Sequences at the Inn and A Tale of Two Cities – Sandman Meditations

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Worlds’ End begins with a prelude illustrated by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham in which two people get in a car crash during a mysterious June snowstorm and find their way to a magical inn, the Worlds’ End.

That plural apostrophe is easy to overlook, but the plurality of worlds at the inn is immediately apparent to the viewer from the first panel on page seven, which offers our initial sight of the other characters who are waiting out the storm, or storms — characters of such physiognomic variety that they might be ready to attend Mardi Gras or a particularly good Halloween party. We’re experienced enough by now with The Sandman, though, to suspect these aren’t costumes.

Brant is still in shock from the crash and from carrying the unconscious Charlene to the inn, and so he doesn’t seem to really register how odd the other travelers look. He just wants to get some help. He explains the storm, and an elfin boy says, “It’s not a snowstorm, friend. It’s a reality storm.” (Okay, I’ll admit, shamefully, that in my head I added a “duuuuuuuude” after that statement.)

There is magic, or at least very good medicine, in this inn. Brant passes out for fifteen hours, and by the time he wakes, Charlene has been well healed by the centaur Chiron (“the finest physician in a dozen realms”).

All of this is a preparation for tale-telling, a frame story. Such a structure is ancient, common to many Asian and Middle Eastern literatures — most prominently The Arabian Nights — and then European books such as Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the most obvious influence on Worlds’ End, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims of various social classes tell stories to amuse each other on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. In The Canterbury Tales, the tale-telling is a contest: the winner will receive a free meal at the end of the journey. Because Brant and Charlene enter the Worlds’ End in the midst of storytelling, we don’t (yet) know the circumstances of it all.

The frame story then shifts to a story told by a serious and dapper fellow referred to as Mister Gaheris, who calls it “A Tale of Two Cities”.

The separation between the frame story and the story it frames is vividly rendered not only by a change in artists, but by a significant change in styles. From the full, detailed, and traditional pages of Talbott and Buckingham we move to the more abstracted, geometric panels of Alec Stevens. In the frame story, text boxes and balloons sit in the panels, while in “A Tale of Two Cities”, the panels and text are separate, an effect that mirrors the symbiotic nature of the cities and their dreams in the tale.

The structure of the pages and the style of the artwork is the most distinctive yet in The Sandman. The story of a city dreaming made me think of many writers who appeared in classic issues of Weird Tales, especially the H.P. Lovecraft of the short, impressionistic, non-Cthulhu stories and Clark Ashton Smith. There’s also the Weird Tales precursor Lord Dunsany, whose tales of Jorkens were a series of stories framed by the conceit of being told in a gentlemen’s club. “A Tale of Two Cities” also feels a bit like the elder cousin of China Miéville’s The City and The City.

I know nothing about the direct influences on Alec Stevens’s art, but when I first read “A Tale of Two Cities”, I had just returned from an exhibition of woodcut and wordless sequential art curated by David A. Beronä, author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels, and I couldn’t help but feel the ghost of Frans Masereel floating through Stevens’s panels.

Masereel was born in Belgium in 1889, and he pioneered a style of woodcut storytelling-in-images with books such as Passionate Journey (1919) and Story Without Words (1920) that would influence such later artists as Lynd Ward, Will Eisner, Laurence Hyde, Eric Drooker, and Peter Kuper, among many others. The German Expressionist artists had revived interest in woodcut art, and Expressionism also seems to be evoked in Stevens’s panels — not only Masereel and other Expressionists, but also the set designs by Hermann Warm for the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

As I keep looking at the panels in “A Tale of Two Cities”, though, it is Masereel I continue to think of — the sharp angles and straight lines, the absolute contrast of black and white, the simple, exaggerated shapes that replace strict realism with emotional force.

Stevens isn’t simply imitating the Expressionists or woodcut artists; what distinguishes his work from theirs is the use of color. While the whites and blacks are sharp and Masereelian, the colors in the panels are mostly soft, pastel, and dreamy. Expressionists who used color often chose bold, rich hues (I think in particular of Max Beckmann’s paintings). In Stevens’s panels, the color is an accent tagging along among the blacks and whites.

The placement of the text outside the panels highlights the artwork and the storytelling by separating them. We are especially aware of this story as a story because it looks less like a comic than what we’ve seen before in The Sandman — the art and text work together like text and illustrations. I could imagine (indeed, wish for!) a little book of this story alone, with the illustrations on one page and the text on another.

I’ve said little here about the story itself, and I don’t mean to subsume it to the art — they work marvelously well together, and the story feels old and eerie while also feeling removed from time, much like the best sorts of dream tales, whether from Lovecraft or Smith or Dunsany or someone perhaps a bit closer to the style of the artwork: Franz Kafka. (Some of Stevens’s figures actually look a bit like the doodles in Kafka’s diaries.) The idea of cities dreaming is evocative and haunting, and the old man on the bridge who tries to get the city to wake reminds me of so many incidental characters in Kafka’s fiction who feel like they’ve been somewhere forever, and who have a single goal in the universe — and not only the incidental characters, but also the people of the parables: the man who waits outside the gate in “Before the Law”, for instance.

It’s always fun to trace resonances in The Sandman, but I can see with Worlds’ End that some of the fun is also going to come from differences between the artists for each story. What a panoply awaits us!

And as someone who has lived through many Nor’easters, I can tell you: There are worse ways to wait out a storm than to surround yourself with stories.