Neil Gaiman's Sandman
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Neil Gaiman may be the Shakespeare of comics. Not that he's as good as Shakespeare, necessarily, but he may end up having a similar kind of impact. Before Shakespeare, plays were not really considered literature. They were regarded by the literary establishment of the time about the same way today's academics regard, say, television sitcoms. Or comic books.
During his life, William Shakespeare's reputation as a poet lay primarily on his sonnets, which today are considered pretty good but not as great as his plays. It was only after he died that his very popular plays began being taken seriously as literature. It is largely because of Shakespeare that dramatists are accorded high honors in the field of letters. Ironically, Ben Jonson, who was thought of as a superior poet during Shakespeare's day, is now primarily remembered as one of the "other playwrights" of the English Renaissance.
Gaiman has gotten more attention from the mainstream press than anybody but Art Spiegelman, and while articles about MAUS tend to treat it as a unique object, articles about Gaiman usually mention other "new voices" in comics, and point out that his major work, SANDMAN, is by no means his only contribution to the field. Some might argue that Gaiman is undeserving of such attention, that this or that favorite writer, artist or writer/artist should be hailed as the greatest, should be getting the attention. One of my English teachers thought Christopher Marlowe was twice the writer Shakespeare was, but whose name is synonymous with literary greatness?
In any case, the important thing is that Marlowe's plays still live today - and modern playwrights like Arthur Miller are taken seriously as literary artists - because Shakespeare lifted up the whole medium through his reputation. Arguments about whether the reputation was deserved are almost pointless.
In my opinion, though, my literature teacher was wrong. Sure, there are a couple of masterpieces among Marlowe's handful of plays. Perhaps if he hadn't been killed he would have been what Shakespeare was. But the breadth and depth of Shakespeare's life's work is astonishing. And it's also remarkable how few clunkers there are among his three dozen or so plays (scholars argue the exact number).
Gaiman exhibits the same kind of sure-handedness. Everything he puts his hand to seems to come out, at the very least, interesting and enjoyable. Below there are a few times when I disparage this or that individual story as being "weaker" than the rest. Be sure to keep in mind the context that the very worst Gaiman story (and nothing in SANDMAN represents Gaiman at his worst) still rises head and shoulders above almost all the work in his field. No, dammit, it's more than that: the worst Gaiman still rises above most published short stories, most best selling novels, most movies. He can write anything. He has written journalistic articles, television screenplays, short stories and novels, but his medium of choice is comics.
As a comics creator, Gaiman has produced several gems. With Dave McKean, he has done three "graphic novels," two of them at least semi-autobiographical. Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr. Punch are all listed on my page of Recommended Comic Books, along with The Books of Magic and Black Orchid. But SANDMAN is something special.
NOTE: Since this page was originally written, Neil has produced Neverwhere and Stardust. The former was first a BBC TV series, then a novel, and may soon be a film. The latter was originally done as a lavishly illustrated novel originally published in four parts by DC comics, then also a text-only rewritten and expanded version. My review of the latter is on my reviews page, and in conjunction with the book tour promoting it I also got to interview Neil, which was a delightful experience.
Erudite, allusive, complex and ambitious, SANDMAN is undoubtedly the finest writing the mainstream comic book industry has ever seen. It dares to tell the story of Morpheus, also known as Dream, the Prince of Stories, one of the seven Endless who are not gods, because gods die when men stop believeing in them. The Endless are older and larger than gods. Creating his own mythology, Gaiman incorporates all past mythology into his own - some specifically and explicitly, the rest by implication.
It is, perhaps, appropriate - an audacious and deliberate statement by Gaiman? - that Shakespeare himself is an important character in the series. Though he shows up only three times (and the first time only for one brief scene), his deal with Dream (see "Men of Good Fortune" below) resonates throughout the storyline, and he is given the place of honor, starring in the very last comic of the original series, the last chapter of the complete work.
As might be expected for such a high-profile piece (although unusual for a monthly comic that ceased publishing over a year ago) there are many, many SANDMAN home pages. One of the best is The Wake, which includes a list of the various books and which issues they reprinted, and links to several other pages. Dylan Verheul, who maintains that site, is also now the official keeper of the SANDMAN Annotations, which goes page by page and even panel by panel keeping track of the characters and explaining allusions (and Gaiman is a most allusive writer). However, The Wake is putting up the annotations gradually, so for now I'm keeping a link to the original list (complete through issue #71). Another good SANDMAN site is The Dreaming, while fans of Neil Gaiman in general might want to keep up with The Magian Line, an online version of his fan club newsletter.
Listed below are the "graphic novels" that the 76 issues (1-75 plus one special) have been collected into, plus a few related books. In my view these books can't really be thought of as graphic novels (see my rant on the subject to see why), but taken as a whole the series itself is a multi-volume graphic novel smaller but similar to what Dave Sim is doing with Cerebus. I have written descriptions of varying lengths for the books, plus each book has a link to amazon.com if you'd like to order it from them.
Which book should you start with? It depends on your taste, and what you're after. If you've read any of the comics, or seen several websites like this one, and are already convinced you want to read the whole thing, then you might as well start with the beginning. The entire series is, in fact, one story, and should be read that way.
But if you want to read a little bit first, to see if you're going to like it before you make a commitment to invest a considerable amount of money (and the ten trade paperbacks add up to a hefty sum), I would not suggest buying the first one first. For the first few issues SANDMAN thought of itself as primarily a horror magazine, and Gaiman himself has said he didn't really find his voice for the series until #8.
The shocking, terrible, truly horrific "24 Hours" made my skin crawl, and if I had read it first, or even in sequence in the first book, it's possible I would have abandoned the whole thing. It's true that gruesome horror would occasionally occur again in the series, and it's also true that that kind of horror has its place. I'll even admit that, on rereading the entire series, "24 Hours" is both a remarkable literary achievement and absolutely necessary to the overall storyline. It is still not the best place for a new reader to be introduced to the SANDMAN, except for fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Some people have said that the short stories are the better than the longer stories, and as most of them are reasonably self-contained the short story collections make good places to sample SANDMAN and see if it's for you. That's probably true, but I would recommend starting with The Doll's House. Perhaps it's because that was my introduction to the series. The first trade paperback collected, it starts with the wonderful "The Sound of Her Wings," originally published as SANDMAN #8 (puzzlingly, this is also the last story in the first collection). In this story, Gaiman says he found his voice as he introduced Dream's older sister, Death, who quickly became so popular she was given two spin-offs of her own.
Dream Country, the first book of short stories, contains the wonderful "Midsummer Night's Dream," with art by Charles Vess, that won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, so if you do want to start with short stories that's probably the book to choose.
If you like SANDMAN, though, you'll eventually have to buy them all and start over with the beginning, because it really is all one story.
The Complete SANDMAN Collection
Although I try not to spoil things too badly, these descriptions necessarily contain some spoilers for those who haven't read any of the books. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK
Preludes and Nocturnes
- The first book in the SANDMAN collection introduces the character under duress. A turn-of-the-century magician, obviously based on Aleister Crowley, tries to conjure Death and conjures Dream instead. He traps the mystical being in a crystal and keeps him prisoner for 70 years, taking from him objects of power, including a ruby and a strange looking mask. Dream's imprisonment has a definite effect on the 20th century, especially for a few specific individuals, some of whom we will meet again. Freeing himself, exacting vengeance on the son of his original tormentor (the father died of old age along the way), and retrieving his objects of power take up the first seven issues, including 24 hours in a diner with a psycho killer in possession of Dream's ruby that will almost literally make your skin crawl. Along the way he goes to hell, and embarrasses Lucifer, who vows to destroy him. The eighth issue was reprinted at the end of this book and also as the beginning of the next book.
There's some controversy among SANDMAN fans whether you should start with this book or not. Obviously, since the entire series is essentially one long multi-volume graphic novel, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Certainly, if you fall in love with the story you will have to read this eventually, and read or reread everything else in sequence. But Gaiman was still feeling his way when he wrote these stories, and the original aim of the title seemed to be to present horror stories. Gaiman would return to the kind of unflinching awfulness he presents here a few times later in the series, but this collection is almost unrelenting. If I'd read it first, I might never have read anything else. But I read it after I'd already read The Doll's House, so I knew where he was going and trusted him. Still, it's rough going, and if you're at all squeamish about the kind of unflinching horror written by Stephen King and Clive Barker, this is not the best place to start.
Order Preludes and Nocturnes from amazon.com
The Doll's House
- This is the first thing I ever read by Neil Gaiman, and I have trusted him ever since, and he's never let me down. The book opens the same place the first one ends, with the introduction of Dream's sister, Death, in the wonderful "The Sound of Her Wings," the first great SANDMAN story. She helps him recover from the experiences of the first book. Then we have a prologue in the form of a folk tale from a culture resembling African tribal cultures but apparently on some other world somewhere. The story seems to be irrelevant to what is to follow, and is in some ways actually a prologue to Season of Mist, but it is important in understanding who Dream is and why he acts the way he does in The Doll's House. Finally, with the third chapter (issue 10 of the original series), we finally get to the beginning of the "novel" per se. It's worth the wait, as we follow the grandaughter of Unity Kinkaid, a character who was mentioned in the very first issue. She fell asleep when Dream was imprisoned and didn't wake up until he was released 70 years later. In the meantime, she was impregnated and gave birth to a daughter. The daughter's daughter, Rose Walker, is the main character of The Doll's House. We also meet Desire, another of Dream's sisters, and learn that she has some kind of feud going with her older brother. (If you're noticing a theme here, you're right, the other members of the family are Destiny, Despair and Delirium - plus a prodigal brother whose name is not revealed until more than halfway through the series, so I won't spoil it here.) Rose's housemates are an interesting bunch, and many of them are tied in not only to this story but many others. There are two characters named Barbie and Ken, and in dream sequences Barbie's dreamworld is this childlike fantasyland straight out of syrupy Saturday morning cartoons. It seems to be a cute throwaway, just highlighting Barbie's shallowness, but it becomes very important later on. The horror theme returns in one issue of this run, with a macabre black-humor spoof on comics and sci-fi fandom conventions. Serial killers from across the country gather in a small hotel in the middle of nowhere for a "Cereal Convention." In the middle of the book is a completely unrelated story ("The Doll's House" is the least integrated of the "graphic novels" in the series), that is one of my favorites: "Men of Good Fortune." This was the first book DC published from the series, and it's a very good place to start.
Order The Doll's House from amazon.com
- A series of short stories, which includes "Midsummer Night's Dream," which won the World Fantasy Award for best short story, making churlish prose writers demand the rules be changed to make comics ineligible. We see part of the outcome of the deal Dream made with Will Shakespeare in "Men of Good Fortune," as Shakespeare takes his company out into the middle of nowhere to perform the title play for the real Oberon and Titania and their entourage. The collection also includes "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," which will make cat owners look at their pets in a whole new way, "Facade," a story unusual in that the title character makes not even a token appearance (although his sister does). "Calliope," in which we learn about one of Dream's past loves (and the mother of his son), is also represented by the script for that comic. I'm not sure, but this may be the first Another good place to start, since the stories are all pretty much self-contained and not tied in to the overall storyline.
Order Dream Country from amazon.com
Season of Mists
- The Sandman, Dream of the Endless, girds himself for battle with Lucifer, the great fallen angel who rules Hell. After preparations worthy of a Homeric epic - or a superhero comic - Dream arrives in Hell to find it empty. Lucifer has decided he no longer wants to rule in Hell and has sent all the souls and demons elsewhere. He gives Dream the key to Hell and departs the realm, forsaking his duty as Lord of the Underworld, and leaving Dream with an unwanted burden: deciding what to do with Hell. The burden becomes even more challenging when everyone from Norse and Egyptian deities to angels and devils want to be chosen as Hell's new rulers. This book starts with a family dinner that is probably the best single introduction to the Endless as a group.
Order Season of Mists from amazon.com
A Game of You
- Remember Rose Walker's housemate from The Doll's House, Barbie, and her dreams about a fantasy land? Remember I said it became important later? Well, this book opens in The Land, at is called, and things are going very badly for all of Barbie's fantasy friends. In fact, they're dying. In the "real" world (whatever that means at this point), Barbie tells her friend Wanda (a pre-operative transexual born Alvin) that she doesn't dream. But one night Barbie, Wanda, Hazel and Foxglove (a lesbian couple who also live in the same building with Barbie and Wanda) all have terrible dreams as crows hover near their beds. The crows came out of George, an upstairs neighbor when he sliced himself open. Another occupant of the building, Thessaly, a studious type with big round glasses, doesn't have bad dreams caused by the crows. She catches one, smashes it against the wall and stares at it, whereupon it bursts into flames in her hands and disappears. From there, things begin to get really strange.
This one has a twisty storyline that is hard to describe without spoiling, so I won't try. I will mention, however, that the title character makes only a couple of fairly brief appearances, though his last one is pretty powerful. By now the storyline is making so many references to earlier books that this is probably not a good place to start. This book also features a brief return to King/Barker horror, complete with a man's face cut off and nailed to a wall.
Order A Game of You from amazon.com
Fables and Reflections
- This volume is more than a bit annoying to those completists who want to experience the story as it was originally told in the monthly comics. It gathers together short stories from several different sources: The "Distant Mirrors" series of stories that ran between Season of Mist and A Game of You; the "Convergences" stories that ran between A Game of You and Brief Lives; the special double-sized story in issue #50 called "Ramadan" (which came between Brief Lives and Worlds' End); and the SANDMAN Special, with its retelling of the Orpheus myth incorporating it into the Endless' family by making him Dream's son.
The latter especially, which came out during the run of A Game of You, is essential for understanding the overall storyline, and a few of the stories are gems (particularly "Ramadan" and the one featuring the Emperor of the United States - a real historical personage). But aside from collecting these disparate stories and placing them together here, they're not even presented in their original order.
A few short months ago, the original version of this page disparaged the "Convergences" stories as "the weakest stories in the saga." I still feel that way (though the series is so fine that its weakest links are still extremely strong), but I take back my original criticism that they were "filler." I once felt that "Convergences" and, to some extent, Brief Lives represented Gaiman trying to stretch the series out to please DC, who had promised to let him end it only to find it suddenly one of their top sellers. I know better now.
I recently saw Neil give a lecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and as I write this I have just completed a rereading of the entire series. The latter tells me that Brief Lives is not padded. Nor is The Kindly Ones, though that book is by far the longest of the series. To the extent that the series became stretched out as it neared its conclusion, the reason was not Gaiman trying to placate his publisher, but a real reluctance to write the ending. He had become fond of Dream, attached to him as a parent to a child. And he didn't want it to end. As he came closer and closer to the inevitable conclusion, it became harder and harder to proceed.
I still think "The Hunt" is a wonderful story that essentially has nothing to do with The Sandman and "The Soft Places" is wholly unnecessary. "The Parliament of Rooks" at least brings Daniel to the Dreaming, and reminds us of his existence, since we haven't seen him since The Dolls House, but it's another of the weaker links, in my opinion. I'm more forgiving now, though, having heard about the anguish Gaiman went through as he realized he actually had to write the ending he'd been heading toward since #1.
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- My original comment on this "novel" (see my rant on why none of the individual SANDMAN volumes are really novels) was that it was the weakest of the series. On rereading the entire story, I've changed my mind. Its apparent aimlessness masks a deep purpose, and the art by Jill Thompson is some of the best in the series, in my opinion. I like this book much better as a book than I did as a series of monthly comics. And, after all, much of the meandering way it unfolds can be explained by the fact that it prominently features Delirium, one of Gaiman's most delightful characters (pun intended, for those of you who get it).
Order Brief Lives from amazon.com
- The last collection of short stories, and this one with a major difference, for it contains a frame tale that ends with a premonition of what is about to happen. A couple is driving, they run off the road. Caught in a storm, they find comfort at an Inn. But this is not just any Inn, but one like Poul Anderson's (ANYBODY WANT TO E-MAIL ME THE NAME?), where characters from many different worlds cross paths, if only for one night. The only payment for the food and lodging there is tales, and the travelers hear several of them before they are called upon to settle their account. The famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) retelling and completion of the short-lived 70s series "Prez" is one of the stories told here, along with several other tales. I can't say that any of them are "essential" to the storyline, but they're quite enjoyable. I particularly liked the tale told by Petrefax, which turned out to be about another time when tales were told, and one of the tellers begins telling a tale about someone telling him a tale. It's a neat trick, a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale, and Gaiman pulls it off with panache.
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The Kindly Ones
- If you've gotten this far in the descriptions and aren't moved to go out and read the books, then I'm sorry that my poor prose has failed you. Neil writes much better than I. Just go give him a chance. I'm not going to say a word about this book, because in it the story comes to a conclusion, and I don't believe in giving away endings.
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- Well, I suppose if I don't want to give away the end I should have supressed even the title of this book. Contemporary narratives have eschewed the anticlimax, preferring to end with a bang. In fact, a graceful anticlimax can be the mark of high art in storytelling, as Gaiman shows here. In the very last issue, Shakespeare's final payment/gift is the writing of The Tempest - Gaiman never mentions it, but as an old English Lit. major I can tell you that A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest are the only plays whose stories Shakespeare made up - the others are all histories or adaptations of earlier works. The Tempest was also Shakespeare's last play, and when Prospero says "Our revels now are ended," he is speaking for his creator, as well. Gaiman uses this "tale of graceful ends," as he has Dream describe it, to comment on his own release from the bands of duty to the story, so that Prospero, Shakespeare, Dream and Neil Gaiman all come together, in the end, all bound together in the dream of storytelling, and the story of Dream.
Peter Straub, in the Afterword to Brief Lives, said, "If this isn't literature, nothing is," and his words were echoed by Frank McConnell in his Introduction to The Kindly Ones. I'll go even further. If the complete, collected SANDMAN, from Preludes and Nocturnes through The Wake, is not a literary masterpiece, I don't know what is.
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The Death Stories
Death is Dream's older sister, as well as one of everybody's favorite characters in the series. Where the main character himself is aloof, detached and somewhat cold, his sister, ironically, is full of life. The idea that Death might be a pretty girl dressed like a Goth instead of a skeleton in a black robe with a scythe is one of the attractions, but the character transcends her "cute" appearance and is philosophically challenging and psychologically complex. In addition to her appearances within the series itself, Death has appeared in two miniseries, each of which has been collected in book form.
A day in the life of Death. It seems that once in every century, Death takes the form of a mortal and dwells among us for 24 hours, to remind herself of what it is to be mortal, so that she may have a deeper understanding of those whose lives she ends. Today, she enters the life of a suicidal teenager, not as Death but as an ordinary teenage girl. I reviewed this for the Post-Dispach when it came out.
Another separate story about Death, in this case highlighting Hazel and Foxglove, two characters who were supporting characters in A Game of You. They are married now (well, more or less: lesbians aren't allowed the luxury of legally sanctioned marriages, but they're married in every way that counts) and the baby Hazel was carrying in the earlier book has been born. Foxglove meanwhile has become a rock 'n' roll star. Nobody's ready for Death to show up.
Order Death: The High Cost of Living from amazon.com
Order Death: The Time of Your Life from amazon.com
My Favorite Sandman Story
If I had to choose a single favorite story from SANDMAN, it would by "Men of Good Fortune," which was published in the middle of the original run of The Doll's House and collected in that volume, although it doesn't really have anything to do with that story. Dream and Death, visiting mortals in the 14th Century, visit a tavern where, among other patrons, Geoffrey Chaucer is discussing poetry with a friend. At another table, a man named Hob Gadling says people only die because they think they have to, but he's not going to do it. At Dream's request, Death agrees not to take Hob as long as he keeps his attitude, and Dream makes an appointment to see him at the same place a hundred years hence. They do meet again, and again in another hundred years. This time Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe are among the patrons when Dream and Hob meet. Afterwards, Dream takes Shakespeare aside, having overheard him tell Marlowe "I would give anything to have your gifts." Two hundred years later, Hob asks Dream if Shakespeare sold him his soul. "Nothing so crude," Dream replies. Hob and Dream continue to meet, century after century, and become friends, in a strange sort of way. It's a wonderful story, with art by Michael Zulli (somewhat marred by Steve Parkhouse's incompatible inks but still quite good), one of the finest artists ever to work in comics. I can't say enough good things about this story. I still get misty-eyed when I reread it. Hob Gadling becomes one of the main characters in the series, perhaps the only mortal who can truly call Morpheus a friend.
Sandman Midnight Theatre
This really isn't a part of the SANDMAN storyline, but an extended episode of Sandman Mystery Theatre, a completely different comics series created by Matt Wagner about Wesley Dodd, the original Golden Age Sandman. Back in the the late 30s and early 40s, there was a comic book hero called the Sandman who wore a gas mask and put criminals to sleep with a gas gun. A later superhero with a more traditional costume of colorful tights appeared under the same name in the 70s. When Gaiman created the SANDMAN in 1989, he created a new character that had no real ties to the previous characters, but made references to both of these earlier incarnations in the SANDMAN comic. In the first issue, one of the humans affected by Dream's imprisonment is Wesley Dodds, whose dreams end up driving him to wear a mask and fight crime. Wagner took this idea and wrote new stories set in the 30s about Dodd. Although only peripherally connected to Gaiman's series, Gaiman was invited to script an episode where the two meet, as Wesley travels from New York to England and gets himself invited to Fawney Rigg, where Dream is imprisoned in the basement. It's interesting, but despite the brief appearance by Morpheus, it's not really part of the SANDMAN story.
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If this page looks funny, it may be because I created it with my display set to 800 X 600 pixels, with high (16-bit) color. If you have only 256 colors, my non-standard text color (which should be the same as the "Sandman" logo) and background (which should match the logo background so that you can't see where one ends and the other begins) won't display right, and if you have your screen set at 640 X 480 or 1024 X 768, some of the pictures may not come out quite right with the text. On the other hand, I tried to be as broad-minded as I could be browser-wise. Aside from the tables (which a few primitive browsers won't read), everything on this website is pretty standard. No java or sounds or even animated gifs.
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The words on this page and others maintained here are © J. Stephen Bolhafner.
SANDMAN and all the images here are © & ® DC Comics Inc.
Credits for individual images on this page (in order):
(1) Sandman Logo by Dave McKean
(2) Photo of Neil Gaiman from The Magian Line (fan newsletter)
(3) Picture of Dream from "Soft Places" (issue #39) by John Watkiss
(4) Picture of Dream and Death by Mike Dringenberg originally part of a stand-alone display - original piece had text "How would you feel about life if Death were your older sister?"
(5) Dream by Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg from "Preludes & Nocturnes"
(6) a scene from 'The Sound of Her Wings' (#8) by Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III
(7) Dream facing Lucifer by Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III, from "Season of Mists"
(8) Dream in the rain, by Jill Thompson, and Vince Locke, from "Brief Lives"
(9) Death by Chris Bachalo from postcard promoting "Death: The Time of Your Life"
(10) Hob Gadling in the first scene of "Men of Good Fortune," by Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse
Other images in this webspace or pages linked here are all © their respective creators
Feel free to add add this page as a link, or to copy any of the links to your own page -- just don't copy the
words themselves without my express permission, or I shall be forced to send my lawyer over to beat up