As The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12 hits the stands, it comes time to say goodbye to one of the most well-crafted and brilliant comics to come out in the last decade, and maybe even in my life span. I couldn’t let this series go away without writing a love letter to it, so here it is.
The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12
Simon Bowland (letters), Matheus Lopes (colors), Nick Robles (art), Marguerite Sauvage (cover), G. Willow Wilson (writer)
DC Black Label
August 3, 2021
This review contains spoilers for The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12 and the rest of the series.
To tell the truth, when the first issue of Waking Hours hit, I was kind of over the whole Sandman Universe concept. House of Whispers, The Books of Magic, and Lucifer had failed to hold my interest, and by the end Spurrier’s own take on The Dreaming kind of petered out for me. The only book that kept me coming back was Spurrier’s other title, the canceled much too soon John Constantine: Hellblazer. I was to the point where I thought it might be best to leave the fields fallow for a bit, and let that dream magic have time to come back. I’m glad that didn’t happen though, because what came next is a series that kept me wanting for more every single month.
If you’ve been following my Pubwatch, you know how much I love this series, as all but four issues have gotten my top grade as it’s been coming out. Waking Hours is consistently the best book DC puts out, and it’s not even close. Every single creator working on this book is doing career-defining work, which is why I was absolutely floored that not a single one of them got an Eisner nomination. Sandman-related books are the closest the comics world has to a Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar-bait situation, and this book just got completely ignored?
Throughout the entire series, Simon Bowland has been an unsung hero. Bowland’s letters have been phenomenal, from the varying fonts of the different Shakespeares in the first arc, to the calligraphy used in scene transitions, to the unique font and coloring used for Ruin’s speech; you notice the lettering because it’s so good it makes you notice. Everything still flows the way it’s supposed to, but there are times you stop and linger, marveling at a craft that is so often ignored.
The same can be said for Lopes’ colors throughout the book, they are often subdued and pastel, but when the story calls for it they can flip to bright and bombastic at a moment’s notice. Of particular note are tone switches like those we saw in the realm of faerie or when Ruin gives in to his full nightmare nature. Lopes won’t get mentioned nearly as much as Robles does when people talk about this series, and that’s a shame because the book would not look remotely the same without him.
Speaking of Robles, where the series truly shined was in the character work that both he and Wilson did. Over the course of a dozen issues and two distinct arcs, we were introduced to four characters that would play lead roles in the story, and truly each of them got to have a fantastic character arc in just a dozen comics. I’ve become very attached to Lindy, Ruin, Jophiel, and of course, my dearest Heather over the course of this series and I’m immensely sad to see them go.
What those character arcs are, is something that is a story with uniquely transgender themes. The creative team of this book are not trans, but despite that this remains one of the single best trans narratives I’ve ever read. Heather After is treated with an agency that trans characters don’t often get. She’s able to make the story hers in a way that Wanda never was able in the pages of the original Sandman. Wanda’s story is one that was progressive for the time, but one that doesn’t hold up nearly as well thirty years later. We’ve moved beyond trans people needing to be the side character in a story about allyship, and Heather After is proof of that. In all ways that matter, she, not Ruin, is the main character of Waking Hours.
Heather’s story comes to it’s fruition in The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12 in much the same way it has always driven the story. Her own power, her own bloodline, her own mistakes, and her own loyalty and stubbornness in defending her friends. The previous issue ended her war with the impish Puck, in a way that was one of the most empowering scenes from a trans woman that I have ever seen. Puck believed that he had gotten the upper hand on her, because while she was hospitalized he found her medical chart which included her birth name.
Now this is something that is jarring and cruel for trans people. Deadnaming us hurts in ways that are often hard to describe. But also, as Heather illustrates, life is not a static thing. People grow, people change, people evolve. The name you are given at birth is no more your true name than the weight you were at birth is your true weight. The name you’re given at birth is something that means things to others. Your parents picked it for a reason that is close to them, not for a reason that is close to you. So when you’re old enough to know that that name doesn’t fit? Well take a new one. There are legal hurdles of course, but nothing stops you from using nicknames or middle names or whatever you’d like if you choose not to jump those legal hurdles. It’s in the climactic moments of issue eleven that Heather shows Puck and the unseelie that her deadname has no power over her, especially from those who wield it as a weapon without knowledge of who she is. There is no such thing as a true name in reality, because you can always determine that a name no longer fits and move on to something new.
In issue #12, Heather’s portion of the story ends where it was always going to, with a direct confrontation with the lord of the Dreaming himself. One of the big themes of this run is that of fate and how to reshape it to your own will. Just because you were told you were meant to be something doesn’t mean that that’s the path you’re required to go down. And putting this narrative through the lens of a trans woman gives the theme extra power. Trans people are expected to be specific things throughout our lives. Early on, we’re expected to be whatever the genitals that we were born with say we are. When we decide that doesn’t fit, if we’re lucky, we are able to come out. If we’re lucky, we’re able to transition. If we’re lucky, society’s expectations of us change and we’re expected to performatively be pitch perfect representations of the gender that we are finally publicly accepting as our own. Trans women are expected to be performatively feminine. Society expects us to always wear makeup and dresses and to suddenly stop liking things that it deems too masculine. My own family said that it would be easier to accept me as a woman if I didn’t maintain my interest in comic books and sports. If I didn’t have comic book tattoos and instead just had flowers and butterflies or the like. Trans men, likewise, are expected to to be performatively masculine. Nonbinary people are expected to be performatively androgynous. But society’s expectations be damned, because our stories are our own, and it’s we who get to define them. This can be scary. It can lead to broken relationships and isolation. But it can also lead to self-acceptance and a reclamation of your own power.
The expectations of others plays a role in the narratives of every major character in this series. Lindy has the expectations of her advisor and the doctorate committee, but in the end it is by being herself that she’s able to meet their expectations. Ruin is expected to be a nightmare, a thing of terror and not a thing of beauty. Jophiel is expected to be a titan of judgement and vengeance rather than of compassion and friendship. Heather is expected to follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather and her great-grandmother, but even as a child she rebelled against these expectations. Yes, she was going to do magic, but not because of them, she was doing this for her.
Which brings us back to the climactic encounter in The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12. In this moment, Heather uses everyone’s expectations of her to her advantage. As Daniel threatens to unmake Ruin, and to unmake Heather as she stands between them, she begins a recantation. One that is familiar to readers of Sandman.
“I give you a coin I made from a stone. I give you a song I stole from the dirt. I give you a knife from under the hills. And a feather I plucked from an angel’s wing.”
These are the words of the ritual that Heather’s great-grandfather Roderick Burgess used to summon and imprison Morpheus in Sandman #1, and Heather is using these same words to threaten the same to Daniel. In the end the threat itself seems to be pushing her into the fate that everyone expects for her, but again it’s something that she has made her own. It’s a power she has reclaimed. She did not use her magic for selfish reasons like her family did, she used it for altruistic reasons. She did it for friendship and in pursuit of true love.
The Dreaming: Waking Hours #12 is the end of Heather’s current story, but clearly not the end of the story of her life. For now the endings for the characters are happy. In learning to be a compassionate friend, Jophiel gets readmitted to the heavenly host. In learning to accept the beauty in his design, Ruin gets to be with the man he gave up everything for. And in helping her friends along their own path, Heather After carves her own distinct place in the Sandman Universe. I hope this is not the last time we see Heather After, but only time will tell if these threads ever get picked up again. Anyway, thank you to G. Willow Wilson, Nick Robles, Mat Lopes, Simon Bowland, M.K. Perker, and Javier Rodriguez for giving me a story that will sit with me for the rest of my life.