Throughout the second Sandman, I kept wishing the characters would stop talking.
Everything in a comic is visual, but though we pull the words off the page with the same eyes that perceive the pictures, they serve different functions and go to different parts, I suppose, of our brains. Were we to be dropped into the diegesis, we’d still perceive the characters and settings through our eyes, but the words that they speak would enter through another organ: our ears. Same thing if the comic were a movie, or at least a movie since the advent of the talkies.
Silent movies separated the image and the words, with title frames falling between visual scenes. Comics make them simultaneous. Speech and thought bubbles are visual artifacts, but they are more than that, too, because our brains translate them into an approximation of an aural experience.
But first they are visual, and again and again as I looked at “Imperfect Hosts”, the words and images seemed to be fighting for dominance. Just look at the first page — the left side has plenty of room for images, but the right side feels like half the image is bubbled (it’s not, strictly and statistically, but the images are so cramped by the words that this is the impression).
Gaiman and the artists will get better at balancing words and images as the series continues, and even in “Imperfect Hosts”, I find the image that dominates page 7 particularly interesting in its balance of words and picture: the realm of Dream as a kind of canyon of junk, a landfill against a flat blue sky, pieces of what might be earth suspended as jellyfish stepping stones in a straight line heading off, perhaps, to infinity. The words (white text against a black background) sit in four ragged boxes that also seem to float in the crevasse, the last three boxes moving vertically down in counter-balance to all the diagonal lines in the rest of the image.
“Imperfect Hosts” is a particularly transitional story in the series, winding dynamos that will send energy through many more issues, alluding back through almost five decades of DC characters and tales. It’s expositional and yakky, with a strange mix of pictures that are cartoonish and pictures that are more in the dark and evocative style of the first issue. The shifts of visual tone are appropriate to a series that absorbs and transmutes the story-dreams of as many cultural moments as Sandman does. Dream, working his way back to his realm and his power, must make his way through a mosaic of styles. He is what unifies the variegations, but he is still weak in “Imperfect Hosts”, still recovering, more subject to the chaos than master of it. Consider the portrait of his face on page 13 — he looks at his dessicated castle while faithful servant Lucien says, “Breaks your heart, my lord, doesn’t it?” The face that has been menacing or pensive or mysterious in every image up to here is now almost comic: the sharp lines of mouth and eyes have turned to soft ovals, the spikey hair now looks like some sort of wig. This is no god, no man of power and mystery — he looks like some guy who got lost after a disappointing rave.
It’s an entirely appropriate portrait, we discover, on page 16. In the first of three rectangular middle panels, Dream looks again vulnerable, but more thoughtful than shocked. He holds a representation of the castle in his hand and stares at it. The next panel gives us a more familiar version of his face: eyes shadowed, mouth a straight line of determination, and the castle is now a bit of smoke escaping from his clenched fist. In the third panel he is a silhouette, Lucien’s face foregrounded. Dream says, “Some power returns to me, simply by being here. But I placed too much of myself in the tools. And they are gone.”
I placed too much of myself in the tools. Yes, there it is — an explanation of the page 13 face. The ruined castle had been his hope of finding himself, but he saw that all he had counted on having preserved was, instead, lost. The hollow slackness of the face evokes the epiphany. It is not until he crushes the image of the castle in his hand that Dream regains his standard countenance.
We end not with him, but with Abel, who is once again reborn, his resurrection paralleling the progress of Dream. The last page is pathetic in a strict sense, the adjective of pathos, evoking both pity and sadness, as Abel sits with the baby gargoyle Cain gave him, the naming of which Cain seems to have used as an excuse to murder Abel yet again. Abel says he’ll follow the rule that all gargoyle names must begin with G and call this one “Goldie”, but “I’ll think of you as Irving, really, in my heart,” and thus he negotiates the rules of the reality he lives in with the world of free desire he can hold in his heart: “It’s a secret story,” he says, and narrates a tale in which two brothers love each other and “would never hurt each other” and are forever happy. A secret story, a secret world of the heart. “I’m really not crying,” he says. “It’s only blood, little brother” — reality (blood) and perception (tears) mingle in meaning, and for a moment, silhouetted against a bright red background, Abel seems to contain equal parts of what is real and what is dreamed.