The Wake: Chapter Two | Sandman Meditations

neil gaiman

Three years have passed. Not in The Sandman, but here between these meditations. Within only a few installments of finishing the central series, I couldn’t go on. I read chapter two of The Wake and could think of nothing to say. Characters from all the books were coming back, congregating, ready to pay respects. I wasn’t ready.

What has changed? Everything. Nothing. Years have passed. Can I think of something to say now? Perhaps. Is it worth saying? I don’t know. (But then, I never know.)

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The Wake: Part 1 by Neil Gaiman | Sandman Meditations

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Sometimes, the English language plays along. A god-like king of dreams has died, and so there is a wake. Dreams, in the literal sense at least, die upon the dreamer’s waking, and so, too, in The Sandman when Morpheus is no more: the dreamers wake.

There is a sense of quiet throughout this chapter, a quietude. And more so: gravity. Not for lack of words; there are plenty of words throughout these pages. Instead, the quiet, grave, pensive sorrow filling each panel seeps from the pencil lines and muted hues, the scored shadows along most of the edges, and all the downcast eyes. Though the chapter is not rich with plot, it gives an inescapable sense of motion, an undercurrent — the characters are all drawn toward the last page, the last panel. It’s the greatest, grandest view of the Endless we’ve yet seen, but also in many ways the coldest, for they look like stone monuments against a slate sky. “They are the family,” a character says.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 13 | Sandman Meditations

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The King is dead. Long live the King.

Those sentences have been rattling around in my mind’s ears ever since I finished reading the thirteenth, and final, chapter of The Kindly Ones. They’re traditionally said at ceremonies of monarchical accession, but mostly they remind me of E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story and a plot. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster maintained that “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story, while “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. A story is a narrative of events; a plot is a narrative with causality.

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The Kindly Ones part 12 | Sandman Meditations

 

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“Because there are rules.” That is Dream’s reply to Matthew, who wonders why one of the most powerful creatures in the universe has to give in to the demands of the Kindly Ones and risk his entire existence.

My immediate response, perhaps because I share a name with the raven, was to whine to myself: “But why!?!”

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The Kindly Ones: Part 11 | Sandman Meditations

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You will be relieved to learn, I know, that I survived the suspense of the cliffhanger at the end of Part 10. And as with so many of the surprises (and suspenses) of The Sandman, it was less and more than it appeared. We might have expected Nuala’s luring of Morpheus at the end of the previous part to lead to a story of great explosions back in the Dreaming, or we might have guessed Part 11 would give us an epic attack by the Furies, or we might have feared a giant climax of gigantic giantness to lurk around the corner, with Nuala as a devious double-agent of the forces of evil.

Instead, we learned that Nuala is perhaps best described as naive, and that the destruction heralded by the Furies will be slow and steady and insidious. They have no need for speed. They are the most patient creatures in the universe. They are the masters of revenge, and revenge is best served slow.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 10 | Sandman Meditations

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Dear Reader, see me squirm. After watching Nuala insist that Dream come to her to grant her boon, and after reading Dream say, “As long as I remain in the Dreaming, no real harm can occur,” and after then reading Nuala say, “My Lord … you are no longer in the Dreaming,” and Dream reply, “No. I am not,” I turned the page only to discover that I had just read the last words of Part 10, and thus must stop.

Dear Reader, I work hard to stick to our agreement about this experiment. I do not read ahead before I write down my meditations. I do not consult reference books or Wikipedia. I risk bushels of blunders. The purity of the experiment is what matters, and I have kept the purity I promised you at the beginning, Reader.

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The Kindly Ones Part 9 | Sandman Meditations

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By the end of the ninth chapter of The Kindly Ones, some characters may have found things they were looking for: Rose Walker may have found her heart, and the Corinthian may have found Lyta Hall’s son, Daniel. I say “may have found” because only a fool proclaims certainties about a Sandman story before it is finished (if then!), and I aspire to be less of a fool.

Rose’s heart is left behind by Desire after their conversation. The heart is in the form of an Art Deco lighter, something cold to the touch but full of fire when sparked to life. The Corinthian finds a lot of fire when he and Matthew track down Loki and Daniel: a fireplace fire and a fire that seems to emanate from Loki as a shield and weapon. The Corinthian is strong enough to overpower Loki’s fire, to knock him out and steal his eyes and see Daniel concealed above like a balloon on a string.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 8 | Sandman Meditations

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Travels and transgressions. Emigrations and imbrications. Diffusion and osmosis.

The eighth part of The Kindly Ones suggests that borders are breaking down, that walls once seemingly sturdy may be more rickety than we supposed, that to be Endless is not to be free of the threat of an end.

The first page gives us five children who travel to the King of Dreams in search of their lost mother. The second and third pages portray Dream traveling through his realm, encountering a variety of states and citizens. On the fourth page, he returns to his castle. “The heart of the Dreaming is as large as the Dreaming itself,” the narrator tells us. Throughout these first pages, space and time are delineated: we know the days (Truesday, Wodensday, Thirstday) and their approximate hours (“In the afternoon…”, “When this day was almost over…”); we know the places outside and inside the castle.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 7 | Sandman Meditations

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In the seventh part of The Kindly Ones, the growing sense we’ve had that Lyta’s story and Dream’s will intersect climactically is solidified by this chapter’s many parallels and apparent omens.

Ominous parallels and forboding omens.

Forced to find a simile for this chapter’s structure, I’d hem and haw a while, then, reluctantly (because of impossibility, because of imperfection) say Part 7 is like a quilt, and every few pages we get a new square, and all the squares are threaded together with the strings of past stories. (You have noticed by now, I’m sure, that each chapter except for the prologue and Part 6 begins with a string across the first panel.) The past stories are stories out of histories and mythologies, and, more and more, past Sandman tales. There is, for me at least, a sense of gathering — gathering characters, gathering plots, gathering stray props and loose ends and spare change.

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The Kindly Ones Part 6 | Sandman Meditations

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We have reached a sort of middle: the sixth part of The Kindly One’s thirteen parts. Thirteen, of course, being an odd number does not split evenly in two. Fans of Part 7 might find it more comfortably middle-ish, being for all intents and purposes the beginning of the second half, while fans of Part 6 might argue fervently and ferociously that their part is really the middle because it’s the end of the first half. Fans of Part 8 might then dispute the fans of Part 7 for the title of Beginning of the Second Half, invoking all sorts of ancient statutes requiring that second halves be shorter than first halves if the halves are not equal halves.

So there you halve it: the halves and halve-nots.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 5 | Sandman Meditations

sandmanGiven how complex the narrative of The Kindly Ones is revealing itself to be, I would be a fool to pretend to be able to come to any conclusions about it yet, or even to pretend to any knowledge of quite what is happening beyond the immediate events of each chapter. This is by far the most difficult of the Sandman volumes to proceed through in an issue-by-issue way; every time I reach the end of a chapter, I groan with the effort of restraining myself from turning the page. While such restraint fulfills the goals of this experiment in reading, and somewhat mimics the experience of the original readers who had to wait between issues of the comic, it’s still unavoidably frustrating.

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The Kindly Ones Part 4 | Sandman Meditations

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When Carla comes to visit Rose in the fourth chapter of The Kindly Ones, Rose is getting ready to videotape an episode of the sitcom Roseanne. She tells Carla that she is hoping to write something about three sitcoms in particular: Roseanne, The Addams Family, and Bewitched This information comes as she and Carla discuss, among other things, the difficulties and weirdnesses of families. (And from A Doll’s House we might remember that Rose knows a thing or two about weird families.)

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The Kindly Ones Part 3 | Sandman Meditations

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The sadness of Hob Gadling is, for me, among the most poignant recurring elements of The Sandman. In the third part of The Kindly Ones, Hob’s sadness stands in counterpoint to Lyta’s growing anxiety and, then, horror and hatred.

Previously, we have learned that all lives are brief, but what we learn now is that the pain of death comes from those lives suddenly losing synchronization. As Hob stands at Audrey’s grave, he says, “I thought we’d have longer.” This is what anyone who loses a loved one is likely to feel. I and some of my closest friends all lost parents when we were at very different ages, and yet our feelings of that experience were more similar than different. Prolonged illness may dull the response to death a bit as we feel grateful that the sufferer is no longer in pain, but even in those circumstances where we feel relieved to reach the end, the combination of death and love collapses time. We always think we’ll have longer.

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The Kindly Ones: Part 2 | Sandman Meditations

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The second chapter of The Kindly Ones develops two stories: the story of Lyta, who has now called the police because of her missing son, and the story of Cluracan and Nuala, who have gained Dream’s permission for Nuala to leave the Dreaming and return to Faerie.

But I’m not going to write about any of that.

We’re still just starting this story, and so I’m going to pause and discuss something tangential, though it begins with this story. Or, rather, it begins with me deciding not to read this story in a particular setting.

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The Kindly Ones: Prologue & Part 1 | Sandman Meditations

The prologue to The Kindly Ones contains an image that is pure pornography for someone like me: an endless library. A library of books not written, of books that authors and readers have only dreamed. We’ve seen it before in The Sandman, and come to recognize the librarian, Lucien, but it is here in Kevin Nowlan’s art that the wondrous scope of the place is most enticing to me. We see Lucien standing at the top of a library ladder, pillars of shelves all around him, floors of stacks leading to the unseen, infinite horizon. There’s an M.C. Escher quality to the image, given all the symmetrical lines. We might imagine that the stairs of one floor lead in a loop to the stairs of another floor, creating an ouroboric space without entrance or exit. There’s a particularly wonderful detail in the image: the bottom right corner of the panel shows a cluster of books lying as if on the top of a shelf. They’re in the foreground of the picture, tantalizingly close to us, all come-hither look and attitude of, Hey big boy, don’t you just wish you could open me up and have a peek…

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Worlds’ End: ‘WORLDS’ END’| Sandman Meditations

Worlds’ end and words’ ends; end as conclusion and end as purpose. We’ve reached the finishing line of this story arc, and the stories within stories reveal by the last page what seems to be their outer shell.

This conclusion does what the best conclusions do: it ties up some loose ends while heightening the overall sense of mystery. We might say we like stories that have clear, unambiguous endings, but do we? Depends on the we, I suppose. No-one who likes such endings is likely to last through many Sandman volumes.

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Worlds’ End: “Cerements” | Sandman Meditations

The word necropolis etymologically means “city of the dead”, but its everyday definition is “cemetery” or “burial ground”. In the penultimate chapter of Worlds’ End, the necropolis of Litharge is more literal — a city built from the dead and devoted to the dead, a metropolis of morticians.

It’s an evocative, strangely beautiful idea. Certainly, it’s efficient: with all the corpses and their detritus contributing to the creation and maintenance of the city (once the appropriate rituals have been attended to), Litharge provides a model of sustainability, with one of the best recycling programs in all the Sandman stories.

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Worlds’ End: The Golden Boy | Sandman Meditations

The tale this time is a mystical Manichean parable of an alternate America, and it’s a story that uses severe simplification to highlight our governing myths.

(Let me pause here first to say that an inn with a library full of many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore seems to me the perfect rest stop in a storm. The Worlds’ End becomes a stranger building with each chapter, but the addition of a bibliophile’s wing seems eminently civilized to me.)

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Worlds’ End: Hob’s Leviathan | Sandman Meditations

Stories within stories within … how many withins are there in this story? There’s the story Jim tells, which is the primary one in the Sandman story called “Hob’s Leviathan” — as with all the Worlds’ End tales, at least up through this one, it is a story-within-the-story. But there is also the stowaway’s story, which is told within Jim’s story and so is a story-within-the-story-within-the-story. And then there are the various allusions and references, from the punning title (cf. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan) to Jim’s final statement, which echoes Moby Dick‘s first sentence. Traces of stories within all the other stories…
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Worlds’ End: Cluracan’s Tale | Sandman Meditations

I have to admit, I was dreading this one.

My reason for dread isn’t even a reason, not in any reasonable way — it’s nothing more than an irrational prejudice.

I hate fairies. Everything about them. The glitter, the glamour, the glow. Most of all, I hate the word itself. Fairy. (Or, worse, faerie. Ugh, it hurt just to type that.) Continue reading Worlds’ End: Cluracan’s Tale | Sandman Meditations

Worlds’ End: Sequences at the Inn & A Tale of Two Cities | Sandman Meditations

Worlds’ End begins with a prelude illustrated by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham in which two people get in a car crash during a mysterious June snowstorm and find their way to a magical inn, the Worlds’ End.

That plural apostrophe is easy to overlook, but the plurality of worlds at the inn is immediately apparent to the viewer from the first panel on page seven, which offers our initial sight of the other characters who are waiting out the storm, or storms — characters of such physiognomic variety that they might be ready to attend Mardi Gras or a particularly good Halloween party. We’re experienced enough by now with The Sandman, though, to suspect these aren’t costumes.

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Brief Lives: Chapter 9 | Sandman Meditations

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All lives are brief. That is what we learned early in Brief Lives, and now, in the last chapter, the lesson is offered again in various guises. Stories have conclusions, even stories of the Endless. They are Endless, but not Immutable.

Death is feared by all, even those, like Orpheus, who yearn for it for a thousand years. When she arrives, bringing a last border to life, she opens up a vast unknown. (Or perhaps it is not vast. The unknown is, by definition, unknowable until it is known. It could be narrow, tiny, crushing, nothing.) Death is the one constant in an ever-changing universe. (That sentence lies. If the universe is ever-changing, then change is also a constant. Death and change dance together in the ever-changing universe.)

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Brief Lives: Chapter 8 | Sandman Meditations

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Were Sandman a conventional story, this chapter would be the climax of Brief Lives. But Sandman is not a conventional story.

And in many ways, chapter eight is a climax. Events have been building to bring Delirium, Dream, and Destruction together for the first time in 300 years, and that meeting is portrayed here. The meeting does not explode with screaming and yelling, it features no hostage attempts or murders or giant exploding squid. For the most part the characters just chat, then Destruction goes off to another universe.

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Brief Lives Chapter 7 | Sandman Meditations

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One panel in particular stands out in this chapter of Brief Lives. On page 23, the bottom left panel gives us a sihouetted figure, bright yellow eyes his only visible features, standing against a dark blue-purple-red sky. This is an anomalous panel in a chapter that has been mostly bright, or at least neutral, in color tone, with no other character entirely silhouetted in a panel.

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A Hope in Hell | Sandman Meditations

“A Hope in Hell” feels like a turning point, a moment when the creators of The Sandman took a new step forward in the progress of their work and skills.  There is a drama to the story that emanates not from any one element, but from a coordination of structures.  We have seen strengths of art and writing throughout the first three stories, but it is not until the fourth that these strengths are both consistent and cooperative enough to create a sense of depth greater than anything that can be pointed to in a single panel or on a single page.

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