The stories in the collection first appeared in 1993. The collection first appeared in paperback and hardback in 1994.
Like volumes 3 and 6, Dream Country and Fables and Reflections, this is a collection of (mostly) single-issue short stories, mostly not directly related to the main storyline of the series. Unlike those collections, however, the issues in World's End were clearly written with this end in mind, and as a set form a frame tale.
This is the story of Brant Tucker and Charlene Mooney, who are involved in a car crash during what seems to be a snowstorm (in the Northern Summer). Charlene is badly hurt, and Brant is directed by a Mysterious Voice to a strange inn - "Worlds' End, a free house", as the pub sign outside declares it. It transpires later that this is one of four inns where travellers between dimensions, between realms and kingdoms, shelter during reality storms - the consequences of particularly momentous events. Throughout the reading of the collection, then, the reader is aware that some kind of momentous event has occurred, and the conclusion of the collection gives us an inkling of what it is; the revellers at the inn gather by its windows to watch a funeral procession cross the sky, which ends with Death looking sadly into the inn and then looking down sadly at her crossed hands, as the crescent moon behind her slowly turns red. The framing sequence is penciled by Bryan Talbot and inked by Mark Buckingham, Dick Giordano and Steve Leialoha, with the exception of the funeral procession, which is penciled by Gary Amaro and inked by Tony Harris.
The stories within the collection are each narrated by a different person during a storytelling session at the inn; as the introduction notes, this is similar to the device used in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. This gives each a distinct style both in the telling and in the illustration, with the collection drawn together by the short sequences between stories set at the inn itself. Each story told contains at least one character telling a story.
The first story is perhaps the most distinctive in graphical style; it eschews the traditional comic style, with linked panels containing speech bubbles and panels which narrate the story. The narration appears as prose, with illustrations interrupting to provide snapshots of the action in the story. Gaiman had asked artist Alec Stevens to model the approach after that which he had employed in The Sinners, published by DC's Piranha Press imprint in June 1989. This approach is a unique, stained-glass-like style that takes a nod to the German Expressionists of the early 20th century.
"A Tale" concerns a city dweller who finds himself one day in what he believes to be the dream of the city in which he lives, where he encounters another stranded city dweller, Morpheus, and a woman who looks like Death, but who Gaiman has said is not. When asked, Stevens said that he drew his own 'Mona' character from his Hardcore graphic novel, published by Piranha Press in January, 1990. It ends with the frightened city dweller returning to "reality", whereupon he moves away from the city to a small village, where the story-teller meets him.
The second story is a fantasy adventure yarn, spun by the flamboyant representative of Faerie introduced in Season of Mists, Cluracan. He is sent to the city Aurelian to represent the interests of Faerie in the political upheavals currently occurring in that distant place, and causes uproar with a prophecy to the autocratic ruler of Aurelian. He is imprisoned as a consequence, but freed by Morpheus, who is alerted to his plight by Cluracan's sister, Nuala, currently in Morpheus' service. Using his faerie powers to disguise himself, Cluracan provokes the inhabitants of Aurelian to rebellion against their corpulent and corrupt ruler. John Watkiss draws this story with swashbuckling brushstrokes.
The third is a sea shanty told by a girl who poses as a boy, Jim, in order to be able to go to sea. It concerns the difficulties presented by extraordinary truths, and reintroduces Hob Gadling, whose story is first told in The Doll's House. Jim makes a voyage from Singapore to Liverpool, stopping in India. He meets Hob, who is presented as a guest on the ship, and an Indian stowaway whom Hob convinces the captain to let stay. The Indian tells a tale about a king who gives his beloved wife the fruit of immortality, who in turn gives it to her secret lover, which then passes to a concubine, then back to the king, who in shame leaves his city and wanders the earth. Before the end of their journey, a massive leviathan appears and surrounds the ship in a terrible display, then disappears. Jim is eager to tell people what he saw, but Hob states that the sea holds many secrets that sailors know but don't and can't talk about. The story ends with Hob revealing he knows Jim's true identity and Jim learning Hob actually owns the ship he sails on. The story is penciled by Michael Zulli and inked by Dick Giordano.
The fourth story is a story about America, told to Brant alone by a man he meets upstairs in the inn. In this America, Nixon is not re-elected in 1972; instead, he is succeeded by a young man named Prez Rickard, as American youth - allowed to vote for the first time with the lowering of voting age to 18 - also vote to lower the required age for president and get behind one of their own. Prez is a great president, averting a conflict in the Middle East, solving the energy crisis and putting the USA's house in order. During his first term, though he is visited by Boss Smiley, a sinister figure with the "have a nice day" smiley face for a head. Smiley tempts Prez, offering the world in exchange for allegiance. Prez refuses the offer, to which Smiley warns him not to seek a second term. In Prez's second term, a deranged woman wounds Prez and kills his new fiancee to get an actor's attention (similar to John Hinckley, Jr.). Prez finishes his term and retires to his hometown, declining many requests to return to public life and eventually vanishing altogether. At the end of his life, he is taken by Death to heaven, where Boss Smiley warmly claims him a good servant and offers him to be his praiser. Dream arrives and takes Prez away from an angry Smiley, and Prez begins wandering between worlds to help out other Americas. Prez is ultimately a Messiah figure for the American dream; young, perfect, idealistic and brilliant, and therefore essentially fleeting and transitory. Prez's role as an ecumenical religious figure is emphasized throughout; his parallels with Jesus Christ are demonstrated through parallels with stories from the Gospels, including an event similar to the temptation of Christ, and stories from other religious traditions such as Taoism are included. Michael Allred's pop-art influenced drawings are well-suited to the story.
The fifth story is told by an apprentice from the necropolis Litharge, a city devoted to the dead; its inhabitants know countless methods of burial from manifold realms and cultures. The most complex of the stories in Worlds' End, at one point it itself features a storytelling session - thus leading to a point where five frames exist at one time (taking into account the fact that the central plot is, at the end, revealed to be a frame). Petrefax tells of his apprenticeship, and relates the stories told by other masters and apprentices at an air burial to which he is sent. One of these features Destruction, who tells of an earlier, less fastidious, necropolis; this story, and the one that follows it, are important to events in the tenth collection, The Wake. Petrefax's story is penciled by Shea Anton Pensa and inked by Vince Locke.
|51||A Tale of Two Cities||Neil Gaiman||Alec Stevens / Bryan Talbot||Alec Stevens / Mark Buckingham||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|
|52||Cluracan's Tale||Neil Gaiman||John Watkiss / Bryan Talbot||John Watkiss / Mark Buckingham||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|
|53||Hob's Leviathan||Neil Gaiman||Michael Zulli / Bryan Talbot||David Giordano / Mark Buckingham||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|
|54||The Golden Boy||Neil Gaiman||Michael Allred / Bryan Talbot||Michael Allred / Mark Buckingham||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|
|55||Cerements||Neil Gaiman||Shea Anton Pensa / Bryan Talbot||Vince Locke / Mark Buckingham||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|
|56||Worlds' End||Neil Gaiman||Gary Amaro / Bryan Talbot||Dick Giordano / Steve Leialoha / Tony Harris / Mark Buckingham / Bryan Talbot||Daniel Vozzo||Todd Klein||Shelly Roeberg||Karen Berger|