Series Spotlight – Sandman
The rumour mill is going wild with talk that MAN OF STEEL writer David S Goyer has proposed a SANDMAN movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN is one of the most critically acclaimed comics of all time, and one of the few graphic novels to make it onto the New York Times Bestsellers list (other titles include MAUS, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN). It tells the story of Dream, of the Endless, the Lord of Dream and his home dimension called the Dreaming.
The original run of comics ran between January 1989 and March 1996 and spanned 75 issues. It was one of Vertigo’s primary titles, and along with PREACHER (series spotlight by me here) and other titles such as HELLBLAZER, Vertigo were putting out some of the best adult comics at the time. I say adult not in a sense that was filled with breasts, swearing, violence and themes of that nature, although saying that PREACHER did have all those things, but that these were comics aimed at adults who want to read a grown up story in this storytelling medium of pictures and word balloons. When we look back at the comics before the revolutionary 80s titles such as Watchmen, it was all very camp and cheesy. SANDMAN is pretty much the antithesis of a camp superhero story.
Gaiman originally proposed to DC a series using the 1974 Jack Kirby character The Sandman, but DC Editor Karen Berger later proposed Gaiman write his own Sandman series. Gaiman recalled his reaction as, ‘Um… yes. Yes, definitely. What’s the catch?’ to which she replied, ‘There’s only one. We’d like a new Sandman. Keep the name. But the rest is up to you’. Gaiman’s original concept of Dream was “a man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell, waiting until his captors passed away […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes”. Another thing that Sandman had which was quite revolutionary at the time was the cover art. Dave McKean convinced Berger that the series’ protagonist didn’t need to be on each cover (unlike how Wolverine turns up on the cover of every Ultimate X-Men tpb..), and instead had some nice arty covers.
Dream crossed over with two of DC’s other titles in those early years, including SWAMP THING #84 where a man named Matthew Cable is allowed to live in the Dreaming (Dream’s home realm), and dies there, later to be resurrected as a raven and appears often throughout SANDMAN. Dream also appeared in John Constantine’s series HELLBLAZER #19 which led to Constantine appearing in SANDMAN #3. In #4 Dream travels to Hell, as depicted in Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING, where we meet Lucifer, who later appears in his own (truly amazing) series of the same name written by Mike Carey (one of my favourite writers). In #5 Dream visits Justice League International, although most appearances by regular DC characters stopped after 1990. By the time it concluded in 1996, it was outselling DC titles such as BATMAN and SUPERMAN!
The main theme through the series is that following a 70-year imprisonment, in which Dream escapes in the modern age, he attempts to put right the wrongs of his past. After a millennia of eternal life, he has made a lot of them. A reoccurring character in the series is a woman called Lyta Hall, aka Fury, who receives her powers from Tisiphone from Greek mythology. Tisiphone is known as one of the Erinyes or Furies, and the ILIAD references them as “those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false earth”, and were female chthonic deities of vengeance. In SANDMAN, they are also known as ‘The Kindly Ones’, a translation of “Eumenides” (taken from Aeschylus’s ORESTEIA trilogy).
You can probably get the impression there is a lot of myth, fable and legend in SANDMAN, and this is the reason it is held in such high esteem as an intellectual comic. Not to spoil anything, but Dream had done a lot of bad things over the years, and each story reveals snippets of his history as he attempts to make amends.
In the first arc, Dream ends a decades-long imprisonment by an occultist attempting to unlock the secrets of immortality. On the man’s death, Dream is freed but in a weakened state and must search out his objects of power. An orb, a weird gasmask thing, and particularly his dream powder which a lady friend of John Constantine has become a junkie to. In the next arc, Dream must track down rogue dreams that escaped the Dreaming while he was imprisoned, one of those being a serial killer called The Corinthian who has mouths instead of eyes which it covers with sunglasses. It’s proper creepy. The third arc was a bit whimsical if I’m honest. It had some self-contained stories such as a cat dreaming of changing the world, and Shakespeare being commissioned to put on a play to a group of otherworldly creatures. At various points throughout SANDMAN, there are issues which are more or less just prose rather than part of the overall arc.
One of my favourite books was the fourth arc, titled Season of Mists, where Dream travels to Hell to free a former lover he had condemned to languish there thousands of years before. Dream soon learns that Lucifer has abandoned Hell, and gives the key to the kingdom and its ownership to Dream. He must then suffer all the politics, threats and lies of Hell from various demons and pantheons as they seek to gain control. Dream eventually places control of Hell in the hands of two angels, thus condemning them to an eternity away from Heaven in service of the Lord – a price they reluctantly pay with visible tears.
Throughout the series, Dreams’ brothers and sisters – The Endless, are featured. They are Death; Destiny; Desire; Despair; Delirium and Destruction. Death is his older sister, a beautiful pale girl with similar hair and dress sense to Dream, and is symbolised by an ankh. She is responsible for ushering all mortals from this world to the land of the dead. One exception to this is a man Dream meets in a pub every century who for some reason lives indefinitely as he just refuses to die. Destiny, the eldest of the Endless is super serious, and has a huge book chained to his wrist that contains writings detailing the past, present and future of everything. Desire, is the embodiment of pleasure, lust and obsession, and appears as an androgynous boy with über-feminine features and is often seen smoking. Despair embodies sadness, grief and melancholy, and appears as a short, fat, ugly naked woman. Desire appears especially close to Despair and seems to take pity on her. Delirium was once known as Delight, and takes the form of a young girl, though her visible age changes (as does the rest of her appearance) frequently, but usually seems to be around 12 to 16 years old. She is completely crazy and doesn’t seem attached to reality, coming out with the strangest comments. At times though she speaks with perfect clarity, usually in a piercing observation of something that totally belies her inherent intelligence. She takes joy in the simplest of things and is brightly coloured at all times, occasionally there a fish floating around her head. Finally Destruction, whom we see for the first time quite late into the series, as it’s made apparent that some 300 years previous that Destruction walked away from the Endless family to live a normal life. We see him living in a cottage in the countryside with a dog. He is especially protective of Delirium and critical of Dream.
SANDMAN has won many awards and accolades over the years, but especially in form of 26 Eisener Awards, including four for Gaiman as Best Writer, and three for Best Continuing Series.
There really is nothing like SANDMAN out there, but I’d be very hesitant to say it would make a good film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or no. It is certainly worth a read, but it not an easy story to get through. It’s funny though, when DEADGEEK asked me about it, I said it was a bit whiny and emo, but the more I’ve written about it and researched, the more I remember enjoying reading it.