Thursday, November 15, 2012

Brevity: A Review of Brief Lives

Jessica Mo, Andy Alonso-Emanuel, and Josh Fornek

Neil Gaiman as a storyteller can be likened to a slightly deranged man leading strangers on a harrowing walk—the paths aren't always straight, the vistas are dark, and the way he goes about things is equal parts hard to follow for the inexperienced and fascinating. Brief Lives, the seventh volume of the Sandman series, is by no means a new work, nor is it one that breaks the pattern of other Gaiman works, but it is one that stands apart for its accessibility to the casual reader. Brief Lives, in a way, works as an entry point for those unfamiliar with Gaiman's style with its relatively fanciful tone and linear story progression with a main plot thread that hasn't been tangled up.

Before the actual first page, there's a brief introduction to the basis of Sandman explaining that there are seven powerful beings called The Endless, which are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium, who embody their respective attributes. Once that much is established, the story starts in earnest. Brief Lives' story follows Delirium in her search for her brother Destruction, who abandoned his duties as one of The Endless three hundred years previous. She is accompanied by Dream, the main character of the Sandman series, and the search ends up taking a toll upon the people who get caught up in it, mortal or no.

While Brief Lives has a main story that is linear, it's hardly simple. The beginning of Brief Lives takes place in Orpheus' Temple, where we briefly meet its protectors, Andros and Kris. Andros attends to Orpheus' head and basks in his song, ending the scene with, "It is going to be a beautiful day". We immediately cut to a rainy street where we first meet one of our main characters, Delirium. She makes her way into a BDSM party looking for her family and ends up making a scene before Desire shows up and takes her to its own realm. Delirium confesses to her sibling how she wants to find Destruction, but Desire refuses to help. Undaunted, Delirium goes on to find Despair to ask her for help instead.

When Despair also refuses, Delirium goes to ask Dream for his assistance. Dream, in a foul mood because of a recent relationship gone bad, decides that Delirium's quest would be a good way to try and find his beloved or perhaps keep his mind off of her for a while, accepts.

They arrange transportation and start to look for people who knew Destruction, among whom are gods and humans who are impossibly old. It soon becomes apparent that the search for Destruction has some unintended consequences when the first person they try to meet happens to have died the previous day from a collapsing building and the day after, their driver, Ruby, dies in a hotel fire. The next day, they meet with Ishtar, a goddess of love who is now a dancer at a strip club. After the two leave, Ishtar dances her last dance before she returns to dreams and the club explodes.

After talking with Ishtar, Dream confesses to Delirium that he never really wanted to find their brother and leaves. Delirium is rather distraught and closes herself off in her realm. Dream, milling around in his own realm, changes his mind about wanting to find Destruction. He goes to Delirium's realm to make amends and continue the search.

Out of people to find, Dream and Delirium decide to see their brother, Destiny, to ask his advice. Destiny, like Desire and Despair, advises against searching for Destruction, but gives advice anyways. Dream realizes that the only prophet who would be able to divine Destruction's location would be his son, Orpheus. The two travel to see Orpheus and then to where Destruction is, and they talk about Destruction's abandonment of his duties as one of The Endless before Destruction departs once again.

The story, while simple enough to get the gist of on the first read through, is still complicated enough to warrant a second or third read to actually understand everything that's going on. Even in spite of being the seventh volume in a series of comics, the story manages to be surprisingly self-contained, even if it doesn't do so perfectly. By no means is Brief Lives an easy read, but it never makes any pretentions to being one with its semi-realistic art style and mature themes and settings.

As for the art style on its own, it's an incredibly stark style that uses defined ink lines with a largely pastel color palette. The shading is done with ink hatching, which adds to the harsh appearance of the art. Because of the form of shading and inking, it seems like everything is either light or dark with very little middle ground in between, making it very easy for the artist to draw the eye to some character in a dark suit or Dream in his dark blue garment of choice. While it might seem like light colors would be incongruous with Gaiman's characteristic dark writing style, it really isn't. Most of the colors used are washed out or otherwise in low saturation and there are only one or two points where the color palette can really be considered particularly happy. The coloring alienates the reader from reality by deliberately using dull, dream-like colors for backgrounds, a near constant throughout the story. Most of all, while it isn't the most pleasant to the eye, it fits very well with Delirium, the one who drives this particular story. The jarring feeling of the art probably follows closely to how Delirium sees the world, with the backgrounds all sort of melding together in light colors and pastels and some few select things and people standing out in the foreground.

As a story, Brief Lives is heavy on themes and takes every chance to explore them to their fullest as well as imploring the reader to do the same.

A large question that hangs over the entire story is in the very concept of The Endless. The basic idea is that they are seven beings with the powers and embodiments of seven factors of the world, older than time itself. The conflict that comes about in the story can be traced back to when Destruction left his post and abandoned his responsibilities. The fact that he is able to leave his responsibilities at all is something that puts into question the necessity of The Endless in the first place, for even though he no longer governs destruction, destruction still happens. Destruction reasons that, instead of giving meaning to what they embody, they are giving meaning to the opposite—destruction begetting creation, death begetting life, delirium begetting sanity, so on and so forth. Because the world destroys and creates without him, he believes that he is no longer needed, nor does he have the right, to perform his duties.

One of the main themes of Brief Lives is neatly encapsulated in the title: Life is brief, and nothing lasts forever. Mortal lives “flash in and out of existence”, gods are born of dreams and eventually return to them, and even The Endless themselves will not last any longer than the universe does, and they will fade away as it meets its own untimely death. Destruction briefly talks about how he likes the stars because they give the illusion of permanence and how he was enjoying his anonymous life up until Dream and Delirium go looking for him. Soon after, he talks about how Death once told him that every being knows everything there is to know, but pretends not to to make it bearable. It’s a simple message about how important it is to forget in order to cope with the painful knowledge that, someday, not too far in the future, everything will end. Even Destruction finds comfort in the illusion of permanence, though he knows that change still happens, practically being the embodiment of change himself. There is one extremely iconic scene that shows up in the middle of the story, when Bernie Capax is killed by a collapsing building and he asks Death, “I did okay, didn’t I? I mean, I got fifteen thousand years. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?” to which Death responds, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more, no less.” At once, she equates every life to being the same--brief in the grand scheme of everything. The lives of The Endless, it could be concluded, are just as brief as those of humans who die every day.

What much of the story leads up to is the idea that everybody and everything resists change. The reason that Delirium is searching for Destruction isn’t out of affection or out of any sort of professional concern, but rather trying to bring things back to the way they used to be. The Endless have lasted for billions of years, only to have changed so very recently in light of Destruction’s desertion of his responsibilities. After such a long time, The Endless were unceremoniously pulled out of their routine and put into a limbo of not knowing what would happen next. Dream as a character has a certain resistance to change, but it’s noted by many different characters that he acts differently than he used to. He seeks Destruction in part to honor the fact that Ruby, their driver, died in their search, and Destruction notes that some time before, Dream would not have put so much weight on a mortal life.

As a whole, Brief Lives is a story that is intricately woven with themes and questions for those who choose to search for them, and it has a carefully built story for the casual reader who simply wants to read through a sort of adventure with fanciful vistas and colorful characters. It’s not to say that Brief Lives isn’t a dense book, though, because it certainly is. Those who are unfamiliar with the Sandman series would certainly be helped by a second read through or a quick look at a summary, as some of the set pieces and storytelling styles are a bit unconventional and it’s sometimes easy to miss important details. The art and text come together in something that is more than the sum of its parts like a good comic should, and it would certainly be more than just a bit unfair to say that Brief Lives is anything less than a “proper” novel. In brief, Brief Lives is a story that’s well worth the read and perhaps a few more to get the full message, just so long as the reader has come prepared to suspend their disbelief and keep reading even when things get confusing for a time.

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