About 16 years ago, for one school year, I was hired to tutor a teenager who was creative and artistic but wasn’t particularly inclined to do any of his homework for class. I could guide him through his math work, and I remembered enough Latin to help him with that, but it was really in his writing assignments that I could see his growth, as I worked with him to turn his ideas into somewhat refined arguments. He was a good kid, and he worked hard for me, even though he was rarely interested in the topics he had to tackle for homework. And when we got off track, and conversations meandered before getting back to work, he’d talk about his drawings and the characters he would create.
But he didn’t read comics. They just weren’t part of his life.
On my last day of tutoring, as the school year came to an end, I gave him a copy of Season of Mists, the fourth Sandman collected edition.
It seemed like exactly the right gift for him, with its exploration of mythology and its philosophical musings, but with an emphasis on odd, shadowy artistry.
I never saw him after that, so I never found out if he liked the book—or if he even read it—but I’ll always think of Season of Mists as the kind of story that’s built for farewells, even though Neil Gaiman’s Sandman wasn’t yet half over as a series, and, in many ways, Season of Mists is when the comic crystallizes into what it was always meant to be. It’s the first confident story arc in the series. The first one that has a beginning, middle, and end revolving around Morpheus that doesn’t owe its more substantial moments to what Alan Moore had done on Swamp Thing or what Gaiman’s other favorite writers had done elsewhere. In Season of Mists, Gaiman builds the larger universe of the Endless, and the gods, minor and major, who serve them. And he tells a heck of a good story.
Kelley Jones provides most of the pencil art for Season of Mists, with Mike Dringenberg giving us the opening issue set-up, and Mage and Grendel creator Matt Wagner drawing a story-within-the-story about a zombie prep school. That’s something this arc has less of than any of the previous arcs, by the way. No, not less zombie prep schools, but less examples of stories-within-stories. Gaiman’s Chaucerian tendencies will color the series for most of its run, and I’ve certainly mentioned plenty of examples of nested stories in previous posts, but Season of Mists mostly tells a linear narrative about Morpheus planning to descend into Hell to rescue his former beloved, and then his difficulties with the consequences of everything that follows his return.
It seems to be an even more typically-conceived quest narrative than Gaiman’s opening arc, except Gaiman knows that’s how it seems—that it’s just a delicate Hercules-in-the-Underworld story—so he subverts it. The Dream King faces no opposition in Hell. Instead, he’s given the keys to the kingdom, and that is a potentially more diabolical trick to play on Morpheus than even the most fiendish battle plans.
But that comes later in the story.
First: the family.
In the twenty issues that preceded Season of Mists, Gaiman and his artistic collaborators introduced most of the members of the Endless. We had met Dream, of course, and Death. And Desire and Despair. And Destiny had popped up, but makes his presence felt more fully in the opening chapter of this arc. And, here, we are also introduced to Delirium, the unstable pixie of a sister, and a missing brother (Destruction, though his name is never spoken in this arc) who has cut off all ties with his family, for reasons to be explored in future Sandman stories.
Starting the arc with a family meeting, one that helps to more firmly define the rules and relationships between these characters, gives Season of Mists more of a sense of completeness than any other Sandman arc. Gaiman may not have been thinking about the collected editions of his works at all, but this is the first arc that feels like it could have been written with a future collected volume in mind. It references some earlier stories and points toward future tales, but it also gives you the entire picture of Morpheus’s world in this opening chapter, and tells a story that resolves by the end of Season of Mist’s final issue.
Perhaps that’s another reason why I’d chose volume 4 of an ongoing series as a gift for someone, all those years ago.
The opening issue of this story also shows Morpheus in a less-than-flattering light. He’d been shown to be haughty and distant before, strange traits for a protagonist that we were supposed to root for, but it was easy enough to dismiss those traits as temporary. As something lingering because he’d been imprisoned for most of the 20th century and he wasn’t yet up on the latest fashions of appropriate lead character behavior. And while that may be true, in this first Season of Mists chapter, Death doesn’t hesitate to tell Morpheus that he’s done something terribly wrong and he needed to do something to fix it. Death wasn’t going to wait for her brother to learn and grow as a character. She wanted him to acknowledge his mistake and correct it by rescuing Nada, the woman he had once loved, out of the Hellfire in which he had condemned her.
The truth is that Morpheus was coming to that realization himself—he was starting to grow and change since his escape from imprisonment—but he needed some prodding. In rereading this, I was surprised by how unlikable Gaiman is willing to make his title character, even in these almost-the-middle-of-the-series issues. In so much of popular culture, and in so many stories designed for mass consumption, there’s an eagerness to please the audience, and Season of Mists seems defiantly uninterested in that. Gaiman seems defiantly uninterested in that. He doesn’t look like he’s ready to pander to the crowd in this story arc, and so he’ll do things like present an unsympathetic hero slowly recognizing some of his previous faults. He’ll throw in Miltonic passages and make hypothetical philosophical questions into narrative reality. He’ll present the gods of a variety of pantheons and then give us not some arena battle between mythic opponents but courtly arguments, well-reasoned. And in the midst of it all, he’ll detail the horrific adventures of a young boy facing the worst school year of his life, in what he’ll admit in the afterword of Absolute Sandman Volume 2 was a slice of near-autobiography. Though, presumably, in real life, young schoolboy Neil Gaiman didn’t literally have to face off against the undead.
That one chapter, the fourth part of Season of Mists, with the prep school full of spirits risen from the grave, would eventually spin off into the “Dead Boy Detectives,” as written by the likes of Ed Brubaker and Jill Thompson. A pretty great title for a spin-off, even if the comics with that title aren’t highly regarded. I’m not saying they aren’t good. I just know that I read them and don’t remember anything in them quite as definitely as I remembered what happened in their first appearance here. Better for them to have stayed dead, perhaps.
Then there’s Lucifer. The Lord of Hell, the first of the fallen, abdicates his throne as Morpheus is preparing for his journey into the depths. Lucifer leaves Hell to Morpheus to do with it what he will. And that’s when all the gods come a-knockin’.
Lucifer, too, would spin off into non-Gaiman written comics. Nearly seven years worth, as a matter of fact. All of them written by Mike Carey. Some people seem to like them.
But as far as Season of Mists is concerned, Lucifer’s deed—granting the key to Hell to Morpheus—not only slides Nada out of Morpheus’s reach, since all the souls in the Underworld have been set free, but it also makes Dream the steward of a land he doesn’t want. Luckily for him, it’s a powerful piece of real estate, in the greater scheme of things, and everyone else wants it for their own purposes, from Odin, Thor, and Loki, to Anubis, Bast, and Best. From Susano-o-no-Mikoto to Azazel, Merkin, and Choronzon. I could go on. Name a pantheon, and someone was probably sent to Lord Morpheus’s realm to represent their interests.
Gaiman presents all of them with distinctive personalities, and he shows throughout Season of Mists his deftness with handling characters of great dignity and resonance while giving them voices that show their vulnerabilities. That’s one of the secrets of why Sandman works so well, with these nearly omnipotent beings at the center: Gaiman knows how to humanize them without making them seem silly or weak. He just makes them seem real. And imperfect.
In the end, Morpheus does rescue Nada—the duplicitous Choronzon, demonic middle-manager of the former Hell, was hiding her soul—and he gets divine guidance from a voice above who tells him what he must do. Yes, it’s literally deus ex machina, as the word of God makes a case for his angelic emissaries as the only righteous choice for guardians of Hell. It will be as it always was: a shadowy mirror of Heaven, run by former members of the heavenly host.
It’s a conclusion that puts things back where they were. By the end, Hell is returned to its former horribly vile glory, only this time run by creatures of light who punish the wicked out of love instead of hate (which makes it “so much worse,” according to one of their tormented victims). Morpheus has only his dream kingdom to worry about. And the only thing that’s changed is that Nada has been set completely free, and she’s chosen reincarnation, though she won’t remember her past life. But her soul will continue on, in the body of a newborn babe.
Nothing has changed, but everything has. That’s what stories do. And while Gaiman leaves threads for himself and others to pick up and weave into new tales in future issues, in future years, when Season of Mists reaches its final page the story that has unfolded in its pages has come to a satisfying end.
NEXT TIME: Inside Barbie’s fantasy world Sandman gets caught up in A Game of You.
Tim Callahan prefers Neil Gaiman’s version of Thor and Loki to pretty much every version he’s ever read. A little Thor goes a long way.