Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. VII — Brief Lives

It’s the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking dark fantasy comic The Sandman, and Weird Tales correspondent Eric San Juan is revisiting the series book by book. (Day 7 of 10.)

With all the gods and demons and twisted mythology of Sandman, it’s easy to forget how warm and inviting Neil Gaiman’s work can be. In the years since my last reading, I had certainly forgotten.

Brief Lives is a cute, tragic, utterly human tale that might stand as the very best story arc of this magnificent series. Gaiman’s writing certainly accounts for a big part of that, but a huge chunk of the credit has to go to artist Jill Thompson. By and large, the artists of this series are well matched with their respective stories, but none more so than here, as Thompson brings the whimsy of Delirium to life like no artist before or since. Thanks to her work, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the youngest of the Endless. Unceasingly inquisitive and forever existing on the edge of confusion, Delirium twists and turns and smiles and enthuses her way in your heart like no other character in this series. It would be easy for a character like this to become annoying, but she never crosses that line; she is the heart and soul of Brief Lives, and it is Thompson’s “acting” with the pencil that makes us love her.

But if Delirium is endearingly cute, Brief Lives as a whole is not. It’s a bittersweet story about choices and consequences, family and responsibility. Destruction, the missing brother of the Endless, chose to leave behind his cosmic chores for a simple hermit’s life spent painting, cooking, and dodging insults from his wisecracking dog, Barnabas. Delirium is intent on finding him, but Destruction does not want to be found. Mankind does a fine job destroying things without him, he explains late in the story. Why does he need to oversee it all? It’s something that calls into question the very purpose of the Endless. After all, if they need not do their duties, to what end do they continue?

None of this matters to Delirium, who only wants her family to return to the way it was in the good old days … but, of course, that’s not to be. Destruction cannot help observing that Dream has changed. Ever stubborn, Dream denies this. He can’t see the changes he has undergone — but we can. From the moment he agrees to journey with his deranged sister, we know he is not quite the same cold, heartless entity he was. Behind those dark eyes and the unsmiling face he is developing a heart.

Ultimately, the great tragedy of Brief Lives — and the event with consequences to the entire series — is the resolution of Dream’s relationship with his son, Orpheus. The two finally come to terms with one another, but there is a cost to both. And unlike some of Dream’s past relationship choices — such as the time he doomed a lover to torment in Hell — this time he is driven not by a wounded ego, but by compassion. The stubborn, bull-headed Dream we met at Sandman’s outset would never have agreed to the request Orpheus makes of him here, but now he does, and it leaves him spent and emotionally broken, forced to confront feelings long suppressed. He returns to the Dreaming a changed man (or being, or entity, or god), unable to wash away the memory of the mistakes both he and his son have made.

So, the Brief Lives of the title? Those are our own: the small time even those who are Endless have to spend with those they love, and the awareness that, aside from our responsibility to others, enjoying our time on this Earth is the most important job we have.

Most affecting here, and the thing that makes this the most enjoyable and effective Sandman arc, is the mixing of tragedy with humor. We get a hint at what is to come early. At the end of an awkward dinner, Delirium walks away from her sweets, a pair of chocolate people—and we see the food has been inadvertently given a fleeting taste of life through her transcendent touch. As the Endless brother and sister turn their backs, unaware, Gaiman writes: “Touched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.” Aside from being a wonderful line, the humor tinged with sincere pathos is a microcosm of Brief Lives as a whole. We are given time. Not much of it. So we’d better love one another before Hell comes crashing down on us, because life is equal parts joyful, absurd, and awful.

It’s really impossible to overstate how much I love this story. More than any other Sandman story, more than even the brilliant Season of Mists, it is filled with memorable scene after memorable scene. The sadness we feel for Despair, who desperately misses her brother. The dinner scene. Delirium’s antics in the travel agency. The death dance of Ishtar. Pretty much every conversation Destruction has with Barnabas. Dream’s return to the Dreaming after parting with his son. And so many more.

It’s a tall order, standing out among the brilliance of Sandman, but Brief Lives manages the trick. In the roughly 16 years since this arc was first published, it still manages to stand head and shoulders above all but the elite of the comics medium.

We say that now on the 20th anniversary of Sandman’s first issue. I imagine we’ll still be saying much the same when the 40th comes around.

Eric San Juan is the coauthor of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense, forthcoming in April 2009 from Scarecrow Press. His Weird Tales debut was last year’s “Whispers of the Old Hag.”

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