Morpheus was dead. The protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated DC/Vertigo comic book series The Sandman, he met his demise in late 1995 after a run-in with the vengeance-seeking Furies of legend. In many ways, this wasn’t such a big deal; although Sandman was more of a dark fantasy epic than anything else, it was still set firmly within the same fictional universe as the rest of DC’s superheroes – many of whom the publisher had already bumped off or invalided over the last decade.
But what happened next was a big deal. No, I don’t mean the arrival of Morpheus’ successor, the new incarnation of Dream of the Endless – torch-passing and miraculous resurrections are par the course for the superhero genre – I’m talking about the wake. In a bold move, Gaiman and his collaborators Michael Zulli, Jon J. Muth, Charles Vess, Daniel Vozzo and Todd Klein used Sandman’s final six issues (now collected, fittingly enough, as The Sandman: The Wake) to a deliver a literal and symbolic send-off to Morpheus built around finality, reflection, and participation.
And in doing so, they introduced the concept of emotional closure to superhero comics for the very first time.
A comic book death that felt final
Before Sandman: The Wake, superhero comics rarely bothered with extended mourning periods. Typically, you could expect a few pages devoted to a perfunctory funeral before the narrative moved on. Even when this wasn’t the case – the protracted Funeral for a Friend story arc that explored the aftermath of Superman’s untimely death is a notable example – it’s undermined by both the tropes and the serialised nature of the genre. Since we all know that the casket is going to wind up empty eventually, it’s hard to get too misty-eyed.
Neither of these factors apply to The Wake, though; not only is The Sandman utterly disinterested in the tropes of superhero comics, Gaiman makes it heartbreakingly clear from the outset that Morpheus is never coming back. Sure, there’s a new Dream of the Endless – the transfigured dream-child Daniel Hall – but he represents a different aspect of Dream; our guy and his distinctive perspective are gone forever.
Like Matthew the Raven, we’re clinging to the faint hope that Morpheus will show up alive and well, yet deep down, we know it’s not going to happen. Just like in real life, death is really the end here – and the weight of that, the finality of it, is genuinely affecting with each passing chapter. And again, just like in real life, we must confront the unpleasant truth that we’ll never get to spend any more time with Morpheus again (barring flashbacks). He’s gone; there are no new adventures for him to have.
Heck, The Sandman concluded with The Wake – it doesn’t get more final than the entire series itself wrapping up! The upshot is that this is the first mainstream comic book protagonist’s death that feels utterly irrevocable and real. But then, so does everything else about this final story arc…
Making sense of tragedy and loss
I’m serious: look past the talking pumpkin-head men, angels, gods and faeries, and this may be the most authentic depiction of a wake you’re ever likely to encounter.
Indeed, what really hits home about The Wake is how everyone behaves exactly the way you’d expect: some of them are sad, some of the angry, some of them aren’t quite sure why they’re there at all, and some of them are, well…drunk – but all of them are there to reflect on the departed.
This is important, because it helps us with our own grief. It might sound a bit silly to talk about grief; after all, Morpheus is make-believe – but thing is, we believed in him. We knew him like an actual person, including his good and his not so good qualities . And so, real or not, we need to mourn him before we can properly let him go.
This reflection extends beyond the formal ceremony that takes place in Sandman #70-72, continuing in a symbolic sense across Issue #73-75. Here, we’re shown a trio of vignettes in non-chronological order that underscore the themes of the series and of Morpheus’ life. Morpheus appears in all three of these tales, either in the past or in dreams: he’s a memory now, and there’s an unshakeable feeling of loss that comes with this realisation – but also clarity and comfort.
Because these closing chapters help us make sense of who Morpheus was and what his death means, and that softens the blow. Crucially, Issue #75, “The Tempest” – which sees Morpheus tacitly bare his soul to an unwitting William Shakespeare – hammers home the reality of Morpheus’ life: he was trapped between his responsibilities and his desires. Faced with having to change or die, he made his choice, and there’s a solace in knowing that his death was as much a merciful release as it was a great tragedy.
The world’s first meta-funeral?
But perhaps Gaiman’s finest creative flourish is the way he makes the readers themselves part of the ceremony in The Wake. It makes sense, too: with the funeral being held in The Dreaming – the realm of dreams and dreamers – why wouldn’t we, as dreamers, be there?
Yet framing these events from the readers’ perspective is more than just a cute metatextual gimmick or creative exercise. It’s a considered choice that lends proceedings a delicate intimacy seldom found in superhero comics, before or since.
Not only do we have a front row seat for the speeches, we’re even called upon to fill in the blanks of the last, most important speech by Morpheus’ sister (and fan favourite character) Death. Gaiman knew that nothing he could write could possibly live up to what we want – what we need – to hear Death say, and so he has wisely attempted to convey only the sentiment of her eulogy, leaving it open to us to determine what the exact words should be.
This sense of participation is ultimately what makes catharsis possible for The Sandman readers who’ve grown attached to Morpheus over several years’ worth of comics. It lets us compose our own farewell in an active way, in turn facilitating our acceptance of both Morpheus’ death and Daniel’s place as his successor (not replacement).
It’s a stunning achievement, and it is – along with the sense of finality and reflective mood that has Gaiman conjured – what allowed The Sandman: The Wake to bring true emotional closure to superhero comics at long last.