I was first introduced to the works of celebrated fantasy-geek author Neil Gaiman in the form of the graphic novel series The Sandman. I have always loved the medium of comic books and graphic novels, and I think people get the wrong impression of them. Most people I know would be quick to dismiss them as either childish or far too nerdy for them. It is a shame that in the Western world, we have such an attitude to cartoon-drawn mediums as I think these prejudices prevent many from accessing a whole body of fascinating and unique literature. Graphic novels in particular are perfect for me (comic series are a bit more of a commitment for me) as I happen to be someone who finds it incredibly difficult to picture things in my mind. It takes an obscene amount of concentration for me to actually summon a coherent picture of something as I read. I know others have no problem imagining things visually, but I’ve always struggled. Hence, graphic novels essentially do that work for me. I love reading books but I rarely get a sense of the visual from them; I’m much more of a conceptual analysis type. I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes TV and movie adaptations of books and films (provided they’re at least semi-passable) because it brings a whole new dimension of life to the stories I love. So when I was first starting to get into graphic novels, The Sandman topped my list of recommendations and I bought up the first of the series of ten collected novels which collates the full run of the original comic series.
Where to start? The basic premise of The Sandman is that it follows a ‘man’ called Dream, who is actually one of the seven Endless who are essentially embodiments of different concepts, immortals who interact with the world in many ways. His Endless siblings are Death, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Delirium and Destiny. At the start of the series, Dream has been locked up by a magical ritual for over 70 years. He finds a way to escape, and then sets off to reclaim his kingdom and to exact revenge upon his captors. His kingdom – the dreamworld – has fallen into great disrepair in his absence. The series follows Dream in his endeavours and his interactions with a whole host of fantasy characters, his journeys into the magical kingdoms of faeries or down into the bowels of Hell.
The whole plot is far too long and convoluted to be summarised here. It is a large commitment to read through the entire series and keep track of who is who and where is where. I did it over a period of several months, but I still have trouble placing certain characters or timing certain events. So my apologies for not giving many exact details here in this post, but I hope this substantial lack of spoilers and actual substance will actually help in the event of you reading this series in the future (which you obviously all must do because I recommend it and you’d be missing out otherwise).
Being a graphic novel, I should firstly make a few comments on the art style. The thing is, the art style changes throughout the series and I am more a fan of some of the artists than others. I believe the series I read has been re-coloured for modern eyes, as I have heard the originals were garishly coloured as all the comics released in the 80s were. The art style at the start of the series (which I believe is done by Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III) is wonderful, though the quality is a tad inconsistent. There are some beautiful scenes towards the end of the Preludes and Nocturne which are notably higher quality and more detailed. World’s End I believe was drawn by a variety of artists, and I was not a fan of the art style shift there, though it fitted with the plot fairly well (a series of stories being told in an inn; reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales). My personal favourite doesn’t come until the end of the series in The Wake, which is penned by Michael Zulli and is intricate, delicate and beautiful. Throughout though, the art style is quite dark, almost gothic, and the characters for the most part, are dark and sullen with deep set cheeks and wild black hair. There are a few who inject some colour into the world, like the faeries and Delirium, who is often the embodiment of a cute acid trip. For the most part though, the worlds that The Sandman deal with are not pleasant to look at. Hell is exactly as you’d imagine it with fiery brimstone and overbearing architecture. Dream’s world, at the beginning, is desolate and monochrome. But there are moments where Dream travels to places in the world we recognise, and these are some of the strongest backdrop wise. We travel to the early days of humanity in the plains of Africa and we hear about the story of Nada, a woman who Dream falls in love with and asks to become his Queen. The art is gorgeous, invoking all the colours of warmth and wealth as we see the dusty settlement and the empty plains with silhouettes unknown on the horizon. This is only a minor story, and I don’t want to spoil it, but it was one of my favourite, for it dealt with the attitudes to mortals, something I could relate to, in the face of overwhelming power in the form of the Endless.
The stories that appear in The Sandman are huge and varied. It is comparable to an entire mythology that Gaiman creates, centred around the enigmatic character of Dream (or Morpheus, as he is sometimes known). Every character he meets is deep and compelling, with rich backstories and wonderfully written dialogue which showcases their emotions, their desires and their motives extremely well.
Death, for example, though appears dressed like a teenage goth, is not how you would expect her to be. Unlike the sullen, emo-ness of Dream, she is perky and upbeat, with bright messages and a view to life that is strangely comforting. Despite being Death incarnate, she is more like the protector of life; her role is to guide people who die, but in doing so, she understands the need for death as a limiter on life and as a way to give meaning to events of the living. Her relationship with Dream is also something rather humorous, despite looking like a young childish girl, she acts more maternal to Dream than anyone else in the series. She chastises him for going on his revenge fuelled rampage and acts almost as Dream’s moral compass. On the topic of Dream and his morality, he starts the series as basically a revenge driven monster. We hear stories of how he treats people, both mortal and immortal, and we might be tempted to call him a villain. By the end of the series though, you get a real sense of his maturity, his emotional journey of recovery as he begs forgiveness from various characters he has wronged. He ends up more like an anti-hero.
Another notable character that I liked was Lucifer, Prince of Hell. He reminds me of the Satan depicted in Paradise Lost. A proud, beautiful creature who was thrown out of Heaven for his hubris. In fact, Lucifer was such a successful character that there was a spin off series based on the Lucifer in The Sandman. I read through the entire Lucifer comic series and loved it too, though in a different way to The Sandman. Whilst The Sandman is more epic, more magical and fantasy-driven, Lucifer was strangely tame in its depiction of the world. Anyway, maybe that’s for another blog post.
Alongside the fantasy cast, there are also appearances made by famous historical figures like Caesar, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The premise of Morpheus being connected to all who enter the dream world, as well as access to magical realms, means that Gaiman has fun throwing Morpheus into all kinds of situations. Many are simple and so human, in comparison to some of the bigger plots at play, but they all serve as mirrors to Morpheus, like little event prompts to guide him into the light.
Overall, the story has its ups and downs. I will admit that I skipped out on some of the plot points which I found boring, like some of the stories in World’s End, but that’s just how I read fantasy these days (yeah, I skip whole chapters in the Song of Ice and Fire series…). But when it is on the up, it is absolutely fascinating and ingenious. The plot is incredibly deep, dealing with huge mythological and philosophical issues, all in a way which gets you truly involved with the world that Gaiman has created. And even when it is on the down, it is only a stylistic choice, a pacing concern, which makes it bad; it is never bad in a game-changing kind of way or in a frustrating way or in a nonsensical plot hole way. In fact, the series is so designed that plot holes don’t really exist at all ever, because the magical mystical powers that be can easily patch up most things. Is this a cheat? Some might find it a bit contrived or ad hoc at times, but for me, it all seemed perfectly believable and in line for a fantasy series.
Furthermore, even during the worst bits, the series has a delicious sense of dark humour which permeates every plot point. It is a huge driving factor of the plot that things just never go according to plan for Morpheus, and his sullen attitude to it acts as a call to laugh at his misery. Many of the characters are very funny and bring some lightheartedness to the otherwise rather dark story. For example, the permanent inhabitants of the dream world are the most comedic bunch you’ll ever encounter. There’s a character who has a pumpkin for a head who cracks so many one-liners whilst smoking a cigar that you might forget that he is literally a walking talking jack-o-lantern given his rather lofty ambitions.
There is much to recommend someone to The Sandman. Though I add the caveat that it is a large commitment of time and energy, I do believe it is worth it. It is worth it simply to experience the beauty of the fantasy world that Gaiman has concocted here. It is worth it to explore every aspect of the human psyche, the psychologies of imaginary beings and the depths of every kind of character trope imaginable. It is worth it because the series is fantastic, very clever and wonderfully compelling. It is definitely a graphic novel for smart people; its main audience seems to be the type of person who you’d expect to know all the family trees for the Ancient Greek Gods and can quote Marlowe as sufficiently as they can quote Shakespeare. But even though it is definitely aimed at the intellectual, I believe it’s accessible to everyone, for the world it creates is so self-contained. The references are just an added bonus, not essential to the understanding of the main story. Especially if you are a fantasy fan, I would highly recommend you go find this series and read it. It will open up your world.