Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 10: The Wake – **
Part One: Switching Your Outfit Is Technically a Change, But It Doesn’t Make You Deep
Well, here it is, the end of the line. Technically I have one more Sandman-related review after this one, but Wake concludes the story of Dream.
My verdict? Eh… I’d like to just say that my thoughts on the series are complicated and walk away, because I like parts of it quite a bit. I try to make my platform honesty, though, and to be honest, I felt the conclusion was a substantial, if not surprising, misstep.
The immediate hurdle this book must overcome is validation of its own existence. As the last in a series, its audience expects it to resolve any lingering plot threads while building to a satisfying send-off. We want to know our investment in the series was worthwhile. This is especially difficult to accomplish when the climax has passed and the final book is all denouement. From the start, the tenth book of The Sandman essentially has to be an extended epilogue, and what’s more, it has to work with a newly-introduced main character who the audience has had little time to get to know.
I should give the book credit for an opening that balances these concerns well enough to interest me in reading further. It opens with the Endless learning that Dream has passed (although why Death seems to be notified as well is beyond me) and the restoration of the Dreaming after its deterioration in the previous book. The new Dream, whom I’ll refer to as Dream-Daniel, is only at the periphery of the story; the main conflict has to do with Matthew, and the other characters to a lesser extent, dealing with their grief and their reluctance to accept the new Dream. While the book’s parallels between Matthew and the audience come off as a bit condescending, this emotional confusion is nevertheless worth exploring. Accepting major changes in one’s life can be more difficult than experiencing those changes. A character dying fully is easier to accept than that same character only sort of dying, because it’s less ambiguous.
To those who’ve watched Doctor Who without prior familiarity with the franchise, do you remember your response to the first time the Doctor regenerated? I managed to somehow miss the memo on regeneration by the time I finally picked up the revived series, so needless to say I was pretty damn confused when Christopher Eccleston turned into David Tennant. I imagine this would be an alarming event in any situation, but even in a sci-fi series with questionable logic and special effects, it’s still not an easy pill to swallow. The series retains its suspension of disbelief, but it’s emotionally taxing. We’ve gotten to know this character through a bunch of silly adventures. Who the hell is this asshole traipsing around with the same name and mannerisms? We as humans take time to accept change, and the greater or more unpleasant it is, the longer it takes us to accept it.
I have a point to all of this.
The Endless can’t die, exactly, at least not the way most of the other characters can. Destruction, Delight, and Despair have all “died” in a sense, but they’re clearly still very much alive. Destruction left his post, but remains alive as an entity, no longer serving the role of the Endless. Delight changed into Delirium as the concept of delight within the universe changed. Despair was the only Endless to have properly died until the ninth book; the previous Despair was murdered and Desire was split to create a new being, which is the version of Despair we see throughout the series.
Dream opts for the latter approach, but with a twist; he uses a gemstone similar to the ruby he had in Volume 1 to store his personality and knowledge, then transmits it to Daniel when he dies. This results in a Dream-Daniel entity that is almost indistinguishable from Dream, or at least indistinguishable from Dream prior to the start of the series. Dream-Daniel works a lot like regenerated Doctors in Doctor Who, changing slightly in personality and appearance, but retaining everything else.
The main issue with this death option is that it forces the audience to accept a completely new character as part of the denouement, making the tension for the last book revolve around how this new character will cope with their position, and whether the audience will accept them. Dream-Daniel is a fully-capable adult (the original Daniel apparently another casualty of Dream’s “sacrifice” from the last book), complete with Dream’s full range of powers and knowledge. Who he is doesn’t even come as a surprise for the tenth book, as Dream-Daniel was revealed at the end of the last one.
The base idea isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s curious considering the creative team had to actively bypass several more immediately enticing ideas to get to it. As much as I would love a series of short stories involving Matthew, the Corinthian, and Lucien raising Dream-Daniel as he learns to use his powers, a la Steven Universe, clearly the series wanted Dream-Daniel to be a somehow even whiter clone of Dream instead. Okay, fine, but why? Why treat Dream like he’s dead when Dream-Daniel is effectively the same character?
After fifty some years, Doctor Who has more or less figured out how to retain the bulk of its audience through actor transitions. Each regeneration is met with resistance and not all fans will stick with the series afterward, but those who do will quickly find something to remind them of why they liked the old character in the first place. The creators often go to great lengths to ensure that certain things, like the TARDIS layout, sonic screwdriver, and small quirks of the character remain continuous across iterations. The style and actor might change, and occasionally a new season might become so different it seems more of a reboot than part of the same series, but there’s always a reference to the previous seasons that ties all of the episodes together somehow. However, it takes time to get to the episodes that call back to previous seasons, and in the mean time, the audience has the chance to digest the new format.
It’s pure conjecture on my part, but I get the sense that the series wanted to juggle the idea of Dream-Daniel being both a new character and the same old Dream. The way he’s greeted by the Endless and never questions who he is, and also how the series has been pushing this idea that Dream is changing, suggests that Dream-Daniel is a sort of a metamorphosis of Dream. He’s literally created as a facet of Dream’s personality, all else apparently tossed aside when the previous version of Dream “died.” This new Dream could grow into a completely different person, but he starts out the same way.
However, the reason this doesn’t quite work for me the same way regeneration does is that there’s too little time given for the audience to understand who Dream-Daniel is. The character doesn’t show signs of having a distinct personality and appears to be Dream with all of his character and emotion cut out. If he is a pared-down version of the previous protagonist, you can’t even say he’s more streamlined or mature because the parts removed were the main things that made Dream interesting. Gone is the melodramatic asshole who would hide behind a mask of pomp when he couldn’t cope with basic human emotions, replaced with a character who is essentially just that mask. Dream self-lobotomizing himself is somewhat tragic as an indication that Dream would rather regress to an infantile state than address and accept his own character development.
It’s readily possible — perhaps even probable — that Dream-Daniel will become just as expressive as Dream eventually was, but even if he could be interesting eventually, the book doesn’t seem to care to show us. The book offers up a bit of a transition period to get used to Dream-Daniel, but it’s not a transition into anything. As Dream-Daniel takes up his position, Matthew struggles to figure out who he is and how to react to him. When he does finally decide to see what Dream-Daniel is like, the story ends. No one gets to know who Dream-Daniel is and the book acts like this was the point all along. No, it isn’t. Go sit down and finish writing the damn story.
I feel like this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the ninth book had been the end of the series. Dream-Daniel instantly replaces Dream and we get a brief epilogue in which Matthew decides to stick with him. However, because the series wants to keep going, it has to be held to at least some sort of standard. If Matthew deciding to see what Dream-Daniel is like concludes the entire story, we can only assume that Dream-Daniel is going to be exactly like the previous Dream, which makes the entire opening of Volume 10 circuitous and pointless.
Part Two: “Wasn’t Our Main Character So Awesome?” “Yes He Was, Let’s Talk About It for Fifty Fucking Pages.”
The problems with Dream-Daniel aren’t helped much by their co-occurrence with Dream’s funeral and wake. That’s right, even though we’ve established that the character isn’t really dead, pretty much every minor character from the series is forced to attend his funeral anyway. They give eulogies and everything. And Dream-Daniel doesn’t even bother to show up, even though he sort of watches it.
I actually kind of like the funeral preparations, but that’s more for aesthetic reasons. The Endless going to the land of the dead is appropriately eerie and somber, and I like the art style used in these chapters. It captures a very precise tone that’s befitting a funeral.
That said, the Endless being sad about Dream dying does not fit narratively into the story. At all. I can give it a pass because it feels continuous, but the series really should have decided to either kill its protagonist or not. It can’t really have both without making Dream look like a complete asshole. Matthew kind of has the right idea, even though he seems to think that Dream is dead and Dream-Daniel is an impostor. The Endless are mainly just mournful, which comes across as disingenuous on the series’ behalf. I can assure you, if any of my friends or family pulled this I’m-not-dead-or-dying-but-you-have-to-hold-a-funeral-for-me-anyway bullshit, my forced eulogy would not be as considerate as these characters’.
Speaking of forced eulogies, dear god are they insufferable. These chapters opt to intersplice random characters doting on Dream with the much more thematically relevant plot thread of Matthew trying to figure out Dream-Daniel, and all of the eulogies are directed straight at the audience. The series isn’t subtle with its visual implications; it wants you to know that this is what you should be thinking, too, because it assumes you’re mourning Dream as well. This is an especially awkward move if, like me, you weren’t mystified by how amazing Dream was and feel like the book is trying to shove a particular opinion in your face. While I do find some amusement in the idea that the book expects the audience to believe Dream fucked his way through about half of the female characters not related to him, the constant proclamations of undying adoration for the former protagonist get irritating quickly. How about instead of telling us the character was hot or brooding or tortured or whatever, we decide that for ourselves? The visual metaphor of the mourning masses doesn’t quite work if you ended up reading his character less as “tragic martyr” and more as “whiny baby.”
The wake story is at least short. I would have honestly been fine with it continuing, confused narrative and all, but at the end of the first three issues in the volume, Matthew decides to give Dream-Daniel a shot and Dream-Daniel goes to meet his family. End of story.
Except… yeah, the book keeps going. Surprise! It’s my favorite, another short story compendium!
Again, the stories are visually dynamic and have a certain appealing cadence to them. By this point, though, I’ve mostly come to think of them as pretentious drivel meant to make fans of the series feel smart. Epilogue, A Sunday Morning is actually pretty good, but even though it makes some sense narratively, I don’t know why it wasn’t sequestered away in its own compendium. It’s the final issue with Hob, the man made immortal by Dream in a short story back in Volume 2, and mainly involves Death going to tell him that Dream isn’t going to be meeting with him anymore. The story doesn’t go much of anywhere, but it’s about a conversation more than a culmination of anything. It works as an epilogue for the entire series, but as you can imagine, The Sandman isn’t content with just one epilogue.
You know, people give the Lord of the Rings shit for all of its endings, but at least those were all narratively significant. The second to last chapter of The Sandman, Volume 10 is an artistic rendition of a man who gets lost in the desert and discovers a kitten, then encounters Dream a few times. It’s much like the Marco Polo story from a few books back, and if it has any relevance to the bulk of the story, I couldn’t find it.
The final chapter is a conclusion of the Shakespeare subplot, with Shakespeare writing the Tempest as a commission for Dream. The Tempest is a bit of an odd choice for the series to make Shakespeare’s second commissioned play. It’s about dreams, though one could easily argue dreams as a theme for many of Shakespeare’s plays. More importantly for this series, The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final work. I suppose it’s fitting as a conclusion to this series for those two reasons, but narratively, I don’t think it’s the right choice. The Midsummer Night’s Dream chapter hinted at Shakespeare’s deal with Dream being direct fuel for the loss of his son, Hamnet, who is widely assumed to be the main inspiration for Shakespeare writing Hamlet, his crowning achievement. Puck threatening to steal Shakespeare’s son is a direct parallel to him and Loki doing just that to Daniel in the ninth book, and it’s not out of Dream’s wheelhouse to coordinate such a crime. Sons are important to Dream, both with Orpheus being his actual son and Daniel being a sort of a son as well. Hamlet is about a son struggling to come to terms with the death of his father and seeking an easy solution for his grief by blaming his uncle for it. His obsession with setting the world right, and by extension, his own wellbeing, leads directly to him ruining the lives of everyone he cares about and forfeiting his entire kingdom. It’s not a direct comparison to Dream’s narrative, and Hamlet has relatively little to do with dreams of any sort (Hamlet is pointedly directionless for much of the play), but it wouldn’t be difficult to draw comparisons between events in Hamlet and Dream’s own life.
The Tempest is a harder sell. It’s a comedy, for one, though much more somber than most of Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s a fairytale with wizards, sprites, and magic, and between all of that, a love story with colonial undertones. In terms of its basic narrative, The Tempest is about an old man who learns to stop dicking people around. It’s honestly far less involved in dreams and more concerned with delusions, as are many of Shakespeare’s works. To frame The Tempest alongside Dream’s narrative (though the chapter has less to do with the play and more to do with Shakespeare’s writing of it) is to draw parallels between Dream and Prospero. Both men are given the guise of wisdom yet lack basic human social skills, prompting them to find fun in torture and become indifferent to the wishes of their allies and enemies alike. They both have tremendous power that they often use frivolously and to disempower those around them. They maintain isolated kingdoms filled with inhabitants they see as lower than themselves, and even their own family members are little more than playthings to them. However, the comparison breaks down after this. Prospero learns his lesson; he sets Ariel and Caliban free, admits his approval of his daughter’s chosen husband, and forgives his brother for trying to murder him. In the end of the play, Prospero gives up his magic and leaves his island. Happy ending.
Dream himself points out the dissimilarity between him and Prospero, describing the ending of The Tempest as something of a dream of his own, something he desires yet can’t bring himself to seek because of his self-imposed sense of duty. This brings to mind the idea that Dream has actually split himself into two, the emotional aspect of him not necessarily dying, but passing on to another life where he can embrace his personhood. Even so, that doesn’t really resolve the underlying disjunction surrounding the end of the series, and it also reinforces the problematic precedent of death equaling character development. The Tempest is a play full of unrestrained emotions colliding and often tearing at each other through the characters and landscape, the titular storm a mental phenomenon as much as if not more than a physical one. It suits Dream’s character as he’s appeared throughout the series. It just doesn’t feel to be like it suits the series’ conclusion.
Part Three: Don’t Pour Lobster Bisque Over Your Cake
The ending of something is important, especially in a serial work of fiction where the last issue released is often the last thing the creators worked on. Whether it reflects what the creators thought of the series or not, it’s an inevitable summary of what the series has been building toward. Sometimes that buildup is spectacular and everything the audience wants. Sometimes it disappoints.
I think The Sandman, Volume 10 is an apt conclusion for the series. I don’t like it, and I can point out plenty of problems with it, but I can’t deny that it’s consistent with the rest of the series. All of the plot discontinuity, the irritating framing of the protagonist, the whimsy disguised as philosophical bullshit — this is what The Sandman is. It’s appealing on its own to some, and I can’t deny that I’ve had a fun time writing about it even though I only truly love about 15% of the series. Volume 10 is fitting. I just find it kind of sad.
I’m somewhat lost for an assessment of whether The Sandman could be easily turned into a truly astounding series. I would be ignorant to deny its charms; the art style is vibrant with deep shadows and dynamic character designs, and the writing can be poignant when it doesn’t get caught up in its own literary devices. The mere scope of the series deserves some credit too. As a fantasy, it’s rich and engaging. Its world invites questions and many of its themes have a broader relation to the real world, for better or worse. When so many graphic novels are pulpy picture books intended to vaguely entertain but rarely challenge, I appreciate a series that can do both, at least some of the time.
That said, I disagree with the sentiment that this series is the best the medium can aspire to. It is rare to encounter a graphic novel or series this high in quality, or even an ordinary novel like it, but narratives, even ones with similar fantastical elements, that are more cohesive, less pretentious, better paced, better structured, and simply more effective exist in this very medium. “Good for a comic book” is not praise; graphic novels can be used to tell narratives that can’t be translated directly to film or writing. The Sandman pushes the boundaries established by the base of the medium, surpassing or matching the unity of images and writing in classic graphic novels, but there’s a chasm of difference between it and more cohesive narratives, even among graphic novels. Granting that quality is subjective, there are still a lot of things this series does that are outright pretentious and have no purpose meriting their existence. Pretension can occasionally be justified, but The Sandman revels in making its audience think it’s more artistic or meaningful than it really is. It frequently lacks the self-awareness necessary to ground fantasy logic and super powered characters, and the story suffers for it.
The Sandman series is a creative experiment I might liken to a fine lobster bisque poured over a sponge cake. It has components of class and components of simple enjoyment, neither of which is as healthy as it seems but probably won’t cause harm as long as it’s consumed with a varied diet. Mixing the materials that make up both ingredients might be possible and even better than expected, but when the two things are mushed together haphazardly, you end up with a dissatisfying pile of mush. This goes beyond the intercut short story chapters and main narrative — the dichotomy of simple and complex, superficial and deep, convoluted and straightforward intertwine constantly, but without any direction.
The series has a lot of built-in potential (again, though, not as much as it thinks) that’s yet to be tapped. I would be fascinated to see an adaptation of this material. Given its popularity, the surge of comic book films and shows lately, and DC’s desperation to compete with Marvel on this front, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about a Sandman adaptation in the near future. If it ever happens, I really hope whoever adapts it takes a good long look at the source material and uses their medium to mold whatever story they see in it. The Sandman is a classic, and with good reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond reproach.