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 #10, The Wake, covering issues #70-75 and concluding the series’ original run.
The Wake plot summary: As the previous book, The Kindly Ones, ended, Morpheus, the Lord Of Dreams, died, and Daniel Hall became the new Dream, taking on his memories and some of his appearance. The other Endless are informed of Morpheus’ death and prepare for the funeral, as Daniel begins to re-create the dead inhabitants of the Dreaming, makes a sort of peace with his shattered mother Lyta Hall, and prepares to meet his Endless family. Many characters from many points throughout the series show up to pay their respects at the wake—including, according to the text, you, the reader. Afterward, there are three separate epilogues. In “Sunday Mourning,” immortal Hob Gadling attends a Ren Faire, which frustrates him in its shallow take on history, and Death shows up to tell him Morpheus is dead, and to see whether Hob is ready to die as well. “Exiles” mirrors “Soft Places” from Fables & Reflections, as an exile crossing the desert encounters Morpheus, then Daniel, in a place where time bends strangely. And in “The Tempest,” which mirrors “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from Dream Country, William Shakespeare writes the second play Morpheus commissioned from him and discusses it with him—as Morpheus requested, “a tale of graceful ends… about a magician who becomes a man, and turns his back on magic.”
Tasha: So we’ve come to the end of the original run of The Sandman, not counting the many, many spin-offs like Death: The High Cost Of Living and Destiny: A Chronicle Of Deaths Foretold, or Neil Gaiman’s latter additions to the canon, the stand-alone graphic novel Sandman: The Dream Hunters and the Endless Nights anthology. This book feels more like a weaving together of loose threads than anything else; the story of Morpheus’ funeral and Daniel’s beginnings as Dream ends halfway through the book, and then we get meditations on history and life from Hob Gadling, and more stories about how Morpheus touched people’s lives and produced art and inspiration that mirrored his own situation. In the same way, this particular column is going to be a bit of a freewheeling conversation where we wrap up our own loose ends on the series.
Before we really dig into The Wake, I want to note three little things that tickle me:
1) Morpheus’ funeral brings in everyone, including Batman, Superman, and Martian Manhunter, who fill a single entire panel with meta-jokes about past dream-stories in Superman’s timeline, plus a dig at poor Martian Manhunter, who’s never had his own TV show in our reality, thus never had “that dream” in his reality:
2) It also reunites the two pajama’d dreamers who were pressed into service to wait tables when Dream hosted all those gods and myths in Season Of Mists:
3) And then in “The Tempest,” we suddenly have a character who—in face, though not in name or character—is unequivocally Grandma Ben from Jeff Smith’s terrific comic Bone:
Mighty light, playful touches all, for what is, overall, a pretty serious series, and for a particularly melancholy installment in that series. So, digging into the more serious content… For me, the most poignant thing in this book isn’t the actual funeral, with people talking in their various ways about what Morpheus meant to them. (Desire, possibly the author of his death, and certainly the wannabe author of his death: “Had we not been family, then we could have had nothing to do with each other, and both our lives would have been enriched.”) Funerals are often performative, and this one certainly is, with so many individuals so clearly expressing their own characters more than anything else.
No, what I find touching and particularly well-observed is what happens during and after the funeral, as everyone has to figure out how to go on in the wake of what’s happened. There are so many meanings of the word “wake,” after all, and here, it means the gathering after a funeral, and the aftermath of a sort-of-suicide, and the waking at the end of this collective dream. Gilbert’s refusal to be re-created after his death, Mervyn being reborn and going right back to being recalcitrant and attitudinal, and particularly Matthew struggling with his emotions and deciding on his new role—these are all the important things that happen after a death, as everyone decides whether and how to move on. And it’s what I most appreciate in this book. Daniel figuring out who he is and what his role will be is just one part of it, but the ancillary characters speak to me more.
Noah: I completely agree. I know some of the commenters are probably going to have my head for this, but I didn’t feel sad for Morpheus, the way I did for characters like Matthew. Matthew flitted in and out of the various volumes, but here he has his own arc, where, as he puts it, he grows up. Losing a friend unexpectedly is so damaging, and it’s hard to easily come to terms with it. My oldest friend died when I was 17, and I’m still dealing with it, almost a decade later. But what I came to realize over time is that the best thing I could do was be productive in my grief. That, I think, is Matthew’s answer as well. He hasn’t recovered from losing Morpheus (who served as a boss, friend, and parent to Matthew), but he knows the best way to honor him is to continue his work, which means helping Daniel. I thought Hob Gadling had a sort of similar reply to Death. But to continue with Tasha’s point about poignancy, what was the most poignant part for everyone?
Genevieve: I’m glad you bring up Hob, Noah, because “Sunday Mourning” is the issue I found most poignant in The Wake—not to mention purely enjoyable. Hob is a great character in general, but the reason he’s so great is because he serves as a counterpoint to Morpheus and the Endless, an immortal being who’s extremely invested in the mortal world. He loves life, to the point where no matter how many lovers he’s buried, or countries he’s visited, he can’t say goodbye to the mortal realm. I suppose it’s possible to interpret that as fear of death, fear of endings, but I don’t think that’s the case with Hob. He’s curious about death, sure—his interaction with Death in the condemned building at the Renaissance Faire indicates it’s something he’s thought about a lot—but he’s more curious about life. Seeing him once again reject death here, after Death tells him about Morpheus’ end—which he, significantly, calls “giving it up”—is the sort of affirmation that springs up so often during times of mourning, the resolution to live life to the fullest as a rejoinder to the specter of death. The fact that Hob himself is immortal is a neat twist on that sentiment: His immortality was a gift from Morpheus, and his preternaturally long life is therefore entwined with that of the departed Dream Lord. It would make sense for him to decide to call it quits, to give it up, when Morpheus did; the fact that he doesn’t is both a little surprising and very poignant.
While I found “Sunday Mourning” the most moving and enjoyable of the three epilogues, I think “Exiles” is the most striking, and not just because of Jon Muth’s arresting ink-work, though that does a lot to contribute to the story’s sense of being out of place and isolated. (It’s somewhat visually reminiscent of “A Tale Of Two Cities” in that way.) It’s a sort-of companion to “Soft Places”—one of my favorite of the standalone stories—though it’s more cryptic and evocative than that story. (Love that claw-game bridge sequence.) Its like a byway to the main Sandman narrative, a seemingly isolated parable that nonetheless reflects the events of the main story—as the exiled Master Li meets Dream as both the recently freed Morpheus and the recently crowned Daniel—as well as one of The Wake’s major themes: “Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.” Plus, there’s an adorable kitty, and we’ve before seen how Sandman loves its cats. It’s a curious issue, but it works much better for me than the series-ending “The Tempest,” though that might have just been me suffering from epilogue overload. Anyone want to speak up for that one?
Oliver: I actually get epilogue overload by the time “Exiles” rolls around, but that’s because I prefer Gaiman’s writing when he’s focusing on dialogue rather than poetic narration. Which is why I have to agree with Genevieve and say that “Sunday Mourning” is the chapter of The Wake that resonates most with me. Gaiman’s writing on The Sandman can get a little overblown at times, and Hob’s tale brings the story down to a more personal level, giving us an engaging, very funny portrait of a man who has made his fair share of mistakes and experienced great loss in life, but is still unwilling to give it up. I’d love to talk a little more about the artwork, and Michael Zulli’s artwork on those first four chapters is stunning. Coloring directly from his pencils gives the visuals a softness that fits the ethereal tone of Dream’s funeral, but the meticulous detail helps ground Hob’s issue after the spectacular fantasy that precedes it. I’m a huge fan of Marc Hempel’s hyper-cartoonish art on The Kindly Ones, but it’s nice to have an artist that brings this book back to a very real place.
As a bit of an aside: I love that the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, speaks at Dream’s wake. I think that’s a great nod to the legacy of the Sandman name. Also, for anyone who never read the conclusion of DC’s JSA right before Infinite Crisis (how could you miss it?), ultimately Lyta Hall ends up in the Dreaming with her son and her husband Hector, who has been revived at that point because no one stays dead in superhero comics. That’s years after the end of Sandman, and Gaiman had no part in that development, but I feel like this is the time to mention that little “happily ever after” for one of this book’s most tragic characters.
There’s so much to unpack in “The Tempest,” from how the subject matter of Shakespeare’s final work reflects Dream’s own dilemma to what Gaiman is saying about his own role as the wizard behind The Sandman. Having Shakespeare write a play about a wizard who is able to leave his responsibilities behind is a type of catharsis for Dream, who, as we’ve learned all too well over the course of the series, has an unwavering dedication to his duties in the Dreaming. “Because I will never leave my island” is one of the most telling lines in this comic, revealing a wistful desire for change that has long been churning inside the Dream King. And ultimately, he does change, more than he probably ever imagined he would. In regard to how Gaiman himself fits into the overall message of “The Tempest,” I’m going to hand that off to the rest of the roundtable. What do you think he’s trying to say about authorship and the power that lies in the storyteller’s hands?
Noel: Oliver, I think there’s a connection between the question you’re asking about authorship and what Tasha notes about the multiple meanings of the word ”wake.” Maybe the reason there are so many damn epilogues to Sandman is because a big part of Gaiman wasn’t entirely ready to relinquish this particular kingdom—not ready to wake up, in other words. Or maybe it’s that as a longtime fantasy fan himself, Gaiman knows that one of the ways the great fantasy writers bond with their readers is to treat the worlds they create as so vast that they can never be wholly charted. I don’t know about you folks, but I always loved those big novels that really ended about 50 or so pages before ”The End,” because they made me feel like the story was continuing beyond the covers, even if only in my imagination. That’s a little bit of what’s happening here, I think. While escorting us to the door, Gaiman is suggesting that he has a lot more he could show us.
I’m not going to break ranks on the question of the most poignant part of The Wake: It’s “Sunday Mourning,” hands down. It’s not just that Hob is such a great character, he also represents the way Morpheus both changes and yet repeats his own mistakes, and he stands in for Sandman readers, wishing we could carry on. But I also think “The Tempest” is absolutely essential, and a companion piece to “Sunday Mourning,” given that Hob’s story is partly about how we fail to recreate the past accurately, and ”The Tempest” shows us Shakespeare as just some guy, trying to make it through the muck of an imperfect life while he’s writing some of the best-loved words in human history. I suppose you could say there’s a touch of hubris to Gaiman ending Sandman with a recounting of Shakespeare’s final days, followed by his own signature (“Neil Gaiman. October 1987-January 1996.”), as though he were comparing himself to The Bard. But I think he’s just carrying on one of the major themes of the series, acknowledging that the Shapers Of Dreams have flaws and foibles, even though they work wonders.
Noah: I think we can say Gaiman is comparing himself to Shakespeare without accusing him of hubris because of your very apt description of Shakespeare in The Tempest, Noel. As much as we like to attribute wizardry to Gaiman (and to all authors who craft fictions like these), they have, as you say, flaws and foibles. If Gaiman is asking us to compare him to Shakespeare, it’s in that regard—they were both men, stuck in the “muck of an imperfect life.” And if we can see Gaiman like that, if we can understand that the power of the author (or the King of Dreams) isn’t absolute, we might be a bit more comfortable with some of the questions that remain (like, for instance, who Loki was working for in The Kindly Ones).
We expect our authors to be able to answer all of our questions concerning a fiction (and if you don’t believe me, go to a book-tour event sometime), but that’s impossible. There are even certain authors, like J.M. Coetzee, who bristle at the idea that they should somehow have all the answers about their work. I think that’s part of Gaiman’s point in this last piece. Just as some of Shakespeare’s genius comes from a place we can’t understand (the Dreaming), so does some of what Gaiman and his artists have crafted for us here. If anything, I think Gaiman is trying to be humble in this piece, by showing his limitations. He just happens to be using Shakespeare to do it.
But what does everyone make of the new Dream? I didn’t know what to make of him, and perhaps that was the point. Did everyone feel like he seemed a worthy successor to our dearly departed Morpheus?
Tasha: The first time I read this story, I resisted Daniel-as-Dream as much as I resisted The Kindly Ones. There’s so much impressive and mysterious and distanced and sad about Morpheus, which makes him a broody gothic anti-hero; Daniel, by comparison, is tentative and soft, and just not as imposing. What’s interesting about Daniel in The Wake, I think, is not how the book portrays him, but how it hints at his baby-bird newness contrasted with his Endless memories. It just skims across the surface of who Daniel is, and leaves open the question of who he might become. He’s plaintive and a bit sad when talking to Matthew about his fears. He’s kind and yet somewhat cruel when talking to his mother Lyta about how her choices guaranteed she will never see her son again. And that’s about all we know. He isn’t the same person, and yet he is, and the very little shown of the new Dream leaves readers wide open to decide for themselves how much Morpheus is left within Daniel, and invent the next stories for themselves. Daniel isn’t a blank page—take it from a writer, those can be intimidating. He’s something better: a world of possibilities, with plenty of background to help fill in the blanks, but no restriction. He makes the end of this story enjoyably open-ended, not just for Gaiman, but for readers.
Though I think the full version of the “Exiles” quote Genevieve mentioned above offers a major hint about how Gaiman intends his readers to see Daniel: As the narrator heads for his new life with regrets, but confidence, he concludes, “Only the phoenix arises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.”
Noel: Personally, I love the idea of Daniel because it drives home one of the major ideas advanced in Brief Lives: that these embodiments of abstract ideas are around because humanity has conjured them into being. How perfect is it, then, that the new Dream would be an actual human spawn, even if he was conceived in a nether-realm? This is what The Wake leaves us with, both in its main story and in its epilogues: a succession of remarkable human beings who, in their achievements and aspects, are a lot like gods. And the line between human and god, as we’ve seen over the run of Sandman, is never as thick as we might’ve imagined.
Oliver: Tasha, the very things you dislike about Daniel are the things that attract me to the character. Just going by the visual, he’s intended to be the polar opposite of Dream, so the gentle softness feels right to me. Your comment about Daniel not being a blank sheet of paper but a world of possibilities immediately makes me think of the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, when George says, “White. A blank page or a canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” I see a lot of similarities between the end of that musical and The Wake. All the character monologues at Dream’s funeral remind me of when the figures in A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte acknowledge their creator and thank him for their immortality in the painting. The characters in The Sandman are saying goodbye to Dream, but they’re also saying goodbye to Gaiman. Vertigo realized it had a goldmine of potential stories in Gaiman’s world, and went on to release The Dreaming and multiple tangential miniseries, so these characters live on, but Gaiman is the man responsible for bringing them to life.
Genevieve: As someone who hasn’t read any of the Sandman spinoffs—and frankly, doesn’t plan to, at least for a while—I really like your comparison, Oliver, because it reinforces the feeling of this series as a distinct whole, independent of whatever future entities that may spring from it. There are obviously more stories to be told in this world, but I’m fine with leaving Sandman here. It’s like waking up from a great dream: You can try to go right back to sleep and pick up where you left off, but the magic is inevitably gone, or at least turned into a different kind of magic. This has been an enlightening journey, but it definitely feels like it’s run its course—plus maybe a superfluous epilogue or two—and I’m ready to step back and say goodbye.
Noah: I concur. And like Oliver, I can’t help but compare Sandman to other works. I’ve been digging into Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges while we finished off the series, and the parallels are astounding. (Borges’ imagination might be unparalleled in fiction, and his story “The Library Of Babel,” about a library with all the books that could ever possibly be created, reminds me a lot of Morpheus’ collection in his castle). But what I love about Borges is his brevity. He creates these incredible worlds in a few pages, where readers could imagine thousands of other stories occurring, but he leaves that imagining to us. I’d say Gaiman is trying to do the same thing here. He could have written Sandman for the rest of his life, but he wants, I think, to leave the rest to us. He’s allowed us to make the choice that you mention, Genevieve: to continue dreaming, to wake up. Either way, we’ll have to move onto other imaginings.
I’m a little wistful now at the end, but honestly it’s because I’ve enjoyed writing these with you all so much. So thanks, everyone, and I hope your choice to either dream or wake up proves fruitful.