Warning: no reservations about spoilers
A continuation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story without Neil Gaiman is both shocking and irresistible at first glance. The original Sandman run along with Sandman: Overture were all authored by Gaiman and were such a meticulous and careful body of work that it barely seems advisable to have anyone else at the helm. Even if the right perceptive and empathic author came along, the original Sandman stories unmistakably bear the stamp of Gaiman’s authorship. They just feel so much like Neil Gaiman stories that another author, however talented or well-intentioned, just wouldn’t be capable of picking up the same thread that I and so many others had lovingly followed.
To say nothing of the fact that there weren’t a whole lot of loose ends that needed tying up. At least, none that really mattered in my opinion, and Gaiman handles implication so deftly that details that were not explicitly played out before the reader are still intelligible.
(Those being things like what exactly was Loki doing, what was going on with the angels, etc)
One day I’m sure I’ll write a big fat text brick about how Gaiman’s run on The Sandman employed empty spaces and implication. That’s not this text brick, though.
So…at least in my assessment, there was no real need for a continuation. If a new story was going to be attempted, it would be about Daniel experiencing a wholly new plot, sequentially distinct from anything that happened earlier.
So I was dubious, but I couldn’t help but be reeled in by the sheer ambition of such an attempt. I also have to admit to simply wanting more of The Sandman after so many years. Overture was a very welcome development but it held no promise of things to come: simply a chance for a new reading of the base story.
As it turns out, this isn’t a Sandman continuation per se, but a reboot of a separate series that was contemporary with it, called The Dreaming. This comic involved Gaiman as a co-writer and consultant and he eventually dropped out of it altogether: it wasn’t turning out to be the sort of long running, elaborative story that he wanted so much as a series of one-off episodic plots. It did not long survive his absence.
This current incarnation of The Dreaming retains the basic concept and little else: as the name tells us, this is a story about the place rather than a specific individual. This time, the premise is being implemented in the (almost) direct aftermath of The Sandman’s ending. If not a Sandman continuation, this is at least a sequel series.
The previous Dreaming comics were driven by characters that played minor roles in the source material and so is this. Now, though, this doesn’t seem to be an adjustment in perspective that simply excludes Dream of The Endless, but a consequence of his actual absence.
The blurbs on the back of the two collected editions currently available state that Dream appears to have abdicated, after the example of Destruction and Lucifer, and that a botched love affair was a factor.
This didn’t inspire my confidence. While The Endless- such as Dream, Death, Destiny, etc. – are eternal beings, they possess distinct, individual identities that can in fact die and be “replaced”. These identities are denoted by a name separate from their function: the Dream that the series was once about is named Morpheus. Del is the personal name of Delirium of The Endless.
The old Sandman story saw the end of Morpheus as a character and a being called Daniel currently occupies the title of Dream of The Endless. Morpheus wrestled with his duties as Dream and his closeness to the inner lives of all sentient beings seemed to engender a growing need for an individual existence. He frequently had problematic romantic relationships with mortals that always ended because he could not bring himself to abandon his duties however much he wanted to.
Morpheus needed something that was psychologically impossible for him which caused him to walk into his own demise, to be replaced by a new incarnation named Daniel.
I have an edition of Sandman: Overture that contains Gaiman’s script and notes wherein he states his belief that Daniel is a fundamentally different character than Morpheus. Gaiman’s notes say that Morpheus would never approach someone in a familiar way or casually lay hands on another person, while Daniel is a warm, approachable presence who is not afraid of touching. This contrast is emphasized in Daniel and Morpheus’s speech balloons: Morpheus’s balloons are black with white letters and Daniel’s are white with black letters (both have wavy boarders).
While Gaiman has not written nearly as much material about Daniel as he has Morpheus, he clearly intended him to be a very different character. We’ve already seen Dream wrestle with his responsibilities and a growing need to be his own person. That was the story of Morpheus, which is now over.
Daniel falling into Morpheus’s rut hardly sounds like the different character Gaiman had in mind, nor is it a strong vouch for the originality of the new writers. Since only two collected editions are currently out, the overall success or failure of this cannot be judged yet. In the meantime, though, we may concern ourselves with how this new Dreaming series handles the setting and the characters that were once at the periphery.
In the first volume, Pathways and Emanations, we spend a lot of time with two older supporting characters: Lucien The Librarian and Mervyn Pumpkinhead. In Dream’s absence, Lucien has assumed temporary leadership of The Dreaming. Since Dream (embodied in Daniel) and The Dreaming have an interconnected existence, separation is catastrophic. The Dreaming is coming apart at the seams and Lucien is at his wits’ end trying to hold it together. Mervyn is also picking up a lot of slack on his own end and both feel abandoned and afraid.
We are also quickly acquainted with some new characters, including a refugee from another world named Dora who was given sanctuary in The Dreaming by Morpheus. She is British, has amnesia and will undergo a monstrous transformation when she’s in the wrong mood. We also meet some beings that are traveling from dream to dream that suddenly plop down roots halfway through the story. By roots I mean a large wooden ship 😛
Along with the structural vulnerability caused by Dream’s absence, there are a number of external pressures. Featureless, mute mannikin-like beings are pouring into The Dreaming in large numbers and an infant divinity, not so different from the Endless, is gestating in a fissure outside of Dream’s fortress.
The being that hatches from the fissure is part of a bigger, mysterious plot thread that simply isn’t finished yet. The faceless manikins, called Soggies by Mervyn, soon reveal an unfortunate weakness. Mervyn Pumpkinhead is in charge of the nuts and bolts of The Dreaming running smoothly, which is also the bedrock that many dreamers and traveling minds interact with. The Soggies get in the way without guidance so Mervyn is tasked with giving them things to do. Mervyn now has a burgeoning staff that is too numerous to govern effectively and too difficult to communicate with. Soon, he starts sounding off about the necessity of strong borders and invasive newcomers upsetting a perfectly good status quo. This goes exactly where it looks like it will.
Neil Gaiman hasn’t always been great at social commentary, but the original Sandman was never this blunt or awkward. It doesn’t compromise the integrity of Pathways and Emanations, but it is an eyesore. Luckily this use of Mervyn ends almost immediately when a new character, a nightmare called Judge Gallows is introduced.
Nightmares have always been an interesting background detail in the world of The Sandman. In the past, Morpheus seemed to have a special passion for crafting them. They also belong to the species of dream that are actually sentient individuals, like Fiddlers’ Green, Brute, Glob, Cain, Abel, etc. Naturally, some of them are named characters, like the Corinthian and the Borghal Rantipole.
Morpheus appears to be driven by a rough idea while crafting a nightmare but the nightmare might not embody it completely at all times. The Corinthian, described by Morpheus as a “black mirror”, is designed to reflect everything about humanity that it chooses not to accept. However, the Corinthian, upon being recreated after his death, seems to have a patient and arguably benign personality.
As of the end of the Empty Shells book, Judge Gallows does not seem to have had much influence on the story that outlasts his destruction. This is the tricky part of reading things that aren’t finished yet. The real force behind the plot seems to be Dream’s disappearance, the person who accidentally forced him into it and the being that hatched in Daniel’s absence. If Judge Gallows turns out to be more than a bit character, that would be neat.
Mostly though, he seems like keeps the plot moving while the newborn deity gestates and allowing other arcs to develop. He creates a chance for Dora to recover her lost memories through forced closeness with Lucien and the sword of Destruction. This matters because Dora is the protagonist of the next book which gets into the more fundamental plot, regarding what specifically happened with Dream and what specifically is the entity that appeared in his absence.
Which brings us back to the problem of how Daniel is being handled. The Dreaming is ostensibly about the location and the characters that were in the background of The Sandman but it still uses Dream/Daniel to hold it together. Unfortunately, it also brings us back to how Daniel’s behavior looks a lot like Morpheus’s.
The unwelcome sense of repetition isn’t helped much by the prevalence of call-backs, particularly at the World’s End Inn with the different stories with different art styles and lettering. Those visual motifs are only used long enough to establish a plot point but it doesn’t go well with the lack of originality regarding Daniel.
Another possible thematic reason for the Worlds’ End callback is subversion. In the older frame story called Worlds’ End, each story was complete and would take over the foreground for its’ duration. These storytellers tell incomplete stories that cannot seize the foreground because they go in circles while more interesting stuff happens at the same time. This could be an attempt at deconstruction, signaling that the new Dreaming stories will break their consistency with The Sandman. That would be my preference, but as with so many things in these new stories, it’s too early to tell for sure.
The reason that I’m dwelling on what might be tiny details is because things that look like callbacks are rarely done on accident. Their presence alone begs you to wonder why. And the problem with things that occupy your attention that are meant to signal a break in continuity is that you inevitably wonder why not simply…break the continuity in a way that’s plainly visible?
Season of Mists, for example. That book starts in a way that barely resembles any other beginning in The Sandman and it’s simply allowed to speak for itself. I would love to be wrong about these nit-picky little worries but naturally it remains to be seen.
This reminds me of the other details that call back to commonplace motifs from The Sandman. Near the end of Pathways and Emanations, the baku from Japanese mythology that made an appearance in Dream Hunters are brought back. In Empty Shells, Dora uses the baku to sniff for Daniel’s scent trail across worlds. The search leads her to Hell, where a new demon character named Balam leads Dora and Matthew to the very bottom of the cosmos where lies the primordial serpent that and surrounds the world. You know, like Jormungand. On their way to the serpent, the panels twist around until you are forced to hold the comic upside down.
Stuff like that was commonplace in The Sandman. Overture made the reader turn the book upside down a few times, used implication to guide unconventional panel progression and even had fold-out pages with events that follow the outside depicted on the inside. What I liked most about the panel experimentation were the ones that implied movement at dramatically significant moments. In Brief Lives (possibly my favorite Sandman book), there is a page that has several thin panels that are mostly empty except grass with more and more flowers in each. These panels show space behind Morpheus and, when they catch up with him, they are so thin that his body is contained in more than one of them. In these, we see that Morpheus’s hands are covered in blood and, as it drips onto the ground, it is turning into flowers.
These innovations all felt organic in the original Sandman and they often snuck up on you. The really imaginative ones were paired with jarring, unusual events and were often used to convey disorientation. The panels slowly turning upside down in Empty Shells is a bit of a one-off. In those first two books, nothing else like that happens- almost as if the script was trying it out to see how it went.
My only other thought concerns another concept first used in The Sandman (in Brief Lives, actually). Destruction tells Dream and Delirium that each of the Endless embodies both their function and it’s opposite. Destruction is also creation, Desire is also hatred and Dream is also reality. The newborn god that appears in the Dreaming- referred to erroneously as a new Endless -initially defines itself as clarity and that nothing hurts worse than to be “solved”.
The crack that this being is forming within is first found by Cain and Abel. Cain pushes his brother into it on a whim and emerges without his stutter- he even fakes the stutter a few times to keep Cain at ease. Cain himself then descends into the fissure to ask the unknown presence what ze did to Abel and if ze can change him back.
Cain introduces himself as the personification of murder itself and the new presence disagrees. Ze tells Cain that jealousy has always been at the heart of his story and reminds him that the sacrifice preferred by God was the livestock blood sacrifice of Abel. Cain was driven to kill Abel when his own sacrifice of vegetables was ignored. When the new presence says that Abel’s “hands were red long before yours” ze’s saying Abel’s murder was an act of both possessiveness and emulation.
The new center of the Dreaming says that it solves things, above all else. This implies that the new creature hatching in the absence of Dream embodies the opposite side of Dream’s coin mentioned by Destruction: reality. This encounter also has deep implications for the function of Cain and Abel within the Dreaming.
Since the beginning of The Sandman, we’ve learned that Cain lives in the House is Mysteries and Abel lives in the House of Secrets. They also hold dominion over those respective things: all mysteries belong to Cain and all secrets belong to Abel. What secrets and mysteries are within this story is touched on in a short piece in Fables and Reflections called The Parliament of Rooks.
Near the end, Abel tells Eve, Matthew and Daniel what rooks are actually doing when they form a circle around a chirping rook and then kill them. It turns out that this is a mystery and therefore belongs to Cain. Cain then kills Abel in the ineffectual and somewhat slap-stick way that he often does. (Cain frequently killed Abel in The Sandman although he never stayed dead- the brothers behaved rather like sitcom characters with Cain randomly killing Abel being a repeating gag).
Mysteries, according to Cain, may not be revealed. Abel, to whom all secrets belong, is less protective. When Abel is asked where ravens end up near the end of The Sandman, he says he doesn’t know because the answer is not a secret. Abel also goes on to ferret out secrets for Judge Gallows when he takes over the Dreaming.
This tells us that secrets may be known but that mysteries may not. The hatchling in The Dreaming embodies clarity, the opposite function that Dream embodies simultaneously with stories, and it is a clarity that abolishes mysteries and, for a while, allows secrets to be exploited.
Secrets and mysteries, it seems, are fundamental to the side of Dream that deals in stories and symbols. Stark clarity, perhaps, has no use for symbols and immediately reduces them to tangible values. This interpretation of Cain and Abel and their role within the Dreaming never occurred to me before reading these new comics and I’ll be interested to see what happens with it later, especially since, by the end of Empty Shells, the hatchling is less of an opposite of Dream than ze initially appeared to be. Especially since a few characters see a ghostly flicker of Cain’s old home, The House of Mysteries, after Abel kills him (and Cain, unlike his brother, seems to actually stay dead). As if Secrets and Mysteries need each other and one half will soon bring back the other.
If the function of Secrets and Mysteries are tied up in the eventual fate of the hatchling, I wonder how that will be impacted by the bombshell at the end of the second book where we learn that the hatchling has a symbiotic relationship with a human on life support in the Fawny Rig manor.