The Sandman Reader VIII: Brief Lives

“Brief Lives” could be summarized as a road trip involving Morpheus and his sister Delirium searching for their lost brother Destruction. Destruction had been only referenced in passing during previous gatherings of the Endless, but he would end up being a central character in “Brief Lives.”

The nine issues in this story arc were split into groupings of two four-issue mini-arcs and an epilogue. Readers might note some thematic parallels between each of the four issues if comparing parts to one another.

Themes included eyes and seeing, referenced in both the dialogue and in close-ups in the art. An example of this reference in the dialogue to keep in mind would be Delirium making frequent mention of eye parts and Despair maiming an eye at one point. The title itself – “Brief Lives” – hinted at a theme regarding even the Endless having life spans.

Destruction finally made an appearance during this story arc and personified the idea of change. Also, this was the first storyline to get at how Morpheus’s imprisonment had changed him, and that information would fuel the conclusion of the series.

Jill Thompson was the artist on all nine issues of this arc. She provided a style that fit well with the series, keeping a certain consistency that was sometimes referential to the classic art of the past.

Sandman #41: “Brief Lives – Chapter 1”

September 1992

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

Issue #41 opened with Morpheus’s son Orpheus making an appearance as his head was guarded by modern-day monks on the small island of Naxos off Greece. The current caretaker was Andros Rhodocanakis, the latest in a line of protectors. Johanna Constantine had a grave that was also on the island and Andros paid his respect to it. Johanna had, of course, rescued Orpheus back in issue #29.

Delirium took center stage for most of the issue though and she spent virtually the entire story talking like someone might talk if they were delirious. Or on drugs. Her demeanor was usually sympathetic and modestly upbeat, highlighted by dialogue balloons always colored in rainbows.

Desire found Delirium wandering in London, where she had been living on the streets with a woman named Mary Canby. Canby had been homeless since her son died in an unexplained industrial accident, and she doubted this official cause of death.

The pair headed back to Desire’s domain where Delirium tries to get a disinterested Desire to help find their brother Destruction. When Desire was less than receptive to the idea, Delirium next went to Despair for assistance and encountered similar disinterest. Readers learned that Despair did secretly miss Destruction, as related via flashback to the plague in seventeenth-century London, recalling when the two were last together.

The issue ended on an ominous note, as both Desire and Despair had concerns regarding the potential repercussions of Delirium’s quest. Destruction had departed Despair in London with the statement that the next time they would meet would be the last.

Sandman #42: “Brief Lives – Chapter 2”

October 1992

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

Delirium found a more receptive sibling in Morpheus when she visited him in issue #42.

When Delirium visited her brother, readers were left disoriented as Morpheus was preoccupied with the heartbreak inflicted on him by a recent love interest. The unrevealed love interest had put Morpheus into a state of depression after breaking up with him and Delirium had entered the aftermath. While the details of the romance remained unexplained, some speculated that the love in question was Thessaly, as the romance had happened in the waking world.

Before Morpheus agreed to help Delirium find Destruction, he first consulted Desire to see if she was manipulating Delirium. Desire claimed to not be involved in Delirium’s quest for Destruction while also denying having any involvement in breaking up Morpheus’s recent relationship.

Morpheus considered the situation further while Delirium reflected on a past time when she was known as Delight. That recollection was interrupted when Morpheus ultimately agreed to help Delirium. That said, Morpheus confided in Lucien that he did not expect the quest to be successful in finding Destruction.

Sandman #43: “Brief Lives – Chapter 3”

November 1992

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

The road trip for Morpheus and Delirium ensued in issue #43, with the pair heading to Earth.

The concept of long-lived beings embedded amongst humans on Earth was entertainingly illustrated for readers at the beginning of the issue with the fluke death of Bernie Capax. Capax was killed after a brick wall fell onto him, leaving him miffed that he would die under such fluky circumstances after having lived for roughly 1500 years. Death consoled him by simply telling him that he had lived a lifetime.

Morpheus and Delirium arrived in Dublin, Ireland with Morpheus’s intention of meeting with a man named Pharamond. Pharamond was a forgotten god who ran what was referred to as transportation under the alias Mr. Farrell. A humorous exchange ensued with Farrell’s receptionist until he finally granted Morpheus and Delirium an audience. After it became clear that Morpheus was collecting on a past favor, Farrell agreed to handle all transportation needs for the duo during their time on Earth.

Delirium supplied a list of Destruction’s potential associates and Farrell booked travel for Morpheus to go with Delirium to visit the first person on the list.

Readers then checked in with a woman named Etain who had been mentioned as being further down on Morpheus’s travel list. She woke up from a dream to the smell of gas in her apartment and managed to vacate the building just ahead of an explosion that destroyed her apartment.

At the same time, Destruction was shown to viewers as hiding out with a hilariously honest dog named Barnabas. After Barnabas gave a harsh critique of Destruction’s painting ability, Destruction’s gallery pool warned him of pending trouble.

Morpheus and Delirium ended the issue with an amusing sequence on a commercial airline flight to the United States. Morpheus spent the flight time bluntly answering a girl’s whimsical questions about dreams, with her unknowingly receiving answers from a true authority on the subject. The issue concluded with a woman named Ruby meeting Morpheus and Delirium at the airport after their plane landed. They set off to meet the lawyer Bernie Capax, seemingly unaware that Capax had recently died.

There were some interesting trivia bits during this opening overview of long-living people. One tidbit involved a reference to a historical Atlantis that might have mirrored the history of Atlantis that was established around the time of this issue’s publication by writer Peter David in his series “The Atlantis Chronicles.” The apartment where Etain was living had a layout like the one where artist Jill Thompson lived at the time. Etain’s basic look also appeared to be based on Thompson’s appearance.

Barnabas the dog was shown as a companion to Destruction, the name reminding readers of Barnabas from early Christian history when a key follower of Paul held that same name. Also note that Delirium and Morpheus briefly crossed paths with a girl named Chloe Russell in this issue, with her popping up a couple of further times in this story arc.

Sandman #44: “Brief Lives – Chapter 4”

December 1992

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

The Corinthian made his big return in issue #44, but it amounted to little more than a flashback cameo. The issue opened with another initially unclear introduction to a new character. That character was Leib Olmai, a Lapp Alder Man living in northern Scandinavia who checked on traps he had set. One of the traps was triggered and Leib took that as a cue to transform himself into a bear.

At the same time, Morpheus and Delirium learned about the fate of the late Bernie Capax from Capax’s son. The son had assumed his father to be a boring man and, after his death, was coming to terms with the many curiosities that had been left behind. Of course, the son did not know that his father had been 1500 years old.

The traveling siblings then set out to visit Etain, the next person on their list. Their driver, Ruby, insisted on stopping at a motel for the night while still en route to Etain. Delirium mentally reached out to those on her list, confirming that Capax was dead, while also sensing Leib Olmai and a stripper. The stripper was given a forewarning that she would soon have visitors.

Meanwhile, Morpheus reached out to Lucien to request that Lucien investigate if someone might be preventing Destruction from being found. Morpheus then recalled a time in the distant past when he was walking down a primitive street with Destruction – including the aforementioned brief cameo by the Corinthian on that street. The flashback scene was notable for foreshadowing Destruction’s disappearance, which resulted from a revelation that humanity was entering the age of reason, and that Destruction would no longer be needed.

Morpheus returned his focus to the present day to find that the motel was on fire. Ruby had supposedly fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette and she died while the motel went up in flames. Morpheus saw this unfortunate turn as likely being another example of someone trying to prevent the siblings from finding Destruction.

Sandman #45: “Brief Lives – Chapter 5”

January 1993

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

Issue #45 largely took place at a strip club, with Morpheus and Delirium arriving there via car after a comedy of errors. Delirium first found herself being reprimanded by a police officer whom she amusingly cursed with believing that he was covered by invisible bugs. Matthew the Raven then found himself drafted onto the road trip to give driving instructions while reminding everyone that he had died of drunken driving when previously living as a human.

Before that group arrived at the strip club location in the story, readers caught up with two strippers who had briefly been seen in the prior issue. Tiffany was ill from the prior night and her co-worker Ishtar tried to help her become well enough to come to work that evening. Ishtar had some secrets; her dancing was praised by Tiffany, even if Ishtar insisted that she was showing restraint to the strip club’s customers.

Ishtar told Tiffany and another co-worker, Nancy, about a time when women would prostitute themselves at a temple as part of a mandatory ritual for all women to endure. When Morpheus, Delirium, and Matthew arrived at the strip club, Morpheus held a private meeting with Ishtar. Readers learned that Ishtar was an old girlfriend of Destruction but that she no longer knew where Destruction might be located. The conversation was tepid, given that Morpheus’s disapproval of Ishtar had led to Destruction breaking up with her.

After Morpheus and his party departed the club, Ishtar decided to dance to her full potential. In doing so, she destroyed the strip club and killed most of those who were inside. Tiffany managed to safely get away from the club. Desire then appeared outside the destroyed club with Tiffany and offered her a jacket.

Within the span of this single issue, readers learned a fair amount about the lives of both Tiffany and Ishtar. Both appeared to be tragic figures in their own ways. Tiffany had chosen her stage name after being mesmerized by her mother’s Tiffany-branded watch, a watch that she stole from her mother when she left home and that was later stolen from her by a boyfriend. Tiffany’s life involved a series of bad relationships and being belittled by those around her. She had a subtle drug problem and confidence issues.

Ishtar was a positive influence in Tiffany’s life. She was a goddess from Babylonian mythology. The temple story mentioned by Ishtar had a historical basis in the Adonis/Tammuz cult that operated out of the Phoenician city of Byblus. Scholars have pointed out that the source for the tale was the disputed ‘historian’ Herodotus. Ishtar’s mythical story involved being with a King who served what was effectively a one-year term before being sacrificed.

Sandman #46: “Brief Lives – Chapter 6”

February 1993

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

Issue #46 opened with a brief check on Destruction and Barnabas; this time, the dog was critical of Destruction’s ability to write poetry. Destruction shared his reluctance regarding not wanting to be reunited with his family.

Elsewhere, Morpheus decided to call off the search for Destruction and returned alone to his domain. After apologizing to Pharamond for the accidental death of Ruby, Morpheus then visited the Egyptian cat goddess Bast in a dream. Bast, who had last been seen in issue #27, had an interestingly flirty relationship with Morpheus. Bast admitted that her claim of knowing Destruction’s location two years prior was a lie, and she had only heard about his last being sighted in Paris sixty years ago.

After the dream ended, Bast was revealed to be yet another tragically fallen god who only rarely found people worshiping her. Specifically, she was called upon in a scene to help a cat die and that cat belonged to, or may have belonged to, a minor character named Chloe Russell who had appeared briefly in issue #43. Chloe’s cat would debatably later show up again in issue #49.

Morpheus then followed up with Lucien regarding the mysterious deaths of Destruction’s associates on Earth. Unfortunately, Lucien had no update for Morpheus, but sharp-eyed readers would have noticed books that never existed again being referenced in the character’s library. The little gags involving amusing never-existed books would continue to be a re-occurring treat.

Morpheus then met with Death after noticing that Delirium had closed her domain to visitors. Death was upset with Morpheus for his treatment of Delirium and Morpheus agreed to patch up the relationship with his sister. Morpheus then visited with Delirium and delivered an apology. Morpheus had only joined Delirium on Earth in the hopes of being reunited with the woman who had recently broken up with him. When the search for Destruction had turned dangerous, Morpheus felt it prudent to call off the search. However, he had since decided that the search needed to resume, with Delirium again serving as his partner.

Sandman #47: “Brief Lives – Chapter 7”

March 1993

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke, Dick Giordano (inker)

The big family reunion that readers had been anticipating finally came to fruition in issue #47. Destruction began cooking food, while Barnabas mocked his prior attempt at sculpture. Readers might have found it curious that Destruction fed chocolate to Barnabas, since that food has an element in it that could cause dogs to have a heart attack. Barnabas was immune to that problem.

Morpheus and Delirium visited their sibling Destiny after realizing that their previous list of leads was no longer valid. Destiny informed Morpheus that the quest for Destruction would have negative consequences specific for Morpheus. He also told Morpheus that his recent lover had never loved him and that the romance would never be rekindled. Finally, Morpheus was told to visit a family oracle for direction, and he deduced that the oracle in question was his son Orpheus.

Morpheus and Delirium then traveled to the Greek island where Orpheus’s head was being guarded, a head that readers had seen back in issue #41. Orpheus’s guardians had an amusing exchange with Morpheus before allowing him to visit his son.

Morpheus visited his son without readers being privy to their exchange, but Morpheus later returned to Delirium with the needed information regarding Destruction’s location. Readers were left in the dark on the matter, but Morpheus did admit to Delirium that his interaction with Orpheus had come at an ambiguous cost.

The son of one of Orpheus’s guardians rowed Morpheus and Delirium to a nearby island where Destruction happened to be living. Destruction gave his siblings a welcome and extended to them an offer to join him for dinner.

Sandman #48: “Brief Lives – Chapter 8”

April 1993

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

An awkward dinner meal was the centerpiece of issue #48, although neither Morpheus nor Delirium showed any interest in the meal that Destruction had prepared for them in the prior issue. Delirium delivered a confusing ramble that recapped the events of the prior seven issues, making sense only to Morpheus or readers. One interesting note about that recap was Delirium’s changing appearance from panel to panel, matching her look at the respective point in the story she was narrating.

Destruction asked both of his siblings what they wanted from him, and Delirium admitted that she would like him to return to his role. Morpheus admitted that he concluded the search to honor the death of Ruby, a statement that struck Delirium as a sign of Morpheus exhibiting change in his life.

Destruction explained that he had not intended to return to his role because he felt that the Endless were not necessary to their domains. Destruction in the universe occurred regardless of Destruction’s influence. Destruction then decided to leave Earth to hide from his family again. He took with him only a few belongings while gifting Barnabas to Delirium. The pairing turned out to be just as comically amusing as Barnabas’s pairing with Destruction, although the dog ended up being more supportive than sassy toward Delirium. Destruction then flew off into the stars, an event foreshadowed by an impressive two-page spread of the night sky earlier in the story.

Delirium and Barnabas returned to Delirium’s domain, but readers were left to consider the haunting revelation that Morpheus would need to kill his son Orpheus. One odd tidbit for readers was the appearance of Destruction on the planet Krypton in what was considered a pre-“Crisis on Infinite Earths” timeframe.

Sandman #49: “Brief Lives – Chapter 9”

May 1993

Story Artist: Jill Thompson (penciler), Vince Locke (inker)

Issue #49 provided Gaiman with an opportunity to revisit the major characters that appeared during “Brief Lives.” Orpheus was reflecting on his late wife Eurydice; their tragic story having been detailed to readers in the “Sandman Special” #1.

Morpheus was shown returning to Orpheus’s temple to keep the promise that he had made to his son back in issue #47. The deal that Morpheus had struck in exchange for Destruction’s location involved his agreeing to kill Orpheus. Orpheus was no longer interested in living as simply a head, although he admitted to some hesitation when the final moment came for him to die. In what was arguably the most unsettling scene in the series thus far, Morpheus picked up Orpheus’s head and killed him with his bare hands. When Morpheus left Orpheus’s temple, he had bright red blood on his hands.

Delirium was waiting for Morpheus outside the temple and Despair soon joined them to learn of the visit with Destruction. Despair regretted not joining the siblings on their quest, which was not surprising given her name. When Despair did return to her domain, readers learned that her twin, Desire, was waiting for her. Desire had warned Morpheus that the quest would lead to the spilling of family blood, but she did not expect things to turn out as they did. The turn of events worried the twins.

Morpheus was unusually polite upon returning to his domain, contemplating that he had moved on from his lover but was now anguished over the death of his son. He sent a dream message to Andros Rhodocanakis to release the man from their longtime family duty as Orpheus’s guardians. He also thanked Nuala the faerie and other servants in his domain for their service. Finally, he asked Lucien to send rewards to those who had helped him find Destruction.

Morpheus washed Orpheus’s blood from his hands in the privacy of his quarters and caught a haunting image of his son reflected in the water of the washing basin.

While Morpheus grieved for his son, readers were shown the epilogues of the fates of several characters from the story. First, the briefly glimpsed homeless woman Mary Canby from issue #41 was shown throwing bottles at the gravestone of her son Steven.

Next, Chloe Russell from issue #43 was shown receiving a new cat, likely foreshadowed by the cat death mentioned in issue #46. Danny Capax from issue #44 appeared as he burned some of his father’s belongings while keeping some of the more useful curiosities that his long-lived father left behind.

Tom Flaherty, the cursed police officer from issue #45 was shown to still be haunted by the belief that insects were crawling all over his body. One had to hope, for his sake, that he would be remembered and cured at some point by Morpheus but the odds of that occurring seemed slim. Tiffany, the stripper featured in issue #45, appeared on a television talk show, claiming that she had been saved by an angel who gave her a valuable jacket. This scene suggested that Tiffany had found religion in comedic fashion in the aftermath of Ishtar’s destruction of the strip club.

The final characters shown were Andros and his family at the burial of Orpheus’s head. The head was buried near a cherry tree and Andros somehow knew that his long life would end before that tree blossomed again.

A powerful element of “Brief Lives” was its point of reminding readers that the Endless were not all eternally immortal. Humans might have a short lifespan by the standards of the Endless or fallen gods, but the end of the current universe would bring an end to everyone save for perhaps Destiny.

Change was the arc’s repeatedly stated main theme, with Morpheus being told by both Orpheus and Destruction that he had changed since his imprisonment at the start of the “Sandman” series. Readers could not help but notice that the character had softened in some respects over Gaiman’s various story arcs.

“Brief Lives” started with an oddly disjointed feel and the slow burn of a plot, much like most of Gaiman’s earlier “Sandman” arcs. It was successful in showing change in the character of Morpheus though and the final third of the arc was particularly strong in delivering various payoffs. The death of Orpheus would have repercussions that readers were not yet fully aware of, but before those consequences would become known readers would take a detour back into a series of largely stand-alone stories.

D.S. Christensen
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