This is the first in a series of posts where I explore a work of art that inspires me, Neil Gaiman’s seminal series, The Sandman. To read other entries as they become available, click here.
Following decades of false starts, The Sandman finally makes its way to Netflix in just under two weeks time. Its impending debut served as a timely reminder to make my way through the series that inspired it; this really is the opportune time, or perfect excuse to reacquaint myself with one of the greatest comic book series of all time (I’ll even accept arguments that it is the greatest, bar none). When somebody mentions seminal comic books, a few titles are sure to come up: Watchmen or V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (with art by Dave Gibbons and David Lloyd respectively), Batman: The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One by Frank Miller (the latter featuring art by David Mazuchelli), Maus by Art Spiegelman. While there is so much about the 1980s that we can collectively shake our heads over, it was a decade where graphic fiction, in many ways, came into its own, with seminal stories that showed readers that the medium can be so much more than children’s literature.
As seminal and important works as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns, Year One and Maus are, these are self-contained stories, built with their beginnings, middles and endings that can be digested in a single volume. Another seminal work, The Sandman, which this post begins to look at, is less contained; its core series stretches ten volumes (with an additional three after Neil Gaiman brought the series to a close), originally published as seventy-five issues between 1988 and 1996. To be sure, it has a beginning, a middle and an end—you may note, I subtitled this post “The Beginning,” as I look at the first three of these volumes—but this is an epic story, a fantasy like none other ever written.
The Sandman is a story about dreams, about nightmares, about everything in between, but most of all, together, it forms a narrative about stories. It’s about where these stories come from and how they inspire us. Oftentimes beautiful and regularly horrific, throughout The Sandman, Gaiman has created a rich tapestry that only grows richer with each story he told.
Published by DC Comics, and later the Vertigo imprint (created for more mature, adult-oriented stories with less focus on superheroics; host of some of the greatest comics published and now disbanded, may it rest in peace—new reprints now fall under the DC Black Label banner), The Sandman is loosely connected to the DC Universe, but stands aside from it. While early stories featured superheroes (which I’ll cover below), as the stories progressed, these fell by the wayside.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Sandman, do yourself a favour and read it. Do so before you watch it on Netflix; you have time (unless, of course, you’ve found this little article after having binged it all on Netflix—but if so, still do yourself a favour and read it). Season one of the series is adapting the first two volumes, so at least read those; I implore you. If you’re relying on my description, I promise you I’m doing it a great disservice.
The Sandman tells the story of Dream, commonly known as Morpheus in the story, though these names have varied throughout the ages, often depending on the time and culture. As the anthropomorphised embodiment of dreams, he is one of the Endless (his siblings: Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Delirium and Despair), who are as old as life in the universe, older than gods, destined to exist as long as any life remains. After being trapped by an occultist and held captive for seventy years, upon his escape, Morpheus discovers his realm has been changed in his absence. The question remains, though, for a being who has remained unchanged over the ages, is he able to adjust?
And thus, the story begins.
Volume One: Preludes & Nocturnes is described by Gaiman himself as “awkward;” a collection of stories where the author was finding his footing, and not reflective of what the saga would become. I’m a little more forgiving about this than its author, however this collection’s title is entirely appropriate. In many ways, it is a prelude to everything that is yet to come.
Preludes & Nocturnes collects the first eight issues of the series, initially with pencilled art by Sam Keith (comic aficionados would recognise him as the creator of The Maxx) and inks by Mike Dringengberg through the first five issues, before Keith determined he was an ill fit for the book and Dringenberg took over as the regular penciller with Malcolm Jones III taking over the inks.
Rather than collecting a story arc throughout these eight issues, Preludes & Nocturnes builds a loose narrative throughout its stories. It all begins in 1916 with “Sleep of the Just,” where magician Roderick Burgess, attempting to gain immortality, aims to capture Death, but instead captures Dream. Fearing retribution, he keeps Dream captive and eventually passes away. When Dream finally escapes, his retribution is directed at his son, who is cursed. From the outset, Gaiman introduces readers to characters who appear to have a minor role to play, but will play more important roles as the narrative continues.
“Imperfect Hosts” expands the mythology as Dream returns to his realm, the Dreaming, and learns what has become of it in his absence. The story introduces readers to Cain and Abel, dream embodiments of the biblical figures, Lucien, the Dreaming’s librarian, and the Hecatae, and sets him on his path of retrieving three items stolen from him, which will allow him to retain his full power. The search begins in “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” where Dream meets John Constantine (of Hellblazer, Keanu Reeves, a short-lived TV series and time travelling on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow fame)—while a DC universe character, Constantine is better known for his appearances in Vertigo comics, of which he is a stalwart. With Constantine’s assistance, Dream hunts his first item. In “A Hope in Hell,” Dream’s search takes him to Hell, introducing readers to Lucifer (yes, the same Lucifer you may know from the TV series, loosely adapted from the Sandman spin-off series), and featuring DC demon Etrigan.
The second half of the volume features the strongest ties to the DC Universe in the entire run, featuring supervillain Dr. Destiny (or John Dee), heroes Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle, appearances from Batman villain the Scarecrow and the briefest of cameos from Batman and Green Lantern. “Passengers” kicks this off with Dee’s escape from Arkham Asylum, determined to use the ruby he used to fight the Justice League and create nightmares for the world, which so happens to be the third item Dream seeks. As a bonus, superheroes the Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle also appear. “24 Hours” shifts gears as it tells a horror story about Dee using the gemstone to unleash twenty-four hours of terror upon six people in a diner. “Sound and Fury” brings this arc to a close as Dream fights to reclaim his final object.
One last story brings Preludes & Nocturnes to a close, which many see as the first sign of the series to come. That story is “The Sound of Her Wings.” Here, Gaiman introduces readers to the first member of the Endless aside from Dream, his older sister, Death in a beautiful story about him spending time with his sister in a bid to distract from his depression from the events chronicled during the first seven chapters. In Death, Gaiman has created a truly beautiful character, and “The Sound of Her Wings” is a wonderful introduction to her and her relationship with Dream, full of bittersweet moments, and the first glimpses of the sense of humour Gaiman often brings to this world.
Where in many ways, Preludes & Nocturnes serves as a prelude to The Sandman, Volume Two: The Doll’s House kicks it off in earnest with its first full story arc, which you can probably ascertain, is named “The Doll’s House.” Predominantly featuring art by the regular team of Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III, Part Three features pencils by Chris Bachalo and Part Four features art by the team of Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse. These artists are an early example of brilliant craftspeople coming on board to provide their artistic wares as the series progresses.
The Doll’s House begins with what is introduced as a prologue, “Tales in the Sand,” which tells a story set in the distant past. Here, an African tribesman and his son travel through the desert as part of the youngster’s initiation into adulthood. The father tells a fable of how the area was once ruled by a queen, until she fell in love with a stranger, who readers will know as Dream. It’s a beautiful, sorrowful tale that only links to “The Doll’s House” through the story arc’s recurring theme of hearts, but acts as a shining example of the many different genres Gaiman would be tackling throughout this series.
As “Tales in the Sand” draws to a close, it ends with a caption telling the reader “There is another version of the Tale. That is the tale the women tell each other, in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn. And in that version of the tale perhaps things happened differently. But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.” It serves as a great coda to the story as “The Doll’s House” focuses not on men, but on women: Unity Kincaid, a character introduced back in the first issue, now an elderly woman, her daughter, Miranda Walker, and Miranda’s daughter, Rose, who forms the crux of the story.
Rose is a vortex of dreams, which the book explains in great detail is bad for all involved (to explain it would likely add another thousand words to this ridiculously long piece, and I’m not particularly wanting to spoil the series). As Dream searches for creatures who have gone missing, it sets him on a collision course with Rose, personified nightmares Brute, Glob, and most importantly, the Corinthian, who has gone rogue and serves as a mirror to the very worst of humanity.
Gaiman’s dark sense of humour is on full display with a serial killer convention; something as disturbing as it is funny, while also featuring the ghost of Hector Hall, who once used the DC Universe’s Sandman moniker, existing in dreams. While this Sandman traditionally has no linkage to Dream, this serves as a parody of Silver Age comics, while establishing that he had been conditioned to believe he is Dream, himself.
I’ll add that throughout this story, dollhouses are a recurring theme, from the literal, to the actual house Rose finds herself living in as she searches for her missing brother, filled with unique characters, including a couple named Barbie and Ken, as well as one character with a connection to the Dreaming, which I won’t be spoiling here.
The last thing about I’ll touch upon with The Doll’s House comes at around the halfway mark of the volume. Acting as an intermission is a story set over the course of centuries, where Dream meets a man named Hob Gadling, who is convinced that if you make a conscious effort to not die, you can live forever. It works as an entertaining intermission from the main story, with a sense of whimsy to it, while deepening The Sandman’s world further.
The final collection I’m looking at in this post is Volume Three: Dream Country. Like Preludes & Nocturnes before it, rather than focusing on a single story arc, it contains a series of standalone stories. But unlike the first volume, these don’t largely form an overarching narrative, but instead an eclectic mix of short stories. In his introduction to the volume, Steve Erickson likens it to an interlude between The Doll’s House and Season of Mists (which I’ll write about in my next post; I apologise in advance for subjecting you to more of these), however the breadth of the stories is a great example of Gaiman’s genre-bending throughout the entire run.
Dream Country is the shortest volume thus far, only reprinting four issues, instead of the eight featured in volumes one and two. To add to the page count, but of great interest to anybody who likes to see the creative process, it includes the script to the first story, “Calliope,” with notes by Gaiman and the penciller of that issue, Kelley Jones. Jones, known for his horror-styled art and even better known for the ridiculously long ears he draws on Batman, also provides pencils for the second story. Continuing the eclectic mix of artists working on the collection, Charles Vess, who brought Gaiman’s Stardust to life provides the art for the third story, while Colleen Doran, who has worked with Gaiman on a number of occasions, pencils the final chapter. With the exception of the third story, Malcolm Jones III provides the inks.
Whether coincidentally or by design, the first story, “Calliope,” and the third, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” are the written word and its authors, in particular their responsibility to those around them. “Calliope” is a horrific read about fictional author Richard Madoc; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as you have probably ascertained is about non-fictional playwright William Shakespeare.
“Calliope” tells the sorry tale of Richard Madoc, who after one successful novel, who not only meets the muse of legend, the titular Calliope, but imprisons and rapes her, bending her to his will as she inspires his creativity, resulting in a massively successful career. While the subject matter is not at all sensationalised, it still makes for a tough read.
Thankfully, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a lighter, easier read as it picks up from a moment featured in The Doll’s House where Dream met William Shakespeare. This story is a must-read for any fan of Shakespeare (and this is an apt time to let you in on a little secret: I’m generally not a fan, but I do love A Midsummer Night’s Dream), split between a performance of the play, Dream’s conversation with Shakespeare, and Dream introducing the play to the fairies on which the story is based. Through this, we see Shakespeare’s responsibility to Dream due to the pact they made regarding the stories he must write, but most important is how Shakespeare’s writing impacts on his familial relationships, particularly his son, which forms the heart of this story.
While “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” may have won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, my personal favourite from this collection is the second story, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.” Told from the perspective of a cat, a fable about the history of cats and their relationship with humans.
The final story, “Façade,” offers another glimpse into The Sandman’s unique look at the DC Universe. Featuring the obscure superhero, Element Girl, it tells the story of a woman who fears leaving her house and interacting with others, crushed by loneliness thanks to her appearance. A meditation on loneliness, this leads to her feeling suicidal, which leads to an encounter with Death. It’s a haunting story about the impact that feeling different can have on people, closing the volume on a sad, but thought-provoking, note.
With the first three volumes completed, I am only starting to scratch the surface of the beauty, horror and dream-like quality of The Sandman. When I return to this revisiting, I’ll take you through volumes four to seven. In the meantime, if you feel like reading a dark fantasy unlike any other, why not start reading these yourself? Or at the very least, tune in to see what the Netflix adaptation brings.