The Sandman Re-Read concludes. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Worlds’ End (The Sandman #51–56)

Worlds’ End was the final stylistic detour before The Sandman’s climactic arc. Its conceit was that travelers from various times, places, worlds and dimensions had all been caught in a raging “reality storm” that left them in dire straits. The motley crew of characters all took refuge in the Inn at the End of All Worlds. The assemblage shared a variety of stories while waiting out the storm. Some familiar characters popped up here and there. Most interesting was how, once again, Dream seemed to be only a vague presence in these narratives and occasionally was absent altogether.

In one tale, a young man stumbled into the dreams of the city he loved. In another, the Fae Cluracan related a tale of intrigue while on diplomatic business for Queen Mab. A cabin boy with a secret told of a sea voyage that involved both Dream’s long-lived friend Hob Gadling and a mythical sea serpent. A political and cultural parable recast the story of Jesus as that of a gifted young man who became President of the United States, making use of the oddball DC character Prez. Residents of Necropolis shared vignettes about their city, devoted to the care of the dead, including a cheery visit from Destruction. The arc’s climax featured some crucial foreshadowing of The Sandman’s endgame, before scattering the travelers back to their paths.

Worlds’ End was basically Neil Gaiman’s last opportunity to stretch out and explore different corners of the Sandman universe before tackling the book’s valedictory saga. Many of the one-off stories were quite enjoyable and incorporated characters seen in previous installments. The Sandman himself was a faint presence, turning up briefly in some tales and sitting out others altogether. The climax of the arc heavily tipped where Gaiman was taking the series, even if fans didn’t quite realize it when these issues were first published. Some of the stories were more engaging than others, but all are interesting enough. And readers don’t really need much background to understand most of them, except for the climactic final procession out of the storm.

Worlds’ End was another stretch that featured an epic jam of artists. Notable names included Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, Michael Allred, Michael Zulli, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens, Gary Amaro, Dick Giordano, Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha. A lot of talent with a diverse range of styles. The multi-artist approach served the conceit of Dream’s ever-morphing appearance and provided appropriate variety for the individual tales. Talbot illustrated the framing sequences at the Inn to provide continuity between tales. Notable work included Stevens’s innovative layouts in the “Tale of Two Cities” story; a stunning two-page spread of the sea serpent by Zulli and Giordano; and Amaro’s one- and two-page spreads featuring the climactic procession. With Danny Vozzo on colors and Todd Klein handling the lettering, Worlds’ End maintained the book’s high visual standards.

Worlds’ End is a little more connected to the entire Sandman saga than some of the previous story collections had been. Even so, it’s capable of being lifted out and read independently, though a reader gets a fuller experience by tackling it in order with the rest of the series.

The Kindly Ones (The Sandman #57–69 and Vertigo Jam #1)

Five years of The Sandman paved the way for The Kindly Ones, the book’s epic valediction.

When young Daniel Hall was kidnapped, his mother Lyta became unhinged. Believing her son dead and convinced that Morpheus was to blame, Lyta embarked on a self-destructive quest that brought her to The Kindly Ones, i.e. the mythical Furies to whom Lyta had strong ties. Using the tragedy involving Dream’s son, Orpheus, as their pretext, the Furies threw down the gauntlet. They insisted that they would destroy either Dream or his entire realm. While Dream temporized, the Furies began slaughtering the residents of The Dreaming, claiming the existences of some beloved supporting characters.

Meanwhile, Dream had dispatched Matthew the Raven and a re-created Corinthian to retrieve Daniel from the conspiracy that was truly behind the kidnapping. The long, twisty saga invoked characters and plot points from throughout The Sandman’s run. Rose Walker, the Norse gods, Lucifer, Desire’s vendetta, Lyta’s struggles, the Fae, Delirium, Thessaly and the sad fate of Orpheus all factored in as tragedy unfolded in a suffocating, inevitable spiral. Dream’s choices and mistakes came back to haunt him and forced him to confront some hard truths about his recent existence.

With the survival of his realm at stake, Dream had a dramatic confrontation with the Furies. After an emotion-charged final conversation with his sister Death, Dream made the ultimate sacrifice, passing his mantle on to the successor fans should have seen coming for at least a couple of years. Lyta returned to her senses, only to realize her own actions were responsible for separating her from her son forever.

The Kindly Ones demonstrated just how intricately Gaiman had plotted The Sandman. It drew on elements carefully planted years earlier to build dramatic tension and bring the saga to a quietly devastating and yet somehow beautiful climax. As always, Gaiman showed his facility for uncovering the value in tarnished gems. He made the most of Lyta’s checkered superhero past to position her as a potent engine for the tragedy that unspooled. Gaiman provided fans all kinds of payoffs for the arcs of the characters that had populated the world of The Sandman over the course of its run, gracefully fitting various character beats into the fabric of the greater saga.

But at its heart, The Kindly Ones is a story about the Sandman himself. Gaiman really brought readers under Dream’s skin and took a deep dive into the complex character’s dark psychology. It was daring, philosophical work that wrote its own narrative rules. The sheer amount of care, planning and attention to detail that went into this intensive character study is astonishing in retrospect. By the climax of The Kindly Ones, Gaiman had led fans through one of the most compelling psychological explorations in modern literature. It’s why the “best of” listmakers always cite The Sandman. There’s almost nothing in the world of modern comics that even comes close to what Gaiman accomplished here.

While a few well-known artists (including Kevin Nowlan and Richard Case) contributed some work at a couple different points during its run, the bulk of The Kindly Ones belonged to Marc Hempel. And that was a very bold choice. Hempel worked in an ultra-modern cartooning style, very angular and deliberately exaggerated, even grotesque at points. The neo-realism and lush fantasy of earlier arcs gave way to Hempel’s distinctive compositions, marked by sharp angles, distorted physical characteristics, deep shadows and abstractionist flourishes. The color/letters team of Vozzo and Klein remained on duty to provide some visual continuity and did their usual strong work, supporting Hempel’s challenging, demanding work. It was a daring editorial choice to go with a left field pick like Hempel for such an important dramatic arc. It’s not the kind of work that invites you in for a friendly ramble. Instead, a reader must engage with Hempel’s compositions and dig into what he was trying to accomplish. It was the kind of decisionmaking that set The Sandman apart from most other series.

The Kindly Ones is impossible to read in a vacuum. Everything about it is tied closely to the work that Gaiman and his collaborators had done in the five years leading up to the saga. For fans who have put in the time and effort to take in the series up to that point, The Kindly Ones is a rich, rewarding piece of graphic literature whose worth only deepens with time.

The Wake (The Sandman #70–75)

The Wake served as a coda that brought the principal Sandman series to a graceful stopping point. After Morpheus sacrificed himself in The Kindly Ones, his siblings commenced the elaborate series of rituals to memorialize him and mark his passing. A vast gathering of mourners came to The Dreaming for the event, either in person or via dreams. Many familiar characters from the run of the series showed up and many got a moment in the spotlight. Some even managed to reach a resolution of sorts. Matthew the Raven was a crucial character in the opening memorial trilogy. In the background, the new Dream set about cleaning up the damage that the Furies had inflicted on The Dreaming and prepared to take his place among The Endless. Even Destruction turned up, though he skipped the memorial in favor of a friendly chat with the new Dream. After the main event, a trilogy of special issues rounded out the series. First, The Sandman’s long-lived friend Hob and Death had an illuminating chat at a Ren Faire. Sliding back a couple hundred years, the new Dream encountered an exiled Chinese official who slipped into the edges of The Dreaming during a punishing desert trek. And finally, William Shakespeare delivered to Morpheus the second play he owed him, setting the stage for a deeply philosophical discussion between the two.

The Wake was a thoughtful, gentle way to bring The Sandman to a close, though not really an end. While Gaiman provided resolutions of a sort for several characters, for most this stretch marked only the end of a chapter in their lives. Gaiman made it clear these characters’ stories would go on whether or not they were being chronicled. It was a clever, subtle way to tap into his central themes that also served as a satisfying summation of The Sandman as a series. Calling the arc “The Wake” worked on multiple levels. In its most obvious form, it’s the name of the activity at the heart of the opening trilogy, a remembrance ritual. It also refers to the dreamers who wake up in various ways throughout the course of the story. In a more subtle fashion, “wake” refers to the trail that a person or object in motion leaves behind. Gaiman dramatized, in deeply affecting fashion, the effect that Morpheus had on all around him, how his movements, and moving on, had an impact on a great number of people. The three stand-alone stories were gentle meditations that revisited various threads from the series one last time, providing fans a sense of closure. It was an almost daring narrative move to have The Sandman’s final issues be so subtle and meditative. But the entire series was a daring act and this was a fitting end to it.

Michael Zulli handled the art for the opening trilogy and the Hob/Death story and was the perfect fit. He produced beautiful, shimmering work, greatly enhanced by the support of the Klein/Vozzo team, that communicated the emotional power of the material in strong, often surprising, ways. It was detailed and well-observed, with some nice surprises tucked into the edges. For a series known for its strong visuals, Zulli helped it go out on a high note. The “Exiles” story was one of The Sandman’s non-traditional narrative experiments that featured gorgeous painted work from Jon J. Muth. Working with a muted palette and riffing on the concept of traditional page layout, Muth whipped up a hazy phantasm that matched its ethereal story. Klein’s intricate lettering provided a solid anchor for Muth’s more fantastical renderings. Charles Vess returned for the Shakespeare story, bringing The Sandman to a close with his usual beautiful, textured work, including some lovely painted pages dramatizing scenes from The Tempest. To the last moment, The Sandman produced high quality visuals to match its groundbreaking narrative achievements.

Parts of The Wake can be read independently, but as with previous volumes, the overall impact of the material is greatest if one has read all that’s gone before it. It proved a fitting end to a series that was unlike anything that came before it.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 19, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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