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.
You can find Ray Sonne and Daniel Elkin talking about “Brief Lives” here.
Grant Morrison gets a lot of press for being “meta” with his comic book stories and it’s well deserved. But Neil Gaiman played that game in a far more subtle manner for years on Sandman.
If one thing has become clear over the course of our extensive re-read of Sandman, it’s that these are stories about the power in stories. In “World’s End,” we get a classic story of wayward travelers whiling away the hours by sharing tall tales. This is the way it’s always been and the way it always will. This is how stories get passed from person to person, generation to generation, for lifetimes. The only setting more primal than this would have been a cave with paintings on the walls.
Our way in to the World’s End tavern during this reality storm is through two average American human beings who stumble into the tavern after getting into a car crash. They are meant to be our POV characters, a bit overwhelmed by the types of people they find in this tavern. It’s important to note that neither of these characters has a story to tell while everyone is waiting out the storm. The reason for that is simple: this is that story. Brant and Charlene are living the story they’ll ultimately tell.
The World’s End is run by a mildly disguised version of the Hindu goddess Kali, the goddess of time, change, power, creation, preservation, and destruction. Appropriate for the innkeeper of such a place as this, but also an indication of the types of stories we’re going to hear over the course of the next few issues. Ultimately, there are two threads that run through each of these tales: the basic idea of what dreams are, and various degrees of meta-fiction.
The tavern is filled with characters from different times and different places, but what unifies them beyond their current circumstances is dreams. But this is a broader definition of dreams than we’ve seen so far in this series. This is the mortal appropriation of the word to mean something else entirely. These stories play with the subconscious, chaotic sensations we experience when we sleep, yes, but they’re also dealing with the other type of dreams, those fantasies that we all cling to in an effort to make our daily existence more palatable. These stories are about striving to get what we want, about fulfilling our dreams.
A Tale of Two Cities
Sandman #51 begins the arc and introduces us to the framing sequence that will run through each issue, drawn by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham. I’ve always considered Talbot to be something of the quintessential Vertigo artist: excellent story telling skills, a unique style, and a touch of the roughness of reality imposed on fantastical stories. He and Buckingham are perfect choices to establish the tavern and its travelers.
This first chapter is called “A Tale of Two Cities,” specifically mentioned as called as such to reference Charles Dickens’ classic (its my favorite of his and should be read by anyone who reads episodic fiction). The story within the story is illustrated by Alec Stevens, but instead of a traditional comic book story, there are segments of narration in at the tops of each section, making this seem more like a storybook than a comic. Steven’s art is full of hard, thick lines and angles and almost looks like a wood cutting in pencil and ink. It’s nicely suited to the story.
And that story would be one about a man named Robert, who spends his days daydreaming about the city he lives in. Says our narrator, “Is there any person in the world who does not dream? Who does not contain within them worlds unimagined?” This is in reference to Robert’s daydreams, something that can be consciously controlled by the dreamer. This is a different sort of dream.
It’s as different as the dreams of an inanimate object or a location, for example, in this case the dream of a city. Robert boards the subway and see Dream. He then finds himself inside the dream that the city is having. He wanders through the city dream and meets an old man who has been there for years. Robert doesn’t want that to be his fate. He eventually runs into a woman who seems to be Death, but before she can claim him, he runs past her and through a doorway that leads back to the waking world.
Years later, Robert tells this story to our narrator at the tavern, Mr. Gaheris (an allusion to the Knight of the Round Table by the same name?). Robert has moved to the middle of no where. It’s not the city’s dreams that he’s afraid of, it’s that if the city is dreaming then it must be asleep, and what happens when it wakes up?
We’ve got three levels of story going on here: the story we’re reading, the story Mr. Gaheris is telling us, and the story that Robert told him.
While issue #51 is a wholly original tale, albeit wearing its Lovecraftian influences on its sleeve, issue #52 features a returning character in the form of Cluracan the Faerie. This is perhaps the most straight forward of the stories in this arc. Cluracan is tasked with being the representative from Faerie to Aurelian, to meet with the new Carnifex, the ruler who has taken on the mantle of both political leader (Carnifex) and religious leader (Psychopomp) something unheard of in Aurelian before now. Cluracan sometimes suffers from bouts of prophecy, and when one a particularly negative one involving the Carnifex escapes Cluracan’s mouth, the Faerie finds himself shackled in iron and locked in the dungeon.
Fortunately, Cluracan has friends in high places or, more specifically, his sister works for Morpheus, who shows up and sets him free. Cluracan then goes about drumming up unrest against the Carnifex by disguising himself as a priest, a noble, a foreign soldier, and the archvicar of Western Aurelia and telling the people horrible things about their leader. The Carnifex must flee to the crypt below his castle, but once inside he is attacked by the undead version of the previous Carnifex; they both fall out of the window, the current Carnifex falling to his death, the former disappearing all together.
As I said, a pretty straight forward tale, not filled with a whole lot of questions. Even the twist ending, that the previous Carnifex came back to life on his own without Cluracan’s help, isn’t much of a twist. It’s not particularly scary or ominous, not like the end of the previous issue.
There are also fewer levels at work here. The “story within the story” comes down to the tales Cluracan tells to insight the riot that overthrows the Carnifex. We don’t get a lot of detail about these stories, but there are least four of them and they’re ultimately essential to the resolution.
It is, however, beautifully drawn by John Watkiss. This is a fantasy adventure tale, pure and simple, and Watkiss’ work has an other worldly nature to it, an elegance and streaming befitting a story starring one of the Faerie. Between Watkiss’ art and Gaiman’s detailed world, it’s easy to look past the relatively simple nature of the plot.
Cluracan isn’t the only return guest in “World’s End.” Issue #53 brings us “Hob’s Leviathan,” and as you might imagine Hob Gadling makes his return to the series. Hob is technically a secondary character in this story, told by a young man named Jim. As the story goes, Jim ran away from home at 13 to become a sailor. This was in 1914. He managed to land on a the Sea Witch, which carried tea and cotton from Bombay to Liverpool.
Hob joins the voyage as a passenger, even though the Sea Witch doesn’t usually carry passengers. A stowaway is eventually discovered, and Indian gentlemen who is trying to get to Liverpool. Hob convinces the captain to not only let the man live, but provide him passage, paid for by Hob.
The stowaway later tells the story of king who is given a piece of fruit that can grant immortality to whoever eats it. The king gives it to his wife because he can’t bear the thought of living without her. The wife, in turn, gives it to her lover, as she’s been cheating on the king. Her lover gives it to a prostitute that he’s carrying on with. The prostitute, knowing that such a gift would surely get her a reward, gives it to the king. She tells the king exactly how she got it. The king, of course, has his wife and her lover put to death, then eats the apple, disguises himself as a beggar, and wanders the world.
The implication here is that the stowaway is the king, which is how Hob knew him: he’s a part of that rare group of immortals.
The story continues on with the siting of a giant sea monster and the crew’s refusal to tell anyone about it. Hob calls out Jim as not being a boy at all, but a girl. He tells her that he owns the ship, that it was left to him by a relative, something that happens to him a lot given he’s immortal. He tells the girl he’ll keep her secret.
The key to this story isn’t the return of Hob or the sea monster or the girl calling herself Jim so she can be a sailor. No, this is another example of a story within a story which is, ostensibly, within a story itself. There’s the story we’re reading, the story told by Jim, and then the story within Jim’s story, told by the stowaway.
The Golden Boy
Brant has gone up to the rooms in the World’s End inn and slept for a bit. He wakes up and begins to make his way back downstairs, but runs into a man sitting in an alcove of a library of some sort. The man has no idea that there’s a storm going on, which suggests that he came to the inn for a reason. He explains that he’s a seeker and a follower, and that he’s searching for someone.
That someone is the old DC comics character Prez, America’s first teenage president. We learn the history of Prez, more or less exactly as it was in his original series from 1973, albeit with more references to real life events. Prez completes his term of office and then disappears from public life.
This is when the stories within the story begin. Prez sightings become a regular event, but nothing was ever proven. Eventually, those sightings became stories of his death. Some said he died in a robbery gone bad at a bakery. Some said the woman who tried to assassinate him while he was president (but killed his fiance instead) came back to finish the job. Everyone that had a Prez sighting story seemed to have a Prez death story, too.
Not unlike “Cluracan’s Tale,” the stories here are mostly mentioned in passing, but play a large part in the story.
Regardless of how it happened, Prez is visited by Death, who takes him to the afterlife, where he discovers that his nemesis in life, Boss Smiley, is the ruler of this world. Prez refuses to stay dead and attempts to leave. Before Boss Smiley can punish him, Dream intervenes. He claims that he is the “Prince of Stories,” so Prez is under his jurisdiction. Dream opens a doorway for Prez to leave, but we aren’t privy to where, exactly, that doorway leads. His follower claims that Prez is now wandering from world to world.
This issue is beautifully drawn by Mike Allred and is a nice take on an old DC character. Prez has become a religious figure and the parallels to modern Christianity are fairly clear. This is another example of Gaiman taking bits and pieces for DC’s long history and giving us something new, something unique.
But the bigger revelation for me came now within this story, but just before, after Brant had woken up and was heading back to the main room. He mentions in his internal narration that he’d been listening to stories for much longer than it seemed he should have, while the storm continued to rage outside, which is more or less what we are doing. We are Brant, listening to these stories, struck by the weirdness of it all.
But what is the storm that we’re weathering?
Sandman #55 takes place in a necropolis and is told by Petrefex, an apprentice under Klaproth, a man Brant met at the beginning of this arc. Both Petrefex and Klaproth look like they’re taken directly from an EC horror comic.
Petrefex begins his story by mentioning that, during his classes where he was learning about tending to the departed in the necropolis, he would daydream about “other place, other people, other worlds.” We see this come up again: the mortal, conscious definition of a dream. He is interrupted from his reverie by his teacher, Klaproth, who is quizzing him on funeral rituals.
Ultimately, Petrefex is sent to join a group working on an air burial. There are three other men waiting for him. Once they’ve performed the functions of the burial, they make a fire and tell tales – more stories within stories. But this time it’s taken to another level. There are three stories told in all, but I’ll focus on the second one, told by a man named Scroyle, apprentice to the leader of this funeral party.
In his story, Scroyle meets a visitor to Letharge, the necropolis, which was a rarity in and of itself. He stops to talk to the traveler, who in turn tells Scroyle his own story. We’re now at least four levels deep into storytelling, which happens again in the next story told by one of the funeral party. But Scroyle’s story is special in that the traveler he’s talking to is Destruction, the missing Endless. Destruction tells Scroyle about the necropolis that existed before Letharge, and how it was destroyed by Destiny, the implication being that those tending to that necropolis failed to properly bury the previous incarnation of Despair.
Not only are we four levels deep into stories, but we’ve now got more Endless besides Dream or Death showing up.
Petrefex’s story is interrupted by Klaproth, who silences his apprentice just before he was apparently going to reveal some secret about Letharge. Brant suggests that there’s no point in keeping secrets anymore as he thinks they’re all dead. Klaproth points out that he would know if they were dead, given his background. Brant asks if anyone has a better explanation.
That explanation, of sorts, comes from Kali, the Innkeeper, although she is never named. In Sandman #56, she explains that the storm raging around them is a reality storm. “Well,” she says, “sometimes big things happen and they echo. Those echoes crash across the worlds.”
I’d been reading Sandman in its monthly form for a few years by the time “World’s End” began. I’d developed a kind of automatic suspension of disbelief with each issue, or at least a perspective that allowed me to see what was truly important in each issue or arc. With “World’s End,” I never gave the storm a second thought. Yes, it was the inciting incident for the stories that would be told over the course of this story line, but it never mattered to me. This was Sandman, after all. This was a rich, fully realized world, that didn’t need to explain every detail to me because I embraced it completely. If they sky was green in an issue of Sandman, then it was green; I didn’t need to know why. It was simply the setting for bigger things.
So it was surprising to me when I started doing some research on “World’s End” that there’s a prevailing theory that the storm in question was caused by the mainstream DCU crossover going on at the time, “Zero Hour.”
This is news to me.
I don’t think I’m spoiling this as a) it happened like twenty years ago and b) it’s laid out at the end of this arc, but I always assumed that the storm was reality’s response to the passing of one of the Endless. This is something that doesn’t really happen, and Dream is an essential part of reality. There had to be a reaction. Chaos across space and time seems like an appropriate one to me.
In issue #56, a drunk Cluracan sings a song that would seem to be about super people fighting each other, or at least it can be read that way if you go in thinking about Zero Hour. But as soon as his song begins, the storm clears, and in the sky above the tavern we see a funeral procession composed of the remaining members of the Endless family and those who were close to Dream.
So which seems more likely, that Gaiman decided to indirectly participate in DC’s crossover or that the storm was a response to the death of one of the Endless?
That doesn’t mean we have to discount Zero Hour all together, though. If we go back to Brant being our POV character who is listening to stories just as we are reading about them, then perhaps our storm is, in fact, Zero Hour, it’s just not Brant’s. There is a storm going on in the comic book world and we’re weathering it by sitting in a tavern and reading Sandman.
Once the funeral procession has passed, the travelers are free to leave the inn. Petrefex decides to follow his dream of seeing other worlds and refuses to go back to Letharge. Charlene is offered a position at the inn by Kali and she accepts; she says there’s nothing for her to go back to in our world. Brant wakes up in what was Charlene’s car, but is no registered to him. There’s no evidence that Charlene has ever existed.
We know that last part because Brant explains it to a bartender at the end of this issue, at the end of this arc. Gaiman has given us one last level: all of “World’s End” is a story that Brant is telling a nameless bartender as he wallows in drink until closing time.
And that’s ultimately all there is: stories. Each story is a story within a story, and in the end they’re all that we have. Gaiman and these fantastic artists leave us with a half dozen issues which we read and pass around. The act of reading is a story, the act of writing about reading is a story (albeit a boring one). It’s all story.
Stories are what really matter, because stories are what makes us who we are.