The King is dead. Long live the King.
I couldn’t help it: I thought of Elvis.
It’s not the first time when reading The Sandman that Elvis came to mind, but it was the most instinctive and in some ways the least appropriate such moment. We’re at the end of the wake for Morpheus and Matthew says to the new Dream, “Just remember what the French say. No, probably not the French, they’ve got a president or something. The Brits, maybe. Or the Swedes. You know the one I mean?” Dream does not. Matthew says, “The King is dead. Long live the King.”
And my free-associating brain did its annoying thing of sending out random names and words: “Elvis!” it screamed into my consciousness.
Not quite a random name, of course. Elvis was, after all, called The King. I don’t really care about Elvis, though. So why, brain, why are you yelling this?
I realized that, like so much else that bubbles up out of my unconscious mind, it was my father’s fault. He loved Elvis, collected all sorts of Elvis records, and so Elvis was the first musician I was ever aware of. More than that: Elvis’s death is the first one I remember. Or, more accurately: Elvis’s death is the first death I remember remembering. I had to look up the date: August 16, 1977. I’m skeptical that I do remember it as I remember remembering it, though, because if that date is accurate, then I was not quite two years old. How can I have a memory from such an early age? And yet I do: I remember my father’s shock when he heard it on the TV news that night. I remember the words: Elvis is dead. The King is dead.
Maybe my memory is a dream. Or, more accurately: the memory of a dream.
(Of course, plenty of people insist that Elvis is still alive. You’ll still see bumper stickers and t-shirts now and then: Elvis Lives! Maybe he does. Who knows. Maybe we need him to. Or not we — because I don’t — but you. And so the story goes on.)
Stories are like that, like dreams and memories, like memories of dreams, like rumors we decide to believe.
That’s part of what’s going on at the wake for Morpheus, isn’t it? This isn’t just a memorial service for a character in a story; it’s a memorial for the journey we’ve been on, and a memorial for so many other journeys through imaginary tales, too. All the old familiars show up. They’re familiar from The Sandman, yes, but also elsewhere. They’re familiar from older tales, from other comics but also from stories older than comics, stories older even, perhaps, than the English language or written words. They end, and we must stop to remember their end, but they also don’t end. Dream is not dead. Daniel waits in the wings, but he’s not Daniel now. Is and isn’t. Dead and alive. Neither nor, either or.
At their core, good stories are like good proverbs. We remember them for the moments we need them, and in those moments we might not remember them exactly, we might be hazy on whether they’re set in France or England or Sweden or somewhere farther beyond, but we know they’ve got something we need, the thing we need now. That thing we need — a perspective, an angle, a resonance, a whiff — may not be something there originally. It may be something we added ourselves, something we remembered into the story because we needed it to be there, and now it is. Call it Elvis. Call it Dad.
Or call it family, because that, too, is central to what we’re talking about here. Morpheus’s family includes people he seemed to like (dare we say love? I don’t, but you might) and others he … had his problems with. But what the wake shows is that “family” is a shallow concept if left to blood.
The older I get, the more important I think it is to find your family and build it up. I first came to this idea when I went to college in New York City and started participating in AIDS activism. This was in the early and mid-1990s. So many people had been cast out of the families they’d been born into, and they survived by building new families, families that would love them less conditionally, families that would seek beauty in even the most terrible moments rather than something terrible in any beautiful moments. But even those of us lucky enough to have wide, wonderful families of relations still need to seek out other affinities and communities. Families ought to expand.
The family that finds its way to the memorial for Morpheus is a kind of family for us, the readers. As we’ve read along, we’ve allowed these characters to bloom in our imaginations. We’ve judged them and embraced them, been repulsed by them and fallen in love with them, maybe been embarrassed for them now and then and proud of them at other times. Sure, they’re just ink on a page, some words and images, but with the steady accumulation of words, images, pages, and books our imaginations have filled in the blank spots, extended the lines, built on the words. We’ve dreamed these characters into being.
…you woke up, the narration says at the end.
The shift in perspective on that last page is so powerful because it is so true. We have become Dream. He lives in us, and he transforms in us. The new stories are not only the stories of the writers and artists who keep telling them — obviously, they are that, but for each of us the stories are, in the end, what we make of them. That’s been true all along, but now we get reminded of it. Gently, not thumpingly. There’s no need to get all metafictional. (Most metafictional conceits feel hamhanded and clunky if their only goal is to remind us that we’re reading a story. We know that. It’s not an interesting insight. To be interesting, a metafictional move must show us something about fiction or about ourselves or, preferably, both.) But a gentle twist can be explosive, and I found the final image of Chapter Three to feel like a fireworks show in my head, because the image, too, reflects the shift in perspective: we’re seeing from Dream’s point of view.
“Fighting to stay asleep, wishing it would go on forever, sure that once the dream was over it would never come back … you woke up.”
That you does so much work! It’s the giant, blinding, deafening, multicolored chrysanthemum exploding across the darkness at the end of the show on the fourth of July! What seems like a simple shift in point of view is not so simple here. It provides us not only with something to think about, but with a fitting conclusion. (Finding a conclusion to fit the sprawl of The Sandman is no simple feat.)
There’s a great and wondrous play by Len Jenkin called Dark Ride. (I saw a great production of it at SoHo Rep in New York when I was in college, back when I was learning about families, about expanding them.) It ends with all of the characters chanting, “I’m not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends.” When writing, I often say this to myself, because I struggle with endings. My tendencies are meditative, philosophical, academic, pedantic. My tastes are more for the open and ambiguous (something else I learned in New York in the ‘90s was how to read Chekhov, king of the open ending. Long live the king!). But just because I like such things in other people’s work doesn’t mean I’m able to achieve those things in my own without gritting my teeth and working against my worst inclinations. And so I chant: “I’m not interested in philosophy! Just tell me how it ends!”
Chapter Three is an end to The Wake, though an epilogue and more stories follow. But it is an ending. Or, more accurately: an end in the middle, an Endless end that doesn’t end. An end that means begin. But still an end. Yes. Let’s call it that.
Anyway, this ending, whatever we want to call it (this end-for-now), for me at least, seems just right. It’s rhythmic, it’s reflective, and like so much else in The Wake it’s beautifully drawn — all hail penciller Michael Zulli, whose praise I meant to offer more fulsomely here, but I got distracted. (I wanted to get to the end.)
We’ve been set up for the final moment gloriously with the awakening of the dreamers, again and again: “And then she woke up … and then he woke up… and then…”
And then you. Me. Us.
I don’t care about philosophy.
The readers, the dreamers.
The King is dead.
The story, the dream.
Just tell me how it ends.
The death, the life.
Long live the King.