Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
Sandman gathers together the stories of The Endless – seven siblings who have been since the beginning of time and will be until the end: Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium (once known as Delight), and Destruction. These brothers and sisters embody all aspects of their names. While they each play a part, Dream is at the heart of the series. Opening in 1916, the story begins with a cult ceremony gone wrong, imprisoning Dream for more than 70 years. Once he finally escapes, he must recover his symbols of power and rebuild The Dreaming. Even after the struggle to regain these items, Dream must step back into his role and undo all the damage that has occurred in his absence. Imposters and usurpers, gods and mortals, angels and demons, , witches and nightmares all populate the world of Sandman.
The series spans 10 volumes, totaling 75 issues. Some volumes are made up of individual tales with no immediately obvious bearing on the overall plot, while others are tightly focused on certain characters and events. It’s difficult to sum up Sandman, partly because it’s made up of so many wonderful small moments and fully-realized characters. Do you talk about Dream moping, feeding the pigeons while Death yells at him for having a pity party? Or Lucien, the Dreaming’s librarian, and his collection of books that were never written? The tragedy of Wanda, a transgender character who cannot follow her friends into the Dreaming? Or Lyta Hall, the avenging fury tracking down a son that’s part dream and part mortal? One of my favorite interactions is between Dream, Despair, and Delirium as they vie for control over Joshua Norton, best known as the Emperor of the United States. His dreams keep him from becoming truly insane or falling into complete despair, even after he loses everything.
Sandman is character-driven, and it’s through them that we see the underlying story. Change comes to all of us, even members of the Endless. Dream claims to be immutable; however, he has spent 70 years living in a cage and that is plenty of time to think on your life, even for a being that is beyond immortal. Though we do not know Dream prior to 1916, we see his gradual transformation after his release. He seeks vengeance against his jailers, is cold and distant to his subjects, and remains apart from the world. As time passes, though, Dream attempts to atone for his past sins and gain a better understanding of himself and his siblings. When Delirium sets out to find Destruction, the absent member of the Endless, Dream unexpectedly accompanies her. This adventure sets in motion events that will threaten the Dreaming’s very existence. But truly, this is the slow culmination of repercussions for Dream’sactions, leading to a frantic climax that intricately ties together the characters and stories.
Neil Gaiman is a prolific author who has split his time between writing prose and graphic novels, including several award-winning titles for adults and children, such as American Gods, Coraline, Good Omens, 1602, and The Graveyard Book. Though Gaiman has authored other graphic novels, none have had the scope or impact of Sandman. However, should you have the good fortune to see him speak at a convention or go to a book signing, expect to be crushed in a mob of fans. Gaiman’s fandom continues to grow exponentially, particularly since writing the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife” (2011) and being scheduled for another.
The Sandman series has won several awards, including multiple Eisner Awards, a Hugo, and a Bram Stoker Award. One of the more notorious stories regarding Sandman is that of the 1991 World Fantasy Award. Issue #19, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” won the 1991 Award for Best Short Fiction. The rumor is that WFA changed the wording of this category afterwards, making comics ineligible to receive it. Harlan Ellison delights in colorfully recounting this story in his introduction to Sandman vol. 4: Seasons of Mist.
Another unusual element of the series is its use of multiple artists and styles. Like a dream, the visuals flow and change, sometimes quite drastically. What begins as a fairly gruesome story, penciled by Sam Kieth and with a strong resemblance to Tales from the Crypt and Supernatural Thrillers, shifts to faded watercolors, bold and frenetic blocks of color, or sketchy pencil outlines. Each story is defined as much by its art as it is by the plot or dialogue. Notable contributors include Dave McKean, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thopmson, P. Craig Russell, and Charles Vess, to name just a few.
It’s difficult not to be trite and say Sandman is worth reading because it’s Sandman… it’s a classic! It was a groundbreaking graphic novel. Imagine back to a time when Neil Gaiman wasn’t a big name in the literary world. In the late 1980s, Gaiman was working on a prestige comic-series that revived Black Orchid. DC gave him a monthly title with the hopes of raising his profile a bit as Black Orchid was released. After some pitching, Gaiman was granted permission to go with Sandman, another revival of an older DC character. What began as a horror title grew into an epic fantasy that mixed elements from literature, comics, and mythology. When Vertigo was launched in 1992, Sandman was one of the core titles that helped found the imprint.
The power of storytelling is at the heart of Sandman. Again and again, characters discover the significance of stories and the way they impact the world. In Sandman, dreams are a form of storytelling and they can give people strength or destroy them, sometimes in the most gruesome, devastating ways possible. It is noteworthy that Dream, in the final volume, tells William Shakespeare that “I am Prince of stories, Will; but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.” Of course, Gaiman was concluding Dream’s story with that issue. The series plays with the art of storytelling, challenging readers in ways that we typically expect of prose works, and going against traditional comic format.
Rather than having a focus on superheroes and action-driven stories, Sandman explores its world through its characters. While Dream is the central character, he is often absent from issues and sometimes the majority of a volume. The story is built through its extensive cast of characters and their interactions with the Endless, the Dreaming, and each other. Several volumes gather together short stories set in the past or with seemingly little consequence. Still, there is an overarching storyline that becomes apparent as readers make their way through the series. Like threads in a tapestry, the individual issues weave together to create a rich and intricate story. This is the sort of graphic novel that you pick up again and again, discovering a new link between characters. Gaiman has stated that he knew how the series would end long before he got there, and there are subtle hints and moments that play out long after they’ve been spoken.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact Sandman has had on the comic world. Gaiman managed to do the unthinkable in the world of trilogies, series, and movie editions – he made a story that ended when he wanted it to. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been spin-offs. Oh my, the spin-offs! Lucifer, Dead Boy Detectives, Death, and Sandman Mystery Theatre are just a few of the many titles that have spawned in the wake of Sandman and its marvelous cast. Moreover, the Endless have made several cameos in other DC titles. A few years ago, Lex Luthor had a run-in with Death (where she requested a magic singing pony!), who also made an appearance in Madame Xanadu. Desire, Destiny, and Dream pop up on occasion as well. This seems fitting, considering that Sandman was populated with the likes of John Constantine, Wesley Dodds, Martian Manhunter, Hector Hall, Element Girl, and the Phantom Stranger. There’s even a huddled conversation between Superman and Batman, confessing that they each have a reoccurring nightmare that their lives are just TV show plots. Gaiman’s creation has had a lasting effect on the world of comics, both with its characters and with its intricate storytelling.
Sandman’s fanbase was unusual from the start. Women made up the majority of the audience, and often these were women who didn’t typically read comics. It can appeal to both those who enjoy episodic stories and those looking for lengthy epics. Readers of mythology, urban fantasy, and horror will all find something to enjoy here. I would be reluctant to offer this to younger teens, since the series is deeply rooted in the horror genre, and the opening issues are particularly violent. In fact, this is where I feel that Sandman really shows its age. We’re coming up to the series’ 25th anniversary and some of those early issues have a style that is clearly from the 1980s. Visually, the characters are disproportionate and sometimes crude. As for the plot, it takes a few issues for things to focus and for Gaiman to really find his voice. Looking back on the whole creation process, readers should feel fortunate that the series wasn’t ended prematurely. However, it’s well worth getting over this rough patch to get to the powerful storytelling that follows. As with the rest of the plot, every action has a consequence, and we see the impact of even these uneven moments throughout, finally revisiting and contemplating them in the closing volume.
Why should you own this?
For those readers who don’t expect great literature from graphic novels, I give them Sandman. It’s a well-crafted tale – or really, a multitude of tales – that explores the power of story, and what librarian doesn’t love want a book that imparts the significance of storytelling? By adding it to your collection, you’re also getting work from a multitude of artists; there’s an artistic style for every taste. But really, when it comes down to it, you’re getting a classic. These characters take on a life of their own and will stay with readers long after they’ve finished the final volume (and maybe several spin-offs). Those looking for a rich world, a labyrinthine story to get lost in, and some of the most memorable characters to accompany them, would do well to pick this up. Just hope your companion isn’t the Corinthian.
All of the Sandman volumes are currently in print and easy to locate. Indeed, if you’re in a comic shop and they don’t have at least one volume available, turn around and walk away. Collectors can pick up Absolute editions, though libraries should skip these gorgeous but expensive editions. Vertigo will be releasing a two-volume omnibus edition later this year. While the numerous spin-offs are definitely optional, there are a few titles that are part of the Sandman canon and are worth including with the original ten volumes.
During the madness of San Diego Comic Con ’12, Gaiman announced that to commemorate Sandman’s 25th anniversary, he would be writing a prequel, telling the story of the event that left Dream so susceptible to the cult that captures him. It’s a little difficult not to think of Gaiman’s cameo in season 5 of The Guild, where he promises that Sandman Zero is coming out soon and Zaboo can be included. I’m sure that fans will be looking forward to it with a certain amount of trepidation and excitement.
by Neil Gaiman
Preludes and Nocturnes
The Doll’s House
Season’s of Mists
A Game of You
Fables and Reflections
The Kindly Ones
Vertigo, 1989 – 1996
Additional Key Volumes
The Dream Hunters (1999)
Endless Nights (2003)