1 September 2013

Brief Lives

The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection, including death and nudity. Just so you know.

Andros, an old Greek, is guardian of the miracle, his family have been guardian-priests for millennia. Their charge is the severed head of Orpheus. Delirium sits in a doorway with an old homeless woman. She decides she misses her lost brother and wanders into a fetish club. She thinks she sees Death, gets upset when she realises her mistake and makes a scene. Desire arrives and takes her back to its realm. Delirium wants to find their missing brother, Desire refuses to help. Delirium visit's Despair's grey realm and asks for her help, but Despair also refuses, Delirium thinks its because she doesn't want to upset Desire. Delirium leaves with the intention of asking Dream next. Despair remembers when she was last alone with Destruction, during a plague. He was nice to her and kissed her cheek, no one else does. Next time she saw him he was leaving. Desire contacts Despair, worried about what Delirium is doing and that their elder siblings will get involved. Despair doesn't answer. This is the first time we see Desire worry about family.

Dream's lady has left him, he stands in the rain for weeks while the inhabitants of the Dreaming get wet. Merv Pumpkinhead complains about his boss's melodramatic nature and the work it causes. Nuala is sad, Lucien is resigned and Matthew tries to get a reaction from his boss but fails. Delirium's arrival interrupts the rainy moping, being a good host Dream offers her food. She works up the courage to ask him to help find their brother, though Dream's cold manner upsetting her in the process. Dream speaks to Desire, wary of a trap, but Desire swears it had nothing to do with Delirium's idea. Delirium remembers that once she realised she was changing she was no longer Delight, and she stood with Destruction until she managed to stop giggling. Dream surprisingly agrees to go travelling with his youngest sister. He tells Lucien it is just a harmless diversion with no meaning and no chance of success.

Bernie Capax, mostly a lawyer, is remembering the smell of mammoths when he is killed by a falling wall. He's disappointed but reckons 15,000 years is pretty good, Death tells him he got the same as everyone, a lifetime. Dream and Delirium visit a travel agent in Dublin where they freak out a receptionist until they can see Pharamond, a god Dream knew millennia ago, who now oversees transportation. Delirium has a list of Destruction's old friends they can visit. Etain makes her morning coffee and before she knows what's happening she dives out of her window and jumps off the fire escape, as her apartment explodes behind her. Destruction paints a landscape, and is criticised by his talking dog companion, Barnabas. A pool in his back room bubbles, signalling trouble. Dream and Delirium are on a trans-Atlantic flight. Dream tells a little girl true things about getting lost in dreams. At the airport they meet Ruby, who is to guide them and takes them out of the airport without passing any checks and chauffeurs them in a classic car.

In the arctic circle the Alderman discovers a death is coming for him. He turns into a bear and chews off his shadow, forcing it to take his place. In suburban US Dream and Delirium go to the home of the lawyer, Bernie Capax, to discover he died yesterday. His son is freaking out because he found weapons, drugs, bullion and blank passports in his dull father's basement office. Ruby insists they stop at a motel. Delirium traces the people on her list: the lawyer is dead, Etain has gone elsewhere, as has the Alderman, she finds the Dancing Lady and briefly inhabits her friend Tiffany. We learn more about Ruby, who is a devoted Catholic, aspires to be super rich, and is a virgin because she doesn't want to have sex until she's married. Dream checks on the Dreaming, then remembers a meeting with his brother. It was the seventeenth century and Dream took the Corinthian to the waking world, Destruction showed them a natural philosopher dissecting an ape. Destruction was concerned about the theories of a man called Newton, humans were starting to use reason as a tool, and he'd seen where this goes many times before on many worlds. His time will come with explosions and flames. He tries to talk to his brother about what he's thinking, but Dream doesn't seem to understand. The memory is interrupted by a firefighter trying to get an unconcerned Dream to move out of the motel fire, which started in Ruby's room. Dream suspects Ruby's death is no accident considering the trouble they had with the lawyer.

Delirium drives disastrously, a cop stops them and she punishes him with imaginary bugs. Strippers Ishtar and Tiffany talk about life and men as Ishtar helps Tiffany get ready for work. Dream asks Matthew to give Delirium driving instruction. Ishtar and fellow-stripper Nancy tell Tiffany about ancient Middle East temple prostitution, it's clear Ishtar is the original goddess. Dream, Delirium and Matthew go to the strip club (called Suffragette City). Dream talks to Ishtar, who was Destruction's lover. Dream never approved of her and both are cold, though Dream warns Ishtar of danger coming her way. After they've left Ishtar dances her final dance, a powerful dance she hasn't danced in millennia. Tiffany runs naked into the night as Ishtar's power blows up the club in a combination of lust and destruction. Desire stands outside, reveals how much Ishtar loved Destruction, and gives the confused and frightened Tiffany a coat.

Destruction writes a poem. Dream announces their search is over and leaves, Delirium unhappily returns to her realm. Dream locks himself in his throne room, creates a desert, visits Bast in her dreams and asks where his brother is. Bast admits she was lying in Season of Mists and suggests he uses an oracle. Merv Pumpkinhead again tells Lucien about their boss being flaky, Dream overhears this and Mervyn goes quiet. Lucien points out that Delirium's picture in the gallery has gone black. Dream calls Death, who ignores him to talk to Lucien about getting a book. Lucien is dismissed by his master, and Death tells Dream she's angry at him because he's upset Delirium. Death more or less orders Dream to go and talk to her. Dream goes to Delirium's multi-coloured, chaotic realm. He finds his sister, apologises and patches things up with her by agreeing to resume their quest properly.

Destruction prepares to cook a fine meal. Using a fairground maze Dream and Delirium go to Destiny's realm. Delirium sees an old image of herself as Delight, Destiny greets them and tells them to give up and go home. Destiny tells Dream that he needs an oracle. Dream says that no oracle can tell of their family, but Destiny points out that Dream has already thought of one who is family. Dream falls apart and Delirium becomes coherent enough to tell Destiny that she knows things that aren't in his book. She encourages Dream to keep going, because it hurts for her to hold herself together. After they leave Destiny flips through his book visiting scenes from other times: when Destruction left and how each sibling reacted; Dream's triumph and exhaustion just before he was captured; when Death spent a day as a human; the bloodied, trembling Corinthian is spoken to by the Dream King, clad all in white. Dream and Delirium arrive at a Greek island, and confront the human guardians of Orpheus, who let them pass. Delirium eats cherries while Dream speaks to his son. They are taken by boat to the neighbouring island where Destruction lives. He's been expecting them and invites them in for food.

Over dinner, which no one really eats, Delirium recounts their journey and Destruction asks after the rest of the family. We learn that Despair is an aspect that reassumed the position after the original had been destroyed, it was the first time that had happened. Destruction says that's partly why he left, he didn't want to leave another version of himself in the same mess. Destruction reveals that the danger that followed their quest was set up by him before he left to stop anyone finding him. Dream asks Destruction how he could leave, and Destruction points out that his leaving hasn't stopped destruction from happening. Outside under the stars they talk and Destruction tells of a conversation he had with Death on another world, she said that everyone knows everything but just tells themselves that they don't. Destruction says that he won't come back as Delirium hoped and packs up his sigil (a sword) and his scrying pool. He leaves Barnabas to stay with Delirium, says goodbye to everyone and walks up into the stars. Dream announces he must kill his son.

Orpheus looks towards his uncle's house and sees a shooting star going up into the night. By morning his father and aunt return, Delirium pops in briefly. Orpheus and his father talk, Orpheus thinks his father has changed, but Dream doubts it. Orpheus is scared, but he has wanted death for a long time and asks his father to help him die. Dream kills him. Where Orpheus's blood falls from Dream's hands red flowers grow. Despair turns up and regrets that she didn't come and see Destruction. Dream leaves, Delirium leaves and Despair takes one of the new flowers to her realm. There the twins discuss what has happened, Desire should be happy that Dream spilled family blood, though it didn't cause it, but in fact both Desire and Despair are scared. Dream returns to the Dreaming, makes plans to tie up loose ends from the journey and retires to his rooms. He washes his son's blood of his hands. Andros buries Orpheus's head as instructed.

There are various echoes within the collection - situations, scenes and dialogue that reflect each other or provide contrast.
The collection starts and ends with Andros. He climbs the stone steps that have been worn down by generations of his family, and he leaves a flower at the grave of Johanna Constantine, we are told this has been done for generations, though there is no pile of flowers. Towards the end Dream leaves a flower on her grave too. At the very end Andros buries his charge, his task is done, the routine finished, and he knows he will not live much longer.
Dream meets little Chloe Russel on a plane. Later Bast receives a prayer from a young female whose cat has been hit by a car. Towards the end we learn that Chloe has been given a new kitten by her mother's current boyfriend, who ran over her previous cat, an old stray.
Towards the beginning Delirium gets into fetish club by telling the bouncer that she has an invitation and she is dressed correctly. Later Dream gets himself, Delirium and Matthew (a raven) into the strip club by telling the bouncer that they are correctly attired, male humans. Delirium actually points out that "I did that. What you just did. I did that in the beginning." A wonderfully meta/self-referential moment, that is included without particular emphasis and works the better that it seems to be a throwaway line. Of course a lot of Delirium's dialogue seems to be random or nonsensical, but has greater meaning.
When Dream remembers meeting Destruction in the 17th century he harshly punished a pickpocket, causing Destruction to suggest his actions were unnecessary. When Delirium harshly punishes the cop that pulled her over Dream comments that her actions are unnecessary, but Delirium is able to counter that he has done worse many times. Destruction points out that Dream's feelings of responsibility for Ruby's death are very different to his previous attitude towards humans, though Dream of course will not acknowledge this. Just as he later refuses to acknowledge Orpheus's observation that he has changed, even though he is now doing something he swore he would not do.
Former-stripper Tiffany (now with glasses and pearls) goes on a talk show to describe her narrow escape from her life of sin. When they were talking at the strip club Nancy described her plan to write a book about her experience as a stripper and go on TV, of course she never got the chance to.

You Can't Live Their Lives For Them
Ishtar thinks this about Tiffany as she worries about her. She compares worrying about humans with falling in love with a kitten: "one day you'll have to put an old cat to sleep." Considering Dream later meets with Bast in dreams, and the cat goddess is feeling her age in waking, I suspect this is another line that is not the idle thought it first seems.
Destiny tells his younger brother Dream that he would live his life for him if he could, after Dream doesn't listen to his advice about abandoning the quest.
After killing his son a shaken Dream tells Delirium "If I could have... lived his life for him... what then?" Dream also points out that Orpheus died a long time ago, when his body was destroyed, and Despair makes her entrance by commenting that he died earlier, and suggesting different points in Orpheus's story.It is probably no coincidence that Despair appears just after her brother has killed his son.

Old Gods
Pharamond (now called Farrell) was losing worship when he spoke with Dream in Babylon -which Babylonian period isn't specified, but it's likely to be pretty ancient. Dream advised him to diversify (to change, in fact) and that's how he's survived and thrived over the millennia. I don't actually know which god he's supposed to be, maybe that's a mystery, though if anyone knows do tell me.
Ishtar is probably from a similar Middle Eastern pantheon/period as Pharamond. She has adapted with the times in a small way, and survives but little more. Where Farrell is really rich she ekes out an existence in the modern equivalent of the niche she used to fill.
Bast hasn't changed with the times, of course having a cat head would make it difficult for her to live the life of a mortal. The dream version of her is healthy and more sensual than the thin, weakened cat goddess who wakes. She compares the time when worship was plentiful with what is now a time of famine for her.
Ishtar states that gods start in dreams, step into the waking world drawing worship and power, until the worshipers are gone and they return to dreams for their final journey into the unknown. I suppose that might mean that Dream is their equivalent of Death, though it clearly doesn't work in quite the same way. Perhaps this is how Dream is able to grant death to Orpheus after Death said she wouldn't take him, because by then Orpheus, as a legendary story, is more of a myth or dream than a living being.

It's interesting to see the ways the Endless react to each other, a family of disparate entities who are nonetheless siblings. Delirium describes Dream as scary and stuffy to the twins, and at first she finds him intimidating. She's convinced he's making fun of her and has bought in to the air of superiority he projects. Dream seems to find Delirium confusing and a bit trying, but as they travel his affection for her grows and he concedes, in his formal way, that he does like her. When Dream breaks downs, Delirium pulls herself together enough to face Destiny and get him back on his feet. Death talks to Dream about Delirium as though she's a messed up kid (which I guess she is by their standards). Death is concerned for her youngest sister, wary of what she's been through already and determined that she doesn't leave as Destruction did.
Desire's acerbic attitude drops when it speaks to Despair. Despite the uncaring facade Desire is worried about the family, and seems to have an understanding of the problems that come from seeking Destruction. Despair also knows about this too, but was tempted all the same due to her fondness for her lost brother. We learn that Despair was destroyed before though, and Delirium suggests she's under Desire's thumb. Towards the end Desire describes why it dislikes Dream, but rather than being happy or triumphant about how things turned out it feels sorry for him. Both twins are scared about what comes next.
The brief scene between Death and Dream is great. With Death initially giving her brother the silent treatment, then making him fix things with Delirium. As in Season of Mists, it seems that Death is probably the only one who can get past Dream's pride and tell him how it really it.
Destruction has some affection for his family (especially his younger sisters), but couldn't stand the position he was in being one of them. He tries to tell Dream things, but understands that his brother's nature won't allow him to listen to certain truths. Destruction reminds Dream that he left of his own will, and though it was hard it did not create major problems for the universe. Destruction can see the cage of responsibilities Dream has constructed around himself and suggests a possible escape, though it has clearly always been hard to get his brother to listen. Its cool that Destruction seems to spend most of his time creating things, even if he's not that good at it.

Jill Thompson is penciller for the entire collection and the art doesn't vary much, giving a strong sense of a continuous narrative. There are a lot of people in this collection and they are drawn well with a sense of keen observation and understanding. While there are supernatural entities, and historical folk, what you mostly see is a diverse range of modern humans, in different situations. Some have few or no lines, some are there for short scenes, but there's none that look unrealistic. They all look like people you might meet, reacting and emoting in ways that people do, and when Thompson gets the chance to focus on a character you see some great nuances in the art.

Dream's appearance remains reasonably stable, perhaps to compare to Delirium's changing hair and outfits. Destruction and Despair do not change much either, but the latter usually looks the same, especially as she doesn't wear clothes, and the former is no longer an embodiment of anything. As well as seeing Delirium's changing look, we also see a couple of images of her as Delight, emphasising the change she went through.

 On the top row: Delirium at different stages of the quest.
Bottom left: Delight becomes Delirium. Bottom right: Dream and Delirium see an image of Delight.

The scenes inside Suffragette City, the strip club are drawn differently. The colours are different and the panels seem to have more black than white, though my knowledge of art isn't great so I couldn't tell you how that's done. It creates a real contrast between that location and everywhere else we see.
Nancy, Ishtar & Tiffany outside Suffragette City
Tiffany, Ishtar & Nancy inside Suffragette City

Delirium's realm was written to be surreal, and certainly looks the part. If you though the Dreaming was weird then you ain't seen nothing. Bright colours, random patterns combined with text invoking nonsensical images in your mind.

I noticed that when Delirium is blowing bubbles in the motel, one of them is shaped like Totoro (from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbour Totoro). I didn't notice before as I don't think I'd seen the film last time I read this.

  • Merv Pumpkinhead - a builder/maintenance guy in the Dreaming, a  regular Joe who tells it like it is, unless the boss is listening
  • Barnabas - Destruction's talking canine companion, who is wonderfully sarcastic
Destruction was technically introduced in Fables & Reflections, though we didn't get his Endless name until now.

Some looking forward and backward in the foreshadowing under the cut.

Next Week: Worlds' End
Last Week: Fables & Reflections

Change (destruction) and death are mentioned a lot in this collection and are major themes in the overarching story. There's also some discussion of the nature of the Endless. Despair was destroyed and a new version reassumed the role. Delight became Delirium, though that change was not of her choosing. Destruction deliberately left his role and responsibility, without upsetting the universe. Dream has witnessed all these events, and yet his capacity for change, or to acknowledge change, remains limited. When Delirium comments that she didn't know you can stop being a god Dream responds "You can stop being anything." However he's not one to take his own advice.

By killing Orpheus Dream has spilled family blood, which Desire tried to trick him into doing in the Doll's House. In Fables & Reflections Desire states this will bring the kindly ones down on his head, which is precisely what happens in the collection of the same name. Dream has, literally, sought Destruction and it's only a matter of time before that affects him as it did the others that lost their lives as a result of that quest.

Destiny's book goes backwards, then forwards and we see our first picture of the next Dream, albeit from behind. The reappearance of the Corinthian presages other events in The Kindly Ones. Of course the blood on the throne is far enough in the future that we will not see it, intriguing though it is.

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