The seventh collection of The Sandman is an Endless family affair

The seventh collection of The Sandman is an Endless family affair

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 #7, Brief Lives, covering issues #41-#49.

Plot synopsis: Dream and his siblings return to the spotlight as Delirium sets out on a quest to find her long-absent brother, Destruction. After Desire and Despair reject Delirium’s requests for help, she asks Dream for his assistance, and he agrees, eager to forget about recent heartbreak. Their journey takes them to a travel agent from ancient Babylon, a 15,000-year-old lawyer, and a stripping goddess of love before Dream ends the quest when he realizes that their mission is costing innocent lives. After a conversation with Death, Dream reconsiders his stance and resumes his search with Delirium, entering Destiny’s garden for a hefty amount of backstory and foreshadowing. The two ultimately make their way to the temple where Dream’s son Orpheus is housed, which is a short distance away from where Destruction has planted himself, along with his talking dog Barnabas. Over dinner, the reunited siblings discuss the nature of the Endless and their roles in the world, a conversation that pushes Dream to let go of the past, beginning by granting his son the death he’s been denied for centuries. Dream kills Orpheus, finally committing the act of spilling family blood that Desire has been pushing him toward for the majority of the series. When he returns to the Dreaming, Dream is changed, more sympathetic to his servants and no longer troubled by the past, but also unaware of what his actions will mean for his future.

Oliver: How nice is it to get back to the Endless after all those issues focusing on boring stuff like storytelling and power and identity? (I kid, I kid.) The time spent away from this book’s main cast really amplifies the impact of Brief Lives, giving readers more information on the history of the Endless and their relationships with one another than ever before. This is easily my favorite of The Sandman’s storylines, not just because of how thoroughly it fleshes out the world and personalities of these characters, but because Jill Thompson’s artwork is so perfectly suited to Gaiman’s script. Her balance of realistic detail and fantastic whimsy is an ideal fit for a story centered on Delirium and Dream, two figures who fall on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. 

Delirium is one of the most intriguing characters in the Sandman mythos, originally born as the calm Delight before transforming into her current scatterbrained self. It’s revealed that Destruction helped her through this metamorphosis, and over the course of Brief Lives, it becomes clear that Destruction is ill-suited for his title; he consistently builds up his siblings during times of need. This storyline is the first time it really feels like the Endless are a family rather than an assemblage of connected immortals, and it makes sense that the rest of the Endless would miss Destruction’s jovial presence, especially when the personification of Death is the most lighthearted of the group. Would you agree with that sentiment, Noel? And on the subject of Delirium, what do you think the focus on her brings to this story? 

Noel: I have a love-hate relationship with Delirium, because I feel like Gaiman is far more attracted to these kinds of kooky, damaged waifs than I tend to be. (I’ve read that Delirium was based on Tori Amos, a musician who represented pretty much everything I hated in the “modern rock” radio genre around the time I was reading these issues.) That said, I do appreciate how in Brief Lives and in the arcs that follow, Gaiman keeps the kooky and the damaged parts of the character in balance. When Delirium is conjuring goldfish out of thin air, I find her more irritating than whimsical, but I think Gaiman writes the character such that it’s okay to find her irritating. Plus, he doesn’t shy away from the real damage she does with her impulsive flights of fancy—as when she curses a highway patrolman with “invisible insects all over you now for all your life and for ever and always.”

And that’s important to the overall thrust of Brief Lives, which as you note is about the human qualities of these Endless, and how this bickering, passive-aggressive family sometimes fails to serve humanity because they’re too busy being petty and self-absorbed. For example, for a time, it looks like Brief Lives is going to be about the charmingly absurd road-tripping adventures of Dream and Delirium, as they make their way across the mortal world using mundane human transportation, but the journey turns dark and violent early, such that Dream cuts it short, lest they continue to destroy people’s lives. (Note: In seeking Destruction, Dream and Delirium create destruction. This will be important later.) Brief Lives is the pivotal story arc in the entire Sandman series, both because the events of the plot set the end of the series in motion, and because it deals so directly with who The Endless are and why they exist.

But we’ll get to that when we talk about Dream’s remarkable conversation with his brother. First, I want to turn your question back on you: What’s your take on Delirium? Tragic figure, or loveable icon of goth fashion victims?

Oliver: As someone who knows all the words to “Cornflake Girl,” I have no problem with Tori Amos, and it was her introduction to Death: The High Cost Of Living that turned me on to her music in the first place. But to answer your question, why can’t Delirium be both? In terms of this book’s two big loveable icons of goth fashion victims, I think Delirium is considerably more tragic than Death, and like you said, that’s the thing that makes her more than just a whimsical, rainbow-haired kid who speaks in streams of consciousness. And any irritation that might come from Delirium’s character seems completely appropriate to me, because children can be incredibly obnoxious and random, but they also have the ability to see things through clearer eyes than adults. 

A quick diversion: I want to use this time to praise the work of letterer Todd Klein, who does amazing work on this series portraying character through word balloons. When Dream and Delirium finally find Destruction and have a conversation under the stars in silhouette, the variation in word balloons does such a fantastic job of not only letting us know who is speaking, but capturing the essence of each character’s worldview. Dream’s black balloons are the only ones that use lowercase lettering (perhaps because of his control of stories?), and Delirium’s multicolored balloons with different-sized lettering perfectly reflect her disjointed thought process. Destruction’s balloons are the same as any other human’s in the book, showing just how much he’s integrated into the waking world. Todd Klein has a stockpile of Eisner Awards for his work in comics, and The Sandman shows why. 

Delirium and Despair are integral to this story because they represent change within the Endless. Delirium’s transition from Delight shows how these characters transform as the ideas they represent morph into new things, while Despair’s story reveals that the Endless can be destroyed in their current forms and re-created through aspects of the others. Destruction is the person who helps his siblings through these pivotal moments in their existence, and by the end of Brief Lives, he’s also helped Dream through a considerable change in his own life. Looking at the birth order of the Endless, Destruction was created after Dream, meaning that once life forms were able to dream, they had the ability to destroy. But as Destruction tells his siblings, there are two sides to every coin, and his role in the world isn’t just to embody destruction, but to define creation. 

Before we dive too deeply into destruction, I want to shift the discussion to this collection’s title and how the figures that Delirium and Dream meet on their journey fit into the concept of brief lives. Why do you think some characters like Bernie Capax and Ruby meet their ends, while others, like Etain and the Lapp Alder Man are able to escape their destruction? What do you think their individual stories contribute to the narrative, particularly when told side-by-side with the experiences of the Endless?

Noel: When I wrote about Fables & Reflections in our last Back Issues, I singled out what I think is one of the key lines of the entire series, which appears in Brief Lives. When the 15,000-year-old Bernie Capax is crushed by a falling wall, he boasts to Death that he had a good run, and Death responds, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” A lot of the stories in Sandman are about stories themselves, and in particular what gives stories meaning. The punishments of hell are effective because of the hope of heaven. Old legends matter because they’re malleable, and adapt to different cultures and eras. And the story that matters most to all of us—our own story—gains poignancy from its finality. The clock is ticking. Before it runs out, will we say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done? Or will we just mope around our dream-castles and make it rain outside because our lovers dumped us?

As Sandman plays on, the character of Hob Gadling becomes more important than he seemed to be in the one-off issue “Men Of Good Fortune.” He’s like an augur of a kind: If Morpheus feels that something he’s about to do is dangerous enough, he pops by to see Hob, in case they never meet again. But Hob also makes for a good representative of the human side of this story of The Endless. Hob lives for centuries, but admits to Morpheus that he keeps making the same dumb mistakes over and over, and acquires wisdom only incrementally. Dream too, though he has power and knowledge beyond human imagining, is still capable of being devastated by a bad break-up. In some significant ways, humans and non-humans are a lot alike in Sandman.

Oliver, you ask why some characters in Brief Lives survive while others die, and personally, I think Gaiman is emphasizing the arbitrariness. A man can be careful for a millennium and a half and still show up at the wrong place at the wrong time, while the more reckless and malicious types can skate by unscathed. Justice isn’t what gives their stories meaning; it’s the unfairness, and the failure, that adds depth. Yet I don’t find Brief Lives or Sandman as a whole to be depressing or despairing, because as you note, Gaiman does allow his characters to change. And it’s not just Delirium and Destruction. Hob Gadling figures some things out during his long journey through life; and Dream does as well. (Heck, even I’ve changed in the years since I first read Brief Lives. For example, I don’t hate Tori Amos anymore. I’m merely neutral toward her. Can we be friends again?)

I’m fascinated by the structure of Brief Lives, which next to The Kindly Ones is the most extended single story in the entire run of Sandman—nine chapters, no interludes—and yet is also divided into individual issues in an unusual way. It lacks the cliffhanger-y narrative momentum of A Game Of You or The Kindly Ones; instead, each issue is almost self-contained, sometimes introducing characters and situations long before they come into play in the main story. There’s an unhurriedness and assuredness about Brief Lives that appeals to me, especially given the way it culminates in two of the most important issues in the series: #48, in which Dream and Delirium have dinner with Destruction; and #49, in which Morpheus kills Orpheus.

We should dig deeper into the ramifications of those concluding chapters now, though before we do, I’m curious: Which mode of Sandman do you prefer, the long-form stories or the short stories?

Oliver: As much as I enjoy Gaiman’s short stories in this title, I’m definitely a bigger fan of the longer arcs in Sandman, which showcase Gaiman’s ability to build tension and flesh out character over an extended narrative. Both of those qualities are exemplified in Brief Lives, which gives us a thrilling story full of twists while presenting the most complete portraits of the Endless in this series. Even Desire, the closest thing this book has to a consistent villain, shows some sympathy for Dream after he kills his son. I feel that Gaiman does his best work when he has room to breathe, and the side stories he tells in Brief Lives all help strengthen the idea that life is precious and fleeting, even for immortals. And that Death line you’ve now mentioned twice is one of my favorites of the series, capturing so much with just a few short sentences. 

I’ve talked at length about Dream’s pride in past Back Issues, and Brief Lives is where he’s finally broken of that. He always assumes that what he wants is the correct course of action, and like in Season Of Mists, it’s his older sister who sets him straight. After Dream abandons his quest with Delirium and sends her into a crippling depression, Death tells him that he’s projecting his own personal frustrations about his recent breakup onto his sister, who is just lonely and wants to reconnect with the person who always made her feel welcome and wanted. I like that we don’t actually learn who Dream is so worked up over (we will later); it’s not the person who matters, just the sadness after the breakup. It takes a lot for Dream to go to Delirium’s realm and admit to his sister that he was never looking for their brother, but rather his ex-lover, and it’s just one of the past mistakes he owns up to in this story. 

Before we unpack those last two huge issues, I want to talk a bit about the idea that finality is what gives stories poignancy. Some of the most memorable comics of the past 25 years have come out of Vertigo, and nearly all of those landmark books (Animal Man, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, etc.) had a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s something you don’t see much of in superhero comics, where books are kept alive until they lose readers and are cancelled. There are exceptions, of course, and also plenty of stories that tell the end of characters like Superman and Batman, but the fact that there will be a new X-Men book next month means that it’s unlikely those stories will ever reach the same heights as something like Sandman. One of the best examples of a writer achieving that poignancy in an ongoing narrative was the death of Peter Parker in Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Comics Spider-Man two years ago. Peter died doing for his Aunt May what he couldn’t do for his Uncle Ben, saving her life but giving up his own in the process. The mantle of Spider-Man was passed on, but that sense of finality gave Peter’s overall story more impact.

The dinner at Destruction’s home is one of the densest conversations in this book, telling so much about the nature of the Endless and how they relate to the world of mortals. We’ve touched on a good amount of it already, but there’s still so much to dissect. We learn that the Endless can abandon their posts, which potentially results in whatever aspect of the universe they represent becoming more chaotic, but even that isn’t a certainty. The world continues to change in spite of Destruction’s absence, except now the responsibility is in the hands of the masses instead of one main governing body. But the most telling piece of dialogue comes when Destruction defines what exactly the Endless are: 

“The Endless are merely patterns. The Endless are ideas. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs. The Endless are echoes of darkness, and nothing more. We have no right to play with their lives, to order their dreams and their desires. And even our existences are brief and bounded.” 

Destruction is more self-aware than any of his siblings, likely because of his time spent watching mortals act without his influence. He understands his role in the world, but also that his role is arbitrary, a symbol of something bigger than all of them. How do you think the conversation at Destruction’s home changes the course of this series, and what do you think it reveals about what we’ve read up to this point?

Noel: For me, it reveals that The Endless are a paradox. They will always exist, but only from the perspective of humankind, which conjures and charges them. Destruction abandoned his post, but “destruction” continues as a force (as does Destruction as its embodiment, albeit one that’s retired from the job). Sandman carries many themes and motifs through its 75-plus issues, some of which are abstractions, such as the nature of stories and storytelling, and some of which are more specific, such as Morpheus’ preoccupation with rules. But I believe that Gaiman is particularly fascinated by intersections and interrelations: the “soft places” where dreams and reality meet, and the ways mortals and immortals influence each other. When Dream dines with Destruction, he learns he has choices, just like humans do. The Kindly Ones will mostly be about Dream exercising that power of choice, but within the context of his peculiar sense of order.

I like what you have to say about Vertigo and endings; I think that’s true. I just received the last issue of Sweet Tooth in the mail, and was reminded how much that series has gained from being designed to have a finish line. Late last year, I wrote about how The Walking Dead board game has an edge over the comic book and TV series in that it ends. The choices players make in the game have conclusive consequences, which imbues those choices with real power. As I’ve been re-reading Sandman for Back Issues, I’ve been struck by how Gaiman started working toward the ending of the series early, putting notions and concepts in place that mean to do the seemingly impossible: complete a story about The Endless. He’s sly about it, and never seems to be in a hurry to force some artificial climax. Gaiman just fills the entire series with this sense that some important transition is happening right in front of us.

Personally, I prefer the Sandman short stories to the longer arcs—which is why I’ll be tackling Worlds’ End next week, with Genevieve—but I like Brief Lives a lot because of that structure I mentioned earlier, and because it’s a big meta “ahem,” reminding readers to enjoy Sandman for as long as it lasts, because it’s slipping away quickly. (I’m always dismayed when I get to the end of Brief Lives and realize that the series is almost over, with only one actual long story arc left.) But it’s a sweet “ahem,” given the events of issue #49, in which Morpheus grants his son a much-longed-for death—ending an ancient story at last—and then returns to his realm a changed man, with more of a sense of sentimentality.

I have a little more I want to say about that, and about how the humans and The Endless relate to each other, but I wanted to ask you what you thought about how Orpheus’ death plays out. This whole storyline seems to be about the search for Destruction, until we find out that it’s really been heading toward Orpheus (who appears in an earlier Brief Lives chapter, seemingly incongruously at the time). And then… it’s just over. In a snap. And we’re on to something else. Personally, I find the suddenness of Orpheus’ demise poetic and germane. Do you agree?

Oliver: I absolutely agree, largely because I think the relationship between Dream and his son is one of the most interesting of the series. And poetic is such a perfect word to describe that final scene between the two men, especially with Thompson’s artwork. The silent page where Dream finally kills Orpheus is pure visual poetry, evoking an incredible amount of emotion in five still images. The first panel of Dream and Orpheus in silhouette, the father sticking his hand through his son’s disembodied head while flowers bloom in the foreground is a beautiful juxtaposition of life and death, transitioning into the image of Death’s signature ankh, glistening despite being surrounded by blackness. It’s notable that there’s no blood on Orpheus after his father kills him, but Dream’s hand is soaked in red. Orpheus is beautiful and clean, even in death, and it’s only when Dream shuts his son’s eyes with his bloody hand that Orpheus’ pure face becomes soiled. There’s so much sadness in the final panel of Dream leaning against the wall, light shining into the room behind him to suggest that this is a necessary course of action in order for both father and son to move on. 

One last comment about the artwork in that scene: On the next page, there’s a single image of Dream standing in the grass outside the temple that is split into six panels, which is just a stunning use of the comic-book medium to present a coda to Orpheus’ death scene. Scott McCloud talks at length about the use of panel gutters to depict the passage of time, and that six-panel sequence shows some masterful use of that technique, extending what could have been a simple evocative image into an entire mini-story. It begins by focusing on Dream’s body and specifically his bloody hand, then shows his cloak blowing in the wind, creating a sense of motion that carries Orpheus’ blood through the air to the ground behind Morpheus. Once the blood hits the ground, it blossoms into a new breed of flower, which grows at an accelerated rate over the final two panels, and those flowers will grow all around Dream for the rest of the sequence. Again: visual poetry.

You mention the “soft places” where dreams and reality meet, and I find it intriguing that ultimately Dream’s role in the universe is to define reality through his fictions. Merv Pumpkinhead has a great line when Dream returns to the Dreaming after killing his son: “Real life. That’s what guys like him never have to face up to. Real life.” Brief Lives is when Dream finally does have to face the reality of his situation, and the page after he washes his son’s blood off his hands and collapses in his throne is one of the most heartbreaking of the series. His throne room is stripped of the opulence that we previously saw at the start #46, now an empty white room that perfectly reflects the emotional exhaustion of the title character. 

Before you dive back into the Endless’ relationship with humankind, I wanted to know what your feelings are toward Thompson’s artwork. Like you mentioned before, this arc has no interlude, meaning that we didn’t get a guest artist halfway through. Gaiman chooses artists to fit the tone of his story; why do you think he chose Thompson for Brief Lives?

Noel: Thompson has the skill set to combine realism and whimsy, which is necessary for a story in which one of the major players is capable of “making little frogs.” (How did we get this far down in the conversation and not mention one of Brief Lives’ most memorable lines?) I’ve expressed qualms in the past about some of the art in Sandman, but I tend to think of Thompson as one of the defining artists in the series, even though she didn’t come on board until issue #40. If I had to rank my favorite Sandman artists, I’d put her third, right behind Charles Vess and Michael Zulli, and just ahead of Shawn McManus and the often (and unfairly) maligned Marc Hempel.

I don’t think I’d want anyone other than Thompson drawing Brief Lives, though. Her fusion of the fanciful and the mundane fits this story about humans who aspire to immortality and immortals who behave like humans. One of the things I love most about Sandman is that Gaiman has created this universe of gods and super-beings, and has made it plausible by considering how and why The Endless and the fairies and all of those other weird creatures came into existence. In short: Humans made them. They may act independently, but they’re here because of us—whether it’s to serve us or to mess us up or to provide us with fodder for instructive tales. (The latter will be a major theme of Worlds’ End next week.)

Given that, why should we expect Dream to behave any more nobly than he does? Or for Delight not to sour into Delirium? Or Destiny to know where all the paths in his garden will lead? The Endless are of us. And just as we are weak and small and not long for this world, so are they.

Next week: Noel Murray and Genevieve Koski follow the series to a bar at the notional end of the world, for the collection of independent stories that make up Worlds’ End.

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