Monday, April 17, 2006

Destiny Death Dream Destruction Desire Despair Delirium

Well! That was fun. I just wrapped up "The Wake," the last Sandman book. Now, I haven't actually read all the Sandman comics yet - the library didn't have "Worlds' End," so I bought it from Amazon and have yet to read it; and there is also a collection called "Endless Nights" which has stories about the Endless family. But this is as good a point as any to stop and put down my thoughts, now that I've read the entire arc of this story.

First, let's get some minor things out of the way. I was slightly disappointed in the art in the last two books. That didn't make a huge difference, since I've always been attracted by Gaiman's story-telling more than the visual component, but I didn't realize how much I appreciated the art until it was taken away from me. I'm not even saying that the art is bad - I'm definitely a philistine when it comes to painting, and one twice over when it comes to comics, and am perfectly willing to accept that I just don't "get" it.

The Kindly Ones has a very striking, simplified visual style. It's almost cartoony, although it retains the menace and malevolence of earlier art. Everything feels pretty abstract and representational. In a way this is nice - it shows how familiar we have become with the characters that we can instantly recognize them even with just one or two visual clues. Still, I much preferred the earlier artists, which so often seemed to be doing actual paintings as opposed to illustrations.

That complaint aside, The Kindly Ones has what is probably my second-favorite panel in the entire series: a captionless image of Matthew the raven staring silently at the reader. And once you get used to the change it isn't actually bad. It's just frustrating. I loved poring over panels in "A Game of You" or "Brief Lives" and pulling out little details. Here, everything is presented up front, with nothing to dig into.

The Wake abandons this visual style and returns back to a more traditional look. A few particularly wonderful images are in here, but I don't care as much for the character designs. Death looks particularly anemic, and all of the surviving Endless are less pleasant to look at. It definitely gives a better final impression than The Kindly Ones, but I still wish they could have brought back the artists from the strong middle section. (I know that at least one of them was no longer alive by the time this book was written.)

What follows are some thoughts on events in this book. Let's jump into some

This is a tragedy, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. Morpheus's stature and weaknesses make his downfall inevitable, and all the more admirable for his lofty position. When reading The Kindly Ones it was really cool to see all the little threads Gaiman had woven earlier come together. I love reading that sort of well-constructed and thought-out stuff.

That said, there was a lot in this book that I'm still unable to make sense of, even after The Wake. In particular: Rose Walker's visit to England, the angels, and Lucifer all seemed interesting but I could not understand how any of it affected the main plot. Why was it here? The most likely explanation is that some of it does relate to the plot in some way that I can't see. It seems especially probable that this allows you to figure out who was ultimately responsible for Morpheus's fate. It's also possible that Gaiman introduced them as red herrings - as the afterword says, there are some threads which don't seem to fit. Finally, it may be intended to add some perspective to this story. The message might be that, while Morpheus's fall is horrible, it is just an event; in the grand scheme of things, both at a universal and a personal level, things will keep on happening. Morpheus is the King of Stories, but he is not really essential for those stories, and things will continue to happen and change without him.

Returning to the big question: who really did it? I have three suspects, two of whom have vowed to destroy Dream and all of whom are related to the seeming loose threads. My first thought is Desire, who was behind the earlier plot in The Doll's House. He/She is proud and vain, and having failed before, he/she would likely try again. Of course, the mode of Dream's destruction is nearly identical to the earlier plot, though I can't decide if that makes Desire more or less likely. If this is the case, Rose was probably lured to England because she might have revealed to Dream what was going on (I'm not sure exactly how, but since she nearly played the role that Orpheus later fulfilled, it seems probable).

The second suspect is Lucifer. Wouldn't it be cool if his whole process of abandoning Hell and becoming a lounge piano player was just an incredibly elaborate ploy to fulfill his oath to destroy Morpheus? He constantly protests that he has no desire to regain Hell, and that may be true - but after all, he is the king of lies. It seems entirely possible that he just wants to do this one big, evil thing, and then put the whole villain costume away forever.

The third suspect is one or both of the two angels. (I forget their names; I think the silent one's starts with a D.) They obviously are very big on justice and duty and the redemptive power of punishment. Dream has clearly sinned, probably thousands of times throughout his career, with the killing of Orpheus just the most recent example. However, because he is one of the Endless, they will not be able to "redeem" him in Hell. Combine that with their frustration at the terrible task that he has saddled them with and I can imagine that they would be tempted to bring him down, in the name of "justice" but also to satisfy their own personal desire for vengeance.

I should also comment on Thessaly. She seems to be the most obvious culprit - she directly prevents Morpheus from dealing with Lyta, and the foreword writer in "The Wake" says she is at fault - but I'm much less sure. She definitely plays a role, but I don't see her as being more important than, say, Loki. First of all, given the fact that she threatens to kill Lyta after it is done, I get the impression that she wanted to torment Morpheus but not kill him. Secondly, her speech in The Wake doesn't seem to paint her as the grand manipulator who would be required to do all this. I could be wrong, but I just don't see her as the ultimate villain.

The Furies are pretty scary, huh? I think the artists made an excellent decision when they decided never to actually show them when on the job. It's a classic horror technique: when we don't actually see something, our imagination takes over and creates something more frightening than the artist could come up with. Also, it's interesting to see the Furies in comics so soon after reading about them in His Dark Materials. Given Gaiman's predilection for Greek mythos, it is utterly appropriate that the Furies take center stage here. I remember being fascinated by the thought that there was just this one particular sin that the Greeks feared, and that no matter who committed this one sin they would be punished.

I think Nuala was the saddest part of this whole book. Dream just can't catch a break: he is set on the path to destruction because he cannot love a woman enough, and loses all hope after a woman loves him too much. I remember and love Rose's speech to Desire in this book, about how horrible love is, and feel like Nuala's role in this tale illustrates that perfectly, even better than Thessaly does.

The title "The Wake" is just wonderful. For some reason I always thought of it in the sense it is used in the book, as a mourning celebration. Once I started reading, though, I thought, "Duh! Wake is what you do at the end of a dream!" That makes it all the more poetic and wonderful. The characters of the story are attending a Wake, but we the readers are going to Wake - emerge from the dream we have been immersed in, and carry fragments of it with us into the day.

The odds-and-sods at the end were interesting choices for inclusion. I enjoyed reading about the Chinese exile, but don't really understand why Gaiman included it here. Hob's tale was great, it felt anti-climactic after the wake, but in a way that's good - it deals on a small, personal level with what the wake handled on a large, corporate level. And ending with The Tempest was just brilliant. Shakespeare's words apply to this tale on several levels, both as they did in the original: an allusion to death which is equated with fiction, the players taking their final bows. It was also interesting to close on a much earlier version of Morpheus, and the more I think about what he says to Shakespeare, the more I think that Gaiman is letting us view this story as a redemptive one. 17th-century Dream says that it is impossible for him to leave, to give up, to end his story; in this light, one can view his transformation as a positive one, his eventual fall as a fortunate one.

So, now that I'm pretty much done with Sandman, what am I taking away from it? An increased appreciation of the potential of comic books, for one. I wasn't exactly opposed to them before, but other than "Bone" had never really read through a series. I think that, like television, they can profit from the capability to tell longer-form stories, evolve their characters and build a compelling world (provided that, like television, they do not fall into the trap of repetitive stories and situations). They are inherently more abstract than television, and so require a greater degree of engagement on part of the reader. The illustrations and writing work hand-in-hand in a way that I think has a lot of potential - strong art can carry the story when necessary, just as words can shoulder the load when they are more appropriate. Each supports the other. Ultimately, comic books are just another medium, with different strengths and limitations, and it's authors like Gaiman who can show us what potential that medium has.

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