It’s ten years ago, and I’m thousands of miles from home, living in a teeny room with a bed that’s been lopped short to fit and a slanting roof, like some medieval scholar monk. I don’t know anyone and I’m spending my days, and my nights, reading cramped texts in Greek and Latin; so much so that my grasp of English is getting stilted and my voice cracks from lack of speaking. I can’t seem to read for pleasure anymore, the words zip past on the page, too fast to catch.
But I stumble into a comic shop, for reasons I no longer remember, and I buy Sandman, and I take it home. I curl up on my too short bed, where my feet stick off if I stretch out, and I read about Andros climbing up the hill. Aner, I think, genitive, Of Man, and keep reading. The beautifully drawn art slows me down and the stories feel familiar, rich and strange and interwoven with layers of meaning and metaphor, like a country garden’s roses gone wild.
Looking back, I’m sure I didn’t read Brief Lives first, despite this picturesque memory. If I rattle my brain, I can remember reading Preludes and Nocturnes, at my small and cramped desk, and being delighted and appalled and pleased, especially by Death. I read all the notes, too, and I’ve always wondered who Cinnamon was.
But let’s return to this me, this depressed and lonely grad student, steeped deep in Greek stories of destruction and desire told in lush rhythm with beats that seem inevitable and Latin tales of debauchery and conquest told in spare and elegant prose. I sat there and read through the book, a chapter a day, reading slowly and carefully, slowed down by the beautiful art and puzzling over each word.
Did you know that the Greeks had a word for ritualistically ripping people apart, limb from limb, and eating them while alive? (sparagmos)
They did. And you know what? It showed up in the Sandman. The Bacchae there were the Bacchae of my beloved Euripides, at least a little. A force of nature that is both benevolent and strange, cruel and violent, and at times nurturing.
Each week, usually on Sundays, I would walk to the comic store, down a long and forested road full of blind curves and no sidewalks but cut granite curbs. It almost always rained, since Pennsylvania rains a good deal, and eventually it snowed. I walked it anyway, buying, slowly and carefully, each volume.
Except that I didn’t buy them all. A friend told me that Dream dies in the Kindly Ones (and I certainly was wary, with a title like that) but this is not how the story ends. I know this in my heart. The story does not end with Dream killing himself. That never happens. And thus I never bought that volume and I haven’t read it and I won’t, because that plotline does not occur. I’m difficult, and stubborn, as, er, some of the readers of this blog have no doubt guessed, and I sometimes make a decision about how a story as itself should go. And that is the story that lives in my head. Thus it was with Sandman. Sometimes authors are wrong about how the story goes and it is better to live with the story’s own ending.
But what, you may ask (quite reasonably), is the point of a long tale about the sad girl who read Sandman except for skipping the end? How is this useful criticism? What the hell?
And so I will tell you.
Well, so you know that Sandman was a good friend to me, back when I needed one. A beautiful and difficult tale that I savored and cherished. And this week, I was, like many of you, afraid to reread this story lest it look dusty and crumpled and turn out to have atrocious art that could only appeal to the few, the proud, the naive.
But no! Due to a flood, I lost my personal library (about thirty boxes worth) and all my Sandman, so I wasn’t able to reread the whole opus. But I picked up a copy of my favoritest favorite of them all, Brief Lives, and I was pleased and cheered to discover that it was just as good, if not better, than I remembered.
Let’s start with the art, because I love art and I read comics for art, more than for words. This volume has Jill Thompson’s pencils and inks by Vince Locke and Dick Giordano, with color by Danny Vozzo.
Check out this page:
I love this. It’s so unabashedly emo Goth. The dark colors! The fuzzy black hair! The despair! It’s touching, but it’s also kind of funny, because who among us hasn’t had a love affair that felt like this?
After this, of course Morpheus stands outside in the rain. Of course he does! I hear a lot of people (here and elsewhere) complain about the art, and it’s true that there’s better art and worse art, but look at this and tell me that it doesn’t make you laugh:
The art is evocative, and speaks more than the words do alone, which is exactly its job. It conveys a feeling that you can’t get with words alone.
I’d like to turn now to a bit of plot. Delirium, one of the Endless and Morpheus’s sister, misses her brother, Destruction. She’s trying to find him, and she’s asking her siblings for help. She asks Desire first. Desire, ahhhh Gaiman’s Desire. What a tricksy character zie is. In this first piece, Desire is portrayed as petty and cruel, sending an adoring fan to a dire fate for no apparent reason and then behaving unpleasantly, if not deliberately maliciously, to hir sister. Desire decorates with a vivisected man grinning in ecstasy, sleeps on a squishy pink heart muscle, and floats in an eyeball. Ew. Desire, of all the Endless, is shown as the most scheming.
In some ways, this always bothered me, because the point of love is to be good and kind, but at the same time, that’s not really what Gaiman is about. This isn’t love, it’s Desire. Shown most explicitly as sexual Desire.
Now, Brief Lives is bracketed by the Greek temple and Orpheus. The Endless echo Greek deities, and those beings are expressly cruel and capricious in their behavior towards mortals. Aphrodite and Artemis, for instance, destroy lives left and right in the Hippolytus for no other reason than a sisterly grudge.
Gaiman’s Desire would have felt right at home.
So Desire behaves much as a Greek deity would do, and Delirium moves on to ask Despair, who is portrayed in beautiful accents and with truly horrific touches, as gray. (I’m not as OK with her being fat, though, because I am very tired of fat being shorthand for sad or evil.) Despair refuses to act, perhaps because she is afraid of Desire. And then Delirium goes to ask Dream, and we come to one of my favoritest pages in the entirety of the Sandman. Look at this art:
This is the shit. The body language is spot on. That’s a girl trying very very hard to be polite and adult, when upset and worried, and then perking up when the waiter asks her a question. By the end she’s getting confused and impatient, throwing her limbs around in wriggling social discomfort, The brother is absolutely rigid and offended, pretending to be polite while being very cold and insulting. The body language when he orders his meal is so pretentious—and insulting. Sibling slapfight. And the colors! Look at those colors. They’re so clean and reveal so much.
And because everything else is bog standard normal, the waiter is hilarious.
How is this not an awesome visual display of two different and competing siblings? When Morpheus’s body language changes (on the next page), and softens, all the previous panels’ repetition gives that change a huge amount of force.
And his small willingness to change, while he is clearly still despairing over his own heartache and while he is equally still completely embarrassed by his LOUD SHINY COLORFUL WHACKO sister, is endearing. If he thought, as Destruction thinks, that Delirium is fun or comfortable, his actions wouldn’t be nearly as sweet. No, it’s the fact that this trip is going to ruin his already bad day that the character Morpheus is humanized and thus lovable.
There are other fine pieces of art in this volume. The crazy sequences with Delirium turning colors, her jacket turned white, the frowning secretaries who look absolutely like secretaries everywhere, the fluffy and scruffy dog Barnabus, the strange sequence in the nudie bar, there’s a lot to like about this art.
And a beautifully crafted page that is striking with white and blue and a smear of blood blood red.
The pages between Morpheus’s granting of Orpheus’s wish and the page above are always hard to read. Morpheus hides his hands, and his pain, as he apologizes to the small fairy and is polite to his doorkeepers. He’s keeping the horror from others, as best he can.
The impact of killing his son is here in this page, where Morpheus’s despair and exhaustion are real and revealed with no words, just art. I think it’s beautiful and it always stops me in my tracks.
But in any case. I could talk a bit about the coloring (wonderful) or the inking (mediocre) but why? The art does many things well. It’s a whole. And this is a story I am glad to return to. I don’t regret my revisit of this tale. I hope those who haven’t been there in a while can return, too.
Is Morpheus a cypher? Yes and no. His family is rather difficult, let’s admit. Most of them are comfortable with who they are. Death is all-knowing and wise, but that is…not someone I’m going to be. I’m not all knowing and wise, but flawed and emo. Like Morpheus.
Morpheus is interesting because he’s deeply flawed. He’s got all this power and yet he just got dumped. There’s an annoying and embarrassing sister, who bugs him.
Unlike Desire, who is all powerful and using it the way a Greek god would, or Death who uses her power as we’d like the Greek gods to, or Destruction, who decided to leave the game, or Despair, who just isn’t around much, or Delirium, who’s lost it (literally), Morpheus has his powers and still can’t really cope. He does his best, though, and his muddling around is endearing to see and worth reading about. I like him. And he doesn’t die in the end.
Edited to add: Since there’s a discussion going on in some of the other comments sections about the art, I thought I should note that I read the most recent printing of the regular trade paperback (ISBN 13: 978-1563891380) available here. That’s where the scans come from as well.