Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: Season of Mists"

There's a certain part of me that wishes I had never read "The Sandman."

Because if that were so, I could read it for the first time and have my mind blown all over again.

"Season of Mists," the fourth volume in the "Sandman" series, is my favorite. I love the shit out of this story. It's hard for me to even articulate why it's just so goddamn awesome. Can I just scan every page of the comic onto this page and you can read it yourself, and then at the end we can clap our hands and dance around and screech about how wonderful it is?

Quick google search confirms that's illegal. I guess I'll have to write the review. Oh, and even though it's been like, twenty years, SPOILERS below.

So remember back in "Preludes and Nocturnes" that Dream had to go to Hell and battle a demon to get back his helmet? While he was there, he ran into an old girlfriend he'd condemned to everlasting torture for reasons made clear in "The Doll's House." The woman, Nada, was a queen who fell in love with Dream. He loved her in return and offered her immortality, co-leadership of the Dreaming, deification, anything she wanted, if she would stay with him forever. But Nada refused him because mortals shouldn't get involved with the Endless (more about this in "Brief Lives," coming up in a couple weeks). She killed herself to end the relationship, and Dream sentenced her to Hell as punishment for rejecting him.

As Death says to him at the beginning of this story arc, "Condemning her to an eternity in Hell, just because she turned you down... that's a really shitty thing to do."

This is why big sisters are so great: they call you on your bullshit. I'm glad I've got one.

Speaking of families, meet the Endless! "Season of Mists" begins with an incredibly awkward family reunion in the garden of Destiny, the oldest Endless (say that five times fast). We met Destiny very briefly back in "Preludes," Death we know, and of course Dream; then there's the twins, Desire and Despair, who were both introduced in "The Doll's House"; one brother, called the Prodigal, is missing and won't be coming to the party; and for the first time, we meet the youngest of the Endless, sister Delirium.
I was Delirium for Halloween once. The hair dye all came out during apple bobbing.
She's the personification of mental illness and bad drug trips, and she really doesn't want to be here. None of the Endless siblings do, actually. There's a great moment when Destiny says everyone must have a lot to talk about, since it's been three hundred years since they were last together--and they all just stare at each other in silence. And then they start fighting.

Maybe they don't get along because they have too much influence over each other, in the sense that not even the Endless are exempt from the magical influence of the other Endless. When Dream tries to leave the party, Destiny won't let him because "that won't happen yet"; when Delirium makes butterflies to amuse herself, Desire makes the butterflies go into a candle flame, and Death takes them away. It must make them all very uneasy to be around each other, because it brings up uncomfortable questions of how much of what they think and do is based on their own choices, and how much is based on the influence of their family.

Dream gets especially pissed at Desire when Desire starts listing all of Dream's failed romantic relationships, and it's unclear if Dream is angry because he thinks his love life is none of Desire's damn business, or because he knows that his love life is exactly  Desire's business. Love is in Desire's job description, not Dream's. But Death reminds Dream that even if Desire is the reason all of his relationships end badly, Dream is still responsible for his own actions. He was the one who sentenced Nada to Hell, not Desire, and maybe instead of being angry at Desire for bringing it up, he should take a long, hard look at himself and the choices he made in his own life that bring him to this point.

Begin the Overarching Theme!

"Season of Mists" is about choices, specifically the question of what a person does when they find themselves in a mess of their own making. After Dream realizes that he's been a massive twatwaffle to Nada, he decides he needs to free her, even if it means facing Lucifer and all the hordes of Hell in combat. The last time Dream and Lucifer faced each other, Lucifer vowed to destroy him, so Dream is understandably nervous about going back to Hell. But when he gets there, he finds that Lucifer is sick of being the Devil and instead of fighting Dream, he's quit his job, closed up Hell, and is going to do something different with his life.

This is one of my favorite plot twists in fiction. We've just spent an entire issue building up to the confrontation between Dream and Lucifer. Dream has said good-bye to all the subjects in his realm, and even paid a special visit to his best friend Hob in case he can't make their next meeting in 2090, so certain is he of either defeat or imprisonment in Hell. Lucifer, meanwhile, is disturbingly excited that Dream is coming, and makes an announcement to his own realm that in all the ten billion years of Hell's existence, no one has seen anything like what's coming.

And then Dream gets to Hell and Lucifer tells him, "I've quit." No grand battle, no clash of immortals, just an empty Hell and a fallen angel who is tired of his job. Fucking brilliant.
Dream and Lucifer walk around Hell while Lucifer locks up the last few gates and talks about the circumstances that led him to this point. He speculates on whether or not he rebelled against God because he wanted to, or because it was part of God's plan to have a fallen angel rule a realm that was "Heaven's dark reflection." But whether it was free will or destiny that put him in Hell, he realizes that he himself is the only thing keeping him in Hell, and with that realization, he decides to just walk away. He's the second-most powerful being in the whole of creation--who's going to stop him?

Almost as an afterthought, Lucifer gives the key to Hell to Dream, barely concealing his glee as he does so. "Perhaps it will destroy you, and perhaps it won't. But I doubt it will make your life any easier."

Mic drop. Lucifer out.

Immediately, realms across the cosmos spring into action. Everyone, from the gods of Asgard, ancient Egypt and Shinto Japan, to the agents of Chaos, Order and Faerie, to the displaced demons who served under Lucifer, wants that key. They all gather at the gates of Dream's palace, demanding entrance and an answer to the question of what will happen to Hell now that Lucifer is gone.

Whew, this is getting intense. Let's check in with all of the dead people who were kicked out of Hell.

The one-shot in the middle of this story arc is about a boy named Charles, alone in his boarding school over the holidays until all of the dead schoolchildren and headmasters come out of Hell and take over the school. The dead make it into a nasty place of repetitive self-punishment, and Charles concludes after his own death that "Hell is something you carry around with you."

It's interesting to pause and get a mortal's perspective on this cosmic upheaval, as the rest of "Season of Mists" is the gods, angels and demons vying for possession of Hell. They're squabbling, bribing, begging, and threatening each other--and Dream especially--for something that wasn't really created for them. It's "a place for dead mortals to punish themselves," as Lucifer says, but the mortals don't have any voice in the proceedings. Nor does it really seem like they need one; if mortals can't punish themselves in Hell, it seems they'll do it wherever they end up--that Hell is a state of mind brought on by guilt, shame and desire for punishment for perceived transgressions.

But Hell is also a very real place in the "Sandman" universe, which brings up some tough questions about this whole "choices and free will" theme "Season of Mists" explores. Yes, Lucifer can leave Hell--but he can't go back to Heaven, and when he leaves Hell he upsets the balance of the universe, leaving a mess someone else has to clean up. And young Charles can leave the school grounds for the wide world--but he has to die first in order to gain his freedom. Dream can free Nada from her prison--the story even implies that she could have freed herself if she stopped blaming him for her situation--but he had to upend the balance of the universe to do it.

Choices cut both ways. You can walk away from a situation at any time, but the situation will still be there, waiting for either you or someone else to come along and see it through to the end. Hell didn't just end when Lucifer walked away. He gave Hell to Dream, because Lucifer is an asshole and knew that he was leaving Dream to clean up the biggest metaphysical clusterfuck since Lucifer rebelled against God. We exists in a universe of consequences, not a universe of free will unchecked by laws and reactions.

So what happens in the end? God sends two angels to take back the key to Hell and Dream is happy enough to give the rule of Hell back to the entity who created it--even if the angels are less than thrilled to have such a task forced on them. The demon Azazel, who had hoped to rule Hell itself, tells Dream that it will consume Nada's soul to punish him for giving the key to the angels.

Here's another great twist in the story. Thus far in "The Sandman," Dream has feared the power of Hell. In "Preludes and Nocturnes," Dream has to bluff his way to Lucifer's throne room, pretending to have more power than he does, and then he has fight a demon in fair combat to get his helmet back because he doesn't have authority to just demand its return. The second issue of the "Season of Mists" story arc is Dream going around say good-bye to everyone because he isn't sure he'll make it back from Hell alive, and in the third issue he tells Lucifer to his face that he's afraid of Lucifer's power.

But get him on his home turf and threaten the woman he swore to save?
Dream traps the demon in a bottle. Forever.

Up to this point in "The Sandman," Dream hasn't been portrayed as an especially powerful individual. The series begins with him imprisoned by hedge wizards by seventy years, and both "Preludes and Nocturnes" and "The Doll's House" stress the fragility of his realm, especially for the sleeping humans therein. He's a hard-working and responsible individual, much like his sister, Death; and very unlike his sibling Desire or his foe Lucifer, who have the air of effortless achievement about them at all times.

What I love about the resolution of this storyline is that it shows how Dream could, if he wanted, fuck with people beyond all comprehension. He could drive everyone and everything who ever fell asleep completely insane; he could erase imagination and stories from the world; he could make it so no one ever slept again. But he doesn't do anything of these things. He fashions a very orderly realm, with bureaucracy and employees, and doesn't really throw his weight around like he could.

Except with those who wound his pride, like Nada. He's not above using his powers to horribly punish those who hurt him on a personal level, and then immediately absolves himself of guilt by falling back on his status as the Dreamlord to justify his actions. He had to punish Nada, because she was just a mortal and not an equal of the Endless. He's gotten better since the series began. Comparing the present-day storylines to the flashbacks, we see him trying to rectify his mistakes and be kinder to those around him. He helps Calliope gain her freedom, he admits to Hob Gadling that they're friends (oh the bro-loves!), he tells the cat-prophet how to gain freedom for her and her people--you can really see the freedom-from-imprisonment theme growing out of Dream's experiences in "Preludes and Nocturnes"--and he frees Nada.

After she schools him on his self-righteous attitude, though, because at first he can't even bring himself to admit to her face that he shouldn't have been such a dick. Change comes hard, y'all.

Oh, and Dream frees Loki at the end of "Season of Mists"! If you don't know your Norse myths, Loki is a god of mischief who was deemed too dangerous to be in the world, so Odin imprisoned him in a cave under the earth, only to be released when Ragnarok (the apocalypse) occurred. Now he's just sort of wandering around, Loki-ing it up. If you've seen "The Avengers," you know this can only end badly.
Do not read "Sandman" expecting Loki to look this good.

So that's "Season of Mists." Lots of good, complex themes, a ripping good storyline, great art, callbacks to earlier issues, and foreshadowing galore! For example, the cat goddess Bast knows where Dream's missing brother can be found. Interesting plot development, that.

Final Grade: A+.

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