Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 7: Brief Lives – *****
Part One: OH MY GOD, THIS ONE IS GENUINELY GOOD!
This is the best graphic novel in The Sandman. More than that, this is one of the best graphic novels in existence.
Typically, by the seventh iteration of something, a series has already seen and passed its heyday, but here I am in the difficult situation of wholeheartedly recommending the seventh Sandman book despite my misgivings on much of the rest of the series. There’s plenty to like about the preceding and trailing books, but the seventh volume is on a different level of quality altogether. It has a grasp of the series’ plot, characters, art, and prose that other books occasionally brush past but never come close to capturing. It’s the sort of book that makes me jealous because of how fucking good it is.
On the one hand, I’m delighted; the story is solid, essentially self-contained but branching out and linking to other facets of the main plot, and concluding with what is essentially the apex of Dream’s character development. The characters, even the protagonist, are energetic and motivated, and crucially, this book also has a lot of humor. The humor feels like a breath of fresh air that was missing from the previous volumes; it allows characters to express themselves more naturally, and it turns the audience’s occasional skepticism about the melodrama of the series into content we can better engage with. It has some of the lightest and also some of the heaviest moments in the series, and both bear significance to the story and characters. The few parts of the book that are somewhat unnecessary are also short and offer art or atmosphere to compensate, but the vast majority of scenes serve the plot directly.
On that other hand, though, I’m left somewhat angry knowing the series has this potential and squanders it at every other turn. If the creators of the series were capable of this, why aren’t any of the other books even close to this caliber of writing and structure? It clearly isn’t a matter of the creators having good ideas initially and losing steam, but if they’re only now getting their bearings, why do the last three books fail on such fundamental levels? Again, I think the original release format is responsible. This book shows clear continuity as series with a single arc, whereas many of the other Sandman issues were released either as contributions to an amorphous grand plot or as stand-alone issues. Either that, or it’s something of a fluke that happens to appeal to my particular tastes. I do think it has plenty to discuss, though, even if I happen to like it more than most.
The bottom line is, this book is genuinely fun, thoughtful, well-crafted, and engaging on many levels. I might say it’s worth reading on its own and skipping the rest of the series altogether. The opening of the novel features a simple introduction by Gaiman that sets the stage about as well as a new reader honestly needs; a broader context clarifies character relationships, but it’s not necessary to find depth. I am a bit concerned that as this book comes near the three-quarters point and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, anyone who starts here will feel inclined to read the rest of the series, and I can’t help but feel it would look underwhelming by comparison.
However, in retrospect, I would have loved to have started with this book. It gives an introduction to the character and sets up a line of critical thought that is both dismissive of Dream’s arrogance and sympathetic toward his internal turmoil. He’s front and center in this book and the story is ultimately about him before anyone else, but the other characters aren’t really dependent upon him — he’s dependent upon them. This is the book I’d just read when I realized I wanted to write reviews of this series. I unabashedly love this volume in a way I can’t any of the others. It doesn’t necessarily justify any of the decisions made by the rest of the series, and it’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s the one that makes me understand why The Sandman has the reputation it does. I don’t think it deserves that reputation as a whole, but the seventh book sure damn does.
Part Two: Little Frogs!
But enough ambiguity; what, specifically, do I like about this volume?
The characters are a large part of it. The episode keeps the cast small and the focus on characters it’s already established — namely Dream, Delirium, Destruction, Orpheus, and, briefly, Matthew. There are other characters who come and go, but they remain where most competent writers would put them: on the side.
The basic plot is that Delirium has decided to go looking for her runaway brother, Destruction, and as she’s wont to do things like turn into butterflies and the like, she figures having a chaperone would be wise. After asking around and facing rejection from her various siblings, Dream surprises everyone by taking up the mantle. The audience can figure out pretty easily that he’s not doing this for Delirium’s sake; he’s recently broken up with one of an endless stream of girlfriends and is basically throwing an extended tantrum over it. Delirium intends to search the waking world for Destruction, and Dream imagines he might be able to reconnect to his recently ex-girlfriend if he goes along. (Curiously, the book never specifies who he was with or what their relationship was. It may very well be Nadia because he reunited with her in the previous sequence of the timeline back in Volume 4, but it could also be any in a string of unhappy girlfriends.)
As you might imagine given the protagonist’s morose demeanor, pairing him with Delirium is radiant. This character is basically a cross between a stoner and a child, and can’t stay focused long enough to complete a thought never mind find a missing person. Of course, finding Destruction isn’t really what this story is about. Dream fully expects them to fail, and Delirium seems to view the attempt as more important than actually succeeding. She wants Destruction back, but more than that, she wants to look for him, and she wants her siblings to help.
Dream doesn’t usually work with other people (he has his Dreaming inhabitants, but let’s be honest, they’re really just pets to him), and I think that’s a large part of why this book works. We have a fun character to offset Dream’s seriousness and annoy him sufficiently to turn him into a more engaging character himself. As I’ve said before, the protagonist is largely depicted as an uncaring man-toy, but he does have defined personality traits under that bland veneer. His personality comes to the forefront here more than in any other book. He’s certainly given more to work with in the plot, and the story paints him as a full character instead of just an enigmatic being.
Aside from characters we’ve seen before, we also get an introduction to Destruction (discounting his brief appearance a few books back), and he’s surprisingly complex on his own. Fitting a subversive character more like Death than the other Endless, Destruction is an aspiring (and apparently not particularly talented) artist who grew fed up with his role in wars and flaked out on his “job.” For the last several hundred years, he’s let the destruction of the universe operate on its own, mostly to unnoticeable effect. He explains he was disgusted at the idea of the then-upcoming world wars and atomic bombs, wishing to play no part in them. Through his defection, we learn that the Endless aren’t really necessary for the function of the universe but rather a reflection of it.
I also think the writing in this particular book has improved considerably over the others; not only is it tighter, but the philosophical discussion, plot-driving dialogue, and flavor-text feel better balanced than in previous books. The chapters flow more easily and feel a lot more like chapters in a book than stand-alone comic issues. Developments draw from previous chapters with more consistency than I’ve noticed in other volumes of this series. The story employs considerable foreshadowing and sidetracks that culminate in revelations later in the book, which doesn’t sound especially impressive given these are basic literary techniques, but the rest of the series struggles with them. The episodic nature of the series favors references for the hawk-eyed observer to much direct connection between narrative asides. Here, though, the issues fall into place in a framework that facilitates considerable interconnection between events.
The comedy is another welcome addition. I tend to be biased toward narratives that incorporate some humor, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for. Every story needs levity; most choose to use humor, romance, or delight imbued in scenes, characters, or other elements to lighten the mood. Emphasizing these elements before or after heavier material creates contrast that keeps the audience entertained and the material fresh. Levity and weight run on a similar cycle to tension and release. You can’t expect the audience to be fearing for their lives for a full two hours straight. Likewise, you can’t expect the audience to be exclusively somber nor enthralled through a whole narrative without a break.
Part Three: Emotions!
Emotions are how we relate to characters. Yes, we’ll pay attention to pretty much anyone with a clever costume and a fancy sword, but we won’t connect to them unless they have a personality. Expressive characters, be they cheerful, angry, easy-going, or stern, are simply more memorable than any armor-clad, blank state of a Bethesda protagonist.
However, especially when it comes to male characters, emotions other than anger are a sign of weakness, or so says society. The trend in popular fiction for writing apathetic characters who never smile or act in any way affectionate is nothing new. However, I find that in stories released over the past thirty years or so, especially those directed toward a male audience, the trend tends to cycle between two forms.
The first is the sort you get in major first-person shooters, and generally requires the story to take a backseat to something like spectacle. This is the representation of a character who is uncannily similar to a block of wood, only ever communicating in terms of anger, vaguely racist quips, sexual innuendos, and grunting. In other words, a sad fantasy for impotent man-children that also gets picked up by a considerable number of child-children for whom high school will be the peak of their happiness and productivity.
When the audience of these products starts to wise up to them being, shall we say, unrealistic, the industry making them shifts to a slightly different emphasis. The second form of emotionless asshole is directed at the more traditionally effeminate audience (not necessarily women, but anyone who romanticizes emotions). This take requires the asshole in question to only be pretending to be an uncaring grumbly wood block. See, he (because it is almost always a “he”) is hard to sympathize with at first because he has such a tough exterior, but break it open and you’ll find a soft spot that means he cries at the sight of puppies and still gets his mother thoughtful gifts for Mother’s Day. The ladies love it. Eventually all the manly men get sick of the heroes of their action films all crying about their childhoods because it threatens their self-confidence, and they demand the industry go back to the properly emotionless grumbly wood blocks.
I don’t honestly think that these models have enough value to merit their widespread presence, especially not when they preclude of other portrayals of emotion in masculine characters. However, they’re what we’ve got so we might as well look at what these models communicate.
Dream is obviously the second type, because I somehow doubt many teenage boys proud of their peach fuzz and singular ab would look at a story about a pasty goth who hangs out with Shakespeare and think, Yes, that is the pinnacle of masculinity. No, this is a book for similarly pasty goth kids who like Shakespeare. I know because while I didn’t fit that description (aside from the Shakespeare bit) in high school, the protagonist in one of my early stories resembles Dream right down to the silly hair. I probably would have liked this series a lot when I was younger. I can attest that however archetypal, the brooding loner with a soft heart is compelling to a certain demographic that has enough experience to expect characters to not spout all of feelings directly, but has yet to understand the difference between depth and melodrama. Teenagers are angsty; they relate to Dream. However, as you grow and stop conflating pretension with quality as much, you start to realize that characters like Dream aren’t half as nuanced as you used to think. Mostly, they’re just full of bullshit.
So why, then, does Dream’s egoistic bullshit work in this book? A large part of it has to do with how this book, unlike nearly every other in the series, calls him out on it. You remember that end chapter in the first book with him feeding the pigeons? The one where Death throws a lump of bread at his hair and starts yelling at him for being a pretentious asshole in what is easily the best single panel in the whole series? Most of the seventh book is like that. He goes on this somewhat arbitrary quest with a character he doesn’t get along with very well, apparently just because he wants an excuse to be miserable and entertain a hopeless fantasy for a while. As soon as the first element of mystery appears, he immediately starts to scrutinize it as a conspiracy instead of recognizing it as a problem with a simple solution (which is what it is). He invests himself deeply in a puzzle of his own making.
At one point, recognizing that their escort is dead and neither he nor his sister knows how to drive a car, Dream grabs his pet raven, Matthew, and has the bird shout instructions while Delirium attempts to drive. It goes about as well as one would imagine two deities who barely know what a car is and a human turned into a talking bird trying to operate a motor vehicle on the freeway might go. Aside from being the best damn scene, what I like about this moment is that the problem has many solutions, some of which are even pointed out elsewhere. But the terrible solution they arrive at is all on Dream; they could easily get a new driver, or take another form of transport, or hire someone off the street, or, I don’t know, teleport, given they’re both all-powerful space time-manipulating deities. But they do none of these. Dream insists on taking the most circuitous route to their unknown destination, so screaming-bird-inpromptu-freeway-driving it is.
In the end, they basically end up asking Orpheus for help and not only does he tell them exactly where Destruction is, but Destruction’s conveniently, like, within eyesight of Orpheus’ temple. In another story, this would be contrived (and yeah, it is a bit contrived here), but the revelation is still significant. It drives home a point the series has been hinting at for a while: that Dream’s struggle in life is tied to his own inability to cope with his emotional state. Finding Destruction is not physically difficult, but it requires Dream to overcome an internal dilemma. This immediately distinguishes the plot of this book from previous plots because it is directly tied to the main character and his actions. It challenges him as a character and requires him to work hard — harder than he ever has at anything in his life.
Tying a character’s story to a personal, internal conflict, is not only the best way to develop most characters, it’s also really the only way to make stories about all-powerful characters interesting. At some point, kryptonite ceases to add tension because it does little to impact who Superman is once he’s overcome it. There are no lasting consequences in the story if overcoming kryptonite is Superman’s only hurdle. If, however, the kryptonite is just a macguffin, and the story revolves around Superman’s guilt at being unable to protect people while weak, then you end up with a much more compelling Superman story.
Dream’s emotional dilemma in this series is the mere fact that he has emotions at all. He’s ruled over his domain for billions of years as a god-like being, but a brief stint in a bubble deprived of his title and powers has shown him what lies at his core: that he is a person. However godlike, he is still fueled by the same amount of irrational, petty hatred, anger, love, and compassion that all other people have. This is a part of his being that he actively suppresses, and on the rare occasions when he gives in to it, as for Nadia and Calliope, he sees it as a temporary distraction that will have no last effect. Dream’s default stance is to run away from his emotional problems, readily condemning people to lifetimes of torment because he’s unwilling to face what he is.
When he gives in and visits Orpheus, he dreads the encounter as soon it’s even brought up in conversation. He doesn’t have the strength to compose himself enough to even bear the thought of seeing his son after abandoning him, because to do so would force him to reflect on his own callous actions. He left Orpheus as an immortal disembodied head, unable to join his wife in the afterlife and unable to make use of his immortality. Dream knows very well that Orpheus wants to die so he can be at peace, and he can’t cope with the thought of that either — both because he cares about his son and because killing him would force Dream to acknowledge that he condemned his son to this awful fate in the first place. It’s a much more personal and less orchestrated version of the Nadia storyline.
In the end, Dream does eventually face his apprehensions and mercifully ends Orpheus’ life in a gruesome but effective series of panels. This is character growth, and it’s difficult to watch. The story makes Dream go to Orpheus and admit his mistake, thereby verifying Dream’s guilt and love for his son. It then forces him to do something horrible to that same son. Just as Dream is realizing how much he cares for Orpheus, he’s gone, leaving Dream with the knowledge that he condemned his son to a thousand years of torture and never really got to know him. This is a lot to ask of a character who insists he never has emotions and certainly never acts on them.
Having just demonstrated his emotional instability to the world, Dream understandably has to go home and think on it for a while. The genie is out of the bottle, and even if he tries to convince himself that he can go back to being a delusional, emotion-concealing deity, he now has a prominent memory that clashes firmly with that self-image. Throughout the series, the other characters have thrown around the idea of “change,” specifically that Dream has changed since his imprisonment. Perhaps that’s true, and perhaps his inclination to mercy kill Orpheus was decided at earlier point, but either way, now he has no choice but to accept that change. He’s past the point of no return and can’t keep pretending; he can’t hide from his personhood anymore. When he returns to his palace, he has to deal with the weight of this experience. And he has no idea how.