The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s best-selling DC Comics series that lasted for 75 issues in its original run, from 1989 to 1996, follows Morpheus, a cosmic being who wields power over dreams. When he is captured and imprisoned in the first issue, the repercussions of the event extend beyond the dreamscape into the waking world, where Morpheus must eventually travel to set things right.
For decades, fans have eagerly awaited an adaptation of The Sandman, though there were several clear obstacles to a successful screen version, including its expansive story and the sure-to-be intense scrutiny of those same fans. Several TV and movie adaptations were started and paused over the years, including a highly publicized film project that was going to be directed by and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Morpheus, until it fizzled over creative differences. Finally, on Friday, fans will get to meet the dream-king (now played by the willowy British actor Tom Sturridge) and his six supernatural siblings in Netflix’s take on the story. Gaiman himself has overseen the adaptation as a writer and executive producer.
Though not all viewers will be familiar with The Sandman, the original series remains a seminal work in the world of comics and beyond. For those new to Morpheus and friends, here are some reasons the original issues are still so revered.
Journeys Through Mythic Lands
Fans of Gaiman’s work know that he’s a god-maker. He takes classic mythologies from around the world — not just Anglocentric gods, but deities from Africa, Southeast Asia and more — and pairs them with his own imaginative creations.
In his novel “American Gods,” he chronicled the clash between old-world beliefs and the technologies and ideas we’ve installed as idols in modern society. But before he got to “American Gods,” Gaiman went broader, imagining that a family of personified abstractions called the Endless — Dream, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destiny and Destruction — each exist in their own realms, with their unique personalities and relations to one another. They’re both timeless and contemporary, immortal but changeable, appearing in Victorian dress or punk attire, depending on what century and culture they’re moving through, and reflecting changing attitudes.
In subtle ways, Gaiman uses the Endless as metaphors to make grand observations about humanity: In the first issue, when Dream is captured instead of Death, Dream is dismissed as a useless god. But he reveals to characters who they really are, building living dreams and nightmares from the minds of humans.
A Diverse Realm of Fantasy
While Netflix’s “Sandman” intentionally incorporates a diverse cast, swapping the genders and ethnicities of many characters, the original series was already ahead of the curve, particularly in regard to L.G.B.T.Q. representation. In the comics, heterosexuality never feels like the default — there are major and minor queer characters and good and bad queer characters, none of whom are used as tokens.
Granted, the comic employs outdated language regarding transgender identity. Dream’s sibling Desire is nonbinary, a clear point about lust not being bound by the limits of gender or sexual orientation, but the narration showily struggles to find some pronoun for the character, saying “he, she or it.” When it comes to race, the stories about the Endless and those who cross their paths are global, and the characters reflect that. So when Morpheus falls in love with Nada, the queen of an ancient African city, she and her subjects are Black as is Morpheus himself, because Nada sees him in her image.
Sand in the Mainstream
The Sandman belongs to the pantheon of great graphic novels that broke through the boundaries of the often insular world of comics to win mainstream acclaim.
Like “Watchmen” and “Maus,” it was praised for its literary merit, winning several Eisner and Bram Stoker Awards. In 1991, The Sandman became the first comic to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, for its Shakespeare-inspired issue No. 19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And when Gaiman returned to his world of dreaming in 2013, with the limited series, The Sandman: Overture, it won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
The Sandman is more than just a decades-old best seller; it launched one of the most loyal fandoms you’ll find in the domain of graphic literature.
A Mishmash of Genres and References
With apologies to another crossover hit, “Dirty Dancing,” nobody puts The Sandman in a box. The series constantly flirts with multiple genres — it’s impossible to predict which direction any given issue will take.
The Endless and their realms are ethereal and fantastical, but monsters and demons like the dreaded Corinthian, a serial killer with two extra mouths for eyes and a penchant for the peepers of young men and boys, are straight horror. There’s Shakespeare, classic mythology and world religions for high-minded readers and, of course, comics: Members of the Justice League appear, along with DC supervillains like Etrigan and Doctor Destiny. Though all the stories are linked within a kind of Sandman multiverse, no two stories feel exactly the same.
The Art of Dreams
The extensive list of artists who brought The Sandman to life over the course of its run includes Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, who both are still known best for their work on the series. The artistry of the illustrations matches that of the writing — Gaiman’s castles of dreams and towering gates of Hell are rendered in vivid colors and meticulous detail.
The styles change according to the dreamer. In one story featuring an aggressively normcore yuppie couple named Ken and Barbie, his dreams about money and sex are rendered in sharp, angular lines and black-and-green backgrounds, while her Narnia-esque escapist ones are depicted with soft, rounded lines and delicate yellows and pinks. When characters’ worlds get knocked off-kilter, the art follows suit — panels float, as though in free fall, around, say, a two-page spread of a dream vortex. Every page reflects the flexible, ever-changing domain of dreams.
Long Live the King
The Endless, anthropomorphized personifications of human ideas, beliefs and states of being, already serves as a fountainhead of clever metaphorical narratives. The king of Dreams lies at the center of this.
Powerful but temperamental, often vengeful but occasionally generous, Morpheus carries the reader through the story but remains enigmatic, a morose yet compelling figure who inhabits a fascinating universe of mysteries, oddities and magic. Visually, too, he’s striking, with milky skin, an electric shock of black hair and eyes that gleam, as the series often reminds us, like twin stars in the sky. When he bears his tools — a bag of sand, a ruby and his helmet (called his “helm” in the book and series), which resembles an elongated gas mask with giant buglike eyes and an elephantine trunk — he looks like a grim omen portending tragedy. And though he’s a kind of god, Morpheus is fallible, someone who evolves throughout the series and is revealed to readers piece by piece as he re-encounters figures from his past.
While the ruler of dreams is self-serious, The Sandman uses a lighter touch in presenting him, sometimes even making him the butt of jokes by other characters, like his good-humored elder sister, Death. And when Gaiman returned to the tale of Morpheus in The Sandman: Overture, it provided the original comics with a sense of closure without completely shutting the door on the universe. This Sandman is eternal, and one way or another, his story goes on.