Brief Lives: Chapter 5 – Sandman Meditations

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At the end of the last chapter, I suspected Delirium driving a car would lead to some interesting adventures. In life, someone driving like that would be terrifying, but in our story here it’s hilarious, partly because I assumed she wouldn’t kill anybody, and so it was okay to laugh. Upset some people, certainly; cause some minor crashes even, yes, but if she wreaked so much havoc that anyone died, it would create a tone for the story that could be unsettling in an unhelpful way, making the comedy too dark to be comedic. The traffic on page four is akimbo, but spaciously so. If Delirium had tried driving in, say, Boston, where the roads are often narrow, confusing, and terribly overcrowded, the results might have been a bit different.

As it is, though, the movement from page nine to page ten is one of the funniest moments I remember in all of The Sandman. It’s a wonder of pacing, benefiting from the seriousness of Ishtar and Tiffany’s conversation about love and men, which creates a perfect set-up: Tiffany saying she suddenly experienced a “kind of mystical vision” in which there was “this sorta big black bird shouting at me” and Ishtar asking, “What was it saying?” We turn the page and find out. The many relatively small panels of page nine, most focused close on faces, give way to the large, widely-focused top panel of page ten, with Matthew’s words in big, emphatic letters as he panics and cars swerve around Delirium’s dance-like driving.

The subject matter of this chapter of Brief Lives is not light, and the lives lived in it are not easy ones, but there is a lightness to the handling of the material that prevents the chapter from becoming oppressively gloomy and distracting us from the overall story. The representation of the inside of Suffragette City is an example of this — what could have been sordid is rendered with fluid strokes of color and shadow by penciller Jill Thompson, inker Vince Locke, and colorist Daniel Vozzo. It gives a sense of the club as a different world, a realm of its own, a place with a touch of glam. (And anybody who has seen the film Velvet Goldmine knows that glam isn’t necessarily glamourous.) The inspiration is David Bowie, not Tom Waits.

It’s notable that Nancy has a master’s degree in Women’s Studies. This serves the chapter in a few ways, the most immediate of which is to provide a reason for one of the dancers to talk about the purpose and meaning of goddesses, virginity, and prostitution. I have no background in this area of history, so can’t comment on the accuracy of anything Nancy or Ishtar says about ancient practices, but the accuracy isn’t as important to this chapter as the effect. What these stories and Nancy’s academic pedigree do is similar to what the inking and coloring do: they offer a history of sexy goddess worship and a narrative of female empowerment to oppose any knee-jerk sense of a place like Suffragette City being the apotheosis of sexism and patriarchy. Nancy, who ought to have plenty of practice in the deconstruction of gendered power relationships, says, “The money’s good, the hours suit me, I get a roomful of men making me feel wanted, and paying for the privilege. And when I get old, and my boobs start to sag, I’ll write a book about it and go on Donahue.”

Like many aspiring writers, Nancy is probably over-estimating the popularity of what she would write, but there have been many books that cover aspects of this life, such as Wendy Chapkis’s Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor , Katherine Frank’s G-Strings and Sympathy, Kim Price-Glynn’s Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work, and the anthology Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance. A lot of these books came out after the contentious battles between anti-porn and pro-porn feminists in the 1980s and early 1990s settled into bitter detente; Brief Lives appeared on the later edge of that battle while predating most of the academic feminist books that sought a complex portrayal of sex work. When Nancy was in school, she would have been far more likely to encounter people who thought a place such as Suffragette City was irredeemably oppressive than to encounter people who saw such places as not always and inherently evil. (I sometimes teach within the discipline of Women’s Studies, but I’m agnostic on the topic of sex work, as I have no experience as either a performer or patron, and theorizing about people’s lives without any experience of those lives seems to me a sure path to arrogant foolishness.)

The portrayal of Suffragette City in Brief Lives benefits from the multiple perspectives that fiction can offer — Nancy is a character, not a mouthpiece, and we do not have to accept her interpretation of where and how she works, although Ishtar’s apparent acceptance of that interpretation lends it weight, given Ishtar’s history. But Ishtar, when she was Belili or Astarte, was in love with Destruction. If she had discovered a lost member of the Endless called Empowerment or Equality or Feminist Hulk, we might have to accept her authority on the topic a bit more. She was a goddess of love, and as Tiffany and millions of other people could attest, love sometimes blinds us to the truths we ought to see. It’s easy to love being worshipped, but worship is hardly the healthiest expression of love.

Much as I enjoy the humor of the top panel of page ten, my favorite in this chapter is the second panel on page eighteen, a beautifully simple panel that is emotionally rich. Here we see Ishtar-Belili-Astarte sitting alone in the dressing room, looked at by a man, but not the sort of man who looks at her every night in the club. It is Dream who stares at her here, and he brings knowledge of her full history. The image is different from all of the others in Suffragette City: there’s more white space and the shadows are roughly textured, not liquid. It feels to me like we’re seeing through the glitz, the lights, the come-ons, the leers, the false confidence and all the other con games life makes us play. It’s a gorgeous, sad, thoughtful, ambiguous portrait. As is this chapter of Brief Lives.