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, an...
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?
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, that its creator had always seen 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.
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.
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 far-sighted editor at DC/Vertigo, Karen Berger; and the carefully chosen group of artists chosen 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.
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 ni