22 August 2013

Fables and Reflections

Fear of Falling
Illustrator: Kent Williams, Colorist: Sherilyn van Valkenburgh
Todd Faber's play 'Typhoid Mary Blues' is about to open off-Broadway. In a fit of nerves he tells one of the actors that he's closing it down. He dreams of climbing a peak and meeting a pale man at the top. He tells the stranger about a terrifying dream he had as a kid where he fell off a roof, was certain he would die, then lay stuck in his sleeping body. A talking raven accuses him of running away. Todd explains that he's scared of doing something stupid. The stranger says that not climbing will mean not falling, but falling (failing) isn't so bad. Todd shows up to rehearsals next day and carries on. He explains that he's not quitting because of his dream.
"Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes when you fall, you fly."

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 murders (some of which are bloody). Just so you know.
Fables and Reflections collects standalone Sandman stories. Most were issues in the main Sandman run, though the short 'Fear of Falling' appeared in Vertigo Preview no 1 and the long 'Orpheus' was the first Sandman Special. Three issues appeared before A Game of You, three appeared after it and Ramadan came out after Brief Lives, however within this collection they are printed out of order.
Reading the stories in a different order to their first appearance does change the impact of some of them. I figure that as this is my reread I'll go through them in the order that they're available to me. I was going to say I'd go through them in the order I read them, but based on my first reading that would mean starting with Dream Country and leaving Preludes & Nocturnes until 5th, which doesn't make much sense.

Three Septembers and a January (The Sandman no. 31)
Illustrator: Shawn McManus
September 1859: Failed businessman Joshua Norton contemplates suicide. Despair summons Dream and challenges him to keep Joshua away from her, Desire and Delirium until Death comes for him. Dream agrees, though Death later points out that the elder three don't play games. Dream gives Joshua a dream and he declares himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States of America.
September 1864: Norton I tells Samuel Clemens (who wrote fiction as Mark Twain) that he may be poor and people may laugh at him and think him mad, but it doesn't stop him from being Emperor. Delirium tells Dream that Norton should be hers, but isn't because "his madness keeps him sane". Dream points out that he's not the only one.
September 1875: Tourists treat Norton I as a novelty. Norton meets with the King of Pain, the ghost of a travelling salesman. Pain offers Norton a beautiful Empress, all he has to do is want her. Pain's patter and vulgarity offends Norton's dignity and he angrily refuses. Desire chastises Pain for failing and Dream points out that using a dead man was unsubtle. Angered, Desire resolves to be subtle next time and swears to make Dream spill family blood, bringing the kindly ones down on him.
January 1880: Joshua Norton, first Emperor of the United States of America, dies in the rain. Despair concedes that Dream has won, but doesn't acknowledge that there was a lesson to learn. Death comes for Joshua and says that he's her favourite leader.

Norton I was a real person who lived in San Francisco. I like the way little-known history is used as a basis for this story. It's interesting that Despair goads Dream into her challenge by mentioning their brother who left the family. I suspect that the older three refusing to play games like/with the younger three is a cause of tension, and the missing brother would be in the middle of that. I especially like the end when Norton talks to Death and Death takes his plumed top hat. She's right, it is a great hat. It may be a bit of a trope for alternative girls to like top hats (did it start here?) but that doesn't mean it's not great. Though while I was in uni I decided that ladies in bowlers had better comic potential.
"I am content to be what I am. What more than that could any man desire?"

Thermidor (The Sandman no. 29)
Illustrators: Stan Woch & Dick Giordano
Lady Johanna Constantine (first seen in The Doll's House) is visited by Dream, who has a task for her. In Paris it's the second year of the Revolution, a time of terror and beheading. In disguise, Johanna carries the still-living, severed head of Orpheus, he needs to be hidden until they can escape France. To find Orpheus she slept with St. Just (a leading figure in the Revolutionary government), who takes her to a prison in an old palace. While imprisoned she meets Robespierre, the despotic idealist running France. He knows who she is and lists her past exploits, including theft and cross-dressing. Robespierre wants to destroy Orpheus's head in his quest to create an age of pure reason. In her sleep Johanna tells Dream she needs help. He can't get involved directly but his raven, Jessamy, has an idea. Robespierre takes Johanna to a store of severed heads from the executions, he dreamed it was the perfect hiding place. Johanna takes Orpheus's head from the pile and covers her ears. Orpheus sings, and the heads around him join in. The song leaves Robespierre motionless, Johanna and Orpheus flee. Robespierre loses his eloquence, his faction is deposed and he is beheaded. Johanna takes Orpheus to a Greek island and they say farewell.

Johanna may not be the most likeable character, but she's basically a Regency James Bond, which is pretty cool. There are sections from her private journals, which make clear how driven and ruthless she can be. She has no problem using male lust for her own purposes, and is adept at disguise and espionage. She has clearly had a very interesting life, full of danger and adventure. Though she and Orpheus are not together that long they are friendly and it is in her scenes with him that we see Johanna's humour.
There is some expounding on the nature of the Revolution, it is a bloody time and while St. Just represents an opportunist it is Robespierre who is dangerous for his fervent belief that what he's doing is right. As well as Johanna expressing her opinions about what's happening there's an interesting scene between St. Just and an American Revolutionary who has been imprisoned. The American describes the French Revolution as a reign of terror, and it's leaders as tyrants, he claims his rousing words have been perverted. It's a neat reminder that revolutions can go different ways.
"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly."

The Hunt (The Sandman no. 38)
Illustrators: Duncan Eagleson & Vince Locke
An old man tells his granddaughter a story of the old country and the People, though she wants to watch TV. He tells of Vassily, a young man of the People who lived in the forest with his father. After meeting an old peddler woman, Vassily sets off to find the beautiful daughter of the Duke. On the way he deals with a murderous innkeeper and meets a librarian (Lucien) who wants a missing book back. The book has come into Vassily's possession and though Lucien offers him gold the young man just wants the Duke's daughter. The granddaughter interrupts, skeptical about the story. Vassily hunts a deer, but it's killed by a young woman. He goes to her camp where he meets Baba Yaga and trades an emerald heart for a trip to the Duke's palace. Vassily is thrown in a cell and Lucien reappears to bargain, but Vassily doesn't change his price. Lucien quietly takes Vassily into the Dreaming, but Dream discovers them and Lucien admits to losing a book. Dream gets the book and takes Vassily to see the Duke's daughter. Vassily looks at her, then leaves and has a feast at Dream's castle before waking up in the forest. Vassily finds the girl who killed the deer, a werewolf like him, and they get married. The granddaughter is angry, thinking the story is a comment on her boyfriend, who isn't one of the People. As he leaves the room her grandfather reveals that he's Vassily.

The interaction between grandfather and granddaughter is a great framing device for the story, providing juxtaposition of the modern and folkloric, the way generations despair at each other. The tale of Vassily is full of odd details, some are traditional folk story fare, some are just strange. The granddaughter questions, comments on and objects to some of them,, highlighting much that sounds odd to modern ears. Of course there are a lot of details that are left out, and the things that she doesn't question give you clues to the nature of the People. The werewolf reveal doesn't come into near the end, but by then you should know what Vassily is as words and art (and especially the cover) are full of clues. It's not explicitly stated but Vassily's father probably kills the peddler woman, and Vassily eats the innkeeper who tried to kill and rob him. The grandfather gets increasingly fierce as he's interrupted, though it's not clear how serious he's being. He claims to be over 400 years old, which makes sense as he's Vassily, and his granddaughter doesn't question that. The girl's look of surprise at the end when she realises the story was true is wonderful. The story leaves you with questions about what life is like for this modern girl who is, presumably, a werewolf, but that's not what the tale is about.
"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

August (The Sandman no. 30)
Illustrators: Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch
Augustus, heir of Julius Caesar and first Emperor of Rome, summons the dwarf Lycius. Lycius is a young nobleman and actor, the only noble allowed on the stage. Augustus is old and fearsome, he has bought peace and prosperity to Rome, but is ruthless in doing so. Augustus dislikes actors but needs Lycius's skills. They disguise themselves as beggars and sit in the marketplace. They talk of many things, much of which makes Lycius uncomfortable. There are sections, which are clearly not part of Lycius's account, showing that Augustus is haunted by something that happened when he was young. He has regular nightmares and keeps a storyteller by his room at all times. Augustus and Lycius talk of the divine Julius, who is now a god. Augustus describes how much he respected his predecessor/great-uncle/adoptive father, but he also hated him. Augustus says that the prophecies show two futures: in one Rome fails after a few centuries and sputters out, in the other Rome keeps conquering until the Empire covers the world and lasts for millennia. In answer to why they are there Augustus describes a dream. He was visited by a powerful being he initially thought was Apollo, but turned out to be someone more powerful than the gods, who knew all about his nightmares. Augustus knows he is watched by the gods of Rome, including Julius Caesar. Dream advises that one day each year he should be a beggar and then he can think unobserved. The reader learns that Julius Caesar raped the young Augustus and told him of his plans while he did. Lycius writes his journal as an old man, Augustus is dead and a god now, he and Lycius never spoke again though the Emperor returned to the marketplace each year. Lycius wonders about Augustus setting the limits of the Empire and forbidding further conquest. He also wonders about the next 4 Emperors, who were weak, foolish, mad or all three. Mostly he wonders why Augustus couldn't sleep.

I was doing an Ancient History degree when I first read this, so I found it very interesting. There's a fair bit of exposition about Augustus and Rome, which is handled well in the form of conversation, details are woven in well, blurring the lines between history and fiction (though with ancient history so much of what we know is based on stories anyway). The visuals tell their own small tales around the talking, as we watch the people walking past the seated figures. Someone steps in dung, someone urinates on the wall, people talk and they trade slaves and geese and fruit. As in the Hunt there is a sense of generations meeting, of two people discussing the world as it was and as it is. The period of time is shorter here and this is much less comforting; not only is there no familial affection, the changes are largely a result of Augustus's actions and so the white marble facade of the present is peeled back to see the grubby deeds that lie beneath. The idea that Augustus built the Empire and then purposefully ensured it would not flourish, just to spite his abuser is fascinating, and probably open to interpretation. The reveal about Julius Ceasar is foreshadowed well, a sense of something very wrong is built throughout. To a modern audience it is shocking, though part of me wonders about the Roman context, in which sexuality was understood very differently. I'm happy that I am writing and posting this in the month of August.
"You named this month after you... That will not last. In another decade this month will probably be called Tiberius..."

Soft Places (The Sandman no. 39)
Illustrator: John Watkiss
1273: Marco can't find his father's caravan in a sandstorm. He passes out and when he wakes he hears strange voices. A strange man calls to Marco. He was in a prison in Genoa, and was calling for his cellmate. When young Marco says that they are in the Desert of Lop the man recites an account of it from memory and introduces himself as Rustichello of Pisa. He says he's writing down the travels of his friend Marco Polo, young Marco says that's his name. Both decide that they're dreaming, though Marco is less confident. They meet a fat man with a campfire (Gilbert/Fiddlers Green from The Doll's House) who offers them wine. He's trying to get away from his master, who is besotted with a lady. Marco talks about his father travelling far east to the court of Kubilai Khan by accident and taking Marco with him on a second journey. Rustichello says that's already happened, he's been writing it down. They are interrupted by horsemen, who are searching for a way out of the desert, either to their own lands and times, or else to death, Gilbert can't help them. Gilbert explains that soft places are where the Dreaming overlaps with real space, and time is flexible there. Explorers like Marco mean the number of soft places has reduced a lot by Gilbert's time. Gilbert and Rustichello leave, Marco encounters a pale stranger who is clearly suffering. He gives him the last of his water and asks if he's the lord of the place, Dream confirms that he is and he's just escaped from captivity. Marco asks for help getting back and Dream is reluctant but knows what it is to feel trapped and uses his little remaining power to send Marco back to his father's caravan.

This story plays with timelines in clever ways. We are given the thirteenth century date at the start, and yet the voices Marco hears are snatches of modern songs and strange sayings clearly from different times. Young Marco encounters a man from his future and hears an account of travels he will one day make, recited from memory. This includes a description of crossing the desert he is currently stuck in, with reference to things that will happen later within this story. Rustichello recites future-Marco's rough account of the horsemen they will soon encounter. Then there's Gilbert, who is from 1992, and explains that there are very few soft places left in his present. It turns out that men like Marco, the explorers and cartographers, are partly to blame for the reduction as they "froze the world in rigid patterns". Marco encounters Dream, just escaped from captivity, from a different point in the chronology of the Sandman series. Marco realises that he is the lord of the place and repeats what he was told about him walking with his woman. Dream, preoccupied by exhaustion and better able to process this kind of thing, remarks that it isn't in important as its from a different time.
This the first time that Dream's mystery woman is mentioned, though there are no clues to her identity. We get a brief description of Dream being happy in a relationship, albeit from the viewpoint of an embarrassed third party.
"Any view of things that is not strange is false."

Illustrators: Bryan Talbot & Mark Buckingham
Chapter 1: It's Orpheus's wedding day and he prepares with his satyr friend Aristaeus. At the wedding areOrpheus's mother, Calliope, his father, Oneiros, and his six aunts and uncles, whom he introduces to his bride Eurydice by their Ancient Greek names. At the feast Aristaeus takes Eurydice aside, while Orpheus is playing his lyre, and tries to rape her. Eurydice runs, is bitten by a snake and dies.
Chapter 2: Orpheus watches Eurydice's funeral pyre. He visits his father for help getting her back, but Dream won't get involved so Orpheus disowns him. Orpheus considers suicide and is interrupted by his uncle Olethros, who says that he should talk to his Aunt Teleute, and sends him to her house. Death lives in a modern flat, which is strange to Orpheus's Ancient Greek eyes. She tries to dissuade him, but agrees not to take him so he can retrieve his wife from the underworld.
Chapter 3: Orpheus travels to the underworld. He pays the ferryman and soothes the three-headed dog with his music. Hades and Persephone sit on giant thrones surrounded by their dead subjects. He plays for them, disturbing the order of Hades' realm, he also makes the Furies cry. Hades says Orpheus can have Eurydice back, as long as he returns to the living lands without looking at her. He nearly makes it, but convinced that he's been duped he looks back and Eurydice disappears.
Chapter 4: Orpheus plays for animals in the wilderness. Calliope tells him she's left his father and warns him to leave because the Bacchante, the sisters of frenzy, are coming. He doesn't care and tells her to leave. The Bacchante arrive, soaked in wine and blood and don't listen to Orpheus's refusals. The rip him to pieces and do gross stuff with his body. His head is thrown in a river and floats out to sea, calling Eurydice's name.
Epilogue: On a beach Orpheus sees his father. Dream comes to say goodbye, and has arranged for priests on the island to care for Orpheus. Orpheus tearfully begs his father to help him die, but Dream throws his son's angry words back at him. Dream walks away without looking back.

Here the myth of Orpheus is rewritten to fit into the Sandman cannon, which works pretty well. We already knew from Dream Country that Orpheus was Calliope and Dream's son and that he lost his love. Dream refers to Calliope as his wife (though not his queen), which is an interesting detail. We know from 'Thermidor' that Orpheus is a severed head and Johanna mentions that his head was ripped off by the women of frenzy using their bare hands. Knowing what happens in advance doesn't reduce the impact of the scenes, especially the gory Bacchante images. There were surprises for those like myself who already know the myth, for example Aristaeus, who seemed so nice at first. 
It's interesting to see the Ancient Greek versions of the Endless, and this is the first time that we see the prodigal brother. Orpheus isn't suspicious that Death is the only one from his father's side that stays at the wedding, though she's clearly sad about what she has to do. The interaction between Orpheus and Olethros (whose other name/function is not used) gives an insight into the prodigal, who seems upbeat and expansive unlike most of the siblings (except Death). We see some of the siblings talk about each other, Olethros observes that Orpheus gets his stubbornness and romanticism from his father. When Orpheus tells Death that Olethros sent him she's obviously annoyed and says his uncle has a big mouth.
"Herakles... got dead drunk for a couple of weeks in Phrygia and told everyone he'd been to the Land of the Dead."

The Parliament of Rooks (The Sandman no. 40)
Illustrators: Jill Thompson & Vince Locke
Lyta Hall puts her son Daniel down for nap, then phones her friend Carla for much needed adult conversation. Daniel dreams that he walks to another place where he encounters Gregory, Cain's big green gargoyle. Daniel meets Matthew and Eve, who take Daniel to Abel's house. Abel offers refreshments, but Cain crashes the party and suggests that they tell stories. Daniel, like any toddler, is more interested in exploring and playing with things. Cain tells a mystery about the parliament of rooks. Rooks gather en masse in fields and listen to one rook cawing in the middle, then they'll either take flight or else the group will kill the lone one. No one knows why. Eve tells of the three wives of Adam. First there was Lilith, who was joined to Adam and when they were separated she tried to be superior. She was expelled from Eden and had many children with demons. God created a second wife for Adam, she was created in front of Adam and because he'd seen all the stuff inside her he wouldn't go near her. She was never named and was either destroyed or left the garden. Then God put Adam to sleep and used a rib to create Eve. After Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden Eve lived to be older than any woman. Abel isn't sure what story to tell Daniel, so he tells a very cute version of his own story. After Cain murdered Abel Death tried to take him, but Dream offered him a place in his realm. Abel told Dream he was lonely and so Dream invited Cain to his realm too. Angered by the cutesy version of the story, Cain sends everyone away. As the guests leave Abel tells them the answer to Cain's mystery, the lone rook is telling a story, then it finds out if the other rooks liked it. Cain is furious about this and murders Abel. Lyta wakes Daniel and is confused to find a black feather in his crib.

This story is full of interesting little details that give you tantalising glimpses the wider (vast) Sandman universe. Matthew is surprised to see Eve away from her cave and comments on all the rules the Dreaming has, Eve says that the were made up a long time ago and making rules is part of Dream's nature. Abel's House of Secrets is full of odd little details, just like the issue itself. When Cain is suggesting stories for Abel to tell he mentions some intriguing titles: The lily that wanted to be an eye; The girl who could only drink tears, and how she fell in love with woman who had never learned to cry. Both Eve and Abel's stories are expanded tales from Genesis, the three wives of Adam comes from mythology, but Abel's tale of young Death and Dream fits well. When Matthew asks whether they're the real Cain, Abel and Eve and how that ties in with dinosaurs Abel lets slip that it wasn't Earth. Coupled with Cain's comment that none of the looked human at first, this is yet another suggestion of life and civilisations existing long before humanity or even Earth.
Dream's new woman is mentioned again in this issue. Eve doesn't approve, commenting that she isn't really his type. Another intriguing detail that gives us no information for identifying the woman. Matthew also comments that Cain sounds like Vincent Price, which is odd but certainly changed how I imagined the character.
"It's the mystery that endures not the explanation."

Ramadan (The Sandman no. 50)
Illustrator: P. Craig Russell, Colorist: Digital Chameleon 
Haroun Al Raschid, caliph of the wondrous city of Baghdad, is troubled despite the age of wisdom, pleasure and wonder he rules over. He travels to the deepest, most secret part of his palace, past wondrous and dangerous things, to retrieve a glass sphere. Going to the roof Haroun Al Raschid calls for the King of Dreams. He threatens to smash the sphere and release the 9009 powerful djinn, ifreets and demons trapped inside, if freed they will ravage mankind. He throws the sphere and it is caught by Dream who demands to know why he has been summoned. The caliph wants to make a bargain, so they travel to the marketplace on flying carpet. Among the wonders and stories of the soukh Haroun offers to sell the city to Dream. Haroun knows his city of wonders cannot last, he is responsible for it. He offers the golden age of Baghdad, and in return the Dream King will take it into dreams and ensure it is not forgotten. Dream agrees and tells the caliph that he must announce it to his people, which he does. Haroun Al Raschid is woken by a servant, together they walk through the dusty, mundane city. The caliph notices a stranger holding a beautiful city in a glass bottle and asks if it's for sale. Dream replies that it is no longer for sale, and Haroun Al Raschid returns to his modest palace. In bombed out, modern Baghdad a storyteller finishes his tale, and the small boy listening to him limps home through the rubble, eyes bright, imagining the other Baghdad.

As the 50th issue Ramadan was something special. The artwork and lettering are beautifully done and it is written in the style of a tale from the Arabian Nights tradition. As we learn in the issue the Baghdad and Araby of Haroun Al Raschid is the setting for those stories, some of which are referenced. The mythical quality is highlighted, with the caliph's palace shown to be overstuffed with unlikely and magical items. The tale could have come across as over the top, except that the wondrous nature of that place and time are part of the story itself. Haroun's sacrifice to preserve his miraculous age is amazing and reminded me of the shift in reality in 'Dream of a Thousand Cats' in Dream Country. Something that I like about the comic is all the mentions of Allah and Ramadan, the religious context of the setting is not ignored or pushed to the side as it can be in other tales based on myths of the Middle East. Of course these things probably seem loaded now than they were at the time of writing due to changing views of Islam. The end -where we discover that the tale of how the mythical Baghdad turned into the historical Baghdad is being told in the modern ruins of Baghdad- pulls the rug out from under the reader in a wonderful way. I suspect that we are all a little like Hassan, our head full of the story we've just been told.
"Behind his eyes are towers and jewels and djinn, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities of brass."

Reading this collection again reinforces that Sandman stories can take place anywhere, anywhen, in settings real, mythical or purely imagined. It's a concept with such broad scope and yet so many of the stories are personal, even intimate, focusing on characters, their lives and dreams.

Months are a bit of a theme here: Three Septembers and a January, Thermidor (a month in the French Revolutionary calendar), August, and Ramadan are all titled for the months they are set in. Then there's the moon connection, Marco describes Dream as being "pale as the man in the moon" in Soft Places, which is directly referenced on the cover. The Hunt features werewolves, and another moony cover, but the moon itself is not mentioned much within the comic itself.

Leadership is another theme; Three Septembers and a January, August and Ramadan are all told from the viewpoint of rulers. Thermidor has a similar theme, but it approaches from a different angle with discussion about and depictions of Robespierre and his fall from power.

The different artistic styles add to the sense of separate stories and different settings. There are examples throughout this post. I've found, as I've gone on to read different comics, that I often recognise when the artist is someone who worked on Sandman a fair bit. There's a familiarity of style that sometimes hits me, even if I don't remember the artist's name or which bit of Sandman they drew.

The changeable nature of the Endless is shown partly in depictions of them over time, Ancient Greek in Orpheus and nineteenth century in Three Septembers and a January. In the picture I've included for the latter you can see that Delirium, who has been spending time with Chinese girls, looks southeast Asian herself.

Black gutters appear several, and I swear I can't stop noticing them now, though their usage is more varied than in previous collections. Black gutters are used to suggest a different time/place/viewpoint on the first page of Thermidor, and throughout The Hunt and August. Also in these panels it is usually nighttime. In The Hunt the panels with the grandfather and granddaughter all have black gutters, but I don't think this is meant to be oppressive, which is how the technique is used in other issues and collections. In Orpheus the gutters are black when Eurydice is threatened and dies, when Death glitzes up her house, and when Orpheus goes to the Underworld. The usage of darkness in these pages and panels is not surprising.

L'il Death and L'il Dream, as drawn by Jill Thompson, are so adorable.
Leading to a whole Little Endless Storybook (which I really must buy).

Death's modern, sparsely-furnished flat is amazing. Largely because it's not what you expect and yet it's perfect for her. The goldfish and family picture on the wall are nice touches. Also Orpheus's face when he's caught with his aunt's hosiery is priceless.

Ramadan is absolutely gorgeous .

  • Orpheus - Musician poet and prophet of Ancient Greek legend, son of Morpheus and Calliope, who twice lost his love to the Underworld and ends up as an immortal severed head
  • Olethros - the prodigal Endless brother, whose other name is never mentioned in this collection (though if you know Greek you may be able to figure it out)
Obviously a lot of other characters introduced, but as most of these stories are standalone they don't appear later in the series.

There's foreshadowing under the cut.

Next week: Brief Lives
Last week: A Game of You

18 August 2013

Sewing Achievement

It's been over a year since I posted about sewing. Mostly because I haven't been doing much of it. However there is something I made earlier this year that I'd like to mention.

If you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know that I used to work in a public library. You may also know that I left the library in mid-April. As a leaving present, because I wanted to do something a bit personal, did some crafting and made something that could be put on display.

Aha. Oho. It's a Gruffalo.
It's a repurposed, felt, decoupage Gruffalo cover.

The cover itself comes from a large format picture book of the Gruffalo. It was a library book but had been damaged, so I thought I could recycle it creatively.

I recreated the Gruffalo, the mouse and the plants in felt. Mostly by sewing on details, though I decorated the tree trunk with marker pen to more closely match the cover. I used layers of cardboard to create a 3D effect, and had to figure out where everything went. The Gruffalo is behind the tree, which is behind his paw, which is behind the bush. Then I glued everything together.

The award medallion at the top caused me some trouble, but I figured it was best to work around it. I sewed a lot of leaf shapes, but actually found it pretty relaxing.

The mouse was really fiddly as he's much smaller. Plus he kept coming unstuck, probably because he had smaller surface area for glue and I used a few layers of cardboard to raise him up a bit.

The last things I did were the little foreground details like the rocks and the mushrooms at the base of the tree. The base of the tree was tricky because I had to make sure the roots lined up with the picture on the cover, but I think it looks alright.

15 August 2013

A Game of You

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 nightmares, several deaths and a talkative corpse. Just so you know.

The Cuckoo is killing the Land, and survivors huddle in hiding. The Princess is missing in another world and Martin Tenbones goes to her. In New York Barbie is woken by her neighbour Wanda. Also living in their building are: short, bespectacled Thessaly; butch-looking Hazel; Hazel's decisive girlfriend Foxglove; creepy George. On the subway Wanda and Barbie encounter an old beggar woman who's afraid of dogs. Over coffee Barbie and Wanda talk about dreams; we learn that Wanda was born Alvin and Barbie was in The Doll's House. After that weird night Barbie never dreamt again, though she'd previously dreamt about being a Princess. In the street a huge, hairy dog-creature races towards Barbie and is shot by police. Barbie recognises Martin Tenbones, the companion from her dreams, and as he dies he gives her a sparkly, pink pendant called the Porpentine. Wanda guides a traumatised Barbie home.
Barbie, somewhat recovered, is visited by Hazel. Hazel thinks she's pregnant after an unexpected one night stand. Hazel is confused about the whole thing. She's ignorant about pregnancy and sex with men, so Barbie candidly explains what men can be like and what her options are. Barbie tries to stay awake, as she fights sleep she is warned of approaching danger by Nuala, the fairy left in the Dreaming in Season of Mists. Barbie falls asleep and goes to the Land, where she meets Wilkinson (a rat with a raincoat). George cuts his chest open freeing nightmare-bringing birds that live inside him. Wanda dreams of comic book characters forcing her to have the gender-reassignment surgery she's afraid of. Hazel has a nightmare about a dead baby that eats a live one. The caption says that Foxglove doesn't dream, but she's visited by her dead ex-girlfriend Judy, who was killed in Preludes & Nocturnes. Thessaly catches a bad dream bird, kills it and goes to George's apartment with a knife. Meanwhile Wilkinson, Luz (a green dodo) and Prinado (a monkey with a fez) tell Barbie she must take the Porpentine to the Brightly Shining Sea in order to save the Land.
After being woken by their bad dreams Fox and Hazel are visited by Thessaly, who also wakes Wanda and warns that Barbie is in danger. Wanda lets them into Barbie's apartment, where they find her unconscious and wearing an eerily glowing pendant. Thessaly, alarmingly calm, sends them all up to George's apartment. She explains that George was behind the bad dreams, so she killed him. She traps the scared women in George's apartment while she cuts the face off his corpse and nails it to the wall. She summons George's spirit and interrogates him; he was working for the Cuckoo, who lives in Barbie's dream. Thessaly gets Hazel and Foxglove to help her call down the moon which lets them travel into Barbie's dream, while the freaked-out Wanda is left behind to guard Barbie's sleeping body.
In the Land Barbie and her companions traverse a snowy plain, and find the corpse of the messenger who carried information about baby cuckoos hatching in other birds' nests. Morpheus consults with Lucien about the death of a dream skerry, and Nuala admits that she warned Barbie. Morpheus says she did the right thing, which thrills Nuala. Barbie and her companions travel through a forest, and Barbie learns that she didn't create the Land, it is the place she goes to dream. Prinado is killed by sinister creatures, but Barbie, Wilkinson and Luz make it to the coast by following a safe path, one of Murphy's roads. Luz goes to the city to contact the Resistance. Wanda talks to George's bloody face and he tells her that she was left behind because she's biologically male. He also warns her that Thessaly pulling down the moon has caused dangerous changes to the weather. Luz returns with the Cuckoo's Black Guard, who kill Wilkinson and take Barbie to the Citadel of the Cuckoo, which looks like Barbie's childhood home.
The Cuckoo looks like Barbie as a little girl, and lives in her dreams. "It's a little like possession. Only I didn't bother with your body." Barbie's friends in the Land are based on her toys. The Cuckoo influences Barbie, who agrees that the Cuckoo can destroy her in order to fly away. Fox, Hazel and Thessaly walk the moon's road and arrive in Barbie's dream. Fox and Hazel talk about the pregnancy, Foxglove's angry and Hazel's ashamed, but Fox will stand by her. Meanwhile in New York, a storm is blowing and Wanda helps an old woman inside, she's the beggar from that morning. The Cuckoo drags Barbie to the Isle of Thorns, they are joined by Fox, Hazel and Thessaly. The Cuckoo tricks Thessaly into killing Luz, and then forces Barbie to destroy the Porpentine, signalling the end of the Land. In New York the necklace disappears from Barbie's neck, and a hurricane blows in. The destruction of the Land calls Morpheus (known as Murphy), he releases the Cuckoo's hold on the women and uncreates the Land. Barbie watches all the people of the Land walk happily into Morpheus's cloak. Morpheus expresses his displeasure with Foxglove, Hazel and especially Thessaly. In New York the storm gets worse and the apartment building falls down.

In the final issue Barbie remembers the end of her dream while applying make up in a public toilet. After ending the Land Morpheus must grant Barbie a boon. Barbie initially wants the Cuckoo killed because she's an evil killer, but Morpheus points out that Thessaly is a killer too. Barbie also asks if Morpheus could recreate the Land and her friends, which he can. Barbie tells the Cuckoo she can go and she flies away. While Barbie's thinking Morpheus advises Thessaly that she needs to be more careful. Barbie says she wants them all home safe and sound, otherwise Thessaly, Foxglove and Hazel would be stuck in the dream. Barbie is in a diner in Kansas, dressed in mourning clothes and meeting up with Wanda'a aunt, Dora. Barbie tells Dora about being pulled from the wreckage of the New York building and seeing Wanda in a body bag. Dora insists that her nephew is called Alvin and doesn't want Barbie upsetting his less-open-minded parents at the funeral. After the funeral Barbie says goodbye to Wanda and tries to explain her thoughts about the worlds that people -all people- have inside of them. Using Wanda's favourite shade of lipstick she crosses out Alvin and writes Wanda on the headstone. Barbie remembers dreaming about Wanda, looking wonderful, and another woman (Death) waving happily at her.

A Game of You was the second Sandman graphic novel I read, I read all the later collections in order on the advice of a friend. It's interesting that the first two that I read don't actually feature the Sandman very much. This is another feminine story, and it's about people's lives meeting the supernatural, rather than lives that are inextricably part of the supernatural. It's a fairly self-contained story arc, partly because so many characters die by the end. There are references to what came before, but you don't have to have read those to appreciate the story (I hadn't the first time). Dream mentions Rose Walker, a friend of Foxglove's ex who used to live in the same house as Barbie. Morpheus says that the Cuckoo was unable to leave Barbie dreams after the night that Rose became the dream vortex. It seems a shame that Rose never met this version of Barbie, I think they might have gotten along. We also see the ghost/dream of Judy, killed in the diner Preludes and Nocturnes, as Foxglove's abusive ex. Judy is a far more sinister presence here, I suspect it's less because she's a ghost and has more to do with Foxglove/Donna's complicated feelings for her. 

Names and identity are deeply important in A Game of You. Whatever the game is, it seems that who a person is and what they are called is both how you play and possibly what you win. Morpheus -who has already been called by at least 6 other names in the series so far- is called Murphy by the the inhabitants of the Land. They swear and exclaim by him, which makes sense as he is effectively their god.
In The Doll's House Barbie's identity was as one of a pair, Barbie and Ken. Now she experiments with face paint as a way of searching for identity, or perhaps of masking what she fears is her true, boring self. She is called Princess Barbara by her friends in the Land, as a sign of respect. When the Cuckoo talks to Barbie she holds up a blonde plastic doll and says "Here's you."  It's also worth noting that the New York hurricane scenes are accompanied by a late night radio broadcast, hosted by a DJ called Barbara Wong. One of the unrealistic things about works of fiction is that people rarely have the same names, and if they do there must be a reason for it. I have no idea what the reason is here, but I bet there is one.
Foxglove used to be Donna Cavanagh, but there's a sense that she changed her name to reinvent herself and get away from a bad time of her life. We never see what Foxglove looked like when she was with Judy, but I wouldn't be surprised if she changed her look too.
Thessaly is revealed to be a millennia-old witch, probably with some kind of Ancient Greek origin - based on her name (Thessaly is a part of Greece). She has probably gone through a lot of names in her time, but there's a sense that whatever she's called she doesn't change, even though various supernatural entities advise that she should. Rather than escaping her past, Thessaly proudly names herself for it. Her adherence to old ways gives her power, but it sounds as though she's on borrowed time.
Then there's Wanda, whose change in identity is one that her society has great difficulty with. Unfortunately society will lay the burden of those difficulties on the individual. Wanda is afraid of surgery (I believe this has more to do with fear of the procedure than any hesitancy about her own identity) and angered by anyone who suggests she's not a woman. When George tells Wanda that supernaturally she's still a man, she remains defiant. From what she says and what we see of Wanda's very conservative family (in which an aunt who'll bring herself to speak to a trans family member is open-minded) it seems that Wanda has had to cultivate defiance. Her death (like many of the deaths in the story) is a tragedy, all the more so because we learn that her corpse was forced back into an identity she had rejected in life. It's significant that Wanda's birth name was A. Mann. The glimmer of hope at the end tells us that in death Wanda finds something she was looking for, because Death accepts everyone on their own terms.

There were a few other thoughts I had.
1) Despite her power Thessaly is swiftly hypnotised by the Cuckoo and made to sit still and quiet with Hazel and Foxglove. This is the same as Thessaly trapping Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove in George's apartment to stop them from calling the police after she kills George, so maybe she deserves it.
2) Nuala is barely in the comic, yet I found her really endearing. I think it's the way she's so uncertain of herself and her role the in Dreaming, and is so thrilled when praised by Morpheus.
3) How long was Luz under the power of the Cuckoo? I change my mind on this each time I read. If she was a very good actress it could be the whole time (after all the Cuckoo wants Barbie brought to her). Or was it just at the end when she was caught in the town?
4) The Cuckoo is desperate to fly the nest of Barbie's dreamworld and soar into worlds beyond where she can lay her eggs. Her joyful enthusiasm is adorable (cuteness being her main weapon) and even Barbie is impressed by the beauty of the moment. In the final issue Barbie plans to travel, but has no destination mind, she has a vague idea to keep moving. This mirrors the Cuckoo, but is melancholy. The last we see of Barbie is a black-clad figure walking into a dirty, dull bus station with a caption that reads: "and that's all."

Morpheus's look is fairly static in this, probably because he's not in it much. However we do see the human characters drawn by different artists, which is interesting for seeing different art styles. You can see examples of this in the various pictures I've put in this post.

The black-gutters-for-one-issue thing is back. I never noticed it before. In this case its Chapter 3, when the women wake from their bad dreams and after Thessaly kills George. The Land and the Dreaming don't appear at all and the bulk of the action is set the apartment building. Again there's the oppressive, constrained environment, which fits with them being trapped in George's apartment. Plus the art by Colleen Doran is loose, which adds to the feeling of it being late at night and things seeming unreal.

Hazel - accidentally pregnant lesbian chef, projects a butch image that masks insecurity, reliant on Foxglove
Foxglove - writer, changed name after abusive relationship, has done some New Age witchy stuff
Thessaly - ancient-but-young-looking witch woman, proud, arrogant, confident with knives and corpses

There's a little bit of foreshadowing under the cut.

Next week: Fables and Reflections
Last Week: Season of Mists

8 August 2013

Season of Mists

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 grisly depictions of Hell and demons. Just so you know.
Sorry if the layout looks a bit odd. I had some trouble getting pictures where I wanted them and at the right size.

Destiny of the Endless encounters the three Fates in the twisting paths of his garden. He calls a family meeting, because it is written that he will, and the Endless siblings gather, except the prodigal brother. The interactions between them are wonderfully awkward; they're unsure what to talk about, but feel like they should make an effort. Death cheerfully tries to get everyone to talk, Desire slyly provokes others for fun and Delirium is all over the place. Desire needles Dream about his lovelife, especially sending Nada to Hell. Angered, Dream steps outside, followed by Death, who is more sympathetic but agrees with Desire that Dream was out of line. Listening to Death, as he might listen to no one else, Dream resolves to return to Hell and free Nada, even if it means his doom.
Dream prepares for his journey and its dangers. Unlike a certain Aragorn, Dream's kingdom was nearly destroyed by his absence and he is still rebuilding it. He gathers his subjects and candidly explains the situation, warning them of his potential doom though not wishing to worry them. Season of Mists shows how much Dream adheres to, and defines himself by, his responsibilities. Returning to Hell might destroy him or lead to his capture, but he'll do it because he must, though he doesn't want the Dreaming to be harmed again. Cain is sent as an envoy to Hell to announce Dream's intentions to Lucifer, who seems amused by the news. Dream visits Lyta Hall and her newborn son, claims the baby as his own and names him Daniel. Lyta still blames Dream for her husband's death yet she accepts the name. Finally Dream visits Hob while he's sleeping to say farewell to his friend.

Arriving in Hell Dream is shocked to find it empty. Lucifer explains that he has decided to abdicate and thrown the demons and damned out of Hell. Dream follows Lucifer as he locks Hell and expounds on what he disliked about his position as the Devil. It seems that the damned come to Hell themselves, Lucifer himself has no interest in souls and resents people blaming him for their actions. Dream has trouble understanding a ruler who willingly abandons his responsibilities. Lucifer gives Dream the key to Hell, possibly intending to destroy him, or make his life harder.

Dream returns to the Dreaming without Nada and with an unwanted key to Hell. He talks to Death about it, but she's busy because the dead have started coming back. Matthew the raven worries about his boss, but Eve (who shares her cave with him) says that Dream's had worse moods before. Meanwhile various gods and supernatural beings descend on the Dreaming to petition for the key to Hell. Norse and Egyptian deities arrive, as do envoys from Order and Chaos. The now-homeless demons, led by Azazel want their realm back, and use Nada as leverage. Two angels are sent from the Silver City to observe. After being anti-social Dream relieves his overwhelmed gatekeepers by allowing his guests in and being a gracious host.

Part 4 is an interlude in the main story, following 13 year old Charles Rowland who's stuck at boarding school during the holiday with the Matron and Headmaster. The dead with nowhere else to go return to the school and make life unbearable for Charles, especially when he's attacked by murderous pre-war bullies. Charles is helped by Edwin Paine, who was killed in the 1920s, he tries to help but cannot stop Charles from dying. Death comes for Charles, but he refuses to leave Edwin. She's too busy to stop and says she'll be back for him. Charles and Edwin leave the attic as ghosts and venture into the world in high spirits.

Dream hosts a supernatural banquet for his guests; Cain provides entertainment and dreamers serve. Loki -temporarily released from imprisonment- is watched by Thor and watches the other diners for Odin. The Norse deities are not like the Marvel characters, especially the loud, oafish and drunken Thor. Cluracan of Faerie and his sister Nuala ask Dream to keep Hell empty in order to spare the fairies who are sent to Hell as part of a tithe. After the banquet Dream speaks privately to various petitioners who threaten, bribe and cajole to get the key to Hell. One of these his old friend Bast, Egyptian goddess of cats, who offers information about his missing brother.
Dream comes to no decision about the key. The angels visit him with the news that their creator wants Hell reinstated as a place of punishment. To their sorrow, the angels are appointed as the new rulers of Hell, cast from the Silver City though they have committed no crime. The war between Heaven and Hell is finished. Dream announces this and the demon Azazel renounces Dream's hospitality and threatens to eat Nada's soul. Dream saves Nada and imprisons the Azazel. The guests leave, accepting of the outcome, if not happy about it. Cluracan leaves his sister Nuala in the Dreaming, because she was sent as a gift from their Queen. Loki, disguised as a Japanese god, escapes Odin and Thor, but is found by Dream, who makes a deal so that the Trickster doesn't have to go back to his torment. Dream reunites with Nada, who is furious about what he did and his half-hearted apology. The pair come to an agreement, she still will not be his Queen and he will not leave his realm, and so Nada reincarnates as a boy in Hong Kong. The angels settle in to their new role in Hell, claiming the torture and fire are now redemptive. Meanwhile Lucifer sits on a beach and watches the sunset.

This was the 3rd Sandman graphic novel I read and I was really impressed by the blending of different mythologies with the original characters and story arc, nothing felt out of place. This shows the scope of the series, that it can move comfortably between different time periods, mythologies and realities. Seeing the Endless together was great, the awkward family dynamic worked even in a family of immensely powerful beings, in fact that makes it somehow more fun (I was reminded of the different views of the Greek gods seen in different parts of Homer's Iliad). The hints about the missing brother were tantalising.
The relationships between other characters, gods and humans and envoys, are as important to the story as the events that take place. The banquet in particular is full of nuances. There are also short scenes that say a lot, for example when Morpheus visits Lyta. At first she is so happy to show her new baby to her friend, this changes instantly to fear and anger when she sees the man she blames for her husband's death. Dream is impassive in the face of her emotions and bluntly lays claim to her baby without sympathy or explanation. Here we see how grim and aloof Morpheus can be. Another great scene is between Dream and Nada. The apology seems to test him more than travelling to Hell and facing down a demon, and he is awkward and half-hearted. Nada's angry response is pitched perfectly, as is the way he instantly matches her anger before relenting in the face of her good sense and a renew sense of shame about the terrible thing he did to her. Once they are on equal terms again the pair show a little of the old spark and tenderness they must have once had.

Season of Mists shows Gaiman's attitude to the traditional Judeo-Christian view of Heaven and Hell. Lucifer complains that mortals blame him for their actions, when he has never made anyone do anything. He complains that the damned act as though they're in Hell against their will, when in fact it seems that they dictate their own torment. Lucifer also suggests that his rebellion was not the act of disobedience he intended but simply part of the plan. This is bourne out by the message that Hell is necessary as a shadow or reflection of the Silver City. Then when Remiel delivers the news that he and Duma are the new rulers of Hell he is appalled by his undeserved exile. He believes it to be wrong, probably the first time he has doubted his creator. The position he's in is made clear as he contemplates rebelling against the decision but realises that doing so will also seal his fate. Both angels descend to the floor in tears as they fall, or (as the title suggests) are pushed, from grace. This attitude to the divine war is also apparent in Good Omens (which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett) and in the short story Murder Mysteries - which appears in Gaiman's collection Fragile Things and is available in graphic format (which I recommend).

The six Endless all look very different, which makes sense as the text describes them as "ideas cloaked in the semblance of flesh". They are seen emerging from formal portraits in Destiny's gallery, then each is further introduced in their own half-page column containing text and stylistic/representative artwork.
The panels above show the attitude of each Endless very well. Death smiles between the sterner brothers, both formal and described in terms of their responsibilities. Destiny expects Death to wear formal attire despite her protests, yet the younger three aren't required to change their appearance. I'm not sure whether it's because the older three have different standards or simply because Destiny knew that was what happened. Dream compliments Death on her formal appearance, and -being Death- she sticks her tongue out at him.
Desire seems bored and a little scornful above. It entertains itself by asking snide questions and riling its siblings, especially Dream. Despair is more positive than you'd expect, sincerely wanting to talk and avoid the arguments started by her twin. Delirium is introduced and her mood switches rapidly within coloured word balloons. It's revealed that she used to be Delight, which is clearly a sore point.

The gutters (spaces between the panels) are black throughout the issue that introduces Charles Rowland and the school full of returned dead. Traditional white gutters only appear on the last page as Charles and Edwin leave school and set out to enjoy their afterlives. This is the same effect as that used in Facade (in Dream Country) to create a more oppressive environment.

When Dream meets privately with those petitioning him for the key to Hell his appearance changes based on who he's meeting with.

Dream looks more menacing and less substantial when dealing with Azazel
Dream's star-like eyes go cat-like when talking to Bast
Dream dresses and looks Japanese when conversing with Susano-o-no-Mikoto
When rescuing Nada Dream's features look more African though his colouration doesn't change
As Kai'ckul his appearance is most like Nada's

  • Delirium - youngest of the Endless, Delirium used to be Delight long ago
  • Loki - Trickster of the Norse pantheon, untrusted and trapped in agony beneath the Earth, briefly allowed out by Odin for the purpose of Dream's banquet
  • Daniel - Son of Lyta Hall, gestated in dreams for years, claimed and named by Morpheus
  • Mazikeen - a demon with half a face and a resulting speech impediment, she loves Lucifer
  • Remiel and Duma - sent to the Dreaming to observe and cast out of Heaven to be rulers of Hell against their wishes, Duma was angel of silence and Remiel was (ironically) set over those who rise
  • Bast - Egyptian goddess of cats, friends with Dream in his cat form
  • Cluracan - a fairy who works for Titania as an envoy
  • Nuala - Cluracan's sister, used as a gift and forced to stay in the Dreaming
  • Eve - resident of the Dreaming and possibly the first woman, she lives in a cave and looks after Matthew 

Next week: A Game of You
Last week: Dream Country