From 1989 to 1996, a British writer named Neil Gaiman and a stable of artists took a minor DC Comics property and turned it into one of the most critically-acclaimed comic books of all time.
‘The Sandman’ is well loved by more serious-minded comics fans, drawing praise for an ambitious, literary story that pushed at the boundaries of mainstream comics.
Now, 30 years later, Netflix has given the story another turn in the spotlight with a 10-episode series that covers the first two of the story’s 10 major arcs.
Here’s why you should experience it.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
‘The Sandman’ centres on Dream, an immortal being tasked with looking after dreams, nightmares and stories, who is unexpectedly trapped by a sorcerer. It takes him some time to break free. When he does, he finds the world much changed and must struggle against gods and monsters to revive his domain.
However, the imprisonment has given Dream a different perspective on his role and his often-brutal treatment of others. Can he – a fundamental building block of the universe – change? And what would happen to the universe if he did?
WHY IS IT GOOD?
At the time, ‘The Sandman’ was a breath of fresh air for mainstream comics – standing out for its fantastical settings, characters that were both relatable and imaginative and unusual story ideas.
While Dream is the protagonist, most of the moment-to-moment of the series focuses on a massive cast of other people – a mental patient driven mad by the ability to grant any wish, a woman who wanders into the dreams of others, a fallen angel who reigns as the king of Hell, a playwright who makes a deal with the devil to pen great works, an ordinary man granted immortality who must decide if it is a blessing or a curse.
Dream’s encounters with them are often brief, but each of these characters are striking and filled with life. With a few stray details, Gaiman manages to conjure entire personalities. Even a minor character such as Bette the waitress seems to have her own internal life when you learn she writes short stories about the people she sees every day, but only includes happy endings.
The tales of these characters are also, by turns, tragic, horrific, melancholic, surprising and hopeful. There is a richness and texture to ‘The Sandman’, brought to life through the weaving together of history, literature, mythology, religion, philosophy, and the pulpy back catalogue of DC Comics.
In the end, the result is something like a Hieronymus Bosch painting – broad and sweeping, but with depth and specificity in the particulars. A grandiose statement, maybe, but there is a reason for its reputation among comics fans.
WHY IS IT HARD TO GET INTO?
Though superhero movies are a massive pop culture touchstone, not everyone is super into reading comics. Especially comics that are 30 years old and have a tone, art and storytelling that is quite a sharp departure from the current style.
‘The Sandman’ also loses a bit of its lustre because many of its best and most interesting ideas have been cribbed and reused, sometimes even by Neil Gaiman himself. A groundbreaking series isn’t as exciting when you’ve already seen that ground cultivated several times over and breaths of fresh air get stale.
There are issues with the beginning of the story as well. It takes some time for Gaiman to find his footing and figure out what he wants to do with the book. This process of figuring it out feels slow and a bit meandering, with little sense of the heights it will eventually reach.
Of course, there is also the concern that comics are hard to find and quite expensive in Bangladesh.
Thankfully, the Netflix show and the audiobook are both decent introductions and smooth out some of the harsher bumps on the road. Off the page, the story’s tone is less cold and harsh and the characters are more immediately approachable and easier to invest in.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
The TV show:
For those on the fence about ‘The Sandman’, the Netflix show is an easy recommendation. It’s easy to find, is paced in keeping with modern standards and has smoothed out many of the more harsh and dark turns of the comics.
And that’s not a bad thing! The show still remains largely faithful to the comics that diehard fans fell in love with in the first place while staying digestible.
It also features some great performances and striking visual effects, making it an easy recommendation for anyone who would prefer a dip in ‘The Sandman’ rather than a dive into the deep end.
The first season is available now, is 10 episodes long, and is split roughly in two. The first five episodes make up the first arc of the story, the sixth serves as an intermission, while the last four episodes focus on a new cast of characters in the same universe.
Those who find themselves intrigued by the series and wanting more could start the comic book series with the third trade paperback collection, ‘Dream Country’ – a collection of tragic tales that follows the events of the show’s first season.
Standout episodes – Episode 5: 24/7, Episode 6: The Sound of Her Wings
For those looking for something to listen to instead of watch, the Audible version of ‘The Sandman’ is a great choice.
Featuring Gaiman as the narrator alongside a star-studded cast that includes James McAvoy, Samantha Morton and Riz Ahmed, the recording is an excellent production similar to a narrative podcast accompanied by music and sound effects.
Available for free with the Audible trial subscription (which does require a credit card for sign-up), the audiobook is a neat option for the more audio-minded, or those looking for something to listen to on the go.
The comic book:
As someone who first latched on to the comics as a teenager, it’s easy for me to say the best possible way to experience ‘The Sandman’ is to read the comics, start to finish.
It isn’t the easiest option. There is a self-conscious effort to keep the tone dark, gritty and wordy. Some of the odder choices – such as the inclusion of Cain and Abel as part of Dream’s domain, are hard to parse for those without an expansive knowledge of DC’s oeuvre. And the storytelling and art style are distinctly of their time.
But, if you are interested in getting the complete story and giving ‘The Sandman’ a full shot to get its hooks into you, there’s little alternative to the comic book. I also, personally, prefer the grittier energy of the books, their odd clash of art styles, and their playfulness with the comics medium.
The series consists of 75 issues that are collected in ten trade paperback collections. The first volume is called ‘Preludes and Nocturnes’, and is followed by ‘The Doll’s House’, both of which are covered by the TV show and the audiobook.
Standout early issues: #6 – 24 Hours, #8 – The Sound of Her Wings, #9 – Tales in the Sand, #13 – Men of Good Fortune