The Sandman re-read continues. Read Part 1 here.

Season of Mists (The Sandman #21–28)

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A visit from the Fates prompted Destiny, oldest of the Endless, to convene his siblings for their first family meal in 300 years. The six (including Dream, Death, Desire, Despair and Delirium) gathered; only their obliquely referenced missing brother was absent. In a heated discussion, Desire enraged Dream by declaring he was wrong for condemning his lost love Nada to Hell thousands of years earlier. When even Death admitted she thought Desire was right, Dream prepared to enter Hell to free Nada. Despite that an enraged Lucifer vowed to destroy the Sandman after his last visit. Morpheus prepared his kingdom, so that it might survive if he didn’t return. He visited a hostile Lyta Hall and met her baby, Daniel, and then shared a “dream drink” with his friend Hob. Upon arriving in Hell, Dream received a major shock: Lucifer quit. He’d evicted all the demons and damned from Hell and sealed up all the gates. Ready for a change, he convinced Dream to clip his wings, but Lucifer had the best revenge in mind: he gave the keys to Hell to the Sandman.

With valuable real estate up for grabs, numerous cosmic and magical factions sent envoys to The Dreaming to press their cases for ownership. Delegations included Odin, Thor and Loki of Asgard; Anubis and Bast of Egypt; and several former ranking demons of Hell, who had Nada as a captive/bargaining chip. In the rest of the cosmos, Lucifer’s abdication wreaked havoc, sending the dead back to the land of the living. A boy named Charles, left alone at boarding school for the holidays, met a grim fate as the returned overran his campus. Back in The Dreaming, the envoys lobbied the Sandman with a variety of arguments, bribe offers and threats. Ultimately, Morpheus disposed of Hell in a way that fulfilled its mission as the opposite of Heaven. Having rescued Nada, the ex-lovers had a final encounter before she moved on to a new life. Dream extracted a debt from a scheming Loki. And a Faerie girl named Nuala, intended as a gift for the Sandman, was dismayed to learn her queen ordered her to be left in The Dreaming.

Season of Mists elevated The Sandman to a new level. Neil Gaiman constructed an intricate, clever tale that tackled “big issue” concepts of morality, theology and mythology. Echoes of other of Gaiman’s work is found in Season of Mists’s contemplation of the modern meaning of myths and legends. The writer’s handling of the various mythic entities, particularly Lucifer and Odin, was rather canny. He worked his themes in subtle, colorful ways that gave them a quiet power.

But more importantly, Season of Mists added several crucial strands to the overall Sandman tapestry. Gaiman continued to explore and develop Dream’s character, illuminating some different facets, especially in his interactions with his family. Destiny, Desire and Despair had popped up earlier, but made a bigger impact this time around. Delirium was a crucial addition, possibly one of Gaiman’s best concepts ever. The youngest of the Endless was a rambling, discursive lost soul, who had once been Delight (apparently before the world went south and changed her portfolio). Gaiman did a great job playing the siblings off of one another and Death remained an indispensable part of the canvas. The family drama added intrigue and dimension to the ongoing story and helped further define the Sandman in contrast to his siblings.

Kelley Jones was onboard for most of the main saga. His gothic, almost grotesque, creations were a perfect fit for this wild, imagination-driven story. Jones’s two-page depiction of the Gates of Hell was a fantasy masterpiece, while the sequences of Dream hosting the cosmic envoys were packed with interesting details and acutely observed touches. Mike Dringenberg handled the prologue and epilogue, doing some nice, subtle work, while the great Matt Wagner contributed the boarding school interlude, using his careful line work to bring out the full power of the “childhood is hell” concept. Malcom Jones III was joined by a few other inkers, including genuine legends P. Craig Russell and Dick Giordano. They all worked rather well with Kelley Jones. With Steve Oliff and Daniel Vozzo on color and the indispensable Todd Klein re-defining the concept of comic book lettering, the visual presentation of The Sandman continued to set new standards for comic book fantasy visuals that are still hard to beat 25 years later. Packed with imagination, invention and surprise, Season of Mists was The Sandman realizing the full extent of its potential.

A Game of You (The Sandman #32–37)

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Gaiman’s master plan started to unfold in A Game of You, as he revealed subtle connections among characters from previous stories. Barbie, half of a married couple that appeared in The Doll’s House, took center stage. Now single and living in a Bohemian New York City boarding house, Barbie was adrift. She noted that she hadn’t dreamed in two years, as creatures in a dream dimension desperately tried to contact her. Barbie interacted with her neighbors: Wanda, her trans-gender friend; Hazel and Foxglove (a/k/a Donna, the ex-girlfriend of one of the diner victims from the first arc); the mysterious, bookish Thessaly; and the creepy George. An enemy called the Cuckoo targeted Barbie and threatened the dream land she’d populated as a child. In possession of a powerful amulet, Barbie dreamt for the first time in years, unaware George was an agent of the Cuckoo, who attempted to highjack the dreams of Barbie’s neighbors. Thessaly was far more than she appeared, however, and thwarted the Cuckoo, wreaking havoc on George in the process. With Barbie in a coma-like sleep, Thessaly used “moon magic” to take herself, Hazel and Foxglove into The Dreaming.

In The Dreaming, Barbie was compelled to go on a heroic quest with her bizarre traveling companions. Barbie eventually came face-to-face with the Cuckoo and her own connection to the creature. The Cuckoo manipulated Barbie into an act that brought about the downfall of the little dream island she’d inhabited, just as Barbie’s friends arrived. Morpheus himself materialized to “shut down” that dream island pursuant to an ancient agreement. In the process, he inadvertently made an antagonist of Thessaly, before sending the women back to their own world. Once home, they discovered the devastating consequences of Thessaly’s moon gambit.

A Game of You saw Gaiman riffing on the nature of dreams, fairytales and folk lore, how they intersect and shape lives. He provided some interesting information about the nature and architecture of The Dreaming and the relativity of morality within stories, demonstrating how well thought-out this fictional world was. A Game of You was also notable for how effective a saga could be where the Sandman himself was only a minor presence. The book could pull that off, since Gaiman crafted such intriguing guests to populate the main story and explored them in offbeat, exciting ways. Barbie had been mostly a background character in The Doll’s House, but proved a rather sympathetic and interesting focal point. She was an effective vessel to explore the psychology of dreams and stories and what dreams say about the dreamer. Thessaly would prove to be important to The Sandman’s endgame and helped flesh out the mystical world Gaiman had constructed.

Shawn McManus was the principal artist for A Game of You, with Bryan Talbot assisting on one issue and Colleen Doran subbing in for another. Working with the usual high caliber supporting team, McManus presented a lighter, more cartoonish approach that worked really well for the fairytale-oriented saga. There were some excellent scenes packed with visual whimsy and imagination, especially Barbie’s trek through her dream island. But even the “real world” scenes had something of a lighter, more fabulistic feel. It was a striking contrast to the darker, grittier art The Sandman had usually featured up to that point and demonstrated that the series could support a wide variety of visual styles.

As both an important building block in the grander saga of The Sandman and an entirely engaging tale of the importance of stories, A Game of You is one of the most distinctive arcs in the title’s run.

Fables & Reflections (The Sandman #29–31, 38–40, 50, Sandman Special 1 and Vertigo Preview)

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Fables & Reflections is a collection of mostly mid-run self-contained stories. They represent a broad sampling of genres and styles, demonstrating the flexibility of The Sandman’s format and narrative mission. Many stories returned to Gaiman’s meditations on the nature of stories and dreams, while others were quixotic detours, exercises in tone and imagination. Stories took place in a variety of time periods and settings.

A few of the stories in Fables & Reflections had significance within the grand saga of the series. “Three Septembers and a January” followed a contest between Dream and his younger siblings (Desire, Despair and Delirium) centered on the self-appointed Emperor of America in 19th Century San Francisco. Desire’s animosity toward Dream traces back to this tale. “Thermidor” saw the Sandman dispatch Johanna Constantine on a very personal errand within the perilous borders of Revolutionary-era France. And “Orpheus” chronicled the tragedy that resulted from the wedding of Dream’s son. Both stories paved the way for the tragedy at the heart of The Sandman’s endgame. The latter was also the first glimpse fans got of the missing Endless sibling (unnamed in this debut).

Other stories were more self-contained. “Fear of Falling” was a short that saw the Sandman encourage a self-doubting playwright. “The Hunt” was framed as a fairy tale told by an elderly immigrant to his thoroughly Americanized teenage granddaughter about a young hunter on a quest to meet a noble’s daughter. Along the way, he kept running into Lucien, Dream’s librarian, who was eager to reclaim a lost book. “August” followed Ancient Roman Emperor Augustus as he spent a day in the city disguised as a street beggar. In “Soft Places,” a young Marco Polo wandered into the edges of The Dreaming during a terrible desert sandstorm, where he encountered Fiddler’s Green taking a night off. “The Parliament of Rooks” followed young Daniel Hall, now a toddler, on a visit into The Dreaming, where Cain, Eve and Abel shared stories. And the majestic “Ramadan” centered on an ancient Arabic king who sought to sell his dazzling city to Morpheus in order to preserve its perfection.

These stories were packed with invention and inspiration. Even the ones that related to the larger plot were still mostly free of its ongoing obligations and were able to spin out into some interesting places. Gaiman let his imagination run wild, incorporating characters from history, literature and mythology to explore odd corners of the universe he’d constructed. These offbeat tales are among fans’ favorites for good reason. They’re entertaining and quirky, but engaging. And a thorough grounding in the greater Sandman saga isn’t required to appreciate them.

A small army of top artists crafted these stories, including several who made major contributions to The Sandman during its run. Bryan Talbot, Stan Woch, P. Craig Russell, Shawn McManus, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, Duncan Eagleson and Kent Williams all took turns depicting this world, with often stunning results. There is a broad diversity in the styles represented by these artists, but all are memorable. Of particular note were Russell’s lavish renderings of ancient Baghdad in “Ramadan” and Thompson introducing “Lil’ Death” and “Lil’ Dream” in “The Parliament of Rooks.” Each artist put his or her own spin on Morpheus, making this collection an especially apt example of the deliberately fluid nature of the Sandman’s appearance. With a variety of top flight inkers and color artists, these stories demonstrated how potent a mainstream fantasy series could be.

Brief Lives (The Sandman #41–49)

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One of the best arcs of The Sandman explored the complex familial relationships among the Endless. Brief Lives zeroed in on youngest sibling Delirium. Unstable at the best of times, she became fixated on finding long missing brother Destruction. After Desire and an uncharacteristically sympathetic Despair declined to help, Delirium turned to Dream. Brooding over the end of his most recent love affair, Morpheus unexpectedly agreed to help his sister. The two siblings traveled, not always easily, through the waking world in search of clues to Destruction’s whereabouts. Along the way, something seemed to be endangering those who had experienced long lives, including several on the siblings’ list of possible leads. An audience with the Sandman’s estranged son, Orpheus, finally led to a reunion for Dream, Delirium and Destruction. After an emotionally charged evening, Destruction said his final goodbyes to his siblings (though he left his familiar, the dog Barnabas, to be Delirium’s new companion). To complete his bargain, the Sandman gave Orpheus the one thing he wanted most.

In many ways, Brief Lives was the most intensely personal story that The Sandman ever told. By exploring Dream’s relationships with his siblings, Gaiman revealed more of his lead than he previously had. The Dream/Delirium interactions were expertly crafted and produced some of the book’s most memorable sequences. Gaiman also used the quest to chart Dream’s personal growth, reflected in his evolving interactions with his family.

Image provided by Wikimedia/DC/Vertigo

Delirium was far and away the most intriguing character that Gaiman created for The Sandman, even more so than the book’s star. The entire concept of Delirium is genius: once the avatar Delight, she morphed into Delirium as the universe changed around her. The temptation would have been to play Delirium merely for laughs. And while Gaiman gave Delirium some hysterical non-sequiturs that added welcome contrast to the story, he also wrote her with a lot of compassion, taking seriously the tragedy at the heart of the character. The flashes of insight that Delirium had throughout the story could be heartbreaking and she brought out aspects of Morpheus that no other character had. Gaiman’s choice to write the Endless as a brood of squabbling siblings was rather inspired. Using that familiar dynamic, fraught with traditional alliances and emotional baggage, gave the family and the very concept of the characters a lot of heft and emotional appeal. Destruction’s final conversation with his siblings was one of Gaiman’s most unabashedly sentimental sequences, but it felt genuine and never mawkish. A reader who didn’t get a lump in his or her throat when Destruction departed should be checked for a pulse.

Jill Thompson was featured on art and did some of the best work of her career. Collaborating with inkers Vince Locke and Dick Giordano, letter Todd Klein and colorist Danny Vozzo, Brief Lives was a visual masterstroke. Thompson’s lush, soft focus style was perfectly suited to the material. She effortlessly teased out the whimsical from the everyday scenes and packed the fantasy sequences with imagination, invention and warmth. Thompson wove all sorts of smart details into her panels and worked some clever visual themes (Delirium’s shifting appearance, the relative size differences among the Endless). With such a tight team supporting her, she just poured herself into the pages and the results were stunning. Highlights included the sensory riot of Delirium’s realm; the rainswept dramatics of Dream’s early panels; and a gorgeous splash of the Sandman sitting in his hall. But the highlight was a two-page spread of the three siblings against a star-packed sky. It was an absolutely breathtaking image that merits staring at to absorb its full impact. It was important, impactful work that elevated an already strong story.

Brief Lives was very much steeped in what came before and featured elements crucial to The Sandman’s bigger story. In that regard, it’s difficult to read separately. For fans who have read the previous volumes, though, the emotional impact of Brief Lives is stunning.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 11, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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