Neil Gaiman's Sandman Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Neil Gaiman's Sandman

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The Sandman, conceived by Neil Gaiman for a series of graphic novels published by Vertigo Comics, began life in December, 1988. An amazingly eclectic mix of ideas, imagery and social commentary, this mature comic book character has received critical acclaim1 not only in the comics community, but also in the mainstream. The Sandman successfully raised the bar for what should come to be expected from comics and helped change views on comics as an art medium.

Person One: Do you read comics?
Person Two: No. I read GRAPHIC NOVELS.

But where did the legend begin?

The History of The Sandman

The Sandman is based on the old bedtime story that parents used to tell their children, hoping it would help them sleep. The actual origins of this tale are lost in the sands of time, and may predate written history, as one generation to the next passed along in variations the following fable:

There is a creature that comes to you in that space of time just before you fall asleep. Some time after your eyes close for the last time that night, and some time before you fall into a state of unconsciousness, he materialises over you. Is he an angel or a devil? No one is sure because no one has ever got a good look at him. Some claim he has a head shaped like the crescent moon, and dark eyes with stars inside them. He carries with him a bag of magic sand, and he sprinkles a very small amount over your face. Some say it twinkles in the moonlight, like a thousand tiny stars just over your face as they fall. Some say the sand actually sounds like a music box, or the flitter of faerie wings. No one has ever really heard the sound however, for by the time the sand touches your face and alights about your eyelids, you're on your way to dreaming.

In the 1940s, there was a renaissance of comic book publishing and storytelling, which is still referred to as the Golden Age of Comic Books. The world was primed for it with the threat of Nazi doctrines and the horrors of World War Two causing many to desire escape into inexpensive forms of entertainment. Most well-known superheroes had their beginnings at this time, including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. However, a lesser-known fictional vigilante of the time was the Sandman. The character, created in 1939 by Gardner Fox and Bernard Christman, was a man named Wesley Dodd who, plagued by dreams of criminal activities, decides to use the power of his dreams for good. He invents a formula for several types of sedatives and hypnotic gases which he used on law-breakers by firing them from a unique 'gas-gun'. Dressing in a gas-mask to hide his identity, he captured criminals he had seen in his dreams by putting them to sleep, thus becoming the Sandman. Each time he defeated crooks he would also leave a short poem enclosed in some origami, the most common being:

There is no land beyond the law
Where tyrants rule with unshakable power!
'Tis but a dream from which the evil wake
To face their fate, their terrifying hour!

During the 1970s, DC Comics reinvented the Sandman once again, giving him the alter-ego of Hector Hall. Written and drawn by the team of Jack (Spider-Man) Kirby and Joe Simon, he soon faded away as more intrepid heroes and television became increasingly popular and available. In 1987, an up and coming writer Neil Gaiman was asked by DC Comics to work on a comic book title. He was not interested in the idea of writing a predictable, caped-crusader type of tale. DC were keen that he resurrect one of their defunct characters and he bought back little known Black Orchid. With the success of this, DC contracted Gaiman again. Neil was interested in the Sandman character from the Golden Age, but had a different concept. Karen Bergen, editor of the range at the time, said to him, 'Create a new character with the same name.' So he did.

The World of Dream

When Neil Gamain first created his Sandman, he perhaps didn't realise how big the character would become, or indeed how larger than life the Sandman already was.

The Sandman resides in the world of Dreaming. He is its guardian and benefactor. Also known as Dream, Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Nightmare King and the Prince of Stories he is one of the seven Endless, who are all brothers and sisters. The Endless are a collection of entities that control seven aspects of humanity. They are;

  • Destiny - The oldest of the Endless, Destiny is forever. Depicted as somewhat of a monk, in that he wears a robed habit with cowl, he is tall and spindly like his younger brother Dream. He carries with him a tome where the histories of everything is continually writing itself. He exists nowhere, but everywhere.

  • Death - She is small and lithe and dresses in black, as one would expect the Grim Reaper to do. Far from grim though, she is classically beautiful with black hair and a silver ankh around her neck. She sometimes carries with her a black umbrella and is known to wear hats. Death enjoys her work and is a happy creature, with an infectious laugh and a keen sense of humour. She is often trying to cheer her fellow Endless up and putting a stop to bickering.

  • Dream - Or the Sandman, the main protagonist of the stories. He is represented in most cases as a tall thin pale man, with black unkempt hair and a long black robe. When Dream is summoned and trapped by black-magic users who mistake him for Death, the Sandman is lead to consider himself and lose some of his power - his cloak, helm and dust - which he thus has to retrieve. As this process unfurls throughout the stories, Dream learns more and more about the roles of the Endless and his own place in the way of all things.

  • Desire - The androgynene Desire is tall and graceful, like her brother Dream. She is a complex character and just as complex to look at, forever changing to match the desire within you. Sometimes she is woman, sometimes man, sometimes both. She is troublesome, but again, can be helpful.

  • Despair - Short, squat and some would say ugly, Despair is a forlorn creature. With dirty black hair and sagging breasts she has no need for clothes. She carries with her a simple hook with which she pushes into the hearts of those who despair, tugging at them, wasting away as they do. She is Desire's twin sister, but only in blood.

  • Destruction - Tall, muscular, single-minded. Destruction is reminiscent of a blacksmith in his ways. He once used to pair with Delight when the Endless were younger, but has since deserted his post from his brothers and sisters, a prodigal gypsy.

  • Delirium - The almost schizophrenic Delirium is a pretty young girl with multicolour hair and multicolour clothes. She flits from one train of thought to the next, confusing her brothers and sisters. She is delirious to watch and delirous to hear. Once Delight, her demeanour changed when her older brother Destruction deserted the Endless.

Unlike gods, who die when no one is left to believe in them, the Endless are forever and will only disappear when all else disappears.

Some other characters from the Sandman stories include:

  • Lucien - Is the Librarian who watches over the Books of Dreams, the records of every dream and every nightmare ever dreamt.

  • Cain and Abel - Comedy relief, they inhabit the world of Dreaming and are often called upon by the Sandman to be messengers.

  • Matthew the Raven - The spirit of a poet caught in the body of a raven in the world of Dreaming, Matthew in some ways acts as the Sandman's questioning conscience.

  • Hob Gadling - A man who refuses to die, Hob has known the King of Dreams and his sister Death for a long time. He has helped the Sandman over time and is something of a friend. He is not immortal, he is not a god, he simply just doesn't wish to die.

  • Lucifer - Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Keeper of Hell. Opponent of Dream's, he is the original sin.

All these and more help make up the world of the Dreaming and the Sandman.

The Art of The Sandman

The stories of the Sandman are literature, but they are equally impressive artistically, with a myriad of talent giving life to Neil Gaiman's ideas. When the Sandman began, Sam Kieth (The Maxx) put pen to paper. Over time many more names would be added to the list: Chris Bachalo, Charles Vess, Matt Wagner (Grendel), P. Craig Russell, Mike Allred (Madman), the list is almost endless - if you'll forgive the pun. One name however is almost as synonymous with the Sandman as Neil Gamain. That is cover artist Dave McKean. Able to produce work that complements Gamain's writing effortlessly, the Sandman series would not be the same without McKean's vivid and evocative artwork.

Neil Gaiman's writing is everything a master storyteller needs. He is able to push and pull the reader through his tales with ease. Away from the main storyline of the Sandman, Gaiman manages to introduce other stories, sub-plots and so on, which add magnificently to the overall detail and depth, and do not remove from the central theme. On the contrary, many of these sub-plots are insights into the realms and personalities of the other members of the Endless. And with a character such as the Sandman other writers have been influenced and even contributed to the mythos surrounding the Sandman.

While the original concept of the Sandman story is very old, a tale from classic mythology and folklore, Gaiman has honoured this and the many different versions of the Sandman throughout the series, just as he honours the complexities of storytelling as a whole. He has pooled a thousand references to other works, from his years of research and study. From ancient mythologies and fairy tales (including Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Chinese, Norse and African), to great literature and writers like Shakespeare, Poe and Lewis Carroll to the lyrics of modern rock songs, all are abundant in the stories of the Sandman. In its 75-issue run, Sandman explored the very concept of storytelling, interweaving a complex pattern of lives and events into being, in a similar way to fashioning an elaborate quilt. Some of the tales tickle the funny bone, and some chill one to the bone. All of them contain a fighting spirit, a sense of magical awe, and a confidence that is simply miraculous. There is so much to the Sandman, as opposed to the common superhero going on missions format, that the world of the Dreaming will call you back, again and again.

Society and The Sandman

The Sandman has had such an influence on society there are even subcultures who almost worship the character and the ideologies presented by Gaiman in his stories. There is a definite 'Goth' feel to several of the characters in the works, especially Dream and Death. They both have pale white skin and dress in black clothing. However, it is perhaps the Sandman's almost distant outlook on life, the universe and everything that appealed most to the Goth culture. Whether intentional or not, the characters have become something of Goth icons, with fashions such as silver ankhs, top hats and long sweeping capes creeping into the lifestyle. Whatever class or sub-culture someone wants to place themselves in however, the Sandman seems to be able to reference itself within any arena of society.

The Sandman Anthologies

The stories of the Sandman can be read in the following collections and books:

  • I. Preludes & Nocturnes
  • II. The Doll's House
  • III. Dream Country
  • IV. Season of Mists
  • V. A Game of You
  • VI. Fables and Reflections
  • VII. Brief Lives
  • VIII. World's End
  • IX. The Kindly Ones
  • X. The Wake
  • Endless Nights
  • The Dream Hunters (with Yoshitaka Amano)
  • Murder Mysteries
  • Death: High Cost of Living
  • Death: The Time of Your Life
  • Sandman Midnight Theatre
  • The Sandman Book of Dreams (edited by Ed Kramer)
  • The Dreaming Series

Other creations have arisen to expand the Sandman family, with DC Comics publishing various collections under The Sandman Presents line. These include:

  • Lucifer
  • Love Street
  • Petrefax
  • The Corinthian

Other Works by Neil Gaiman

  • Ghastly Beyond Belief (with Kim Newman)
  • Neverwhere
  • Stardust
  • Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
  • Angels and Visitations: A Miscellany
  • Smoke and Mirrors
  • American Gods
  • Anansi Boys
  • Fragile Things

For Children

  • The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (with Dave McKean)
  • The Wolves in the Walls (with Dave McKean)
  • Coraline

Other Comic Work

  • Black Orchid
  • Swamp Thing
  • Violent Cases (with Dave McKean)
  • Signal to Noise (with Dave McKean)
  • Mr Punch (with Dave McKean)
  • The Last Temptation (with Michael Zulli)
  • Miracleman: The Golden Age
  • Harlequin Valentine (with John Bolton)
  • Midnight Days
  • Batman: Black And White - A Black and White World
  • The Books of Magic
  • 1602


As Editor

  • Now We Are Sick

Film & Television

  • Princess Mononoke
  • Neverwhere
  • Babylon 5 - episode 'Day of the Dead'
  • MirrorMask
  • Stardust
  • Coraline
1A World Fantasy Award going to A Midsummer Night's Dream The Sandman V. Dream Country, written by Neil Gaiman and penned by Charles Vess and an Eisner Award going to The Tempest, The Sandman X. The Wake, ibid.

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