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 #4, Season Of Mists, covering issues #21-28.
Season Of Mists plot summary: When the Fates visit Destiny to prophecy about a major coming event, he gathers six of the seven Endless for a meeting: himself, Dream, Death, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. (The seventh sibling, whose name has not yet been revealed, is referred to as “the prodigal,” and it’s implied that he abandoned his duties long ago.) Desire baits Dream by bringing up Nada, the lover he condemned to hell for spurning him; rather than supporting Dream, Death confirms that he acted badly. Dream decides to visit hell and free Nada, risking the wrath of Lucifer, whom he provoked and humiliated in book #1. But when he arrives, Lucifer has sent all of hell’s denizens packing—Nada included—and he hands Morpheus the key to hell, in hopes that possessing it will destroy him. Sure enough, representatives of a variety of pantheons and myths—from Faerie to the Norse gods to hell’s displaced demons—arrive in the Dreaming to demand the key for themselves. It seems clear that no matter whom Dream gives the key, he will be making powerful enemies. Ultimately, however, at God’s behest, he gives the key to the angels Remiel and Duma, who are ordered to take Lucifer’s place and maintain hell as a balance against heaven.
Tasha: You know, Noel, when I first read book #3 of Sandman, Dream Country, I enjoyed it, but I never saw any of those stories as particularly significant in the larger scheme of Sandman. Re-reading the book, one of the things that struck me hardest was what Death tells Element Girl, in explaining how she can finally end her life if she wants: “Rainie, mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.” The quote gives the book its name and its theme, but that theme also reaches throughout the series, and throughout Neil Gaiman’s work as a whole—particularly his novels American Gods and Anansi Boys. And it has a heavy resonance through book #4, Season Of Mists.
This book as a whole is about old mythologies, and their attempts to re-create or rescue themselves. Everyone here is in a state of profound identity shift. Morpheus is recovering from his captivity, facing up to the challenges of his newly empathetic state, and learning to let go of his overwhelming pride. Lucifer abandons his eons-old rulership of hell to try something new. The Norse gods want to cheat Ragnarok and escape their paradigm; the Japanese gods are incorporating new idols and reshaping themselves; the demons want the independence they’ve never had. Even the minor players here are caught in a state of flux: A whole issue is devoted to Charles Rowland dying and abandoning his unsatisfying old life. Loki escapes a millennium of helpless captivity. Nada ultimately gives up her history, her memory, and her former shape. Nuala loses her pride, her chosen identity, and her face; Mazikeen loses the master who defines her. The angel Remiel loses everything that’s meaningful to him, and changes hell in the process, while his counterpart Duma chooses to accept his duty and change without giving up his identity.
And the best part is, so many of these transitions are just the beginning of other stories: Rowland and his murdered buddy Edwin Paine reappear in Vertigo’s Children’s Crusade crossover event and in the Sandman spinoff Dead Boy Detectives. Lucifer, Mazikeen, Remiel, and Duma are all major players in Mike Carey’s Lucifer spin-off series. (Which I highly recommend.) We’ll see the two angels, plus Loki and Nuala (and Nuala’s self-serving ass of a brother, Cluracan) again throughout Sandman. There are so many story-seeds here, and so many old and new myths. I love the way Sandman (and Gaiman’s work in general, like Alan Moore’s) revives and incorporates everything from ancient religion to discarded DC characters, but this book may be my absolute favorite because it draws from so many wells at once. Do you have any particular favorites of all the borrowed threads and characters and dream-country mythologies here?
Noel: Funnily enough, my favorites are mainly the ones that come from the Sandman universe, not the larger sphere of myths and legends. (Though I do enjoy the plight of Remiel and Duma, for reasons I’ll talk about later.) Let me start by saying that Season Of Mists was the first Sandman story arc I read from month to month. I’ve probably got the chronology wrong, but as I recall, I bought the Doll’s House trade paperback thanks to Mikal Gilmore’s 1990 Rolling Stone article “Daredevil Authors: Today’s Real Superheroes,” and then started buying Sandman monthly right in the middle of the Dream Country stories. (Preludes & Nocturnes didn’t come out until the following year, and back issues were too expensive, so I didn’t fill in those gaps until later.) So the gathering of The Endless at the start of the book, and the quest for Nada, and Morpheus visiting his “dream child” Daniel and saying goodbye to Hob Gadling just in case he didn’t return from hell—all of that seemed so damned momentous at the time, given that I didn’t know then how long Sandman was going to run, or what plans Gaiman might have for these characters.
And then Gaiman sprung The Sandman #23, “In Which The Lord Of Dreams Returns To Hell, And His Confrontation With The Lord Of That Realm; In Which A Number Of Doors Are Closed For The Last Time; And Concerning The Strange Disposition Of A Knife And A Key.” This is one of my favorite individual issues in the entire Sandman run—top five for me, I’d say—because after all the build-up, Dream arrives to find an empty hell, and a strangely accommodating Lucifer. The whole “Lucifer saying goodbye to hell” sequence is so strangely moving, and in keeping with the entire series’ theme of old myths and legends adjusting to modernity. But I love it primarily for being such an unexpected narrative turn, which becomes typical of the Sandman story arcs to come. Gaiman never goes in expected directions. I doubt anyone could’ve read the prologue or the first chapter of Season Of Mists and said, “Ah, so this is going to be a story about The Dreaming hosting a gathering of old gods all demanding they be given the key to hell.” Nor would anyone have expected the little issue-#25 interlude with Charles Rowland, though the earlier Sandman stories certainly had their share of digressions and one-offs. Given the reverence Gaiman shows for stories and storytelling throughout Sandman, it’s apt that he paid so much attention to the single comic-book issue as a storytelling vehicle, even within a larger arc.
We should talk about the meaning of Lucifer’s “gift” to Lord Morpheus, and why in Sandman, the notion of responsibility is such a threat. But given that you spoke of the series earlier in terms of books, Tasha, I’m curious about how you first read Season Of Mists: issue-by-issue, or collected? And if it’s the latter, was A Game Of You and the rest of the series waiting for you when you turned the last page?
Tasha: I was reviewing comics for my college newspaper when Sandman was taking off, and I had a roommate who’d bought every issue from the beginning, so I was able to read them in order, but then I was on a one-issue-at-a-time IV drip, reading them as they came out. Which I don’t think is the best way to read any comic with an ongoing narrative arc, particularly one with as many one-issue sidelines as Sandman. Much as I think I enjoyed Lost more than a lot of fans because I only watched it on DVD, so I was rarely left waiting weeks or months for a particular cliffhanger to resolve or a favorite character to reappear, I enjoyed Sandman much more on a re-read, where I could appreciate the one-off story issues without feeling impatient to get back to Dream, or learn more about his world.
Consider the first issue of Season Of Mists, which gives us a much closer look at the Endless than we’d gotten previously. In particular, Delirium is impressively unsettling. Later stories involving Delirium, from Brief Lives to Jill Thompson’s Li’l Endless stuff, cutesy her up considerably, but here, she’s mostly stark and disturbing. There’s a host of fascinating things in the exchanges between the Endless—how Destiny chides Death for dressing informally, but doesn’t seem to notice or mind that Despair is, as always, naked. Or Desire’s little show of power with Delirium’s butterflies. Or the way they all speak forlornly about their missing sibling, setting up the action of the upcoming story arc Brief Lives. Reading Sandman issue by issue, I wanted more instant payoff for teases like that, and much more of Gaiman’s unique Endless mythology, rather than the rabbit-trail byways of Dream Country.
But reading issue by issue, I also missed some of the parallels running through the series. A big one I never previously grasped was how Dream escapes from his 70-year captivity, then sets about freeing other captives: Jed, Hector, and Lyta from rogue nightmares Brute and Glob; Calliope from Richard Madoc; Nada from hell. Clearly he now has an aversion to people being held against their will—though it’s still characteristic of his coldness that he doesn’t much concern himself with what happens to most of them after they’re freed. Jed just goes into another captivity, Hector moves on into death, Lyta is traumatized and left alone, Calliope gets a brush-off. Nada is the first freed captive Dream actually tracks to a better fate. As well he should, since she’s the only one he personally imprisoned. (And by the way, how did he actually do that? That’s the one niggling problem I’ve always had with Season Of Mists: Given his questionable relationship with Lucifer, where did Dream get the authority to sentence someone to hell?)
Essentially, though, she’s the only one he takes personal responsibility for, at a potentially huge cost to him, and with an immense reluctance that suggests just how hard he’s trying to overcome his arrogant pride. Which brings us to your theme of why responsibility is such a burden and an issue in Sandman in general: Here, it causes Morpheus to risk his existence to rescue Nada. (The fat beads of sweat on his forehead when he removes his helm to face Lucifer have always stuck with me. Later, he faces entire threatening pantheons with a curt dismissal, but in a one-on-one with Lucifer, he’s honestly scared.) And then he faces the wrath of gods because he knows he can’t just throw away the key to hell, however much he wants to. What struck you so much about his attitude toward responsibility here? And are you also finding, given your past Sandman experience, that there were connections and references you missed the first time?
Noel: That’s a good point about Dream’s yen for freeing people (and entities); I’ve been reading on in the series, and that’s a theme that recurs in a lot of the issues to come. Dream encounters someone who’s trapped for one reason or another, and after initially saying he can’t do anything about it, he changes his mind and enables an escape. Another connection I keep seeing throughout these Sandman stories—since you asked—is a preoccupation with rules. That’s huge in Season Of Mists, in which characters are often talking about what can be done where, and what’s forbidden. Then they make calculations, and press presumed advantages, based on these rules. A good case in point is Azazel renouncing Morpheus’ hospitality, and forcing his host to enter him to retrieve Nada, which Morpheus does fairly easily, because he’s in a realm he controls. This theme stretches all the way back to the first issue of Sandman, where the hero is imprisoned until his captor accidentally breaks the plane of containment. Rules matter, both for the people making them and the people who know how to exploit them.
That’s why I think it’s so important to Morpheus to handle the dispensation of hell’s key properly. The man who is the essence of dreaming itself—who presides over a realm of seemingly infinite possibilities—knows that a strong sense of order is required to keep his world intact. He doesn’t goof off or screw around with his power. Rather, he maintains the space where others invent.
That’s also what I love so much about what becomes of Remiel and Duma. God commands them to take control of hell and never to return to heaven, even though they’ve always been obedient servants, unlike Lucifer. It’s completely unjust. But being obedient servants, they abide. And then they end up making hell a much worse place, by assuring the damned that they’re being punished for their own good, not just capriciously. So, so cruel. So wonderfully cruel.
I want to talk more about the meaning of that ending, and about Dream’s long-delayed confrontation with Nada, but if you’ll permit a complete left turn, can we talk a moment about the art in Season Of Mists? As much as I love Sandman, I’ve long felt that like a lot of Vertigo titles, it suffers from inconsistent art, with some outstanding work and some that just doesn’t fit—rendered in that bland Vertigo house style that’s not quite superhero slick, but not quite as weird or daring as the writing, either. Generally speaking, Sandman’s editors tried to control the rotating artists by only assigning one-offs and framing issues to “guests,” which is sort of the case with Season Of Mists, where Mike Dringenberg handles the penciling on the prologue and epilogue, Matt Wagner handles the interlude, and Kelley Jones handles the bulk of the work. But the inkers and colorists change inconsistently, and though each individual artist brings elements that I liked quite a bit, the overall result is something of a mess, I think.
Do you know what I’m saying, or am I nitpicking?
Tasha: I confess the art in Season Of Mists doesn’t bother me at all, because for me, the series’ art hits a low point in depicting Calliope back in Dream Country. Why is she always contorted into weird shapes? Why does she vacillate between 5 and 9 feet tall? Why does she look so little like a person, which completely undermines the vulnerability the story wants so much to emphasize? By comparison, I find Season Of Mists’ art so much more fun, and almost any distortion makes perfect sense to me in a realm made of dreams. The ridiculous contrast between man-mountain Thor and huge-eyed sylph Loki, the bulgy grotesquerie Shivering Jemmy becomes when threatening Dream, the way Morpheus himself continues to change from issue to issue, and especially depending on who’s looking at him—it all works fine for me. There are a couple of weird dud panels, like the one where Cluracan presents Nada to Dream as a gift, and she looks like she put her wig on backward and couldn’t adjust it in time. Or the one where the dead boys are torturing Charles Rowland with the stove, and his proportions don’t make much sense.
But no, I certainly don’t think of it as a mess. And there are so many images here that have stuck with me powerfully even from my first reading: Inhumanly scrawny Sigyn, waiting patiently in Loki’s cavern for him to return and need her again. Breschau demanding his punishment. Lucifer locking up hell by inserting his key into various disgusting masses of organs and one tiny country field-gate. The angels descending to Earth. Lucifer carrying Cain by his hair; Cain later, curled up asleep with a beatific smile, after Dream rewards him for his service. Dream forcing Azazel’s teeth open from the inside, while showing his disdain for his adversary while wearing loose, casual T-shirt-and-jeans garb rather than the helm and concealing robe he normally dons for battle. At times, the art is distinctly clearer, cleaner, more elaborate, and better modeled than at other times, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a mess.
Flipping through the book looking for favorite art, though, brings me to a series of stray observations about some of these moments, and how they fit into the larger picture: 1) It’s funny that we were just talking about Dream freeing captives, and then he turns around and bottles up Azazel and dumps him in the scraps bin with the Corinthian’s skull. Clearly he isn’t empathetic about all prisoners. 2) I love how Breschau clearly illustrates Lucifer’s claim that the damned souls of hell have chosen to be there because they think they deserve it. And how his short interlude reminds us again that Sandman is about stories and mythologies, including the ones we tell about ourselves. Breschau has defined himself as an unforgettable, earth-shaking monster, but Lucifer tells him that’s just another fable now—even in the dream country where mythologies linger, no one remembers him. Breschau’s exploits are just a fairy tale he’s telling himself, a story where the original horrifying significance has become bowdlerized away. He’s less important to the world than Little Red Riding Hood at this point. 3) Remiel’s interpretation of the new, improved hell is also a story he’s telling to make himself feel better about what’s been forced upon him. It’s vastly telling that he takes no interest in the effects that story has on the people it’s supposedly meant to benefit; he’s lost in the selfish reconstruction of reality he’s made up to make himself feel better.
And one more observation: Nobody clever be’s cardboard boxes. Probably my favorite line in Sandman.
But you wanted to get to the ending. So here’s a starting thought on my part: One of the things I admire most about Season Of Mists as a narrative is how complicated and compromised the stakes are. It’s never a question of Morpheus vs. a series of equal unstoppable forces, or even a question of many equally appealing choices to make. Some of the people contending for hell have weak or entirely uncompelling arguments or offers. Some, he shrugs off; others, he outright chides. Gaiman could have arrayed the forces against him to be a much more uncompromising, universally intimidating threat, but while the stakes are lower this way, I think the story is more interesting as a result. What did you think of the ending? And did Morpheus actually make a choice, or as he suggests, did he let the choice pass from him by implying there was no longer any choice to be made? Did he live up to his responsibilities after all?
Noel: I think it’s like Destiny’s garden: Morpheus does make a choice, but it’s the choice he was always going to make, even if he didn’t know it was an option until right before it was presented to him. It suits who he is, to give hell back to its actual owners. And it makes the choice less dramatic. Got a problem? Take it up with God.
Like you, I’m partial to the lower stakes of Season Of Mists, especially given all the “this could be the end of Dream” setup at the start. As I mentioned earlier, I love the bait-and-switch. Though to be fair, we are still early in the Sandman run at this point, and much of the doom and gloom that commences Season Of Mists does prove more relevant later in the series, just as some of the choices made in these issues will affect the direction of later stories. The sense that this is the beginning of the end isn’t entirely a fake-out.
Still, much as I liked how Dream’s visit to hell turned into a conversation rather than a fight, I also liked how one of the big cliffhangers in Season Of Mists comes at the end of chapter six, when Dream tells Matthew that it’s time to talk to Nada—a prospect more fraught with tension than any stand-off with Azazel. As for that chat, it’s indicative of the changes in Morpheus. He apologizes. He allows Nada to hit him. He gives her a second chance at life. Hell is under new management, and the dream-kingdom is also undergoing a gradual remodeling that will continue to play out through the rest of Sandman, in a macro version of the way Morpheus weighs the pros and cons of who deserves the key.
So that’s more or less my take on what’s Season Of Mists is about: It’s about someone who prefers stability coming to terms with the idea that nothing stays the same. And it’s about the many enemies waiting to exploit the turmoil.
How do you see it, Tasha? And we haven’t really talked much about the Charles Rowland issue, which is a favorite of many Sandman fans. Does it really fit into what this arc is trying to say, or is it just a tangent?
Tasha: At this point in my re-read, I’m coming to interpreting all things Sandman through three lenses:
- As above, so below. The Endless represent key concepts for humanity, and things that happen to them affect all mortal life. We see this when Dream is held hostage, and dreamers start falling into comas. We see it when Doctor Destiny has Dream’s ruby, and people begin going crazy and doing terrible things to each other. And in the case of Charles Rowland, we’re seeing a process of death and transfiguration that’s another echo of things to come. I don’t want to give anything away here, but Charles, like Morpheus, is being haunted and held down by the past, and makes a conscious decision to move on. Charles’ haunting is just a lot more literal.
- It’s about old mythologies, beliefs, and behaviors, and the clash between those who can move on and those who can’t. Much of Season Of Mists makes this theme literal, as I said above. We’ll see more half-forgotten gods making decisions about their future in the series—I’m particularly thinking of one case in the upcoming Brief Lives arc. In Charles’ story, instead of gods, we have ghosts that have nothing better to do than hang around the school, re-enacting old conflicts. Charles says as much as he leaves the school’s petty bullying and recursive behavior for good: “I think hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go. They’re doing the same things they always did. They’re doing it to themselves. That’s hell.” Charles and Edwin are just leading the way. Consider that issue’s title: “In Which The Dead Return: And Charles Rowland Concludes His Education.” Morpheus’ education began in a glass bottle, but it isn’t done yet; he’s still considering, one situation at a time, whether he’s just going to keep doing the same things to himself, and to others.
- It’s about the stories we tell, about our world and about ourselves. Again, we have characters summarizing who they are, and letting those definitions define them: The headmaster’s dead mother, telling her life story in terms of sex, death, and her Breschau-like pride in punishment. Dead hippie Peter Hinchcliffe, whose life story amounts to how he died. That tragic matron whose story revolves around her two dead babies, now returned. And the three bullies, who told themselves a lie about how they’d sacrifice a child to Satan and become respected and powerful in hell, only to find out that hell didn’t care. Charles is the one person in all this mess who isn’t ready to call his story over yet, doesn’t know what’s on the next page, and is ready to go find out.
And with all that in mind, I think you’re spot on about what Season Of Mists is about, as Morpheus sees all these examples of old stories and ancient beliefs trying and failing to change—or in Lucifer’s case, trying and succeeding—and starts making some crucial changes of his own. So, last thoughts?
Noel: I’ll end by saying that I tend to think of Season Of Mists as the real starting point for Sandman’s main story. Gaiman has said that Preludes & Nocturnes is him fumbling to find his way into Sandman, and that The Doll’s House is where he felt the series came into its own, but while I like a lot of the first 20 issues of Sandman—especially the stories “Tales In The Sand” and “Men Of Good Fortune,” both of which I included in my syllabus when I used to teach a comics class at our local university—I think Season Of Mists really begins to put together all the elements that make Sandman special, and on such a grand scale. If you think about it, the series starts small, with Dream in a cage, while Season Of Mists starts in Destiny’s freakin’ garden. That’s way more major.
And yet Season Of Mists also reveals Sandman to be a more contemplative comic than the gory, murder-heavy first two story arcs suggested. It flows nicely into A Game Of You, which in a lot of ways feels like A Doll’s House retold from the perspective of a different character, and with more quiet assurance—and which ends with another of my Top 5 all-time Sandman issues. But I’ll leave that for next week.
Next week: Oliver Sava and Tasha Robinson reunite with Barbie from The Doll’s House and meet Thessaly in A Game Of You.