A Beginner’s Guide to the Sandman

It’s Neil Gaiman Week here at MRFH, and no tribute would be complete without a quick look at his most famous work, The Sandman. Due to a sickening overabundance of talent and class, Neil has succeeded in virtually every medium he’s touched — his novels and short story collections are consistent bestsellers, they’ve been made into acclaimed movies and TV miniseries’, his children’s books keep my daughter occupied — but his first big break came in the form of a comic book with zero expectations and nearly zero restrictions. From these inauspicious beginnings, that little comic attracted massive critical acclaim, won every award possible short of a Dundie, and helped launch Vertigo, the “mature readers” imprint of DC Comics. Oh yeah, it was also insanely profitable and became arguably the first comic ever to boast a 50% female readership. So there’s that.

But what is it? You normals out there may have heard the name bandied about; perhaps you’ve even briefly thought about checking it out someday. But if you’re still hazy on what the whole “Sandman” thing is all about, hopefully this guide will help. And if it piques your interest enough to take a look for yourself… well, so much the better.

It’s hard (impossible, really) to sum up a series as smart and multilayered as Sandman in a few choice words, but in essence it’s the story of Dream, one of the Endless. The Endless (Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium) are anthropomorphic embodiments of forces that shape reality. They aren’t gods — they predate gods, and will be around after any gods we know of are long forgotten. As Death puts it, “When the first living thing existed, I was there, waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.” They’re simply personifications of concepts, and Dream (AKA Morpheus and a hundred other names) is the fount from which all stories flow. You’d think that would make him boundlessly energetic, a wellspring of creativity and optimism… and you would be wrong. In fact he’s brooding and morose, a dour figure clad all in black who is quick to point out that dreams can be far more terrible than death. Basically he’s the world’s oldest, most powerful goth kid. But don’t hold that against him; he’s still a fascinating character.

The series begins in 1916 when an amateur sorcerer captures Dream by accident and resolves to keep him imprisoned in a mystic seal until he bestows the secret of immortality. A thoroughly unimpressed Dream has a better idea, namely to sit down and wait. And wait. And wait, for seventy. Two. Years, because what’s a few decades to someone as old as sentient life? When a mistake is finally made, Dream escapes, exacts terrible vengeance on his captors, then goes on a quest to reclaim his scattered articles of power, with which he can repair his fractured kingdom, the Dreaming. This will lead him into an addict’s mind, the bowels of Hell, and ultimately a confrontation with a lunatic as omnipotent as Morpheus is (then) powerless.

If that sounds like a fairly standard Hero Quest, it is — Gaiman began the series in a slightly more conventional way (there are even a few superhero cameos), wanting to appeal to the mainstream comic fans who would presumably be reading. But Sandman almost immediately shifted away from its intellectual horror roots into a focus on fantasy, mythology, and the nature of stories. Before it was over we would see a serial killer convention, a talking head that changes the course of the French Revolution, Lucifer retiring (and handing over the key to Hell), the first and only Emperor of the United States of America, and a library filled with every book that was dreamed but never written (including your classic, The Bestselling Romantic Spy Thriller I Used to Think About on the Bus That Would Sell a Billion Copies and Mean I’d Never Have to Work Again). We would also meet Dream’s sister Death, who like her brother defies all stereotypes by being cheerful, friendly, and optimistic… basically everything Dream isn’t, and exactly what you’d want out of the person you meet at the end of your life. The interplay between the two siblings would generate some of the best moments in the series.

One theme that pervades Sandman is that, despite being immortal and nearly all-powerful, Dream and his siblings can be (and frequently are) just as petty, stubborn, and immature as any human. It becomes clear, through his present-day actions and flashbacks to the past, just how much Dream’s imprisonment has affected him, far more than he’ll admit. A driving force of the series is his attempts to make amends for past injustices, and the question of whether he can really do so. After all, there are limits to how much an immortal being can truly change, especially one as stuffy and set in his ways as Morpheus. As usual, Neil Gaiman made the point far more clearly and succinctly than I ever could by summing the entire series up thusly: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.”

And there you have it- your brief but hopefully informative intro to The Sandman. In closing, I’ll just say that if you have any interest in learning more, I can’t recommend Hy Bender’s book “The Sandman Companion” highly enough. (Kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) It’s an incredibly informative (but never dry) book that breaks down every story arc, explains many of the literary allusions and historical references, and contains extensive interviews with Gaiman himself to get his thoughts on the series, and Neil Gaiman is always a good interviewee. I read it in concert with Sandman, and it really enhanced my enjoyment. But whether you do it with the Companion or not, I genuinely hope you’re intrigued enough to give this fantastic series a shot. Believe me, you won’t regret it.

5 comments

  1. I recall once seeing (but can’t seem to find it) that last panel you show redone with Peanuts characters. Morpheus was Linus, Death was Lucy, and the birds were Woodstocks. Oh, and instead of saying, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, she said, “Blockhead.”

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