Brief Lives – Sandman Meditations

brief lives

Brief Lives Chapter 1

Now, opening the first pages of the seventh collection of The Sandman, some of the fun comes from knowing right where we are in the first panels. Disorientation has certainly been an element when beginning these stories, because they could be anywhere or anywhen, but re-orientation is also an important component — at first, the stories re-oriented us to narratives and characters from outside the Sandman universe, tales that began as myths or legends or novels or other comics, but now that we have hundreds of pages of this comic itself behind us, the re-orientations can be gloriously Ouroboric.

Guessing at the re-orientations and then watching them unfold can be an exciting position to be in as a reader, and is one of the attractions of serial stories in general, though especially common and complex among The Sandman’s tendency to bust out the metatextual moves.

And so here we have a first page: islands, one of which has a structure on it that looks like a Greek temple. The second panels gives us some narration: “Andros can never get over the honor daily done to him and to his family.” And I know and you know that soon we’ll be meeting up with one of our favorite severed heads, Orpheus.

Not only do we get to see Orpheus again, but we also soon encounter some of the Endless, whom we haven’t seen much of, at least as a group, since Season of Mists. It’s nice to meet up with Delirium again, because in her appearances in the past she’s been intriguing, but I have also wondered how one might make her into a full character, because she seemed, appropriately to her name, to have some difficulty with coherent communication. In this chapter, though, she is able to communicate past her … well, what do you call it? I was about to write “condition”, and that may in fact be accurate — the condition of her being, I suppose — but all the words that come to mind at the moment are ones applicable to humans under the influence of chemicals or in the grip of mental illness, the sorts of words one uses with a person who might get better, whereas Delirium is not so much under the grip of a condition as she is the condition, its embodiment or its apotheosis: she suffers from herself. To speak of Delirium with the words we use to speak of human beings under the sway of delirium would be like speaking of Dream having dreams. Which is an interesting idea full of possibilities, but inaccurate for casual discussion of his being.

When Delirium makes her way into the club where she eventually summons Desire, a Tori Amos song, “Tear in Your Hand”, plays in the background, with lyrics from the beginning wending their way across the first panel on page 10: “Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen…” — a perfect line for Delirium, certainly, especially given her occasional tendency to discorporate (as she does on page 13, becoming a flutter of butterflies). They’re words that apply to many other things through The Sandman, though, but beyond even that, a little bit before those words of “Tear in Your Hand”, Amos sings the lines, “If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hangin’ out with the dream king. (Neil said hi by the way.)”

Any self-respecting Sandman fan knows, of course, that “Neil” is Neil Gaiman, and the Gaiman-Amos Axis of Awesomeness (that’s the technical name) is so famous that it has even produced a Lacanian interpretation, which, if you don’t know, is pretty much the height of fame. (Really, ask any celebrity, and I bet many of them will say, “I honestly won’t feel like I’ve arrived until my iconicity has been wrestled into Lacanian hermeneutics.”)

I’ve been listening to Tori Amos since Little Earthquakes came out when I was in high school. I have her videos on VHS.  When she releases new albums, I buy them automatically.

And now I’m going to admit something that will make you laugh at me. Go ahead. I give you permission.

I had no idea until pretty recently that there was any connection at all between Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman. Part of this was my ignorance of The Sandman — though for over half my life now I have known the “hangin’ out with the dream king” line, it wasn’t until I began reading Sandman for these meditations that I knew quite what “the dream king” meant. I assumed “Neil” was just some guy, someone meaningful to Amos but not necessarily to the rest of us — like a name in a Frank O’Hara poem. (By the way, as I’ve told Chris, Jeff, Rick and probably a few other folks, O’Hara is my favorite American poet of the second half of the 20th century.) In my mind, I simply put “Neil” in the same category as “Greg” in the line from “Pretty Good Year” on Amos’s next album, Under the Pink: “And Greg, he writes letters and burns his CDs…” A name, because it’s fun to create a sense of the personal through names. Celebrities are in the strange position of being known by vastly more people than they will, themselves, ever be able to know, and Amos’s use of names in her songs creates a sense of bridging that gap, of creating an intimacy that, while artificial, is also, for me at least, deeply appealing. It feels like we’re part of a conversation, in on a joke, a member of a special group. Perhaps we even fantasize a bit about our own name being there — all the Neils and Gregs who are Tori Amos fans must love those songs, because who wouldn’t want to be lyricized (at least in a song that is nice to its names)? In fact, in one of the last interviews before his death, Lacan said, “I feel my work would be complete if Tori Amos would simply sing in one of her songs, ‘Jacques, you are my mirror.'”

I have another confession: I am someone who spent six or seven years thinking “burns his CDs” was a very interesting, strange image of a guy putting his whole CD collection in a pile and setting it on fire.

Ignorance and misinterpretation fascinate me, perhaps because I am endlessly prone to them, despite being one of those disreputable people who habitually tosses interpretations into public spheres. Did I lose anything during those many years when, for me, “the dream king” was just one of Tori Amos’s beguiling images? When “Neil” was just another name? With “Pretty Good Year”, I still hold onto the mental picture of a guy pouring gasoline over a pyre of gleaming discs, even though I know now, or at least strongly suspect, that what Amos meant is a guy making CDs — what we all do when we hit the “Burn” button in iTunes, which is where I finally learned the term. I could never assert that this is a correct interpretation of the song, but it’s an association I cherish, a personal association … like a secret name.

I’ve read too much of The Sandman now to associate “the dream king” with anything else, though, and I’m tickled by the idea that Neil Gaiman has been hanging out in my head, inscribed in a memorized lyric, without my knowing it for the majority of the time, since 1992. Dream king, indeed.

Brief Lives Chapter 2

Early in Tron: Legacy, some of the main characters sit down for a meal together. This struck me as odd when I watched the film, because at that point in the story, the characters were inside the virtual reality of The Grid, and were really nothing much more than conglomerations of computer code. Computer codes, of course, need something to sustain them, but they don’t usually go around having dinner with each other.

It’s an interesting and appropriate choice, though, for the story, because two of the characters are actually digitized humans, and we humans have built all sorts of rituals and habits around food.

This thought hit me again when I read page 13 of the second chapter of Brief Lives. Here, Dream and Delirium sit down for a meal together, and because they are in Dream’s realm, they can order whatever they want for food. Delirium orders some milk chocolate people and a glass of mango juice; Dream orders an omelette, a salad, and a glass of white wine — but we get the sense that if either had wanted an order of flambéed cement block with a side of Martian truffle, it would have been no problem.

I assume that neither Dream nor Delirium ever truly needs to eat, at least in the way humans do; they are sustained and, I imagine, fueled by the beliefs and needs of humans (and whatever other creatures they are in a symbiotic relationship with). When the Endless sit down for a meal, then, it is purely for ritual purposes, or out of some sort of habit. They are also, at that moment, pretending to be at least a little bit human.

Meals fit in well with the fractured family psychodrama that the Endless as a group enact. Part of the fun of seeing them with each other is seeing god-like beings acting like, well, us. Delirium is the troubled sister about whom endless after-school specials have been written, the angsty and creative girl who doesn’t really fit in well with her family and can be terribly vexing but who is, at heart, adorable.

Dream’s perpetual love troubles humanize him, too. There’s no rule that says seemingly immortal and godlike beings have to have the same emotions as humans, but when it comes to romantic love, Dream seems to be at least on a parallel plane to ordinary people. Despite his centuries of practice, he’s not very good at relationships, probably because he has a hard time compromising or letting go of himself; he’s also probably a bit of a know-it-all, and he certainly seems moody, so it may be that he’s forever doomed to relationships that last somewhat less than forever, but at least he keeps trying. And he doesn’t seem to have sent any of his former loves to Hell recently, at least since Nada, so he may even be learning a thing or two.

It makes sense that Dream should be both loved and love-lorn, because romantic love requires dreaming. It may also explain some of the reason for Dream’s troubles: love that lasts lives beyond dreams. Lovers, especially in the early stages of a relationship, fantasize and yearn, imagining all sorts of things about the loved one. As they get to know the other better, and as their lives entwine, they have more and more matter and substance and data and qualia with which to ground their fantasies in realities. Relationships that can’t make the transition from being primarily dream and potential to being primarily experience and knowledge don’t lead to a lot of happiness, because the dreams and realities clang and crash stubbornly against each other, producing only cacophony and debris.

It also makes sense that in the midst of his rainy lovesickness, Dream should be contacted by Delirium and Desire, for they, too, have something to do with love. Desire, of course, is one of the spurs to love and one of the fuels for it, and Dream himself questions Desire to ask if she has been causing his recent troubles. (She denies it.) Delirium is the other side of love, the giddy fantasizing part similar to dreaming, but a sadder and more painful version of it: the false dream. Unrequited love, if pursued, belongs more to her realm than Dream’s. As we know from this chapter of Brief Lives, Delirium began as Delight — pure delight, it seems, is another form of delirium (and, perhaps, vice versa). Dreams and delirium do not inevitably lead to bliss. Our characters, after all, are heading off in search of Destruction.

Before they go, Delirium leaves her little chocolate people on her plate, and the narrator says they “copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.” It’s a remarkable description, both funny and sad, odd and familiar, and it feels utterly appropriate, because how different from these sweetly melting chocolate people are we, really, when in the throes of love? Brief lives, indeed, and maybe even borrowed. In love, especially, are we not somebody else’s dream? Against mortality and entropy, is not all our copulating desperate? It’s not a bad way to go, though: loved and lusted, covered in raspberry cream.

But the last word in that sentence is fear.

And Dream’s last words in this issue are some of the most ominous any character can offer: “What could possibly go wrong?”

Brief Lives Chapter 3

Brief Lives is, in its plot, mostly transitional: it gets the characters moving and introduces us to people who will, I expect, be important along the way, but nothing quite begins or ends here.

What we get in this chapter are glimpses and hints, suggestions of much beyond the immediate. The suggestions begin right from the first page, which reveals that not only are there more extremely long-lived people walking the streets of the world than we might have previously presumed, but Earth is not the only planet open to the Sandman’s wanderings — the first panel shows a view of space and the second sentence begins with the phrase, “Even on this planet,” which points not only to other planets, but other planets where there is a sense of time and history, for the sentence continues on to talk of ages and years. Later, when Dream visits Mr. Farrell/Pharamond, the travel agent asks, “You’ll be staying on Earth, then? Nothing off-planet? Or off-plane?”

We’ve known of other planes of reality, of course, from early in The Sandman, but the notion of the Endless or anyone else having access to other planets is not one that I remember being emphasized before. The gravitational force shaping the realms of the Endless and other not-exactly-human characters seemed to be the histories and mythologies of Earth. There was a sense of an infinite amount of possibilities and realities, of stories stretching from here to neverland, of dreams making reality polyphonic and multiversed — but despite all that, there has still seemed to be a universe, singular, and the concerns of The Sandman within that universe so far have been geocentric.

Interestingly, the long-lived people are called “the old ones” in the last sentence of the first page, three words sure to evoke Lovecraft for many readers, and yet these old ones seem at least as different from Cthulhu’s spawn as Gaiman’s Sandman is different from Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s. The gentle allusion serves to open up the universe to us, though, because Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness gives a cosmic history to the Elder Things. Dreams, let’s not forget, were important in Lovecraft’s fiction. “The Call of Cthulhu” contains a strange and marvelous sentence: “In the elder time chosen men had talked with the entombed Old Ones in dreams, but then something had happened.”

What do aliens dream?

It’s a tantalizing thought — dreaming aliens! — but one we have no evidence to continue with yet in The Sandman. (What, exactly, does alien even mean within The Sandman? A particularly obsessive literary linguist might make a dissertation from that question; myself, I’ll just adopt a wait-and-see attitude.)

On page five, Death addresses Bernie Capax, one of the old ones, at the moment his long life ends: “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

It’s a statement that sounds like a motto, something that could, perhaps, be emblazoned on the cover of a book called Brief Lives, but it’s hardly comforting. Birth and death provide boundaries, but much as we might like their simple, blunt facts to be meaningful, meaning comes from the space between.

As a teacher, I have known more parents who have lost children than I might have otherwise, and were I to have one wish that could alter the laws of nature, it would be that parents never outlive their children. There is a remarkable strength in all of the surviving parents I have known, a strength I fear I would not have in their place, though of course none of us can predict how such disaster would affect us. Each of the parents I have known who has lost a child, of whatever age, has worked against the sorrow and anger of loss by extolling the meaning of the life they created, for though the life itself was ended, the meaning could continue. Memory produced the meaning: memory of generosity, memory of resilience, memory of wit and humor, memory of a smile. A memory in a tear.

Memory combats mortality. Nothing may be eternal, but we don’t really need anything to be eternal: we just need what matters to last long enough to help us get through the day.

On an airplane, the Sandman meets a little girl who knows how to fly in her dreams, but wonders why she always forgets when she wakes up. “When you dream,” he says to her, “sometimes you remember. When you wake, you always forget.”

“But that’s not fair,” she says. He doesn’t reply, and in the next panel he and Delirium are instructed to walk through a door marked “No exit,” like a play by Sartre. All the other passengers continue through life, but Dream and Delirium aren’t alive in the same way, and there’s no way for them to get out.

It’s not fair that we always forget how to fly when we wake up from dreams. It’s not fair that parents sometimes outlive their children. Fairness and life don’t have much to say to each other.

Delirium often searches for single words to convey complex ideas, and she fails until, on the last page, she says, “There must be a word for it … the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?” Yes, there is. Dream knows it, and it’s the last word of this chapter: “Change.”

Change defines our sense of time, and time is essential to our understanding of history and of stories: one thing after another. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, in a fragment attributed to him (translated by Guy Davenport), “History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of man’s power in the world.”

Change gives us time, and time makes all lives brief, because time is a perspective. Jeffrey Ford’s story “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” is a kind of elaboration of Heraclitus’s fragment: the story of a species whose lives are, by our standards, very brief indeed, for they are lives bounded by the creation and dissolution of sand-castles. It’s one of the most beautiful and wondrous stories I know, because it is our story, too.

Time is happening. Lives are brief. Lifetimes are what we have. Remember.

And build more sand-castles.

Brief Lives Chapter 4

There’s something thrilling about the secret spaces of secret identities. Sometimes, of course, they’re fascinating in and of themselves — think of the Batcave, or of Doc Savage’s Fortress of Solitude. But they’re still thrilling when they’re a basement room in a nondescript suburban house. That’s where Capax had stashed the souvenirs of his long life, as his son shows Dream and Delirium. The place reveals nothing to the son except that he had no idea what sort of person his father was. Krugerrands, strange substances, weapons, blank passports — as the son says, “This is like a spy movie or Mission Impossible or something.” (If only he knew just whom he was telling this to!)

Dream and Delirium have little concern for the material world, and seem uninterested in the son’s discoveries. Capax is dead, so they need to move on. This moment particularly highlights that the Endless are different from you and me. I can’t be the only person who reads this scene and thinks, “Oooh, neat — Krugerrands! Guns! Passports! What fun! Don’t tell the IRS anything, you stupidhead!”

Of course, it’s just a thought, a fantasy of sudden, weird wealth. Much too petty for the Endless. We short-lived mortals are weak beings, and Krugerrands impress us. Dream and Delirium have far more compelling concerns. For instance, why is everyone who is connected to their quest dying?

We don’t find any answer to that question in this chapter. I’ll confess, though, that when the duo professed puzzlement at the deaths, I thought, “Why don’t you ask your sister?” We did, after all, see Death collect Capax in a previous chapter. I momentarily had an image of Dream whipping out an Endless cell phone, calling up Death, and saying, “Yo sis, what’s the deal?” But I know it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe it does. We can’t rule anything out in The Sandman, as I’ve come to learn. (If Dream has an Endless cell phone in the next issue, though, I promise to pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe. Actually, if I wanted to pull what is known in the film biz as a “Full Herzog”, I’d drag a big boat over a mountain. But I don’t have a boat.)

Something else we don’t yet know is what role the Alder Man will play in the story. At the beginning of the chapter, we see him turn into a bear through the magic of his urine, then determinedly chew his shadow separate from himself. If I were a Jungian, I’d make something of that, but I’m not a Jungian, and so what I thought about instead was one of my favorite poems, Galway Kinnell’s The Bear, a very Sandman-esque dream-poem rich with myth and magic. I first discovered it in 1998 when I attended a poetry reading by Kinnell; I’d never heard of him before, and I don’t generally like poetry readings, because so many poets don’t know how to read aloud except in a way that makes them sound like they think their every exhalation is imbued with gold dust. While some people require of their U.S. presidents that they be the sort of person one might like to sit down and have a beer with, I don’t require that of my presidents, but I do require it of my poets. Galway Kinnell is a good reader, and I’d be happy to have a beer with him. At the end of that reading in 1998, an audience member asked if he wouldn’t mind reading his most famous poem, “The Bear”, and though Kinnell has read that poem so many times he probably wonders now and then if anybody has ever loved any of his other words as well, he read it.

I remember exactly where I was sitting in that auditorium when Kinnell spoke the first words of “The Bear”. Few poetry readings have ever had such an effect on me, an effect of words becoming more than words, becoming music and emotion and experience. I can get close to it even now simply by rolling the words lung-colored around on my tongue. And then plunging back into Kinnell’s rhythms and assonance and imagery: and put down my nose / and know / the chilly, enduring odor of bear.

What really got me, though, was the last stanza, and, especially, the last few lines. The perfect balance of wandering: wondering, the repetition of the next / the next / the next, the movement from myth and dream into the poem we are reading in that final question, a question that is, yes, metatextual, but also essential, as any devoted reader knows, because it suggests not merely that the narrator knows that life gets turned into poetry, but that it needs to be. What, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived? I remember how Kinnell slowed down in those last words as he read them; those words, so familiar to him from decades of recitals, remained potent. I remember how he didn’t look out at the audience for a moment, because experience had taught him that we needed a second or two alone with the question for ourselves before we joined in the joint venture of applause.

There is more to talk about from this chapter of Brief Lives — not the least being Reason and Enlightenment — but the story is still unfolding, and I expect there will be plenty of time in coming chapters to think about all we haven’t considered here. Having introduced “The Bear”, I don’t particularly want to think about anything else right now. Poetry gives us a secret space of our own, one with no need for Krugerrands or blank passports or weapons, and now that I have entered that space, I don’t want to consider anything beyond the chilly, enduring odor of bear and the poetry by which we live.

Brief Lives Chapter 5

At the end of the last chapter, I suspected Delirium driving a car would lead to some interesting adventures. In life, someone driving like that would be terrifying, but in our story here it’s hilarious, partly because I assumed she wouldn’t kill anybody, and so it was okay to laugh. Upset some people, certainly; cause some minor crashes even, yes, but if she wreaked so much havoc that anyone died, it would create a tone for the story that could be unsettling in an unhelpful way, making the comedy too dark to be comedic. The traffic on page four is akimbo, but spaciously so. If Delirium had tried driving in, say, Boston, where the roads are often narrow, confusing, and terribly overcrowded, the results might have been a bit different.

As it is, though, the movement from page nine to page ten is one of the funniest moments I remember in all of The Sandman. It’s a wonder of pacing, benefiting from the seriousness of Ishtar and Tiffany’s conversation about love and men, which creates a perfect set-up: Tiffany saying she suddenly experienced a “kind of mystical vision” in which there was “this sorta big black bird shouting at me” and Ishtar asking, “What was it saying?” We turn the page and find out. The many relatively small panels of page nine, most focused close on faces, give way to the large, widely-focused top panel of page ten, with Matthew’s words in big, emphatic letters as he panics and cars swerve around Delirium’s dance-like driving.

The subject matter of this chapter of Brief Lives is not light, and the lives lived in it are not easy ones, but there is a lightness to the handling of the material that prevents the chapter from becoming oppressively gloomy and distracting us from the overall story. The representation of the inside of Suffragette City is an example of this — what could have been sordid is rendered with fluid strokes of color and shadow by penciller Jill Thompson, inker Vince Locke, and colorist Daniel Vozzo. It gives a sense of the club as a different world, a realm of its own, a place with a touch of glam. (And anybody who has seen the film Velvet Goldmine knows that glam isn’t necessarily glamourous.) The inspiration is David Bowie, not Tom Waits.

It’s notable that Nancy has a master’s degree in Women’s Studies. This serves the chapter in a few ways, the most immediate of which is to provide a reason for one of the dancers to talk about the purpose and meaning of goddesses, virginity, and prostitution. I have no background in this area of history, so can’t comment on the accuracy of anything Nancy or Ishtar says about ancient practices, but the accuracy isn’t as important to this chapter as the effect. What these stories and Nancy’s academic pedigree do is similar to what the inking and coloring do: they offer a history of sexy goddess worship and a narrative of female empowerment to oppose any knee-jerk sense of a place like Suffragette City being the apotheosis of sexism and patriarchy. Nancy, who ought to have plenty of practice in the deconstruction of gendered power relationships, says, “The money’s good, the hours suit me, I get a roomful of men making me feel wanted, and paying for the privilege. And when I get old, and my boobs start to sag, I’ll write a book about it and go on Donahue.”

Like many aspiring writers, Nancy is probably over-estimating the popularity of what she would write, but there have been many books that cover aspects of this life, such as Wendy Chapkis’s Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor , Katherine Frank’s G-Strings and Sympathy, Kim Price-Glynn’s Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work, and the anthology Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance. A lot of these books came out after the contentious battles between anti-porn and pro-porn feminists in the 1980s and early 1990s settled into bitter detente; Brief Lives appeared on the later edge of that battle while predating most of the academic feminist books that sought a complex portrayal of sex work. When Nancy was in school, she would have been far more likely to encounter people who thought a place such as Suffragette City was irredeemably oppressive than to encounter people who saw such places as not always and inherently evil. (I sometimes teach within the discipline of Women’s Studies, but I’m agnostic on the topic of sex work, as I have no experience as either a performer or patron, and theorizing about people’s lives without any experience of those lives seems to me a sure path to arrogant foolishness.)

The portrayal of Suffragette City in Brief Lives benefits from the multiple perspectives that fiction can offer — Nancy is a character, not a mouthpiece, and we do not have to accept her interpretation of where and how she works, although Ishtar’s apparent acceptance of that interpretation lends it weight, given Ishtar’s history. But Ishtar, when she was Belili or Astarte, was in love with Destruction. If she had discovered a lost member of the Endless called Empowerment or Equality or Feminist Hulk, we might have to accept her authority on the topic a bit more. She was a goddess of love, and as Tiffany and millions of other people could attest, love sometimes blinds us to the truths we ought to see. It’s easy to love being worshipped, but worship is hardly the healthiest expression of love.

Much as I enjoy the humor of the top panel of page ten, my favorite in this chapter is the second panel on page eighteen, a beautifully simple panel that is emotionally rich. Here we see Ishtar-Belili-Astarte sitting alone in the dressing room, looked at by a man, but not the sort of man who looks at her every night in the club. It is Dream who stares at her here, and he brings knowledge of her full history. The image is different from all of the others in Suffragette City: there’s more white space and the shadows are roughly textured, not liquid. It feels to me like we’re seeing through the glitz, the lights, the come-ons, the leers, the false confidence and all the other con games life makes us play. It’s a gorgeous, sad, thoughtful, ambiguous portrait. As is this chapter of Brief Lives.

Brief Lives Chapter 6

The sixth chapter sits roughly in the middle of Brief Lives, and it is suffused with a kind of mid-life melancholy. Or perhaps not melancholy exactly, but rather pensive yearning and contemplative reflection. Reconciliations and reconfigurations. The characters’ histories are long and a bit dusty, and many seem now on the verge of significant change, though no-one knows what that change will be. Everyone knows their stories must go somewhere, but there are nearly infinite wheres out there.

The chapter is composed of short dialogues: Destruction and Barnabas, Delirium and Dream, Dream and Pharamond, Dream and Bast, Lucien and Mervyn, Dream and Death, Dream and Delirium. Two of the longest breaks in this pattern occur on page 9, where Dream is alone, and on page 17, when Dream, Lucien, and Mervyn talk together (the trio is prominent only in the fifth and sixth panels).

The two-character structure is an ancient one — Aristotle credits Aeschylus with adding a second actor (in addition to the chorus) to Greek tragedy and emphasizing dialogue. Such a structure readily lends itself to interrogation and reflection, and it has been the foundation for a wide variety of dramatic works through the centuries, from the intensity of August Strindberg’s The Stronger to the philosophical meanderings of My Dinner with André. The dialogic structure here couples the physical journey of one character to another with a more abstract journey toward honest maturity.

After the opening scene with Destruction, Chapter 6 focuses on Dream. He ends the quest for his brother, returns to his realm, thinks for a bit, then initiates a conversation with Bast, the longest of the chapter’s dialogues. It’s a conversation heavy with a sense of time passing, age accumulating, beliefs and powers shifting. Dream has decided to renew the quest for his brother, but the conversation with Bast may signal multiple motivations in that quest, for while he certainly wants to get to the bottom of the mayhem that accompanied his search with Delirium for Destruction, he may also desire communion with a brother who has lived as long as he, who is as uniquely powerful, as uniquely alone.

Bast is beautiful in her dreams, but her reality is depicted with rougher lines and darker colors, a reality with little comfort and little pleasure. Page 15 presents a third break with the two-character structure; it shows us Bast alone.

Dream seeks out his sister to apologize and to renew their quest. The last pages of the chapter give us the most sustained representation of Delirium’s realm yet, and she seems older and more lucid in it than she has before. The strange (or, as Dream says, “remarkable”) sundial in the realm is inscribed with broken time. Time has stopped. We might have thought this was a utopian accomplishment — stopping time would halt the plunge toward aloneness, powerlessness, or disconnection that the rest of the chapter suggests is the inevitable result of time passing — but there’s no utopia here. Whether cause, effect, or correlation, time only stops in the center of madness.

Delirium seems a bit more mature in this pages than in her usual presentation.  On the other hand, Dream appears to her in a youthful guise; he knows what he’s about to propose. The search for the lost brother is literally rejuvenating.

Dream reveals that their previous journey was one of separate quests. He had hoped to see his lost love in the realm of the real. Now, agreeing with Delirium that they must seek Destruction, he and she have unified their yearnings.

Delirium asks Dream if he likes her — not, as might be expected, if he, her brother, loves her. “Like” is a less committed word than “love”, a word without passion or strength, a word between casual friends and friendly acquaintances. It’s a good word for both of them, because Dream has been derailed by love and all Delirium’s passions are unbridled. And Dream is able to admit to it without lying: “Yes, I suppose I must do,” he says (getting all British in his diction). “You entertain me. And it distresses me to see you troubled.”

Another pair in a chapter of pairings: You entertain me. It distresses me to see you troubled. The first would not be taken well by everyone (we do not all aspire to be entertainment), but the second, though at least tinged with selfishness (“it distresses me“) is generous and, for us the onlookers, touching.

Delirium ends the chapter on a youthful note, a hopeful countenance against a background of doodles, and her last words are ones children issue when jumping into a game of hide & seek: “Ready or not. Here we come.”

Except most children have only one seeker in hide & seek, and so they say, “Here I come.” Delirium has Dream, though. A pair. Sister and brother. Partners. We.

Together, quests united, they can leave the broken time behind.

Brief Lives Chapter 7

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.

This panel is a moment of obvious drama, and its powerful, menacing darkness reflects the expectations of Dream and Delirium that their reunion with Destruction will be a big event, possibly even a dangerous one. They have found him, and here he stands like a monster against a bruised and bleeding sky. He’s seen from a low angle, which gives him even more size and power.

Turning the page, we’re back to seeing him well lit, and the sky, though dark, has lost its red menace.

We don’t know yet what this means, exactly, because the chapter ends here, but we can suspect that we should aim our expectations toward surprise in the next issue.

That penultimate panel on the penultimate page is the most self-consciously beautiful one in an issue where the artwork doesn’t otherwise draw a lot of attention to itself. This, too, supports that one panel’s drama — nothing else in the chapter upstages it. Interestingly, the panel is the fourth of five on that page. It is not given a page to itself, nor is it the last panel we see. The placement undermines the drama, helping to ease us back toward the softer, gentler, more variegated view of Destruction. The panel is dramatic, but it’s not overwhelming.

The colors and silhouette reminded me of a moment from childhood, when I had just bought the latest issue of the only comic book I was allowed to read, G.I. Joe, and I said something to my mother to indicate that I thought a particular drawing of the character of Snake Eyes (a ninja dressed all in black) was especially powerful and even, perhaps, beautiful. My mother, who had encouraged my occasional interest in art museums and artists, did her best to turn my comments into a teachable moment, and so asked me what, exactly, I found powerful and beautiful in the portrait of Snake Eyes.

The event is perfectly preserved in my memory — I even remember where we were standing when she asked (stairs outside the office where she worked) — because I struggled for words to express what I felt about the picture, and I was very much aware of my struggle, because I not only wanted my mother to know that I wasn’t allowing these awful comics to rot my brain, but I wanted her to share in the pleasure such a picture could provide. I said that the richness of the colors appealed to me, and I stammered for other words, but I couldn’t say anything else. I knew that, yes, the richness of the colors was appealing, but there was much more to it all as well — but what more? What kind of words did I need to be able to give my mother something of the experience the artwork gave to me?

The question would linger with me for a long time. It’s a question not merely of finding the right words. Even if I had had the vocabulary and insight to talk about the composition of the panel, I doubt my words would have been able to open the experience of pleasure in that panel to my mother. Her mind would interpret the images as gaudy and ridiculous, an interpretation that existed deeper than words and so could not be overcome by words. Her clear displeasure with the panel, and with comics in general, was no more a rational response than was my pleasure. Had I been especially eloquent, I might have argued her toward appreciation, but no words would argue her into joy.

Much of my time since childhood has been devoted to teaching and to writing about other people’s art (written and filmed, primarily), and I think part of the reason for this traces back to that moment when my mother asked me to explain what I saw in one panel of one issue of G.I. Joe. I’m no Freudian, so I’m not proposing some sort of Oedipal origin here, but rather an experience common, I would guess, to us all — the desire to open our perception entirely to someone else. Is such a thing possible? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it can be known, because we don’t (yet) have a way to fully experience another person’s mind. We can approximate, and we can use our arts to offer representations of what we think and feel, but we are, alas, always ultimately alone with our exact thoughts and feelings.

The desire to share those thoughts and feelings, our senses and perceptions, and to know the thoughts, feelings, senses, and perceptions of others, is a common motivation both for art and for discussions of art. Think about how much fun it is to create something and to have someone else seem to gain insight or pleasure from it. Think, too, of the joy in finding someone who loves a song or story or sculpture or comic book just as much as we love it. The distance between our actual perceptions doesn’t really matter much in such moments. We’ll live without exact matches; what we thrive on is the sense of connection, the sense of being not entirely alien to all the rest of humanity. (And oh the frustration when somebody else just doesn’t get it! I’ll confess I sometimes suspect there’s something wrong with them, some defect in their senses or character, especially if what they just don’t understand is something I adore more than mere enjoyment. I know, rationally, it isn’t necessarily true that those who fail to appreciate my passions are failed human beings — I know that perceptions depend on moods and experiences and mysterious moves of mind — but that doesn’t ease the frustration. Similarly, there is the frustration of seeing otherwise discerning and intelligent and sympatico people going wild for something that leaves me cold or, worse, that I truly despise. Such frustrations make me want to crawl under a rock and suck my thumb.)

If I thought symmetry and balance were the greatest values in the universe, I would try now to connect these thoughts to this chapter of Brief Lives, perhaps trying to draw some tenuous line between the idea of connection that art creates (or seeks to create) and the impending conversation between Dream, Delirium, and Destruction. But symmetry and balance for their own sakes falsify and distort the ragged realities even of fiction, and they certainly stultify a casual essay.

Instead, I will end with an observation, one that doesn’t overtly connect to anything else I’ve said so far, and in the spirit of anti-symmetry and anti-balance, I will let you do with it what you will.

The book that Destiny holds in his hands in the first part of this chapter could, in fact, be the very book we hold in our hands, Brief Lives. This was not as true when the chapters were published as separate issues, but now that they are collected together, we, too, can flip back and forth between all the eras of these characters’ adventures. If we had the urge, we could skip ahead and find out how it all ends. If you have read Brief Lives, you already know, and so, like Destiny, possess no capacity for narrative surprise.

As for me, I’m a mortal in these realms, and so, for now, remain in ignorance, recalibrating the mood organ of my expectations toward surprise.

Brief Lives Chapter 8

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.

(You hadn’t expected any giant exploding squid? Well, you’ll be plenty surprised when one falls out of the sky then, won’t you…)

Destruction’s ascent toward some other part of the galaxy (or some other story) is not the end, of course — chapter eight finishes with a cliffhanger, as Dream says he has to go kill his son. This adjusts our expectations of the climax, showing that this chapter was not, in fact, the primary climax, or the only climax, but rather the preparation for what may turn out to be the most dramatic moment of Brief Lives. The meeting with Destruction may have been a purposeful anti-climax to misdirect our expectations from a hidden narrative arc.

Or maybe I’m just trying to fit a square peg into a black hole. Narrative expectations grow in us because of all the stories we’ve experienced in our lives, and again and again with Sandman we have to reconfigure our expectations.

At some point, shouldn’t we just let the expectations go and take things chapter by chapter, page by page, panel by panel?

If you can throw away all your expectations, you have a more flexible mind than I. Even with something like Sandman, where much of the pleasure comes from expectations being manipulated, shattered, reconfigured — even then, I develop the expectation that my expectations will be manipulated, shattered, reconfigured. The text can never be innocent, because at this point I’ve read enough to have some idea in my mind of Sandman = x even if x = not what you expect.

So, of course, I didn’t expect a conventional climax, because that would be the most expected turn of a more expectable story. I would have been extremely surprised to discover that, for instance, Destruction had been taken prisoner by a mad scientist who had hypnotized him into giving up his realm, and then Dream and Delirium had to use their extraordinary kickboxing skills to wallop the scientist, who would, of course, have tied Destruction to train tracks and injected him with a mortality-inducing virus that would activate seconds before the train was about to run over him. Just as the train was about to send him off to Death — because what’s the point of a climax if you can’t have a just-at-the-last-second bit of suspense (after all, when was the last time you saw a movie where the bomb was defused a few minutes before it went off rather than in the last 3 seconds? Other than The Hurt Locker?) — just at that very second, the last of the last possible moments — just then Dream would turn the train into a giant strawberry shortcake and Delirium would subdue the scientist and then rush to her brother with the antidote to the mortality-inducing virus and then everybody would express great relief and much appreciation to each other, there would be laughter and tears, and Destruction would return to his realm and everybody would live happily ever after. (Well, maybe not the passengers on the train, who suddenly found themselves stuck inside a giant strawberry shortcake during their commute.)

Such a climax would have been surprising because it was so conventional and hokey when Sandman is seldom conventional and never, at least for me, hokey. (For a thorough definition of which, I refer you to the collected works of Theodore J. Hokum of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey; see in particular the 13-volume series of illustrated chapbooks he self-published in 1949 as the Encyclopedia of Unfortunate Aesthetics.) So while the conventional/hokey climax would have been surprising, not all surprises are good ones. Though it is not entirely surprising to find chapter eight philosophical and contemplative, it is vastly more fulfilling to discover it as it is than to be surprised by big action scenes, last-minute rescues, and a sentimental denouement.

The climax becomes one of information — we learn some things about the nature of the Endless and their realms, and our perception of their personalities is deepened. Early in The Sandman, lacking evidence to the contrary, it was easy to jump to conclusions about how the universe of these stories works. That, too, is a conventional tendency. We are all used to worlds full of unambiguous rules for how things work. The gods or wizards or mad scientists all operate according to the same straightforward and immutable laws, and the differences in their behaviors are primarily differences of power and disposition (“I want to cause mass destruction!” “I want to save everybody!”). Such stories have their own rewards, but The Sandman is vastly more complex. Not knowing any better, we start out thinking we’ll learn the rules as we go along and by the end we’ll know how the universe of these stories works — but the universe of these stories is ruled more by perception and attitude than by clear laws. Only Death, it seems, is universal.

Destruction says that Death told him “everyone can know everything Destiny knows. And more than that. She said we all not only could know everything. We do.”

Destruction and Dream don’t really know what to make of that, but Delirium, who is less chained to rational expectations than her brothers, says, “She is. Um. Right. Kind of. Not knowing everything is all that makes it okay, sometimes.” Which is the other side of what Death had told Destruction — instead of explaining how it is possible to know everything and yet not realize that one knows everything, Delirium sees it as a survival strategy.

For Destruction, the idea that all is known but not known becomes a kind of egalitarian justification for his abdication. “Why,” he asks, “does it seem like none of us — Endless or mortal, ghost or god — knows what we’re doing?” If we are all ignorant, who has any right to rule? Endowed with extraordinary power, but unable to answer that question, he must wander off.

For Dream, it’s not a question worth lingering on. Yeats said an “Old Play” once stated, “In dreams begins responsibility,” and Dream seems to have taken it to heart, because responsibility is his new mantra. Perhaps he wrote that old play Yeats referenced, or maybe he provided inspiration to the young writer Delmore Schwartz one weekend in July of 1935 when he wrote a short story called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” — the story of a young man who dreams of sitting in a movie theatre and watching a film of his parents’ courtship, a film he tries to shape and change, but can’t, and so despairs, until he wakes and realizes his responsibility is to his own life. The past, like a movie, is a narrative we can’t change once it’s played out.

The past is always an incomplete story, though. It haunts the present, shaping our hopes and fears, our knowledge and expectations. William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Even that statement isn’t complete, though. Scholars have recently discovered that in his first draft of Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote: “The past is a giant exploding squid.”

Brief Lives Chapter 9

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.)

Now that we have reached the last chapter of Brief Lives, we can look at it as a complete tale and not get diverted by suspense and second-guessing. Structurally, this seems to me the most extraordinary Sandman yet, and structure has been a strength for many of the stories in the series. But Brief Lives is the one that feels to me most like music and poetry, most complete and yet most open-ended, and, ultimately, most like something of itself and not a form borrowed from another field. We might, to be categorically correct for shelving in bookstores, call it a graphic novel, but that term seems limiting to me, for though certainly there are graphic novels — comics that take their structure and style from the conventional novel form — all comics that indulge in narrative and are longer than a certain length are not necessarily drawing sustenance primarily from the same source as novels. (And of course this dodges the question of what is a novel? Hence my qualification above of, “conventional novel”. Like “comics”, the word “novel” can be capacious. I’m fond of Randall Jarrell’s famous definition: “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”)

Brief Lives is a graphic novel in the way that Virginia Woolf’s poetically-structured The Waves is an ungraphic novel.

Actually, there’s more straightforward narrative in Brief Lives than in The Waves, so perhaps my point is pointless, but I’m going to stick with it nonetheless, not only to be stubborn, but because it seems to me that Brief Lives has in common with many modernist works of art a concern not just with time and sequence, but with duration.

Sequential graphic art offers a different experience of duration than either of its cousins, prose or motion pictures. In the normal course of reading a comic, different readers will experience the art and text at different rates. In that sense, comics are closer to prose. The basic experience of watching a movie or TV show is one that is the same experience of time for all viewers — a 90-minute movie takes 90 minutes to watch by anyone, unless the viewer interferes with the normal speed. A 300-page novel will be read at different speeds by different readers, and, further, a 300-page novel by Danielle Steel will be read at a different speed by most readers than a 300-page novel by Thackeray.

All of that is obvious. Comics, though, are especially interesting in that, like cinema, they excel at representing motion — but readers don’t perceive that motion at the same speed, because it is motion within unmoving images. The writers and artists of comics can suggest certain pacing (the speed at which one story element meets the next), but they can’t control it. For an example, look at the top of page 6. It’s a single image broken into six panels. Not only would its meaning be different were it one panel, its contribution to the story’s pacing would be different. Size matters, too. The pacing would also be different if this image covered the entire page. The six panels enhance the drama of the moment by extending that moment, but they do so visually rather than textually, as a novel would.

To create such a moment in a novel, the writer would likely need to extend our reading experience by providing enough words to slow even fast readers down. A dramatic moment expressed in one short sentence is different from a dramatic moment expressed in a thousand words. Such a moment in motion pictures would require a single static shot edited to last longer than others around it. (Duration is a matter of context. If every shot in a film is two minutes long, a three-minute shot will feel very different from a three-minute shot in a film where the average shot length is eight seconds.)

The panels at the top of page 6 show that comics can offer an elegant, efficient representation of time unavailable to other art forms. We can perceive the information in those panels with a glance, but the amount of time we spend looking at those panels is entirely up to us. How we perceive the feelings those panels suggest — indeed, more simply, how we feel those panels — depends partly on how the panels are constructed and partly on our choice as readers.

That’s a single instance of what is happening throughout Brief Lives. A network of resonances, repetitions, and recursions structure how we feel our way through the story. The first and last chapters stand as bookends between chapters that are about the perception of time while they also manipulate and tease our own perception of time as we read. Our expectations and anticipations both fuel our reading and make us vulnerable to manipulation.

Past, present, future — beginning, middle, end. Where are they? Have we mistaken one for the other? Are they all the same, but still different? Is death change? Are conclusions endings, beginnings, or both and neither?

All lives are brief. Time is perceived only as it passes by. Still, we think to the future. Even the last words in the last panel of Brief Lives look toward continuation: It is going to be a beautiful day.

The future. Not the future perfect (It shall have been a perfect day), tainted by time, just the simple future. Out there, waiting, its possibilities both mortal and Endless.

Share your thoughts