Review: Sandman: The Deluxe Edition Book Four hardcover (DC Comics)


Sandman: The Deluxe Edition Book Four once again runs the gamut for what Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has to offer, from the farthest disconnection from the Lord of Dreams (aliens spinning tales of DC heroes in limbo) to the most intricate of court politics.

Being the “Worlds' End” and “Kindly Ones” collections, this fourth volume is perhaps among the most straightforward of the deluxe editions, on par with Book One, including just one external short story from Vertigo Jam. But among the tale-tellers of “Worlds' End” and the thirteen-part length of “Kindly Ones,” one ought not mistake straightforward for focused. Not that that’s a bad thing — given the inescapable conclusion here, one lauds Gaiman for taking his time getting there. “Kindly Ones,” especially, weaves in and out of digressions, a veritable mad, mad, mad Dreaming, and offers a master class on wrenching superhero-esque drama using only the weapon of words.

[Review contains spoilers]

To answer my own earlier questions, Dream dies here by way of Death, his sister, something I ought have predicted if I’d really thought about it (among things I see clearer now is how Death has been Chekhov’s gun all this time). Wonderfully, it is not as though Dream is brought low by a spear to the gut from the witches nor bleeds out in some last ditch effort; rather he simply decides — calmly, if a bit sadly, but without melodrama — to allow his sister to take his life to end the rampant destruction of the Dreaming. It is not inevitable — Dream is told, and considers, that he could escape his fate by going on the run, leaving the Dreaming to ruin, but chooses not to.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

If you consider the first issue of Sandman debuted in 1988 and I’ve read “Preludes and Nocturnes,” primarily, a number of times since then, but never as far as “Kindly Ones” (1995), consider my shock that for 20–30 years there’s essentially been a sequel to the first issue out there that I never knew about. Yes, of course, all of Sandman is a “sequel” to the first issue, but Sandman #1 is itself such a perfect and in many ways self-contained short horror story; once one gets out from under, there is not much about Roderick Burgess or Fawney Rig that recurs in the series, as opposed to Rose Walker or Lyta Hall or Desire or Delirium, so on and so forth (of course, Dream’s long imprisonment hangs over the entire series).

So for “Kindly Ones” to get into the real nitty-gritty of Roderick’s son Alex Burgess and his partner Paul McGuire, even so far as to put Rose Walker in the room with the infamous glass cell was a real revelation for me. If you must know, I’m rather a sucker for the myriad old series revivals on television these days, from The Conners to Picard (not to mention Elliot Stabler and the fact that Jack McCoy’s going to be cameoing on our TV sets pretty soon) — basically if ever there’s an opportunity to say, “I never thought we’d be here again,” I’m in. Even knowing my time reading Sandman is coming to a close, Gaiman impressed me with the extent to which he gathered up from the earliest days to the very end for the conclusion.

And that’s not just the physical presence of people and things — including Burgess, Rose, Hal, Fiddler’s Green, Nuala, Lucifer and Mazikeen, Zelda, Loki, Bast, … and is that Thessaly? — though that’s impressive in and of itself, but also the way Gaiman ties things up thematically. I get the sense every thread isn’t accounted for — it’s all a lot and I’m reading it somewhat quickly, but I get the sense maybe someone (Desire?) initially provoked Loki? — but I couldn’t find much missing in terms of thematic notes. In specific, that Dream comes back to the conversation with Ishtar where she suggested he’d changed (and also that he had a problem with women) and denied it, but now realizes the truth. Also that Death brings up how their brother Destruction abdicated his role, an option that’s been an open question in the story for Dream for a while now, but which both he and Death acknowledge that he could never do.

It’s within this last point that I found Dream’s death particularly compelling, if not even hitting a bit too close to home. Gaiman creates the perfect tragedy here, in the sense of the outcome being inevitable based on the protagonist’s character. Dream has been upset with Destruction because Destruction left — younger brother Destruction seeks a life outside the one he was born to, while for older brother Dream, the work is the thing, the way he finds meaning. In this, Dream is perhaps misguided — he cannot just leave nor go on the run, even to save his own life — but it is also an admirable pigheaded nobility; throughout, Gaiman has not been shy about portraying Dream as cruel, but he’s always been a cognizant shepherd of his kingdom.

Except, of course, his imprisonment. It was not, of course, his fault, but nonetheless we saw plenty examples of how the Dreaming fell to ruin in his absence. Ultimately Sandman is a shockingly short story, especially as compared to Superman or Batman’s never-ending battles; we encounter Dream just as he escapes his prison and within about five years of story time, he’s dead.1 That seems not a coincidence; to say that Dream’s imprisonment changed him is also to say he never got over it, and his tiredness in the end, the way in which he himself set many of these events in motion, suggests — as Death even points out — that a traumatized Dream was trying to bring about his own end.

The ironies in Gaiman’s penultimate finale are many — had Dream not been imprisoned, had it not changed him, had taking pity on Nada and rescuing Calliope not lead Dream to two important acts, helping Orpheus to die and granting Nuala a boon, then he would not have to sacrifice himself before the Kindly Ones. Perhaps Dream killed himself, or perhaps unluckily finally listening to the better angels of his nature brought about his demise.

I’ve yet to Google this one so as not to spoil any remaining surprises coming in what seems to be the fifth and final Sandman deluxe edition, with “The Wake,” but was that Thessaly there, known as Larissa and Alianora? (That’s another thread tied up, bringing true Destiny’s statement that Dream and his lost love would meet again.) It sure looks like Thessaly, though that name is never used, and it seems awful confusing to use a character that looks that much like Thessaly without it actually being her. If so, that the two started a relationship after “Game of You” bears re-reading that story; I didn’t notice the two making eyes at one another but maybe they did, and the animosity here makes it tough to imagine what their relationship could have been that earlier affected Dream so much.

That’s Sandman: The Deluxe Edition Book Four. On now, indeed, to the wake.

[Includes original covers, afterword, contributors' notes, sketches, promotional art]

  1. Were it not that over the last decades I‘ve seen Daniel treated wholly as his own person and no hint that this is Dream in Daniel’s body — and even taking just the end of “Kindly Ones” on its own — I would entirely believe that Dream did not die but rather resurrected himself. Certainly erasing Daniel’s consciousness so that Dream might live again is not something I would put past Dream given how callously he’s treated Rose, Lyta, and other such demi–humans in his way. Really, though Death makes Dream disappear, there is no such long escalator ride to make us think Dream is really dead; Death could have magicked him off to somewhere else, except that we would have heard from him by now.  ↩

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Not sure if you've come across this yet in your research (or if it's included in the Deluxe Editions), but Gaiman was famously challenged to summarize Sandman in 25 words or less. He came up with this:

    "The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision."

    That, for me, was the key to the whole book, and it really informed my second reading - and led me to finally love the book. (My first reading left me a little underwhelmed until I saw what Gaiman was doing.) These reviews have really motivated me to reread Sandman again! (and perhaps finally get around to The Dream Hunters...)

    1. I tell you what, couple weeks since I finished reading Sandman and I'm still thinking about this quote you shared. Agreed that really goes to the brilliance of Sandman — that it's a story about losing and not winning, if you will, about being true to yourself even when that doesn't cast you in the best light. Not many stories willing to let that be the point of their characters; thanks for sharing!


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