Anti-transgender lawmakers and activists are taking inventory, now that Biden is in office. Under Trump it was open season on the trans community and now social conservatives are testing boundaries to determine what they can get away with. Hopefully, this reconnaissance won’t cost too many lives.
On January 19th of this year, North Dakota began legislation on House Bill 1476. On January 21st, it was fortunately withdrawn. The bill would have made same-sex marriages from other states as good as non-existent in North Dakota and penalize any corporate or state entity that openly expresses support for LGBT people in general. The bill also would have criminalized the teaching of anything about sexual or gender variance in history, science or health.
As bad as that would have been, there was a truly surreal detail in the bill’s list of relevant definitions.
After my head stopped spinning, I looked online for any legal validation or precedent for this. I found only two outstanding instances. One of them was a 1890 court ruling and the other dates back to 2014. The 2014 case involved convicted prisoners who wished to form a secular humanist discussion group, the way that prisons host religious discussion groups. That particular case ended in a ruling that secular humanists are entitled to the same First Amendment rights that protect religious beliefs.
The 1890 decision, meanwhile, was simply the last attempt made in court to set a legal definition of religion. It was then provisionally offered that “The term ‘religion’ had reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose.” In the same case, it was said that to defend fundamentalist Mormons who wish to practice polygamy as a religious freedom is to “offend the common sense of mankind.”
Further reading revealed that the 1890 case only affords potential for interpreting secular humanism as a religion. And this is only because one of the attendant Justices capitalized Secular Humanism like a proper noun in a written brief.
There are two likely possibilities: one is that the “religion of secular humanism” is something the author(s) of ND HB 1476 fabricated out of whole cloth and means nothing. This would be nice and the withdrawal of the bill could make it seem likely: maybe it was withdrawn because that claim was so sweeping and dramatic that the authors pulled it before it could be scrutinized closely by other lawmakers.
The language of 1476 also reveals conceptual, theocratic groundwork: repeatedly within both the definitions and the proposals, it is written that the bill attempts to isolate the public from “nonsecular” influences and classifies secular humanism as “nonsecular.” On it’s face, this echoes the claim within Christian apologetics that Christianity is both necessary and relevant to every living human.
C.S. Lewis frequently espoused this, to name just one of the Christian thinkers to champion that argument. In this view, the only reason you would claim to be an atheist or an agnostic is either ignorance or dishonesty and everyone is “religious” whether they cop to it or not. (as the image above shows, claiming to be non-religious is treated as patently false) The only meaning of the word ‘secular’ that would make sense in this theology is a state intermediary between religious individuals.
Claiming that all values must necessarily come from religion sounds like it would be laughed out of the room by lawmakers in a country that separates church and state. This is where we get to the scarier possibility: what if increased scrutiny was not the reason it was withdrawn? What if, because so many state-level lawmakers play to social conservative voters, increased scrutiny would not have stopped it anyway?
An absurd claim can either indicate ignorance or the existence of an understated plan. Twenty-eight states have considered similar bills lately with less expressly theocratic language. This could simply be part of a trial and error exercise for social conservatives to delineate where the “line” is. In that scenario, ND HB 1476 could simply be an effort to test the deep end, which would be cold comfort to those who have already suffered from these laws.
In Arkansas, doctors are prohibited from providing transition-related health care to minors. Minors who were already receiving hormone replacement therapy have had their treatment summarily stopped. A USA Today article paraphrased Rep. Deborah Ferguson’s description of a testimony provided by a physician from Arkansas Children’s Hospital. This doctor stated that several minors that receive HRT at Arkansas Children’s Hospital attempted suicide days after this law went into effect.
If one were determined to play devil’s advocate, it could be said that North Dakota is willing to put it’s money where it’s mouth is. There are also two separate bills banning transitioning minors from school sports, one of which contains a stipulation that medical research will be gathered going forward. However I do not envy the person who has to tell the parents of a suffering child “don’t worry, we’ll do research. If your child’s mental health tanks, we’ll consider it with the rest of the data!”
I’ll come out and say it: the plot design lacked the finesse of the SU Dreaming and Lucifer and the originality of House of Whispers. But the SU Books of Magic has some of the most memorable character moments in the new Sandman Universe comics, though.
The main standout quality here is the portrayal of stereotype threat. Nearly everyone in Tim Hunter’s life tells him his dormant magic is so powerful that it might be a good idea to cut the universe’s losses and just kill him. This goes back to the very first miniseries which Neil Gaiman completed in 1993. There is even an arc running parallel to Tim Hunter that explores Tim’s genuine potential for destruction as sympathetically as possible.
Like Tim, Ellie is established early in the SU story. The reader gets to know her almost as well as they know Tim. Ellie is joined by two other classmates who are characterized, early on, as one bully and one anxious bystander. I wondered, more than once, if Ellie the teenager is modeled after the adult character from the older Hellblazer comics. If so, I wonder how/if Ellie and the two others (Fatima and Kevin) may factor into the upcoming Hellblazer young adult comics if DC is still committed to that.
As Tim is our main viewpoint character though, the weight of the stereotype threat is expressed largely by what it means for him. In other words: is Tim in fact a ticking time bomb that should be done away with?
The fear of this possibly has oppressed him long enough for Tim’s mind to subconsciously create a mirror image of his conscious good intentions. When this character first appeared, I initially thought it was a version of Tim from another timeline. Multiple timelines have appeared before in this story. If this were an “AU” evil Tim, the plot would probably require a deeper exploration of that timeline later.
That happens, incidentally, but for completely unrelated reasons: “evil Tim” is literally a dream made flesh, born from the fears and dark fantasies that Tim’s mentors engendered with their warnings of what he might become. The problem with possibilities, according to Lucien of the Dreaming, is that too narrow a choice can often be worse than none.
Tim’s future is frequently described to him as a narrow, binary choice: good or evil. The evil part is fleshed out with far more details by those who have been outside of the story’s timeline. One of the first of these people to meet Tim tried to kill him before any of those details materialize. This was a factor in Tim’s earlier decision not to pursue magic, since that choice would stop the “evil future” as surely as his death would. Tim later reversed that decision, though, since his magic is endemic to his being and is no worse than he chooses to be.
Changing your mind is also a thematic big deal which compliments the theme of stereotype threat. While also exacerbating some of the accompanying mysteries. After parting ways with Lucien, Tim encounters Emily Dickinson within the Dreaming. She explains to him that she left precise instructions for her family to burn all of her writing. Instead, her sister re-arranged her poems according to her liking and published them.
Tim understands this to mean that people are only free to interpret your nature and your legacy if you are dead and can no longer speak for yourself to them. He asks Emily if it’s true that, so long as you can think and act autonomously, it is never too late to change your mind. Emily agrees, adding that to be yourself or authentically adopt a commitment is to consciously express it consistently. Almost as soon as this happens, though, we learn that the most consistent antagonists throughout the SU comics and the miniseries are from a reality where this cannotbe true of Tim.
The evil cabal of magicians called The Cold Flame is used as a red herring in the original miniseries. (There’s gotta be a pun in that somewhere) During the original miniseries, there were constant hints about the fabulous and chaotic world just outside of Tim’s point of view. This world is separated from Tim by the “trenchcoat brigade” and the lessons they teach. A battle between the trenchcoat brigade and the Cold Flame happens completely off-camera. Later, one of the trenchcoat mages (Mister E) attempts to kill him. This builds tension over whether the danger in that specific story comes from the outside world or Tim’s would-be protectors.
This works for the duration of the opening miniseries but a bigger story would necessarily show more of Tim’s world outside of his bubble. As it turns out, The Cold Flame comes from a timeline where Tim went full supervillain. Stopping him at all costs is the highest possible priority as far as they are concerned. In the third book, they are revealed to be adult, “alternate universe” versions of Ellie, Kevin and Fatima. They time-travelled to the present of the story in order to kill Tim before he can become the apocalyptic nightmare he is in their own world.
From the perspective of The Cold Flame, Tim’s good versus evil dilemma has already been resolved. This echoes the revelation at the end of the miniseries when Phantom Stranger states that Tim already gave explicit consent to learn magic when he agreed to be educated.
On one hand, your consent and commitment are yours to give or withhold no matter what at any time. On the other hand, your consent and commitment are out of your hands and already decided by others. As soon as Tim leaves the company of Emily Dickinson, Tim is abducted by the Dead Boy Detectives and put on trial for his wrongdoings.
With Tim as our main character, his perspective is the one we see the stereotype threat through. So it’s severity is determined by how much credit Tim gives it himself. So, from Tim’s point of view, what are his wrongdoings?
While Tim has not turned the world into a burning hellscape, he has been forced to kill twice in self-defense so far. Since Mister E had already told him a number of horror stories about how evil he’ll become, these incidents haunt Tim. Potentially, with enough fear and self-loathing, they could be seen as definite proof that he is evil.
In volume one, several members of The Cold Flame attack Tim in astral form and Tim levels them with a flick of his screwdriver-wand. (between his hair, glasses, owl and magic screwdriver, onlyone of those was an knowing pop culture reference- the first three were in the original miniseries before Harry Potter was published). In volume two, a proxy of The Cold Flame was about to kill Ellie, Fatima and possibly Dr. Rose before Tim intervened.
This brings us back to the credibility of the stereotype threat and how it’s credibility effects its narrative function. Most of us who do not have antisocial personality disorder would probably need some time to psychologically process killing someone. The normal psychological impact of this experience is exacerbated by the messages Tim has received about being inherently evil. The normal mental hardship of killing is turned into a crisis in which Tim wonders if his accusers have been right all along regardless of his actual decisions.
Luckily, the bodies of the astral warriors are still biologically alive which means their souls can simply be “re-tethered” which Tim has a chance to do. This is what brings Ellie around to wondering if Tim actually is the world-ending menace her future self says he is. The insistence of the other accusers beyond this point convinces Ellie that they’re disingenuous which makes her abandon them altogether.
By the end of the story, all of the main characters have come around to Lucien’s point of view: a given range of possibilities is often limiting because such a range can bait ones’ mind into thinking there are no lateral, “third” options.
The risk of binary perspectives is pointed out several times. One of the starker examples of this happens in the garden of Destiny of The Endless. The last and most powerful of the eponymous books of magic to be gathered is the Book of Possibilities. And it can basically hack Destiny’s book.
This gave me a little bit of pause. The book of Destiny is basically the script for all of space and time- all alternate timelines, every hypothetical or imaginary event, literally everything. The beings and events that defy Destiny’s book in the original Sandman are singled out as startlingly unique, like the triple-goddess form of the Kindly Ones spontaneously appearing to herald the departure of Lucifer. Or even Delirium knowing more about her origins than Destiny himself.
The exceptions to Destiny’s surveyance stood out in the original Sandman. I get that the Book of Possibilities is supposed to be a crazy powerful object. But when an exception is used to signify how special something is…you probably shouldn’t wear out a single, specific standard of exception. It doesn’t break any suspension of disbelief or anything, but it is an unfortunate eyesore.
Getting back to binary versus lateral, the Book of Possibilities basically generates extra paths in Destiny’s garden on demand. And Ellie is the first character we see use the Book of Possibilities within Destiny’s garden. This serves to emphasize the importance of her changing opinion of Tim. But that’s not the only thing that it effects.
Like the role John Constantine and Dr. Rose play in the thematic treatment of binary-defiance. Before handing over one of the books of Magic to Tim, John Constantine elects to put Tim through a reliability test. There are multiple moving parts in this scene but one particular detail serves for our purposes: Tim is required, by a “demon” of impartiality, to sort different uses of magic into general good and bad categories. They soon stop being clear choices between good and bad and become choices between two equally bad events. Tim elects simply to attack the demon and end the charade.
This mirrors the event in Destiny’s garden with Ellie almost exactly, minus the actual Book of Possibilities. The placement of the “sorting” test makes it appear to be foreshadowing which just adds even more build-up to the revelatory use of the Book of Possibilities. This just brings us back to the exceptions to the scope of Destiny’s book being overused, though.
I realize that reading the original Sandman repeatedly for years might not be the frame of reference the SU writers intended, though. The four modern SU stories are supposed to be set within the world of The Sandman, not be an actual continuation. Kat Howard may have plotted this story with nothing else in mind other than the original Books of Magic miniseries. But between Tim exploring the Dreaming and the appearance of Destiny, it really starts to feel like A Game of You, in which the Endless are present but Morpheus/Daniel is not the main character(or barely, in A Game of You). Which makes the over-use of certain tropes hard to overlook.
Both John Constantine and Dr. Rose are interrogated multiple times by different characters for being both committed to Tim’s protection and prepared to kill him if necessary. This implicitly threads the binary-transcendence theme through the story from the beginning. Constantine walks all the way up to that line (remember the moving parts I mentioned?) but doesn’t cross it.
Rose, realizing she has to briefly assume the appearance of going on the offensive against Tim, takes another route to the party. If you’ve read either the opening miniseries or my post about it, you’ll remember that Dr. Occult transforms into a female alter-ego called Dr. Rose when she enters Faerie. During her brief ruse, she assumes her Dr. Occult identity. This moment enables Tim to play an instrumental part in Ellie’s perspective change.
In the SU Books of Magic, Dr. Occult exists almost exclusively as Dr. Rose and only assumes her male identity under specific pressure.
On that subject, I gotta mention how happy I am with Dr. Rose in general. I’m a trans lady so I would be a little sensitive to this, but it really, really looks like Dr. Rose is a trans lady. She even seems to refer to her Dr. Occult alter-ego as something separate from her but with specialized, limited use (“I’ll have to slip into someone less comfortable”).
Granted, using the apparent gender-swap as a last- minute plot device is a bit cringe, but it is portrayed as a temporary magic transformation. As in, a short-lived event, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know from context. Basically, it looks like her main, long term preference is Dr. Rose, and it’s played for zero laughs, gross-out moments or cheap pathos. That may be a low bar but honestly that’s where we’re at with trans inclusion.
Another character event I appreciated: seeing John Constantine be morally ambiguous for the first time. I’ve never actually read a Hellblazer comic so my knowledge of Constantine comes from The Sandman, the recent SU comics and the 2005 movie. In the movie, Keanu Reeves tried really hard to portray a morally indifferent character who does good things almost on accident. In The Sandman and the new SU stuff, Constantine barely has enough time in the foreground to show any range. So this was my first time seeing Constantine actually grapple with anything.
I also liked how much Howard committed to the stereotype threat/imposter syndrome theme. With a lot of fan communities, you gotta watch how you portray that. For some readers, a character voicing a belief is enough for it to appear canonical. Stereotype threat or imposter syndrome is most readily visible when multiple characters have clashing perspectives and there are clear reasons for both sides of the “disagreement” to have strong, emotional motivations. Then again, a lot of the cool narrative conflicts are conflicts of conviction, so good job Howard.
I first read this comic as a teenager, when Heavy Metal magazine serialized the first English translation. This had to have been around 2004 and my dad and I had been bonding over our shared love of Stephen King and Anne Rice. Having gone through most of his vampire movie library together, a French vampire comic was a natural next step.
The cosmology was particularly interesting to me. Much of the story takes place in Hell, which is outside of space and time. For perspective, only living, three-dimensional, physical creatures are subject to linear time with a past, present and future. Once you are liberated from three-dimensional existence after death, the cosmology of this comic implies that your soul is also free from linear time.
In the place sometimes called Hell by its inhabitants (which is also known by some as Resurrection), all time is simultaneous. There are dimensional ruptures between different timelines, though, so a fragment from Earth at any point from multiple histories might manifest. To say nothing of the fact that all souls bound for Resurrection from any timeline enter Resurrection during its own “present”, which is separate from all other timelines.
Hopefully that wasn’t too garbled. Upon transmigrating to Resurrection, a soul will enter the care of a psychopomp called Lord Cryptos. Cryptos will put these souls through anguishing preparation which can actually cause them to vanish, never to enter a body again. Those souls who “graduate” from Cryptos’ “training” may assume the body of a few different supernatural beings. Those guilty of deliberate evil with little or no hypocrisy in their minds become vampires. Those who do so with hypocrisy become ghouls.
In the independent “timeline” of Resurrection, the flow of time is said to run backward. Whether this is literally true is not clear but it seems possible: vampires age backwards into infancy and after that their souls either disappear or transmigrate elsewhere. At the same time, the monarchy of Resurrection has many laws and traditions that enforce a backwards time-flow as a moral value. Having only read a little bit past where I did when I was fourteen, it could also be both for all I know.
Mention is made of an ethic called obscuritantism, which requires its’ adherents to consume something called Black Opium that suppresses memories of their mortal lifetimes. The vampires of Resurrection equate the obliteration of your past, mortal identity with the authenticity of your undead identity. On the other hand, ghouls frequently talk amongst themselves of their past lives and are reviled by vampires.
There is also a professional caste called archeologists who are tasked with burying the fragments of Earth that materialize through the dimensional rifts. They may selectively scavenge for technology or resources for the monarchy. In the absence of any wider context for the backward time-flow, the decay of the Earth fragments from the rifts looks like it…is just the archeologists burying stuff. Like, that aspect of the time-flow is enforced by the archeologists.
Since few fantasy stories reveal everything about their cosmologies up front, the gray areas between cosmic “rules” and the taboos of Resurrection’s vampire nation are ripe for tension-building. At this point (just after volume 3) it feels like it’s worth paying attention to the stated motives of those arrayed against the vampire nobility.
The collected edition of Neil Gaiman’s opening run on The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I’ve ever read. While plot construction is one of Gaiman’s strengths, this story does not rely on it much.
Or at least…it doesn’t rely on plot the way most stories do. Lots of stuff happens off camera. The central narrative details the education of a young boy named Timothy Hunter. Timothy has the potential to become the greatest magician of the current age and is taken in hand by DC/Vertigo’s “trenchcoat brigade”: John Constantine, Doctor Occult, Mister E and Phantom Stranger. While Tim is receiving all these words of wisdom, other characters are frequently rushing around doing other things.
Major characterization details are hinted at more than they are shown. With a bit of context this can be overlooked: Neil Gaiman wrote these comics when he was commissioned to do an ensemble story for DC featuring all of their occult characters. The four volumes anthologized in the collected edition were also meant to be a frame work that later stories would spring from. Meaning that Neil’s chief obligation to DC & Vertigo was to establish that a bunch of characters exist in the same universe so other writers could craft stories about them interacting with each other.
So, of course, many of those implied character beats are meant to be callbacks or references for the benefit of readers already familiar with the source materials. Neil Gaiman also took the opportunity to introduce several original characters besides Tim Hunter. One of them, Mister E, has a naming scheme that makes him fit in with the likes of Dr. Occult and Phantom Stranger. He’s a Neil Gaiman creation designed to fit into the overall DC occult universe. If you’re like me and you’re learning about many of these characters for the first time, it’s easy to assume Mister E is another pre-existing character.
Neil Gaiman cannot resist an opportunity to throw a wild card into situations where you are tempted to assume you know what is going on. With this in mind, the subtle introduction of Mister E has got to be intentional.
Another interesting original: Glory. The first time I ever heard of that character was in Sandman: Overture in 2013. The Books of Magic miniseries was first anthologized as a trade paperback book in 1993 though. In retrospect, it lines up: Neil Gaiman has said that he was thinking of the plot of Overture since the early nineties. He originally planned to publish the story that would become Overture as part of the original Sandman run. Even so…it’s a little hard not to be gobsmacked by that character’s appearance in an early nineties comic. For me, anyway.
Comic franchises like DC doing crossover ensemble stories have long been par for the course. When I say that The Books of Magic is one of the most unconventional comics I ever read, I mean the relationship between it’s stated subject matter and it’s script. Most of Timothy’s would-be mentors attempt to shelter and educate him. Tension mounts when Tim is not sheltered and instead learns firsthand. This, in turn, forms a response to the lectures.
Speaking of the lectures…consider the various qualities they attribute to magic. The lessons of Phantom Stranger and Mister E are the furthest from waking, physical life. The lessons of Constantine and Dr. Occult are the closest. Phantom Stranger and Mister E discuss universal generalities of time and space which relate to magic. Constantine and Dr. Occult discuss magic in terms of it’s accessibility from waking existence. The generalities often have smaller details which are consistent with the more specific lessons.
While traveling with John Constantine, Timothy meets magicians who reside in the physical world who discuss their magic in words that have double meanings that can just as easily be true of our reality. Upon arriving in America, Constantine says that, as a boy in England, the comics he read made America sound like a fantasy land. All America was to him as a child was a world where a lot of colorful, larger than life characters were- and also where he was not. As I read that I was reminded of the Atlantis vignette from the lesson of Phantom Stranger.
The Atlantean magician says that Atlantis itself is a symbol of the art (meaning magic). All interactions with Atlantis are with emanations of the original- not the original itself. Later, in the company of Dr. Occult (who occasionally transforms into a female alter ego named Rose), Timothy travels through Faerie, the Dreaming, Hell and a cave where dwells a bard singing songs about a mythic king who sleeps beneath all countries. This could be Heinrich Barbarossa, King Arthur, the Roman Emperor Julian, King Solomon or any other living king that passed into the myths of people who dreamt of their return.
The magical countries of Faerie, Hell, the Dreaming, Atlantis and America are all alternatives to physical reality that provide the opportunity for genuine change to manifest. Many of the magicians residing in the physical world that Timothy encounters have rather simplistic ways of “clipping out of bounds.” Zatana and her father (two of the pre-existing DC characters) discovered magic while talking backwards. Madame Xanadu, another established DC character, begins simply with a Tarot reading. She freely admits that the Tarot symbols could be interpreted on any number of symbolic levels or literally.
This all pops when Timothy and Constantine visit a magician who wants nothing more to do with the practice of magic and insists that anything else is a better use of time and effort.
Magic, for Baron Winter, is everything outside of reality. Atlantis and the fantasy realms of divergence are paths outside of reality that begin with imaginary contrast or re-interpretation. Earlier, with Phantom Stranger, Timothy’s encounter with the Atlantean magician is situated between the distant beginnings of the universe and the birth of human myth, rather like a link between them.
It really starts to look like that when these characters are discussing magic they’re actually talking about imagination. However I don’t think The Books of Magic is a narrative treatise in the same way that Promethea is. Yet it is difficult to look past the prominent dialogue. Dialogue (or just someone talking to you without an answer) is a way of directing attention. While Tim is being lectured by Earth-dwelling magicians, a clash between the trenchcoat brigade and the evil magic cabal known as the Cold Flame happens elsewhere. One character in particular is reputed to have fought valiantly in Timothy’s defense. Later, when Tim is alone with him, he’s rather less protective. Details like that draw your attention to what is stated to Timothy versus what he directly observes.
Yes this relates to a plot point and the pay-off at the ending is realizing what happened much earlier while your attention was directed elsewhere. Come to think of it, I think there’s a word for a kind of stage performance you do where you carefully control the audience’s attention so you can do cool things in their blind spots that they don’t notice til later. Involves cutting people in half and rabbits in hats. Cain took a run at it in Season of Mists.
I’ve been light on spoilers so far but now I’m gonna get into some speculation that could spoil some stuff, in case you’d rather not know.
That this was written near the inception of the original Sandman comics appears significant. I have not yet read any of the following Books of Magic comics after this point that were not written by Gaiman. I do have the three recent Books of Magic collected editions from the Sandman Universe run, though, so I’ll probably review those sooner or later. I have also been meaning to review the SU House of Whispers comics but they’re just so dense that I think I better re-read them first.
Back on topic though: Gaiman said that the story that would eventually become The Sandman: Overture was in his head in the early nineties. He also originally intended to publish it within the original Sandman series. The appearance of Glory at Faerie in Books of Magic resembles what might be some early groundwork he was laying for his original Overture plan. The idea of the Gemworld, introduced in Books of Magic, could also tie into that.
Early in Overture, we see all manifestations of Dream, from the eyes of all who have seen him, all interact with each other. It at least seems possible that, along with the “emanation” metaphysics, those different facets are also intertwined with his soul. When Timothy encounters the Gemworld and the regions beyond it with Mister E, mention is made of diverse timelines and how they cluster in matrices in probability. Overture is the only other story within the world of The Sandman that also prominently features different timelines. Mister E also points out, in their journey through future timelines, a cancerous god whose soul forms a hive mind with his followers. I think this sounds like the mad star who became a dream vortex in Overture.
I don’t think I’m ready to commit to the theory that Mister E showed Timothy the foreclosed timeline of Overture but it sorta looks like it. This then leaves us with the conundrum of the mundane egg which also plays a role in the later Sandman Universe stories.
Welp, America just attacked Syria, the first military action ordered by Biden during his presidency. Without congressional authorization. The reporting relays a claim that the targets of this strike were Iran-led militias.
As someone who was a preteen in America when 9/11 happened, this is depressing. This is even more depressing because it might not occupy the spotlight of the American media for very long, as it doesn’t have a conventionally salacious antecedent.
If you’re an American in your early thirties or older, you can probably remember the press dialectic during the years immediately after 9/11. The memory almost feels like a Lonely Island song that’s written around repetition, like Jizzed In My Pants or Like A Boss. Where the thing being repeated gets more and more unrelated to everything else and becomes comically random.
First it was all about Bin Laden and al Qaeda. Then there was a “preventative” reframing that was all about getting weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of heads of state who collaborate with terrorists. We then hyper-focus on Saddam Hussein and ignore the break in cause and effect. Because Dick Cheney is clearly a man of honor and wouldn’t even consider continuing the botched Iraq invasion from the days of George the Elder. I mean, why would you even go there, that’s ridiculous, right?
So at that point the dialectic shifts to the need for providing stability until a functional local government takes control. This was an effective way to quash debate since, in the absence of context, the moral stakes look confusing. If someone says “we never should have been there in the first place and there is no causal link between this and 9/11” the other side can reply with “what are we supposed to do, just leave them without any judicial system or constabulary?” An American could say that, regardless of what happened in the past or how, we have a responsibility to vulnerable Iraqis right now. I grew up with people who joined the military and were deployed to Iraq at that time, when this was the prevailing point of view.
Actually…when I was a senior in high school, I had classmates who thought spreading “western democracy” would have been justification enough without the war on terror. I grew up in Nowhere, Alaska in a small, rural town with a distinctive cultural and ethnic history. Not every small town in America is comparable to the one I grew up in, but there are probably some similarities. It is conceivable that there were average Americans watching Fox News and CNN every night at that time who may have thought something like that in the back of their minds. There were probably more than just a few thinking that, really.
So between the lack of a clear either/or choice and the emotional temptation to think that your own nation should expand anyway, a lot of people checked out of the conversation. To this day, the popular wisdom among Americans is that we’re occupying the Middle East to provide stability until a local democracy develops. Obviously, the insistence on only relinquishing control to a democracy gives America the ability to set its own standard for withdrawing.
Nearly a week ago on MSNBC, Morning Joe discouraged the usage of terms like “perpetual war”, “forever war” and “occupation” to describe the American presence in the Midde East. He prefers the term “open-ended presence.” The apathy and confusion that followed the American assumption that we just gotta stay there forever has taken root. And those roots are so deep that a pundit on MSNBC can claim that perpetual war is both normal and desirable. I repeat- on MSNBC, which has a reputation for being a left-leaning news network. In 2001, openly justifying perpetual war would have been political suicide for anyone on the mainstream right. Back then, a conservative who didn’t want to get heckled out of the room would have to at least invoke the appearance of a definite end-point.
It is so tempting to think that the American mainstream has ceased to care about this loose thread. Many probably have. And there are many dimensions of culpability on both the left and the right. When Barack Obama was sworn in, he said he was not inclined to allow an investigation into the war crimes George Junior. In keeping with his morally bold and assertive image, he said his would be an administration that looks forward, not backward.
Perfectly good sentiment on its face, if it didn’t continue the laundering of neverending American war. The dude went on to authorize Air Force and drone strikes on Middle Eastern civilians. In the case of the air strikes involving pilots, said pilots were directed to swing back and bomb the same location to make sure the emergency first responders were killed. This was referred to as a “double-tap”. I guess he was looking forward, just not the way we hoped.
Perpetual war, at that point, was so deeply entrenched in our sense of normalcy that the prosecution of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange barely got a rise out of anyone.
Many learned, then, that blowing a whistle on war crimes was no longer a moral slam dunk in America. People learn through example and Obama was a President with a dedicated, skin-deep liberal movement behind him. Do the math.
Then came Trump. If ever there was a convenient opportunity to make war crimes evil again, it would be with a President we all love to hate. The first time the dice were rolled on impeachment, the blue dogs decided to invoke the phone call about Hunter Biden. The second time, it was over the Capitol riot. Out of all the reasons to go after Trump, no one decided to make an impeachment movement about laundering money through his DC hotel chain. Through which payment was made to Trump by the Saudis, in exchange for American-made weapons. Late in 2018, spent shell casings that were manufactured in America were found in warzones where Saudi Arabia was participating in guerrilla warfare.
I mean, you’d think the assassination of General Soleimani a year ago might have been brought up. Emoluments, weapons-dealing with laundered money or assassinating an Iranian General at a peace conference in Iraq were not deemed worthy to base an impeachment case on. Trump even said, in an interview, that our military forces in Libya have seized their oil wells. He elaborated that he wasn’t inclined to take permanent possession of the wells- but he wasn’t ruling it out, either. Later on, Neera Tanden spit balls the notion of confiscating Libyan oil revenue for compensation for our military expenditures and gets picked by Biden for Budget Director.
This is a huge reason why the discourse around civility is so mind-numbing (even if I think a version of it is desirable- read my ‘Civility’ post if you care what I think about that). What most people mean by civility is decorum: if Tanden’s confirmation is nipped in the bud, it will be because Joe Manchin was upset by her mean Tweets. Being a catty troll on social media will stop you from holding office but openly fantasizing about colonial piracy will not.
If you live in America, ask yourself if this is really a nation you feel good about being a part of. We revile bad manners on Twitter more than war crimes. If that seems whiny/hyperbolic, then where does this lead eventually? Just a few decades ago wasn’t there a hugely popular counter-culture movement galvanized by moral outrage over our invasion of Vietnam in the sixties? Wow. Just wow. And to think, these days if you scream bloody murder over illegal, offesnive wars you’ll be lucky if getting told to shut the fuck up is all that happens to you. Ask Chelsea Manning about that one. If you do comissions for a high-profile news outlet like the Guardian, you might loose that comission if you criticize a fashionable, above-board arms deal. While the cash stimulus for COVID relief gets shaved down.
Oh and escalating death and disaster because of climate change? Remember back in 2018 when the WMO said we had about ten years to get that under control before we can’t? That was three years ago. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That pesky problem that gets laughed out of the room if anyone brings up anything decisive and effectual, like a Green New Deal? Does the military industrial complex get to go on spending billions every year while alternative energy is always slapped down by people asking how we’re gonna pay for it? The invisible elephant in the room loves money. This even carries over into deficit-hawkery. Whenever a 15 dollar minimum wage, green energy, police reform, universal basic income or Medicare for all gets brought up, conservatives and blue dogs love to invoke the deficit. It’s almost like there’s a huge, voracious, cancer-like growth that that keeps wasting billions of dollars. Every damn year. People insist on money for goods and services so maybe that could do motivational heavy-lifting that regard for life and limb can no longer accomplish. If the depth of trauma we inflict across the globe doesn’t get under your skin then maybe somebody could think of the money-children. Maybe if we saved more of it we could do something about the looming floods, hurricaines and our non-functioning healthcare system. You know, bringing us full-circle back to the value of human life and limb.
During the final days of Trump’s lame duck period, Andrew Yang said that, if we prosecuted Trump for war crimes, we would risk keeping company with third-world dictatorships where heads roll between administrations. I’m just a catty troll on the internet but I think having Presidents who can commit war crimes with impugnity is a bigger problem.
This book feels a lot like an epilogue, with the prior volume (The Wild Hunt) being the actual “final chapter” with Lucifer as a main character.
In addition to feeling much like a concluding volume, there is also the matter of the BleedingCool article from last August. There it was stated that most of the new Sandman Universe comics were being discontinued, in particular House of Whispers, The Dreaming and Lucifer. The Wild Hunt arc, it seems, is the last of the run to be serialized as individual comics. The fourth story, The Devil at Heart, was published as a single graphic novel along with the three other collected editions.
At the end of The Wild Hunt, Lucifer attempted to thwart a prophecy that would compel him to return to Hell. The prophecy stipulated that Lucifer’s destiny would turn on whether or not he was supplanted as the one who calls and leads the Wild Hunt.
(The Wild Hunt, for clarity, was a magical/ceremonial expulsion of destructive yearning from the universe’s collective subconscious. The Hunted God was the target of this purging and destined to reincarnate forever so that the leeching can continue in each generation)
Lucifer, as the leader of the Hunt, whittled the soul of the Hunted God until it could no longer be perceived in future reincarnations. Lucifer then lost interest and the four permanent, primeval hunters were left dormant until roused by Odin. Lucifer would be supplanted if Odin, as the leader of the Hunt, stopped the heart of the Hunted God. Odin succeeded but, at the last moment, Lucifer replaced the dying heart of the Hunted God with his own, immortal heart.
This did not work the way Lucifer intended. We might speculate about the specifics of why. The most probable implication within the text of both TheWild Hunt and The Devil at Heart, is that Lucifer’s heart-switch was either too late or that the heart-switch itself finished the work of killing the Hunted God.
Lucifer, being the type-A perfectionist he is, will neither return to Hell nor admit defeat. His plan for remaining a step ahead is to invade the garden of Destiny of The Endless and remove each and every mention of his own name in Destiny’s book. For those who haven’t read the original Sandman, that basically excises you from having ever existed.
Naturally, this stops us from seeing Lucifer grapple with his failure. Since Lucifer’s vulnerability and fallibility were front and center in The Wild Hunt, this is a little unexpected. The emphasis on “human” (?) “frailness” is inverted in The Devil at Heart, though.
The fundamental idea of vulnerability and fallibility within Lucifer suggests that the First Among the Fallen might share commonality with mortals. In this most recent story, there are mortals who become invested with the qualities of Lucifer. Beverly Walsh, the modern incarnation of the Hunted God from The Wild Hunt, now has the heart of Lucifer beating in her chest. Behemoth, the cat that Lucifer adopted earlier, is now in the care of a boy whose father killed his own cat.
Behemoth and Beverly find each other again in the house that Lucifer built on the Fowler estate. They are joined by an ancient, magical human from China with one of Lucifer’s eyes. Next is Remiel, one of the two angels dispatched to Hell to oversee it in Lucifer’s absence. Lastly there is a crow, perpetually rummaging in some nearby garbage.
The stories that bring these characters together were reminiscent of how The Sandman would alternate between a central plot and collections of shorter stories involving peripheral characters. Also like The Sandman and it’s treatment of dreams, each of these characters represent a facet of a metaphysical experience they have in common. Biyu, the undead Chinese woman with one of Lucifer’s eyes, expresses the rebellious dimension of Lucifer while the crow is the trickster. Behemoth the kitty embodies the totems of Lucifer and Remiel, as one of the recent rulers of Hell, represents Lucifer’s domain.
This ties into another thematic consistency within both The Devil at Heart and the rest of the Dan Watters Lucifer stories: exorcism. Whether moving something inside of you to the outside removes that thing or releases it into the world.
The four changed beings attached to Lucifer have all experienced direct contact with him. They are also all channeling an abstracted representation of him in his absence. Inside v. outside is prominently featured in the plights of the other angels and in a small vignette about Francisco Goya.
Goya is portrayed as being so deeply haunted by fears of mortality and disease that he painted images of these things on the walls of his home. He tells his son that he did this as a kind of exorcism: to move his fear from inside to outside in order to remove their ability to affect them. The paintings are so vivid that a demon in Hell is able to use them as a gateway. This constitutes escape from an inescapable place (Hell) which for Lucifer merits punishment: before Goya’s horrified stare, Lucifer devours the demon. Goya channels this event into his painting Saturn Devouring His Son. Within this incident, he sees his broken relationship with his son and attempts to exorcise it like his other fears. His son still wants nothing to do with him even after he dies and wills his entire estate to him at the expense of every other family member.
The angels, meanwhile, are manifestations of God’s will. Lucifer, the first Angel, was the closest to the source. With Lucifer now removed from history, angels have stopped hearing the voice of God. Which, for many of them, means that God appears to be gone. They even begin to get hungry and ill. These mysteries are one of the reasons why Remiel temporarily leaves Hell to investigate.
This impact on the angels of The Silver City is where the biggest narrative risk is taken. Big fat ending spoilers here, just sayin.
Because the voice of God has disappeared without Lucifer and all angels are weakening, they begin cannibalizing each other. These panels are overlayed with sections of a letter from Lucifer to Mazikeen. In it Lucifer explains that the angels of The Silver City, because of their reliance on God, will sooner or later bring Lucifer back from non-existence.
Specifically he says that God made a cyclical universe and sooner or later there will be another war in the heavens and another rebel angel will fall to fill the void. So while the angels are attempting to kill and consume Remiel and Duma, Remiel escapes and is skewered through the wing by Michael. It even happens in the same place within the Silver City that Michael’s blade punctured the floor in his original battle with Lucifer. Shortly afterward, Remiel lands on Earth, cackling laugher in Lucifer’s unique lettering.
The very absence of Lucifer caused the war in The Silver City and the fall of a rebel angel to re-occur in the present. This is paralleled by infrequent vignettes about a young girl’s encounter with murder. She kills her infant brother because he cries too much at night. Afterward, her mother’s tears of grief keep her up at night. After that, her own crying keeps her up.
There is another set of vignettes about a separate pair of siblings in pre-history. One of them entertains a fantasy about killing the other. Like the little girl in the present, an opportunity to do this without getting caught presents itself. As the pre-historic man considers it, he briefly glimpses a frightening shadow on the wall and the earliest myth of Lucifer is born. He is frightened into not carrying out the murder.
With Lucifer’s name excised from the book of Destiny, he instead kills his brother and escapes exposure. This suggests that Lucifer’s non-existence was a factor in the murder committed by the child in the present.
The ancient fratricide was prevented by the appearance of Lucifer’s mythic archetype. The little girl who killed her newborn brother experiences anguish in the wake of her actions just in time for Remiel to become, for all intents and purposes, the “new Lucifer.”
The four beings gathered at the Fowler Estate are united by a void left by Lucifer. They are united by an aspiration to externalize Lucifer. Ultimately, the personal experiences they all had with Lucifer influenced them more than they influenced the world. If Lucifer removed himself from the book of Destiny, he should not have been around to give either his eye to Biyu or his heart to Beverly (sounds weirdly like a lyrical construction 😆).
Yet Beverly still has his heart and Biyu kept his eye until her eventual, withering death. Biyu also happened to have died at the same time Bev puts her hand on her head to offer comfort. After that, Bev traded barbs with Mazikeen while the lettering of her dialogue briefly changed to Lucifer’s lettering. This is not long before Bev leaves both Mazikeen and the story for the rest of the book.
Before she leaves, though, Beverly also has the lines “I’ll admit it. I went and fucked it up” spelled with Lucifer’s normal lettering. She is apparently talking to Mazikeen about the failure to replace Lucifer. If we entertain the possibility that Bevery’s lines that appear with Lucifer’s lettering are attributable to the heart of Lucifer, that statement could just as easily refer to Lucifer’s vanishing. He did it, after all, and his letter to Mazikeen described his vanishing as a “joke”, since the angels are bound to bring him back because of his enmeshment with God. Imitating Mazikeen’s speech-pattern is also the kind of dick move Lucifer is more likely to attempt than Beverly.
Remember to that Remiel was one of the four at the Fowler estate. Remiel was also the one who was the least interested in the attempt to fill Lucifer’s gap. Sure enough, the rebel among the Lucifer surrogates, who was a custodian of Lucifer’s former home, is the one who actually embodies the new Lucifer. The exorcism/suppression motif even continues with Remiel, since he frequently voices his fear that he may be a “fallen” angel since God sent him and Duma to oversee Hell. He worries constantly about being “fallen”. In the end, he does his highest duty to the angels of the Silver City by becoming the “First Among the Fallen”.
All of this is pretty ordinary for Sandman metaphysics. What completesit as Sandman metaphysics is Lucifer’s claim that his erasure is a “joke”. This would imply that he knows he will return, which means Remiel did not simply “fill the void” like Daniel did in the wake of Morpheus. Remiel seems to have literally “transmuted” into the same being, personality and memories and all.
The story clearly partakes in magic pertaining to the retroactive editing of time. It may be that the erasure was undone and now Lucifer has always existed. In spite of Remiel being the clear vessel of embodiment. This is what I meant by the biggest narrative risk.
As for being a satisfying read- it works best if you think of it as a coda to the three other volumes. As unlikely as a continuation looks right now, I think the child-murderer, Beverly Walsh, Biyu and Behemoth (alliteration lol) would be great for protagonists in future stories. As an ending, it totally works, especially with Lucifer’s arc revolving around escaping God’s plan. The vignette subplots provide the opportunity for the Francisco Goya digression which feels consistent with the appearance of William Blake in The Infernal Comedy. The function of the crow in the very the end also brings us full circle to Lucifer killing a huge pile of ravens in the prologue to every first volume of the new Sandman Universe comics.
The crow even bridges us to Season of Mists, in a way. Speaking of callbacks, there are parts of this book that look a lot like Mike Dringeberg’s work on the very first Sandman comics. Just for the sake of clarity it is not him: the art is credited to Max Fiumara, Sebastian Fiumara and Brian Level.
The one solo album from Tuomas Holopainen so far. Based on a comic he read as a boy which he described, in a documentary, as his favorite fictional story.
Song one, Glasgow 1877, establishes some key motifs. These include male spoken word narration alternating with female soprano vocals and a reoccurring climbing melody.
Tuomas uses instrumental songs more openly on this album than he has on a lot of prior Nightwish entries. One of my favorites here is Duel & Cloudscapes which introduces an energy-exchange between the drums and the strings that hits the same sweet spot as Ghost River from Imaginaerum. In particular it reminded me of the mixing on Ghost River from Imaginaerum’s instrumental companion. This dynamic between the drums and the strings is also recognizable on Cold Heart Of The Klondike.
My favorite instrumental (with Duel & Cloudscapes being my number two pick) is Goodbye, Papa. To Be Rich has minimal vocals and it’s instrumentation is easily as good as Goodbye, Papa, which it immediately follows.
My two favorite songs on this album overall are The Last Sled and A Lifetime Of Adventure. Both of them give instrumentation and singing equal shares of the foreground and they balance perfectly. A Lifetime Of Adventure pushes the combination further though and is better off for it.
That this album is modeled after a story probably gave Tuomas a specific arc function for each song that imposed more discipline than he normally exercises. This could be another reason why A Lifetime Of Adventure shines so brightly. The expressed sentiment, of a journey being greater than its’ destination, could have come directly from Imaginaerum. But somehow it is more believable than a lot of Imaginaerum’s lyrics. This is does not necessarily mean that Music Inspired by The Life And Times of Scrooge is better than Imaginaerum, but Scrooge definitely sounds more carefully composed.
The repetition of the line “(t)o be rich” within A Lifetime Of Adventure also implies a link to that same song, which only has four lines: “Silent night, silent years / The cold heart haunting still / Sleepless watch of the night / And her face on the moon”. This feels almost Gatsby-ish which caught me off guard. In fact, me not knowing anything about the source material and just extrapolating everything from the lyrics was kind of fun. Especially since my wife saw a cartoon adaption of the comic when she was a kid. Her recollection was fun to compare against.
The gaming experience is satisfying. As much as I love Metroidvania, the sub-genre at this point is risking over-exposure. While this is not the fault of the Vigil dev team specifically, it does make their task harder. To their credit, though, Vigil establishes its own identity in more than one way.
I know I go on a lot about how aesthetically pleasing this game is, but that’s one of the things that sets it apart. This matters especially since most recent Metroidvanias are stylistically developed and unique (HollowKnight, Salt and Sanctuary, Blasphemous).
There are great dungeon-crawling and combat sweet spots in the beginning and middle. After that, things crawl a bit before returning to form and even going further in the concluding chapters.
The story has both hits and misses. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Vigil had a named character and interactions with NPCs that move the plot along with the player. I don’t know if the constraints this imposed on the script were a factor in sequence-breaking not being more fully utilized in new game plus. There are goodies to be had earlier than usual but the absence of alternative story sequencing feels like a missed opportunity.
In spite of that, this may have been a consequence of the narrative, though, the way FFVIIR would have compromised its own narrative experience if it had full open world.
This takes us back to the story. There are three distinct turning points that at least appear to be time jumps. There is also a kind of reversal of the beginning stakes before (after a fashion) returning to them. I think the decision to keep the relationship between Leila and Daisy front and center in the plot was for the best and the feigned reversal actually adds to the stakes of that relationship. The shifts between different “eras” and the detective work needed to connect the dots, though, are an established convention of both Metroidvania and Soulsborne.
So long as they don’t undermine the purpose the narrative serves (however big or small), narrative mysteries can add a lot to a game that uses circumstantial or visual storytelling. Bloodborne being a best-case scenario here. The suggestions of other plot layers make for fun speculation, such as the Porta Avernus gateways all being emanations of a single location (whether it’s the Cubic Crystal door in the Giantwood or somewhere else- such as the location glimpsed during the opening and closing cutscenes).
Another well-implemented mystery is what specifically Leila and Daisy are. There are a variety of possibilities ranging from normal human siblings channeling deities or direct manifestations of those deities. No matter what the metaphysical ruling is, it’s mystery goes well with the emotional simplicity. The literal question of what they are motivates the villainous forces around them, but who they are to each other motivates Leila.
The only actual narrative weakness I could find also goes with that, though. It’s a story structure that we have seen before. In particular, it reminded me of Heather Mason in Silent Hill3. It is a touch unoriginal, but I think the story as a whole is decent. Making the stakes emotionally urgent also goes with the more personal narrative, which sets Vigil: The Longest Night apart from a lot of Metroidvania and Soulsborne entries.
You could probably guess what my answer to the Doctor was. Before I got that far, though, there were some other odds and ends I wanted to explore.
First on the list was playing the Arctic ocarina in the Catacombs and seeing where the Porta Avernus takes us.
Upon arriving in the Frozen Realm there is a stone structure that allows you to exit. Death’s Destination did not have a way out. I triggered the apparent “flash forward” after defeating the Ancient Guard there, though. So maybe it was designed to be a point of no return whereas the gateway conjured by the Arctic ocarina is not.
This turns out not to be the case. I later tried the Crimson ocarina again and Death’s Destination now has an exit. Maybe all ocarina gateways have an exit after the flash forward? Maybe after the flash forward they can no longer have immediate consequences? The fact that you can repeatedly challenge the bosses at the end of each during the current “era” would support that as well (including Death’s Destination).
The ruler of the Frozen Realm, Princess Downaly, drops the Frost Spear projectile spell and the Eternal Gaze. The latter I gave to Janis (after discovering her in the valley) in exchange for the Metallic Ocarina. While I was finishing what side quests I could, I managed to find all of the lost paintings. The painter in Maye rewards you with the Cerulean Ocarina, leaving us with two new places to go through the Porta Avernus.
The Cerulean ocarina takes us to the Shadow Disaster which I thought was a lot of fun. Both Death’s Destination and the Frozen Realm had nice platforming but the Shadow Disaster outdoes them. The Shadow Disaster also has a checkpoint of sorts since the platforming section lasts a little longer.
The resident boss, Uptancos, is a welcome change of pace. Maybe I was over-leveled because I took my sweet time with this game and did a lot of grinding, but the combat started to feel easy after awhile. The difficulty seemed to plateau around Bufonitte Lake so I was hungry for a challenge. I had to experiment with different strategies and spell combinations, which I had not done since Kelpie.
For anyone who is interested, passive damage and fire damage work well, so you’ll want the Raging March spell equipped. You also need to carefully balance range combat and melee combat. I spent a lot of time dodging, so I found projectiles to be a good work-around (also on that note, use the Bouncing Fireball). It is likely possible to go through the entire battle with Uptancos without melee, but the fight speeds up when you take opportunities when they present themselves. Uptancos has an electric screen nuke that he needs to cool down from. That cool-down period, when Uptancos is just sitting on the ground, is a great time to lean in if you have a melee weapon with a fire buff. I had been using my enchantments on stealth “back attack” buffs though, so I just spammed with Bouncing Fireball.
Bumping off Uptancos wins you the mid-air dash. However, I’d like to mention something that I’d been noticing in all of the Porta Avernus worlds so far:
Same jagged, stone ring in those three, all placed similarly. In the Frozen Realm and Death’s Destination, they appear before paths to the bosses open up. In the Shadow Disaster, it is inside the boss arena (check link below for more on this).
Moving on- only one more ocarina to try (not counting whatever I missed) and one more Porta Avernus journey. Upon playing the Metallic ocarina from Janis, the boss fight was almost instant:
To get right to the good part, this is what happens after defeating Dephil. Various item descriptions and lore snippets have referred to Dephil as a founding member of the Vigilant, or perhaps the founding member. And here she is talking about reading stories to Daisy in childhood. If you wanted to go further, you might notice that the names of the sisters borrow different phonemes from the name Dephil (Daisy + Leila).
Earlier, we experienced a jump forward in time that was at least a few generations. But we still do not know the exactlength of the time that passed. When we hear about mythic-sounding events that contributed to the way things are now, we can’t help but wonder how close or distant to them Leila personally is. Dephil’s brief dialogue after defeating her makes it sound like she was a childhood caretaker of the sisters. Perhaps she was their mother.
This confusion over how near or far the sisters were to the distant past soon thickens. Remember the Doctor who wants us to hand over the Cubic Crystals? I of course told him to get bent and he revealed that what he really wants lies within the Giantwood. This does not combine well with the incident with him giving out placebos. And the explanation that he is doing it for the peace of mind of his patients was worn thin anyway.
Hilda agrees, so we then bee-line to the Giantwood, which opens a tonof lore in quick succession. Once inside, we find that there are notes and journal entries strewn about from various authors. They are Steve, York the Arch Priest, the Professor, Joseph (?) and a lay-priest educated by York.
These notes relate the discovery of a mysterious, destructive force that this cohort attempted to magically bind. They state that this seal is rooted in the souls or bodies of those that carried it out and depends on their shared participation. This procedure is modeled (with the guidance of York and the lay-priest) after an ancient religious event involving figures called the Holy Six. Five individuals are specified but there are suggestions of another, unnamed participant:
This guy keeps running off as soon as we find him and always leaves scribbly notes behind.
The dude clearly doesn’t like women and blames the Vigilants for something going wrong here. The author of the sloppily written notes says that women are weak and shrink before true power. We do not know of many ancient(?) female Vigilants but we do know of one. In the final sloppily written note, the names Daisy and Phil are mentioned close together but we don’t actually meet anyone named Phil. But the one bygone Vigilant we’ve met has the letters ‘phil‘ in her name.
So if Dephil was one of the six to seal the mystery danger in the Giantwood, she seems to have been blamed for not following through on something. The short, scrambling figure also said that the only remaining solution were “the sisters” and “one is dark” “one is light”.
So these six set out to the Giantwood to contain the mysterious threat. A magical ritual is implemented that explicitly calls for six participants. Running with the hypothesis that number six was Dephil, she evidently choked on her part.
In spite of that, the seal seems to have held. The notes within the Giantwood describe a long period of being trapped inside and the need to defend the exit from deserters. Since all participated in the ritual and any of them could then break it, a single deserter could ruin the whole thing. The entrance needed to be watched constantly. The seal wouldn’t be worth defending so bitterly if it hadn’t worked.
The notes within the Giantwood also say that a “seige” of “heathens” was happening outside. Relics from other male Vigilants could be found within as well, like the sword of Wallace. It seems possible that Dephil bolted before the ritual was complete and then someone from the battle outside took her place.
Leaving the mystery of the deserting Vigilant aside for now, there is another mystery here we can solve more easily. The final sloppily written note says that the author found the “perfect ratio”, which makes him “supreme” and enables him to “surpass destiny”. Our only frame of reference for ratios of any kind are the mixtures of Crimson earlier in the game. The “pale red” mixtures concocted by the Professor come to mind. Other notes make indirect statements about the ultimate fate of the Professor and the communion he achieved with the Sacred Wood. Which brings us to the boss fight in the Giantwood:
This is not a strategically challenging battle. Remember Raging March and Bouncing Fireball and you’ll be fine. You might also want to wear the Plague Doctor mask, the Crimson armor set and the Raven gloves for maximum poison resistance.
So the Professor evidently pulled off some kind of “uber-containment” that’s not the same as the seal of the Holy Six. If the seal is rooted in the bodies or souls of the participants, maybe the Professor somehow found a way to shift the majority of the containment power to himself.
This appears to hold true after his death, since an even worse plague and monster scourge envelopes Maye after this. So it at least looks like the mystery threat escaped. Relying on implication, it seemed like Hilda wanted us to “get there first” before the Doctor at the asylum who wanted the Cubic Crystals. If the goal of Hilda and Leila was to “kill it with fire” before it falls into the wrong hands, then it might follow that the Doctor wanted to somehow control the mystery threat.
In any case, killing it with fire doesn’t seemed to have made things any better. Here the game appears to take a sharp turn toward linearity, since every NPC tells you to investigate the same place and it turns out to be what I felt was a neat dungeon. During the difficulty plateau after Kelpie, the three sweet spots during this blind play-through were the Shadow Disaster, the Giantwood and the final dungeon.
In addition to a fun dungeon crawl, we also get some big lore bombs.
These dovetail, roughly, with the lore dumps from the Giantwood. There was a final step to the ritual that Dephil (or someone) couldn’t go through with. Meanwhile, a supernatural prodigy child has fallen into the hands of the modern day asylum Doctor.
The seal magic relies on its human summoners for its’ embodiment. The transformation of the Professor, for example. If Dephil’s reluctance complicated things, it may result in some sort of magical embodiment/possession/flesh alchemy that may have created a new being. Way back during the Bruna search, we found a note from the Professor explaining that his experiment with Bruna and Gram was based on a mistranslation. An archaic word he took for “couple” in fact meant “sisters”.
Perhaps my assessment of the names Daisy and Leila being derived from Dephil confused the relationship. Maybe a second experiment happened on the correct subjects, the “sisters” rather than the “couple”. The Goddess, likewise, has a dark counterpart.
Maybe the two sisters were in the Giantwood company, with the necessary six working the spell (that is either summoning or trapping in a body) on number seven. So baby sister has the primordial chaos sealed within her while the holy texts specify a correlating other half. Big sister catches that part.
We started the game catching the aftermath of the failed experiment on Bruna and Gram. Meanwhile we still do not know what happened during the time gap. It may be possible that Leila was present for those years but experienced something she cannot remember, and that we would not see.
Whatever it is, we have two significant canonical statements here. One of them is the ritual at the Giantwood. The other is that Daisy was a vessel for some kind of magic. After killing the Scholar of the Sacred Wood, both the Doctor and Daisy are gone. Sure enough, at the bottom of the final dungeon, the Doctor has Daisy tucked behind a Porta Avernus-like gateway in a somewhat altered state.
On the other side of the gateway, we find ourselves on a large, stone platform with arched portals on two opposite sides. A possession of Daisy’s may be used before a series of pillars but I was missing one. Having biffed that part I instead went to the central pillar to see what would happen.
The last two boss fights were my favorite in the game so far. Both of them make delightful use of platforming within the boss arenas. Something about that, in a sidescroller, really adds both challenge and fun for me. Creative incorporation of boss lairs was one of the big sweet spots of Hollow Knight imo and it was a fun high note for this game to end on.
Vigil: The Longest Night has a new game plus mode which you are immediately offered after the credit’s roll. Interestingly, you are allowed to keep all of your added abilities like the double jump and mid-air dash, which for sure makes the beginning feel different.
I’m not that far into my second run but it already feels like the replay value is gonna be great. The lore contains a few apparent reversals that work better when experienced in retrospect. I am a little disappointed with the inability to sequence break, though. The Metroidvania typically uses unlockable abilities as ways of controlling progress. To retain those abilities and have them before you would normally make use of them seems like a golden opportunity for the development team to implement different progression sequencing.