The Bookshelf: The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Dream and Death

When I began reading graphic novels a few years ago, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, was often recommended and was the first multi-volume comic series that I delved into.  After reading a number of graphic novels and comic series in that time, The Sandman is the one I continue to return to again and again… either in part, or once I get started… in whole.  This is one of the more fantastic and gorgeously realized stories that I have ever had the pleasure to read in this, or any other medium.

The Sandman tells the story of Dream of the Endless.  Dream is the anthropomorphic realization of dream itself… one of the seven Endless… the Endless being, in order of birth:  Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, the twins Desire and Despair, and Delirium… formally Delight.  As the story opens, Dream is captured by an occultist and held prisoner for 70 years until Morpheus (one of Dream’s many titles depending on to whom and when he appears) manages to escape.   His realm in ruins, he sets about rebuilding and righting the wrongs of his past.

In the forward to Endless Nights, a separate book of seven chapters devoted to each of the Endless, Neil Gaiman summarizes the plot of the story as such: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.”  That very accurately describes this series that ran from January 1989 until March 1996 with a total of 75 issues… now available in ten trade paperback volumes or four hardcover Absolute Sandman books.

Originally under the DC banner until it switched to Vertigo after issue #47, the series begins as a very dark horror comic taking place in the DC Universe.  There are a number of story threads that involve an earlier incarnation of The Sandman as a super hero, but was weaved into the overriding mythology Gaiman was creating.  By the end, only Fury, Lyta Hall, remains of the DC Universe once the switch to Vertigo occurs.  Also, it quickly changed from horror to fantasy as is evidenced by the completely different tone of Volume 1 from all of the subsequent nine books.  If you were interested, I would highly recommend reading about the initial inception for this series and the deals made surrounding it… such as, The Sandman would end when Gaiman ended it.

The story involves not just Dream, but each member of his family as well as a number of reoccurring characters.  From Lucifer to Cain and Abel… from William Shakespeare to Odin and Thor… from Bast to Hob Gadling… this is a series of stories within a story, that is in itself, within a story.  It is a story of change, a story of mythology, a story of coming to terms with your decisions.  Norman Mailer referred to The Sandman as “a comic strip for intellectuals.”

During my first read through, which I was feeling horribly guilty for, due to the rather high cost of graphic novels and what was becoming a voracious appetite for me to keep up with (quick side note… I recall bringing two volumes with me on a trip to New Orleans with my brother-in-law.  I read most of one on the plane and the other while stuck in Atlanta overnight.  I actually spent a chunk of my vacation in New Orleans in a Borders searching for Volume 9.  They didn’t have it… I was bummed that I had to wait… and for the record, Volume 9 may be the best, if not the most significant to the story), I had no clue how much of what I was reading would end up tying together in the end.  Characters that I perceived to be one off tales end up having interesting ripple effects throughout the entire run.  I don’t imagine there is a single story that is not related to overall tale being told.  (I may be very wrong in that… I think there are a few stand alones).

By the time I had finished all 10 volumes, and it’s follow up Endless Nights… and a spin-off of Dream’s sister, Death (Death is a hot goth girl who most men will fall in love with in one way or another), I came to realize how much I had missed, prompting an immediate re-read.  And after said re-read… it stuck with me.  I couldn’t shake it… that feeling that I was altered in some way, or had a whole new world opened to me.  Pretentious at time, trite at others… but overwhelmingly affecting.

It is in this unfolding of the tale that I believe separates this particular comic series from others.  There is a certain subtlety to the saga that feels like Gaiman was taking his time and allowing Dream’s journey to open itself up very organically.  I rarely felt anything was forced.  The books take us through time, worlds, into the realms of each individual of the Endless and always shifting the stories focus from place to person to time to place and eventually giving us a deep understanding of each of the story arcs and where they fit into the main arc.  What is the main arc?  Dream had set his destiny into motion thousands of years ago… and a billions year old grudge is enacted and allowed to play out.  Vague enough for you?  I don’t wish to give it away… allow it to wash over you the first time as it did for me.

I will however, bring up two of my favorite side stories.  The first begins about 600 years ago in a pub in London.  Dream and Death have taken on human form because Death likes doing so every century or so in order to feel what it is to live.  While listening in to various conversations (one of which being a young Shakespeare who wishes for a dream of writing works that will live on beyond his years), Dream overhears a man, Hob (Robert) Gadling, a soldier in the Hundred Years War, arguing with his buddies about death and how it’s a suckers game.  If you simply choose not to die and choose not to accept death as inevitability, then you can live forever.  Together with his sister, Dream lets Hob know that yes, he can let death pass him over and they agree to meet in that pub once every 100 years.  We then follow their meetings throughout the centuries… the good times, the bad… Hob discussing the pros and cons of living, the difficulties of having to move about lest you be mistaken for a demon or witch… the benefits of modernization and the horror of having made a fortune in the slave trade.  In the end, Hob is one of Dream’s very few friends.

The other remarkable side story is Ramadan… a tale of Baghdad and the dream of what it once was… and how that dream is preserved.  This I shan’t describe… this one I would say, track down and read…

Even in the Gadling yarn, a small and somewhat insignificant moment with another character ends up having major repercussions.  The intertwining of so many seemingly disparate tales into one looping and self referential narrative impresses me in such a way that I can’t even begin to explain how much joy reading this particular comic gives.  If you pay close enough attention, there is a wealth of information to glean from every panel.  Hell… Dream even goes to Hell!  He ends up owning Hell for a time!

One final thing I feel compelled to mention… this is very much a product of its time.  There are a host of musical and cultural references to the late eighties/early nineties… not to mention Death looking very Siouxsie, Dream looking very Robert Smith circa 1983, Desire looking very much like a Nagel painting (if you don’t know what that is, think of the cover of Duran Duran’s Rio) and Delirium having a very nineties gutter punk look about her.  Not to mention the references to cocaine and lawyers with ponytails.

I don’t know what else to mention… I could go on and on regarding the details of the story… but I’m not interested in doing that… I’m interested in possibly nudging someone who would not normally read a comic to picking one of these up and giving it a try.  Mythology, fantasy, horror and good old fashioned great storytelling… this is the graphic novel series that I have been wanting to write about, but have hesitated… until now.  Nothing I write about this can possibly do it justice… I haven’t even mentioned all of the awards and accolades this has garnered… or how this was one of the first comics to have half of its readership be female… or the number of failed television possibilities (HBO is picking up Gaiman’s American Gods as a mini-series… maybe there is hope).  If any of this sounds interesting to you, you owe it to yourself to pick it up… get past the first volume (still finding its legs) and chances are you will be hooked on The Sandman.

Sweet dreams are made of these…
Cornelius J. Blahg

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