To be fair to Neil, ‘Preludes and Nocturnes’ is probably not his choice of title but yes, it’s ridiculous and not massively relevant to what’s inside. And as ‘Brief Lives’ is possibly MY favourite Sandman arc we might have to meet up on the moors in the early morning to settle the matter like gentlemen. ‘Season of Mists’ is probably number two.
I have to say I prefer this version of Hell over that in ‘P&N’, it’s half the version of Hell you tended to see in things like Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’ run but to me the problem with those portrayals was, while they were very good they tended to have Hell being a very dark, moist and rather squelchy place, and the ‘P&N’ chapter continued this trend. ‘Season of Mists’ makes it dry, arid and hot.
When I read it, my tiny mind was blown by the idea of the Devil being less a pantomime villain and more quiet and thoughtful in his actions, Gaiman’s Sandman was coming out at the same time as Garth Ennis’ ‘Hellblazer’ and not only did he try to tie his cosmology in with what Neil was doing but his version of the Devil was the more traditional big-muscled buffoon, but then no-one’s ever accused Ennis of being subtle.
And of course Lucifer knows exactly how to cause Morpheus the maximum amount of pain and discomfort, by hitting him in his sense of responsibility. Pretty much every time that Morpheus gets into trouble in this series after ‘P&N’ is due to his overdeveloped sense of responsibility, if he didn’t have that then the series would have been a lot less interesting but he’d have been hurt a lot less.
And then, my favourite chapter, the banquet, where various gods and creatures mingle, and everyone tries to get Morpheus to give them the key to Hell, when nearly no-one has anything he wants and pretty much everyone is unworthy of such a gift. My favourite character is probably ‘Shivering Jemmy of the Shallow Brigade’ and I always hoped we’d see her again. And considering the way that the last time they met, Morpheus had to battle his lieutenant, it possibly makes sense that Azazel underestimates how powerful Morpheus is in his realm, but the effortless way that he is defeated almost makes me feel sorry for him.
The only thing I’m not crazy about is the scene between Nada and Morpheus in the final chapter. Admittedly there is the fact that she has been tortured for so long that being angry at him has lost most of it’s meaning but he does get away with it relatively unscathed. And it does seem that their story conforms to that of the men from the issue before ‘The Dolls House’, or did that not have Nada suggesting that Morpheus give up his responsibilities to be a king with her? I forget.
We’ve given the art of Sandman a few knocks, but shout-out for weird floating flower-bloom that is Flying Sandman. A lot of good visual storytelling details, too. For example, how Dream ages from panel to panel, until he’s an old man saying goodbye to his assembled servants, but will return to combats-and-vest-wearing Gaiman-lite (or Gaiman-heavy) when he’s getting frantic about his incoming guests. Another nice detail: when Azazel is placed in glass bottle in a treasure chest it is with another defeated enemy: in the panel corner is the skull of the Corinthian. I liked the way that once Lucifer stops using the royal we, the lettering for when he speaks also changes. And good sight gags: Death is so busy with the souls returning from hell that she’s kitted out in gym gear.
Writing-wise though… One of the ongoing issues a lot of us have raised at some point – “Mr Gaiman’s whole magical spiel” – is demonstrated by ‘Seasons of Mists’ in a key way. Ok so it’s part of Dream’s character that he is a bit grandiose, even pompous. And at that level it works because Dream, and Destiny for that matter (note to self: start leaving conversations backwards after blowing out a candle) have their grandiosity undercut by Death. She’s the sarcy sister with the pretentious moony brothers, and does what sisters ought to in that situation: take the piss, but give advice.
However the problem is that at one-level up, there’s not a similar balance. So the narration itself is grandiose, dangerously close to what someone once called “the sub-Faulkner High-Style of a strong man quaking over his ThinkPad”. You know the bits I mean: “glinting like a multicoloured jewel” and so on. Which jewel’s multicoloured? How many jewels have any of us seen, really? Enough to make them the go-to comparison, metaphor? (I saw some costume jewellery once.) What I mean to say is that it’s the old problem of WRITERLY WRITING. Like Harlan Ellison says in the intro, though probably meaning it more nicely than I’m re-quoting it: “Isn’t this Gaiman just too cute for words!”. And that desire for grand writing leads to plot wobbles too: Sandman must sound cool when approaching hell, mustn’t he, he can’t be thinking “hmm, nice sand” and so he says: “It would seem my visit has been anticipated. The gates of hell are open.” Wtf? We just spent a chapter with Sandman procrastinating through all his formal celestial-being etiquette, sending a herald to announce that he’s coming, Cain, who in turn comes back saying ‘yeah he’s waiting’. And so when you rock up and his door’s on latch with a balloon over the gate, you’re still all like “IT WOULD SEEM BLAH BLAH.”?
Not that this grand writing is always a problem: and sometimes the narration is really beautiful. Writing about Despair: “Many years gone, a sect in what is now Afghanistan declared her a goddess, and proclaimed all empty rooms her sacred places.” This is Borges-level, by which I mean not just the references to sects and mystical stuff, etc, but the melancholy of Borges, which people usually miss for the libraries.
(Although, speaking of them, more shades of Borges in Lucien’s library, which must be vast, if not infinite. Always wondered how it worked exactly, every book an author ever dreamed of, or imagined or could have written? Couldn’t every one have written every book ever, given the right circumstances? Or does everyone only have a finite number of books in them, of which only a portion reach the real world?…)
I disagree Lawrence that Gaiman makes hell dry arid and hot – there is definitely that, but what I thought was cool on rereading was how many settings hell has – Dream says something about not knowing how big hell is – and so you get a corporate CEO office (with red mountains seen through the window, obvs), beaches, weird Lovecraft / HR Geiger monuments, swamps, shanty towns – who lives in them? Do they have town-planners? But then I guess some towns are hell (cough Stockport). The borders are cool, too. Not only is it creepy that hell has many gates (and, more to the point, thematically relevant: lots of exits), but that the last one we leave by is just a simple dry-stone wall. This is an old fantasy trope, ‘the door’ – wasn’t there some book just called ‘There are Doors’? Then there’s one of the more subtler Milton references with the spaces around hell, the Nowhere: it’s nice to get the sense of vastness between planes of existence, it removes this false notion that older cosmologies were physically or geographically crude with, you know, hell under the crust and heaven above the clouds: no: they were separated by psychic miles upon miles.
Question: when Nada was in hell, how much did she suffer? Is the book… cheating, by not showing her also having been eaten and tortured? Is it because that would remove our sympathy for Dream completely? Which I get would pull the story out of shape, but at the same time are we meant to acknowledge but then repress the idea that she was tormented, too? We get poetical descriptions of her torments, hunger, heat and cold. But not the crazy Clive Barker stuff. Or did she not suffer as much, but in which case, why would she get special treatment, and why as a reader would you be expected to infer that she would do so? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like this plot-point wants to have it both ways, make Nada the plot-driver for ‘Seasons of Mists’, but not accept the implications of what that would mean for her, lest it spoil the tone of the story…
Elsewhere, hell gets a better account. I like the Breschau – “I am Breschau!” – scene. The desire for punishment as desire for perpetuating how (in)famous you were, and then Lucifer pops his glory-bubble: “The world has forgotten you.” The indifference of hell (and by implication, heaven) to the actions of humans is rhymed later, with the ghost school bullies, who, despite their satanic ritual sacrifice, find out after death that “nobody in hell gave a toss.” Anyway, I just read a book by a friend called ‘The Death of the Poet’, and in it there’s a bit where someone talks about how easy it is to be a fuck up. How with just one action you can ruin your own life and/or someone else’s, within a matter of seconds (take physical violence). And how there’s nothing grand in that. The very fact that it’s so easy undercuts there being anything grand in evil. And also there’s the indifference to justice; earlier Lucifer tells Cain about the licentious cultists and how as many as them as of other more austere religions ended up in hell; but also, in the Charles Rowland ghost story, the nurse matron has returned to her her dead infants, who were in hell? or limbo? If the latter why not still with Azazel and the gang?
So, the paradox of hell in ‘Seasons of Mist’ is that a) it’s where you choose to stay on some level but b) the book needs it to be bad that Sandman sent Nada there. OK this is addressed by Nada at the end wondering out loud whether she could have just left. Deeper psychological point here: even in situations where we’ve been screwed over by someone, we can escape, so maybe hell is resentment, maybe hell is the vertigo by which you succumb to weakness and want to stay down in your hurt.
Then of course, hell goes liberal! It’s strange that this should be seen as an innovation. I mean, I like the use by the angel of the word ‘rehabilitation’ to drive that point home. But the idea of hell as redeeming isn’t that novel. Sure the basic punishment-hell was older, but the idea that you worked off your sins in hell, then got to heaven, that’s pretty standard. Or maybe what we’ve witnessed, in a sort of atemporal non-chronological way, is the inception of that very idea! As in, yes the idea is old for us, but what ‘Seasons of Mists’ shows us is the day when it came about in hell-time, not in our time.
Nietzsche talked about ‘the intensionalising’ or suffering. That it was one of the great moral disasters when we started giving meaning to suffering. And how it opened the way to the can’t-break-an-omlette moral crusading that we see today. Nice then to see Duma and Ramiel getting their liberal finger-wagging on. Though to be fair, silent Duma keeps his counsel… Which makes me kinda see them as angel versions of Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin-Ramiel is all like ‘Moe must suffer but only to make him a better person!’ and Hobbes-Duma in background raises his eyebrow. Then they fight.
Lucifer, still crafty, still possibly malicious – knows he’s given Sandman a white elephant, and it’s a great idea, which Ilia mentioned, to get Sandman where it hurts: his dream-balls, I mean his sense of responsibility, because sure enough, they all come begging. There’s something so appealing about a gallery of characters of different types and races. It reminds me of when Asterix joins the Roman Army, and there’s an Egyptian and a Nubian and some Belgians etc. In an otherwise naff Star Wars Expanded Universe book (are there any other kind) the one where Princess Leia gets married (possibly called “When Princess Leia got her groove back”) you have a gift-giving arrival ceremony with different announced races and peoples. It must be something to do with the device letting you get creative in rapid-fire by varying theme in a simple way: characters, their looks, their types, where they come from. It’s the kid in a sweets shop thing: so much colourful plural fun stuff in a short space of time (I used to actually say this as I entered a sweet shop, was often thrown out).
Thor is a simple joke, done pretty well. Nice contrast in a way to Destruction, who’s the Hemingway, troubled sort of lunkhead to Thor’s drunken chauvinist lunkhead. (Not that the two types are mutually exclusive, haha). Dammit, Tom Hiddleston, stop trying to play Loki in Sandman, too. I wonder what Princess Jemmy’s relationship is to Delirium: reading it again this time they seemed almost too similar, then maybe Chaos’s good side shouldn’t have been so similarly scatter-brained.
As with the introductions sequence, one of the reasons the banquet and bargaining is so effective is that we have more variations on a simple theme: so you get the whole gamut of bargaining, bribes, baits, threats, offers to pay, moral obligations, blackmail. This gives you variety, pace, a cool organising principle with which to tell your story and also get across a lot of exposition.
Just about everything is more cohesive in ‘Seasons of Mists’, the dead returning out of hell not only means sis is too busy to help, but gets its own story, own demonstration of consequence. Charles Rowland’s story starts OK but gets better, creepier; first you just think it’s about a ghost boy in an attic, very children’s literature, then it’s also about Principle Seymour Skinner ‘s mum from The Simpsons, but with a weird psychosexual twist, (or well with an even more of a psychosexual twist). Similarly, the ghost bullies could have been Caspar twee, instead the idea gets taken to its nth degree, shades of Judge Death in the sacrificial and homicidal bullying – and hints of sexual abuse. Most, I like the way the whole story draws on that idea a lot of us would have had of our schools and their legends, especially their ones about former suicides or kids that went missing on the grounds…
The Charles Rowland story ends with a pointed: “But you don’t have to stay anywhere forever.” Which is one of many well-paced / well-placed bits of foreshadowing in ‘Seasons of Mists’. ‘The Kindly Ones’ foreshadowing is not just in the prologue, with the thread held by the Three Fates, but also in the short-but-sweet Hippolyta scene – its tension defused by the naming of the baby, here the mystical fable cutesiness of the series working well because it’s an unexpected tone-shift, from conflict / anger to a woman being surprised by her own provoked tenderness. More subtler bits of foreshadowing are Dream trying to put Loki in his debt. Does he already know that he is a threat? Or is this just to heighten Loki’s later betrayal? Then there’s Death shedding a tear once things are set in motion by Dream deciding to go back to hell.
Because in Seasons of Mists it’s all getting going. “I’m so tired Morpheus,” Lucifer says, on giving up responsibility, moving on – Sandman is getting ideas from Lucifer, though he will of course be a lot more reluctant and his departure a lot more painful. (Anyone mentions ‘Waters of Mars’ they get a double slap).
Interestingly, it’s only when Dream considers the Faery plan for heaven, which is, crucially, to remove its function, to remove it from the Plan, that the Creator intervenes with a message, and restores hell into heavenly control. If you don’t want to be part of the plan, piss off.
Which leads us to the closing passage, from the G K Chesteron fake book. It tells us stories don’t end because you close a book, but equally, you can choose a happy ending by stopping at the right spot. Hint hint, Sandman.
Are the Azazel demons a play on the biblical Hebrews? Or Palestinians? Or are any dispossessed peoples wanting the return of their homeland inevitably if unintentionally marked by these associations? What does that mean for an artist wanting to nevertheless tell the story of a dispossessed people? How do you escape history? Should you just avoid said plot? Or is that a cool spin, to have demons as a historically-wronged people with a legit grievance? Answer = I dunno.
What are the dolls that’re coming through Lord Susano-o-no-Mikoto’s room? Is this before or after Loki has swapped places with him? I can see Punch & Judy and a Golliwog… Are they new icons to be turned into gods in order to tempt him? This didn’t make sense.
Nice 5 panel breakdown of how all you need to make an angel fall is be unjust to him, and his sense of justice will turn into resentment and rebellion. So much for moral purity.
I mean – I actually did my SOM re-read (or as Mazin has it – ‘Seasons & Mists’ (??)) like about two weeks ago now (and took a whole bunch of notes as I did it) and then – well – didn’t actually (couldn’t?) take the plunge to do the whole email writing thing… (Emails be hard. Why haven’t we invented some sort of technology that will just let me hook my thoughts directly into my laptop and then just click a button that says “awesomeness”?).
And then – hell – Mazin comes along and writes down quite a lot of the stuff that I was planning to say. Which kinda makes the stuff that I already wrote seem a little out of date (damn you Mazin) but what the hey: let’s kinda smoosh it altogether and just hope that it somehow works.
First off: I really wish that I had begun the first email by saying, “Sisters. Brothers. I stand in my Gallery and I summon the family to me. It is I Joel of the LGNN who calls to you. Come.”
But – oh well: missed opportunity.
(If you want to know though – I smell of strawberry bubblegum and old copies of 2000AD – and my sigil is a yellow smiley face).
I spoke to Alex (who has yet to say anything on a thread yet but is on here – hi Alex!) a few weeks ago and he was like “I read the first chapter/issue/whatever of SOM and I just didn’t want to read anymore…” (and in fact I don’t know if I managed to convince him to read on…?) but yeah: wow – for first-timers I can imagine that it’s a little like walking into an initiation ceremony of a Dungeons and Dragons club or something (please note: I have never played D&D but have nothing against it – but you all know what I mean right?)… with the mock-medieval nonsense and all the rest of it… Saying that there are bits of the descriptions of each of the Endless that are pretty cool (and this is when I quote the exact same thing as Mazin (damn you Mazin) – “Many years gone, a sect in what is now Afghanistan declared her a goddess, and proclaimed all empty rooms her sacred places. The sect, whose members called themselves The Unforgiven, persisted for two years, until its last adherent finally killed himself, having survived the other members by almost seven months” – only I don’t have the class to say it sounds “Borgesian” or anything smart-sounding like that.) and yeah – even tho the years of familiarity has wore it down a lot The Endless as an idea is still pretty damn cool (you had me at “more powerful than gods”).
Following on from all the (very cool) things that Mazin wrote: I just wanted to pick up on one of his constant niggles that came out in quite a few different ways (and I’ll admit is a niggle that niggled me too) namely – how exactly does Hell work?
I mean yes – totally – it’s a total ever-so-slightly autistic / male / geek / whatever preoccupation to have: but yeah – what are the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day machinations of Hell supposed to be? Just to use the example of Matron’s dead babies that return – I mean: why are the babies going to Hell? I mean – what does a baby have to do to be sent to Hell? Or – is it the Christian thing where you have to be baptised in order to saved (is that how it works)? And yeah – Nada and Breschau both get the same treatment or what? (Really want to resist making a “I am Groot!” reference about Breschau’s little catchphrase but I don’t think I’m strong enough…) Are there levels to Hell, in that different people get different strengths of punishment? Or what? Or – is it that just the whole idea of “Hell” is kinda silly and that it all just kinda falls apart into taffy if you look at it for too long?
But then I guess that’s maybe true for a lot of big religious ideas? (Maybe?) One of the things that I noticed going through things this time around was the way that God (sorry “The Creator”) leaves things to the last possible (/most dramatic) minute before he decides to intervene and send Calvin-Ramiel and Hobbes-Duma off on permanent vacation. I mean – why couldn’t he have done that in the first place? Like – as soon as Lucifer hands Barry the key? Or hell – even before that even? But then – yeah yeah – you get into all of this free will and determination stuff (and man – we all know how boring that is) but then – on the other side – we have God (sorry “The Creator”) just kinda sitting around (doing what exactly?) and then just at some random (/most dramatic) point decided “what the hell.”
I mean – I totally get the feeling of “erm, maybe we shouldn’t really show God (sorry “The Creator”) too much. Because – yeah: you don’t want to be picking a side or anything. But then again – well – a few weeks back (just after I read SOM) I got a copy of some latter-day “Howard The Duck” (the one where he’s a mouse on the cover and says “Don’t ask”) and well – without going into too much detail – it does the whole God thing in a much cooler/more interesting way (they literally go to the pub and have a few drinks). And yeah – ok – Howard the Duck is a comedy about a talking duck and Sandman is a deep and serious and grown-up comic about beings more powerful than gods. But the older I get the more I start to think that the stuff that’s really worthwhile and hits harder (and gets in deeper into what life the universe and everything is all about) is the stuff that’s embraces the comedy and silly and the foolish. Or – in other words: I prefer a God that you can go and have drinks with rather than one whose ways remain mysterious (of course that does make it sound like a George Bush guy than an Obama one – oh well). Of course (getting a little harsher) – it’s much easier for an author to kinda stay to one side and not make any real judgements of consequences if their notion of God (sorry “The Creator”) is some hazily defined big light in the sky: I mean – no one is going to quibble with that are they? While the God in Howard The Duck is a much more thorny proposition. And what the hey – let’s go a little further – nowadays that’s mainly how we like our artworks (books/films/TV/whatever) to work – touching upon different ideas and “asking questions” (yuk! how I hate that phrase) rather than actually doing anything as uncouth as taking any sort of moral stand. Because yes well capitalism (always capitalism). Who wants to buy a product that’s going to criticise the way you live? Instead let’s just all play dress-up and pretend we’re more powerful than gods.
Oops. Sorry. I think that might have got away from me a little bit….
I think it’s not OR, it’s AND. Hell is a place where pretty much everyone goes when they dies (off the top of my head, the only people in the DC Universe who didn’t go to hell when they died were Alex and Linda Holland, the human spirit that was copied to be made the Swamp Thing and his wife) and presumably the pressure of the demons and devils keeps people there and what Lucifer is doing is removing that restricting principle, only to then find there are people like NotVladtheImpaler who believe they should be there. On the whole most of the dead spirits simply go to a house party at Death’s until Hell is reopened (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1840236957 for more) anyway. I suspect that God doesn’t do anything sooner because that’s free will for you, he gives people a chance to work it out themselves but when Dream just can’t come to a decision he steps in. The idea that unbaptised babies go to Hell, isn’t that old-school middle-ages Catholicism? After all, these are the people that had to invent the Harrowing of Hell where Jesus went down to Hell after he died to free all the good people who, just because they died before he got born and invented Christianity, went to hell with all the sinners because they weren’t Christians. Harsh.