The Sandman is on the short list of comic books that get non-comic book fans to admit the genre has some merit. As long as they call them “graphic novels.”

Image provided by Wikimedia/DC/Vertigo

Writer Neil Gaiman and a host of talented artistic collaborators turned The Sandman into one of the most daring series to come out of DC’s ‘80s explosion of landmark books. Initially set along the edges of the DC Universe proper, the book eventually spun off into its own pocket world, where Gaiman and company let their imaginations run amok. Discarded bits and bobs from the DCU continued to play a role in The Sandman, but more than anything it was a showcase for Gaiman’s boundless imagination and re-working of classic mythology. The success of The Sandman was a factor in the launch of DC’s “mature audiences” Vertigo line.

The Sandman is often cited as one of the most literary comics ever produced, and for good reason. Gaiman incorporated hundreds of years of literature and philosophy into the existential adventures of The Sandman. Also known as Dream, Morpheus, the Prince of Stories and by numerous other titles. The personification of the concept of dreams ruled the realm of The Dreaming and confronted centuries of his choices, both good and bad. It was a dazzling, thoroughly realized piece of pop art that has remained relevant and influential many years after its initial run commenced in 1988.

With a prequel series slowly unfolding, and since it’s always a good time to revisit this deep, textured work, we commence the Sandman Re-Read.

Image provided by Amazon/DC/Vertigo

In 1916, a small mystic sect performed a rite intended to capture Death herself. Things went slightly astray and they instead caught her younger brother, Dream. Stripped of his totems, Dream spent the next seven decades in captivity. Dream’s disappearance from the world plunged numerous people into odd sleep-related illnesses. Sect leader Burgess eventually died and his son Alex took over both the sect and obsessing over his captive. Alex’s eventual misstep allowed Dream to escape and take his own form of revenge. Weakened from his ordeal, The Sandman made his way into the dream world, first stumbling onto brothers Cain and Abel, the caretakers of the Houses of Mystery and Secrets, respectively. Dream finally returned to his kingdom, only to discover from loyal servant Lucien that Dream’s castle slowly decayed during his absence. Needing his totems (his bag of sand, helmet and ruby) to regain his powers, Dream set off on a quest.

He encountered occult rogue John Constantine in pursuit of the bag of sand. Constantine realized an ex-girlfriend purloined the bag and the duo ventured into her warped home, where she’d become drained and desiccated from years of living in dreams. The Sandman retook the bag, helping ease the woman to a gentle end. Next, Dream entered Hell, where Dream faced the ruling triumvirate and engaged in an existential duel with the demon holding his helmet. Dream prevailed, but engendered Lucifer’s enmity. A tip from the Justice League sent Dream after his ruby, last in the possession of old League enemy Doctor Destiny. Destiny had just escaped Arkham Asylum, where he’d become grotesque and misshapen, incapable of sleep or dreaming. The mad Doctor Destiny had tampered with the ruby, which absorbed more of Dream’s power when he touched it. Destiny recovered the ruby and held several people in a café hostage, using the power of the ruby to slowly break them down. Meanwhile, the ruby’s increased power affected the rest of the planet, as well. Dream and Doctor Destiny had a confrontation in The Dreaming, where Destiny proved to be his own undoing. With his powers restored, Dream sought out Death, and accompanied her on her rounds while he contemplated his places in the cosmos.

Some fans of The Sandman might forget just how tied into the DCU the book was before it made the transition to Vertigo. The golden age Sandman (Wes Dodds), Etrigan the Demon, Doctor Destiny, Arkham Asylum, Gotham City, Cain and Abel, Martian Manhunter, Mister Miracle and John Constantine all turned up in the first arc. And while the eventual Vertigo embargo would diminish those ties, they never went away entirely. But even with these early connections, The Sandman was like nothing a reader would have found in the mainstream DCU. It was decidedly for “mature readers” from the outset. While its themes and approach to sexuality, nudity, violence, LGBTQ characters and deep dive into horror iconography might seem familiar to a modern reader, they weren’t the norm for “Big Two” comics in the late ‘80s. Gaiman and his collaborators truly pushed the medium to tell different kinds of stories and to not talk down or pander to audiences.

Dream is a fascinating creation that anchors the series amazingly well. Gaiman incorporated various bits of DC’s long history, classical mythology and literature into the character. Gaiman’s writing was bursting with ideas and invention and the initial arc set up the entire series in sturdy fashion. But for most fans, the turning point was the last issue included in Preludes & Nocturnes, “The Sound of Her Wings.” Introducing Death as an upbeat, positive goth beauty was a wonderful inversion of the typical personification iconography. It also effectively established the family dynamic that would make The Sandman such an emotionally impactful series. Gaiman was almost remaking the rules as he went and while his writing was occasionally tentative early on, “The Sound of Her Wings” demonstrated the writer fully embracing the possibilities of what he’d created.

Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III handled the art in various combos. Keith was the penciler on the first few issues, mostly with Dringenberg on inks. They set a dazzling visual standard, producing detail-packed pages with phantasmagoric and innovative layouts the sucked the readers into the book’s elaborate fantasy. Dringenberg returned as penciler for the final three issues here, with Jones on inks. Where Keith took more of a larger-than-life fantasy approach, Dringenberg wrapped the action in a moody, grotesque horror style that emphasized some of the darker corners of the material. Both approaches worked really well and The Sandman would become ground zero for artistic innovation over the course of its run. Every member of the creative team was crucial. Robbie Busch performed some amazing feats with the colors, pushing the concept to innovative places that really brought the art to a new level. And letterer extraordinaire Todd Klein demonstrated just how important that aspect of comic book production can be to the success of a book’s visual presentation.

While even better things awaited, Preludes & Nocturnes did a great job of establishing this wild new world and provided a strong foundation for what was to come.

Image provided by Amazon/DC/Vertigo

A tribal fable about Dream falling in love with a mortal queen and damning her to Hell for rejecting him set the stage for a saga that took The Sandman in a different, weirder direction. Readers met two more of Dream’s siblings, twins Desire (a slick, asexual schemer) and Despair (a small, bloated woman). The Sandman began rebuilding his realm and discovered that several important dreams had escaped to Earth. Unity Kinkaid, one of the victims of the sleeping sickness, reunited with her now middle-aged daughter and adult granddaughter, Miranda and Rose Walker. Rose encountered the Fates and demonstrated a strong link to The Dreaming. Unity sent Rose to Florida in search of her younger brother, Jed, who’d lived with his father but gone missing after the father’s death. Rose took a room in a boarding house full of colorful characters, including the gallant Gilbert, with whom she formed a special bond. Jed languished in the basement of greedy relatives, escaping into a dream that featured the superhero Sandman, a/k/a Hector Hall (the son of the Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl and once a hero called Silver Scarab), and Hector’s pregnant wife, Lyta (once the heroine Fury). Dream sent his agent, a crow named Matthew, to keep an eye on Rose.

Rose and Gilbert went on a road trip when Rose located Jed. The Sandman discovered Jed has been cut off from The Dreaming by escaped dreams Brute and Glob, who lived in Jed’s dreams like parasites, with Hector and Lyta as their pawns. Dream freed Jed, who fled as Dream dealt with Brute and Glob and dispatched Hector back to the land of the dead, leaving Lyta angry and shaken. Jed’s luck remained cruddy, as he was picked up by brutal serial killer The Corinthian en route to a “Cereal Convention” in rural Georgia. Rose and Gilbert unwittingly landed at the convention, where Rose nearly became another killer’s victim and Gilbert blanched to encounter The Corinthian. The Sandman rescued Rose and dealt with the Corinthian, another escaped dream. Gilbert retrieved Jed, who fell into a coma. An exhausted Rose fell into a deep sleep, where Sandman revealed she was a “dream vortex,” a rare human who broke down the boundaries between dreams until they merged and imploded, wreaking major havoc. The Sandman took Rose into The Dreaming, where he told her she had to die to protect the human world. Gilbert traveled into The Dreaming, too, and was revealed as another escaped dream. A dying Unity joined them and revealed that she, not Rose, had been intended as that generation’s vortex and found a way to take Rose’s place, saving her. In the end, Dream uncovered the involvement of Desire in the whole affair and issued his sibling a pointed warning. An interlude in the story had the Sandman meet a 14th century soldier named Hob Gadling, who rejected the concept of dying. As an experiment, Death agreed not to take him until he truly desired it, while Dream and Hob met at the same location every hundred years.

The Doll’s House was where Gaiman really began to let his imagination get weird and wild. The Sandman hewed further from the confines of the DCU, though it continued to make creative use of its detritus. Gaiman devised a creative explanation for the cartoonish Silver Age Sandman, and set up Lyta (the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths daughter of the Earth 2 Wonder Woman) as a crucial supporting character. Gaiman shrugged off any limitations with this arc. The serial killer convention was a wickedly effective riff on so mundane a concept and the expansion of Dream’s family presented some interesting potential for conflict and drama.

Gaiman continued to explore and develop his ideas about the enduring importance and impact of stories. The unconventional nature of The Dreaming provided the series with lots of fodder for interesting twists on fantasy concepts and allowed for creative touches like The Corinthian’s eyes, the idea that an expanse of dream world real estate took on human form in the real world or even something as simple as the unique communication system the Endless siblings used to talk. Gaiman began revealing the connections among his wide-ranging plot strands, tying Rose to both the sleeping sickness plot and one of the victims of Doctor Destiny’s diner massacre. He also foreshadowed several other developments and tied the story into other Vertigo concepts (including an encounter with John Constantine’s ancestress). Dream emerged as a fascinating creation, equally frightening and compelling. His complex morality created intriguing complications and he proved an excellent vessel for Gaiman’s philosophical and literary recontextualizations. Gaiman managed to nail the horror, fantasy and comedy elements with equal aplomb.

Dringenberg and Jones remained the primary art team and continued to produce stylishly macabre vistas, contrasting the mundane against the fantastic dream dimensions. Chris Bachalo guested on the issue featuring the Hector/Lyta showdown and produced some lush, evocative imagery that proved an effective riff on a classic superhero style. Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse handled the Hob Gadling issue with clean, smart pages that had a bit of fun traveling through 600 years of fashion history while finding ways to infuse energy into a piece that was mostly conversation. Busch and Klein remained key collaborators, giving the entire visual presentation a dreamy glow. The Doll’s House truly took The Sandman to a higher level, expanding this brave new world in exciting ways.

Image provided by Amazon/DC/Vertigo

A quartet of offbeat “one and done” tales comprised Dream Country, one of the more distinctive arcs of The Sandman. “Calliope” told the story of writer Ric Madoc, whose well ran dry after a brilliant debut novel. In desperation, he acquired an enslaved muse from a depraved writer in his twilight. Ric held Calliope captive, raping her repeatedly to steal the inspiration he needed. Dream intervened (revealing a connection between Calliope and himself that would be crucial later) and used an ironic method to turn the tables on Ric. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” explored the oppression of felines at the hands of humans. It featured the testimony of a cat who traveled through The Dreaming for an audience with the Cat of Dreams who revealed a world quite different than the one we know. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” found Dream reconnecting with William Shakespeare in 1593 for the staging of the titular play, commissioned by the Sandman himself. Shakespeare’s company performed in a wild field for an audience of faeries and magical creatures as a parting gift from Dream to the Fae. Finally, “Façade” focused on Urania Blackwell, an ex-CIA agent who had been transformed into the misshapen Element Woman with the same powers as the grotesque superhero Metamorpho. Isolated and suicidal, Urania begged for oblivion and had an illuminating chat with Death.

Dream Country demonstrated that Gaiman could deliver a short Sandman story as effectively as one of the grander sagas for which the series was known. While self-contained, each tale had seeds that would be revisited down the road. Each also explored Gaiman’s chief theme of the power and nature of stories and inspiration. Dream’s role as the “Prince of Stories” and the influence of The Dreaming on creativity was prominent and played out in interesting ways. “Calliope” remains a raw nerve for many Sandman fans. Its explicit rape connotation may be one of the most unnerving things Gaiman wrote during the run of the series. The trajectory of Ric’s career was a familiar story in the real world (“everyone has at least one book in them”) and was one of the more haunting cracked mirror portraits that would appear in the series. Calliope was an interesting addition to the Sandman mythos who would be further explored in a later saga. “Cats” was a fascinating twist on the book’s central conceit and evocatively illustrated that Dream isn’t a strictly human concept. “Midsummer” was an effective revisiting of Shakespeare that posited a creative origin for the Bard’s famous play, blurring fiction and reality in winning fashion. “Façade” was an emotional highpoint. It once again showed Gaiman’s facility for taking a discarded scrap of DC superhero lore (the long-forgotten Element Woman) and transforming it into something relatable and moving.

Three artists who would later return with even greater impact made their Sandman debuts during Dream Country. Kelley Jones brought his distinctive, angular style to “Calliope” and “Cats.” Jones was a horror vet with a knack for distending the mundane into something unsettling and sinister. While other artists had rendered Dream as something more closely resembling human, Jones exaggerated his physiology, giving him a darker, more forbidding bearing. Frequent Gaiman collaborator Charles Vess handled the Shakespeare chapter and produced some truly beautiful work. His light, swirling approach to the visuals was an ideal fit for the scenes of sylvan fantasy and his design work on the Fae characters was fairly dazzling. Colleen Doran tackled “Façade” and infused a lot of drama and emotion into scenes that were fairly light on plot and action. She used a more minimalist approach to enhance the emotional impact of Urania’s plight. Robbie Busch and Steve Oliff both contributed on colors and helped maintain the lush, swirling impact of the visuals.

With thought-provoking explorations of some of the odder corners of this fantasy world and art that continued to exceed expectations, Dream Country was the kind of narrative digression that made The Sandman unlike anything else to come out of a mainstream publisher over the past couple decades.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 5, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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