Recurring Dream: The Sandman Vol. X — The Wake

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 10 of 10.)

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet read this final volume of the series, you may wish to do so before reading our review.

What is a wake but a time to remember and reflect? A wake is an ending. A closing of a chapter. It’s also the start of a new chapter, the beginning of a time after the person being honored. Of a life without them in it.

This is The Wake, the final chapter of the core Sandman narrative. It’s a look back at who and what Morpheus the Dream King was; at the people and beings he came in contact with; and, tantalizingly, at the world ahead without the Dream we knew. Interestingly, in death Sandman is brought to life by the lushest art of the series, richly drawn by Michael Zulli and highlighted with washed-out colors that look as if the life has been bled out of the vibrant and colorful world we just left.

It’s not an action-packed arc. It’s not a particularly dramatic arc. It’s an epilogue. A reflection. We rotate through characters quickly, getting their thoughts and observations as they remember the Dream who has passed and welcome the Dream who has arrived. We even catch vague glimpses of DC Comics icons like Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, and Darkseid. Gaiman mostly distanced Sandman from the mainstream comic universe, so we’re quick to forget that the series is even part of it, but these appearances serve as a reminder that Dream was woven into a much larger tapestry. The heart of these sequences is Matthew the raven: again, the human element in a very supernatural setting. He’s not happy about welcoming the new Dream. He does not want to accept him as his master. Most others take this new development as a matter of course, as the natural changing of the guard, but to Matthew it feels wrong, as if Dream’s memory is somehow being tarnished by embracing this new personification.

Even the new Dream is unsure of his place in the order of things. He shows flashes of confidence (notably untainted by the arrogance of the previous Dream), yet he’s awkward and hesitant at times — especially when it comes to dealing with his siblings, the Endless. He will need time to grow into his role.

This is, after all, just as much a beginning as it is an end.

It’s a wonderfully somber set of stories — perhaps too lacking in happenings for some, but to me a perfect way to spend just a little more time with these characters before they’re gone. It’s not unlike the extended coda of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in that respect: The Ring is destroyed, Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor, and yet we’ve still got 100 pages of goodbyes and farewells and so longs to go.

We, the reader, don’t want to leave. And clearly neither does the author.

The story arc, proper, finishes with one last visit with Hob Gadling, Dream’s undying human friend. During a trip to a modern-day Renaissance Faire, Gadling complains about the lack of realism, the theme park-ish misrepresentation of the past. He drinks and complains some more, dwelling on what was. Confronted by Death, he’s given a chance to finally close the door on his centuries-long life — but ultimately chooses not to, deciding to embrace what’s ahead rather than what lay behind. It’s as if Gaiman is telling us not to look back and mourn the end of the series, not to think about what was, but rather to look ahead and see the potential of the blank slate. To think about what could be.

Two one-shot stories close things out. “Exiles” is a fine enough journey back to the “soft places” between dreams, something of a sequel to an earlier short story. Some might question why this story is here; it doesn’t do or reveal much, after all, and has little connection to the overall narrative. But if there is a message to be taken away, it’s woven into the story subtly: here Dream is dead, yet Dream still lives in the soft places between stories and dreams and reality. He is both alive and dead, living and gone.

The message is simple: The Sandman story may be over, but these characters still exist somewhere. They still linger in places unconnected to the “real,” and maybe, if the wind blows right or our paths lead us off the expected road, we might encounter them again some day. (And we did, first with Sandman: The Dream Hunters and then with Sandman: Endless Nights).

The final tale returns us to William Shakespeare, who is struggling through his final play, The Tempest. It is the second of two plays commissioned by Dream, and Dream is awaiting his payment. Shakespeare struggles with the story, the characters, his approach.

It’s one last look at stories. Storytelling. And storytellers.

And then the door is closed.

And Sandman is no more.

But stories? Stories are forever.

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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