The “World’s End” storyline came about concurrent with the “Zero Hour” event that canvassed the DC universe in 1993. “Sandman” had previously been established to be tied into the DC universe, so it made a certain amount of sense that the title would reflect an impact from “Zero Hour.”
Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham provided the art for the framing sequences in each issue while the story-within-story material was provided by a new guest artist in each issue.
Sandman #51: “A Tale of Two Cities”
Story Artist: Alec Stevens, Bryan Talbot (penciller), Alec Stevens, Mark Buckingham (inker)
Issue #51 opened with Brant Tucker driving his colleague Charlene through a freak snow storm while en route to Chicago during the month of June. Brant crashed Charlene’s car and the pair ended up seeking refuge in the World’s End Inn.
Brant and Charlene didn’t know that they’d been caught up in a ‘reality storm’ and that storm resulted in the Inn being populated by many unusual characters. Those inside the Inn passed the time while the storm raged outside by telling stories to one another. This framework would allow Gaiman to tell a number of unrelated stories that would feature brief but key appearances by Morpheus.
The first story was delivered by a man who told the tale of an office worker named Robert. Robert lived in a large city where he maintained a familiar life. While riding the subway car one day, Robert briefly noticed Morpheus and then exited the subway to a deserted city. When Robert finally came across an old man, the man told Robert his theory that each city had a soul and that they were living in their familiar city’s dream.
Robert later met a confused woman but before he could interact with her, he encountered a doorway that led him back to the real world. Not surprisingly, the experience so unnerved Robert that he moved out into the country. The man who told the tale in the Inn had heard it from Robert. Robert claimed that he didn’t so much fear experiencing the city’s dream again but rather found it troublesome that someday the city might wake up from its slumber.
This was an admittedly odd way to start off this series of tales but Robert’s journey was perhaps more entertaining than the odd notion beneath it. While this story wasn’t connected to “Brief Lives,” it was interesting to note that the eye motif that had been common in that story arc again was popular in the art for Robert’s tale.
Gaiman himself was quoted as saying that he was expressing an H.P. Lovecraft influence in the story involving Robert. One theory about a mechanism in Robert’s tale was that when two people met in the city’s dream one of them would then escape. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough information in the story to tell if that was an observation of intention or coincidence.
Sandman #52: “Cluracan’s Tale”
Story Artist: John Watkiss, Bryan Talbot (penciller), John Watkiss, Mark Buckingham (inker)
The next stand-alone tale was told in issue #52 by the faerie Cluracan. Cluracan was sent on a mission by his Queen to break up a possible alliance behind those living in the cities of the plains. Cluracan traveled to the city of Aurelia on the Plains and found it to be a run-down.
A local religious leader known as the Psychopomp had taken over the city’s administration, leading to a melding of local religious and state rule. That was not the norm for the area and the Psychopomp’s actions had led to the turmoil facing Aurelia as well as the threat of an alliance amongst the plains cities. When Cluracan suggested that the Psychopomp separate his roles, the Psychopomp put Cluracan in prison.
While Cluracan dreamed, readers learned that he was the brother of Morpheus’s faerie servant Nuala. Nuala learned of her brother’s situation and convinced Morpheus to assister Cluracan in escaping from prison. Morpheus did so and Cluracan engineered a rebellion against the Psychopomp. That rebellion culminated in Cluracan confronting the Psychopomp while the ruler was in hiding from the rebellion. The corpse of the Psychopomp’s dead predecessor happened to be in the same room where the Psychopomp was hiding and that corpse came to life long enough to take the Psychopomp on a deadly fall through a window.
Cluracan’s audience seemed to generally be skeptical of his claims. He admitted to those listening to his tale at the inn that some of the moments in the story might have been embellished, but insisted that it was mostly true. Note that Auerlia was obviously a fantasy land but some have speculated that it was based on the city-state model in Italy and there were some cultural similarities. There was also some speculation that this story was a parody or reference of some elements central to Dave Sim’s series “Cerebus.”
Sandman #53: “Hob’s Leviathan”
Story Artist: Michael Zulli, Bryan Talbot (penciller), David Giordano, Mark Buckingham (inker)
Issue #53 involved a tale told by a sailor named Jim who had washed up on shore near the inn after his ship had run into unexpected rocks amid the storm still raging outside. Jim told the story of running away from home at age 13 to join a sailing ship crew. He ended up in Bombay, India aboard a ship bound for England. That ship took on as a passenger the long-lived Hob Gadling, a friend Morpheus who had last been seen in issue #22.
An Indian stowaway was discovered while the ship was at sea, but Gadling paid for that man to become a passenger. That Indian man then told a story of his own to the crew about a king who discovered that his wife had been cheating on him with the head of his palace guard. The story was told in witty fashion, the king learning of his wife’s infidelity via an apple that would grant immortality that made its way through various cheating lovers back to the king. The king killed his wife and her lover but then renounced his kingdom and began wandering after eating the fruit that would grant immortality.
Back on the ship, Jim and the rest of the ship’s occupants encountered a giant sea serpent that was beautifully rendered across a double-page spread. Jim intended to report the sea serpent sighting but didn’t end up doing so after reaching shore. Gadling suggested that Jim didn’t end up filing the report for fear that he might draw attention to the fact that he was actually a girl in disguise.
Jim confessed to actually being named Margaret but Gadling agreed to keep her secret. Gadling obviously had secrets of his own regarding his longevity that he wanted not to be revealed. There has been some speculation that Galding would later reference having married Jim/Margaret but no conclusive statements to that regard were made in the “Sandman” series.
Sandman #54: “The Golden Boy”
Story Artist: Michael Allred, Bryan Talbot (penciller), Michael Allred, Mark Buckingham (inker)
Gaiman seemed to have fun with bringing on artist Mike Allred of “Madman” fame for his revival of the DC character Prez in issue #54. In this story, Brant Tucker was told the tale of Prez by a stranger whom he’d encountered in the Inn. The stranger had asked about recent United States presidents that Brant could recall and the manmade allusions to other realities existing where others were president.
One such reality involved a teenager who became president in the 1970s. The teen’s parents had named him President ‘Prez’ Richard and he showed an aptitude for repairing clocks while ascending into increasingly high political offices.
The curious figure Boss Smiley, who looked like a human smiley-face, approached Prez with the offer of being President of the United States so long as he did Smiley’s bidding. Prez refused the offer and still managed to win the presidency, instantly becoming a force for positive change. When the time came for Prez to run for his second term, Smiley again approached Prez with an offer but Prez shot him down. Smiley did warn of pending harm coming and that threat became real when an attention-seek made woman killed Prez’s fiancé. Prez retired to his hometown after his second term, eventually becoming interested in travelling the country as a sort of do-gooder.
The man telling Brant the Prez’s story admitted that the circumstances surrounding Prez’s eventual death were not clear but he offered that Death one day took Prez to what was assumed to be Heaven. In fact, Boss Smiley ruled this place. Death had tipped off Morpheus regarding the plight of Prez though and Morpheus came to Prez’s rescue. Morpheus then gave Prez the means to move between realities such that he could help those in need.
This issue ended up being a particularly story with Gaiman updating a character from DC’s past that he clearly enjoyed. The tone of the story was vaguely reminiscent of Frank Miller’s “Give Me Liberty” but set in an alternate 1970s. Gaiman played up some of the Jesus/Satan parallels in the interaction between Prez and Smiley. Richard Nixon showed up at one point in the story to give Prez advice and readers might not have realized how the [expletive deleted] use in Nixon’s text was a reference to the public transcriptions of Nixon’s personal tapes that were examined during the Watergate hearings.
The use of the mad woman who killed Prez’s fiancé was a clear parallel to the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan early in his presidency. The story also made period allusions to nuclear disarmament, gas prices, and the national debt with Prez solving all of those problems in ways that the real world presidents never accomplished. The smiley faces used in the story were likely a reference to Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” series, which used the smiley face repeatedly in its visuals.
Sandman #55: “Cerements”
Story Artist: Shea Anton Pensa, Bryan Talbot (penciller), Vince Locke, Mark Buckingham (inker)
Issue #55’s story featured what was perhaps the weakest of the various “World’s End” tales. That tale was told by a man named Petrefax who looked like a living corpse and who hailed from the city of Necropolis. Petrefax was a student in the city, learning about various methods of burial and he was assigned to assist with an ‘air burial’ in which bodies were slowly picked apart by birds. While waiting for that process, Petrefax and his companions shared stories with one another.
A companion named Mig told the story of a two that used criminals to serve as hangmen until they could no longer perform that duty. At that point, the criminal would be hung themselves. A criminal hangman named Billy was shown outwitting that process at the end of his life by using a rope to support his ill body when police came to collect him. In fooling the police into thinking that he was well, Billy managed to die a natural death a home.
Next, a man named Scroyle told the tale of a Necropolis that everyone knew was not the first one. Rather, residents of a prior Necropolis had disrespected the dead and been destroyed by a group of strangers that then built the new Necropolis.
Finally, Hermas told a story about apprenticing for Mistress Veltis. She had told Hermas about her hand being withered via an accident that she experienced while hiding in the catacombs from a wraith. She’d hidden in a supernatural room that resulted in her hand being withered. Late in life, she returned to that room and when she re-emerged from those catacombs to die, her hand was shown to have been restored.
Petrefax then admitted that he didn’t have a story of his own to tell and was admonished by his instructor to keep his mouth quiet. Brant Tucker spoke up to suggest that Petrefax was proof that everyone in the inn was dead. Gaiman had said in interviews about this story arc that he drew inspiration from horror anthology films where just that sort of situation was presented. However, a woman then concluded the issue by suggesting that everyone was still alive and that she knew the truth of the inn.
Sandman #56: “Worlds’ End”
Story Artist: Gary Amaro, Bryan Talbot (penciller), Dick Giordano, Steve Leialoha, Tony Harris, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot (inker)
Readers didn’t learn the woman’s full explanation at the very beginning of issue #56 though. Instead, they were treated to Charlene giving the brief story of her unhappy life. She was a divorcee who had had an unacknowledged drunken encounter with Brant in the past and lived a life of misery. After providing that revelation, she stormed off in a depressed huff.
Soon thereafter, everyone else in the inn was called to look outside. They saw visions of giants walking across a starry night sky, the group forming a procession at what seemed to be a funeral. Readers would have noted a number of the Endless showing up in this sight and Death appearing at the very end of that procession, but those in the inn were left confused by what they had seen. The occupant of the coffin was not apparent but the next story arc in the series might have shed some light on Gaiman’s intent.
With the passing of that event, the people in the inn were told that they could leave. As they passed through the door of the inn they would be returned to their realities. Charlene was allowed to stay behind as a worker at the inn, but Brant departed.
Brant was then shown in an epilogue where he had been telling his story to a bar tender. He had returned from the inn to find himself listed as the owner of Charlene’s un-damaged car. Any records of Charlene’s existence had seemingly been erased.
The “World’s End” arc provided another nice example of Gaiman’s frequent use of “Sandman” as a covert anthology platform for writing about whatever he had on his mind. Some such stories were stronger than others, with the Prez story being a personal highlight.
Gaiman would next finish the “Sandman” series with two story arcs that were focused on the core story of the Endless.