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.


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.


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.


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?”


“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?”



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.