Every Wednesday we’ll be running a piece on a volume of Sandman.
You can find Jason Sacks’s introduction to the series here.
You can find Mark Stack’s overview of “Preludes and Nocturnes” here.
You can find Kyle Garret’s reading of “The Doll’s House” here.
You can find Daniel Elkin, Keith Silva and Taylor Lilley’s conversation about “Dream Country” here.
You can find Michael Bettandorf and PJ Hunsicker discussing “Season of Mists” here.
You can find Ray Sonne and Alexander Lu discussing “A Game of You” here.
You can find Jason Sacks’s take on Fables and Reflections here.
Ray Sonne: Sandman: Brief Lives stands as one of the strongest arcs in the Sandman series for a number of reasons. By a number, I mean two because Jill Thompson and Vince Locke are two people and, while previous Sandman arcs bear the strengths and weaknesses of Gaiman’s wordy style, no other artist on the series carries a story the way Thompson and Locke do.
Perhaps they have more opportunity than others to show off their skills. In chapter 5, the coloring in Ishtar’s last dance evokes not only her ancient magic, but creates a thrumming terror one may feel if they were in the audience, the club on the brink of destruction. Chapter 6 mashes together a collage of senses–bright pictures, sour smells, violent words–to depict Delirium’s dimension. Then, most poetically, Chapter 9 contains the sequence of panels that occur directly after Morpheus kills his son, the Google image search famous depiction of blood dripping off his hands and turning into flowers on the ground.
This work is altogether more impressive when we consider how Brief Lives posits perhaps the biggest challenge in the entire The Sandman series. I’m not talking about challenges like the one Mark underwent when reading and analyzing the first few issues, which featured stories that didn’t know what to demand from both its creators and its readers. Sandman has come to understand itself by this point. No, the challenge rests in that now that Gaiman knows what this story means to do, he chooses to tackle the most difficult, abstract force we experience throughout our lives: Change.
Brief Lives is a story about change. How Morpheus has changed from the unempathetic being several others remember him as, how Delirium once changed from Delight, how long-lived lawyer Bernie Capax could see centuries of change yet still fear what comes after Death. What makes this theme particularly fascinating is that change, in many ways, seems a contradiction to the concepts of Sandman in many ways. The Endless implies a staticness, a forever existence and yet we learn not only about Delirium’s past, but also find out that Despair is not the first poor creature to hold her mantle. Even to abstract ideas, change has influence, a perhaps unsurprising reveal because change stands as the most powerful abstract force of them all.
This culminates into one of Sandman’s most significant emotional beats, if not the most significant emotional beat: Morpheus’ merciful killing of Orpheus. Ordinarily, change is a discomfiting, terrifying force. It provides no cushion for what part of one’s life it turns upside down. But the killing of one’s son goes deeper, radically altering one’s sense of self.
We know that Morpheus looks different in this arc from what he looked like in the time prior to the beginning of The Sandman. Now, we know he will look different again, and the ending issue of this arc leaves a gaping maw instead of an explanation of what that difference is. Just as is the nature of change.
Daniel Elkin: “It is going to be a beautiful day.”
Apparently, Ray, if you look at BrainyQuote dot com, it was the late 19th century French critic, journalist, and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who said, “The more things change, the more they are the same.”
Geez. And all this time I thought it was my dear, departed grandfather who had coined this phrase, especially when noticing my latest teenage mishap, especially after he had downed six or so Rob Roys.
The past creates the present. It’s amazing what you learn every day.
Regardless, BrainyQuote dot com also tells me that Karr once said, “We can invent only with memory.” I like that, and I think these two quotes point not only what you are getting at here as you speak of Brief Lives, but also where I want to go with my thoughts about it.
What has always been interesting to me when it comes to this series is the idea of there being personalities behind the aspects of the things that encapsulate our lives. Gaiman posits that there is meaning to all things because they reflect the will of some entity in tune to the greater purpose. For those of us who struggle with our conceptions of faith, Gaiman’s Endless provide a fictional comfort to the abstraction and terror that comes with the endless chaos of the day-to-day.
But even Gaiman can only allow so much control.The great moment of Brief Lives lies within a simple statement made by Destruction late in this arc. He says to Dream, “Things still change. The only difference is that no one’s running it anymore.” With these thirteen words, the idea of the Endless and their myriad “responsibilities” vanishes like flash paper in the hands of an amature magician. What Brief Lives does, in a way, is establish the supremacy of chaos, the inevitability of change. As much as the Endless are aspects of control, lords of each of their realms, ultimately they only have the power to shape, not to endure.
Like the First Witch in Macbeth says, “Though his bark cannot be lost, yet it shall be tempest tossed.”
Which brings me back to Karr’s second quote, the one about invention and memory. As I’ve said before somewhere else, Sandman is a reflection of the procreant urge, the creative act, the fecundity of our eternal reach. As the series progressed, Gaiman developed this thesis with greater deftness, making it not only the point of narration, but also of character. There, at the heart of it, are the endless (or Endless) components and ramifications of the drive to be heard, to be understood, to hold on, and to reshape.
The need to create is at the core of what makes us human, even more so than our need to understand or our need to feel safe.
The history of humanity is painted on the walls, mixed in our kitchens, conveyed through songs and gestures. We harness the chaos through imposing purpose, and yet, through the creative act, unleash even more uncertainty.
Everything else is petty meanderings in comparison. In Brief Lives, this is Destruction’s message. Change is inevitable, regardless of intent, and in that we transform our lives and the lives of those around us. With each change, we adapt. As we adapt, we create. As we create, change occurs — and in this cycle we become what we are. In the mythos of Gaiman’s Sandman, Destiny has every moment written in his book. Each moment is in reaction to the moment before. It is story. It is art. It is us.
Where we start is where we end. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”
Likewise, that Brief Lives is cabined, cribbed, and confined by the ultimate narrative archetype only stands to reason. The Monomyth is our story, bound, as it is, in our saucy doubts and fears. Uncertainty is always the impedious for the journey, chaos is the motivating factor behind the first step of a thousand miles, encompassing the here to there of the procreant urge and the creative response to the inevitability of change.
Delirium wishes to have things go back as they were, and in that impulse allows for the formulation of what is to be.
All that we do is an act of creation. Art is response as much as it is initiation. “You cannot seek Destruction and return unscathed.” Every breath is the origin of change.
“I can pretend that things last,” says Destruction as he looks to the stars. But they don’t, nor should they ever. Stasis is antithetical to the human condition; even our deaths send out ripples that, though they might change their size, never leave the stream of warm impermanence.
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.
And in that, we create our lives.
On a separate note, Sonne, since you began this whole thing talking about the storytelling abilities of Jill Thompson and Vince Locke, I wanted to point to two particular panels in Brief Lives that justify your assertion. In Chapter 8, after Dream, Destruction, and Delirium have sat down at the food laden table, Delirium begins to recount the journey that brought her and Dream to this moment. Right after she relates how Dream “went all spoggly,” she remembers how she had to pull herself together and impose a clarity to her aspect. In two panels, Thompson’s art conveys an incredible range of emotion that Gaiman’s words could never express.
In the first panel, we see a close up of Delirium’s eyes. Though her face is slightly angled away, she stares right at you as tears fall across her cheeks. There is nothing in those eyes that doesn’t convey pain. It is gut-wrenching in its perfection.
The next panel has Dream silently looking slightly down and away from us. Visually, he is acknowledging not only his culpability but also his empathy. This is guilt and shame and sorrow, viewed from a distance, askance and precise.
What makes the two panels work together perfectly, though, is Thompson’s choice to expand the gutters around the second panel. The empty space functions on a number of levels. First, visually, the expanded negative space makes Dream smaller in the moment, adding to the isolation he feels, spawned, as it were, by his guilt. We feel empathy for him as he feels empathy for his sister.
Second, the expanded gutter provides a longer, silent, beat to occur. This has the effect of not only slowing the moment, but also heightening the anticipation of Dream’s reaction. We process our own emotions in that gutter, and to see them reflected in Dream in the next panel adds to its potency.
Finally, Thompson’s choice further conveys the gulf between the pain and its progenitor. Morpheus’ character has always been aloof. This journey has changed him, though. He has begun to understand that his actions have repercussions and the newness of this understanding is perfectly reflected in Thompson’s art.
It is comic booking as it is meant to be. And yes, Sonne, it is one of the things that really makes Brief Lives, as you said, one of the strongest arcs in the Sandman series.
Sonne: Speaking of Delirium, it’s easy to see how Gaiman made the decision of involving her in this part of the story. In fact, she might be The Endless outside of Dream that we as readers become most familiar with, Destruction coming in as third upon the last part of this arc. The reason for this is obvious: Delirium is constantly changing. Her attention drifts from topic to topic at lightspeed, bungling her communication with everyone else and leaving her in confusion. Her relationships with her family are mostly sabotaged and she’s unable to build rapport with strangers. As a result of her transformations, she is in perpetual pain despite the slivers of delight, her former self, that she clings to.
You said, “Stasis is antithetical to the human condition; even our deaths send out ripples that, though they might change their size, never leave the stream of warm impermanence.” And nothing shows this more than Delirium when she cries to Destruction when she recalls forcing herself into temporary sanity while in Destiny’s realm. It is against Delirium’s nature to hold herself still, to keep her hair from growing out in waves of color and straighten her babble out into sense. As such, it is against all of our natures to do the same, albeit at a much slower rate. “I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in betweens,” she says because we are in between phases every day, whether it be between childhood and adulthood, school and career, or birth and death.
With this in mind, we understand why Delirium seeks out Destruction rather than any of the other The Endless siblings. As Destruction states, he not only defines the theme of his name, but also his opposite, Creation (although it is implied that he is humorously mediocre at the latter). Destruction and Creation are the the manifestations of change and they not only come from us, but from nature. It is never made clear why Delight became Delirium, but that metamorphosis required destruction of the previous identity and a construction of the new. It seems not terribly unlikely that Destruction, her closest sibling, had some hand in that great event of his sister’s, assuming the timeline matches.
As for Dream, Destruction says to him, “I had hoped […] that you had begun to see people as other than things that dream, as creatures of stories.” Dream controls a realm in which permanence doesn’t exist. Thus, he may underestimate the long-lasting effects creation and destruction have on individuals outside the dreaming world, or even inside of it. Previous arcs show that he has only just started to grasp the consequences of his actions, but after 2 billion years of first hand deliverance of consequences, his brother understands all too well.
At the dinner table, all three siblings are distinctive, especially in the lettering that evokes their speech. Destruction has surprisingly normal speech bubbles, white with black, readable text. Delirium’s colorful bubbles contain waves in all the words as well as unpredictable emphases, creating a slow, wobbly effect in her statements. Dream’s black bubbles with white text continue to drip with creepiness as well, in these sequences, with disdain for his brother. It is the atmosphere of his words that has kept him from feeling empathy for this long in his life. It is also what kept him from saving his son from a millenia of bodiless torment. But it is little wonder that dining with Delirium and Destruction is where he finds his most significant alteration of self.
Elkin: Thus showing us the impermanence of the self to begin with, Sonne. Who we are is but a SnapChat flash of who we are to be. The slightest obstacle can have lasting repercussions to our personalities. Every moment doesn’t just leave a stain, it adds to the base color, mixing it into some new hue of identity. It’s the story we tell of character; it moves, dynamic, folding in upon itself and rising to the occasion.
I shudder sometimes when I think back upon the man I was in light of the man I have become, and I can’t help but wistfully smatter spectacular “wows” in its wake. Dreams, despairs, desires, destructions, deliriums (even delights) undulate in those photo albums on my bookshelves marking those moments, swirling into the chaos of creating the inevitable destiny of this present Elkin, only to retch and heave forth once more, coalescing into the next self in that immediacy.
Mark it with a picture, you lovers, you dreamers, as it will be gone before you blink once again.
How many times do you need to mop the linoleum before it becomes permanently clean?
Our lives are brief and our conceptions of who we are is even more fleeting. Strike a match and the sulfur sputters forth intense waves of heat and light, only to shrink, fade, and burn down the wood until it flickers out and sends up these thin tentacles of smoke. Hopefully there is enough time to pull another one from the box before the darkness is complete.
Of course we are the Endless insomuch as we bear the weight of the responsibilities of each aspect of our hope. We are an art installation forever unfolding. Brief Lives, perhaps, serves as a cautionary journey away from self-importance. Don’t hold on too tightly to what you believe to be the core of your conceptions, there are forces at work whose sole purpose is to undermine your grip.
Morpheus’ last words in Brief Lives are, “So live..”. They serve, perhaps, as the final acknowledgement of the perils of a tenacious belief that there were perfect and complete moments of the self in an inconstant and irresolute existence. Change is at the heart of every moment’s beat. All lives are brief because all selves are dynamic. Morpheus utters his words with the sadness inherent in that moment, remembering his admonitions to his desperate son long ago, but they echo and reverberate into the thematic the arc of this whole story.
What we unleash with each step on our travels become who we will be in the next moment.