Northern Voice 2012, Part 2: In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night

Part 2 of my NV12 recaps: productivity, voice, and comics

Mike Vardy‘s talk on Saturday dealt with Better Blogging Productivity. He offered some commonsense tips such as:

  • Be realistic (or in his words, “get real!”): get clear about what you can and can’t do in the windows of time available to you. If you only have a little bit of time, do simple things like catch up on email or collect ideas. Save the really creative work for when you can focus on it
  • Build a schedule. In Mike’s words, blog proficiently not prolifically. Start small, get used to a blogging routine, and build up from there.
  • Avoid distractions (as opposed to disruptions). Distractions are messages, email notifications, anything nonurgent and avoidable.

Commonsense, sure, but this is stuff I definitely need to work on. I don’t have a blogging routine, and as often as not I’ll check my email when that little red circle appears over the icon. Hey, at least I turned off the sound notifications!

Then Mike offered a number of tools to help with this productivity: tasks managers like 30/30, email filters like AwayFind, forced discipline apps like Freedom (on the Mac).

But the kicker to me was when he said, “discipline is not enough. You need willpower.” Mike told the audience that he wears a Green Lantern ring when blogging as a physical focus. Green Lanterns, as everyone knows, are powered by will. And who is Green Lantern’s arch-nemesis, he asked? “Sinestro,” I replied from the front row. And what does Sinestro run on? “Fear,” I replied again, thus outing myself as a big nerd. Bottom line, then: fear impedes willpower.

And you know what? I totally get it. My take on the discipline vs. willpower dichotomy is that the former is going through the motions, tools and habits that you need to internalise until they’re second nature. Willpower, on the other hand, is the clarity of hearing that little voice pushing you to create and excel. Fears, doubts and insecurities definitely get in the way of hearing that voice.

(Incidentally, Mike and I chatted over lunch for a bit, and I learned about the Green Lantern animated series. I watched the entire first season the day after the conference, and I’m here to tell you it’s awesome. I didn’t think I’d be crazy about the CGI animation, but the technology’s come a long way, and the story, characters and action are all fantastic. Any series that stars Atrocitus, Mogo and Saint Walker is tops in my book.)

After lunch, Shane Birley‘s keynote The Evolution of the Blogger’s Voice took us on a whirlwind sci-fi trip through his blogging history. There was no real plot, just a collection of vignettes from 1998 to the present day: his time in Victoria, meeting Allyson, getting laid off from Cayenta, starting Left Right Minds, and the million other projects he’s currently got going.

Some of his posts (especially the early ones) were about looking for vindication, feeling grumpy, feeling tied down, and looking for his voice. And then his voice came, though sometimes it didn’t feel that way. The moral is: you already have a voice, you just have to find it. It may not be through plain text blogs. Try podcasts, vlogs? Keep digging, and you’ll find it.

And here’s what I’m taking from this talk. I’m not sure if this was really Shane’s point, but here goes, my interpretation:

The thing is, discipline will keep your world ordered, and willpower will keep you putting one foot in front of the other, but you need to see where you’re going, or at least hope that the tied-down-ness and the grumpiness will pass, and you will find your voice one day. All will be well.

My personal view is that Fear has many opposites, not just Willpower. Another is Hope. That’s in the comics too, by the way. Blue Lanterns (powered by hope) by themselves are apparently the weakest of the emotional spectrum (I guess reflecting the fact that hope alone is passive and kind of useless). But team them up with a Green Lantern and they boost each other’s power so as to be nigh-unstoppable. Hope and Willpower together are the greatest force in the universe.

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

I’d heard the hype about this game, and eventually got to play the first few chapters at a friend’s place. I was so hooked that I decided to rent a disc and console so I could play it for myself. Everything about it is excellent, from the graphics to the gameplay to the story. Everything.

That was absolutely awesome.

I’d heard the hype about this game, and eventually got to play the first few chapters at a friend’s place. I was so hooked that I decided to rent a disc and console so I could play it for myself. Everything about it is excellent, from the graphics to the gameplay to the story. Everything.

For one, the voice acting is first-rate: Batman, Joker and Harley Quinn are played by the same excellent actors as in the 90’s Batman animated series (oh, how I missed Mark Hamill’s demented giggles, and Arleen Sorkin cooing “Pudd’n”!). The other voices—Bane, Scarecrow, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Commissioner Gordon, Oracle—are also all great. Hell, even the generic batarang-fodder henchmen sell their lines pretty well.

The visuals are beautifully done, from the brooding asylum grounds, to the oppressive Victorian architecture, to the crumbling sewers, and every environment is full of little details that add to the gloomy Gothic atmosphere. Batman’s hi-tech armor and toys looked very nice too.

The game controls are quite complex, and there’s no tutorial as such. That’s okay, though: the game introduces elements gradually enough—moving, looking around, fighting, etc…—that before you know it you’ll be tossing out Twin Batarangs with the best of them. All you have to do is remember which button does what. As for the upgrade system, it’s pretty cool, but I didn’t find that it gave you a lot of room to customise: in the end you’ll have pretty much all available skills, it’s just a question of which to get first. (hint: “Inverted Takedown” is the shiznit.)

Replay value? I’ve only gone through the game one and a half times so I can’t say for sure, but I could probably play it a couple more times, if only to see what the “Hard” difficulty level is all about. Also, I could try out some of the more advanced fighting techniques, and see how much of the bonus material I could get my hands on. On my one complete playthrough I only discovered about half the trophies and unlockable extras, including just under half of Arkham’s Chronicles.

Which brings me to the story. On the surface, it’s pretty simple: Joker and Harley Quinn have taken control of the asylum, and Batman must save staff and other innocents, all the while figuring out the Clown Prince of Crime’s true intentions. It’s an engaging story, bringing together many characters from the Batman universe. The writers’ love for the mythos is evident in the little details, like the iconic clatter of pearls when Batman, hallucinating on Scarecrow’s fear gas, is forced to relive his parents’ murder. And Harley Quinn telling a captive Jim Gordon, “Mama spank!”. Plus, nods to sillier villains like Scarface and Calendar Man.

But there’s more. A lot of the extra world building was clearly inspired by the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean in 1989. It’s the kind of deliciously trippy mind-fuck only Morrison can deliver, delving deep into Lewis Carroll, Jung, Crowleyian magic and other esoteric themes, yet (at least to me) never crossing the line into random pseudo-profound mystical babble. In this story, Batman is presented as hardly more sane than the Joker and other inmates, and Arkham as a cursed house, fed and made strong by the constant flow of violently insane souls.

The “chronicles” hidden throughout the game are each short chapters in the journal of Amadeus Arkham, founder of the Asylum. From what I’ve seen (ie: the first half) it’s not too different from the original Morrison story—toned down, because this is an action-adventure game, and players don’t want to spend too much time hearing about Crowley and the Tarot and whatnot—but still pretty darn creepy and disturbing. And though they only show up in Scarecrow-induced hallucinations, the game does drop a few nice hints that Batman has, shall we say, issues.

I wish I’d found all of Arkham’s chronicles, though, because I want to see how this version of the story ends. Forget defeating the Joker, I want to know about the Asylum’s history!

So, to recap: fantastic game. It’s fun, challenging, full of atmosphere and details that show deep love for the Batman mythos. Definitely a keeper. And hey, they’re making a sequel!

Movie Review: Watchmen

Oh, man, that was great.

No, seriously. This is the first time I was very, very pleased with an Alan Moore movie. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a massive clusterfuck from the word go, V for Vendetta was pretty good, but not great. This, though? Yes.

Oh, man, that was great.

No, seriously. This is the first time I was very, very pleased with an Alan Moore movie. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a massive clusterfuck from the word go, V for Vendetta was pretty good, but not great. This, though? Yes. I was so afraid it would suck—either it would try to stay true to the comic and fail, or it wouldn’t even try, and thus suck as an adaptation. But the movie managed to be both true to the source material and be very watchable. A lot of the backstory and exposition was nicely filled in with various flashbacks and montages, most of which were merged into the storyline pretty smoothly. The only exception I can think of is Ozymandias’ origin. The movie has him expositioning to a bunch of financial bigwigs just before his attempted “assassination,” which felt forced and didn’t reveal all that much anyway. Oh well.

Some stuff was trimmed or tweaked, like Dr. Manhattan’s solitary meditation on Mars, but that’s fine. A couple of scenes were actually improved, like when Nite Owl and Rorschach broke into Veidt’s computer network. In the comic, Nite Owl when entered “RAMESES”, the system helpfully told him the password was incomplete. The movie bypassed this silliness, showing Dreiberg attempting a few passwords before hitting on “RAMESES II”. I also liked the new costumes. It’s a well-known fact that while many superhero costumes look good on paper, they don’t look so good on the big screen (or the little screen). Case in point: the very, very dorky 1940’s Minutemen costumes in the opening montage. Seriously, Mothman, with the wings? Hooded Justice, with that noose around his neck, what’s up with that?

As for Ozymandias’ master plan? Well, I’ve got no complaints. Teleporting a giant psychic squid to kill half of New York might have worked in the comic, but it’d be harder to pull off on the big screen. Ozymandias duplicating Manhattan’s powers? That worked better, and was just as good a testament to his ingenuity.

In short: very impressed, and I’d definitely recommend this movie whether or not you’ve read the original graphic novel.

Comic Book Review: Death: The High Cost of Living

I admit it. I love Death. Have from the first time she appeared in The Sandman. She’s beautiful, perky, compassionate, and not afraid to tell it like it is. If she’ll pardon my saying so, she’s the most human of all the Endless… and it seems there’s a good reason for that.

I admit it. I love Death. Have from the first time she appeared in The Sandman. She’s beautiful, perky, compassionate, and not afraid to tell it like it is. If she’ll pardon my saying so, she’s the most human of all the Endless… and it seems there’s a good reason for that. It is said that “One day in every century Death takes on mortal flesh, better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like, to taste the bitter tang of mortality: and this is the price she must pay for being the divider of the living from all that has gone before, all that must come after.” This quietly enchanting 3-part miniseries, written by Neil Gaiman and published in 1993 (during Sandman’s run, near the end of the “Brief Lives” storyline), follows Death as she spends twenty-four hours mortal in New York City, tasting life and making new friends.

We meet Sexton Furnival, a sullen and angsty teen vaguely planning suicide because he feels life is pointless. We catch up with Hazel and Foxglove, the lesbian couple last seen in Sandman’s “A Game of You” storyline. And we meet Didi, the incarnation of Death (whose name just has to start with a “D,” like all the Endless). It’s not clear exactly who or what she is: a temporary shell for Death? A real girl imbued with a bit of the Endless’ essence? Didi does seem to have a history and friends who remember her, but that might just be a bit of retroactive memory. What’s obvious is that she’s not just some delusional mortal girl: a few of her offhand remarks (“As my older brother would say, some destinations are inevitable.” “My sister has rats. She loves them deeply.”) indicate she knows way more about the Endless than any mortal should.

And all of these characters deal with death (small “d”) and life in different ways. Sexton contemplates suicide but eventually learns to appreciate life. Hazel is expecting a baby. Foxglove sings about her dead ex-girlfriend. Didi, as is her function, enjoys the hell out of every experience: breathing, eating, meeting people (even the creeps), the good and the bad, living her perfectly ordinary, perfectly special day.

(There are a couple of plots, but they’re not terribly important. Mad Hettie, an immortal homeless woman previously seen in Sandman, is looking for her heart and demands Didi’s help. A blind wizard called The Eremite plans to steal Didi’s ankh and thus gain power over Death… to stop people from dying, maybe. That’s the problem with being Death, I guess: too few people appreciate your work. There are always sorcerers and whatnot trying to control you for the “good” of humanity. Roderick Burgess did it way back in Sandman #1, and he probably wasn’t the first.)

The art, by Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham, is phenomenal, and in my opinion consitutes the best representation of Death. They perfectly captured her sweetness, innocence (maybe not the best term when talking about the second oldest being in the universe, but there you go), serene wisdom, and, well, lovability. Some of the visuals were quite striking: I especially loved the scene of Didi helping Sexton to his feet, in the garbage dump where she found him. It worked on an additional level, since Death usually takes the recently departed by the hand as she leads them to what lies beyond. (And I could go on about Didi pushing the fridge off Sexton’s legs being deep and complex symbolism for Death releasing us from the burdens of life, but I think I won’t go there. Sometimes a fridge is just a fridge.) And the panel of Didi by the fountain, silently embracing the world moments before her death, still gets to me, even ten years later.

Death: The High Cost of Living is conveniently collected in a trade paperback, which offers a nifty little bonus: Death Talks About Life, a six page insert in which Death discusses safer sex, assisted by John Constantine and a banana. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

Comic Book Review: The Sandman

The year was 1994. Up until that time the only comics I read were mainstream superheroics (mostly Marvel, with just a little bit of DC), and pretty infrequently at that. I never committed to any series (with a few exceptions), just reading a few issues here and there as the mood took me. In hindsight I wonder if it’s because the mostly tedious and formulaic stories these comics contained paled in comparison with the sci-fi and fantasy I had been avidly reading for years and years. But that summer, something very special happened:

The year was 1994. Up until that time the only comics I read were mainstream superheroics (mostly Marvel, with just a little bit of DC), and pretty infrequently at that. I never committed to any series (with a few exceptions), just reading a few issues here and there as the mood took me. In hindsight I wonder if it’s because the mostly tedious and formulaic stories these comics contained paled in comparison with the sci-fi and fantasy I had been avidly reading for years and years. But that summer, something very special happened: I watched an episode of Prisoners of Gravity discussing a strange comic I’d never heard of, written by some British guy I’d never heard of either. It was dark fantasy, with mature and intelligent writing, seemed nicely illustrated, and unlike any comic I’d ever seen.

Hey, I thought, this needs checking out.

The series had by then been running for five years, but most of the old issues were collected in trade paperbacks, so I had no trouble completing my collection. The Sandman‘s run ended in early 1996 with a total of 75 issues, plus a few one-shot specials; it was a wonderful series, with smart, powerful storytelling and art that varied between good and breathtaking. I will always remember it as the first (but certainly not the last) alternative comic book I ever picked up, and I will be eternally grateful to the now-defunct Prisoners of Gravity for showing me there was something out there in comics besides standard cape-and-tights superheroics.

The title character is the mythical Sandman, the Lord of Dreams. More than a god, he is one of the Endless, seven beings that incarnate different principles of the universe. This one is the personification of dreams and nightmares, as well as imagination, stories and myth. Usually addressed as “Dream” or “Morpheus”—rarely as “Sandman”—he generally appears as a tall, thin man with dark clothes, black hair and pure white skin, and starry voids where his eyes should be. Though he is the title character, he doesn’t always take centre stage: as often as not, the tales focus on the interesting web of friends, associates, acquaintances or enemies he has gathered around himself, with Dream only acting as a witness or catalyst to their stories.

The Beginning

The first issue begins in 1916, when a powerful wizard named Roderick Burgess hatches a plan to summon and bind Death. He fails, but quite by accident manages to capture Death’s younger brother, Dream. Morpheus remains trapped for over seventy years in Burgess’ house, cut off from his realm and power, during which time the Dreaming suffered various disruptions: some people slept nonstop for decades, others couldn’t sleep or dream at all. Upon escaping in 1988, Dream takes revenge on his captor’s son Alex—Roderick having already passed away- -by trapping him in “eternal waking,” an extremely nasty curse that has the victim jumping from nightmare from nightmare, appearing to wake up but then realizing they’re still asleep.

This is only the beginning. Morpheus is weak, hungry, missing his tools of office: a pouch of sand, a ruby, and a helm (a bizarre contraption shaped like a cross between a skull and a gas mask). His realm is in shambles, some of its population of dreams having either died, mutated in unexpected ways, or escaped into the waking world. Morpheus first has to retrieve his tools, a quest which takes up the next 6 issues. For the pouch he must team up with John Constantine to go through an army of rebel dreams powered by a madwoman. For the helm he must face down Lucifer and the hordes of Hell. For the ruby he must battle an insane villain who managed to tap the power of the jewel.

The first seven issues were overall pretty enjoyable and showed serious potential. Dream’s character, in particular, was already well defined: his cold formality, his meticulous attention to his duties, his harsh and vengeful pride. But in other respects the series was still feeling its way. The art was a bit uneven, and the story itself (the second half, especially) is somewhat… questionable: Dream has to actually fight, to act like a hero against a villain, which I don’t feel is appropriate for a being of his nature. Although I have to say his mystical duel with the demon Choronzon in issue #3 was nothing short of brilliant.

These first issues contained appearances by many established DC Comics characters; most fit the dark and mystical theme of the series very well. For instance, our first look at the Dreaming in issue #2 includes Cain and Abel, former hosts of two horror comics series (The House of Mystery and The House of Secrets, respectively) back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In this universe they are very special dreams, charged with the safekeeping of old stories. The pair of them became recurring characters, reenacting their mythical roles of murderer and victim—for you see, they also happen to be the Biblical characters. In that same issue we get to see the Three Witches, former hosts of The Witching Hour, yet another old-time DC horror series. There they were just, well, witches, in the traditional trinity of Maiden, Mother and Crone. In the Sandman universe the Witches are an aspect of the Triple Goddess, an entity equal to—perhaps greater than—the Endless. (All these homages went right over my head ten years ago, but since then I’ve gathered a little collection of old-time horror titles.)

Also fitting the theme: John Constantine, who had been roaming the DC occult world for a while, as had the demon Etrigan, whom Dream encounters in Hell in issue #4. And, briefly seen in issue #1 is the Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds. In an intriguing bit of retconning, we learn that Wesley Dodds was driven to go out crime-fighting by recurring dreams of Morpheus (then in captivity). The gas mask he wore, besides its purely functional value, was reminiscent of Dream’s own helm.

What didn’t fit so well were appearances by characters from DC’s mainstream superhero world: John Dee, a.k.a. Doctor Destiny, the villain who had taken control of Dream’s ruby, is a recurring enemy of the Justice League; the Scarecrow is from Batman’s rogue gallery; the Martian Manhunter is one of the League’s founding members; Scott Free, a.k.a. Mister Miracle is another hero with ties to the League. To be fair, the Manhunter and Miracle only made brief appearances, and Scarecrow was portrayed as a silly professor absentmindedly cataloguing all the different types of fears, but I still wish we could have done without the references to costumed superheroes, and without Dream having to be a hero himself.

But all is forgiven thanks to issue #8, entitled “The Sound of her Wings.” Depressed and tired after his ordeals, Dream is visited by his sweet, upbeat and beautiful older sister Death. By taking him with her on her rounds, she shows Dream how to find happiness in the simple routines of everyday life. “The Sound of her Wings” is a beautiful and touching story, refreshingly quiet and low-key after the excitement of the last few issues. It remains one of my favourites of the entire series, partly because the Death it introduces is so… untraditional. I mean, you never saw Bergman’s Grim Reaper quoting from Mary Poppins, did you? (Although this Reaper just might do it.)

The Doll’s House

Issue #9 kicked off a new storyline, “The Doll’s House.” As would become a regular occurrence, this issue contains a story told by the characters—so, a story within a story. Many thousands of years ago, it is said, Dream fell in love with a mortal queen named Nada; and she fell in love with him. But she knew mortals and Endless were not meant to be together, so she refused to come to his realm and be his wife. His pride hurt, Dream sentenced Nada to Hell. This is in fact a true story: we do see Nada briefly in issue #4, when Dream visits Hell to recover his helm. She still loves him, and he loves her. But he hasn’t forgiven her.

“The Doll’s House” introduces two more Endless: Despair—a short, dumpy, ugly woman with fangs and a hooked ring with which she gouges her own flesh from time to time, and Desire—a scheming, self-centered creature of no gender (or all genders), who seems to spend a lot of time meddling in Dream’s life out of malice. The two siblings seem to have a close relationship though they apparently have very little in common. From some of Desire’s comments at the beginning of issue #10 it seems s/he was partly responsible for the affair between Dream and Nada. As we learn later, the Endless can manipulate one another so it is possible that Desire could have made Dream fall in love.

The main plot concerns a girl named Rose Walker, granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, one of the people who went to sleep when Dream was captured and woke up only when he escaped. Rose is a “vortex,” a mortal who—involuntarily, by her very nature—can cause great damage to the Dreaming. It is part of Dream’s duties to identify and destroy such people before the damage becomes irreparable. In the end Dream finds he doesn’t have to kill her. It turns out Unity was impregnated by Desire and gave birth to Rose’s mother, as part of a plan to make Dream spill family blood. It was Unity who should have been the vortex, but she had been locked in a dreamless sleep for decades and her power (whatever it was) passed down her bloodline to Rose. Rose was able to pass her power back to Unity who then died, thus sparing the Dreaming. This matter of “vortices” was never referenced again, and I suspect it was mostly a way to introduce the taboo against a Endless spilling family blood; as we later learn, such an act would bring the Furies down on the murderer’s head.

A parallel plotline involves Rose’s search for her brother Jed, separated from her and placed in a foster home some years ago. The boy is not only being abused by his foster parents, but also taken over by two powerful dreams by the name of Brute and Glob who had escaped while Morpheus was imprisoned. Their plan is to create a new Dream King out of a delusional ghost named Hector Hall. They brought Hall and his pregnant wife Hippolyta into a pocket Dreaming inside Jed’s head, put him into a gaudy superhero costume and made him continually fight silly monsters. This is an homage (or parody, since the original is almost as loopy) to the 1970’s Sandman.

When Morpheus defeats Brute and Glob he sends Hector into the beyond, and lays claim to Hippolyta’s child, still unborn after two years in the Dreaming.

The storyline has an interesting interlude in issue #13, entitled “Men of Good Fortune,” which introduces one of the most fascinating of Sandman‘s recurring characters: Hob Gadling. In the year 1389, Death and Dream went for a walk in the mortal world, and ended up in a tavern in Britain where they listened to Hob pontificating about death being “a mug’s game;” in his (drunken) opinion, it was something that people did just because they believed they had to, and he wanted no part in it. Death smiled a quirky, enigmatic smile and Dream addressed Hob, proposing to meet him for a drink a century later in the same tavern. Hob, not really believing he was immortal but trying to save face in front of his friends, agreed. And so Dream and Hob kept meeting for drinks, once every hundred years. Dream explained that Hob (who by 1589 changed his name to the more refined “Robert”) really was immortal: Death would not take him unless he truly desired to end his life. In 1889, Hob opined that Dream kept meeting him not because he was mildly curious about human nature, but because he was lonely and considered Hob a friend. Dream angrily protested that a being like him didn’t need any lowly friends, and left in a huff. Nevertheless he was on time for their 1989 meeting, and this time actually called Hob a friend. What happened? Well, Dream did spend most of the intervening century trapped in Burgess’ crystal box. That changes a guy, even an Endless.

Dream Country

Four more-or-less standalone stories followed “The Doll’s House.” In issue #17, the muse Calliope is enslaved by a writer whose well has run dry, and subsequently freed by Dream. Here we learn the startling fact that Calliope and Dream were in a relationship some thousands of years ago, and had a son together. And again, we see evidence that Dream has been somewhat changed by his long imprisonment. He can now empathize with Calliope’s situation, whereas before—she claims—he would have left her to rot. In issue #18, “A Dream Of A Thousand Cats,” a community of cats discover they can change their reality through dreaming. It also gives readers their first sight of a non-human Dream (because of course, he rules the dreams of all creatures, not just humans). This was a creepy little tale, which will ensure you’ll never look at a sleeping cat the same way again. In issue #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” William Shakespeare’s troupe gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance to the Court of Faerie. This is a sequel of sorts to issue #13, in which we saw Morpheus meeting Shakespeare (who happened to be in the same tavern as Hob and him in 1589). In exchange for a lifetime of inspiration, Dream commissioned two special plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first, intended as a gift to the King and Queen of Faerie so that they would never be forgotten by humans. In issue #20, “Façade,” Death shows she is always perky and sympathetic as she gives an indestructible, but miserable, superheroine (Element Girl, a relatively minor DC character) a way to end her existence. This is also the first of a handful of issues in which Dream does not appear.

Season of Mists

The next major storyline, “Season of Mists,” (issues #21–28) begins with an Endless family reunion! In addition to Dream, Death, Desire and Despair, readers get to meet Destiny (the oldest, glimpsed once in issue #7), and Delirium (the youngest, only mentioned). Still missing is the unnamed “prodigal,” vaguely mentioned once in issue #10; this Endless apparently left the family of his own free will some time ago and wishes no contact with the remaining Endless. He is missed by at least Death and Despair, and emphatically not missed by Desire. This family meeting kicks off the plot: following Desire’s mean-spirited (but very accurate) jabs at his poor romantic history, Dream decides to visit Hell to finally forgive Nada. But since he humiliated Lucifer in front of all demonkind on his last visit, he doesn’t quite know what kind of welcome to expect. He certainly doesn’t expect Lucifer to step down and give him the key to Hell…

As a result of owning what Death calls “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things,” Dream becomes extremely popular. A number of gods and powers petition him to give them the key, with a wide variety of bribes or threats. In the end Dream gives the key to a couple of angels who (acting in the Name of their Lord) will keep Hell active as a place of redemptive torment. And Dream does formally apologize to Nada for being such a dick ten thousand years ago (though he starts in such an insensitive, self-absorbed way! I mean, really. “I think I might have acted wrongly”? “I think perhaps I should apologize”?).

“Seasons of Mists” was a hell of a lot of fun. It was a big story, dealing with conflict between powers far beyond mortal ken. It does raise a few questions about how the Judeo-Christian God fits into this whole mythology, though. It seems there are some entities more powerful than the Endless: possibly the Three Ladies; definitely Lucifer (by Dream’s admission). If so, then Jehovah must be as well. But it’s still not clear who created who, and I suppose it never will be. Oh well.

I have to admit the Endless family reunion—incomplete though it was—made me squeal like a little geek. But who is this missing Endless? What is his domain? why did he leave the family? Where is he now? The Egyptian goddess Bast apparently knows something of his present whereabouts—she was prepared to give this information to Morpheus in exchange for her pantheon getting control of Hell. And we get a few more interesting hints about Endless nature: when Morpheus discussed his upcoming visit to Hell with his staff, he said, “If I am destroyed, another aspect of Dream will fill my shoes. I trust you all will make my re-assumption of the role an easy one.” So it seems the Endless can die… sort of, and only temporarily. And what we see of Morpheus is only a small fraction of the totality that is Dream of the Endless.

Distant Mirrors

There follow a few more standalone issues, collectively known as “Distant Mirrors” since they show Dream in historical settings. My favourite is “Three Septembers and a January” (issue #31), which tells the story of Joshua Norton, the man who declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. It is a fascinating story of the power of dreams over despair, madness, and base desires, as Norton’s Morpheus-inspired reign showed the King of Dreams to be stronger than the three youngest Endless.

A one-shot special entitled “The Song of Orpheus” was published between issues #31 and #32. It is a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus, the mythical bard who travelled to Hades in a failed attempt to retrieve his dead bride Eurydice and was later killed by the Maenads. In this version of the story (as in some others) Orpheus did not die then, and his head floated down to the sea, ending up on the isle of Lesbos. Here, Orpheus is the son of the Muse Calliope and Dream himself. And for the first time we see the seventh Endless: a big robust man with flaming red hair wearing ornate plate armor. Orpheus introduces him as “my uncle Olethros” (which is Greek for “Destruction”). After Eurydice’s death, Dream opposed Orpheus’ trip to Hades’ underworld, counseling him instead to accept his wife’s death, grieve, and move on; but Orpheus, romantic fool that he was, spat out “I am no longer your son” and stormed off. Afterwards Dream refused to grant Orpheus a final death—in fact, refused to ever speak to him again. Orpheus—still quite alive, having lost none of his singing talent in spite of having no body—stayed on Lesbos, cared for by the local priests. His head was stolen once in the mid-18th century, ending up in Paris in 1794, to finally be recovered by Joanna Constantine (an ancestor of John Constantine) as told in issue #29, “Thermidor.” It looks like Dream still cared for his son, but as usual his stubborn pride got in the way of an easy resolution, and he had to use a human agent to keep his word of never seeing Orpheus again.

A Game of You

“A Game of You,” a six-part storyline running in issues #32–37, brought the series down to a more human scale. Barbie (one of Rose Walker’s housemates in Florida, last seen in “The Doll’s House”) used to regularly dream of a wonderful fantasy world in which she was “Princess Barbara,” fighting to save her land from an evil known as “The Cuckoo.” After being caught in Rose’s brief manifestation of vortex power she moved to New York and hooked up with some quite interesting housemates: Hazel and Foxglove, a lesbian couple (one of whom is the ex of Judy, one of the people killed by Dee in issue #6 when he experimented with Dream’s ruby); Wanda, a pre-op MTF transsexual; and Thessaly, a plain-looking but extremely powerful and virtually immortal witch. But now Barbie’s dreams become a terrifying reality as she is drawn back into the dreamworld and her friends must protect her in both the waking and dreaming realms.

I guess there has to be one: “A Game of You” was the least enjoyable storyline for me. There were parts of it I liked: the “small world” feeling of the Sandman universe, and the attention to continuity within the series. What used to be a minor character was given depth and a personality, and supporting characters of her own. The themes of fantasies and identities were interesting ones, and explored in different ways through Barbie and Wanda: Barbie’s dreams of being a heroic princess were just an escape from her dreary, ordinary life, whereas Wanda moved to a new place, changed her name, was even changing her body to become who she wanted to be. Thessaly was another fascinating character: always perfectly cool and composed, but completely self-centered and breathtakingly arrogant and reckless—her spell to draw down the moon without regard to how it would fuck up the local weather was bad enough, but her actually making demands of Morpheus after she, Hazel, Foxglove and Barbie witnessed the Land’s end and insisting she could get them all home safely even when she clearly had no power left? Well, that really takes brass ones.

Which leads me to the main reason I was unhappy with “A Game of You.” The resolution was horribly depressing. The Cuckoo won, after all. I realize she wasn’t evil as such, but she was a nasty little piece of work who destroyed the Land, and still got to fly free. And poor Wanda died—not heroically, though she lived her life with courage and distinction. To add insult to injury her whole identity, her name, everything that made her her was erased by her small-minded hick family. All they knew (or wanted to know) was their son Alvin and that’s the name that went on her tombstone; Wanda lived on only in her friends’ memories—and the tacky pink lipstick with which Barbie wrote her real name on her grave. I guess it was the family’s redneck homophobia/transphobia that yanked me out of the fantasy. I already know people like that exist. I’ve met them, and I don’t need to see them in my fantasy comics. But maybe that’s the moral of the story: Outside of Barbie’s pretty dreams, there are no pure-hearted heroes battling irredeemable villains. And who we think of as the good guys don’t always win.

Convergence

A few more standalone stories followed, collectively called “Convergence” because they blur the line between storyteller and story. The highlight is issue #40, “A Parliament of Rooks.” It stars Daniel Hall, Lyta’s son, now a toddler. The boy gestated in dreams for a couple of years and was named by Morpheus himself, and here we see he has a special connection to the Dreaming, enabling him to interact with the entities there on their own level. The issue shows him visiting Abel’s House of Secrets and attending a little storytelling party with Cain, Abel and Eve. After Cain’s chilling mystery of rooks (which gives the issue its title), we’re treated to Abel and Eve’s retelling of their respective mythologies. We learn of Adam’s two wives before Eve, and how Cain and Abel were “recruited” by Dream after their death. The two brothers definitely predate not just the Bible, but humanity as a whole. They were mortal, though, and one killed the other pretty much as is told in Genesis. But instead of letting Death take Abel, Dream offered him the chance to live on in dreams, as a keeper of secret stories. Later when Cain died Dream made him a similar offer and the two brothers were reunited, both storytellers and archetypes, part of an eternal double act: secrets and mysteries, victim and victor.

Brief Lives

Then came what was in my opinion the high point of the series: the “Brief Lives” storyline, running in issues #41–49. Delirium, youngest of the Endless, decides to look for their missing brother Destruction and persuades Dream to join her. Dream however, is more interested in taking his mind off a relationship that went south; he neither expects nor wants to find Destruction. But when people around them keep mysteriously dying or disappearing, Morpheus realizes there is more here than meets the eye, and becomes committed to Delirium’s quest. The siblings finally find their lost brother, who is quite happy on his own and does not intend to rejoin the family. And Dream finds destruction in another sense: to learn of his brother’s whereabouts, Dream had to consult his son Orpheus and in return give him the death he craved for millennia. Thus Dream has spilled family blood, opening himself to retaliation by the Furies.

Destruction. Now there’s an interesting guy. Readers saw a little bit of him in “The Song of Orpheus.” They see a little bit more in a flashback in issue #41 as he and Despair supervise the London Plague in 1665. He was so friendly and cheerful, with a laugh as big as the world, not at all who you’d expect to rule over Destruction. But then Death isn’t your traditional Grim Reaper either. And what’s Destruction doing when we see him for the first time in the present? A bit of painting. Not very good painting, but it looks like he’s doing it just for fun. Later on, we see him composing a little poem. Again, surprisingly amateurish for a being who’s had billions of years to perfect his craft… but maybe he only started after leaving the Family. Anyway, the message is clear:

Basilisk and Cockatrice: A Moral Poem

I dreamed I saw a basilisk
That basked upon a rocky shore
I looked upon the basilisk…
With eyes of stone I looked no more.
I dreamed I saw a cockatrice
A-chewing on a piece of bone
I gazed upon the cockatrice…
One cannot gaze with eyes of stone.

To look upon a basilisk
Is really never worth the risk
To gaze upon a cockatrice
Is permanent and never nice
For it can never be denied
Life isn’t pleasant, petrified.

And there you have it, the theme of this storyline: Life is change. Nothing lasts forever. Humans grow old and die; stars go nova; gods lose worshippers and must move on or find other ways to survive. Even the Endless are not nearly as endless as they’d like to believe. The seven of them (except possibly Death) will only last as long as the universe. Delirium used to be known as Delight long ago. Despair has died once—how we don’t know. And Dream himself has changed somewhat, as readers have seen many times over the course of the series, and as he has repeatedly denied. All this is Destruction’s domain: change, whether for good or ill, constructive or destructive. You can’t have one without the other. Nothing new can come into being without displacing something else.

But none of these messages ever come across as pretentious or boring. I found it fascinating to see how the Endless actually live out their functions. Destiny seems to have no free will: he knows what will happen to everyone and everything, including himself, and even his walks through his garden are predetermined. Dream is a self-absorbed romantic fool, surrounding himself with stories and servants he created himself, and who—though he won’t admit it—sometimes doesn’t think much about the real-world consequences of his actions. Delirium is as nutty as a dozen fruitcakes, though occasionally prone to bouts of frightening lucidity. Despair is sad and full of self-doubt, constantly mutilating herself with her hooked ring. Desire is a selfish and cruel bitch who doesn’t know the meaning of self-control. Destruction is good at shaking up the status quo and painting mediocre landscapes. Death is… well, Death is herself. We know that she’s there for us when we’re born as well as when we die, which makes her the only Endless apart from Destruction to embody opposite principles. Which may be why those two are so hard to pin down.

Ramadan

The fiftieth issue, entitled “Ramadan” takes us to medieval Baghdad, under the reign of the legendary Caliph Haroun al-Raschid. It is an age of magic and miracles, witches and djinni and flying glass horses, where heroes and adventurers abound and everyone has an exciting story to tell. But the Caliph, knows that this golden age will not last forever. He summons the King of Dreams and asks him to take the city into the Dreaming, thus ensuring that it would at least live on in myth. Gorgeously illustrated and exquisitely written, it’s easily one of the best Sandman issues ever.

World’s End

The “Worlds’ End” storyline follows—actually, less a storyline than six loosely related issues. Trapped by a reality storm, a motley collection of travelers find refuge in the Inn at Worlds’ End, a free house between realms. There they pass the time by telling stories: of a man trapped in the dreams of a sleeping city (“A Tale Of Two Cities,” issue #51); rousing swashbuckling adventure with a dash of political intrigue (“Cluracan’s Tale,” issue #52); a voyage at sea with Hob Gadling the immortal, a cross-dressing girl and a sea serpent (“Hob’s Leviathan,” issue #53); a retelling of the legend of Prez (“The Golden Boy,” issue #54); simple slices-of-life in a city of morticians (“Cerements,” issue #55). In several cases, these stories have many layers, of stories-within-stories. For example, “Cerements” features Petrefax (in the Inn) relating the story of an air burial, where Scroyle tells of Destruction wandering through the Necropolis, who tells him of the burial of the first Despair.

The arc concludes with the refugees’ vision of a funeral procession, in which many of the series’ main characters (most of the Endless, several major gods and dreams) participate. We don’t know who it’s for… But reality storms are caused by momentous, cosmos-changing events such as, perhaps, the death of an Endless. And we know Dream spilled family blood…

The Kindly Ones

“The Kindly Ones,” the last and longest major storyline, began in issue #57 and lasted until issue #69. Believing Dream to have kidnapped and killed her son Daniel, Hippolyta Hall undertakes a vision quest to find the Furies, that aspect of the Triple Goddess that avenges blood crimes. The Furies attack the Dreaming, ruthlessly killing its inhabitants one by one. Still grieving over his son Orpheus and frustrated by the constraints of his duties but unwilling to abandon them, Dream decides to stop the Furies’ rampage… by ending his own existence. Death takes Morpheus away. The Furies stop their attacks. And Daniel Hall becomes the new Dream of the Endless.

In retrospect, this was Dream’s only way out of his dilemma. He was too attentive to his duties to simply take off as Destruction did, especially since he’d already seen what would happen to his realm in his absence. But he couldn’t stay who he was, where he was. The solution was to become someone else, someone who had not killed his son. It’s not clear exactly when Dream decided to end his existence: Orpheus’ final death had a lot to do with it, certainly. But did Destruction get through Morpheus’ thick skull and get him to accept he had a choice, to stay or go or change? Maybe. Maybe it started when Destruction left the family in the late 17th century. Or maybe it really started with Orpheus’ first death at the hands of the Maenads—Death does say that he’s been preparing for this time subconsciously “for ages.”

To be honest, I thought the storyline dragged a lot. There were a number of subplots that didn’t really go anywhere (Nuala’s love for Morpheus, Delirium looking for her dog), though it was nice to see some familiar faces. Especially Lucifer, who’s been happily managing an upscale nightclub in LA and doesn’t miss Hell one little bit. So, I’m not complaining too much. The Three Ladies said it best at the end: there are always a few loose ends to the tapestry.

The Wake

A three-part storyline entitled “The Wake” follows. As the new aspect of Dream settles into his new role, the rest of the Family gathers to mourn their fallen brother. This beautifully illustrated arc, full of quiet and reflective dialogue, serves as a veritable who’s who of the Sandman universe, allowing readers to say goodbye to them all.

Ending

The final three issues are each more or less self-contained. In issue #73, entitled “Sunday Mourning,” Hob Gadling goes to a Renaissance Festival. What’s funny, of course, is that Hob actually lived through the Renaissance, and he knows for a fact that these events have nothing to do with history.

“You know what’s wrong with this place?”

“Uh…”

“Well, the first thing that’s wrong is there’s no shit. I mean, that’s the thing about the past people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through this stuff… You should spray ‘em all with shit as they come through the gates. No lice. No nits. No rotting face cancers. When was the last time you saw someone with a bloody great tumor hanging off their face?”

“Uh…”

“Exactly.”

Later on, he runs into Death, who’d dropped by to chat a bit and find out if he was ready to call it a day. They talk about Dream’s funeral and Hob’s theories on death (small “d”).

“I don’t know… Death’s a funny thing. I used to think it was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off.

“I don’t anymore.

“I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay.

“And then you lie down and shut up forever. Lots of little deaths until the last big one.”

Death, of course, doesn’t give him any information about what’s on the other side. She just… smiles. A quirky, enigmatic smile I’d seen before, but never made the connection until I reread the whole series in one shot. The last time I saw Death smile like that was in issue #13, as she listened to 14th-century Hob ramble on about death. I’d always thought she was just amused, and decided to give this silly human immortality on a whim. But now I’m not so sure. The key is something Destruction said to Dream and Delirium in issue #48, after they finally tracked him down. He related a conversation he once had with Death:

“It was a long time ago, a long way from here. There were rather more stars in the sky. And we met, under the jewelled waterfalls. And we walked. And I told her how small I felt, how I wished I… knew more, I suppose.

“We were looking up at the constellations—the Diamond Girl, the Wreath of Bright Stars, the Crucible… It didn’t matter that, in some sense, I was everywhere; nor that I was more powerful than… well, practically anything. I still felt tiny. I felt insignificant. And she looked at me. You know her look. And she sighed.

“Then she told me everyone can know everything Destiny knows. And more than that. She said we all not only could know everything. We do. We just tell ourselves we don’t to make it all bearable.”

Delirium agreed (“She is. Um. Right. Kind of. Not knowing everything is all that makes it okay, sometimes.”) So here’s my theory: Death didn’t give Hob immortality back in 1389. He gave it to himself. Death and Delirium are right: there are paths not in Destiny’s garden, and secrets not in Destiny’s book. The reason Death smiled back then is because Hob was finally starting to accept one of the big secrets that we all tell ourselves we don’t know. And here at the Ren Faire, she’s smiling again because he’s figuring yet more stuff out.

Hob isn’t ready to go with Death yet, though I personally wonder how long he’ll last. He’s outlived too many lovers, friends, acquaintances, buildings and places. Most of his thoughts are about the past and everyone he’s lost. His once-a-century meeting with Morpheus was one of the few real constants in his life, and now that that’s been taken away… what does he have to live for?

Issue #74, “Exiles,” tells the story of an old Chinese prefect sent into exile in a far province, many hundreds of years ago. His caravan must travel through one of the “Soft Places” that exist at the edge of the Dreaming, where past and future, reality and fantasy, meet. He gets lost and meets first with Morpheus, then the new Dream. This is a quiet, poetic issue, beautifully illustrated by Jon J Muth with elegant brushwork and minimal colour. Interesting bit of trivia: when it first came out, the publisher gathered all ads in the middle six pages, making them easy to remove. This allowed readers to keep the flow of the story unbroken without losing any content.

The final issue is entitled “The Tempest.” Back in issue #18 we learned that Morpheus had commissioned two plays from William Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first, as a present to the Court of Faerie. The Tempest is the second, written for Morpheus himself, and the last major play written by Shakespeare. Morpheus wanted a story of endings, of a magician who lays down his tools and leaves his island. It was something which, he believed then, he could never do. Was he already planning his exit? Or maybe Prospero is supposed to represent Neil Gaiman, leaving the Sandman universe and moving on to other projects?

After the End

But Sandman didn’t end there. Gaiman has written a few one-shot graphic novels since: The Dream Hunters (1999) is a saga of dreams, animal spirits, evil wizards, love and loss in medieval Japan. Endless Nights (2003) is a collection of seven stories, each focusing on one of the Endless. Other writers have tackled the Sandman universe in two spinoff series (The Dreaming, published between 1996 and 2001, and Lucifer, beginning in 1999 and ending earlier this year), at least one graphic novel (The Little Endless Storybook, in 2001), a few miniseries (such as Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold) and one short story collection (Sandman: Book of Dreams), not to mention Sandman characters guest starring in other titles (such as Dream’s appearance in JLA).

The Sandman‘s run has ended, but Gaiman’s legacy will live on forever, in our dreams.

Comic Book Review: Shadows Fall

Seventeen years ago when he was a teenager, Warren Gale made a choice that cost him his soul. Never noticing its absence, Gale went on to have a perfectly safe, dull and predictable life, while his soul—a lonely, hungry shadow—drove hundreds of people to suicide. But now his soul wants to rejoin with him… and for the first time in a long while Warren’s life is about to become very interesting.

Seventeen years ago when he was a teenager, Warren Gale made a choice that cost him his soul. Never noticing its absence, Gale went on to have a perfectly safe, dull and predictable life, while his soul—a lonely, hungry shadow—drove hundreds of people to suicide. But now his soul wants to rejoin with him… and for the first time in a long while Warren’s life is about to become very interesting.

Shadows Fall is one comic that’s lost none of its awesome magic. In my original review I called it “one of the best comic books I’ve ever read,” and I feel it’s only gotten better in the intervening years. This 6-part Vertigo miniseries (published September ’94–February ’95) doesn’t try to deliver any Big Message, or get bogged down in pseudo-profound mysticism: only sweet, distilled horror that gives me chills to this day. Contributing to the unsettling atmosphere are John Ney Rieber’s writing, alternating between perfectly mundane, beautifully lyrical, and unspeakably creepy—especially the dialog for Gale’s soul, semi-structured jumbles of words that feel like blank verse—and John Van Fleet‘s harsh, grainy art, perfect for the run-down and depressing cityscapes.

The first character we meet is the soul’s latest victim: Renee, a homeless schizophrenic woman who believes she is a beloved queen, adored by all her subjects but also beset by unknown enemies, waiting for her “Prince Randy” to come and rescue her. A sort of humanoid shadow touches her… and without a word, she walks blankly onto the freeway to get killed. Cut to Warren Gale, a pretty nondescript man, in colourless nondescript clothes, neither ugly nor especially attractive, holding down a boring job, with a staggeringly dull routine, no strong emotions, no friends, no life… and no shadow. As we see that night, his soul occasionally visits him in his dreams to share the more interesting lives it has taken. He never remembers these dreams in the morning, and is in fact completely unaware of his serial killer shadow.

Here we learn the true horror of how the shadow kills. It doesn’t slash or bite or hurt its victims physically. All it does is tell them the truth: to rip apart the illusions and the lies, to make them see how small and pathetic their lives are, so they have no choice but to kill themselves. In Warren’s dream we see the world through Renee’s eyes, and it really was a beautiful world. The colours were richer, the people were prettier—Renee herself looking a bit like a younger Elizabeth II. She was happy, full of hope for the future and love for her subjects. But the truth was, few people in her “kingdom” even noticed her, and fewer cared. There was no Prince to come and make the world right; Randy was just some guy who knocked her up thirty years ago, then married another girl (who he’d also gotten pregnant, and with whom he’s still married) after Renee had an abortion. He moved on but it seems Renee never did; in the end she had nothing but her dreams and lies to sustain her—sweet, harmless lies that Gale’s shadow gleefully ripped away.

The shadow seems to mostly prey on creeps, losers and crazies: people whose sense of self is weak, or are repressing a core of darkness. Yet the beauty of it is, they aren’t faceless victims. We get to know and empathize with them even as the shadow is dissecting their lives. As pitiful or evil as the victims are, they’re still human. And nobody deserves to die like that.

As morning comes the shadow leaves, with a promise.

So sweet brother
I wonder as I go
As you go about your day Gale
Do you ever miss your soul?
One day Gale
We will be one again

And as the shadow leaves, readers get their first look at Shen, a magician who knows more than he reveals (but less than he’d like to believe), and is dedicated to bringing down Gale’s soul by whatever means necessary. He abducts Gale and forcibly reveals the truth and cause of his fractured existence: a stupid choice that cost an innocent her life. As a teenager Gale held up a convenience store just as a cop happened to be outside. As he ran from the scene of the crime, the cop shot at him and hit Alice, a neighbourhood child. At that exact moment, Warren’s shadow was covering her hand. He kept running, but Alice held on to the shadow somehow. (The exact mechanics of this soulectomy are never explained, and that’s fine. It’s magic; I don’t need any more explanation than that. Alice was just some kid; she didn’t have any special powers, except for being Warren’s only real friend. So: guilt on one side, innocent friendship on the other, a violent death and a wild stroke of luck, all add up to a severed shadow? Works for me.)

Confused, disoriented and, for the first time, feeling guilt over Alice’s death, Warren goes to visit his old neighbourhood. Surprised at this unprecedented break in his routine, the shadow follows him and they separately reminisce about their childhood. Him, vaguely nostalgic, the memories distant and dusty: a toy store long gone, its window filled with all kinds of wonderful stuff; music playing the night of his holdup. The shadow, deeply bitter, remembering the bullying and parental beatings and fear that made the teenage Warren into what he was: a cocky, violent little punk who got off on hurting and dominating others, hating his family and neighbourhood and dreaming only of leaving them. All this was what the shadow became, and still is. Separate, both halves of Warren became unable to grow and change: the body is little more than an automaton going through the motions of having a life, while the soul runs only on hunger and cruelty, powerless to know anything else no matter how much it hates its existence.

You’d shed a tear if you could wouldn’t you Gale?
How maudlin of you to whimper sighs when all I’ve done is all you wished you could have
Your wish was my command and my command was Die
You’ve forgotten how you cursed the scum when we were someone they could spit on
Yesterday when we had no choice but to bear the brunt of their spite
Hollis isn’t about to call the cops because he smelled your reefer smoke
Or caught you on the fire escape watching his wife undress
Hollis is toast now
Sarah Lang will never laugh at you because you’ve asked her out
That bitch had her last laugh where nobody could hear
Danny Kirk won’t be threatening to grind you into the street
When Graden Chemical gave him the sack I gave him a hand with his resume
They’ve vacated the premises yes
But not much else has changed this is still home
I remember for both of us
There was no place like home

The shadow takes this opportunity to speak to Warren in the waking world, asking him to take it back, to let them both be real again. But Warren can’t hear it, and is still not ready to accept what’s happening to him, so he runs. The shadow wanders off to kill again and runs into Shen, who attacks but only manages to wound it. Terrified, it flees and goes on a brief killing spree, then catches up to Warren again. This time it’s much bolder and actually touches its “brother,” allowing him to hear its voice. But Warren, experiencing another new emotion—anger—categorically refuses to join with it. Desperate, the shadow possesses a nearby homeless man and makes him cut his own throat, threatening to keep killing like this until Warren takes it back. But the plan backfires as Warren, trying to help the dying man, gets accidentally stabbed in the gut, and passes out.

Unconscious in the hospital, Warren encounters his old friend Alice (a ghost? a memory? who knows?) and together they get to the truth about his childhood. It wasn’t all that great, but neither was it as bad as he remembered. Yes, his father did beat him—until his grandfather made him stop. Yes, things were hard for his family—partly through Warren’s own regular sabotaging of his father’s business. And there was beauty, and joy, and possibilities, which as a teenager he made himself forget.

Warren wakes up able to feel the full range of human emotions. The truth did not kill him; it gave him life, made him real again even without his soul. Intuitively sensing that the shadow needs to stay close, Warren decides to leave the city, hole up somewhere out of the way, and let the shadow starve. He knows there’s no coming back for him, either; but on the bright side, his rebirth gave him the ability to make choices and take control of his life, and face death with dignity. Settling in at an abandoned amusement park, Warren turns the tables on his shadow and somehow brings it inside himself, sharing his newly-recovered memories, making it remember the good things about their childhood and see how much of its hate was based on lies. And so the shadow also begins to experience positive emotions, and taste its old dreams again.

I won’t try to recap the final confrontation between Warren and his shadow, because there’s no way I could do it justice. Suffice to say they merge… and become something greater than the sum of its parts. Something which could only exist after they began to truly live apart from each other. Something totally new, just starting out in life, as full of dreams and possibilities as Warren used to be. And so this grim, dark story, full of death and destruction, ends on a note of hope.

Comic Book Review: Seekers Into The Mystery

They say confession’s good for the soul, so here goes:

I’ve read The Celestine Prophecy.

Yes, that’s right. Me, the hard-nosed skeptic. Well, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I was a bit more interested in the woo-woo side of things. And in my defense, I didn’t really know what the book was about until I actually read it.

They say confession’s good for the soul, so here goes:

I’ve read The Celestine Prophecy.

Yes, that’s right. Me, the hard-nosed skeptic. Well, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I was a bit more interested in the woo-woo side of things. And in my defense, I didn’t really know what the book was about until I actually read it. See, sometime in 1995 I’d heard about this new Vertigo series called Seekers Into The Mystery, to be written by J.M. DeMatteis (who’d also written Moonshadow, which at the time I loved); it was described as “X-Files meets The Celestine Prophecy.” Well, that was enough to pique my interest. I really liked X-Files, I liked J.M. DeMatteis so to get the proper feel, I also decided to read Celestine. Continue reading “Comic Book Review: Seekers Into The Mystery

That Sweet Silver Age Goodness

I recently bought Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, reprinting the first 20 adventures of the JLA, from 1960 to 1962. I already had a reprint of The Brave & the Bold #28 (the JLA’s very first adventure together) from a few years back, as well as a few other reprints from that era, and I decided it was time to expand my collection a bit.

I recently bought Showcase Presents: Justice League of America, reprinting the first 20 adventures of the JLA, from 1960 to 1962. I already had a reprint of The Brave & the Bold #28 (the JLA’s very first adventure together) from a few years back, as well as a few other reprints from that era, and I decided it was time to expand my collection a bit. I enjoy the occasional dip into the Silver Age, though I know full well this isn’t any kind of great storytelling. There’s very little substance here unless you like old-time cheese for its own sake (which I confess I do) or for its historical interest (which, again, I do). Let’s go through the DC Silver Age checklist, shall we?

  • Formulaic plotlines? Check. All of these stories except Mystery in Space #75 (whose main character was Adam Strange, and in which the JLA only guest-starred) followed the same basic structure, that had been well used since the days of the Justice Society: First, the good guys get wind of a new villain. Second, said villain either has hirelings or sets up doomsday devices around the globe, or forces the League to go on various missions for him, or whatever; either way, the League splits up into three teams, each of which does its job. There will be arbitrary twists and convenient challenges, mostly revolving around Green Lantern facing something yellow (because as we all know, his power ring is ineffective against anything coloured yellow), and cliffhangers with absurdly contrived resolutions. Finally, they all get back together for the dénouement (that’s French for “when we finish off the bad guys.” Gawd, I miss The Tick).
  • Painfully expository dialog? Check. “Xotar is starting to fade away!” Why, thank you, Aquaman, I’m sure I would never have noticed the transparent giant killer robot on my own. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on these comics; their target market for those comics were children and teenagers, who I guess needed to (e.g.) be reminded that J’onn J’onzz is a Martian (apparently every couple of pages), or have the heroes say “I can use my super-speed to catch the last and most deadly bullet of all—the one which would have finished off Green Lantern!” “To think that a short time ago we were fighting one another, Flash—and now you’ve saved my life!” Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for “show, don’t tell.” Will Eisner’s Spirit comic strip (just to name one) packed more story in eight pages than any of the JLA comics did in 24, without needing to constantly remind the reader who was doing what and why, ad nauseam.
  • No character development? Check. The superheroes talk the same way (except for the occasional “Great Neptune!” or “Merciful Minerva!”), act the same way, and are in fact completely interchangeable except for their respective powers and gimmicks. And from what little I’ve seen, they didn’t get much more depth in their individual comics.
  • Silly science? Check. The winner here would have to be Doctor Light, appearing in “The Last Case of the Justice League” (JLA #12). His shtick is the manipulation of light to create force fields, lightning, teleportation and various other improbable effects. His “scientific” explanation for all this?

    When the electrons of an atom are stimulated, they emit radiations[sic]! Electrons on the outer orbits of an atom emit visible radiation–“light”! The inner electrons emit invisible X-rays! The nucleus of an atom emits gamma-rays! But so much for technical details–

  • Random educational stuff? Check. On the other hand, outside of the plot-convenient technobabble, writer Gardner Fox was keen on scientific facts and trivia. A little too much, though. At least a couple of times per issue he’d put in litte footnotes like “By swallowing air into a special sac beneath its throat, the puffer fish becomes inflated like a football–whereupon it rises to the surface and floats upside down.” or “Few people realize that the Panama Canal runs northwest and southeast rather than due east and west.” Was that just a Gardner Fox thing, or was it more common in superhero comicdom? This was an age of science, and also the early days of the Comics Code Authority, after all, and maybe writers put in Useful and Educational Material to convince parents it wasn’t just a lot of silly (and vaguely homoerotic) adventure leading to juvenile delinquence.
  • Aquaman is useless? Check. Okay, yes, his telepathic control of sea animals is useful for intelligence-gathering, and allows him to effectively act even when restrained. But honestly, what else is he good for? His ability to breathe underwater is (to me) more than balanced out by the fact that he needs regular contact with water to survive. Plus, he’s not especially strong, tough, or fast. In JLA #13 (“Riddle of the Robot Justice League”) he was the only one not fighting a robot replica of himself, instead being stuck coaching from the sidelines in a little kiddy pool. And, he’s the only one in the League who can’t go into the field by himself. Superman, J’onn J’onzz and Green Lantern can fly under their own power. Wonder Woman, Batman and Green Arrow have their own planes. Flash can run even over water and Atom can shrink himself to ride electrical signals. Every single time they go out on missions poor Aquaman has to hitch a ride with somebody else.
  • But is it fun? Check. This stuff is like cotton candy: thin, somewhat flavourful, not good for you but harmless in moderation. As I keep telling myself when I tune in to Totally Spies, there is a time and place for silly fluff.

My interest in Silver Age comics (DC only) dates from around 2001–2002. At the time I wasn’t following any series: The Books of Magic had ended in 2000, and no other Vertigo title really grabbed my interest. At some point I decided to check out some older titles, get a sense of the medium’s history. I picked up some horror and sci-fi comics (House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, The Witching Hour, Weird Science and a few others) from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, plus some old superhero titles. Chief among them is the 3-part Crisis on Multiple Earths compilation, relating DC’s slide into an increasingly complicated multiverse, from 1966 to 1972: Earth-2 (actually introduced in 1961, in Flash #121), then Earth-3, Earth-A, Earth-X… with every chapter the stakes got higher and the team-ups got bigger. And the seeds were already being planted in the JLA’s early adventures: even then the heroes seemed to be getting more and more powerful, though succumbing to their respective Achilles’ heels when the plots demanded it; they travelled through time (“By racing at super-speed, clockwise with the rotation of the Earth, I can run out of the present and into the future!” Yes, Superman and Flash could and did do this) and explored distant planets and parallel universes on a couple of occasions.

And… that’s when it becomes less fun. Though I now understand the background behind the Crisis on Infinite Earths, I have absolutely no desire to read it. Mainstream superhero comics of the 70’s and 80’s, with some exceptions, just aren’t that interesting to me. Little of the depth of more modern stuff, but not different enough to be interesting to the little historian in me, and with none of the cheerful fluffy innocence of the 50’s and 60’s. Next time I’m in the mood for old, I know what I’m sticking to.

Comic Book Review: WitchCraft

A savage murder in ancient Britain brings on the vengeance of the Hecateae, Goddess of Witches, She who is Maiden, Mother and Crone. From the Middle Ages to the Victorian Era to the 1990’s, the wheel of death and rebirth brings the victim and her killer ever closer to a final confrontation.

A savage murder in ancient Britain brings on the vengeance of the Hecateae, Goddess of Witches, She who is Maiden, Mother and Crone. From the Middle Ages to the Victorian Era to the 1990’s, the wheel of death and rebirth brings the victim and her killer ever closer to a final confrontation.

This 3-part miniseries (published April–June 1994) is one of the first titles I read when I started exploring Vertigo. I loved it right away, because it spoke directly to my politics and spirituality. As a queer, I was (and still am) aware of the connections between homophobia and misogyny, and have identified as feminist from the beginning. And, at the time, I was flirting with Neo-Paganism and Wicca, and the image of the Triple Goddess was a powerful one I was already familiar with. WitchCraft is about women first and foremost; it is intended as a tribute to women’s spirits in the face of oppression, and a grim reminder that being a woman isn’t necessarily easy, no matter what century you live in. In every era the killer is an arrogant bastard who despises and tries to dominate women. In every era but one the victim is a woman who was terribly wronged by the killer in some way, but triumphs over her adversities with some help from the Goddess. The only thing that slightly bothered me was that such a female-centered story was written by a man (name of James Robinson). That didn’t seem appropriate, somehow.

So how does WitchCraft hold up after a decade? Surprisingly well. The message still speaks to me though, yes, I do find the moralizing somewhat heavy-handed and tiresome. When the comic first came out I remember some people complained it was “male-bashing,” and I see how it could look like that. There aren’t many grey areas here: Women = good/wise/oppressed. Men = evil/reckless/rapists. On the other hand, though a lot of the characters are stereotypes, they’re sadly not that far-fetched; there are men even today who are as bad as the story’s villain in all his reincarnations. I’ve known at least one guy like Martyn (the 1990’s killer), calmly spouting the most revolting misogynistic crap, that women are evil and have too much freedom as it is… So the message (if not the mysticism) is still something I can relate to. I’m not sure if I’d buy the comic today, but I still give it high marks.

Comic Book Review: Ghostdancing

I really enjoyed this six-part Vertigo miniseries when it came out in 1995. The art was very good, and though the plot wasn’t terribly deep it was engagingly written, with themes that spoke to me. Ten years later I’m less forgiving of the comic’s flaws, though I still find it an entertaining read.

I really enjoyed this six-part Vertigo miniseries when it came out in 1995. The art was very good, and though the plot wasn’t terribly deep it was engagingly written, with themes that spoke to me. Ten years later I’m less forgiving of the comic’s flaws, though I still find it an entertaining read.

Ghostdancing is the story of an ex-hippie rock star named “Snake” who discovers a drug called “Ghostdancing” which opens his mind to deeper realities. A generation ago he tried and failed to usher in the “Fifth World,” a new era where the humans would live in harmony with nature and the gods, all the filth and corruption of the Fourth World (our reality) having been washed away. Now, with help from some Native American Power-Beings, this dream can become a reality.

Back in ’95 I was starting my spiritual phase, happily exploring Wicca and Neo-Paganism, and had a couple books on Native American myth and history. At the same time, I was getting some practice as an angry queer activist. All this made me the perfect audience to Ghostdancing’s themes of cultural respect, environmental awareness, spiritual awakening, and the the idea that a better, saner world must be possible, though it might take an apocalypse to get it.

Over ten years later—a bit mellower, a lot more cynical—I’m painfully aware of the story’s simplistic black-and-white views and cliché-ridden plot. Snake and the other good guys are generally clueless, innocent and powerless until Coyote-Old-Man blows into town and opens their minds and souls (yet even then they don’t actually get to do much of anything except serve as martyrs or prophets. It’s the gods that take up the real job of reshaping the world), while the main bad guys are called “the Mammonites”: a centuries-old super-secret organization of coldly vicious control freaks, directly responsible for the physical and spiritual colonization of the Americas. Snake’s nemesis, one of the Mammonites’ henchmen, is nothing but a brutal, cocaine-sniffing thug. Basically, it’s the wise and spiritual “Noble Savage” (and Noble Savage gods, and the Flower Children who learn from the Noble Savage) vs. evil materialistic white men.

The spiritual/religious themes that I didn’t mind then, but now just grate, include: the belief in a primordial golden age, and in a golden age that will come again after a spiritual apocalypse if you believe hard enough (see, for example, the Ghost Dance cult, from which this comic got its title and borrowed a few details of the apocalypse). The use of drugs to open your perceptions to a “deeper reality” is an old standby (but not just any drug. Nasty, artificial cocaine numbs your brain. Clean, natural Ghostdancing frees it.) Most annoying of all is the typical New-Agey habit of mixing and matching cultures: the Fifth World is a Hopi belief, but the Power-Beings in this comic are very “Tribe Hollywood,” a generic mix of different mythologies—the famous trickster Coyote-Old-Man, Thunderbird, White-Buffalo-Woman, and various other unnamed human/animal beings.

It does help that writer Jamie Delano knew exactly what he was doing: he admits Ghostdancing is pure wish fulfillment, a wildly over-the-top tale of destruction and renewal coming from a place of outrage at the plight of Native people. And though outrage and passion by themselves don’t make for a very engaging story, I have to say Delano and artist Richard Case have pulled off something pretty special. If you can keep from rolling your eyes at the preachiness, Ghostdancing is a hell of a ride.