Sandman: Brief Lives
by Neil Gaiman
Review by Jim Mann
Years ago, when I was reading a lot of comics, I did read some attempts at fantasy in that medium. The attempts never were satisfying in the same way written fantasy was, for a number of reasons. The universes never seemed really well thought out or defined. There was no real depth to the stories or to the characters. Much of what happened seemed arbitrary. I assumed that this was perhaps a limitation of the genre itself, until a few years back someone recommended Gaiman's Sandman books to me. The first few were good -- certainly better than 99% of what is done in the medium, and good enough to get me to read more -- but they were still very good comics. They hadnt stepped quite to the level of the really good written fantasy. But as the series progresses, Gaiman does cross that line, and some of his Sandman books stand as good fantasy, regardless of media.
In the universe of the Sandman graphic novels, there is group of gods (for lack of a better word) called the Endless, who have existed since soon after the universe was created. The Endless are the personifications of fundamental concepts -- Death, Destiny, Destruction, Despair, and so on -- much in the way Death in the Discworld is such a personification. One of the Endless is Dream, the main character of most of the stories. (Hence the title Sandman as the bring of sleep and dreams. Gaiman started by taking the name of an old DC hero, but took his stories down a completely different path.)
Brief Lives is one of the best of the series, and also one of the most straightforward. It may be a good entry point for those who haven't read any Sandman stories before, even though it's later in the series. It involves a quest. One of the Endless -- Destruction -- had abandoned his role 300 years before the start of the current story. At the start of the current story, Dream's sister Delirium (whose actions and way of speaking match her name) decides suddenly that she misses her brother Destruction and wants to see him again. She tries to get her siblings to help, but only Dream -- for reasons of his own -- agrees to accompany her on her quest.
The quest takes them through peril and marvel, while Gaiman himself looks at issues of life and change. The character of Dream has grown and changed over the years -- something that Dream himself doesn't want to admit. In fact, Dream's continuation of the quest stems in large part from his need to give some meaning to the death of a woman who is killed while helping them -- something that would have been inconceivable to Dream earlier in his life. The quest also leads him to seeing his son, something again that he had put behind him, but something he now realizes he must confront.
The quest itself is resolved in a way that I certainly didn't anticipate, in a way more creative than the simple confrontation I had thought the story was building toward.
Brief Lives is also a good example of how the media can really be used to tell a story in a way that couldn't simply be told through prose. The art conveys feelings and actions in ways that are different from how it can be done in prose; they enhance the story. Even simple things -- like the use of rather psychedelic-looking word balloons when Delirium speaks -- add to the overall impact.
Back in the 1980s, there were several graphic novels that people recommended as ones to try for those who didnt otherwise like comics (Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Watchmen spring to mind). These were indeed good comics, but I don't think they really were of much interest to those who already didn't have some liking for comics. But Sandman is different. Brief Lives is a good piece of fantasy, even for those who have no knowledge of or interest in comics.