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After experimenting with some shorter story cycles to varying degrees of success, Neil Gaiman once again plunges Sandman readers into an extended story, this time spanning a whopping nine issues. Despite my notion that Gaiman had left the stretched plotting of his earlier Season of Mists era behind him, Brief Lives instead acts as a rough sequel to some of its events, and puts any and all remaining questions about the Endless to a conclusive rest, with the sole exception of the rather glaring omission: what exactly are they, then? There was some valid criticism that my last Sandman review dumped readers in at the deep end without much explanation of what the series was about, so thankfully the plot of this book allows for a greater overview.
Introduced gradually over the course of the comic series, which had by now been in print for three mostly enjoyable years, the seven Endless are not gods, that much is made clear, but are rather seemingly immortal and powerful beings whose function is to oversee seven vital aspects of the universe. The titular Sandman is Dream, though he is rarely referred to as the Sandman, and is known by a multitude of names by different cultures, as are his brethren. His older sister Death was next to be introduced, and the eldest brother Destiny is the most mysterious and intriguing of all, and thus my favourite (because its a comic, and however well crafted and suited to adult readers it may be, its still the sort of thing that encourages readers to pick a bestest). These two older siblings only feature briefly, as this is primarily a story focusing on Dream and his youngest sister Delirium, in her first major role that certainly makes a lasting impression, whatever the readers feelings about the unique character. The quest that drives their story is the search for their long-lost and oft-mentioned brother, whose name Im not going to reveal but you can guess that it starts with a D. Conspiratorial non-identical twins Desire and Despair also play a significant part towards the beginning and the end, and the reader is treated to the sight of five of the Endless individual and highly metaphorical realms over the course of the tale, some of which had not been seen before.
Like Season of Mists, the last story to focus on the dysfunctional Endless family, this is essentially a single story spread over numerous issues, though there a number of minor sub-plots introduced to help break it up that are nevertheless ultimately tied to the main plot. Gaiman returns to a simple numbering of parts to hammer home the graphic novel idea, and as with the last multi-part story A Game of You, there are no issues dedicated to events happening elsewhere; if the story isnt to the readers liking, which is entirely possible given its significant departure from series the established style, theyre unfortunately stuck with it for nine months of comic deadlines. All of the Sandman stories are necessarily quite different from each other of course, otherwise the series would just end up repeating itself, but this desire to explore new ground unfortunately takes the series further and further away from its roots as a sort of gothic horror with fantastical overtones. Here, epic mysticism gives way to mundane family drama, while the increase in forced comedy (some very funny, but some actually quite poor, in a first for the series) reminds me of the fourth Star Trek film, when daft humour was used as a tool to re-popularise the franchise. The sequence where Delirium drives a car wildly along a freeway and Matthew squawks at her to slow down or shell get them all killed could easily be substituted for any recycled aliens arrive on Earth and dont properly understand our customs, leading to hilarious consequences Hollywood plot, and didnt serve to endear this story to me.
After a fairly interesting introduction in which the reader really gets to experience the unstable and addled mind of Delirium, the main plot of the search is stretched out for far too long, and will likely leave many readers disinterested as it approaches its inevitable conclusion. As with A Game of You, the heavy focus on contemporary Earth allows for the exploration of some down-to-earth individuals from alternative walks of life, including the series first genuine goth (who Delirium amusingly mistakes for her sister Death) and a very bland couple of issues focusing on the lives, dreams and values of some topless dancers (Im not in the sex industry, Im in showbiz, their gaze makes me feel beautiful, blah blah blah). Oddly and very annoyingly, some of the more interesting characters, particularly a druid-type fellow who turns into a bear and bites off his shadow to escape detection, are introduced only for their stories to go nowhere whatsoever, ruining its effectiveness as a suspenseful murder mystery that it tries to be to some extent. As Dream and Delirium chase down their prodigal brother through the only leads they have, those sources are conveniently bumped off one by one just before they can obtain their answers. Fittingly to the Sandman tradition of weak endings, the ultimate explanation is disappointing, particularly in comparison to the red herrings that were thrown at readers to keep them guessing and that would have been far more enjoyable, while also being easier to understand. Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting plots around the fringes of the main search that keep this readable, particularly concerning Dreams son Orpheus and a new working class view on life in the realm of the Dreaming from one of its workmen, Mervyn Pumpkinhead, who instantly became another favourite of mine.
Theres a large but understated focus on Dreams character development in this story, which is interesting and a long time coming, even if it only really comes into play outside of the main plot. Mervyns deconstruction of his Lords brooding over the end of a relationship is one of many nicely introspective touches introduced by Gaiman in this story, particularly the pumpkin mans observation that Dream is creating the very downpour that hes standing in, and by consequence making everyone else in the realm suffer for his own melodramatic angst. Dream has always been quite a solemn and moody goth, prone to irrational actions as readers have seen in the past, and its satisfying to see this finally being addressed to him directly, and by more than a few individuals in a short space of time, perhaps even allowing it to sink in for a change. His overbearing relationship with Delirium is interesting and cute, standing in nice contrast to his camaraderie with Death and antagonism towards Desire and their missing brother, and most of all this story is memorable and significant for Deliriums performance. Her confused, childish demeanour can be irritating at times, but I also feel a little sad for her, and she can make me smile, and Todd Kleins highly distinctive, twisted and multi-coloured take on the appearance of her dialogue is easily the most elaborate thing thats ever been done with speech bubbles in such frequency.
For the first time in the Sandman series, the artists remain consistent throughout, with none of the usual swapping and guest penciller credits interrupting the flow, though looking at the consequences this deals to the quality of the art across this expansive storyline, it becomes clear why the revolving door system was a useful tool. Jill Thompsons drawing style is good, as would be expected for such a high-profile series, but I find it lacks the distinctiveness of some of her illustrious predecessors, particularly those that had handled the majority of a long storyline in the past. Thompson has a flair for backgrounds, which certainly helps with the extensive travelling in this story, and some of her viewpoints and perspectives, particularly in the opening issue, are really nice and cinematic. Unfortunately, her characters lack the realism the series is respected for, veering more towards a simplified cartoon style than anything else, but the most disappointing feature comes when Thompson quite clearly becomes bored, and rushes through repetitive panels so that entire pages become quite a mess (this is particularly evident in the banquet at Dreams palace, and dialogue-heavy scenes in general). Daniel Vozzos colours are consistently acceptable, even if they only really stand out in the more elaborate scenes that resemble oil paintings, and for the first time in the series I found it quite puzzling on several occasions to follow the correct order of the speech bubbles, though Im not sure whether the blame for this lies with the bored Thompson or an error on Kleins part in trying to stick them all onto the panel without obstructing her drawing. Its still far from being amateur, and there are a number of scenes that are really incredible, but these little errors and momentary lapses do stand out in an otherwise skilled publication.
Neil Gaiman deals with some significant and philosophical themes in Brief Lives, but its unnecessary length, littered with pointless distractions, unfortunately makes it the least impressive Sandman volume so far. I can only hope that this is a brief slump that will vanish as the series heads to its conclusion, but considering the recent directions of the series I doubt this will happen. There are a few genuinely insightful and fascinating moments, particularly towards the end, but for the most part this is a bit of a silly adventure, full of what seem to be distracting plot holes and inconsistencies, and tows the line between revealing more interesting facts about the Endless, and robbing them of their intriguing mystery altogether. Gaimans dialogue is faultless as always, realistic between humans and enjoyably otherworldly between deities, and there were some enjoyable links to the writers other works that Im familiar with, particularly in the importance and exchange of personal debt that reminded me of Neverwhere, an enjoyable TV series he produced with Lenny Henry for the BBC in the late nineties, and later adapted into a novel. Unlike previous volumes, most of the new characters introduced here fail to make much of an impression and I couldnt really care less whether they show up again, with the exception of the dog Barnabas and of course the long-overlooked Mervyn Pumpkinhead.
These nine issues are collected in the trade paperback bearing the overall title of the story, which reproduces the art as well as the excellent covers by Dave McKean. Omitted are the letters pages and advertisements that originally featured in the comics, which serves to make them more readable, but also sadly gone is the promised feature advertised on one cover as Special insert: Death talks about AIDS and safer sex, which would have been quite interesting.
From Neil Gaiman's award-winning Sandman series comes the longest story arc in Gaiman's extraordinary saga of the Endless. This is the story of the search for the Sandman's long missing brother, Destruction, and of the consequences of that endeavour. The great quest begins when Delirium, the youngest of the Endless family, prevails upon her brother Dream (the Sandman), to help her find her missing sibling. Their travels take them through the world of the waking until a final confrontation with the missing member of the Endless and the resolution of The Sandman's painful relationship with his son, Orpheus, change the Endless forever.