The Sandman: Surreal, often beautiful, sometimes twisted

book review Neil Gaiman The SandmanTHE SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman

THE SANDMAN series was originally released in comic form, later in trade paperback collections (above), and most lately in larger omnibus editions (the first one is shown here). It’s thus rather difficult (and time-consuming) to review the individual volumes, and so I’m going to review the series as a whole, noting as I do so that some volumes were better than others.

Despite some slight ups and downs, I overall found THE SANDMAN a remarkable work, well worthy of the praise it has received over the years. Neil Gaiman has rarely been better. A point I should make directly, though, is that this is in no way an easy-going fantasy read. Viewed as a whole, it’s probably one of the top five graphic novels ever written, and acts like it. Graphic novels are a rather different beast than pure prose, or have become so lately. At higher levels, they tend toward the cold and intellectual, and particularly the allusive, very strongly. The tendency perhaps springs from a driving urge amongst comic writers lately to force mainstream literature to take the graphic novel form seriously. Gaiman is no exception in this respect, and he has in any case always favored a good deal of intertextuality in his work. THE SANDMAN can be dense, confusing, and bizarre to a reader who is not paying attention. That said, the point has been made (and I tend to agree) that isn’t it time someone besides Alan Moore wrote a comic series for adults?

The story told in the text is at its basic level a story about Dream. That is, the protagonist is literally Dream, the anthropomorphic personification of dreaming and the titular “Sandman.” He is also referred to as Morpheus, the Prince of Stories, and so on, but Gaiman never allows us to forget that we are, in many ways, viewing the story as dreamers. The plot follows Morpheus through an imprisonment, an escape, and the various changes in character he subsequently undergoes as he struggles to put his existence back into order. Later on, the story is often only tangentially connected with Morpheus himself — Gaiman would not be himself if he did not have a large cast of supporting characters from various mythologies, dropping in-jokes — but always manages to say something about the personality of the Lord of Dreams and how that personality is being slowly altered.

Morpheus is not the most popular character in his own series (that honor goes to his older sister, Death), but he is probably the most fascinating. Dream is part Hamlet, part Auberon, but there’s always a sense of Shakespearean grandeur about him and his tragic, romantic nature. Morpheus is ideally suited amongst the Endless (the personifications of various forces in the SANDMAN universe) as a figure for the reader to follow because he is the one most determined to do something to interest us. Morpheus’s torture is that while he is the literal Prince of Stories, with incredible power, what he really wants is what seems denied to him: a story of his own. And what a story it turns out to be.

Once again, I won’t pretend that THE SANDMAN is easy, or even always comfortable. There are long stretches during which it is difficult to tell what is happening and why. The story is resolutely eerie and ethereal, never settling down into a more casual narrative. I have heard some say this is a turn-off, but I have to admit I find it invigorating. So many novels (particularly graphic novels) tend to give me the equivalent of sitcom entertainment: I know everything about the characters, and I generally know what’s going to happen, or at least what could happen. It makes it entertaining as long as it’s still well-done, but I never really feel as though something striking has occurred. THE SANDMAN is unwilling to go down that road. Gaiman makes his readers work for revelations, but at the same time does a good job of balancing the complexity with moments of relatable sentiment. Granted, the more challenging segments presuppose some working knowledge of mythology, but if you’re not interested in mythology, I’m really not sure why you’d read Gaiman’s works at all.

There are flaws. The series can be difficult to get into (particularly for those unfamiliar with the medium) and as I’ve already mentioned, a reader needs at least a basic knowledge of mythology (or a quick mind and willingness to learn on the fly). The artwork goes up and down at times in terms of quality, and there are a few instances of side-stories and flashbacks going on for too long. On the other hand, the characterization is almost uniformly exquisite, the prose is masterful, and without giving anything away, there are moments here that will stay with you for quite some time.

For what it is, then, THE SANDMAN succeeds. It’s surreal, often beautiful, sometimes twisted, and sometimes you have to work at it. Ultimately, however, it’s an experience like no other.


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TIM SCHEIDLER has recently finished a degree in English literature. He currently lives in Canada but will soon be on his way to Trinity College in Dublin for graduate school. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Jacqueline Carey. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing the fiddle and bagpipes, writing in any shape or form, and pretending Kung Fu as he does it is a real sport.

View all posts by Tim Scheidler

4 comments

  1. This something I’ve wanted to read ever since I heard Gaiman’s interview when the omnibus was released.

    Tim, As far as graphic novels for adults; have you ever read Frank Miller?
    His Sin City series is some of my very favorite, especially the first story -which was originally titled Sin City,as that’s what my trade paperback edition is titled, and then later named The Hard Goodbye as other, different Sin City stories came-out. But I’m a crime noir fan, and Sin City is like the ultra noir.

  2. I love the Sandman covers.

  3. Sin City, eh? Thanks, Greg. I’ve read some of Miller’s work on Batman, but I somehow keep missing out Sin City. Strange, as I do like noir.

    • Couldn’t agree more with your review. There’s no question that this series deserves the full five stars. Other than Alan Moore, few writers have dreamed as large as Gaiman has here. And the few others who try, don’t pull it off. Even the perfect five-star Planetary by Ellis pales in comparison to Sandman. It’s as if Planetary kept going and going and managed to try more things and pull them off each time.

      I’ll add to Greg’s plug for Sin City. Wow. Just plain wow. It is an absolute must read series for comic fans, particularly for those who like noir. Sin City was either the first or second adult comic series I ever read. The other was either Sandman or Watchmen. Somebody sure was pointing me in the right direction!

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