A seemingly innocuous panel from "The Wake", the concluding storyarc of Neil Gaiman's groundbreaking series, The Sandman. This panel both epitomizes and offers a savage critique of "mature reader" comics.
Morpheus, the eponymous Sandman, has died. The anthropomorphic manifestation of hopes, fears, dreams, and storytelling has passed from perception. As they sleep, dreamers have gathered in wake, mourning this passing. In this panel, Dream's familiar, the raven Matthew, responds to an offer of some wine. Off-panel chief librarian for the Dreaming, Lucien confirms Matthew's sobriety with an enigmatic quotation.
In more than one sense, this panel marks a moment of realization for readers. After this panel, there is no going back. Morpheus will not be returning. The last moments of his story really have played out on the final pages of issue #69. For regular readers, in a very real sense, the Dream has died.
But in a wholly other sense, The Sandman marks a point of no return in comics publication. Writer Neil Gaiman brought a literary quality to the series that along with such works as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer winning Maus brought critical acclaim to the comics medium. At the height of this critical and commercial success however, Gaiman petitioned publisher DC to terminate the series. Agreeing to this, DC prioritized artistic creativity over commercial concerns. This decision would have lasting ramifications for both mainstream publisher-owned and independent self-published comics series. Almost from this moment, comics stories could end, something that had never happened before. There would be no going back.
But this panel also offers a secret betrayal of the "mature readers" project. The quote offered by Lucien comes from writer Alan Moore's run on another DC publication, Saga of the Swamp Thing. More than a decade before "The Wake", Moore kills off a Swamp Thing supporting character in a drunk driving incident. Consumed by fear and frustration, Matt Cable steadily turns to drink. When he finally decides to face his frustrations, he grabs the car keys and braves the night. As the car swerves, hitting a tree, Moore offers the sobering thought, "The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober". In finally revealing the dependable raven Matthew to be none other than Matt Cable, Gaiman offers Moore's character a redemption. But with redeeming the ghost of Matt Cable, Gaiman also gestures at DC's mainstream superhero continuity. In the era of creator-owned, terminable series that Gaiman helped usher in, such gestures become increasingly impossible.