This is the fourth and final part of my series about Neil Gaiman’s seminal classic, The Sandman. To go back and look at the previous entries, in which I look at the core series, click here. It’s okay; this article will be waiting for you when you get back.
Upon completion of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman once said—I can’t find the exact quote, so you’ll just have to take my (and The Guardian’s) word for it—that he could continue to write The Sandman; that he could write another five issues, but he wouldn’t have been able to look at himself in the mirror.
He wrote a couple of Death miniseries, sure. We’ll look at those in Death: The Deluxe Edition. He wrote a series of short stories about the Endless in the since-retconned as volume 11, The Sandman: Endless Nights. And he wrote a novella (since adapted to a comic, but we won’t be looking at the adaptation; just the original—the comic adaptation feels like an exercise in redundancy), The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. And then, between 2013 and 2015, Gaiman did write another five issues—or six, if we’re going to be particular, and I tend to be pretty particular, with The Sandman: Overture.
So welcome to the fourth—and final, unless Gaiman returns to bring more The Sandman comics to the world (and let’s face it, we’re two years away from its thirty-fifth anniversary, so never say never)—edition of this series, subtitled “Beyond,” because it goes beyond the core series.
Without spoiling the end of The Sandman (I already did that in the third part of this series, so if you’re starting here, or stopped reading that piece upon my spoiler warning, you can read along safely), it closed the book on Dream’s story, decisively and satisfactorily. These stories broaden the world, without telling readers what came next.
If you’re curious about The Sandman but don’t want to commit, these tales are a great place to start (even if one of them is now referred to as “Volume 11”), telling stories about the characters, without needing the preceding ten volumes (or seventy-five issues) as background knowledge to follow along.
So let’s dive in and look at The Sandman’s extended world, in release order, more or less…
I almost didn’t include Death: The Deluxe Edition; it’s not technically a The Sandman story, after all. However, it’s the only spin-off actually written by Gaiman (with the exception of The Children’s Crusade bookends to Vertigo’s 1993-94 annuals, a crossover I haven’t read and I don’t believe is collected, featuring the Dead Boy Detectives), so it doesn’t start be down a slippery slope of reading and writing every book that spun out from The Sandman. Sealing the deal for its conclusion, Death also has a stronger connective tissue to the actual stories told within The Sandman, continuing the stories of Foxglove and Hazel, whom readers met way back in Season of Mists (check out part two to read all about that).
When Vertigo/DC Black Label slapped “The Deluxe Edition” on the book’s title, they weren’t kidding around. Not only does it include the two miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life, they’ve put together a huge celebration of the character, including Death’s debut, “The Sound of Her Wings”, along with “Façade,” from the first and third volumes, Preludes & Nocturnes and Dream Country. I won’t be discussing those here, I wrote about both of them in the first entry, and this piece is long enough as it is. It also includes “Death and Venice” from Endless Nights, which I’ll be discussing further down this article.
Other inclusions beyond the two miniseries are the short stories “A Winter’s Tale,” originally published in Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #2, “The Wheel” from 9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember, the educational and infamous “Death Talks About Life,” as well as a gallery of art featuring Death.
“A Winter’s Tale” grabs the reader with art by Jeff Jones, in a style reminiscent of Frank Miller at his finest. It’s a brief story which provides some background information about Death. It doesn’t tell much of a story, but it serves as a great bit of background about the character. The other short, “The Wheel,” featuring art by Chris Bachalo, who provides the art for the miniseries forming most of this collection, was written for the 911 tribute comic book. It features a character despondent over the loss of his mother in the World Trade Center attack, who climbs a Ferris Wheel, determining that if he meets God in the afterlife, He can provide answers about the attack. It’s a touching story that also features Destruction, another member of the Endless with a thematic resonance with the attack.
“Death Talks About Life” is a PSA that was originally published in issues of Vertigo books The Sandman, Hellblazer and Shade the Changing Man. Featuring John Constantine in an amusing role, Death talks about AIDS, and how to protect yourself with safe sex, and how to correctly put on a condom. While amusingly presented, it was powerful when released back in the early 90s, and still holds up today with its accuracy. It’s a great look back in time, fun to read, while HIV and AIDS aren’t the epidemic they once were, it’s important, resonant information.
“A Death Gallery” includes a selection stunning artwork from a number of artists, who I’ll simply list before moving onto the two miniseries that form the bulk of this collection: Dave McKean (with three pieces, including the one used for the book’s cover), Chris Bachalo (with six pieces), Kevin Nowlan, Michael Zulli (with two pieces), P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Brian Bolland, Jeff Smith, Adam Huges, Mark Buckingham, Mike Allred, Geof Darrow, Kent Williams, Vince Locke, Paul Chadwick, Joe Phillips, Alison Sciffer, Clive Barker (yes, the author of Hellraiser), Jill Karla Schwarz, Arthur Adams, Jill Thompson, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Colleen Doran, Dave Gibbons, Brandon Peterson, John J Muth, George Pratt, Gahan Wilson, Reed Waller, Joe Quesada (with the aforementioned P. Craig Russell), Bryan Talbot, Marc Hempel, Greg Spalenka, Moebius, Greg Capullo, Peter Kuper, Mark Chiarello, Rebecca Guay, Paul Lee, John Totelben, and Mike Dringenberg. Some names will be familiar to The Sandman’s readers, while others not so much; between them is a stunning array of art in various different styles. If you pick up the collection, there are sure to be a few that you would adore.
The first miniseries collected was actually originally published concurrently with The Sandman. It is also the miniseries most people think of, Death: The High Cost of Living, featuring pencils and inks by the team of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham. As it tells the story of teenager Sexton Furnival, depressed, despondent and weighing up whether he should keep living or suicide, a chance encounter has him meeting Death, who, one day every hundred years, lives as a mortal. Following an encounter with Mad Hettie, who readers will recall from The Sandman, Death agrees to help her. While living her living day, events lead to a confrontation with villainous Eremite, who had been hunting Death, seeking her ankh for the power it holds over her.
Through Death’s misadventures, readers are briefly introduced to Foxglove and Hazel, who will play a far larger and pivotal role in the next story. Thematically, it’s a great story about Sexton learning to live, and it juxtaposes beautifully with Dream’s arc in Preludes & Nocturnes. Dream put his essence into his ruby, and we saw the consequences of what happened when it was taken by a mortal; Death happily gives up her ankh. It’s “the most important thing in the universe,” but we give our objects meaning—she simply bought a replacement from a street vendor.
The second miniseries, Death: The Time of Your Life, features art by the same creative team, although Mark Buckingham also stepped in to provide the pencils for various parts of the story. As it features Foxglove and Hazel in major roles, it’s an interesting artefact of the early 90s, a time where people were less accepting of homosexuality than now (not that the world’s where it should be now, but I digress). Foxglove has a successful music career, and following the advice of her manager, is in the closet, with Hazel acting as her “secretary.” An encounter with Death, which I won’t spoil, where Foxglove and Hazel’s love for each other, and their infant son, Alfie, is put to the test.
This is a story about fame and the price of it, and the toll it takes on those who you love. And with that, is a story about love, and the sacrifices people will make for that love. It’s bigger in scope than the previous story, but through it, Foxglove and Hazel’s love for each other is told beautifully, from their beginnings way back in Season of Mists, to their brief appearance in The High Cost of Living, before finally reaching its crescendo here.
Volume Eleven: Endless Nights (if you’re reading a recent printing; otherwise, simply, The Sandman: Endless Nights) is a graphic novel featuring seven stories, one for each member of the Endless. The stories are set between the characters’ distant past and during the run of the original series, each of them a snapshot of the world of its protagonist. It’s an eclectic mix of stories, each of them presented in their own unique style with their own artist accompanying them. Each of these stories reads like a fable about these otherworldly beings.
The first story is one collected in the Death collection, Death and Venice,” featuring art by P. Craig Russell. Set on an island off the coast of Venice, it tells the story of a soldier who recalls meeting Death as a child, before meeting her once again as an adult. Together, they meet a group of immortals who believe themselves immune to death. It’s a haunting tale, with art that accentuates the story.
Next is “What I’ve Tasted in Desire” with stunningly evocative art by Milo Manara. Throughout The Sandman, Gaiman hasn’t been shy about depictions of nudity and sex, though—something that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given it’s about Desire—this is the most sexually charged story in these characters’ history. It tells the story of a young woman who desires a young man, himself a playboy. She makes a deal with Desire to secure his love, but it doesn’t go quite according to plan.
The third story, “The Heart of a Star” with painted art by Miguelanxo Prado, features Dream (for an article about The Sandman, where he’s the protagonist, it’s taken a while to discuss him, but there’ll be plenty more in the next two volumes… promise). For longtime fans of The Sandman, it is a great look back at the characters we love, set long before we met them. It’s the highest concept story in the collection, and in some ways, the highest until The Sandman: Overture. In a time of celestial parliament at the beginning of time, we see a time where Dream and Desire were actually close, where Death wasn’t as happy-go-lucky as the one we know, and the oft-mentioned time of when Delirium was known as Delight. And for added measure, it even dabbles in DC Universe lore, with nods to Superman and Green Lantern.
“15 Portraits of Despair” features expressionistic art by Barron Storey, with the layout designed by cover artist extraordinaire Dave McKean. Thematically about despair, it tells fifteen vignettes about people in despair, as seen by Despair. Abstractly presented as prose accompanied by the images and designs, this is gut-wrenching; it’s an evocative story that can get a little tough to read at points.
“Going Inside,” featuring Delirium, features art by Bill Sienkiewicz, whose combination of black and white, and colour portrays her psyche. Throughout the story, Dream, Delirium’s dog Barnabas, and Matthew the Raven, mount a rescue mission as Delirium has retreated so far into her realm that she can’t escape. The combination of the writing and art are poetic, cryptic and crazed, stunningly encapsulating both the character and her essence.
The penultimate tale, “On the Peninsula,” about Destruction, features art by Glen Fabry, known for drawing horrendously violent and destructive stories. While the pairing of character and artist go hand in hand, the story doesn’t feature any visceral subject matter, instead telling a story about archaeologists excavating a possible future that ends in an apocalypse. Destruction is a wonderful character, and once again, readers are treated to his contemplative nature.
Finally, “Endless Nights” featuring Destiny, with art by Frank Quitely, literally and figuratively closes the book. It serves as an epilogue to the collection, told with a fairytale quality that encompasses the universe of these stories. As Destiny observes, rather than interacts, it is a fitting story, simply acting as a coda to all that came before.
Where Endless Night brought a fable-like quality to the stories, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters is purely a fable. The first Sandman book without a cover by Dave McKean, it features art and a cover by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano. It’s also a novella; beautifully illustrated, but written in prose, rather than as a comic book.
Following writing the English translation of Hayao Miyazake’s beautiful Princess Mononoke (if you haven’t seen this anime, you really need to), Gaiman was inspired to write a Japanese fairytale himself, which resulted in this tale, based on the Japanese fable, “The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night’s Dreaming.” With a title like that, you can see how it fits the world of The Sandman. While I haven’t read the original fable, this story tells the story of a fox (who, as is the way in such tales, can transform into a human) who falls in love with a monk, himself isolated in a temple. The monk is cursed that dooms him to forever wandering his dreams, the fox journeys through her own dreams and seeks out the King (or Makado, using the Japanese name from the original fable) of All Night’s Dreaming, to help the monk.
As this adapts the tale, Dream only appears sparingly in the book, presumably fulfilling the role from the original fable. Dream having a minor role isn’t dissimilar to many of the stories within The Sandman, but that aside, this is a beautifully written fable full of magic and wonder. It’s a heartfelt fantasy tale based on Japanese mythology, full of wonderful prose. It’s haunting, bittersweet, and captivating from beginning to end.
Yoshitaka Amano’s art brings a quality that hasn’t been seen before—or after—in The Sandman. The painted illustrations bring a manga quality to the story, but it presents a Japan reminiscent of myth, a world full of demons and gods brought to absolutely beautiful life. It has an ethereal quality to it, and feels like it stepped right out of a dream.
While throughout its history, The Sandman has presented many different styles of story, The Dream Hunters is truly unlike any others, and is truly something that needs to be read to be experienced. It’s also been adapted as a comic with art by P. Craig Russell, who is an amazing artist in his own right. I haven’t read it; it feels redundant when the original is so very special.
As this article—and indeed my series on The Sandman—reaches its end and I look at the final story told, The Sandman: Overture goes back to the beginning. Maybe not as far back as “The Heart of a Star” from Endless Nights, but back to a time before it all began in Preludes & Nocturnes. A prelude to Preludes, if you will. The series began with Dream’s capture at the hands of Roderick Burgess, and this concluding volume tells the story of how he ended up in such a predicament. And yet, it is also set after the events of The Wake, which closed the book on Dream. It’s not as confusing as it sounds; Dream and the Endless are not subject to linear time like us mere mortals. And for the most part, it serves as a prequel.
Like The Dream Hunters before it, Overture’s cover (the original printing, at least; the 30th anniversary edition remedies this) doesn’t feature a Dave McKean cover. Instead, the collection’s cover is by the amazing J.H. Williams III, who also provides the interior art, which is truly a sight to behold (McKean provided variant covers for the original issues, all of which are included in the collection, so there’s still plenty of his work to drool over). Throughout The Sandman’s history, very few artists were afforded the opportunity to provide splash pages (one image on the page, rather than individual panels), however, Williams takes full advantage of these throughout Overture, to the point where there are two separate four page spreads for the reader to unfold and take in their majesty.
When The Sandman moved beyond its initial artistic teams, Gaiman selected the artists he wanted for the stories, people whose artistic sensibilities and talents lended themselves to the stories he wanted to tell. Williams is one of the finest artists working in comics, and despite the massive talent who has worked on The Sandman, arguably the very greatest. In the introduction, Gaiman says that Williams provided art that couldn’t be drawn by anybody else, and while this is a healthy amount of hyperbole from the author, his intricate, beautiful art fits the tale beautifully, and I cannot imagine any other artist who would have conveyed this story quite so well.
As I mentioned above, Overture takes place both before the events of Preludes & Nocturnes and after The Wake. This is an epic story, one that operates under a higher concept than any other story in the series. While the story had previously hinted at other worlds—as long as there is life, there are dreams… and nightmares, including the worst of the wost, the Corinthian—Overture visits some of these worlds. We meet many of the different aspects of Dream, existing as one as all roads led them to this point, yet separate. This is a story populated with alien beings, largely immortal characters, with the exception of a young girl named Hope Beautiful Lost Nebula. It is full of stars; characters in their own right. And it even introduces readers to the parents of the Endless, who, like the gods of ancient myth, are as distant as they are dysfunctional.
Rather than the urban fantasy and horror that populated the core series, the existence of the entire universe is at stake. A star has gone mad, putting the entire universe at risk. It tells the story of what happens when Dream fails to act, and when the universe bears the brunt of that decision. The definition of “overture” is an introduction to something more substantial, or, in musical terms, an orchestral piece as the beginning of an opera. But Overture, itself, is operatic, from beginning to end.
Throughout Overture, Dream must right his wrong, his initial inaction drives him into action. As the story questions whether his inaction was an act of mercy, driven by simple curiosity, or a combination of both factors, he must correct his choice. As has been established throughout the series, he has responsibilities, and he must always abide by them. Overture plays with these themes, showing the consequences of his actions, and illuminating one of the reasons why he is unshakable in doing his duty. As The Sandman reached its climax, it told a story about the decisions we make, the consequences of those decisions, and the sacrifices we make, all of which is mirrored throughout Overture.
While all of the books featured in this article can be read in isolation of the larger narrative, it is very true of Overture. Still, as stunning this story is, given the high concept and the reflection it provides of the core series, the reader will get more from it if they have read the series first. But that’s okay, there’s only ten volumes ahead of this. Or eleven, if you count Endless Nights, twelve when you throw The Dream Hunters in, or thirteen, if you’re a completionist and want to read Death: The Deluxe Edition as well.
While serving as a prelude to The Sandman, when read after the series, it serves as a beautiful coda. This is accentuated by the supplemental material, including the aforementioned covers by Williams and McKean, as well as other variants by Jim Lee, J.G. Jones and James Jean. Jones’ covers are also provided in “unembellished” versions, before the use of digital art on the covers. The book also includes Jones discussing his artistic process, Dave Stewart discussing his process for colouring the art, Todd Klein discussing his process for providing the letters, Dave McKean’s process for creating his covers, and notes from Neil Gaiman about his script. And if all that’s not enough, editor Shelly Bond interviews Gaiman, Williams and Klein, and if you’re after even more J.H. Williams III goodness, it also includes a number of sketches. It’s great supplementary material for anybody interested in the artistic processes behind the volume.
As Gaiman closed the book on The Sandman, it is time for me to close the book on this series of articles. Who knows whether Gaiman will return to tell any further stories about Dream and the Endless—Overture’s release surprised the world, and I’m hoping Gaiman makes another announcement that does it again. If so, I may write a fifth part, but until that hypothetical day, I’ll just have to write about other stories that have inspired me.