The Sandman: Neil Gaiman’s Dream Epic

The Sandman is a comic series written by Neil Gaiman which was first published in the late 80s and early 90s. Rightly considered to be ground-breaking, and beloved by its fans, it also has a reputation for being highbrow, dense and inaccessible. So is it worth your time?

The Sandman, also known as Dream, is the anthropomorphic personification of dreams and stories. He controls a reality we all visit when we sleep and is able to travel into the waking world and various other realms. He is one of the seven Endless, who personify particular forces. He also has a striking physical similarity to Gaiman, and presumably, the two also share personality traits.

The overarching story arc is about Dream himself, a flawed and proud character who is a stickler for rules, doesn’t ask for help even when he needs it, and desperately wants companionship, although he never admits it. But within that framework, many other stories are told, in which Dream only features tangentially, perhaps with a walk-on part or quick cameo.

The Sandman is a framework for Gaiman to tell stories in, a sandbox within which he explores many interesting themes like the nature of responsibility and freedom, life and death, meaning, family, the purpose of fantasy, the inevitability of change, and the danger of obsessing over things and losing sight of what, or who is most important. There are stories within stories, and stories about stories. Sandman plays with ideas, with narrative, with art, style and with form. The art, lettering and colours reflect the nature of the story being told.

Ten books make up the core series, with some wonderful cover art by Dave McKean.

A wealth of recurring characters appear, and references to other fictional works are littered within the series, but an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Sandman, or of other literature, isn’t necessary for you to understand or enjoy the comic. It’s just there as Easter eggs for those who like finding such things.

The comic is popular with goths, and it’s easy to see why. Dream himself is a gloomy monochrome shadow of blacks and whites, and his sister Death is gothic in appearance, although cheerful and perky in personality. The other Endless – Destiny, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Delirium (are you seeing a pattern?) -have distinct and interesting personalities, their own particular story arcs, and they sometimes also interfere in the lives of us mortals.

The Sandman has its faults, as virtually any work does. It can be intimidating to those who first approach it, as a single unified series. It can be a bit pretentious at times and take itself too seriously. It can sometimes feel like ‘tales for boys’ occasionally to its detriment. People don’t often talk and act like they do in this comic. Life isn’t really populated by talking animals, larger than life gods, and anthropomorphic personifications of abstract forces. But through fantasy, larger, wider truths, questions worth asking, are explored. Sandman is self-aware enough to acknowledge and reference its faults. And if you persist and give it a chance, you’ll find some fantastic well-written stories, and gorgeous artwork, particularly in some of the later editions.

The Sandman was ground-breaking for its time and still wipes the floor with a lot of current comics. Between them, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman redefined what mainstream comics could be, and raised the bar from what had often been disposable nonsense aimed at children, to what many considered to be graphic literature or true works of art.

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One of the reasons the comic works is that it is finite, a self-contained series with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Originally envisaged as a horror comic, it evolved into a thoughtful examination of real-life issues, using the medium to ask important questions. It can be dark, and is not suitable for young children, with horrific elements, sex and violence, but none of it feels gratuitous. It’s all there for a reason.

The original Sandman character was a golden age superhero created in the 1930s who fought crime wearing a gas mask and gas gun and had a kid sidekick. Gaiman took that as a starting point and ran with it, getting as far away from the starting point of gimmicky superhero as it’s possible to get. The formula of taking an unpopular or unused character that no-one much cares about, giving it to an up and coming writer, and telling them to do what they like with it, worked well for DC, with Swamp Thing and Animal Man getting the treatment in the hands of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison respectively.

It’s best to think of The Sandman like a TV series with particular seasons, each with its own story arc. All the different seasons are similar, and fit into the series as a whole, but feature different characters and focus on a particular theme. You could start with the first trade paperback, Preludes and Nocturnes, although it’s not the strongest. For a pick and mix of good stand-alone stories, Dream Country is a good place to begin. For strong storylines, I’d recommend The Doll’s House, Season of Mists, A Game of You, or (my personal favourite) Brief Lives.

Outside of the core series, there are a plethora of spin-offs, prequels and expansions, such as the poetically moving Death: The High Price of Living, and the eye-wateringly beautiful Sandman: Overture. Lucifer, Gaiman’s take on the Devil, who gets bored of hell and decides to wander the mortal world instead, is another spin-off that was turned into a police procedural USA TV series.

I could spend all day talking about each of the story arcs, or the characters contained in each one, but other, better, writers have already done that. These feature as introductions or afterwords in the trade paperbacks. The Sandman is a thoughtful and well-crafted series that is well-worth the effort. Give it a go, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best comics ever created.

The highway to Hell apparently leads to a place full of strange beasties.

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