The Sandman (Vol. 10): The Wake by Neil Gaiman
The Wake — the final volume collecting the last six issues of THE SANDMAN series — is a difficult book to review because it is both the perfect ending to the series and an anti-climatic closing narrative that I find disappointing. How are these both possible? The first three issues in this volume are a three-part ending to Dream’s story. At the end of that third issue, I am satisfied emotionally and intellectually. The problem for me is that Gaiman wrote three more issues, one of which is mediocre and one of which is disappointing. So, he both succeeds and fails at ending this fantastic series.
The first three issues tell the story of “The Wake.” The title is a great pun: It refers both to the ending coming in the wake of all the events that preceded it and to the type of wake that honors the dead. In volume nine Sandman died, so the reader has already been prepared to understand the title’s meaning as an honoring of Morpheus. The purpose of “The Wake” is not narrative surprise; therefore, Gaiman does not need to create major suspense for the reader. Instead, “The Wake” is a mood-piece, with beautiful, haunting artwork and repeated visual refrains: multiple characters will perform a similar action, one after the other, for example. The dialogue is frequently mundane, as it so often is at funerals and wakes, and we witness characters experiencing a wide variety of feelings: confusion, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, fear, and calm.
A few aspects of this story really stand out and make “The Wake” the great story that it is: First, the incredible number of characters that fill these three issues. There are at least fifty characters we have met before in the previous seventy issues (including Batman and Martian Manhunter). Plus, Gaiman manages to slide in a few cameos. My favorite cameo is the major DC villain Darkseid who is seen sitting off to the side of one panel. Second, the art fits the mood perfectly and captures the feeling of a dream, which is appropriate considering the wake takes place within the Dreaming. My favorite example is the boat the Sandman’s “body” is on during the last part of the wake: The front of the boat changes shape from panel to panel, from various birds to items we now associate with Dream. Third, Matthew, the raven, is the character tying everything together. He flies from panel to panel, scene to scene commenting on conversations, participating in conversations, and becoming increasingly irritable as the story progresses. The resolution of Matthew’s personal quest throughout these three issues is an important one, particularly since Gaiman intends for Matthew to represent the reader. Finally, and most importantly, when I turn to the final page of “The Wake,” I feel a sense of closure. My journey as a reader feels complete on multiple levels. It’s a perfect ending to THE SANDMAN.
Except it’s not the ending to THE SANDMAN. There are three more issues. There’s an epilogue about Hob Gadling, there’s a follow-up to the story “Soft Places,” and there’s the issue everyone has been waiting for: Shakespeare’s sitting down to write the second and final play he owes Dream. The story about Hob Gadling is excellent, and because Hob was at the wake, the story cannot take place before “The Wake,” though I wish it could have. And though it has a satisfying close, it’s a bit of a let-down from the ending to “The Wake.” The next story, “Exiles,” the follow-up to “Soft Places,” is weak by Gaiman’s standards. I love the art, and the themes are interesting, but it just doesn’t come together. Finally, the story about Shakespeare’s writing The Tempest is merely mediocre in my opinion, though I think many, perhaps even most, readers will disagree with me. I suppose I could read it another day and find it good, but I don’t think I’ll ever find it excellent
“The Tempest” is the final issue of the series so the reader has high expectations. Unfortunately, it is weak in comparison to the previous issue on Shakespeare, and it feels anti-climatic as an ending to THE SANDMAN series. Thematically, it does provide good closure: The idea of Shakespeare’s writing his final play in the final SANDMAN issue that Gaiman writes is a good one, and Gaiman asks us to reflect on the Bard’s lines and to see them on multiple levels: they are about the characters in the play, about the real people in Shakespeare’s life, about Shakespeare as an artist, about Gaiman as an artist, and about the many visual artists who worked with Gaiman on this series. I love these ideas, but they feel more forced here than Gaiman’s themes usually do. But, the biggest problem for me is that it is just not the ending I want to THE SANDMAN, particularly since Gaiman already gave me an ending that was so satisfying in issue seventy-two.
Overall, I loved reading the story “The Wake,” but I was let down by the collection The Wake. The final two issues in the series prevent me from giving this collection the full five stars. On another day I might give it four-and-a-half stars, but reading it today, I give it four stars because I wish I had stopped reading at the end of the third issue in volume ten. For those who want the perfect ending, I suggest reading “Exiles” and “The Tempest” before reading “The Wake.” I’d even consider reading the “Epilogue” to “The Wake” before reading “The Wake.” Perhaps reading the volume in this order will get you closer to experiencing the five-star ending THE SANDMAN deserves.*
*Reading it in this order causes a major problem, of course: Sandman has had his Wake and been reborn, and these final three issues show a much-changed Sandman. This change is one of the major points of the entire series. So, Gaiman’s ordering of these six issues makes sense thematically. But after seventy-five issues, I want emotional and thematic closure to come together in the final issue. I’ll admit, I’m probably in the minority in criticizing the tenth volume in the way I have in this review.
At last we come to the last volume of the epic SANDMAN saga, and I found this to be one of my favorite of all the volumes. You’d think that its being a wake, a celebration and remembrance of the passing of someone, would prevent this volume from being a favorite; however, somehow, I found it filled not only with melancholy, but also with an equal amount of empathy and gentle humor at the lives of all beings both mortal and immortal, god or faithful companion. It also has, by far, the most radiant and evocative artwork of the entire series, courtesy of Michael Zulli, which really blew me away with its incredible range of detail in both character expressions and background. Why was he not asked to participate earlier? It nearly made up for the dreadful artwork done by Marc Hempel in Vol 9: The Kindly Ones, which partly ruined my enjoyment of that climactic story arc.
If you have read all the previous volumes, you know by know who this wake is for. It has been foreshadowed throughout the series, especially at the end of Vol 8: Worlds’ End, and explored in detail in Vol 9. So what is left to tell? A lot, as it turns out. With the passing of one aspect of Dream, namely Morpheus, a new aspect takes on the duties of Dream, the young child Daniel. He declines the name of Morpheus, content to be called Dream, and this volume details his experiences as he deals with the aftermath of Morpheus’ passing, the huge host of mourners and well-wishers, reviving many of Morpheus’ loyal servants, and finally meeting his siblings for the first time, if that makes sense. As he says, “This is very new to me, Matthew. This place, this world. I have existed since the beginning of time. This is a true thing. I am older than worlds and suns and gods. But tomorrow I will meet my brother and sisters for the first time. And I am afraid.”
One of the best relationships is between Matthew, who is still deeply upset that Morpheus chose to face his death alone at the Furies’ hands, and the new Dream, who is just getting his bearings. Matthew does not feel he owes anything to Dream and wishes to have died along with Morpheus, but when he sees how much help the new Dream will need to assume his duties, his attitude changes. The young Dream is so vulnerable and unsure of himself, which is beautifully conveyed by the artwork of Michael Zulli, who gives him a younger appearance but the same deep black pools of eternity for eyes, with that spark of life and intelligence. Each time he speak with someone known from his former aspect, he pauses as if to retrieve their info from his inherited memories, and then act accordingly.
The tone of the story has shifted completely, as all the beings and former lovers of dream who bore grudges have gotten what they wished for. Now everyone seems contrite and solemn, as if it all had been done in a pique of madness. And yet we know just how inevitable those events were, as did Morpheus and the Furies themselves, along with his brother Destiny. The question arises, why is there a wake if Dream lives on? As Cain explains, “Nobody died. How can you kill an idea? How can you kill the personification of an an action?”
During the wake we again meet so many of the people touched by Morpheus, including former lovers like Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, the faerie Nuala, even Queen Titania of Faerie. Then there is Lyta Hall, the mother of Daniel who triggered the whole crisis in her mistaken quest for vengeance, as well as Rose Walker whose story was told in Vol 2: The Doll’s House. We even get some surprising revelations from the witch Thessaly. Finally Morpheus’ siblings speak of him at the wake, each in their own unique way, and their behavior is quite funny. The new Dream is not allowed to attend the ceremony, but receives a very unexpected visitor to his castle instead. I loved their conversation, it just opens up so many interesting possibilities. Matthew the raven and Death, Morpheus’ sister, give some very touching tributes. It really feels like a proper remembrance. And there is a final meeting between Lyta and the new Dream, who was her son Daniel, and much of import is discussed.
But this last volume contains more. The next segment is one my favorites, called “An Epilogue — Sunday Morning.” This is one of the most humorous sequences in the whole series, centered on the seemingly immortal man Hob Gadling, who is attending a Renaissance Fair with his girlfriend Gwen. He goes by Robbie, and having actually lived through those dirty, grim, and altogether barbaric times, the whole cheapness and lack of authenticity puts him in a foul and antagonistic mood. There is nothing worse than a foul-tempered Englishman who gets deep in his cups, which is exactly what happens. His comments to the fair participants are priceless, especially with the server wench. But when he takes a brief break in an abandoned building, he encounters someone who suddenly puts it all in perspective for him. It’s quite a chilling sequence, not least because the artwork is absolutely incredible, conveying complex emotions via the characters’ expressions with a subtlety I have rarely seen before. The dialogue too is filled with deep insights delivered with such ease — some of Gaiman’s best work, in my opinion.
Then Gaiman gives us a little gem called “Exiles,” about a Chinese elder who has served as advisor to the Emperor and enjoyed great success, only to lose it all and face exile across a desert at the far corner of the empire. This happens because of the actions of his son, which enraged the emperor. Astute SANDMAN fans will recognize this desert from “Soft Places” in Vol 6: Fables and Reflections. He encounters a certain gothic figure in the desert, and they have a long-ranging and fascinating conversation that subtly references many of the climactic events of The Kindly Ones and The Wake. It’s a very illuminating window into the thoughts of both Dream and Morpheus, and the artwork by Jon J. Muth is truly dream-like and haunting.
The final story is called “The Tempest” and follows up his brilliant story “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as William Shakespeare confronts writer’s block in his later years, but must finish a final play as part of his bargain with Dream in exchange for artistic inspiration. Much like the previous story, there are many levels to the story as it explores the sacrifices that writers make in terms of family life, artistic integrity, and also celebrates the difficult creative process that writers must struggle with. It’s also a tribute to the genius of Shakespeare’s skills with the English language, and a form of meta-commentary by Gaiman the writer. Like “Exiles,” the main character engages in a meaningful conversation with Morpheus, both his benefactor and tormentor.
Overall, the quality of writing throughout this volume is very high, and the three extra stories at the end demonstrate that Gaiman can craft stories from almost any subject matter and seamlessly weave in his mythology of the Endless to make thought-provoking stories. Complemented by excellent artwork, this is definitely one of the highlights of the series. There is another volume called Endless Nights featuring a story about each of the Endless, along with stand-alone companion pieces like The Dream Hunters, Death, and Sandman: Overture, so there is still more to look forward to.
If I had one complaint, it’s that Gaiman never explains why the Endless came about, who the Creator is, what the purpose of the Silver City is, or any of the unseen forces that have established all the rules that bind even the most powerful immortal beings. I basically figured that he would not go there, but waited until the full sequence before passing judgement. In some sense it’s a cop-out, but I guess Gaiman’s main point is that it is humankind who can create its own mythologies and explanations for the universe, so any answers can only come from our own imaginations. What that implies about his own beliefs is up to the reader to decide.