The eighth collection of The Sandman offers stirring tales to pass a fatal night

The eighth collection of The Sandman offers stirring tales to pass a fatal night

Back Issues is a feature discussing comics series one collection at a time, in the hopes that A.V. Club regulars will read along with us and participate in a group discussion of each major arc. This week: The Sandman trade paperback #8, Worlds’ End, covering issues #51-#56.

Worlds’ End plot summary: Traveling co-workers Brant Tucker and Charlene Mooney get caught in a “reality storm,” and seek shelter at an inn that exists between times and dimensions. While they ride out the freaky weather, Brant and Charlene listen to their fellow travelers tell stories. In “A Tale Of Two Cities,” a man learns that cities may be dreaming their inhabitants, and may one day awake. In “Cluracan’s Tale,” the roguish fairy Cluracan encounters trouble on a diplomatic mission, and escapes by fomenting revolution. In “Hob’s Leviathan,” a girl traveling in disguise under the name Jim describes a perilous sea journey she once took with Hob Gadling, who warned her that some secrets are better left unrevealed. In “The Golden Boy,” obscure DC Comics character Prez Rickard—the teenage president—has his life story retold by a man who worships Prez as a messiah. And in “Cerements,” an apprentice undertaker from a community devoted to funeral rites recounts an old legend about the community’s encounter with The Endless. Finally, the stories end and the cause of the storm is revealed, as the customers at the inn watch a procession of giant, odd-looking mourners parade across the night sky.

Noel: If I ever gave my own “I have a dream” speech, it wouldn’t be about a better understanding between people of different cultures. That would be my “I have a hope” speech. My “I have a dream” speech would be about an actual dream, which I have a few times a year (and have for decades). I call it my “secret-city dream,” where I’m walking through a familiar neighborhood in a familiar town, and suddenly I turn a corner and find an alley full of shops I’ve never seen before, selling exotic fare, including movies and albums and books that have never existed. I’m always disappointed when I wake up from that dream, because my first impulse is to go check out all the cool stuff I bought in the secret city, and it always takes me a few seconds to register that that merchandise wasn’t real. That’s how vivid the dream is.

Worlds’ End is my favorite of the Sandman short-story collections, in part because it’s the most cohesive, with a framing device that puts the stories in a larger, more powerful context. But I also love Worlds’ End because its framing device is one big secret-city dream. Take the right (or wrong) detour, and next thing you know, you’re at a quaint old pub teeming with strange creatures, each with a whopper of a tale to tell. And then on top of that, the story part of the collection begins with another secret-city dream, “A Tale Of Two Cities.” It’s a brief one, given that much of the first issue of Worlds’ End is given over to setting up the book’s frame, but I find “A Tale Of Two Cities” one of the few explorations of dreaming in Sandman that actually feels like a dream, where everything shifts and suddenly the dreamer is somewhere he’s not supposed to be. When I taught a comics class, “A Tale Of Two Cities” was one of the three Sandman stories in my syllabus (along with “Men Of Good Fortune” and “Tales In The Sand”). I used it along with Little Nemo In Slumberland and some of the early psychedelic undergrounds to illustrate how the medium is uniquely suited to evoking subconscious states. But I also love the gnostic quality of “A Tale Of Two Cities,” and the sense that the tale-teller is imparting a lesson no one is supposed to know: that reality is tenuous. (I also like how the story compares slumbering cities to cats, which recalls “A Dream Of A Thousand Cats,” and makes a similar point about how disturbingly easy it would be for the nature of this world to change.)

Even though this is a slim book, there’s a lot to talk about with Worlds’ End, including how “A Tale Of Two Cities” connects thematically to the other stories in the collection, and how all these stories comment on the overarching narrative of Sandman. But let’s start more simply. Genevieve, I know this is your first time going through all of Sandman, and that you haven’t read beyond Worlds’ End so far. How would you compare this set of stories to Dream Country and Fables & Reflections? And do you have a favorite story in Worlds’ End?

Genevieve: This is easily my favorite of the Sandman short-story collections, for the first reason you state above. I’ll admit, I was a little bummed that I drew two short-story collections in a row in this discussion (my last outing was Dream Country) because, regardless of the quality of the individual entries, considering a bunch of separate, standalone stories can begin to feel like doing a series of book reports, especially with a writer as reference-prone and structurally ambitious as Gaiman. Plus, I really want to talk about the Endless, dammit! So I was pleased to discover that not only is there connective tissue between these entries—which are perhaps the most reference-prone and structurally ambitious of the short-story collections—but also that that connective tissue relates to the Endless in a way that makes their presence feel more substantial than mere cameos. 

Brief Lives is my favorite Sandman collection so far, and having just finished it, I’m really pumped on the Endless at the moment, so it’s tempting to claim “Cerements” as my favorite installment here, simply because the concluding funeral procession is so striking. I’ll admit, as a newbie, it took me a little off guard; it’s apparent throughout Worlds’ End that something big is on the horizon, especially coming as it does on the heels of the events of Brief Lives, but I wasn’t expecting that to play out so literally in this book. While I don’t yet know the specific events of The Kindly Ones and The Wake, I have a pretty damn good idea where they lead after reviewing the faces of the funeral procession, so as cliffhangers go, this is a bit of a doozy.

But aside from the conclusion, “Cerements” is actually probably my least favorite of Worlds’ End’s five tales, in part because the art in the Necropolis segments leaves me cold (appropriate, I suppose), and in part because Gaiman’s use of nested stories starts to feel just the tiniest bit like showboating.

Don’t get me wrong: Gaiman is doing impressive stuff here, and thematically speaking, “Cerements” is an appropriate segue to the issue’s climactic moment. But in a story (Petrefax’s) inside a story (Brant’s) inside another story that’s obsessed with telling stories (Gaiman’s), to introduce three more stories, some of which have another story within them, begins to feel a little overly conspicuous, particularly when it’s prefaced with a character calling upon his compatriots to tell stories, as Hermas does following the air burial. It isn’t bad, it’s just a little “I see what you did there, Neil.” Then again, he pulls this same trick in my favorite story in Worlds’ End, “Hob’s Leviathan,” only less brazenly (and only once), as the Indian stowaway’s tale of the fickleness of women not only stems from his conversation with Jim and Hob, it’s also met with Jim/Peggy’s assessment that it’s a “stupid story.”

But really, “Hob’s Leviathan” is my favorite because I think it’s the most interesting interpretation of some of the reoccurring themes in Worlds’ End, of journeying between realms or states of being, and of leaving a former life behind. (Also, Michael Zulli’s art is absolutely gorgeous. Plus: Hob!) Not only is Jim a girl passing as a boy, existing in a sort of gender middle ground, she’s literally voyaging from one place to another on the Sea Witch, which she at one point calls “its own little world.” Additionally, at the end of his story, after she reveals her secret, Jim/Peggy laments the impending death of her life as a sailor, as she’s hit her teen years, and passing as a boy will soon no longer be an option. “I shall take another name to me and build another life,” she says, and you can practically see Hob smiling over one shoulder and Death over the other. It’s not a literal, corporeal death of the sort that would interest Klaproth and his cronies, but as we’ve seen time and again in Sandman, death is just the end of one story and the beginning of another, the transition from one state of being to a new, unknown one. 

All of which leads into one of the most interesting moments in Worlds’ End, Charlene’s meltdown at the inn right before the funeral procession in the sky. “Why these stories?” she asks, followed up by the observation that they’re all “boys’ fictions”—even Jim/Peggy’s, with its “giant dick thrusting out of the ocean.” Given that Gaiman himself has characterized individual arcs of Sandman as being “male” or “female” installments, what do you make of this observation, Noel? And, to echo Charlene, why these stories? Why are these the five stories we’re privy to, out of the hundreds that are being told at the inn that night? 

Noel: I feel more comfortable answering the “Why these stories?” question than the “Why stories for boys?” question, even though I’ve probably spent more time contemplating the latter. This isn’t the first time in Sandman that stories have been tagged as gender-specific. I’m thinking in particular of “Tales In The Sand,” in which a boy is told a story that accompanies his transition into manhood, and we hear that girls hear a different version of the story. And then there’s A Game Of You, where the gender of the characters plays a major role in who gets to participate in the adventure—and thus who survives—and who doesn’t. Gaiman is really taken with this idea of the adaptability of legends to various cultures; it’s why The Dream King’s appearance changes to fit the person he’s addressing. So why wouldn’t gender matter just as much?

But ever since this collection was completed in 1993, I’ve thought about why these stories need to be boys’ stories, given the place where Worlds’ End ends, and I’ve never really come up with a good answer. Maybe it’s just part of the general motif of secret knowledge that runs through all these divertissements. I’ve already mentioned the hidden world of “A Tale Of Two Cities,” but “Hob’s Leviathan” also culminates in a moment where Hob warns Jim not to say anything about what she’s seen at sea, and in “The Golden Boy,” Prez is offered the chance to step through a golden gate and learn a disturbing truth about his universe. And then there’s “Cerements,” which as you’ve noted, is a story within a story within a story and so on, with new secrets awaiting on each level.

As you’ve also noted, both “Cerements” and “Hob’s Leviathan” deal with transitions (as does “The Golden Boy,” to an extent, though that’s such a dense, odd story that we’re going to have to spend some more time later unpacking it). Both the “secret knowledge” theme and the “transitions” theme flow together into Worlds’ End’s last chapter, which sees all these storytellers and battered travelers witnessing something unusual and ominous in that grand funeral procession. Something has ended. Something else is about to begin.

So that’s my answer to “Why these stories?” But you’ll notice that there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s the one that’s most Sandman-like, yet least Worlds’ End-like, in my opinion. I enjoy “Cluracan’s Tale,” but it almost feels like a leftover from the “Distant Mirrors” half of Fables & Reflections, even though there is a little bit in it—just a little bit, mind you—about transitions and secrets. 

That is, unless I’m missing something important. Genevieve, “Cluracan’s Tale?” Thoughts?

Genevieve: Whew, I’m glad you said it so I didn’t have to, Noel. I spent a lot of time puzzling over how “Cluracan’s Tale” fits into the larger whole of Worlds’ End, and haven’t come up with a satisfying answer, either. There are secrets, certainly, and I suppose Cluracan’s journey from Faerie to Aurelia and back again could be put under the heading of “transitions.” But it’s more of a political story than anything, at least the stuff dealing with the treacherous psychopomp/carnifax and his eventual comeuppance. To be honest, that element of “Cluracan’s Tale” doesn’t do much for me; an unambiguous, power-hungry villain—with disgusting-looking facial sores, no less—being brought down is satisfying enough, I suppose, but it’s also a bit of a foregone conclusion. It’s also a distraction from the more interesting element of “Cluracan’s Tale,” which is Cluracan himself, as well as his brush with mortality. 

At this point, Cluracan is a pretty one-note character, an incorrigible wag who frequently finds himself too far in his cups and repeatedly notes, almost with pride, his feckless fairy nature. That doesn’t really change by the end of his tale in Worlds’ End, but he does get a taste of humility and cold iron when his ejaculatory premonition about the psychopomp/carnifax’s downfall lands him in the dungeon. There’s something vaguely familiar about this powerful, immortal being imprisoned at the hands of a power-hungry villain who doesn’t understand the forces he’s dealing with; and while Cluracan may have very little in common with Morpheus in terms of personality or power, he’s similarly humbled—albeit on a much smaller scale—in his escape, which not so coincidentally comes at the hands of Morpheus at his most don’t-give-a-fuck. When Cluracan meets Nuala in the dreaming while he’s imprisoned, and insists, unconvincingly, that he’ll be fine on his own, she responds with one of those lines whose significance ripples throughout the entirety of Sandman: “Nobody’s fine on their own, Cluracan. People need people.” 

It’s interesting that the “people” in this particular scenario are all immortal beings with vast amounts of supernatural power. There’s no such thing as absolute power or autonomy in the Sandman universe, whether you’re a fairy, the self-appointed ruler of a city’s carnal and spiritual realms combined, or one of the Endless; at some point, you will fall prey to outside forces, and may have to place your faith in someone else in order to escape that predicament. It’s something Morpheus learned at the beginning of this series, and it’s colored his subsequent actions. We only see him three times in Worlds’ End (well, four, if you count the back of his head in the second story in “Cerements”) and two of those times, Morpheus is coming to the aid of others—not just that, he’s freeing them from someone else.

The second of these appearances, and Morpheus’ last proper appearance in Worlds’ End, occurs in “The Golden Boy,” when he appears—again, at the behest of another, this time Death—to free Prez from an afterlife of singing hosannas to Boss Smiley, which Prez repays him for with the gift of his father’s watch. As you said earlier, Noel, “The Golden Boy” is a very odd story, though its significance is much more apparent than “Cluracan’s Tale.” There’s so much to puzzle over here: The obscure DC character at its center, the watchmaker motif, the religious overtones, the Watchmen allusions, and the fact that this story of America is being told, to Brant alone, by a mysterious Asian man. And then there’s the curious figure of Boss Smiley. Noel, there’s a lot to unpack here—including the art, which I hope you can touch on—but first: What are your feelings on “The Golden Boy” compared to the rest of the stories here, in terms of both quality and substance? 

Noel: The real question is whether the Watchmen connection is intended. After all, it’s not like Gaiman is inventing the details of the smiley face or the watchmaking—those are in the original Prez comic. But I’m inclined to believe that Gaiman cherry-picked those elements for their similarity to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ opus, especially given the image in one panel of blood splashed across a smiley-face button, Watchmen-style. 

Why make that linkage? Well, Watchmen is an alternate-history story, just as Prez is. It’s also a comic representative of the mid-to-late-’80s “grim ’n’ gritty” era, just as Prez is a prime example of what DC and Marvel were up to in the early ’70s, combining trippy weirdness with social relevance. Throughout the Sandman series, Gaiman nods to the other DC characters that have used the name “Sandman,” as though admitting that the idea of a hero connected to sleeping and dreaming is hardly original. Every 10 years or so, another comics creator comes along with a new take on concepts that have been gathering dust, and the stories change accordingly—just as they do throughout Sandman.

But even if my interpretation of the Watchmen references is too clever by half, Gaiman’s take on Prez is still, on its face, very much a story about a character whose existence can’t be snuffed, because the idea of him is just too strong. In “The Golden Boy,” Prez gets killed, but travels from dimension to dimension, looking for another America where a teenage president can take root. As for the disciple who passes along this story, he almost seems to be an agent working to conjure Prez by planting an image of him in everyone he encounters. Maybe he’s operating under the principle of the sleeping cities, or the dreaming cats: If enough people can conceive of Prez, then Prez will exist.

You mentioned the art in “The Golden Boy,” which is by Michael Allred, who is one of my favorite comic-book artists, and a guy with a history of drawing comics about unearthed secrets and shadow-histories. Post-“Golden Boy,” Allred wrote and drew Red Rocket 7, a graphic novel combining a science-fiction adventure with a well-researched history of rock ’n’ roll. In recent years, Allred has adapted the Book Of Mormon in comic-book form. (That’s the actual Book Of Mormon, not the Broadway musical.) Allred is a perfect artist for a story about a religious figure with ties to popular culture and America, and his simultaneous cartoony and action-oriented work on “The Golden Boy” aids the story’s secondary function as a meta-commentary on comics—if indeed that was something Gaiman had in mind.

“The Golden Boy” also connects in a major way to the theme of Sandman going forward, and in particular the notion that some ideas are too necessary to eradicate. But here’s where your having only read as far as Worlds’ End becomes a liability, since that’s something that’ll be explored more in The Wake. (It also occurs to me that while “Cluracan’s Tale” isn’t as strongly linked to the themes of Worlds’ End as, say, “Cerements,” it does keep the doings of the faerie folk in play, which will matter in The Kindly Ones, as you will soon see.)

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessary to know what happens in the last two Sandman books to get something out of the last chapter of Worlds’ End, which contrasts the power of that massive nighttime procession with the mundanity of what I guess we could call “Charlene’s Tale.” I certainly recall finding it all beguiling when I originally read that issue, when it was first published, before I had any idea where this was all leading. How did it work on you, Genevieve?

Genevieve: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Charlene echoes, in a way, the line spoken by Nuala that I mentioned earlier—“I don’t need people. I’ve never needed other people”—right before she breaks down in tears. Charlene is the embodiment of a pragmatist, a realist; she’s defined by her mundanity, as you call it. She’s overwhelmed by the thought of reconciling this experience at the inn with the reality she knows, trying to fit these stories into some sort of meaningful context. “I mean, sure, they pass the time,” she says of the stories being told. “They entertain. But how do they help you make sense of anything? The world isn’t like that.” She’s also myopic in her assessment of the stories’ value—again, that whole “boys’ own stories” thing—especially when she counters Jim’s assertion that her story wasn’t actually about a giant phallus with a simple, “Sure it was.” Charlene has only one way of looking at the world, and it’s a supremely uninspiring, depressing viewpoint that’s left her hollow inside and alone in the world.

Charlene is an odd figure to encounter in Sandman, particularly at this juncture. Until now, we haven’t seen much skepticism regarding this whole mythology. There are few non-believers in stories’ power to shape our reality, and vice-versa. (We’ve seen plenty of naïves, people unaware of what’s happening, but few who actively buck against it like Charlene does.) Brant is similarly dense about the whole thing, as when he argues that “Reality isn’t fragile. It’s—it’s huge and big and solid,” while sitting at a table next to a centaur and a fairy. If we’re using the centaur’s definition of a reality storm as “when two conflicting realities meet or overlap,” Brant and Charlene are in the middle of their own reality storm, and it’s left them both shaken.

It’s probably no coincidence that this mini-meditation on conflicting realities and disbelief comes right before a procession of giants march across the fucking sky. Not only does it set up a transformative experience for Brant and Charlene—“And I believed in miracles. I didn’t have any choice,” narrates Brant—it reinforces the impact of this scene, of this death. This unbelievable, unexplainable vision means something, something big, something that transcends simple storytelling and entertainment. It affects everyone’s reality, whatever reality that may be, whether they understand that change or not. From a simple storytelling perspective, that’s just good foreshadowing; from an emotional perspective, it’s transformative. 

And that transformation takes place immediately, particularly in the case of Charlene, whose decision to abandon the path she was on and start anew at the inn at worlds’ end has an immediate effect on Brant’s reality. (Petrefax makes a similar detour, though its outcome isn’t immediately apparent.) As he explains to the bartender, after he woke up in the undamaged car, he discovered that Charlene Mooney never existed, that no one remembers she even existed, except him. Whether Brant is in an alternate reality, or the one he was in has been altered, or some other explanation, the fact remains that Charlene does still exist, if only in story.

And that means something. As the innkeeper puts it, “When a world ends, there’s always something left over. A story, perhaps, or a vision, or a hope.” (I suspect this may also tie into what you’re alluding to in The Wake, Noel, about some ideas being too necessary to eradicate.) As we move into The Kindly Ones next week, it seems apparent that a world, or at least a version of it, is about to end. And while that ending may be shocking and sad, it’s not necessarily tragic, because there’s still a story; there’s still a hope.

Next week:  Genevieve Koski and Tasha Robinson revisit the Dreaming—and nearly every major Sandman character—in the climactic The Kindly Ones.