One of my favorite comic podcasts has long been the Comic Geek Speak show. One of their regular features, in the early days, was their Book of the Month Club series – great conversations about important and noteworthy comic series. As the show has gone through personnel changes, through its near-ten years of podcasting, things have changed, and for some time the BOMC episodes became a thing of the past. But in the past year, they have been brought back, and the geeks have been working their way through Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, interspersing those episodes with other, great books. Their most recent, discussing Season of Mists, spotlights my favorite storyline of this series, which meant…I had some thoughts on it.
To my mind, Season of Mists is where things open up for this particular Sandman mythos. Preludes & Nocturneswas a Campbellian "hero quest," as Morpheus went in search of his symbols of power. The Doll's House expanded readers' knowledge of the Dreaming, as the challenge of a new dream vortex almost spurs Morpheus to spill family blood. And Dream Country told what some might feel as tangential tales that provide a bit more knowledge about the Sandman.
With this collection, Gaiman & co. expand the world of the Sandman far beyond its initial DCU bounds (which, with a few exceptions, had been shucked off a while back). There is a wider world to explore, one introduced through the many pantheons of gods showcased in this story. With Odin and Bast and Choronzon and all the other puissant beings coming to the Dreaming, we finally get a better understanding of what it means for Morpheus to be the "Dream King." This title becomes manifest through the traditions and formalities utilized by these awesome (in the traditional sense) beings, exhibiting a reverence and respect that is reinforced by the beings displaying it.
In re-reading this, one of the things that stood out for me was the way in which Gaiman uses language in this story. Everything is very formal, with social rules to be followed, and within these feudal constructs a certain reverence for language and its beauty is retained, for the most part. The dialogue feels of an older time - from the announcement of Morpheus's intention to visit Hell to the discussions with the many gods about the disbursement of the Key to Hell - and yet, it also feels contemporaneous, so as not to be off-putting to readers (I would guess). It's a fine balancing act that Gaiman manages superbly. I think it all falls down to his use of a more current lexicon fitted into an older grammatical sentence structure, though not having my copy to hand may mean I am misremembering. Anyway, this is one of the things I loved about this book.
Kelley Jones's art is another thing to love about the book. His almost caricaturish figures work well in such an over-the-top plot (Lucifer abdicates Hell and a host of different gods vie for its ownership). The way he draws Thor is wonderful, and a perfect visual metaphor for the thunder god, and the billowing cloak that embodies Morpheus is another wonderful visualization bordering on metaphor. I don't know how much thought went into it, on Jones's part, and how much may have been in the script, but it all works very well. It's also impressive how he manages to infuse his style with more traditional styles when drawing the various gods, most especially showcased in the visualization of Susano-o-no-Mikoto, particularly when he is isolated, and Morpheus as he shifts his guise for the various meetings with these deities. I was lucky enough to meet Jones, at a show here in Maine, shortly after the hardcover of this came out. Despite being an Oakland A's fan, he was a pretty good guy.
Something else I appreciated, in reading this again, was how much of the final act of Sandman is set up in these pages, roughly 50 issues prior to the finale, depending on where it falls in the storyline. I don't want to give much away, for those who haven't read it all yet, but there are some very significant choices made by Morpheus - with Loki, with Hippolyta Hall's baby - that prove to be crucial for him, down the line.
Final thoughts -
I met Matt Wagner at a show, a number of years ago, and got him to sign my copy of Season of Mists. He shared with me that when he received the script, which he was excited about, he was disappointed to find that Morpheus was nowhere to be found in the story. Wagner asked for Gaiman to either include, or allow him to include, that image of Morpheus in the opening of his story, so he could have the chance to actually draw the dream king.
Mike Dringenberg: If it weren't for him, I might consider Kelley Jones to be the definitive Sandman artist. But Dringenberg's work is, for me, the seminal delineation of Morpheus. I just love how he draws the Sandman, as well as all the other characters, and having him draw the opening and closing chapters of this book is like icing on the cake. Beautiful, beautiful work.
If you have yet to read Sandman, what's wrong with you?!? Get on it! It is one of the best stories ever told in this medium.