Re-Enter Sandman: Brief Lives

In some ways, Brief Lives is the best of The Sandman volumes. Unlike his previous attempts at longer story arcs, Neil Gaiman tells a complete, fairly straightforward story with an actual conclusion. It’s the most consistent artistically since penciler Jill Thompson and inker Vince Locke are the team for the entire thing. It’s charming, although it’s maybe a bit too precious in places. I really liked Brief Lives and it’s probably the volume I’ve read the most.

But this time around, I found myself missing the messiness and ambition of previous volumes of The Sandman. There are plenty of beautiful, funny and heartbreaking moments here but I also think in some ways, it could’ve tried harder, even if it failed.

Cover of The Sandman: Brief Lives 30th anniversary edition

Delirium decides she wants to go find The Endless’ absent brother, Destruction, and eventually enlists Dream, who is moping about a breakup. This gives Brief Lives a great road-trip structure as the two travel looking for Destruction’s old friends. Still, it’s incredibly linear — they are mostly going from point to point, and even despite a mid-trip disruption and a few complications, they do what Delirium set out to do.

There is a bit more to it than that, but after six volumes that pushed boundaries and just tossed ideas out to see what worked without caring about what didn’t, this feels a bit underdeveloped. I appreciate that Brief Lives actually feels like it was plotted out in advance, but I think that stopped giving some concepts here a bit more freedom to breathe. Oddly, it almost feels too neat.

Despite a few tragic deaths, this is the most playful of all the longer stories of The Sandman. The image of Dream standing in the rain that he created because he’s sad he got dumped is a fun one. Dream’s always been on the dramatic side and I like that Gaiman is leaning into that. Delirium brings a lot of color and mischievousness to the story, although her darker side is often a bit too muted. She’s cute but she’s also basically an oblivious, selfish teenage girl and as I get older, the more I wish she wasn’t written in such a quirky way. Gaiman does go a bit out of his way to be clever though — of course Destruction has spent the past 300 years creating, because … get it? He’s Destruction! I think I used to find those sorts of things smarter and less obvious than I do now.

Still, the lightness of this story is what makes Dream’s decision that much more powerful and tragic. In case you haven’t been paying attention throughout The Sandman, Brief Lives tends to emphasize the idea of change very overtly. Dream doesn’t like changing or reflecting on his past mistakes, but he does so here, even with the full knowledge of what that means for him. I do think the simplicity of the story overall is what makes this hit all the harder.

Thompson and Locke do great work here. His inking captures her pencils extremely well. I like how she draws Delirium as ever-changing with a shifting wardrobe of torn fishnets and oversized sweaters with multicolored hair. She also draws Dream as, well, dreamy. Her Endless are, for me, my ideal interpretations. (But maybe that’s just because I’ve read this book a lot.)

I don’t think it’s so much I liked Brief Lives less than I used to. I still like it quite a bit although I’m not sure if I’d call it my favorite anymore. While its simplicity is a large part of its strengths, I think that’s actually one of the volume’s weaknesses. I like the chaos of The Sandman, the “anything can happen” feel, and despite Delirium’s presence, this just needed more of that. It’s still good, though. That’s undeniable. I will always have fun reading Brief Lives.