WEIRD But Still Good. Sandman Brief Lives (1994) Review

I’ve been finding Sandman more and more difficult to review with every volume. In my review of Fables and Reflections I confessed that I didn’t fully understand the stories because they had historical contexts that I was oblivious to. I’ve never mentioned this in previous reviews but a lot of the Sandman stories are full of weird, fantastical, bizarre scenes. Now, since I’m a big fan of cult horror and sci-fi films I appreciated these scenes.

There were parts in Brief Lives however that I just couldn’t get my head around.

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My thoughts were violently provoked…

The seventh volume in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman saga takes the form of an overarching narrative, similar to Doll’s House and A Game of You. Destruction has left his realm and three hundred years later Delirium wants to find him. She persuades Dream to help her and together they embark on an inter-dimensional journey to find their lost brother.

One thing that immediately confused me was the titles of the issues. They seem to compile of particular lines of dialogue from the issue. For example, the title of the first issue is “Blossom for a Lady – Rain in the Doorway – Not her Sister – Want/Not Want – The view from the backs of mirrors – journal of the plague year – “the number you have dialled…””

It’s a quirky choice, taking lines from your story and putting them together to make a big, long title but I have no idea what the point of it is. If anyone knows, feel free to tell me in the comment box.

Another thing that confused me was a character known as ‘The Alder Man’, who appears in the fourth issue. Basically, he is a man in the forest who takes off his clothes, urinates a circle around him and turns into a bear, yet still has the shadow of a man. Despite my bewilderment I let the scene slide. However, the Alder Man is brought up several more times in the volume so he seems to be of some importance. Is this a reference to an ancient myth or folktale? Once again if you know, feel free to enlighten me.

Now despite these confusing scenes, as an overall story I very much liked Brief Lives.

The characters are the stars of the show; Morpheus goes on quite a journey in the book. He experiences many emotional dilemmas such as recovering from a lost love, having to live with the child-like Delirium and confronting his son. It’s fascinating and kind of heart-breaking at times to see Morpheus in these situations, considering how cold and intellectual he is. I personally felt that I saw some sides of Morpheus I hadn’t seen before.

From what I can remember Delirium has only been a supporting character in the series so far, so it’s great to see her as the protagonist of Brief Lives. She is lovably innocent and child-like. We get glimpses of her past and see how she ended up the way she is now. This was another part I couldn’t get my head round. Delirium appeared to be even more innocent and child-like in the past, but why she was like that and how she changed I couldn’t understand. This may be explored further in future volumes but in Brief Lives I was left confused.

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Merv Pumpkinhead

A new character is introduced in this volume, a cigar-smoking pumpkin headed janitor called Merv Pumpkinhead. He has to be my favourite character in Sandman so far. His simplicity is his beauty. Merv is just a grumpy, sassy, New York average Joe and that’s why I love him.

The book’s structure is similar to that of A Game of You; it’s a quest narrative that starts at one place, goes to some other places and then finishes at another clear, pre-determined place. It’s a structure that’s as old as our species so it’s pretty hard to get wrong. However, if the story has good unique characters (and with the intellectual Morpheus and the childish Delirium, Brief Lives certainly has) a stronger story can be made, which overall, I think this volume is.

Despite a few confusing moments, I think Brief Lives is another good volume in the Sandman series. It’s a journey narrative, we get to learn more about Delirium and we get to see Morpheus in many challenging scenarios, forcing him to expose qualities we’ve never seen.

I give Brief Lives a strong 7 out of 10.

An Observation: Dead Man Walking (1995)

This piece contains spoilers regarding the plot and ending of the film Dead Man Walking.

I was expecting the climax of Dead Man Walking, where Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is executed via lethal injection for taking part in the murder and rape of a young couple, to be emotional. We were watching this criminal who we’d come to understand and sympathise with, approach his inescapable death. However, the scene went against my expectations. It wasn’t tragic like I anticipated, it was something very different in terms of tone.

I don’t usually write posts like this but I was so challenged by this scene that I had to write about it and after some reflection I’ve come up with a theory on what I think the climax means.

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Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) and Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon). 

I think ethically most stories present a black and white view of people. In stories like Harry Potter, It’s A Wonderful Life and Batman we are told that there are two types of people in the world; people who consciously protect others (heroes) and people who consciously harm others (villains). The latter tend to be presented as inhuman, unsympathetic, merciless monsters. We’re happy when we see Voldemort or the Joker die because we feel that they deserve it.

While we enjoy watching villains die in the imaginary world, I think we all know that in the real-world people just aren’t that simple.

No one’s completely good or evil and I think that’s what the execution scene in Dead Man Walking was trying to convey.

After his lawyers fail to pardon Poncelet’s execution the film focuses on Sister Helen’s (Susan Sarandon) struggle to persuade Poncelet to admit his crimes. When he does confess Sister Helen helps him seek spiritual redemption but whether this makes Poncelet undeserving of the death penalty or not, the film remains neutral.

This neutrality is expressed heavily in the execution scene. While Poncelet lays on the stretcher, looking at Sister Helen through the glass as the drugs travel into his body, the film cuts to flashbacks of Poncelet and his partner brutally raping a young woman. We’ve seen short glimpses of this scene throughout the film but here we get to see all of it, in disturbing detail. All the while Poncelet, a flawed character we’ve come to empathize with, is slowly dying. The same man who is performing these horrific crimes in the flashbacks.

By showing these contradicting sequences featuring the same character, I think the scene tells us that Matthew Poncelet is not a good-hearted hero who made a devastating mistake or an aggressive villain who got what he deserved. Rather it says that he is simply a man. An individual who is capable of both caring honesty and mindless brutality. We are not told how we should feel about him like we are with Harry Potter or Voldemort.

This theme reaches fruition at the end of the scene, where we see Poncelet laying dead through the window and the deceased young couple standing eerily in the glass’s reflection. His dead body shows us who Matthew Poncelet is and the ghostly couple in the glass show us what he has done.

As a film, I’d highly recommend Dead Man Walking because compared to most pieces I’ve seen with their black and white ideologies, this scene stuck out to me as an honest and balanced representation of human nature and I think that’s something many artists don’t usually present.