Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is The Dreaming #19. Written by Simon Spurrier (Alienated, John Constantine: Hellblazer) with art by Bilquis Evely (Shaft, Wonder Woman), colorist Mat Lopes (Gasolina, Batgirl), and letterer Simon Bowland (2000 AD, The Wild Storm), this penultimate issue is a breathtaking display of the sophistication, artistry, and emotion that makes this series such a strong follow-up to The Sandman. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
“People can’t live without wonder and stories. They give up. It’s happening out there right now. They drain of feeling. They drain of life!”
Spoken by the librarian who oversees every story ever told, written, or imagined, these words encapsulate the central theme of The Dreaming, a series about how stories are the glue that keeps the universe from crumbling into pieces. Expanding on characters and concepts introduced in Neil Gaiman’s seminal Vertigo Comics series The Sandman, The Dreaming reveals new dimensions of Gaiman’s creations by showing how the titular kingdom warps under a new ruler that wants to stifle imagination. Daniel, the former Dream King, has been banished from his domain and stripped of his power, leaving behind an eclectic group of subjects who have to save all of humanity from going completely insane because their dreams have been corrupted.
Written by Simon Spurrier with art by Bilquis Evely, colorist Mat Lopes, and letterer Simon Bowland, The Dreaming takes Gaiman’s ever-shifting fantasy realm and ties it to our bleak modern reality. Spurrier’s narrative explores hot button topics like bigotry and xenophobia toward refugees and how the well-intentioned actions of the 1% can have catastrophic consequences for everyone else, but it does so in a surreal context that allows for plenty of creative flexibility in both the text and the art. The Sandman was a comic fixated on the malleability of language, and The Dreaming’s creative team carries on that legacy by embracing the limitless possibilities introduced by this setting and its inhabitants. Spurrier gets to play around with heightened character voices and narration, and as his story gets wilder, the art team gets greater challenges—and nails it every time.
The Dreaming #19 opens with a panel that spotlights the complexity Evely and Lopes’ imagery brings to the story, visually summarizing the current state of the Dreaming with a shot of its current ruler, Wan, in his gallery. This is the room where members of the Endless can communicate with their siblings by standing in front of their framed sigils, but there’s something wrong with Dream’s frame. Its borders are made of shattered glass, the walls around it are cracking, and nothing hangs within it. Wan’s moth antennae form the bottom of the frame, which is surrounded by a beam of pale red light that carries down into his wings, surging outward like billows of smoke. It’s an image full of drama and ominous tension, adding layers to the simple caption: “The lord of the Dreaming is contemplating his duty.”
Once upon a time, that duty was keeping the universe populated with stories. But then a tech billionaire asshole decided that he knew what was best for society, hatching a plan to seize control of the Dreaming by infecting it with A.I. intended to educate with facts and science instead of inspiring superstition and fantasy. This A.I. manifests in the Dreaming as the boyish Wan, whose design evokes another sleepy icon, Little Nemo, but Wan has a “dark twin”: a being of aggressive disruption that manifests as monochromatic visual noise. The first panel of The Dreaming #19 is a structured, symmetrical image that holds on to some semblance of order. The second panel eliminates that structure to reveal Wan’s dark twin in a flurry of lines indicating an abstract figure in motion, and as the issue continues, this chaotic alter ego eventually takes over to show Wan’s true face to everyone in the Dreaming.
The first half of The Dreaming #19 involves Lucien, the aforementioned librarian, providing a necessary breakdown of how all the pieces of Spurrier’s plot fit together. There are a lot of moving parts in this narrative, and as someone whose entire purpose is organizing stories, Lucien clarifies everything for the reader as the book enters its endgame. There’s only one more issue of The Dreaming left, and #19 is when Lucien and companions revolt against their false ruler and reclaim their home. Lucien’s big recap builds to him giving Wan a verbal lashing, pointing out that the plot to reprogram the Dreaming ignores humanity’s basic need for wonder and strips people of their desire to live.
Stories help us escape, but they also help us grow. Before humans had scientific answers for natural phenomena, they created myths to explain them, stimulating minds and creating curiosity that drove the species to continue making discoveries to solve the planet’s mysteries. Stories allow us to understand ourselves and the world better, and they don’t need to be hopeful in order to provide comfort in harrowing times. Just look at the popularity of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion right now in the midst of a global pandemic; seeing a worst-case scenario makes it easier to process and proceed with current events.
Some elements of The Sandman haven’t aged especially well—you can read our Back Issues Sandman series to find out which ones—but on a stylistic level, the book introduced readers to a huge variety of visual storytellers exploring the medium in exciting ways. Gaiman took big creative swings that gave his collaborators opportunities to experiment on the page, and editor Karen Berger found talent that boldly veered from the superhero norm with aesthetics ranging from the painted splendor of Charles Vess to the scratchy realism of Mike Dringenberg and the animated expressionism of Marc Hempel. There’s a prestigious artistic legacy behind The Dreaming, and Evely and Lopes place themselves high in the pantheon of Sandman artists with lushly detailed artwork that delivers expression and innovation in equal parts.
Evely sets an extremely high bar for this series’ guest artists, resulting in visuals that strive to meet the ambition and ingenuity of Evely’s design and layouts. When Rose Walker, a woman with a long-time connection to the Dreaming, encounters the physical manifestation of Desire in The Dreaming #8, guest artist Abigail Larson inventively laid out the page to put the reader in Rose’s perspective and create the sense of eavesdropping through the fabric of reality. The central image of this page is Desire holding up a mirror revealing Rose’s daughter tattooing Daniel, a trail of smoke adding an extra layer of depth to help sell the three-dimensional illusion. Individual panels appear as holes ripped into the black background, adding an element of violence to the visuals that foreshadows the damage about to be done to the Dream King.
Marguerite Sauvage has done some especially striking work on her issues focusing on Dora, the night hag whose true identity has been one of the series’ core mysteries. Sauvage is best known for her chic, vibrant work on books like Faith and Bombshells, but she goes in a very different direction on The Dreaming as she unleashes Dora’s fury. A two-page spread in The Dreaming #18 showcases both the power and delicacy of Sauvage’s work as it shows Dora feeding on Rose Walker and remembering how she was originally healed by Dream. Sauvage overlays uneven rectangular panel borders on the left half of the spread to punctuate specific beats of Dora’s attack, and surrounds the two women with frantic, jagged linework and messy splotches of color. These eventually give way to smoother, more graceful lines and cooler colors on the right side of the spread, bringing a feeling of gentle comfort and relief to the page as Dora finally gains the answers she’s sought for so long.
Simon Bowland’s work on this series highlights how letterers impact visual storytelling, and The Dreaming #19 demands a lot from him because of how the script uses narration and dialogue. The narration in this issue is actually spoken aloud by Lucien, who has regained his connection to the fundamental force of storytelling and exerts his authority by taking on the narrator role. Bowland brings the narration into the soundscape of the scene by layering Wan and his dark twin’s dialogue on top of the narration boxes, and when Lucien appears, the square narration box gains a tail that turns it into an active dialogue word balloon.
Bowland’s lettering also plays a major part in The Dreaming #19’s big fight against the dark twin, which layers different narration boxes from different characters on the page as the villain is overwhelmed by the combined force of these living dreams. The most thrilling moment of that fight taps into the musicality of Evely and Lopes’ work, bringing together different visual elements with their own volume and rhythm in a gorgeous two-page spread. The swirling cacophony of the dark twin takes up most of the space, as overlaid circular panels zoom in on specific action beats when different players take the lead. All of this movement is very frantic, but order comes via Lucien, who calmly walks along the bottom of the page to serve as a visual metronome keeping the beat.
It’s easy to get sucked into these dense images and dissect the creative choices that make them so powerful. This issue builds to a triumphant, transcendent cliffhanger with a trio of consecutive splash pages, visualizing the Dreaming’s healing with a blend of fluid layouts, evocative graphic patterns, and dazzling color application. This series consistently delivers the wonder that humans need to feel inspired, and the story about people banding together to fight corruption and repair their broken world comes at a time when it’s desperately needed. There’s only one more chapter of The Dreaming left, but like The Sandman, it’s a book with a profound message and impeccable craft that will continue resonating with readers long after its conclusion.