Image Source: DC/Vertigo. Art by Dave McKean.
The Sandman streaming show premieres on Netflix today. The comic on which it’s based—famously a comic that people who don’t care for comics like every bit as much as those who do—takes a lot more time to read, but the vibes are immaculate.
When I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as a teenager, it had the distinction of being the first graphic novel my library ordered. It instantly captured my interest, and unfortunately gave me a penchant for moody guys with wild hair who dress in black. Gaiman’s book is about Dream returning to his kingdom after having been imprisoned by a group of occultists who mistook him for his sister, Death. (As their names suggest, these two and their family members are strange beings, not gods or even representations of aspects of reality, but in fact those aspects of reality. Death is death, Desire is desire, and so on.) In his absence, dreams have gotten all fucked up, and this will set off a chain of events that lead, eventually, to Dream becoming less of a misanthrope and other life-altering changes.
My interest in this comic had a lot to do with Gaiman, who made his name with Sandman but went on to be a prolific fantasy writer, and also the now technically defunct DC imprint Vertigo, which was built on Sandman and its appeal to what were at one time euphemistically called non-traditional comics readers (women, mainly) and had a reputation for releasing challenging, creative, and often psychedelic works. At the time, as a burgeoning Hot Topic shopper, what I picked up most from Sandman were the aesthetics—it’s a very goth book, and more than that a very specifically late-’80s/early-’90s goth one. (The show isn’t a period piece, which is a real lost opportunity.) Dream’s wild hair makes him look like Robert Smith from The Cure; his sister is a chipper, pale-skinned woman who wears an ankh and black lipstick; and while not everyone is constantly mooning around poetically, those who aren’t are usually near someone who is. It’s a comic that’s self-selecting for some people. If you are already predisposed to melodrama, wear a lot of black, and have depression, you will fuck with this book immediately. If none of this describes you, you’ll still probably like it a lot.
The vibes, and how Gaiman constructs them, are what makes Sandman so strong. It’s the kind of book where you learn everything you need to know about Dream and Death’s relationship based on the way they sit as they feed pigeons in a park. In its totality, it lays out complicated lore about the nature of reality and creativity, and connects all stories ever told into one, but for the most part that sits in the background; Sandman is about the joy of the performance. Gaiman’s sometimes overwrought writing, which doesn’t exactly wear his reading lightly, feels more natural in a comic than it does in a novel, because his flowery descriptions are expressed through and accompanied by art. This is especially true when the comic turns toward horror. Although Gaiman’s other work is preoccupied with moments of cosmic terror, nothing he has ever written is more terrifying than the events of “24 Hours,” in which an escaped nightmare takes control of an all-night diner and its regulars, who slowly go insane. Instead of just reading about how fucked up everything is, you see it, helpless as these friendly, Midwestern people kill each other and tear out their eyes.
Not everything about Sandman has aged perfectly, of course. Gaiman slips into outright pretentiousness at times, and outside of a context in which they were genuinely pathbreaking in mainstream comics, some of the explorations of LGBTQ+ themes can seem a bit jarring. Its treatment and understanding of trans characters, specifically, has aged poorly. All of that is easy to forgive, though; as fits something so fixated on good stories, Sandman is itself, a hell of a good one, or perhaps a series of them.
What I remember most about Sandman after having read the series more than once since my teenage years isn’t its overarching plot—which is well-constructed and engrossing—but its one-off, single-issue arcs. That’s how deep and complete the world that Gaiman has created feels. He relies on his extensive knowledge of mythology, especially Greek mythology, to give the series an epic tone, and that tone extends to even its most minor characters. A scene that still lingers long decades later is when Gaiman focuses on a private detective who dies after falling asleep smoking in bed. Her final moments are illustrated with so much compassion that I felt a real loss when she died, even though she only existed for a few pages. Fitting this kind of small story alongside myths from all times and places in human (and non-human) history and even wars between gods and having nothing ever feel out of scale is an achievement; to Dream and his family, nearly everything they come across should be as inconsequential as a speck of dust, but the opposite is true. As goth as it is, this is a deeply optimistic book, in which every moment of every life is special and full of meaning.
This is a comic book where everyone matters, where everything eventually weaves into the story of how Dream learns that he must change or die. Its ambition is best understood in its comic form, where you can flip back and forth between pages, and see the beauty and the tragedy of an imprisoned being who’s more than a god trying, after a literal eternity, to make a connection with other people.