reality, and uses repeating motifs to make the real world seem more surreal and the dream world more prosaic. The points where the two worlds meet seem almost normal.
The best and most fascinating parts of this volume are in the details, really. Puns, reflections, references, and subtleties are the order of the day. All of The Sandman rewards a deep, close reading, but perhaps A Game of You more so than any of the other volumes.
Shawn McManus is good at drawing horror. So are lots of people. Shawn McManus is good at drawing fantasy. So are lots of people. What McManus can do that makes him invaluable to this story is draw them both, side by side, and have them mesh perfectly. Colleen Doran adds a woman's touch to the illustration of the single issue most concerned with gender, giving an edginess to the transformation of the other women's worlds.
A Game of You introduces two of my favorite Sandman characters, Thessaly and Wanda. Thessaly shows us why the Greeks feared witches, and yet she herself is an amazingly down-to-earth and together woman. She seems, as Hazel puts it, "so vanilla." Wanda is exactly the opposite of vanilla, brash and proud and very sure that's she's woman (however frightened she might be of that surgery). She keeps her humor in the face of things that scare her shitless, and all she wants is to protect her friend. She's the only one acting unselfishly.
I feel I ought, briefly, to touch on the controversy surrounding Wanda. A lot of readers have assumed that Gaiman shares the opinion of the Moon Goddess and Thessaly, or that he feels that Wanda is not certain of her own identity. Much to the contrary, Gaiman has stated that he sides with Wanda.
Samuel R. Delaney provides this volume with an opening commentary on the language and art of A Game of You. It's worth reading, but only after you've finished the story. It won't do you much good before.
Three hundred years ago, Destruction, the middle sibling of the seven Endless, abandoned his realm.
Now Delirium tries to convince her brothers and sisters to go with her, to search for their missing, and missed, brother. Working her way up from her next-eldest siblings, she gets to Dream before finding someone who will help her.
Dream is suffering from a broken heart, or thinks he is. For weeks now, he has stood in the rain, mourning the loss of an unnamed lover. He agrees to accompany Delirium, not to look for Destruction, but to look for her.
As they search, looking first for those friends of Destruction who will not be dead, people begin to have terrible mishaps and begin to die.
In the end, Delirium and Dream find their brother, but not without cost. Rare indeed is the individual who can seek Destruction and return unscathed. Dream is not such a one.
The prevalent themes in Brief Lives are immortality (or the illusion thereof) and change (which is to say, death). Impermanence, ephemerality, and transience are inherent in the title, the themes, and the little chocolate people filled with raspberry cream.
That last may seem out of place, but it's not. This story is full of scenes stolen by Delirium. She is whimsical and wise, kind and cruel, confused and crystal clear. She thinks that viridian and twinkle are nice words, and she proves the truth of her earlier statement that she knows things that none of the other Endless do. She makes the whole story work.
Destruction, living on a Greek island with his dog Barnabas, tries the other side of his coin. He paints, writes poetry, sculpts, cooks (and does all of it badly, except possibly the cooking). And he tries not to know.
Bernie Capax shows us that all lives are brief. The Alderman turns into a bear, and bites off his own shadow, leaving us with a welter of images. Etain tells us that the things we get from dreams are free. And Ishtar reveals the sacred in what has now been debased.
We discover from Pharamond that Dream can give the advice that he cannot take: that one can stop being anything.
Most importantly of all, Dream becomes more vulnerable. He is changing so much that it is commented upon by nearly everyone he sees. His own doorkeepers almost do not recognize him. And he does the one thing that Desire has been trying to get him to do for many years now: he sheds family blood. This act of kindness, which he had sworn not to perform, is what marks Brief Lives as the turning point of the series. We have entered the third act. It's all down hill from here.
Jill Thompson gives humanity, tenderness, and color to the artwork, aided by Vince Locke. Aside from the Zulli issues, Brief Lives contains my favorite artwork in the series, I think. Although this is one of Gaiman's masculine stories, it's the women who stand out visually, becoming more real than most of the other females who appear in The Sandman. Delirium, Despair, and Death, of course, but also Marie on reception, the widowed Mrs. Capax, Ruby the chauffeur, and the dancing goddess Ishtar.
Delirium has the most amazing quotes in this volume:
"You don't want my name. Trust me. You really don't. I don't want my name, and I'm sort of used to it by now. It would really mess you up."Mervyn and Barnabas have lines nearly as good, if not so peculiar.
Having, perhaps, learned something from the too in-depth introduction in A Game of You, Peter Straub's superb and insightful introduction is at the back of the book. Read it when you get there.
Over all, these three volumes are the center of the story of The Sandman. The first two are the foundations, setting the stage, filling things in a bit. The short stories are ornaments and embellishments (although some of them are integral to the overall structure). And the final two volumes are the capstone, the coda. If for no better reason (and there are better reasons) than this, treasure these three stories because they are the heart of something special.
Neil Gaiman has a Web site that is highly entertaining.