By Cori McCreery
Despite all of its flaws, and there are many, The Sandman is still one of my favorite series of all time. Many of the flaws are simply things that don’t weather the test of time. Things that felt big and progressive in the early 1990s don’t feel the same way today. That’s why I’m excited by what The Dreaming: Waking Hours did, because it took the feeling of the original, and updated it so that it matched today’s needs for progressive stories and representation. And it’s perfectly natural for stories to age and slowly get replaced with fresher takes on the same ideas. This is, after all, the very life cycle of a story.
Back in 2009, I took a class entitled “American Fiction Since 1945” and one of the themes of that class was how American Literature had evolved after World War II. It was a class studying the advent of postmodernism, and when we tackled Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, my mind started thinking about how comics worked in this landscape. I wound up writing the last paper on that class on the ways that comics intersected with and became an addition to postmodern literature, and how in many ways that circled back to The Saga of the Swamp Thing and The Sandman.
Sadly, my efforts to dig up that old paper and circle back on it now have come up dry, but in my hunts I did find an email from my professor Dr King, encouraging me to submit my writing for an award. Well, good news Dr. King, I made sure that some of my pieces have been included in the submission packets each time Women Write About Comics has won the Eisner. So thanks for the encouragement, and thanks for shaping the writer that I am today.
Part of what made The Sandman a leader in a post-modern resurgence of comic story-telling is the very heart of the concept. The idea of the Endless themselves. There’s obviously Dream, who is our focal point character throughout. There is the enigmatic Destiny. The chaotic Delirium. The androgynous Desire. The slovenly Despair. The absent Destruction. And then… there is Death.
Unlike most of the Endless, personifications of Death are not rare. Out of all of these ideas, Death is the one most frequently given human form. Throughout history there have been depictions of various reapers to ferry the souls of humanity to whatever awaits them in the hereafter. The most ubiquitous of these is the Grim Reaper of course, an image burned into the minds of almost all of society. But you also have Charon in Ancient Greece, you have the Morrigan in Irish myth. You have the valkyries for the Norse. People always use monomyth to explain things they can’t comprehend, and Death is one of those that permeates all cultures, all peoples.
“The Sound of Her Wings” is the final issue of the first arc of The Sandman. It comes as a coda to the actual arc, a breather issue after the intensity of the hunt for Dream’s relics. A quiet issue to bridge this story into the next. This is also the issue where the series really starts to gel. Going back to reread the series, that first arc is harder to get through then I remember: it just doesn’t feel like The Sandman yet. But when Dream’s older sister shows up for the first time, things just sort of click into place.
Most of that is due to how instantly she is a fully realized character. Part of that may have been that Mike Dringenberg took her look whole-cloth from Cinamon Hadley, a close friend of his. But beyond her look, which is iconic in itself, her personality also shines through. Just from her opening dialogue with Dream about Mary Poppins of all things, she’s immediately fun and enduring. As we follow her and Dream through the issue, we see Death perform her duties with a kindness and empathy that makes the fear of death seem so much sillier. And that is in fact the point, as Dream muses as he watches her take people at all stages of life. She comforts those not ready to go, she quietly prepares them for the next stage of existence, and with the loudly silent beating of powerful wings, she guides them to the sunless lands beyond.
She muses about how hypocritical humanity is in going willingly, sometimes excitedly, into Dream’s realm each and every night, despite the fact that they are equally likely to be greeted with horrifying nightmares as they are to be met with pleasant dreams. Most of this shakes out to a fear of the unknown. We know that when we sleep, we are going to wake, no matter what horrors we may encounter in that realm of nocturne. With Death though, we don’t know what comes next, and even here, the reader is never shown what comes next. It may be different for every individual. It may not.
And that’s the thing about Death, despite our fears, despite our pleading, despite our anger at not getting more time, Death will be kind and compassionate. She’s not quick to anger, she’s not vengeful like her brother. She’s powerful, but she uses that power with empathy and compassion. She knows that she has a job to do, and that it’s a thankless, sad job. It’s not a job any of us would wish to do, but it’s one that needs to be done. But she does this job with an energy and joy that makes it less painful. And the way she talks about her responsibilities, about how seriously she takes her job, that’s what gets through to Dream in the end, because the conversation with his older sister is one that smacks of tough love, in only the way a conversation with a big sister can.
She’s not mean to him, but she is stern. All of her siblings have their roles to play, and she’s going to make sure that Dream gets back to fulfilling his.
As the story of The Sandman continues through its life cycle; being adapted into both audiobooks and an upcoming television show; having the Sandman Universe imprint of books that took the tales in new directions; and even the spinoffs that existed during the book’s original run, like the two Death mini-series, one thing is constant throughout, and that’s the sole role of the Endless. In stories about stories, in stories about the life cycles of ideas, we learn that the ideas never really die, they just evolve. An aspect of the idea may die, in the case of Morpheus, or the idea may change altogether as in the case of Delight transforming into Delirium, but the ideas will never actually die.
Humans get a lifetime. Stories and ideas? Well that’s the thing. Stories and ideas? They’re Endless.
Sandman #8: The Sound of Her Wings
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Mike Dringenberg & Malcolm Jones III
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein
By day Cori McCreery is a mild-mannered assistant editor for WomenWriteAboutComics, and by night? She is SUPERGIRL! I think. Can’t confirm that. You can find her on Twitter here!
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Absolutely wonderful assessment of THE SANDMAN #8 … and Death.