Neil Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN might just be my favorite work of art. To me, it’s better than any painting, any album, any symphony, any movie, any poem, any play, and possibly, just possibly, any novel, which to me, as an English Professor, is the greatest art form of them all. I might even like THE SANDMAN better than Pride and Prejudice just for the sheer scope of the thing. If I had to go to that hypothetical island I’m often asked about, I think I’d take the 76-issue SANDMAN instead of Pride and Prejudice. If you’ve never read THE SANDMAN in its entirety, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve missed out on one of the greatest pleasures in life.
My goal, then, is to get you to read this great work, or, if you’ve read it before, to remind you to read it again. In the upcoming months, I hope to write a series of essays taking us through all ten collections of THE SANDMAN. And after that, I’d like to look at some of the spin-off series: Lucifer, Books of Magic, The Dead Boy Detectives, and more.
What is Sandman? THE SANDMAN is a comic book series of 76 monthly issues written by Neil Gaiman from December 1988 to March 1996. Sandman the CHARACTER, or Dream as he is often called, is one member of a family of beings Gaiman calls The Endless, each of whom has a name beginning with the letter D. Dream’s brothers and sisters include: Destiny (his brother who carries the Book of Bate), the androgynous Desire, the mentally and emotionally unstable Delirium, self-destructive Despair, and Death, a cheerful-Goth girl who is the break-out star of the series because she plays her role as Death with such kindness (sans scythe) and because she offers an excellent contrast to her brooding brother Dream (Sandman has many names in addition to Dream: Morpheus, King of Dreams, and others that come up throughout the series). Both Dream and Death have pale skin and wear all black and have an affection for each other that we don’t see between any other members of the family. There’s one other family member who is missing from my list, and part of the suspense of the series is finding out who this character is (he’s frequently referred to by the other members of the Endless).
Sandman, as the King of Dreams, presides over ALL the dreams in all parts of the world throughout all time (including other planets as well, since we find out that Martian Manhunter knows him by another name and with another visage). He and his brothers and sisters are personified functions that are essential to the eternal workings of our world. And Dream, because he is the closest we get to Death before we die, is perhaps closest to his sister for this very reason. He presides over what is called “The Dreaming,” or as Sandman himself says, “The DREAMWORLD, the DREAMTIME, the UNCONSCIOUS — call it what you will — is as much part of ME as I am part of it.” Later, Sandman gives an even more complete description of key landmarks and the geography of The Dreamworld:
“BEYOND, outside my dreamworld, there is INFINITE dust, infinite dark. And the DREAMWORLD is infinite, although it is bounded on every side. The way to the CENTER is a slow spiral. One passes the houses of mystery and secrets — old WAY STATIONS on the frontiers of NIGHTMARE — from THERE one charts a course NIGHTWARD until one reaches the GATES of HORN and IVORY. I carved them MYSELF, when the world was YOUNGER, and ORDER was NEEDED. The DREAMS that pass through the gates of IVORY are LIES, FIGMENTS and DECEPTIONS. The OTHER admits the TRUTH. Once through it I can see my CASTLE.”
The reference to the Houses of Mystery and Secret are Gaiman’s way of connecting his comic book with the DC Universe. These were two older series of Horror comics in the 1970s, each of which had a framing device for their wide variety of stories: Each house was presided over by one of the two brothers in the first horror story of all time, the first story of murder — Cain and Abel. Cain hosted THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY series; Abel, THE HOUSE OF SECRETS. Gaiman came up with the idea that his
Sandman would naturally preside over nightmares as well as dreams and thus would guide stories of horror. Characters from myth, literature, and TV also appear. One other key character from comics that appears is John Constantine, the street-wise magician created by Alan Moore in his ground-breaking SWAMP THING run. This connection is important because Alan Moore is the main reason DC’s editor Karen Berger went to England in the late 1980s searching for new talent like Gaiman and Grant Morrison. In fact, Alan Moore is the one who taught Gaiman how to write comic book scripts. Moore even looked at Gaiman’s first ones, including one on Constantine. So, Cain and Abel connect Gaiman’s series to older comics and Constantine connects the series to new developments at DC in the 1980s. This ability of Gaiman’s to smoothly and naturally make connections from the past and the present are hallmarks of his writing to this day and allow him to give a mythic quality to our daily living.
THE SANDMAN series connects to the larger DC universe also through the character of Sandman himself. Sandman, of course, is an old character from folklore who leaves sand in our eyes while we sleep, but he is also Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, which means Gaiman’s new Sandman character operates on the grand level of myth, beyond even a few hundred years of folklore and certainly beyond that of 20th Century comics. But by giving his series the title THE SANDMAN instead of Morpheus, Gaiman clearly wants Sandman’s connections to all his comic book predecessors to resonate with his readers who are longtime comic book fans. The original comic book character Sandman from the 1940s was named Wesley Dodds and was similar to pulp and radio crime-fighter THE SHADOW. Eventually, this version of Sandman became less of a heroic pulp character coming out of the shadows and more of a superhero in a bright outfit, one that will be made fun of in the second collection of SANDMAN issues (However, the 1940s pulp version of The Sandman was revisited in an excellent series by Matt Wagner in the 1990s. It’s called SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE, and I highly recommend it, particularly if you like old pulp radio crime shows like THE SHADOW). However, while all three versions of the comic book character share the same name, they are ultimately nothing alike. The other two main versions of Sandman are human — and they both have cameo appearances in Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN — but Gaiman’s Sandman works on a grander, mythic scale. Yet at the same time he creates this grand, mythic character, Gaiman allowed his character to take on the appearance of Peter Murphy, lead singer of the English gothic rock band Bauhaus.
Through this series of essays I will try to mention some more of these references and allusions, but I won’t even attempt to mention them all (As much as I’m a real fan of Peter Murphy, you don’t really need to know that Sandman looks like him, do you?). I don’t plan to write a series of essays that go into so much detail you don’t need to read the comics to get the plot. The series can be enjoyed without knowing most of these connections and references. In interviews, Gaiman almost always emphasizes how important it was for him to write a story a teenager could read and enjoy the first time through. However, the series is written with so many layers, that it will yield more each time it’s read. My suggestion is to enjoy what you pick up the first time without worrying too much about what you’ve missed. I’m certain I haven’t caught all the references yet.
In terms of production, Gaiman created such a unique comic that editor Karen Berger was inspired to create a separate, more mature line of comics that were aimed at an intelligent, older audience. Vertigo emerged, and it still represents quality comics to many of us (Berger just recently announce that she’s leaving her position at DC as Vertigo editor). Gaiman, never having been in the industry, just made sure things went the way he believed they should. He wouldn’t write a script for an issue until he knew who was drawing it — he wanted to play to each separate artist’s strengths. He backed cover artist Dave McKean in his desire to NOT place Sandman at the center of any cover of any issue after issue #1, something that was never done in comics until that point. In the end, McKean’s approach gave unity to the look of the series: When one walks into a comic book shop, comics are displayed with the covers facing outward, so each month, McKean’s artwork — very different from all the other artwork out there — would be easily identified by fans even though the artwork inside the comic could vary drastically. In addition, McKean’s freedom on the cover gave Gaiman freedom on the inside, too: He felt free to tell stories in which Sandman was not the main character or didn’t appear at all — once again, an unheard of approach in comics. Gaiman also eventually got the editors to take the * out of “F*CK,” a major barrier in comics that was broken by him. And, even more importantly to Gaiman, was the chance to actually end the series how he wanted and when he wanted. Publishers obviously don’t want a profitable series to end, but Gaiman got what he wanted and ended the series with issue #75 (there’s a special issue that jumps the total number of issues up to 76).
Setting aside for a moment all the ground-breaking work he did through THE SANDMAN, why should you read this comic? Mainly, it’s a compelling story that Gaiman creates with seeming effortlessness. The reader can work at catching allusions or relax and get caught up with the story (something I usually do when I read a work for the first time because I don’t care about the allusions if it’s not even worth reading a second time). The story invites the reader in. Paradoxically, we are asked to wake up to Dreamworld. We start with an exhausted Sandman getting captured by an Alistair Crowley-type figure, and along the way, we meet dreamers like ourselves as well as poets and gods and faeries on the one hand and criminals and murderers and Lucifer on the other. We even meet a young Will Shakespeare and are given explanations for the origins of some of his plays. There are so many different kinds of stories in this series, I can’t imagine a person who is not able to find at least one story arc to her taste.
In the next essay, I will begin with the first volume, Preludes & Nocturnes. You’ll want to read this first volume soon — Gaiman has promised to publish in the near future a prequel comic that explains what Sandman was up to that led him to be so exhausted that he was caught by a mere mortal for the majority of the 20th century. Order your copy now, and make sure you get a paperback edition: The artwork is such that a digital version doesn’t do justice to it. The artists rarely stick to the regularized panels that are best suited to digital viewing. Instead, you want to be able to look at each full page in its entirety.
Welcome to The Dreaming . . .