Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Sprawling, Epic, Mind-Twisty World of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN

Please welcome the lovely Memory of In the Forest of Stories, on what makes Sandman a landmark graphic novel series and why it's one of her touchstone comics.

sandman neil gaiman
The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s ten-volume horror epic, has ranked among my favourite comics for well over a decade. The series revolves around the idea that there are seven beings who embody the key elements of existence--and one of them, Dream, has been imprisoned for most of the twentieth century. The first volume, Preludes & Nocturnes, features Dream’s initial capture and escape; the rest of the series deals with the fallout from his imprisonment.

It’s intense stuff, tailor made for readers who want to wallow in a rich, complex world for upwards of a thousand pages. Sandman ain’t perfect, but it’s a remarkable literary achievement and I can’t help but love it, even as I recognize its shortcomings. No matter how often I return to it, the series never fails to pull me back in and entrance me.

Here are the top five reasons it’s always gonna be one of the comics in my book:

5. It sprawls.

Sandman doesn’t limit itself to a single focal point, time period, cast of characters, or storyline (at least on the surface). Neil Gaiman and a rotating bullpen of artists transport us to such varied places as early twentieth century England, contemporary Florida, ancient Greece, revolutionary France, imperial China, Faerie, Hell, and any number of other realms both fictional and non. Each volume approaches the core premise from a different angle, and Gaiman often pauses to tell smaller, self-contained stories in and around each multi-issue story arc. Three of the ten volumes are basically short fiction collections packed with tales that somehow impact the wider story without demanding the reader devour seventy-four other single issues in order to understand them, so it’s also easy for the new reader to enter the fray without directly engaging with an epic tale. (Though why you’d want to ignore the epic stuff is beyond me. It’s awesome.)

4. It’s different

Okay, maybe Sandman isn’t as different and shiny now as it was back in the day. After all, this was one of the formative comics series of the 1990s; a book that paved the way for DC’s non-superhero-focused Vertigo line and helped expand the mainstream reader’s conception of what comics could be.

When I first read it in the very early 2000s, though, it was unlike anything I’d ever encountered before. My previous comics reading had taken me deep into the American teenager’s quest for a date, the Silver Age superhero’s battle against deranged and/or extraterrestrial science, and the mutant’s struggle to protect a world that hates and fears her. Neither the handful of vintage horror comics I’d read nor the Sandman criticism I gulped down while I was searching for an affordable copy of Preludes & Nocturnes prepared me for this series. It changed my reading landscape with its twisting plot, its rich mythology, and its adult worldview.

Even now, SANDMAN isn’t quite like any other comic I’ve ever latched onto, even though I see its influence in a multitude of other books.

3. The mythology is rich and strange

Gaiman weaves together a vast number of threads from world mythology, making Sandman an excellent experience for anyone with a thirst for folklore. Faerie and Hell both play large roles, and the wider DC Universe encroaches from time to time. It's fascinating stuff, and the bits Gaiman invents wholesale is even more compelling than what he reinterprets.

There are seven beings who embody the essential elements of existence: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (who used to be Delight). They aren’t gods. They can’t die, though they can change. We probably need them very much, except maybe we could get along without them. Opinions differ. And even though they’re all-powerful and (probably) essential, they’re not always right.

Gaiman gives us a bucketful to internalize, sort through, and evaluate in and around the wider story. It’s tremendous fun.

When it’s not seventeen kinds of painful, I mean.

2. The characters are fascinating

As I said above, Sandman doesn’t limit itself to a set cast. While Dream sits at the series’ heart, he’s rarely the protagonist and often disappears from the book for several issues at a stretch. In his place, we get prehistorical African queens, young American women in search of their lost brothers, emperors and kings from a variety of nations, men who’ve decided never to die and stuck to that resolution down through the centuries, women with worlds inside their heads, talking dogs, angels, demons, faeries both royal and non, and time-displaced strangers trapped in interdimensional inns, to name just a few.

We also spend a fair amount of time with Dream’s siblings, my favourites of whom are Death, Destruction, and Delirium (not always in that order). Death is a practical, cheerful goth girl because it’s much more fun to be nice than to be creepy. Destruction is an enormous redhead who spends his days creating things, even though he’s utter shite at it. Delirium is scattered and sweet and vicious, terrifying one moment and heartbreaking the next.

Dream himself is not a particularly warm or welcoming person. He takes his duties seriously but rarely seems to revel in them, even when he’s obliged to do something that strikes me as particularly delightful. He’s mysterious and cold; the sort of person you find interesting rather than likable, but who is ultimately worth following wherever he leads.

1. It’s a puzzle

While most of the volumes can stand alone, Sandman still has a unifying thread running through it. Even when Dream receives minimal page time, his influence makes itself known over the mortals (and immortals) who can’t help but brush up against his world. After all, everyone dreams.

Well, almost everyone.

As things unfold, it becomes clear the varied storylines aren’t as discrete as they first seem. This character knows that one, who knows people from that other volume, who’re important because they know this thing that’s actually crucial to the wider plot.

Gaiman constructs his story with consummate skill, melding each disparate element to the next in often unexpected ways. Even the scenes that don’t directly impact the wider story still have consequences within this world. Everything is connected. Everything is important.

It makes Sandman an utter joy to read (again: when it’s not ripping one’s heart out and stomping on it). It’s a puzzle, yet Gaiman and the artists provide us with very little concrete confirmation as to how it all fits together. The reader must assemble it for herself, sans handy-dandy visual aid, and the picture she finally ends up with may not be the same as what other readers discover within the exact same text.

I’ve read the later volumes in the series seven times and the earlier volumes nine times, and I still notice new things with each reread. Sandman features such a wealth of mythology, worldbuilding, characterization, and careful plotting that it’s impossible to absorb it all the first time through--or the first ten times through, come to that. SANDMAN is complex and deep, and it rewards the rereader time and again.

It’ll always be one of my touchstone comics.


  1. As usual, a previous post has been eaten - boooo!

    Anyway, I hope followers can watch the following video:

    Mastermind is a UK quiz, that is seen to be one of the more stressful and challenging. Sandman is the "specialist subject" and a very reasonable score (I believe he wins with 28 points in the end)

  2. THis has been on my wish list for a while now. I love all 5 reasons I should read it!

  3. You know, I read the first volume of this one and never returned to it. I don't know why, but I just wasn't drawn back to it at the time. I think I need to try it again.


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