Inspirations Ramblings The Sandman

Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Dream: The End

Join me as I continue my examination of one the wonderful Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, looking at the saga's final act, chronicled in volumes 8 to 10.

This is the third part of my series about one of my greatest artistic inspirations, The Sandman, by the always wonderful Neil Gaiman. To go back and read the first two parts—or, if you’re reading this in a future where posting this article is a mere memory, when the final article may also be out—click here.

As I join you for my third piece about Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, I can indeed confirm what a wonderful achievement the Netflix series is. It makes some tweaks to the narrative here and there, but it remains a faithful rendition of the first two volumes, Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House (with the addition of two tales from Dream Country in its “bonus” eleventh episode). Some people will make something of race and gender swapped characters, but they’d be making something of nothing: every performer in the series inhabits the role and every single one feels faithful to the source material.

But we’re here to discuss the TV series, we’re here to discuss the comic books that spawned it. If you’d like to read some of my thoughts about it, why not head across to my Substack and subscribe? If you’re one of those annoying people who just wants to read my thoughts about that, and not everything else, it’s in the September edition, which you can read here. And you can still subscribe while you’re there.

As you can no doubt glean from this article’s subtitle, The End, we will be looking at The Sandman’s closing chapters. But to add a little confusion into the mix, this is my penultimate article about Gaiman’s epic tale. Following the end of the series, Gaiman came back to write his second Death miniseries (while the first was published while the series was still running, I’ll cover both together), the graphic novel Endless Nights (more recently published as Volume 11), the illustrated prose of The Dream Hunters, before finally returning between 2013 and 2015 with The Sandman: Overture.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself: I’m hoping that in about a month’s time, I’ll have the final part of this series published, but in the meantime, we’re here to discuss the end of the ongoing run, as collected in Worlds’ End, The Kindly Ones and The Wake. Three volumes that tell the final act of Dream’s story. And there is a lot to discuss, so settle in for another long read.

As I’ve been writing this series, I’ve been careful to not spoil too much about the series. But as I aim to cover these books with some depth and discuss the themes present in the series, in order to do these final volumes justice, I am going to have to spoil some major plot elements. So if you’re new to the world of The Sandman and would rather not have its ending spoiled for you, take this as your spoiler warning.

If, on the other hand, you’re here to discover how the series ends, I’m not spoiling it up top: you’ll need to read through to find out.

Before we get to the main event, Volume Eight: Worlds’ End collects issues 51 to 56. Like Dream Country and Fables & Reflections before it, the focus here is on short stories, rather than an epic that pushes the ongoing tale forward. But unlike those other collections, however, Worlds’ End features a framing device underpinning the stories, which are told by the patrons at the Inn at the Worlds’ End, an interdimensional melting pot of travellers from different worlds and times, stranded within the inn, due to a “reality storm.”

While the volume includes art by a huge variety of artists who we’ll delve into later, Brian Talbot and Mark Buckingham provide the pencils and ink for most of the framing device, bookending each story told (the final chapter features additional inks by Dick Giordano and Steve Leialoha, and features a sequence with art by the team of Gary Amaro and Tony Harris). As the volume opens, a man, Brant, and woman, Charlene, find themselves beset by a sudden snowstorm in summer. The injured travellers find themselves deserted, before a voice guides them to the inn. Here, the characters share stories, which form the basis of the volume.

The first story features art by Alec Stevens, who presents a design that strays from the standard comic book stylings. The panels are presented without borders and Gaiman’s writing is prose, provided underneath the images. It tells the story of an office worker, working a largely meaningless job among colleagues working the same meaningless jobs. While his colleagues all spend their lunches together, the protagonist is different, using the time to explore the city. As he explores his city, eerily vacant, he crosses paths with Dream. The story poses the question of whether this protagonist, himself is dreaming, or whether he is part of the city’s dream—cities have their own personalities, and personalities dream, after all.

The second story, with art by John Watkiss is the first to reintroduce readers to a character they know and love, in this instance, the faerie Cluracan, who readers first met in Season of Mists, who gifted his sister, Nuala, to Dream. In a story reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, Cluracan is sent by his queen to the city of Aurelian, whose ruler gave the dual roles of secular leader and spiritual leader to the same person. While telling a fun adventure, the story provides a wonderful commentary about the separation of church and state, and the dangers inherent with leaders who base their running of the state on their religious beliefs.

The next story features the return of another character; one who is a constant delight for The Sandman’s fans: Hob Gadling, an immortal thanks to his simple refusal to die. Featuring pencils by the always amazing Michael Zulli with inks by Dick Giordano, this tale, set in the early 1900s, is a story about misogyny and sea monsters. It tells an enjoyable seafaring adventure, but the crux of this take is about stories and secrets, or when people opt to tell a story, and when they decide to keep it a secret.

While The Sandman largely distanced itself from the DC Universe proper after the first couple of volumes, the next story utilises an obscure DC character, Prez Rickard (along with a minor role for the slightly less obscure Ted “Wildcat” Grant), originally co-created by Joe Simon (co-creator, with Jack Kirby, of Captain America—Stan Lee had nothing to do with that, despite what Marvel’s marketing machine would have you believe). Featuring wonderful art by Mike Allred, this tells the story of Prez, the first teenage President of the United States, an idealistic character who never backs down from his moral stance. Rebuking the influence of Boss Smiley and Richard Nixon himself, Prez achieves real good for the world, before posing the question of what an idealist does after achieving some true good for the world.

The volume’s final tale, featuring pencils by Shea Anton Pensa and inks by Vince Locke, is the collection’s most complex, about a Necropolis.  Featuring stories within stories, it eventually closes the loop when the storyteller, Petrefax, tells a story about being told a story about an inn where people gather to tell each other stories.

As the volume reaches its conclusion, Charlene believes she has no story to tell, while Brant looks outside to see the reality storm that has been brewing. What, exactly, this means, is resolved in the next volume.

And now it is indeed time for the main event: Volume Nine: The Kindly Ones is the longest story arc in The Sandman’s history; a thirteen-part epic that forms the climax of the story. As it picks up seemingly disparate threads from the series’ history, it features a wealth of familiar characters from throughout the run. Some are prominent, others less so, but by way of a roll call, and I am certainly missing some: the titular Kindly Ones, or the three Furies; Lyta Hall and her infant son, Daniel; Hob Gadling; Rose Walker; Thessaly; fae folk Puck, Nuala and Claracon; Norse Gods Odin and Loki; Remiel and Lucifer; residents of the Dreaming, Fiddler’s Green, Cain, Abel, Eve, Lucien, Matthew the Raven, and Merv Pumpkinhead; Endless siblings Death, Delirium, Desire and Destiny; and even the Corinthian… more or less.

The Kindly Ones is absolutely massive in scope, and yet it is a personal tale. It is a story about revenge, about repercussions, and about responsibility. As one domino falls, more surrounding it begin to tumble. Dream’s actions throughout the series have led to this story, and to address the elephant in the room and spoil the outcome, though it shouldn’t come as a major surprise to anybody who has read the series up until this point, this is the story of how Dream dies. Or at least Morpheus, the iteration readers have come to know.

Before getting into the detail of the story itself, I’ll make particular mention of the art. After the phenomenal work of so many artists, I was taken aback by Marc Hempel’s art, which is simplistic. It’s serviceable, but the weakest The Sandman has ever seen. For a story as serious and climactic as The Kindly Ones, the work is cartoony, and provides a disappointing juxtaposition with the story. I wonder if he was hired because his simplistic style would allow him to provide art for most issues, allowing a consistent look, but if so, the volume’s consistent style comes at the expense of consistency with the preceding eight volumes. Glyn Dillon provides pencils (with inks by Dean Ormston) in issue six, and Teddy Kristiansen provides art for part eight, which are no improvement; they just echo Hempel’s. Throughout, Hempel either inks himself, or is joined by d’Israeli in parts two to five, and Richard Case in parts nine to twelve (where he also assists with pencils). The one exception to this is a beautiful storybook style sequence in part six, illustrated by Charles Vess. Oh, how I would have loved to see him provide all the art in this volume.

The story begins and ends with Lyta and Daniel, albeit both in different places, with an entirely different relationship to one another. To circle back to the three R’s I touched upon above—revenge, repercussions and responsibility—believing Daniel is dead and Dream is responsible, Lyta turns to the Kindly Ones to seek her revenge. Throughout, Dream must face the repercussions of his past actions, particularly the death of his son Orpheus—the Kindly Ones may only exact revenge on someone who spilled their family’s blood. Throughout The Sandman, Dream has defined himself by his responsibilities, and as his world crumbles around him, Dream is ready, waiting to face his fate; it is his responsibility, after all. Lyta, too, must also feel the repercussions of her own actions, whose obsession with seeking revenge costs her the chance to watch her son grow up—as the reader learned back in Season of Mists, he belonged to Dream. And therefore, when the iteration of Morpheus ceases to exist, dreams must live on, and live on they do, through Daniel, the new personification of Dream.

Throughout The Sandman, change has been a recurring theme. As much as he defined himself by his responsibilities, Dream defined himself by his inability to change. Yet, throughout the story, since initially being held captive at the beginning of Preludes & Nocturnes and through the events of the series, told in the modern day and through flashback, despite himself, Dream has changed. By the end of The Kindly Ones, his changing comes full circle, from Morpheus to Daniel. Dream is not the only character whose change we see in this volume: As Morpheus changed to Daniel, Daniel changed to Dream; Lucifer is transformed from the ruler of Hell he once was; Thessaly now goes by a new name transformed by her time between appearances (which cleverly harkens back to an oblique reference earlier in the series); Lyta has transformed by a loving woman to one consumed by hatred.

Not only is Lyta’s transition only heartbreaking, it touches on each of the three R’s. She is driven to revenge for which she feels the repercussions of, as noted earlier, but it links back to the one thing any parent has to their child: responsibility. Feeling responsibility towards Daniel to an extent that characters in the story point out are excessive, the apparent loss of her son makes her feel as though she failed in her responsibility. This is a story that takes her to her breaking point and passes it, as it poses questions about how much suffering people are capable of withstanding before finally breaking. Her suffering is a result of her love for her son, which leads her to causing so much more suffering for Dream, and those who surround him.

The Kindly Ones is a story full of epic cosmology, yet it is also The Sandman at its most human. Dream, as we know him, is no longer with us, but his story isn’t quite over, with one final volume.

After the climax comes the epilogue; after death comes the wake. Volume 10: The Wake brings The Sandman to its end, bringing closure to the story. Though “The Wake” itself is only three parts, it is supplemented by an emotional epilogue (really, an epilogue to this epilogue), and two later stories. A beautiful pun of a title, with wakes being a way to say goodbye, along with Dream’s impact on the waking world.

“The Wake” and its epilogue, “Sunday Mourning,” feature art by Michael Zulli (last featured in Worlds’ End, though this time, providing his own inks), whose evocative art fits the mood of the story being told. It’s a sombre affair about loss, saying goodbye, about moving on. Where the story is one full of magic, fantasy and horror, this story is a character piece about those who knew Dream (among others) saying goodbye.

As people sleep, they are transported to Dream’s wake, joining those who knew him at his final farewell. As The Kindly Ones featured characters from throughout the run’s history, this does too, ranging from major parts to cameos throughout its three issues. Visitors include the Endless: Despair, Desire, Delirium, Death, Destiny, and even Destruction (along with his former dog, Barnabas); residents of the Dreaming: Lucien, Cain, Abel, Goldie, Eve, Merv Pumpkinhead, Matthew the Raven, Fiddler’s Green, Abudah, Elbis O’Shaughnessy, the gryphon, wyvern and hippogriff, and the Corinthian; mythological figures: Lucifer, Mazikeen, Calliope, Duma, Odin, Anubis, Bastet and Cheiron; fae folk: Nuala, Queen Titania, Cluracan and the Bane of Cluracan, mortals who have a history with Dream, Lyta Hall, Rose Walker, Hob Gadling, Mad Hettie, John Constantine, Alexander Burgess and Paul McGuire; and even DC Universe stalwarts: Wesley Dodds (aka the Golden Age Sandman), Doctor Occult, the Phantom Stranger, the Martian Manhunter, Darkseid, Superman and Batman. It’s a huge list, and I’ve inevitably missed some.

Rather than feeling cheap, these appearances highlight how dreams touch upon us all. They offer meditations on live and death, some are dramatic, others emotional, while other characters provide the story with some beautiful levity.

Throughout, characters reflect upon Dream and his importance to them. None is more crucial to this than (perhaps, surprisingly), Matthew the Raven, hurting over the loss of his friend. Matthew forms the heart of the story, and his anguish over Dream’s loss and the birth of his new aspect, is heart wrenching. Matthew’s narrative carries this story through its themes about death to its theme of rebirth, as Daniel must now find his way as the personification of Dream.

The epilogue, “Sunday Mourning” is a largely fun tale about Hob Gadling, who lived through the Renaissance, attending a Renaissance Fair with his new girlfriend, Gwen. Naturally, he finds the idea of it cheap. The resonant aspects of the story are his remembrances of Dream, a friend who has been with him over the centuries of his life. What is largely an amusing story ends with poignancy.

“The Wake” and its epilogue are followed up by two stories featuring untold tales about Dream. It’s an odd way to end the series, narratively separate to what came before, but thematically, they touch upon the themes present.

The first of these, “Exiles,” features art by Jon J. Muth. Presented predominantly in black and white with the occasional splashes of colour for effect, it brings a dreamlike quality to the story. Featuring a Chinese elder who served as advisor to his emperor, his story has parallels to Dream’s, and offers reflections upon the events chronicled in The Kindly Ones.

Finally, “The Tempest,” featuring art by the always spectacular Charles Vess, closes out the series. Once again featuring William Shakespeare, it serves as a follow-up to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare is now older and at the end of his career, and must write his second play for Dream. It brings this volume—and The Sandman as a series—to a close, reflecting on the stories we tell. As I have been saying since the first part of this series, The Sandman is a story about stories, and it closes on a story all about the power of creating those stories.

As we say goodbye to Dream, and say goodbye to Neil Gaiman’s seventy-five issue/ten volume epic, it is also time to say goodbye to this article. It’s not quite time to say goodbye to my series of articles, as I have one more to come, where I can reflect on those extra Sandman stories that Gaiman brought to life after Dream’s death.


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