Come Sweet Death

Now that the Sandman’s power has been fully restored after somewhere around eight decades, he decides to spend his freedom…feeding pigeons. A group of three men play soccer behind him as a pale-skinned, black-haired woman walks over to him (her clothes are likewise black).

She starts by asking him what he’s doing, and remarks that if you feed pigeons too much, you get “FAT PIGEONS!” which sparks a conversation about Mary Poppins in which Dream learns that “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” means the same thing as “peachy keen.”

It’s obvious from the way she talks to Dream that they know each other, but it isn’t quite clear yet what exactly their relationship is. When the woman’s banter does nothing to lighten Dream’s mood, she inquires as to what’s troubling him. He describes to her the details of this capture and its aftermath—how his power was returned to him. He explains that, now that his quest is over, he feels empty and disappointed.

The woman flies into a fury, taking Dream’s loaf of bread and throwing it at his head (wheat, by the way, is the Greek symbol for wisdom, and as the Book of Job declares at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes, “the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.”) She denounces him for pitying himself now that his quest is over, and for never contacting her during his ordeal. In her rage, she accuses him of being “as bad as Desire,” which is the second mention we get of other members of the Endless. Thus we learn that the woman yelling is, in fact, Dream’s older sister Death.

There have been a lot of readers of The Sandman who, at this point in the story, can’t help but ask “If Death knew that Dream was trapped by Burgess, why didn’t she do anything to help him escape?” Another question that has been asked is “In order for Burgess to die, wouldn’t Death have to make an appearance?”

The theory I like most is that each of the Endless are their own…well, people, and that they are each extremely independent. It’s not necessarily that Dream would be unappreciative if Death showed up and rescued him, but in all likelihood he’d start moping about how he couldn’t figure his own way out of the problem (if you’ve read the series before, then you know how much Dream loves to mope and brood).

As for Burgess, Neil might be suggesting that Death is not physically present when you die; that your spirit has passed on and you encounter Death in a realm between life and death. As we saw in Passengers, Dream is capable of moving through our dreams without us noticing. Out of all of the Endless, Death perhaps has the closest relationship to humanity in their waking lives, so it could be that she has the ability to traverse reality in such a way that she avoids our detection. This theory is supported by the fact that, when Dream decides to accompany Death as she carries out her duty, he mentions that “The churning crowd parts as we walk through it, looking everywhere else, but not at us.”

Death first visits an old Jew named Harry dying alone in an apartment building in New York. He’s playing the fiddle and singing

Can you rocker Romany?
Can you patter flash?
Can you rocker Romany?
Can you fake a bosh?

Death replies that, yes, she can patter Romany (which, from what I gather, means to talk to gypsies). When she asks if Harry can, he replies, “Not so well, but I can fake a bosh. Means t’play the fiddle.” He goes on to describe himself playing in clubs in his youth, and Death responds by telling him that she knows who he is, “Do you know who I am?”

When Harry recognizes her, his immediate response is one of fright. He starts to plead with her to not take him yet, but in the next moment realizes that such a request is ludicrous. He resigns himself to saying the Sh’ma—a Jewish prayer said to guarantee those who say it a place in Heaven. He dies directly afterward, and Death informs him that now is when he figures out what happens after death. As Death takes Harry, Dream hears the sound of her (invisible) wings, which is obviously where the title of this issue comes from.

Her next stop is with an up-and-coming comedian named Esmé. A good portion of Esmé’s material is poking fun at Batman, but the best part is that Neil wrote it in the way a comedian living in a world where Batman actually exists would write it. Esmé has no knowledge of any of Batman’s story, and so theorizes that Batman woke up one day, quit his job, and told his wife that he was now going to dress up like a bat and fight crime.

Unfortunately, an otherwise great comedy act is cut short. The microphone Esmé is using electrocutes her, and her spirit stands over her body furious and disappointed that she never got the chance to be really good. Death tells her that she liked the act, and then Esmé is gone.

There’s a brief transition in which Death explains to Dream that most humans aren’t very happy to see her because they fear “the Sunless Lands.” And yet we enter Dream’s realm every night without a thought even though, as Dream states, he and his realm are “far more terrible than you, my sister.” Whether the fact that she is feared or loved doesn’t appear to have any effect on Death’s overall disposition, however. As stated later in Death: The Time of Your Life, she loves everyone, and that love is in all probability an unconditional one. I’m unsure if it’s intended to be graffiti or something someone is shouting, but text behind them in this scene reads, “No one here gets out alive!” which I thought was a darkly humorous summary of life itself.

Death visits many more: A baby in its cradle (whose spirit asks, “Is that all there was? Is that all I get?” to which Death replies, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”), a man who overdosed on pills, another man lying in a ditch, an old woman in the hospital, another man who appears to have been shot or stabbed to death beneath graffiti that says “Dreams make no promises,” a woman who appears to have overdosed on drugs (possibly cocaine or heroine), a man who fell off a scaffold, and a woman lying dead at the bottom of a staircase.

As these visits are happening, Dream thinks about humanity and their reaction to Death. He doesn’t understand it because to him, “it is as natural to die as it is to be born.” He recalls a song composed by a man that he heard in a dream (the song actually has its origins in the Egyptian Book of the Dead). The general point of the song is to point out that death is a form of liberation; a celebration of one’s passing on to the next place they’re meant to go. Unfortunately, humanity has a habit of focusing on the pain that may come before that liberation. 

Through these thoughts and observing Death at her duties, Dream decides that he, like his sister, has responsibilities to perform. He resolves to return to his realm of Dreaming and get to work reconstructing it. Interspersed with this decision is Death’s last visit: a young man named Franklin who was one of the three men playing soccer at the beginning of The Sound of Her Wings. He ran into Death and Dream in the pigeon feeding scene, wherein Death informed him that he would be seeing her very soon. Franklin takes this to mean that Death is flirting with him, and is now so caught up in her that, when the soccer ball bounces out into the street, he runs after it like an idiot. A car hits him, and Death appears at his side to console him, as it would appear that Franklin is still so caught up in her that he hasn’t even realized that he’s dead. We are left with Dream returning to the Dreaming to fulfill his vow to restore it to order, which is an appropriate stopping point considering it leaves us wondering how Dream will improve on his already mystifying realm.

The Sound of Her Wings is considered by many to be the benchmark where Neil Gaiman threw out everything that wasn’t him and showed his readers his true ability as a writer. Perhaps this is because, as he puts it in The Sandman Companion, “[The Sound of Her Wings is] the one I’ve been looking forward to writing since we began […] I had more fun on this script than I’ve had on anything for a long while—one of the few times I’ve actually been irritated if anything took me away from the keyboard.”

Another reason could be that The Sound of Her Wings established a deep, emotional connection with its readers—a connection that was, perhaps, lacking in the first seven issues. Not to mention I have yet to find a Sandman fan who did not immediately fall in love with Death’s “utterly fantabulous” personality.

A fan’s quite accurate portrayal of Death.

Death’s appearance came from a friend of the artist Mike Dringenberg named Cinnamon. According to Dringenberg, “She was an ex-ballet dancer with an amazing body […] a memorable haircut, and was prone to wandering around with a little black umbrella […] Part of [the reason Death wears an ankh] came out of the ankh being in vogue at the time. I also liked the irony […] because the ankh is the Egyptian symbol for life.”

As a final note for those interested, the title of this post comes from a song by The Oddz and Voltaire on a CD entitled “Where’s Neil When You Need Him?” The CD is composed of songs based off of the works of Neil Gaiman.

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