Comics: The Sandman (trades 1-4)

I can’t believe I haven’t written about this before, but then I haven’t been writing on this blog since summer 2012…oops. Also, I’m pretty sure nobody reads this, and even if they did, I’m not sure I have much to add about this series other than my own “it’s totally awesome” recommendation. Caveats admitted, let’s get though a bit of history on Sandman.

Who is the Sandman? In Northern European folklore, he sprinkles sand on the eyes of children to give them sleep and good dreams. In DC continuity, he was Wesley Dodds, a business-suit-and-gas-mask-wearing crimefighter who was a founding member of the Justice Society of America, i.e. the first superhero society in comic book history. (His former sidekick Sandy currently holds the role; there are some other characters in there as well, but I don’t particularly care.) In Sandman, he’s someone else entirely.

“The Endless are merely patterns. The Endless are ideas. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs” (Sandman #48). They are not gods or mortals, angels or demons, fairies or spirits. The Endless are anthropomorphic personifications (look it up) of the “universal” concepts of (from eldest to youngest) Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium (formerly Delight). Some of them are pretty much as you’d expect (Delirium acts crazy most of the time, Destiny is very serious) and some are…not (Death is the most popular character in the series for a reason). Sandman focuses on Dream, usually called Morpheus, who controls the sleep and dreams of every living thing (and some non-living things). He is imprisoned on Earth by an arcane ritual gone wrong. When he regains his freedom, he must regain his tools (a helm, a power-infused ruby, and the signature pouch of sand) and restore his much-deteriorated realm (the Dreaming). That, of course, is just the beginning.

Neil Gaiman, the creator and writer of the series, takes a definite ‘”all myths are true” approach to the world in Sandman. Heavily Dante and Milton-influenced Heaven and Hell are shown (and definitely not in line with Christian doctrine, if that sort of thing bothers you), but so are fairies (with Oberon and Titania as their rulers), Japanese, Greek, Egyptian, and Norse gods (all with the powers ascribed to them by their followers) and many other various deities and folkloric entities. The Dreaming as it appears in the series is like a mixture of a “realm of the gods”-type place and the Dreaming from Australian aboriginal religion.

Morpheus is a really fascinating character. Despite his sometimes morally questionable actions, usually in the form of creative punishments for people who have angered him (condemning a lover to Hell stands out, but “eternal waking” and “endless ideas” are fairly awful as well), I never found him too difficult to sympathize with. This is partly because many of his crueler actions are also reminders to the reader that he is a godlike being (most of the Greek gods do disproportionately terrible things to people, but you can still sympathize with them to some extent), but mostly because  he is shown to be simultaneously deeply concerned with the ethics of his actions and lacking in empathetic instinct. This actually makes quite a bit of sense for the personification of Dream: he spends most of his life with the freer and twisted logic of a dream world, and is out of place in waking reality. He is also sympathetic because  he both develops as a character and faces the consequences of his prior actions.

I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll just close by giving the Sandman series my highest possible recommendation. Although I realize it’s probably based a lot on my personal taste and it’s not for everyone, I absolutely love this series and even if you’re not typically a comic book reader, you should give it a look.

Some history, for anyone interested:

Written by English author Neil Gaiman, the Sandman series was published starting in January 1989 by DC Comics under the Vertigo imprint. Vertigo books are generally “more adult” than mainstream DC fare: not just more sexual content (although there is that), but more violence, more substance abuse, and more depiction of “controversial” topics in general. Most Vertigo books also started in their own little dark corner of main DC continuity, affecting and being affected by it, but many gradually veered away over time. This is why Justice League members and John Constantine (of Hellblazer, another Vertigo title that I just read the first issue of and really like so far) appear in some of the first issues of Sandman and are subsequently not particularly important, and probably why Constantine could be written as bisexual without too much freaking out (not that they did much with it anyway…but that’s another story.

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