HE GOES BY MANY NAMES: Morpheus, Dream, the Lord of Dreamworld, the Prince of Stories. He is one of the Endless, a group of six immortals who are above even the gods in their power and duties. He is known to us as the Sandman, and if it is in fact he who inspires humankind’s stories, then he would certainly be pleased with what Neil Gaiman has done.
DC has long had a character called the Sandman; back in the 1940s, he wore a green business suit and carried a sleeping-gas gun. Neil Gaiman, one of the British comic writers who went to the U.S. in the wake of Alan Moore’s success, was given the assignment of updating the character for a new generation.
Gaiman’s version would have absolutely nothing to do with the 1940s superhero. In fact, his stories are as far removed from the standard heroics as you can get and still be considered a comic book. The Sandman he envisioned was a gaunt, black-clad immortal in charge of the dreamscape, that area of unreality that humans can only visit in their dreams.
As the series begins, Dream has been captured by an occultist crackpot who had meant to capture Death in order to achieve eternal life. Dream is trapped for 70 years before he gains his freedom and punishes those who trapped him. At first moody and ruthless, Dream’s character developed well over the series — an impressive feat, when you consider that the Endless are essentially unchangeable beings, and the Sandman himself is often no more than a passing figure in many of the stories presented.
Gaiman’s books defy every convention of comic-book storytelling. His stories are rarely straight good-and-evil battles, and only occasionally are we given hints that the Sandman inhabits the same world as the DC superheroes. His characters run the gamut from everyday people to utterly bizarre creatures who exist only in dreams. The stories are just as likely to be set in ancient Persia or 17th-century England as they are in modern-day America. Just as there is no limit to where the Sandman can go, there are no limitations to where his stories will take us.
And then there is Death. Unlike the scythe-carrying hooded ghoul that most people imagine, Death is pictured in the series as a sunshiny yet practical, gothic-looking young woman, almost the complete opposite of her brooding, dour brother. It was just one of the strokes of genius that have made this series a popular one among fans of fantasy literature, and typical of the surprises that Gaiman had in store for an audience that almost forgot how to be amazed by original storytelling.
Mini-series such as Watchmen and Maus may have set the stage, but The Sandman was the first continuing series to truly deserve the literary praise it received. It showed the maturity that mainstream comics were capable of achieving, won awards never before given to comic books, and helped launch DC’s Vertigo lineup of mature titles, which have sought to duplicate the level of literacy that became The Sandman’s legacy to the comic business.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
The Seven Endless Siblings
Even though the World Fantasy Award is designed to be given to writers of prose fiction, Gaiman’s story about the first performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” took the prize one year, prompting protests from some who felt a comic book story wasn’t a “serious” enough work to be nominated.
The seven Endless siblings in Gaiman’s stories are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.
Although the Sandman’s Dream Kingdom is forever shifting in appearance, size, and location, one constant is the Library, where all the unfinished, unpublished, and even unwritten works of all the great authors are forever preserved.