Mark Reads ‘The Sandman’: Endless Nights

In Endless Nights, nooooo TOO MANY FEELINGS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Sandman: Endless Nights.

HELP. NO, THERE ARE TOO MANY AMAZING THINGS IN THIS BOOK.

Chapter 1: Death and Venice

You know, it’s been really fun to try and figure the motivations behind any of the stories that Gaiman writes from the perspective of a new secondary character. “Death and Venice” in particular is kind of a confusing read at first because I couldn’t really figure out why these two stories were connected, nor what they had to do with Death. And they’re such different tales unfolding. The American soldier is so quiet and reflective, and everything on the island is FUCKING WEIRD AS HELL. Why are these noble folks purposely killing themselves? At first, I actually thought that each part of the story was a different generation, that there was a place where people would go to a party specifically to die in interesting ways. Like it was some form of high-end, fucked up entertainment!

I did understand the unnamed American’s story, though. Like many characters in The Sandman‘s universe, his experience with one of the Endless touched him in a way that he was never able to forget. After running into Death while on vacation as a child in Venice, he is struck by her beauty and the surreal nature of what it is she is doing: waiting for a gate to open. That’s it. He gets no clue as to what’s on the other side. He can’t open it himself, and his cousins find him before he can inquire any further. These two things haunt him for years, and it’s what leads him back to that island as an adult. It’s pretty heavily stated that this moment is what caused him to break up with a girlfriend of his and to join the military. Was he restless? Did he want to see the world? Was he always planning on coming back to find her?

He does return and find her, and she’s exactly the same as when he saw her decades earlier. (May I use this parenthetical aside to say that I LOVE HER HAIR IN THIS CHAPTER? Ugh, it’s gorgeous.) And then EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE. Holy shit, that island in the past is immune to Death. This entire populace has been living a life of decadence where death is merely a form of entertainment, nothing else. And it’s why the Count responds so negatively to the narrator and Death when they arrive. Is this all going to unravel? Why else did he keep the color black out of his parties? He was willfully ignoring the reality that was present for the rest of existence. I think a lot of “Death and Venice” toys with the nature of reality, too. The Count fights it, and the narrator questions it. Death brings reality to this island, and I adore the visual and textual references to “The Masque of the Red Death,” one of my favorite short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Here, though, the count does greet Death as if she is a long lost friend. In a way, she has been. How long has it been since this island saw Death? How long had they been avoiding Death by living out this false reality?

This was a sweet story until the next page, when the narrator knows he’ll get to see his friend Death one more time, and then we see a set of panels of him strangling some brown dude, and he sees it as if he is sending more people to her. Like presents? Man, what am I supposed to feel about this? Because it just disturbs the crap out of me. In an instant, I’m taken completely out of the story, and I’m thinking of the implications of what it means to be an American soldier in the Middle East, and then I start ascribing this weird meta-narrative to the narrator’s entire story, and it all concerns the fact that you can see that he has lived a life that’s afforded him the privilege to leave his girlfriend/wife, travel the world, take trips whenever he wants, and then kill people in foreign countries, and was this what Gaiman intended? Probably not. Either way, I still like Death’s chapter a lot, but what a weird, jarring moment.

Chapter 2: Desire

OH MY GOD, KARA. Ugh, this story is just… holy crap. I don’t think we ever got that many stories centered around Desire, and this was a chance to experience one that was totally about them. It’s fascinating that “What I’ve Tasted of Desire” shows the dual nature of Desire’s realm. You can achieve total bliss or total misery from the experience. That’s at the heart of this story, which follows Kara’s desire to get Danyal, a powerful man she becomes completely infatuated with. Milo Manara’s art is cartoonish at times, but that’s not meant as an insult. This is a very colorful story, and I think the schemes used here show both the joy and the pain of what happens.

When Kara is finally sent to Desire for help in her quest to get Danyal’s love, I was just SO EXCITED to see them talk. I think Desire is the most cynical of the Endless. They personify the two extremes of desire in one entity, and they know how these things end. And that’s precisely what they communicate to Kara. They make a bitter reference to Morpheus in the beginning, but it’s relevant to the point: everyone wants something, even the people in Dream’s stories. But what Kara desires is more than just an everyday want. As Desire puts it, Kara “wants like a forest fire.” This degree of intensity is then reflected over the course of the rest of the story. Kara is in Desire’s realm, and we see where that gets her.

Things progressed as I expected at first. Kara finds a way to integrate herself into Danyal’s life, she courts him and flirts with him, and over time, he comes to desire her in exactly the way Kara wanted. To me, this wasn’t about simple love. She wanted him to be completely and utterly infatuated with her. I don’t know how much of an influence Desire had on this, but Danyal must have been marked for her realm, too, especially considering how much he desired throughout this story. Either way, I can’t deny that both characters seem incredibly happy with their relationship, and I don’t doubt that they both loved each other very much.

But like Desire said, getting what you want doesn’t mean you get happiness as well. Once those men appeared at the city gates, I thought I had things figured out. They’d do something to Kara, and she’d have her happiness taken away. I totally know where this is going, I thought. SHIT YEAH, I FIGURED SOMETHING OU–

Is. Is that.

Is that Danyal’s head????

This isn’t a trick, is it? I wondered. WHY WASN’T SHE REACTING TO HER CLEARLY DEAD HUSBAND??? Instead, she seems to be constantly courting and flirting with these men, goading them to fight with one another and –

OH. Oh. Oh my god. I did finally understand what I was watching. She led these men into a trap, but it was something else that caused her to act the way she did: she lost her desire. In an instant, the thing she wanted most in life had been stolen from her, never to be given back, and she just shuts down. That last page is just so disturbing to me, watching Kara age as she waits. She waits for DESIRE’S SISTER. It’s so sad to me, especially when she wonders if her own children loved as she had. HEART. BREAKING. FOREVER.

Good lord.

Chapter 3: The Heart of a Star

Oh noooooo, no you can’t do this to me. YOU CAN’T. You can’t have the BEST art and the BEST story and THE ORIGIN OF SO MANY THINGS and THE ENTIRE WAY THIS IS FRAMED and let me start of by saying:

Only goddamn Neil Gaiman could write a story about the Sun telling the Earth a bedtime story. Like, okay, maybe there are other authors who could do this, but that last page just made me collapse from feelings. I had feelings about an anthropomorphized version of the Sun and Earth. This is not what I signed up for! I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS.

“The Heart of a Star” is a trick of a title, referencing both the eventual end of Killalla’s story and what Dream wants but does not get. It was never explained why Dream and Desire couldn’t get along, or why Desire was so desperate to ruin their brother’s existence. AND NOW I KNOW AND OH GOD, THIS IS TOO MUCH. On top of that, there are two very direct references to other DC entities. I recognized Oa as a historical connection to Green Lantern. (That’s the origin planet, right? Or at least where the Guardians of the Universe are based, yes?) Then Rao shows up, and he is the KRYPTONIAN GOD. Yet despite these two clues, I didn’t figure out what these characters represented until it was spelled out to me. They are stars themselves, or at least some of them are. It’s one of the few chances we get to see Dream and the rest of the Endless working in a capacity that doesn’t involve Earth at all. Plus, by setting this story far into the past, it allows Gaiman to give us a glimpse at what things used to be like between this immortal family. Death is not the loving, empathetic figure we see in later stories. In fact, she’s kind of distant and cold. Oh god, is this the reason for why she must live as a mortal once a century? IT TOTALLY IS, ISN’T IT? That’s my new headcanon, DON’T TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME.

Delirium isn’t Delirium here. SHE IS DELIGHT. NO. NO I CAN’T DEAL WITH HER!!! She’s a child in this story, full of joy and excitement and childish wonder. There are similarities with her older self, yes, but this is a totally new context for this character. She is so full of hope here, and it’s just so much to deal with. And I can’t deal with the fact that Destruction is a creator here. HE ISN’T DESTROYING THINGS. He has an integral part in putting the universe together! Oh god, he looks like Hagrid here? SORRY, HE DOES. Even Despair is here, and she’s not so full of… well, despair. SORRY, I HAD TO.

Anyway, this story shows us what happened between Dream and his first love. Desire stepped in to claim Killalla for their own realm, and over the course of the events at this symposium about the universe, Killalla questions her love for Dream when Destiny decides to tell her that she’s the reason the Endless will be forbidden from taking mortal lovers in the future. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS, DESTINY? Now you’re just being cruel!

But when Killalla speaks with Sto-Oa, learning exactly who some of these creatures are, she falls for him. It’s so sudden that I can’t imagine Desire didn’t have something to do with this. I get that she’s overwhelmed by the fact that her sun is a literal being, but by Desire’s admission, they played a joke on Dream just for the sake of it. AND THUS, THOUSANDS UPON MILLIONS OF YEARS OF GRUDGERY WAS BORN.

At the same time, though, I’d like to think that Dream’s interest in humanity was born here. Look at our sun!!! Sol is so adorable, and he wants to have some of his planets inhabited, and he treats Dream with so much respect and adoration, and I JUST WANT TO SQUEEZE HIM TIGHT. Except then I’d burn up? Whatever. I’d do it.

I want the sun to tell me bedtime stories. :(

Chapter 4: Fifteen Portraits of Despair

Oh, this might be the most surprising chapter in the entire book. Barron Storey and Dave McKean avoid the expectations of a comic book to compile a seriously disturbing and chaotic set of drawings, collages, and printed word to create miniature portraits not only of Despair herself, but the people she’s drawn into her realm. It’s a dismal and bleak section, and I LOVE EVERY SECOND OF IT. It’s just so terribly fucked up, and I would expect nothing less of her domain.

The way these pages are organized is unsettling just at first glance. What order are you supposed to read things? What are these images supposed to represent? The first two pages looks like piles of mutilated or mutated bodies, evoking hopelessness and fear in the reader. And then Gaiman’s words are just so unlike everything else we’ve seen in this entire series. Everything is much more choppy and succinct, and his prose is sharp and unnerving. “When the eyes that look back at you know you too well,” he writes, “and no longer care for what they see, they are her eyes. She stands and waits, and in her posture the pain no longer tells you to live, and in her presence joy is unimaginable.”

The tales we get are very short stories about people who have fallen into despair, such as the priest who is defrocked for molestation, despite that he happens to be one of the priests who didn’t do such a thing. There’s the man who feeds cats while unemployed, only to discover that during a leave for work, most of them ate each other. Each of these tales is about a person reaching their low, whether through some tragic irony or because of the brutal nature of the world we live in. I was particularly destroyed by the fifth portrait, a horrifyingly familiar tale of homophobia, secrecy, and isolation. Like, seriously?

“If you smile before the commercial break,” he whispers to his lover, “it means you are thinking about me. If you blink now it means you love me, you truly love me, and one day you will come out here for always.

He buries his face in a tee shirt that no longer smells like anybody at all, and waits for his lover to blink.

Nope. Just nope. No, I did not authorize these feelings to exist.

They came back for the eighth portrait, which deals with how despair and poverty go hand in hand. It’s the most gut-wrenchingly real portrait for me, especially as I spent many years in poverty myself. Here, it’s portrayed with a combination of desperation and shame, and it’s so accurate to what the experience was like for me. This page in particular, though, is so unsettling because of the way it’s designed. That simple font, the drawings that look like out-of-focus photographs, the way it makes me feel progressively more claustrophobic as I imagine that I’m in that bedroom, hearing the doorbell ring… my god, such an effective page.

There’s a story of legal injustice; there’s a reference to the despair of writing; there’s the clever “exam” for portrait thirteen; and then there’s portrait fourteen, a story about the suicide of a mother due to depression, and it just punches me right in the heart. Of all the chapters in Endless Nights, this one hit me the hardest, again and again. While I’m in a great place in my life these days, I think I spent most of the first twenty years in Despair’s realm. So many of these portraits are intimately familiar to me. I remember feeling existentially furious that I could not explain my “heart-hurt” to others. It made me question my identity, my reasons for living, and my capacity to be normal.

Wow, could I project any harder onto this book? Probably not. Bless this chapter, as difficult as it is to read. It’s beautiful to me.

Chapter 5: Going Inside

This is an odd issue. There’s a lot of stuff with Delirium I enjoyed, particularly the idea that she could lost within herself. It’s something we never saw before. And, of course, it was thrilling to see Daniel, Matthew, and Barnabas again. Daniel is so different from Morpheus! But before I got to that part, it took me some time to understand what was going on here. Initially, I thought all of these people were inside of Delirium’s realm, or she was exerting some sort of power over them. But they all exist on Earth, and while Delirium may have “marked” them as belonging to her, they all exhibit various stages of mental illness, autism, or general incoherency. In a way, they all have something in common between their method of speaking to the outside world (whether through speech, the written word, graffiti, etc.) and the way that Delirium talks.

I guess I do question the way mental illness is portrayed and used here. I high-fived Daniel when he told Barnabas to not judge the five heroes of this story by their appearances. But what other purpose do they serve? I felt weird sometimes reading this, and I was thankful for all the references to Delirium’s past to pull me out of these moments. THE FISH. THE FISH. The Family Circus visual reference! Delirium’s colorful hair! I did enjoy the fact that one of the characters has a lot of similarities with Henry Darger, which Wikipedia TOTALLY JUST VALIDATED FOR ME. Oh shit.

Anyway, I do like to be more critical than usual when it comes to mental illness, especially since it’s often given the worst stories. I’m sort of on the fence on this one. I love that all these people save Delirium! That’s rad. They’re the heroes of the story! But everything is so confusing to read or follow along with that I don’t know that they add much else to the chapter. What are your thoughts on this?

Also, that huge watercolor of Delirium on the penultimate page is AMAZING.

Chapter 6: On the Peninsula

Oh shit, I thought. A Destruction story? It must exist in his past, right?

HAHAHA, NOPE. This takes place chronologically after the events in “Going Inside,” and I already have so many questions and headcanons and feels and emotions. I know that Destruction wasn’t at Morpheus’s wake, so I wonder what the impetus was that got Destruction back in touch with his family. His departure seemed so permanent, especially after his story in Brief Lives. But here he is with his sister (GORGEOUSLY DRAWN BY GLENN FABRY), watching over her after her breakdown in the previous story. The story centers on an unnamed archaeologist who works on an excavation site that shouldn’t exist. I didn’t understand the opening panels until I finished the chapter and read through everything again. It seems her dreams are manifesting as Destruction’s realm. She walks through these distorted and violent cityscapes, the danger of death within arm’s reach, but she just observes it all. Is she supposed to see these images? Are they of a future version of Earth, too?

That future is further hinted at when the dig she works on begins to produce artifacts that literally cannot exist. It seems that they’re all from the future. But how? Did someone travel in time and plant them? Like the first chapter in this book, reality is blurred here. I think that Destruction’s presence in the world again physically changed its geography. We’ve seen how the Endless can affect the physical world. (And now I’m thinking about Delirium’s question to Morpheus about one’s existence distorting the world.) Since this story takes place after the end of the main series, does that mean Destruction is back and in charge of his realm? If that’s the case, were the narrator’s visions glimpses of what Destruction will bring to earth? Is this mound on the peninsula a portent of sorts? I like the idea that this is a way of heralding his return, like it’s a prophecy of a possible future of the world. Delirium later makes a comment to the narrator that this place is a “nothing place,” that one day “my sister will take my brother’s book and say goodbye, like this, ‘Goodbye,’ and then it’s all done. And that it for this time round.”

CAN I JUST IMAGINE THAT SHE IS TALKING ABOUT THE END OF THE WORLD? Oh god, a possible future for the world in which all things are destroyed just appeared on this island. h e l p.

The end of this chapter is strangely comforting, though. For a being that exists for destruction, I’ve never felt threatened by Destruction. His characterization throughout this series is somewhat limited, mostly because we get the least amount of time with him. Knowing that he once existed in a more creative capacity, I would love to find out what role he would take in the universe upon returning to his realm. For now, though, he takes care of his sister, and he totally gets the narrator to fall for him. Hell, maybe if she lives long enough, she’ll get to see the future she glimpsed in her dreams and on that peninsula.

Chapter 7: Endless Nights

This is the shortest chapter in the book, and it’s also one of the most beautifully illustrated ones, too. I’m not familiar with Frank Quitely’s work, but his realistic and colorful depiction of Destiny and his garden is incredible. From the position of the statues in his garden, I’d say that this takes place during or just before the start of The Kindly Ones. Destruction has left, and Morpheus is in shame. But this isn’t so much a story as it is a brief passage through this realm. Destiny really does belong at the end of this series because he’s the only one who always knew how this was going to end. He’s the only static character in all of The Sandman, but he’s meant to be that way. He never changes. He was there at the beginning, and he’ll be there at the end, turning the pages of his book, walking his garden.

There’s also something poetic about that final line. Inside the pages of The Sandman, you’ve got an entire universe. Gaiman created a world that was both familiar and strange within the pages of this immense, ambitious graphic novel, and it’s a world that I am happy to have had the chance to visit it in the way that I have. It’s weird, I’ve been writing about The Sandman for what seems like a year. I know that I always get kind of wistful when I finish a series for Mark Reads, but this series is one I’m particularly satisfied with, and proud that I wrote about. It’s dense, and many times I completely missed the mark about what certain things were about. But it’s a rewarding series to read, and it’s one I know I’ll revisit often in the future.

Next week, I’ll be starting TWO new book series at the same time. I’m rather excited, especially since everyone on Earth has been begging me to read Tamora Pierce. Plus, I wanted to pair that with a much newer series in the hopes of bringing attention to an author that many of my friends love and adore. But before we get to that, I just wanted to thank all of you for the brilliant commentary during Mark Reads The Sandman. There haven’t been a billion comments every day. (Strangely, though, traffic didn’t go down at ALL, meaning lots of people were reading along, too!) But y’all have contributed some of the most insightful and fascinating commentary I’ve ever seen on this site. So you’ve helped to make this a memorable and fulfilling experience.

Okay, three more days of Good Omens (!!!!), and then we begin Newsflesh and Song of the Lionness on Monday! HELL YES!

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About Mark Reads

Vegan cyclist, Internet community nerd, atheist bookworm, high-five purveyor.
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3 Responses to Mark Reads ‘The Sandman’: Endless Nights

  1. ScarlettLynn says:

    Forgive me if it has been asked and answered, but I still can’t see comments on my phone sometimes, but I was wondering of you’ll be reading the new Sandman miniseries from Neil Gaiman & JH Williams III when it comes out next year?

    And if so, will you be doing so issue by issue as the comics come out, or will you be trade waiting?

  2. Noybusiness says:

    Death is not the loving, empathetic figure we see in later stories. In fact, she’s kind of distant and cold. Oh god, is this the reason for why she must live as a mortal once a century? IT TOTALLY IS, ISN’T IT? That’s my new headcanon, DON’T TAKE THIS AWAY FROM ME.

    The main reason I’m sad and puzzled that you and Spectralbovine have decided not to get the collection Vertigo Resurrected: Winter’s Edge, which has three Sandman stories by Neil Gaiman, on Ebay is that one of them sheds light on this very thing.

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