A Beginner’s Guide to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman is an elegantly written epic by Neil Gaiman. Get to know one of the most beloved comics of all time before Netflix takes it live-action!

If you’re into fantasy and love comics, there’s a high chance that at some point you’ve come across the elegantly penned, sprawling epic that is The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, everyone’s favorite author of dark fantasy. And, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading this wonderful comic series, you’ve got a lot to get excited for.

There’s never been a better time to read The Sandman. Audible recently released an epic, nearly 11-hour long audio-dramatization of the series with a stellar cast that includes James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), Michael Sheen (Good Omens), Andy Serkis (The Lord of The Rings), Samantha Morton (The Walking Dead) and many more. And of course, there’s a big-budget live-action Netflix adaptation coming soon, too.

With these big projects coming in from all angles, it’s a great time to dive deep into the iconic comic series and find out why expectations are so high.

What is The Sandman about?

The Sandman (not to be confused with the Marvel villain) is easily one of the most beloved graphic novels of all time. It revolves around Morpheus, the anthropomorphic personification of Dreams. Throughout history, myth, and legend, the character has gone by many names, including Kai’ckul, Oneiros, Sandman and simply Dream. We follow him as he serves his purpose as one of the Endless, a dysfunctional family of of siblings who each preside over a different part of the human condition, and came into being the moment they were first experienced. Besides Dream, the members of the Endless include Death, Destiny, Delirium (formerly Delight), Desire, Despair and Destruction.

Each member of the Endless rules over their own realm. For example, Destiny’s realm is known as his Garden, a huge hedge maze where all exits end at him. In the center of the maze lies his castle. Destiny is nearly always hooded and has a large book that contains the destiny of everyone alive chained around him at all times.

Then there’s Death, quite possibly the breakout character of the series, who wears a silver Ankh on a chain around her neck and has a marking similar to a Horus (Egyptian symbol of power and good health) next to her eye. Although she has one of the grimmer jobs among the Endless, she’s actually a very relaxed, unassuming person, and often a sounding board for the dour Dream.

But with this being The Sandman, we spend the most time with Morpheus in his realm. Dream tends to appear different whoever to sees him, but to most people, he appears as a tall, thin man with stars in place of eyes. He possesses three totems of power: his helmet, a ruby, and a pouch of sand.

Dream rules The Dreaming. His realm is an infinite, constantly changing place filled with characters from myth, legend and more. Its inhabitants include Cain and Abel, Merv Pumpkinhead, Matthew the Raven, Lucien and Gargoyle.

The Sandman takes on a lot of subject matter and makes a lot of references, but somehow always stays internally consistent, and never gets so bogged down in mythology that it becomes difficult to read. On the contrary, the scope of The Sandman makes it endlessly engaging, since it can go anywhere at any time. One moment we can be reading about Dream retrieving his stolen helmet from the depths of Hell, and the next we’re watching William Shakespeare perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a field in front of the fairies that Dream has invited as an audience. That particular story — 1991’s Issue #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” won the World Fantasy Award for “Best Short Fiction.” The Sandman is the first and only comic to ever win the award.

Since Dream and his siblings are unbounded by time and place, the storytelling possibilities for them are endless, and that’s really what The Sandman is all about: stories and their significance. There’s a gripping serialized story about Dream’s attempts to come to grips with change, but some of the most memorable entries are standalone tales that find people (and other things) interacting with the Lord of Dreams. Here are just a few of the standout entries:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Issue #19): It turns out the Morpheus gave William Shakespeare his incredible literary talent, and in this issue, it’s time for Shakespeare to pay him back. This is a wonderful issue that finds Shakespeare’s classic play being attended by actual members of the fairy world. It underlines what The Sandman is all about: the power of stories, and the thin line between reality and fantasy.
  • The Sound Of Her Wings (Issue #8): This is the issue where we meet Death, Dream’s easy-going sister. We follow her as she goes about her day, fulfilling her duties to see people out of this life. It’s by turns funny, sad, and beautiful.
  • A Dream of a Thousand Cats (Issue #18): Hey, cats have dreams, too. This is a clever issue that shows us what cats would do if they could live out their hearts’ desires. It’s as funny and scary as it sounds.
  • Ramadan (Issue #50): We see the results of a deal Dream made long ago with a Caliph of Baghdad to make sure his city would endure forever. It does, but not in the way he expects. Like many great Sandman tales, this one is about the power of stories.
  • Collectors (Issue #14): Three words: Serial killer convention.

To accommodate all this variety, Gaiman worked with multiple artists, including Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Charles Vess, Marc Hempel, Shawn McManus, Jill Thompson and Michael Zulli.

The Dream Begins

Although Gaiman gets most of the credit for The Sandman, it wasn’t originally his idea. Before he took the concept and ran with it in 1989, the character of Dream had already seen a couple of runs. The most popular Sandman series before Gaiman’s was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and was published by DC between 1974 and 1976. This early Sandman bore very little resemblance to the vast universe Gaiman later created.

Before The Sandman, Gaiman was known in comics thanks to successful runs on stuff like Violent Cases and Signal to Noise. He also picked up the Miracleman series from Alan Moore. Possibly the most important comic he wrote around that time was Black Orchid, where he gave his own take on the classic DC character. The publisher loved Black Orchid so much it offered Gaiman the chance to recreate another character. Enter Sandman.

Imagine it: it’s January 1989, and DC published “Sleep of the Just,” the first issue in its new dark fantasy series from Neil Gaiman. Nobody quite knew how this new comic would pan out, but The Sandman quickly became one of the most sought-after books in the industry, bringing in a whole new wave of readers. While promoting Sandman: Overture at SDCC in 2013, Gaiman recalled seeing this in action:

We created new readers, we didn’t have those readers before. One of the things that happened when Sandman started coming out was the very first signings I did for Sandman were all male. There weren’t any women in the signing lines, there were just guys because guys read comics. And then as the months went on every signing I’d go to there would be a couple more women in the line.

The Sandman was originally released as a monthly comic and lasted a whole 75 issues before coming to a close. These issues are split into 10 volumes, each containing either one story arc or several short stories about Dream and the Endless. They are:

  • Vol.1: Preludes and Nocturnes
  • Vol. 2: The Doll’s House
  • Vol. 3: Dream Country
  • Vol. 4: Season of Mists
  • Vol.5: A Game of You
  • Vol 6: Fables and Reflections
  • Vol 7: Brief Lives
  • Vol 8: The World’s End
  • Vol 9: The Kindly Ones
  • Vol 10: The Wake

If you finish all these and think The Sandman is over, don’t start: we’re just getting started. Since writing The Wake, Gaiman has returned to the series with spinoff books like The Dream Hunters and Endless Dreams. The most recent comeback — and likely the last comic Gaiman will create for the series — was Sandman: Overture, a prequel story with stunning art by J.H Williams III. It tells the story of how Morpheus was weakened to the point where he could be captured by a group of occultists at the beginning of Preludes and Nocturnes.

So is that all of The Sandman? The answer is a resounding no. In 2018, DC announced The Sandman Universe, a collection of comics set within the framework Neil Gaiman created, with a set of all-new and returning characters. The Sandman Universe brings us The Dreaming (Simon Spurrier), Books of Magic (Kat Howard), Lucifer (Dan Watters), and House of Whispers (Nalo Hopkinson). This year, DC brought us John Constantine, Hellblazer, the latest entry in the ever-expanding universe.

The Sandman Adaptations

If you’d rather experience The Sandman in a medium other than comics, you have options. The Audible audiobook edition of The Sandman — brought to us by Gaiman and producer Dirk Maggs — was released in July of 2020. Maggs has an impressive history of adapting Gaiman’s books; previous collaborations between the two include dramatizations of Stardust and Neverwhere.

Fans were apprehensive when this version of Sandman was announced, but it doesn’t disappoint. The incredible cast, which includes the likes of James McAvoy, Andy Serkis and Michael Sheen, helps a ton, too! If you’re not the type to subscribe to Audible and would rather have a physical version, a special CD edition will drop later this year.

Take a look at what some listeners had to say about the audiobook:

Possibly the most exciting of all Sandman adaptations is yet to come: a live-action Netflix TV show. Over the years, Neil Gaiman has turned down the opportunity to bring The Sandman to the screen, but it looks like the time is finally right. Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman) will act as showrunner while Gaiman and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) are executive producers. The first season will run 11 episodes. Casting remains under wraps, but a few rumors have emerged.

Gaiman has teased some changes to the original comic, telling Digital Spy that the show will bring the timeline forward, so the story will be et in 2021 rather than 1989. “The Netflix version is going to begin in 2021, so Morpheus will have been kept prisoner in the Netflix version for 105 years rather than 70 years.” Of course, we expect the many all the visits to the past (and future) to remain about the same.

We’ve been waiting for The Sandman to be translated to live-action for so long that some passionate fans have already gone out and made their own short films. The most famous has to be 24 Hour Diner, which adapts the issue “24 Hours” from Preludes and Nocturnes, where John Dee (Doctor Destiny) possesses Dream’s powerful ruby and uses it to manipulate the fabric of dreams. Sitting in Bette’s 24-hour diner, he uses it to play with the customers. As each hour of the day ticks by, things turn extremely creepy and very disturbing.

This 24-hour nightmare stands out as one of the seminal issues of the comic, so disturbing that DC All Access placed it at the top of their list of the scariest DC comics ever.

No one quite knows what the future holds for The Sandman, but I can predict that it will be bright. The Audible adaptation is already a big success, with a second part apparently in the works. The comics universe is always growing, with new issues releasing each month, so there’s always going to be something Sandman-related to read. The most exciting of all is the live-action Netflix drama, which I’m betting will be huge.

We couldn’t have dreamt up a better lineup of Sandman projects. If you’re a beginner to The Sandman, there’s no better time to get started than now!

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