If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, I’m convinced that there’s one of the ten story arcs in the series that you gravitate to more than any other. If a friend asks you to relate just why the series is so important to you, that’s the arc you’ll describe. If you get a friend to start reading, that’s the arc you’ll be most excited to discuss with them after they’re done. You may have liked the series before, but after reading that particular arc, you fell irrevocably in love with it. This feeling is not exclusive to Sandman,but it’s Sandman we’re talking about today, so Sandman is the example that’s used. For me, though I admire the entire series, the arc that worked that magic on me was Season of Mists. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that for me it was the arc that opened up this magical, ambitious universe that Neil Gaiman was creating. Every Sandman story is a trip into unknown realms, but this was the first one that seemed to encompass all of them. This was where the Sandman universe opened wider than it ever had before, and I was swallowed up by it.
I don’t recommend reading any finite series out of chronological order, so it might seem strange that I’m choosing to visit a Sandman story that lies almost smack in the middle of the proceedings. But think of it as something to look forward to. The first three volumes of the series are fantastic. This is the fourth, and when you get to it you’ll be blown away by the sheer scope of the thing.
Like so many Neil Gaiman stories in and out of comics, Season of Mists begins with a deceptively simple premise: what if Lucifer decided he didn’t want to run Hell anymore? The story begins with a meeting of the Endless family in which we meet all of Dream’s siblings that we hadn’t met before (well, except one, but that’s another story). Dream is being pressured to go down to hell and rescue a former lover that he condemned there. He finally agrees, grudgingly preparing to face Lucifer, but when he arrives he finds that Lucifer is ready to clip his wings and leave Hell. As he leaves, Lucifer drops the key to his kingdom in Dream’s hands, and that’s when things really get complicated.
If you’re a deity or otherwise immortal being, Hell is valuable real estate, and soon word spreads that Dream is the new guy in charge, and that he too is looking to unload the property on someone else. Gods, demigods and immortals from across the realms of existence flood The Dreaming to make their case as to why they should be the new ruler of Hell, everyone from Anubis to Odin to faeries to Shinto Gods to lesser demons that used to work for Lucifer. But it’s not as simple as just choosing someone. Each entity asking for the key to Hell has its own agenda, its own plan for dominance, and many present new threats should they control the underworld.
It is here, with all-powerful beings swirling in his kingdom, that Dream must make his choice, and set in motion events that will continue to echo through Sandman for the rest of Gaiman’s tale.
Season of Mists is an important Sandman story because of all it represents in terms of newness. New characters, new locations, new backstory, new implications for Dream’s choices. All of these things will have a great impact on the rest of the story, and therefore if you’re doing any kind of major study or re-read of this series, Season of Mists should be a major part of your focus. It’s a hinge point for the rest of the story, and it’s got the scope to prove it.
I was drawn in to Season of Mists by that scope, and it’s what makes it my favorite story in the Sandman milieu. It’s a story on a massive scale, the kind of scale that only a comic book can truly capture, and it’s a scale anchored by the colossal art of Kelley Jones. Other artists could have done it right, but only Jones could have done Hell this well.
But telling a story just on the basis that it’s big wouldn’t be enough, even for me. I love epic things, stories that swing the fate of the world around, but they can’t just be stories about scope. Season of Mists is more than a story about who gets to run Hell. It’s a story about whether or not anyone – even one of the most powerful beings in the universe – can throw down their responsibilities and simply walk away. It’s a question of just how vital each of us is in the cogs of the universal machine, whether we’re the supreme ruler of Hell or just a guy writing a comics column for a website. This is one of the central themes of Sandman, and nowhere is it more powerfully explored than here.
And hey, if that doesn’t grab you, it also has big huge demons and Norse gods and stuff. Dig it?