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

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.

Comic Book Review: Moonshadow

Meet Moonshadow, the son of a Jewish hippie girl and a madly grinning alien light globe. Raised in an intergalactic zoo, he is kicked out at fifteen with only his cat and a sex-crazed furry weirdo as companions. This 12-part series, originally written by J.M. DeMatteis in the 80’s and republished under the Vertigo imprint between July ’94 and June ’95, is the story of his journey to maturity and awakening.

Meet Moonshadow, the son of a Jewish hippie girl and a madly grinning alien light globe. Raised in an intergalactic zoo, he is kicked out at fifteen with only his cat and a sex-crazed furry weirdo as companions. This 12-part series, originally written by J.M. DeMatteis in the 80’s and republished under the Vertigo imprint between July ’94 and June ’95, is the story of his journey to maturity and awakening.

I have to say, Moonshadow is one comic that hasn’t aged well. In my original review I called it “insightful, brilliant, and absolutely beautiful.” Well, it certainly is beautiful, with stunning watercolor painted artwork (courtesy of Jon J Muth), the likes of which I’d never seen in a comic before. The words and images flow around and into each other in perfect harmony. The series is well-written—quietly paced, silly and touching in turn—but brilliant or insightful? Not really.

Upon rereading the series, the first thing that annoyed me was the plot. Or rather, the lack thereof. Moon wanders the universe, watches his mother die, spends time in an insane asylum, joins the army, loses his virginity, briefly finds a home then loses it… but it’s all just stuff happening to him, one thing after another. His father (one of a race of seemingly omnipotent but completely unpredictable beings) appears at random intervals to move the plot along—or sometimes just to taunt Moon. And, the series is narrated by an elderly Moonshadow, which I feel distances the reader even more from the events and their ultimate importance.

Then again, maybe the plot isn’t so important. Every issue ends with a mention of Moonshadow’s “journey to awakening”—but what is the nature of that awakening? I have no idea. In the last issue, Moon and his companions end up on the planet of Shree Quack-Quack H’onnka, a prophet who claimed to have discovered the meaning of life. One by one they all join the throng of H’onnka’s followers, blissfully marching round in circles in search of their prophet. They know their actions are illogical and ridiculous, but they apparently have total faith that they will one day meet Shree Quack-Quack H’onnka. Moon, however, goes off on his own, led by the ghost (or the memory) of his dead mother. And it’s there, in a cave by himself, that he reaches the end of his journey.

Except that we the readers don’t even end up learning about this awakening, because it’s at this point that the elder Moonshadow chooses to end his narration. I’ll grant that (as he explains) mystical, transcendental experiences are hard to translate into words. But frankly, I feel this is a cheat. In fact, a double cheat, because it seems the entire 12-issue journey has been essentially pointless. Have all of Moonshadow’s experiences served only to lead him to that revelation, at that particular place and time? Was the destination more important than the journey?

Who knows? I guess a series like this is a bit like a Rorschach test: people hungry for mysticism and revelation will find something in it to satisfy them. That was the case for me then. And now? Well, I find the gorgeous artwork satisfying enough.

Comic Book Review: The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic was an ongoing series published under the Vertigo imprint from 1994 to 2000, spanning 75 issues. It told the story of Timothy Hunter, a thirteen-year old dark-haired, bespectacled British boy who learns he is destined to become the most powerful magician of his era. The Books of Magic followed Tim as he learned to handle the usual problems of being a teenager, all the while growing into his power, learning about his heritage and future, and dealing with supernatural enemies.

The Books of Magic was an ongoing series published under the Vertigo imprint from 1994 to 2000, spanning 75 issues. It told the story of Timothy Hunter, a thirteen-year old dark-haired, bespectacled British boy who learns he is destined to become the most powerful magician of his era. The Books of Magic followed Tim as he learned to handle the usual problems of being a teenager, all the while growing into his power, learning about his heritage and future, and dealing with supernatural enemies. I discovered this series shortly after discovering Sandman, in the summer of 1994. The Books of Magic was a wonderfully written and illustrated series that mostly lived up to its name, and I faithfully kept up with it right until the end. After Sandman ended in 1996, it was the only comics series I collected.

Tim’s adventures actually began in a four-part miniseries (entitled The Books of Magic), which came out in 1991. Written by Neil Gaiman, it introduced the twelve-year-old Tim, who is accosted by four mysterious strangers (John Constantine, Doctor Occult, the Phantom Stranger and Mister E); they tell him he is destined to become the most powerful magician of this age and offer to show him the ways of magic. Tim is taken on a whirlwind ride to yesterday, tomorrow, and all places in between. Beautifully illustrated (with different artists for each issue) and thoroughly spellbinding, with appearances by many of DC Comics’ occult players, past and present (including Zatara, Zatanna, Doctor Fate, the Spectre, Sargon the Sorcerer, Dream, and many others I’m not familiar with), the miniseries nevertheless didn’t have much character development. Tim was shown to be a sarcastic boy, always ready with a flippant remark even when completely inappropriate; he didn’t really believe in magic although he used to, and kind of wished he still did. His home life (what we saw of it) was pretty dreary, with no mother in sight and a father who seemed to mostly ignore him. But that kind of setup is par for the course with this kind of tale, isn’t it? The miniseries ended with Tim performing a single real act of magic: turning his yo-yo into an owl—or back into an owl, actually. Doctor Occult had turned it into an owl in issue #1, and it followed Tim on his initiatory journey. But it died (and turned back into a yo-yo) at the End of Time, protecting Tim from a murderous Mister E.

Tim’s story continued in The Children’s Crusade, a Vertigo crossover published in late 1993:

East of the sun and west of the moon, somewhere between the endless summer afternoons of childhood and the shifting clouds of magic, lies the land called Free Country. For centuries it has served as a haven for abused, unwanted and endangered children. But now the ancient, childlike denizens of Free Country have embarked on a plan to rescue all the world’s youth, beginning with a small group of very special children.

These exceptional children are Suzy, the child Black Orchid (Black Orchid) Maxine Baker (Animal Man); Tefé Holland (Swamp Thing); Dorothy Spinner (Doom Patrol); and, last but not least, Tim Hunter.

The Children’s Crusade caught up with Tim (now thirteen) some time after his initiation. Life had—unfortunately—gone back to normal for our hero. Instead of the beautiful, dangerous worlds of magic, now there was nothing but the grey, dreary streets of East London. Instead of the “Trenchcoat Brigade,” Tim only had a father who ignored him, and still grieved over the death of his wife in a car accident years ago, drowning his sorrow in beer and TV . Tim even doubted the memories of his adventures across time and worlds; magic seemed only a wonderful and frightening dream. All that changed when a wizard called Tamlin kidnapped Tim to ascertain his magical potential. After being tested and left alone in a dead region of Faerie, Timothy managed to find his way home where he was accosted by Marya, an emissary from Free Country, who convinced him to join them in the Crusade.

Only problem: while everyone in Free Country believed Tim to be a great wizard, Tim was alone among the special recruits in being powerless. Or at least believing himself to be powerless, despite the previous reanimation of his pet owl. But as it turned out, Tim learned he did indeed have incalculable—though still uncontrolled—raw potential power. Along the way we got a bit more insight into Tim: seemingly friendless and withdrawn, snapping at his (equally withdrawn) father, and talking to himself a lot because there’s nobody else to listen. As for Bill Hunter, his pain was elegantly shown without a lot of clumsy exposition, in subtle hints and wordless panels. Well done. Oh, and Tim’s glasses are to correct his farsightedness.

The Books of Magic (the new ongoing series) started off in May of 1994 with a four-part storyline entitled “Bindings,” in which Tamlin returned to enlist Tim’s aid in saving Faerie. The “Land of Summer’s Twilight” was being slowly destroyed by the Manticore. This monster’s purpose (as it explained itself to Tim) was “simplifying the world,” removing all silly unnecessary beliefs such as belief in magic or mythical creatures. Its first victim (or “specimen”, now stuffed and on display), long ago, was a unicorn which it coldly “tested” and found to be quite mundane, not magical at all. This somewhat echoed a conversation between John Constantine and Tim in the original limited series, about the necessity for belief to be able to see and work magic. According to Constantine, if you’re a skeptic, then everything can be explained logically and scientifically, and magic will simply not exist for you. And so it was with the Manticore, though it took this to an absurd and cruel extreme, actually destroying the magic inside people and creatures.

“What… if I lose?”
“Then you’ll accept my tutelage. And I will liberate you from all your illusions.”
“And then you’ll eat me.”
“Eventually, yes. But you won’t care when that time comes. You won’t care at all. You see, I’ll consume your magic before I touch your flesh. You might be surprised to learn how little one cares for one’s flesh once one’s soul has been stripped away.”

Interesting that the Manticore equates magic with the soul. Interesting, but not too surprising: one of the recurring lessons of the original miniseries was that magic isn’t just power. It’s wonder, and myth, and dreams, and a special way of looking at the world. Magic is something you are as much as something you do.

Part of the plot of “Bindings” also involved Tim looking for the truth of his parentage. In issue #1 he was told that Tamlin was in fact his biological father; a bit of questioning got out the fact that his mother was pregnant before his parents married, and his father (i.e.: Bill Hunter) was never entirely sure Tim was really his son. However, Tim had a bit of a chat with Death—lovely girl that she is—while poisoned by the Manticore’s fangs, and she set him straight. Tim had been obsessing about finding out which of his alleged fathers he “belonged to,” and Death pointed out that chromosomes and heredity had nothing to do with identity, and he belonged to no one but himself.

But then, if that wasn’t enough, Titania, Queen of Faerie, told Tim that she was his mother, calling him a “changeling.” And calling him a few other nasty names, since Tamlin had sacrificed himself to cure Tim of the poison, and she blamed the boy. But Tim didn’t much care at this point, and told her off, calling Titania “your Royal Bitchiness” before heading on home. Good for him.

“Bindings” was note-perfect in every way. I loved the Manticore, equal parts vicious predator and pompous, Latin-spewing professor. Death is always welcome in my comics, of course, and her sweet down-to-earth attitude was the perfect foil to Tim’s drama-queeny self-absorption. John Ney Rieber’s writing was exquisite, as was Gary Amaro & Peter Gross’ art. It was exciting to see Tim take baby steps towards mastering his magic; some of his feats were still involuntary (bringing the stuffed unicorn to life), but he’s growing in control and awareness, keeping his eyes and ears open, and remembering the lessons he learned.

The next issue introduced two important recurring characters: first, Molly O’Reilly, a classmate of Tim’s who eventually became the first of Tim’s mundane friends to know his true nature. I loved Molly: she was the grounded, experienced yin to Tim’s self-absorbed and relatively sheltered yang. She always kept him humble and honest; she was brave and fierce, and not above kicking the bad guys in the nads when necessary. Molly immediately accepted Tim’s magic, and the two of them eventually started dating. Second, Tim’s future self. We’d already glimpsed him once, in the original miniseries, when Tim and Mister E were on their way towards the End of Time. That Tim (in one of many possible futures) was an evil mage, waging a war against the forces of light. Now, readers saw that Future Tim, though supremely powerful, was in fact a puppet of his time-traveling hench-demon Barbatos. We also learned that his attraction to Molly had continued into adulthood, and he kept a whole harem of docile, beaten-down Mollys for his own use. Future Tim’s plan in issue #5 was to travel back to the present and meddle with his own history, to make sure our hero grew up to be him. He failed, and returned to a drastically changed future where his money and power had evaporated, and Barbatos had even more control over him.

The first twenty issues of The Books of Magic were pure gold. There were fascinating, classy villains, subtle humour, sharp dialogue, great characters and interesting plots. Rereading them, a large part of the appeal of those issues was seeing Tim slowly getting more confident in using his power, and gathering a rich tapestry of friends and allies where before, he had nobody. Allies like Marya (who chose to stay on Earth instead of returning to Free Country); Araquel, a slightly-fallen angel, his lover Khara and daughter Nikki (introduced in issue #5); Happy the golem and Leah the succubus, both of which used to belong to a yuppie sorcerer who planned to bind Tim’s power to his own (the “Sacrifices” storyline, issues #6–8); the Narls and Awn the Blink, Tim’s imaginary childhood friends come to life (“The Artificial Heart”, issues #9–11).

You’re three, say… maybe four. Your telly isn’t working. So you ask your dad, What’s wrong with the telly? “It’s Awn the Blink,” he says. And you, being an imaginative young broccoli sprout, you envision me. An extraordinarily talented unrepairman, coming and going as he pleases, disabling appliances with the greatest of ease. And since the times I’m interfering with the telly are the only times your dad pays attention to you, you calculate I’m your friend.

Tim’s story took a sharp turn over the next few issues. Having (accidentally) learned about his evil future self, Tim decided to take some drastic steps to avoid turning into Future Tim, and abusing Molly the way he would/did: he made a deal with Circe (the mythical Greek sorceress) to put magical tattoos on him that caused him intense pain whenever he tried to work magic and (though he didn’t realize it at the time) push him away from all his friends and loved ones (including Molly). Probably due in part to this tattoo, and partly to yet another near-miss magical attack on his family on his fourteenth birthday, Tim decided to run away from home.

At this point, The Books of Magic split into two stories, running in parallel for the next dozen issues. On the one hand, Tim’s travels in the United States. His first plan had been to meet Zatanna in San Francisco, for protection and training (and probably just to get far away from England), but she wasn’t home. In the meantime he lost one of his tattoos (the one that kept him from doing magic), met up with Leah (she had a modeling gig), got lost in the desert, then lost in Faerie (again). Though he met some interesting people they didn’t stay in his life long enough to make real connections. Thematically, this was a useful and important storyline. Tim was on a journey of self-discovery, leaving the comfort of home to find his own independence and strength, and a journey like that must be undertaken alone. Emotionally, it was a bit less satisfying. I missed the old, more innocent Tim, and all the wonderful characters we’d gotten to know and love.

Meanwhile, Molly had some adventures of her own. In issue #24 she attempted to summon faeries, hoping to bring Tim back to her or at least find out where he was. She succeeded, but inadvertently challenged The Amadan, Fool to the Court of Faerie; if she could prove she could be a greater fool than him, she would be granted her heart’s desire. The challenge was never decided since Titania, annoyed at Molly’s unself-conscious foolery (by Faerie standards) tricked the girl into eating Faerie food and so trapped her in their realm—she could not eat normal food anymore, and if her feet touched normal earth she would die. But after Faerie was destroyed and reborn (a long and interesting story, going back to its very creation as a province of Hell), Titania relented. Though she couldn’t reverse the curse, she enchanted Molly so that her feet would never quite touch the ground, and provided an unlimited supply of Faerie food to eat.

Tim and Molly were reunited in issue #39, and stayed for a bit at Zatanna’s place in San Francisco, but things had changed. Tim’s magical tattoo enhanced his natural self-absorption and the magic and power revealed under Zatanna’s tutelage were far more important and real to him than Molly (or her curse, which he never even noticed until it was pointed out to him) and the others around him. So, realizing that he wouldn’t change anytime soon, Molly left Tim for good.

John Ney Rieber’s run on The Books of Magic ended with the “Slave of Heavens” storyline: a weird, headscratchingly pointless tale where Tim decides to give up his magic but is swept up along with Araquel into a bit of an apocalypse. His last tattoo came off, but I don’t think it made much difference at this point since he had already alienated all the people that mattered to him. I have to question why Tim has to give up his magic. At the time, it made sense and was perfectly in character. But looking back it feels less like a natural progression, and more like writer’s whim. By the time Tim left home, he was well on his way to becoming the stupendously powerful magician he was prophesied to be. Circe’s warding put a stop to that for a while, and now he’s done it to himself voluntarily. It seemed like for every step forward there had to be a step backward. “Slave of Heavens” was a somewhat unsatisfying story: it came out of nowhere, ended abruptly and anticlimactically, and even the recurring characters (Circe, Araquel, Reverend Slaggingham’s head) didn’t have the zing and presence they used to. There was a lot of death and mayhem, but it wasn’t fun. I hate to say this, but maybe it’s just as well Rieber stopped writing for the series, since it felt like his well was running dry.

Issue #51, entitled “A Thousand Worlds of Tim,” kicked off a long storyline that lasted 25 issues, right to the end of the series. The premise was that Tim, over the course of his life, unknowingly spawned a large number of parallel worlds where another version of him lived, each containing a small fraction of his magic and power. Every world was different in some way. In some, his mother never died in a car accident. In others, he was never accosted by the Trenchcoat Brigade and thus never took up magic. But now one of these “shadow” Tims had broken free of his own world, and was traveling across the multiverse killing off all the other Tims and absorbing their essence, to end up with the True Tim (the one whose adventures we’ve been following). Unable to fight this shadow of himself since he lost his power, Tim was forced to flee.

The basic plot itself wasn’t earthshatteringly brilliant, but hey, it worked, and it fit pretty well with what we already knew about Tim’s power. What was less fine is the way Mr. Currie (a refugee from such a shadow world who had come to warn the True Tim) constantly referred to the rogue Tim as “the Other.” Now, readers were already familiar with this term. The water elementals in the Infinite Ocean used it (in issue #31). So did the secret-hoarding gargoyles in San Francisco (issue #41). But to them, Molly was Tim’s Other. I’m guessing it meant “soul-mate” or something similar—and it’s true, Molly and Tim were pretty good soul-mate material. I don’t understand why new writer Peter Gross decided to throw all that into question. Also not entirely welcome: more mysteries concerning Tim’s heritage. It seems his dead mother, Mary Hunter, may not have been human after all. In issue #51 Tim found a strange necklace in her open grave that turned out to be a glamour stone, an item commonly used in Faerie to disguise its wearer’s appearance. Tim worked out the necklace’s use (but not its greater meaning) and wore it to hide his identity while on the run from his Other. In an interesting twist, Tim’s new appearance was female, strongly resembling his mother’s. And so, for several issues, Tim travelled the realms passing as a girl named Mary.

I have to say, it was a refreshing change. The first few issues of this new story arc were fairly dark and paranoid, with Mr. Currie retraining Tim to work magic (even though his power was gone, there were things any normal person could do with the right practice), and just waiting for the Other to appear. But once Tim/Mary was on the road, we got to meet some interesting new faces, just like old times: Joh and Rosehip the Flitling and Brother Hugh and Henry the Rocket Boy and that cute little inadequacy dream. He stayed for a while at the Inn Between Worlds (a neutral house between realms) and formed a friendship with Joh (who happened to be the innkeeper’s daughter), where we got to see yet more exotic travelers.

Eventually Tim got swept up along with the Wild Hunt (imprisoned for millenia but recently released by Tim’s Other, just to cause chaos). Instead of being killed, he successfully challenged the leader and took his place. With the Wild Hunt at his side, Tim realized he finally had the power to move against his Other. But first, he had to strike a bargain with Barbatos. Not the one he’d met before, the Barbatos from Future Tim’s time: this was a younger Barbatos, who’d never met and controlled Tim. The price, as expected, was a memory—and though Tim knew this was the first step towards becoming that evil future self, he had no choice. In the end, Tim beat both Barbatos (through trickery) and his Other (through force). Tim had set up a timeline where his future self would exist, but still die (in the present) as in issue #20, while Tim’s soul and essence would be safe inside Barbatos himself, ready to rebuild a new body when the time was right. So Tim was complete at last, having gathered all stray fragments of his power. Complete, but alone: Molly was gone, his father was dead—killed by Currie just before Tim went on the run.

And so ended The Books of Magic, after 75 issues. I don’t think the plot with Barbatos was necessary, since Future Tim had always been only a possibility; there would have been no paradox if Tim never grew up to be him. But, I have no real complaints, because Barbatos is so damn entertaining. There are still a thousand worlds of Tim, a thousand choices. Not in the past, but in the future. Though I questioned (and still do question) some of his plot directions, Peter Gross very ably filled Rieber’s writing shoes, and he provided a satisfying end to the series. At its best, The Books of Magic was absolutely enchanting and breathtaking. Even at its worst, it was still very, very good.

Tim’s adventures continued in a five-issue miniseries entitled “Names of Magic”, taking place immediately after this series ended. I found it all right, but ultimately unsatisfying, addressing the paradoxes of Tim’s heritage (Tamlin vs. Bill Hunter as father? Mary Hunter vs. Titania as a mother?) but not really trying to resolve them. There was another ongoing series a bit later, “Hunter: The Age of Magic,” lasting a couple of years which I read a couple of issues of but never got into. Maybe because it featured an older Tim (seventeen, I think) and part of the appeal of The Books of Magic was a young, still relatively inexperienced Tim just starting out in life and in magic. Or maybe it’s simply that these new series just didn’t have the spark, the life, the… magic, of Gaiman’s and Rieber/Gross’s series.