Part III – In Which We Actually, You Know, Talk About Sandman.
Hi, I’m Glyph.
You may remember me from such comment threads as ‘Get To The Point Already, Glyph’.
A Few Words About Plot, Background And Characters in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
The Sandman concerns the adventures of a Dreamlord named Morpheus (among many, many other names), one of a family of seven siblings called The Endless, anthropomorphic personifications of universal ideas or forces over which they hold some power and responsibility.
From The Sandman #48:
“The Endless are merely patterns. The Endless are ideas. The Endless are wave functions. The Endless are repeating motifs. The Endless are echoes of darkness, and nothing more…”
The Endless are, in order of descending age: Destiny, Death, Dream, Despair, Desire and Delirium. (I have omitted one, as that sibling’s absence is a plot point).
The names alone should be enough to clue us in that this is not the happiest family; indeed, dysfunctional sibling dynamics drive much of the action in the series.
The Endless are not gods; they are older than gods, though not necessarily more powerful (gods deriving their power from the number and faith of their believers).
Despite the fact that they are not gods, thinking of them in that framework can be helpful. Jaybird, among others, has noted that superheroes fulfill the function of gods in the world of comics, and The Endless are much closer to gods than superheroes. When I started the series, that was one of the first things that really struck me, the sheer bloody ambition of inventing a modern mythology.
While Gaiman is inventing a modern mythology, like all myth creators, he draws upon older sources rather than working from scratch. Characters from Greek, Norse, Egyptian and Japanese mythology (among others) all make appearances and drive stories, and a cosmology currently popular today (trying hard here not to contravene Mindless Diversions’ ‘no religion’ rule) plays an important role in the events of the series.
Real-world historical events and figures also appear – as The Endless are extraordinarily long-lived (essentially existing as long as the current version of the universe does), their stories range over enormous spans of time. Gaiman is a research buff, and some of these stories will probably send you scurrying off to read up on the real-life events and persons behind them.
Nor are the stories limited only to the universe we consider ‘real’; but as befits a story about the Lord of Dreams, often bleed into other internal and external realities.
A story with the kind of dizzyingly epic scope of Sandman, concerning beings of unimaginable age and power, risks missing the small emotional beats that allow us, as mere mortal humans, to identify with the characters.
Gaiman neatly sidesteps this problem by giving the characters recognizable family dynamics, personalities and character foibles while simultaneously drawing on universal myths and archetypes. Morpheus is a tragic hero, in the classic sense of the term; the overall shape of events is dictated by his own personality and actions. He is cold, haughty, dour, beholden to rules and tradition, and resistant to change. In fact, Gaiman has described the plot of the series as “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.”
I don’t want to get too much more into plot than that; as much as I’d like to geek out, I don’t want to deny anyone the pleasure of finding out for themselves. As I myself am pretty spoiler-averse, I don’t even want to talk about the beginning of the story, except to say that the initial arc (collected as Preludes and Nocturnes) is both more horror-oriented, and DC-universe-related, than the rest of the series (though these elements do crop up every now and again), so if these elements do not appeal to you, please try to stick with it a little longer.
A Few Words About Setting
The sandbox Gaiman came up with for this story is remarkable; by using the interchangeable concepts of ‘dream’ and ‘story’ (for all stories are born in dreams, as are gods) as the realm of the title character, the storytelling sandbox is essentially infinite, and allows many different types of stories to wander far afield in time and place, and tone and style, as dictated by inspiration and imagination.
Morpheus’ seat of power contains an enormous library filled with all the books ever dreamed but not written – shades of Borges – upon being written, they leave his realm. (For that matter, sometimes books just wander off of their own accord. Any reader who has a substantial library in the real world can attest to this phenomenon.)
In Sandman are stories within stories, recursive stories, stories about stories, short unconnected stories in which Morpheus barely appears – but he’s felt, all the way through, and actions from the distant past continue to reverberate through to the conclusion.
The stories are also highly intertextual…you will find many, many hidden and not-so-hidden references to other stories. Watching for these literary in-jokes (for example, if a sailing ship features in a story, check its name, see if it sounds familiar) is just one more small pleasure, amongst the many more profound ones Gaiman has on offer.
Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare and Arabian Nights are prominent reference points, allowing for storytelling that is by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) very old-fashioned, and highly post-modern. The stories need not always make linear sense, they need only ‘feel’ correct, as dream logic does.
That this realm of seemingly-infinite freedom and potential is used to tell a story, among other things, about fate, imprisonment, the inescapable weight of responsibility, and eternal recurrence, is all the more remarkable.
A Few Words About Art.
Despite not being much of an ‘art’ guy, I will touch on two elements of that side of the book: a number of different artists worked on the series throughout its run, so the visual style varies pretty widely. Visual style also varies widely by type of story (and the range here is enormous).
So, if you are not loving what you are currently seeing, hang in there, something else is coming up shortly.
The other thing I want to mention is the covers. The single unifying visual element throughout the entire series is Dave McKean’s covers. Sometimes reminiscent of Vaughan Oliver’s artwork for record label 4AD, they were a sort of collaging of mixed media & graphics, painting, ink, photography, diorama, and fonts/typography. I remember seeing this style make its way out into the larger graphic design world extremely quickly, like anything fresh and successful has a way of doing (you may look at the style now, and it will look familiar to you, from print ads or greeting cards or other book covers) via rapid emulation, of both the ‘sincere tribute’ and ‘complete ripoff’ varieties.
Not only were McKean’s covers evocative of the central character in their dreamlike tableaus, the mixed media evoking the collision of various ‘realities’; but they often did not contain the series’ protagonist at all (unusual in comics at the time, and even today).
Now, Get Started Reading Sandman.
Just go to the library and read the dang thing already.
Glyph’s and Stephen King’s and Norman Mailer’s words on the matter weren’t enough?
Ganked from Wikipedia’s “Sandman” page:
Critically acclaimed, The Sandman is one of the few graphic novels ever to be on the New York Times Best Seller list, along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. It was one of five graphic novels to make Entertainment Weekly’s “100 best reads from 1983 to 2008”, ranking at 46.
Still need more?
Wikipedia’s “Sandman” entry again:
The Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, won the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for Best Short Fiction. Also, The Sandman and its spin-offs have won 26 Eisner Awards, including three for Best Continuing Series, one for Best Short Story, four for Best Writer (Neil Gaiman), seven for Best Lettering (Todd Klein), and two for Best Penciller/Inker (one each for Charles Vess and P. Craig Russell). The Sandman: The Dream Hunters was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book in 2000. Both Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Illustrated Narrative in 2004 and 2000, respectively. Also in 2004, Season of Mists won the Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Scenario. IGN declared The Sandman as the best ever Vertigo comic.
Go. Now. Read it. See if I’m right.
Or come back here, and tell me I am a silly fanboy.
But read it.