The Sandman DC Comics Modern Age
The Sandman was a comic book series written by Neil Gaiman and published by DC Comics for 75 issues from 1988 until 1996. It became the flagship of DC's Vertigo imprint, and is kept in print as a series of ten graphic novels. It is widely considered one of the most original, sophisticated and artistically ambitious comic book series of the modern age. By the time the series had concluded, it had made significant contributions to the artistic maturity of comic books and had become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right.
The protagonist of Sandman is Dream, the immortal anthropomorphic personification of dreams and storytelling. He is known by an array of names, most often Morpheus, but also Oneiros, Lord Shaper, the Prince of Stories, and, rarely, "the Sandman". He is one of a family of seven siblings known as the Endless, each of whom personifies some aspect of reality, such as Death or Desire.
Gaiman has summarized the plot of the series as: “The king of dreams learns one must change or die and then makes his decision.” The character's initially haughty, and often cruel, manner begins to soften after his years of imprisonment at the start of the series, but the challenge of undoing past sins and changing old ways is an enormous one for a being who has been set in his ways for billions of years.
Unlike most popular US comic books of its time, The Sandman existed almost completely outside of the superhero genre. The first third of the series somewhat conformed to the horror genre, but it later grew into an elaborate fantasy series, incorporating elements of classical and contemporary mythology. The series is occasionally labeled as "Sophisticated Suspense", a small genre that also includes Swamp Thing, particularly after Alan Moore took over writing it in the 1980s, and Jamie Delano's Hellblazer.
The storylines primarily takes place in the Dreaming, Morpheus's realm, and the waking world, with occasional visits to other domains, such as Hell, Faerie, Asgard, and the domains of the other Endless. Many used the contemporary United States of America and the United Kingdom as a backdrop. (The DC Universe was the official setting of the series, but well-known DC characters and places were rarely featured after 1990).
Most of the storylines take place in modern times (presumably the late 80s and early 90s), but many short stories are set in the past, taking advantage of the immortality of many of the characters to deal with historical individuals and events.
Also unlike most comic books, The Sandman did not feature an ongoing illustrator. Instead, different artists were hired for each new storyline, sometimes for only a single issue. Aside from co-creator Sam Kieth, artists who illustrated a significant number of issues include Colleen Doran, Mike Dringenberg, Marc Hempel, Kelley Jones, Jill Thompson and Michael Zulli. Their styles ranged from cartoony expressionism (Hempel) to detailed, delicate realism with a hint of the Pre-Raphaelites (Zulli).
Each issue featured a cover created by Dave McKean. McKean’s approach combined painting, photography, pencil and ink drawings, collage, digital art, found objects and even sculpture, resulting in distinctive, often abstract or surreal, images.
The Sandman was initially published as a monthly serial, in 32-page booklets (with some exceptions to this pattern). A few years after the series began, DC Comics began to reprint them in hardcover and paperback editions, each usually collecting a single storyline. A total of ten collections contain the full run of the series, and have all been kept in print. They are as follows:
- Preludes and Nocturnes (collecting The Sandman #1-8, 1988-1989): Dream is imprisoned for decades by an occultist seeking immortality. Upon escaping, he must reclaim his objects of power while still in a weakened state, confronting a dream junkie, the legions of Hell, and an all-powerful madman in the process.
- The Doll's House (collecting The Sandman #9-16, 1989-1990): Morpheus tracks down rogue dreams that escaped the Dreaming during his absence. In the process, he must shatter the illusions of a family living in dreams, disband a convention of serial killers, and deal with a "dream vortex" that threatens the existence of the entire Dreaming.
- Dream Country (collecting The Sandman #17-20, 1990): This volume contains four independent stories. The imprisoned muse Calliope is forced to provide story ideas, a cat seeks to change the world with dreams, Shakespeare puts on a play for an unearthly audience, and a shapeshifting immortal longs for death.
- Season of Mists (collecting The Sandman #21-28, 1990-1991): Dream travels to Hell to free a former lover, Nada, who he condemned there thousands of years ago. There, Dream learns that Lucifer has abandoned his domain and given it to him, and he soon finds himself trapped with a tangled network of threats, promises, and lies as gods and demons seek ownership of Hell.
- A Game of You (collecting The Sandman #32-37, 1991-1992): Barbie, a New York divorcee, travels to the magical realm that she once inhabited in her dreams, only to find that it is being threatened by the forces of the Cuckoo.
- Fables and Reflections (collecting The Sandman #29-31, 38-40, 50, and Sandman Special #1, 1991, 1992, 1993): A collection of stories set throughout world history. Four of the stories deal with kings and rulers, while three others are based on fairy tales, and the Sandman Special assimilates the myth of Orpheus into the Sandman mythos.
- Brief Lives (collecting The Sandman #41-49, 1992-1993): Dream's erratic younger sister Delirium convinces him to help her search for their missing brother. However, their quest is marred by the death of all around them, and eventually Morpheus must turn to his son Orpheus to find the truth, and undo an ancient sin.
- Worlds' End (collecting The Sandman #51-56, 1993): A "reality storm" strands travelers from across the cosmos at the "Worlds' End Inn." To pass the time, they exchange stories.
- The Kindly Ones (collecting The Sandman #57-69 and Vertigo Jam #1, 1994-1995): In the longest Sandman story, Morpheus becomes the prey of the Furies, avenging spirits who torment those who spill family blood.
- The Wake (collecting The Sandman #70-75, 1995-1996): The conclusion of the series, wrapping up the remaining loose ends in a three-issue "wake" sequence, followed by three self-contained stories.
Other books and series
Because of the amount of critical acclaim Sandman received and because of its commercial viability (at the time of its conclusion, it was DC’s best-selling series), a number of spin-off volumes have been produced. Fans disagree about the quality and legitimacy of these volumes, and most agree that while a few approach The Sandman in quality, the majority are of a decidedly lesser quality. Here is a list of the more important ones:
- Death: The High Cost of Living (1993), a three-issue, Gaiman-penned mini-series starring Morpheus’ older sister
- Sandman: Midnight Theatre (1995), in which Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, meets Lord Morpheus of The Endless, the Modern Age Sandman.
- Death: The Time of Your Life (1996): another three-issue, Gaiman-penned Death mini-series, also featuring supporting characters from A Game of You.
- The Sandman Book of Dreams (1996), a collection of prose short stories featuring the world of The Sandman in some way. It contains work from some notable contributors, among them Caitlin R. Kiernan, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe, Tori Amos and Colin Greenland. Publisher DC Comics allegedly imposed restrictive terms on contributing authors, leading to a few authors withdrawing their stories.
- The Dreaming (1996 - 2001), a monthly series set in Morpheus’ realm but featuring none of the Endless. It was written and illustrated by a variety of writers and artists; Caitlin R. Kiernan wrote the largest number of scripts for the series.
- The Sandman Presents (1999-2001): a collection of miniseries by various authors and illustrators featuring secondary characters from The Sandman, such as The Corinthian and The Furies.
- Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999): a prose novel that incorporates a so-called Japanese folk tale into the Sandman mythos, written by Gaiman and featuring illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. It is not actually based on any exisiting Japanese folklore, but rather incorporates elements of Chinese and Japanese folklore and mythology into a new myth.
- The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender (2000), a non-fiction work providing extra information about the series. Its first section discusses the ten Sandman collections sequentially, analysing their meaning, explaining some of Gaiman's myriad references and sometimes providing information on the writing of the comics. It also features a lengthy interview about the series with Gaiman himself.
- The Little Endless Storybook (2001), a one-shot comic book which depicts The Endless as toddlers and follows Delirium's dog, Barnabas as he attempts to find the missing Delirium, written and illustrated by Jill Thompson
- Lucifer (2001 - present): a monthly series written by Mike Carey continuing the story of Lucifer following the events of the fourth collection, Season of Mists.
- Sandman: Endless Nights (2003): a graphic novel with one story for each of the Endless. They are set throughout history but two take place after the final events of the monthly series. It was written by Gaiman and featured a different illustrator for each story.
- Death: At Death’s Door (2004): a manga-style graphic novel, written and illustrated by Jill Thompson, showcasing Death’s activities during Season of Mists. This may become part of a series of manga novels starring Death.
- The Dead Boy Detectives (2005): a sequel to Death: At Death's Door, also by Jill Thompson, featuring the two young ghosts from Season of Mists. (The title was previously used for a The Sandman Presents mini-series about the same characters.)
The Sandman was one of the most widely respected comic book series of its time, finding recognition not only within the comic book industry but in the general literary world. A few years prior to Sandman, works such as Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Maus by Art Spiegelman conferred a new respectability on comics, but no unlimited series has ever gained as much acclaim as Sandman. This helped support the notion that comic books could be high-quality literature or art even in a long-running series with no preset number of issues (i.e., the format comic books are usually published in).
The Sandman also demonstrated that a comic book series does not have to be a superhero series to be successful. Along with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing stories, Sandman helped establish "sophisticated suspense," a genre which is meant for older readers, includes elements of horror and fantasy, and tackles controversial topics. In 1993, the success of Sandman inspired DC comics to launch the Vertigo imprint, which specialized in this genre and published some of the most acclaimed series of the 1990s, including Preacher and Animal Man.
The Sandman also strengthened the importance of the writer in comic books. Before Sandman, writers were often overshadowed by superstar artists such as Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee. Gaiman became one of the most popular comic book creators of the era (launching his career as a novelist), and DC did not dare to continue The Sandman after he felt the series had come to a suitable conclusion. Almost universally, popular, corporate-owned comic book series continue long after the original creators have left (which may be decades for especially popular series).
Sandman also helped popularize individual typescripts for the word balloons of certain characters, a technique that had been used in Cerebus the Aardvark and scattered other places. Gaiman particularly used unique styles for the Endless, such as Morpheus’ word balloons being black and irregular with white lettering and Delirium’s being irregular, abstract and multi-colored.
In addition to its impact on comic books, The Sandman has had a significant influence on pop culture. The series was mentioned in songs by Tori Amos, Alice Cooper and others, Sandman posters can be seen in the background of the sitcom Roseanne, and Extreme Championship Wrestling star Raven is fond of wearing Sandman T-shirts. Dave Sim parodied the characters (Dream became "Swoon", Death "Snuff" and so on) in his Cerebus the Aardvark. Sam Kieth also parodied the character Death and Sandman fans in his comic, The Maxx.
Sandman has also gained a decent amount of attention outside the comics world among other subcultures.
Because of its dark, often macabre style and pale-skinned characters, Sandman has become very popular within the goth subculture.
Occasional covers and work with Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano has brought the title to the attention of fans of Japanese art and pop culture, as well as videogame fans familiar with Amano's work through the Final Fantasy series, as well as other game and anime projects he has contributed too.
Sandman issue #19 "A Midsummer's Night Dream" won the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for Best Short Fiction. Because of its nature as a comic as opposed to straight prose, a lot of authors complained, forcing a rules change. As a result, it is the only comic that will ever win a World Fantasy Award.
- The Sandman is also published in the Czech Republic, with the first three volumes being complete and a fourth to be published shortly. Unlike the American paperbacks, the Czech editions are printed in black and white.
- Bender, Hy (2000). The Sandman Companion : A Dreamer's Guide to the Award-Winning Comic Series, DC Comics. 1-56-389644-3.
- The Nearly Compleat List of Sandman Frequently Asked Questions
- Summaries of many issues of the Sandman
- The Fantastic Sandman Annotations
- The Sandman Continuity Pages
- The Gaiman Archive: Sandman Timeline
- The Sandman Timeline (a different one)