This is the second part of my series about one of my greatest artistic inspirations, The Sandman, by the always wonderful Neil Gaiman. To go back and read the first part—or, if you’re reading this in a future where posting this article is a mere memory, when subsequent chapters may also be out—click here.
How fantastic is The Sandman on Netflix? It’s an amazing televisual accomplishment, is it not? Or, at least, that’s what I’m assuming: by the time you read this, the series will indeed be out and I will have certainly watched the whole series, as I write this, it is still a few days away. Still, these articles are to discuss the original books, not the adaptation. But if you’re keen for some thoughts about the Netflix series, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, The Wonderful World of Was. If you get to this after the fact, my thoughts are broken down in the September 2022 edition.
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Before we move on and discuss the story within The Sandman volumes four to seven, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dave McKean’s amazing cover art. I neglected to mention his artistic genius in my previous article, where I discussed all the artists who worked on the series interior art, but ignored the covers. The header image comes from the cover to The Sandman #50, from the original run, and various covers for the collections are included below. Take the time to study these images: McKean’s artwork is otherworldly with a dreamlike (and sometimes, nightmarish) quality, which is perfectly befitting of this epic tale about the Lord of Dreams.
To create these covers, McKean’s approach included mixed media; a combination of traditional pencil and inks, paintings, photography and collages. Each cover is visually arresting, bringing with it a sense of surreality. As these were created back in the 80s and (the period of the books I will be looking at here) the early 90s, these were created without the aid of Photoshop or any form of digital wizardry. There was a great article in The Guardian back in 2013 where McKean discusses his process (along with Gaiman; let’s not forget The Sandman’s creator and author), that you can read here.
And, as you watch the Netflix series (which I’m sure you will, because I have faith in my fellow humans), pay attention to the closing credits, for which McKean designed a unique sequence for each episode.
I wrapped the last post with The Sandman, Volume Three: Dream Country, having covered essentially the first act of Gaiman’s story. We had met various members of the Endless and started to explore Dream’s (or Morpheus, as he likes to be called) world. Volumes four through to seven largely comprise the saga’s second act, as it explores Dream’s world further, delves deeper into the mythology, and explores the members of the Endless in more depth.
By this point, Gaiman has well and truly found his feet and established his voice—or voices, when you look at the distinct tones and subgenres he works with in The Sandman’s many tales—and sets about progressing the story and Dream’s character arc.
So get comfortable and settle in as we look at the second act of Gaiman’s masterpiece.
Volume Four: Season of Mists marks a turning point for Gaiman in a couple of respects. As I highlighted above, in many ways, it serves as the start of The Sandman’s second act. But as it collects The Sandman issues 21 through to 28, it marks the original run completing its second year and entering its third. By this point, the comic was a phenomenal success, and Gaiman could rest assured in the knowledge that the series wouldn’t face sudden cancellation. He was free to tell the story he wanted to and pace it accordingly, broadening the world and taking the time he needed to tell increasingly ambitious stories.
Season of Mists is one such ambitious story. Starting with an introduction to the Endless, with a quick brief each for Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire, Delirium and Despair (but not Destruction, who we won’t meet for a couple of volumes yet) before telling a tale about Lucifer deciding to retire and hand the key to Hell to our friend Dream, if you’re the type of reader who doesn’t necessarily read books in chronological order, it serves as a great jumping on point. It largely tells one narrative story (with an exception I’ll get into a little later) of an epic scope that utilises many of the series core elements.
It starts with a prologue (identified as “Episode 0” on the title page), featuring art by the once regular artistic team of penciller Mike Dringenberg and inker Malcolm Jones III, both of whom provide their final pieces of art for the series in this volume. Although they have been appearing with less and less regularity up until this point, Season of Mists truly ushers in the era of rotating artists who present an artistic style that fits with each story’s explicit narrative.
Along with their wonderful introductions, this is the first time the series explores the majority of the Endless in their glory, thanks to Destiny having called a family meeting. After Desire angers Dream by taunting him over his treatment of ex-lover Nada (who readers have briefly met through previous stories), Death explains to the protagonist that his actions towards Nada—condemning her to Hell for spurning his love—was unfair. This sets Dream on his path for the story, determining he must right this wrong and have her released from her eternal damnation.
As much as this marks a turning point for Gaiman’s narrative, it is also one for our protagonist: through the preceding three volumes, he has been a prideful character, constantly self-assured in the assumption he is right. Dream is a character who has held himself above mortals and fallibility that comes with them. Yet here, he realises he is at fault, acknowledges his errors, and begins a journey of growth that readers are treated to through the rest of his character arc.
Following Mike Dringenberg on pencils in the interlude is Kelley Jones in a rare story arc light on horror elements (or cats, as we saw in Dream Country), for the majority of the arc (with one exception, that I’ll discuss later). Malcolm Jones III provides the inks for the first two parts, P. Craig Russell for the third, George Pratt for the fifth and Dick Giordano for the sixth and final chapter. When we last saw Lucifer in the pages of Preludes & Nocturnes, he threatened to destroy Dream. As we pick up with Dream in the first part as he prepares to visit Hell, we learn just how seriously he has taken the threat, as he bids farewell to old friends. Amongst this farewell tour filled with familiar faces, we see Lyta Hall from The Doll’s House. While this is a light DC Universe connection by proximity of the connections in that story, it is notable for us meeting her son, Daniel, who will prove to be pivotal way down the track.
Lucifer indeed gets his revenge in Part Two, though not in the way Morpheus expects. As I mentioned above, Lucifer has grown bored with ruling over Hell and hands the key to Dream. If you’re a fan of the Lucifer TV series (which I’m yet to see), this was the catalyst for him being on Earth, rather than in Hell. This leaves Dream with a prime piece of real estate that he has no interest in and a host of parties wanting it for themselves, forming the crux of the majority of the remainder of the arc.
The exception to that is Part Four, featuring art by Matt Wagner and Malcolm Jones III, which serves as an interlude to the main story arc. A fun aside, it introduces Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, the characters who would go on to be known as the Dead Boy Detectives, to be explored further: not just in The Sandman, but in other Vertigo titles, as well as their own miniseries by crime comic great, Ed Brubaker. They also appear in season three of the Doom Patrol TV series, and have had their own HBO Max series, unrelated to that appearance, commissioned. Should that go ahead (a big question mark with anything related to HBO Max, currently), and should they appear in The Sandman on Netflix, that’ll mark three screen versions of the duo.
Volume Five: A Game of You is one of the shorter collections at only six issues, including issues 32-37 of the original series, skipping the short stories included in the previous three issues. But that’s okay; those are collected in Fables & Reflections, which we’ll look at a little later. Shawn McManus provides the pencils and inks for the majority of the collection, except for Part Three which features art by Colleen Doran, and sections of Part Five, where McManus was assisted by Bryan Talbot, Stan Woch and George Pratt.
A Game of You features the return of Barbie, last seen in The Doll’s House. She has since moved on, not only from the proverbial doll’s house but also from Ken. Here, she lives alone in an apartment complex also populated by her friend, transgender woman, Wanda; lesbian couple, Hazel and Foxglove (whose former girlfriend was featured in “24 Hours” way back in Preludes & Nocturnes); the bookish and meek Thessaly; and George, an apparently unassuming man. A Game of You is a story about identity and how people who appear one way to others but are completely different people on the inside. Hazel, by appearances, is a butch lesbian is the most gentle character in the story. Foxglove presents hidden strengths towards the end of the tale. George, rather than being simply unassuming, is a terrifying presence. Thessaly, the descendant of an ancient cabal of witches, is a scarily powerful character.
The identity politics surrounding Wanda, however, are a little murkier. I’ll preface this by pointing out that I’m writing this in August 2022, and A Game of You was originally serialised between September 1991 and March 1992. A lot has changed in the last thirty years, with the world having gained a greater understanding of the transgender community, although we unfortunately have a horribly long way to go with acceptance, because so many people struggle to embrace them as our fellow human beings. It is also important to note that Gaiman has said that if he was writing Wanda now, he would do some things differently, and has also added to the record that when the Netflix series adapts A Game of You, he wants trans writers on the show’s staff. I am looking forward to seeing how this would be handled in today’s age by people with lived trans experience, rather than someone, despite the best of intentions, doesn’t.
As a preoperative transgender character who has been undertaking hormone therapy, Wanda’s decision is written as resulting from her fear of operations, with a nightmare posing the question of if she doesn’t have this procedure, is she still a man, or, if she goes through with it, will she actually be a woman. Through the story, Wanda is considered a man by certain characters (despite her protestations), and without providing spoilers, one of these characters is largely considered authoritative. In this presentation, it is uncomfortable, and sells out the theme of only people themselves being able to understand their own identity as it undercuts Wanda’s gender identity.
As unfortunate as this is, Wanda is a true highlight of the book, a beautiful character whose story gives this tale so much of its heart. It is a story that was truly ahead of its time, where stories rarely featured transgender characters, and if they did, treated them as a punchline, fetishised them, or sadly too often, did both. This is a tale about a trans woman whose conservative family insisted on deadnaming her and treating her gender identity as the sin of a perverse man. Throughout, Gaiman treated the character with dignity while paying her respect; this is a story sympathetic to her plight that conveys anger towards those who would treat her as a lesser person because of her identity.
Back in The Doll’s House, Barbie, who serves as this story’s protagonist (Dream’s appearances in this volume are limited; incidentally, this works to great effect), was portrayed as little more than a Barbie doll. Within A Game of You, she is someone who looks up to Wanda and her courage to live life to the fullest, being true to herself with a zest for life. Barbie chooses to express herself through expressive make-up, which she fears is a mask for her bland personality.
As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Barbie’s dreams, inspired by L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, are the focal part of the story. Having not dreamed since the events of The Doll’s House, Barbie’s dream world has been invaded by the Cuckoo, the story’s villain. It’s an enticing story that blends fantasy and horror in equal measure.
The reader is treated to a child’s dream taken over by nightmares. Through this lens, we see childhood dreams destroyed, along with the ability to escape their own reality into a fantasy world. It’s bleak, but also oddly affecting.
Volume Six: Fables & Reflections is an oddity in a couple of respects. While featuring a range of short stories is not unique to this collection, it doesn’t focus on a consecutive run on stories, instead collecting The Sandman issues 29-31, 38-40 and 50, along with The Sandman Special #1 and a story originally published as part of Vertigo Preview #1. While it makes sense to group the short stories together, as publishing them separately would make for a very short collection, or adding them to existing collections would make them incredibly long, this volume doesn’t present them in sequential order. Readers who feel the need to read these stories in sequential order would find themselves flipping between volumes, and back and forth through this collection. I’m not one of those readers; these stories move through Dream’s timeline, and nothing is lost because they’re out of order. I can only assume they were grouped in this manner as the first four major stories feature leaders, but I couldn’t find a common thread among the second four.
The other oddity is a more personal one: this is the rare instance of a Sandman volume that I don’t consider a five-star read. It’s certainly a four-star read, with plenty to love within its pages, but unlike Dream Country, the stories here are hit and miss. While it includes some great tales (including one I consider to be among the very best), about as many don’t work quite as well as the rest of The Sandman. While Fables & Reflections often touches upon the idea of storytelling, it doesn’t do so in every story; the themes throughout are disparate, without any major throughline.
The collection opens with “Fear of Falling,” perhaps the shortest Sandman story, having formed part of Vertigo Preview. Featuring art by Kent Williams, this serves as a teaser, taking place before the introduction by Gene Wolfe (I rarely discuss the introductions, but they are always worth a read, offering some great insight into the books). “Fear of Falling” tells the story of a writer planning on cancelling a play because of his fear of failure. While dreaming about clinging to a cliff for dear life, he meets Dream, who offers insight in a way that only the Lord of Dreams can.
Next, “Three Septembers and a January,” with Shawn McManus providing art once again after A Game of You, tells the story of Joshua Norton, the man who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States. After Despair challenges Dream to prevent Norton from succumbing to suicide, Dream gives Norton the dream of becoming Emperor. With this identity, he leads a rich life he has concocted for himself, including—coming back to the theme of storytelling—assisting Mark Twain with his writing. “Thermidor,” with art by Stan Woch and Dick Giordano, doesn’t continue the theme of storytelling. It features another historical leader, France’s Maximilien Robespierre, but he has a minor role to play, even while his spectre is cast over the story’s events. The tale’s major focus is on Johanna Constantine, tasked with protecting Morpheus’ son, Orpheus, who readers meet for the first time.
“The Hunt,” featuring art by Duncan Eagleson and Vince Locke, features an elder in the present day trying to get his granddaughter to listen to a story. The modern day component is about spoken stories versus modern media, while the story he is telling is one from ages past, about a werewolf, the hero of this story, who will not be swayed by a hunt he has dreamed of. The final story about leaders is “August,” with art by Bryan Talbot and Stan Woch. It tells the story of Emperor Augustus, spending his annual day dressed as a beggar. Through this, he tells the story to his compatriot, dwarven performer Lycius, about how he was told in a dream that he should do this, as he will be beneath everybody’s notice, even the gods’.
“Soft Places,” with art by John Watkiss, introduces readers to yet another historical character, albeit not one known as a great leader, Marco Polo. It is also less preoccupied with representing a historical period, instead opting for a broader fantasy as Polo meets Dream within the “shifting zones,” where dreams mix with reality.
The longest story in the collection, taken from The Sandman Special, is “The Song of Orpheus” (or simply “Orpheus,” according to the table of contents), with art by Bryan Talbot for the second time in this collection, but with Mark Buckingham (who provides the art in another favourite series of mine, which I might discuss on this website one day, Fables) providing the inks. As you can glean from the title, this story features Dream’s son, Orpheus once more, telling an earlier story that leads to “Thermidor,” albeit with many years between the two. While this is a prequel, it definitely works best being read after “Thermidor” as that story hints at the relationship explored here. Given the connected narrative between these two stories, since Vertigo decided to publish these out of order, they would have worked marvellously as bookends to the volume. That wasn’t to be, and it’s fine; it doesn’t change the fact that this is a heartfelt story about a rather dysfunctional family relationship, and one where you really feel for Orpheus and everything he goes through. I mentioned that Season of Mists shows how Dream is evolving as a person (or personification, to be accurate), and this glimpse of him centuries ago, shows how distant he once was, compared to now. “The Song of Orpheus” also has the distinction of introducing readers to the last member of the Endless, Destruction, providing a little glimpse into his personality before his prominent role in Brief Lives.
“The Parliament of Rooks” returns to the theme of storytelling, where Daniel, who we met back in Season of Mists, drifts from the waking world to the Dreaming, where Eve, Cain and Abel all take turns in telling him stories. It’s a fun story, with each of the tales being whimsical with a dark undercurrent. Jill Thompson provides the art here, including chibi versions of the Endless, who, in later years, would become known as the Little Endless (they would go on to have their own family-friendly tales in The Little Endless Storybook and Delirium’s Party. Unfortunately, I missed the boat on those books, and they’re out of print).
The final story, “Ramadan,” was originally published as the fiftieth issue of The Sandman, and to celebrate, Gaiman invited P. Craig Russell to provide the art for this. The art is spectacular, and while some of the stories in this volume don’t shine as brightly as most, here, the opposite is true: the duo created one of the greatest standalone issues of the entire series. In a story reminiscent of the tales from Arabian Nights, it tells the tale of a King of Baghdad, who despite considerable wealth and power, remains troubled, and summons Dream to make his wish come true. Through the story, we see Baghdad in the distant past and the current day, and the story teasers readers with possible ways of ending the story before unveiling the true, beautiful ending. While I mused that this volume could have bookended the two Orpheus stories, “Ramadan” ends this volume on a wonderful high.
Volume 7: Brief Lives holds the distinction of being the only volume of The Sandman to have a single creative team for the entire volume, with Jill Thompson providing the pencils and Vince Locke providing the inks. Through its nine parts (issues 41-49), the creative team presents an epic tale that also has a freewheeling sense of fun. Brief Lives is many things, which I’ll discuss, but at its core, it tells a story about a road trip between the humourless Dream and the childlike Delirium. Through this, we are treated to the Endless equivalent of The Odd Couple, neither understanding nor relating to humanity, with Dream playing the straight man as Delirium delights in the world around her, including aeroplanes and the world around her, and making bizarre observations about the world around her.
All this comes about at the behest of Delirium, who misses her prodigal brother, Destruction. Obsessed over finding her brother, she convinces Dream to help, who agrees—not because he wants to find Destruction, who he feels needs his privacy—because he is certain they won’t succeed, and he needs a break from the Dreaming. After briefly meeting Destruction in Fables & Reflections, we see a lot more of the character here, both living his life in the present day, and through flashbacks exploring his relationship with Delirium, as well as Orpheus. As his previous appearance indicated, Destruction is not what one would expect from the personification of destruction; he, instead, is warm, with a happy, loving personality and a zest for life.
With a title like Brief Lives, you just know that the story isn’t only fun road trips, a character enjoying himself, and another character seeing the world through an askew, whimsical lens. While the majority of characters are immortal, including the Endless, and gods who may not be quite as immortal as everybody thinks, it examines the relative brevity of human lives. Told from the perspective of these immortals, it presents characters who wish to not get attached to us, because we’ll leave this Earth shortly after we appear on it. Death plays a small role in this story as she often does, exemplifying this theme as she reaps a man, pleased that lived far longer than most mortals should, telling him: “You lived what anybody gets… You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”
To circle all the way back to Season of Mists, Brief Lives is also about change. Given enough time, everything changes—Destruction comments about looking to the stars as they provide an illusion of permanence, despite the fact that those, too, are fleeting, and the sky will change over time—and everyone changes. Even Dream, who has long considered him above changing, finally acknowledging the fact that he is not just capable of change, but has been changing. He is someone who can now acknowledge his shortcomings, and can put others ahead of himself.
Brief Lives is also a celebration of knowledge and understanding, and ponders how much people can know, remarking that even the Endless aren’t omnipotent; there is a limit to their knowledge. Even Destiny, with his view of the future, is limited in his understanding. Death remarks that everybody knows everything, but don’t allow themselves to remember it; Delirium muses that not knowing everything is what makes existence bearable.
This story also questions whether seeking knowledge is worth the cost. In seeking answers, Dream must pay a heartbreaking price, one that impacts him intimately; a price he willingly paid, thanks to his growth over the course of The Sandman. Dream and Delirium’s quest costs others around them, leading Dream to ask the very question of whether the cost is worth it. That cost? It comes down to the title, really. It’s called Brief Lives for a reason.
After roughly four thousand words, it’s time to bring this article to a close. We’ve now looked at the first two acts of The Sandman, so in the next edition, it will be time to take a look at volumes eight to ten, which close out this saga.