Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”: What Dreams Are Made Of

Dream, Neil Gaiman's Sandman
Dream, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

No column about comics written by an indie graphic novelist would be complete without some discussion of a series that launched a thousand aspiring writers and artists. You may have seen this coming, and it won’t surprise you that I, like so many, count this work as a major inspiration and a big part of what made me want to work in this medium.

I’m talking, of course, about Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking Sandman. So if you haven’t seen it before, what is Sandman about, exactly?

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Many words have been written on this subject, most of them in introductions to the collected editions by prominent writers, journalists, and critics (including Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and Normal Mailer). The consensus, to paraphrase, is that Sandman is a “comic book for intellectuals.”

Sandman-and Gaiman-represent a disruption to the comics field that changed it profoundly. Released first as a series of 75 episodic comics between 1989 and 1996, the series is best known now as a collection of ten books. It launched comics giant DC’s Vertigo imprint for more literary, cerebral, non-superhero-y titles with something of a bang.

It incorporates elements of mythology, religion, horror and suspense. Though released in episodic comics, it comprises a full and complete story arc over its ten collected volumes. Its creator had always seen it as a finite narrative that would end, not continue indefinitely as comics tend to do. Gaiman ended Sandman at the height of its critical and commercial success, simply because he believed that it was in the best service of the story to do so-his contract with Vertigo insisted upon this point.

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Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

Some of Sandman’s success was due to its timing. A number of factors were converging that made 1989 the perfect time for such work to see the light of day, and to push comics out of an increasingly smaller box of genres not into the mainstream, but into the waiting arms of a post-Reagan generation of Goths and young people ready for more challenging material.

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Gaiman’s connection with the music world (he’d been a music journalist prior to finding work in comics) was also a factor in the series’ emergence into visibility outside of comics. Rock star Tori Amos was an outspoken proponent of Gaiman’s work and Sandman specifically, pointing out how it spoke to her generation and an indie rock sensibility. Sandman became a sort of hallmark of alterna-kids everywhere, a kind of shared brand, presaging our modern times in which nerdy hipsters are the cool kids, and the jocks and cheerleaders of yore are yesterday’s news. Posters of characters from the series appeared in Darlene’s bedroom in the TV show Roseanne (placed there at the suggestion of television writer Joss Whedon, later of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame).

But the rest of the series’ impact, on readers and on the medium, is wholly attributable to its visionaries: Gaiman himself; his forward-thinking editor at DC/Vertigo, Karen Berger; and the carefully chosen group of artists selected to interpret the story. So while it’s true that the timing of Sandman’s release was right, Gaiman’s story and artistry would have made a splash in any time. He’s just one of those great writers, and with Sandman, he created something very, very special.

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The Endless (from left to right): Destruction, Despair, Death, Destiny, Desire, Dream, Delirium
The Endless (from left to right): Destruction, Despair, Death, Destiny, Desire, Dream, Delirium

The series revolves around Dream (who is also known by many other names, including Morpheus, Lord Shaper, and the Prince of Stories)-a being responsible for the dreams of all conscious creatures in the universe. Dream is the third oldest of seven siblings, the “Endless,” who oversee various functions affecting sentient beings: destiny, death, dreaming, destruction, desire, despair, and delirium.

The doings of the Endless could form a whole series in and of themselves. Gaiman gives each of them a richness and depth that creates a wonderful support structure for the story. Death is not the skeletal grim reaper of our nightmares, but rather a perky, friendly, happy-go-lucky Goth girl wearing an Egyptian ankh. Desire and Despair are twins, the former an intensely beautiful, androgynous creature who’s constantly lighting cigarettes, the latter a hunched dwarf with boar-like tusks and a hooked ring with which she rends her own flesh. Delerium-who used to be Delight-speaks in multicolored bubbles and her words often seem like gibberish, but careful reading shows that she’s actually talking obliquely about things that have happened or will happen, showing that there’s genius and wisdom in madness. All of the Endless, with one important exception that’s revealed in the story, have their own realms, planes of existence outside normal time and space, where they manage their various functions. Dream’s is a constantly shifting world of myth populated by archetypal beings like the Biblical Eve and Cain and Abel; Desire’s is a gigantic representation of its own body. Death lives in a cozy, untidy little urban apartment.

But Sandman, for all its nonlinear wanderings (don’t get me wrong, it’s not aimless; Gaiman is very intentional in all the twists and turns the storyline takes) and the richness of its mythology around the Endless, is mainly concerned with Dream.

sandman-2The story begins with Dream’s imprisonment at the hands of an Alistair Crowley-like sorcerer who is trying to call down and imprison Death, with the aim of securing immortality. Unfortunately, some element of the conjuring goes wrong, and instead of Death, the magician gets hold of Dream. Imprisoned in a glass bubble for 72 years, Dream silently watches generations of captors come and go until he finally effects his escape. The experience of his imprisonment profoundly alters him, as we learn by seeing Dream at various points in his long existence throughout the series.

To say much more would ruin important bits of the story-it’s a much greater joy to simply experience the thing by reading it yourself, and there’s no way I could describe it that would truly convey any sense of what it’s like.

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Mervyn Pumpkinhead, one of the many inhabitants of the Sandman's realm, the Dreaming.
Mervyn Pumpkinhead, one of the many inhabitants of the Sandman’s realm, the Dreaming

Is Sandman perfect? By no means. For all the vision and innovation that went into its creation, there are aspects of it that still bug me profoundly. For one thing, the story has appeared in so many forms, editions, and collections that it’s truly burdensome for the reader, and is in fact aimed more at the collector. One edition will contain material not in any others; yet another will feature restored or improved artwork; still another will have some other attribute that the others don’t. The message from the marketers is simple: just buy them all, even if it’s really just the same thing repackaged in a hundred different forms. (This is an irritation of mine with the marketing of comics in general; Sandman is merely its apotheosis.)

Then there’s the fact that Sandman, for all its mythic grandeur and difference from anything in comics that preceded it, did come out of a universe of superheroes. The first few chapters have a distinctly classic comics feel, which begins fading quickly as the story finds its footing, but characters from the DC superhero universe make occasional and sometimes jarring appearances. It’s like they’re unwanted relatives showing up without advance warning, and get shoehorned into a much more subtle and intricate story already underway. The Sandman name, in fact, was available to Gaiman because DC’s copyright on a World War II-era superhero (a costumed crusader with a gas mask and a bag of sleeping powder) was about to expire, and creating a new character with the same name would allow the company to retain the trademark.

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Still, for its occasional bumps and rough edges, Sandman was (and still is) groundbreaking. Gaiman has “crossed over” into mainstream success, his first major prose novel, American Gods, becoming a bestseller, to say nothing of the author’s forays into writing various films, television shows, songs, and other such.

Dream greets Shakespeare in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

My own introduction to Sandman was in college, when a friend lent me a single issue of the series: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this story, Gaiman suggests that Shakespeare made a Faustian bargain with Dream, trading his first and last plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest) for a promise from Dream that his work would endure forever.

Shakespeare’s players arrive at a hillside in Sussex (near the Long Man of Wilmington, which turns out to be a gateway between worlds). Shakespeare approaches Dream to ask where the theater is. “Wendel’s Mound was a theatre before your race came to this island,” Dream tells him.

Shakespeare asks: “Before the Normans?” Dream responds: “Before the humans.” Shakespeare’s troupe is startled when the rest of their patrons and audience arrive: they are none other the characters from the play-the faerie queen Titania, her king Auberon, dozens of faeries and little demons, and the trickster Puck-come from a twilight realm to view Shakespeare’s version of their adventures.

Dream and Haroun al Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad
Dream and Haroun al Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad

Another favorite episode in the series is “Ramadan,” written in true Arabian Nights style. The Caliph of Baghdad summons Dream, and, like Shakespeare, makes a bargain with him. Also like Shakespeare, it’s not for anything so crude as eternal life or riches; the Caliph wants his city, at the height of its glorious prosperity, to continue forever. Dream takes the city and keeps it alive in dreams in its perfected, undecaying form, and the world goes on (the story doesn’t fail to remind us of what Baghdad has become in the present day).

I could go on. While Sandman is about myths and dreams, it’s about a lot of other things too: themes and subjects deeply familiar to all of us, intermixed with images so scary and unique that they’re quite unforgettable. Do read it if you haven’t already-if you have any interest in myths, fairy tales, and mystery, you’ll like it. Or revisit it if you read it years ago. The characters are so skillfully realized that they feel a bit like old friends.