For almost a decade I have been an avid reader of everything published by author Neil Gaiman. From Stardust to American Gods and Good Omens – I have read it all. Except, I did not read the graphic novel with which the author established his career – The Sandman. It wasn’t long ago I would have pulled my nose up at reading comics and graphic novels. Yet, at the insistence of a friend I picked up The Sandman, volume 1: Preludes & Nocturnes. It is a volume collection that contains the first eight 8 issues of The Sandman comic as published from January to August of 1989.
This volume is the first in the 30th Anniversary Edition that started print in 2019. The main series ends with volume 12: Endless Nights. Though there is also The Dream Hunters and the prequel Overture. The latter is labelled ‘volume 0’ but was last published – in 2016. All of The Sandman can be purchased as a three part Omnibus, but considering their weight they are not practical to read.
Synopsis of The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
The comic is a new take on the DC comic character Sandman that ran in the early 70s. In Neil Gaiman’s version the character goes by many names such as Morpheus, but mostly he is known as Dream. As King of Dream it is his responsibility to ensure people dream and do so without destroying humanity itself. In issue 1 – Sleep of the Just – Dream is captured by a magician in 1916 in the hope of obtaining immortality. The magician wanted to trap Dream’s sister Death instead.
Dream manages to escape after the magician passes in 1948 and as his first act curses his abductor’s son to suffer eternal nightmares. In issue 2 – Imperfect Hosts – Dream briefly takes shelter with Cain and Abel whose ‘difficult’ relationship has become more so now they no longer dream. With his Kingdom shattered Dream sets out to retrieve the three totems that symbolize his power. In this issue we are also introduced to Doctor Destiny – a truly diabolical villain we will see later on.
During issue 3 – Dream a Little Dream of Me – Dream briefly teams up with John Constantine to retrieve his pouch of sand, and the reader learns a great deal more of the horrific world Neil Gaiman has created. In issue 4 – A Hope in Hell – Dream visits hell and duels a demon known as Choronzon in a battle of wits to win back his helmet. Dream succeeds though Lucifer Morningstar vows revenge. In issue 5 – Passengers – Dream attempts to find his third totem, the ruby, but Doctor Destiny manages to retrieve it first.
The Sandman pulls no punches
This issue shows a rather morbid exchange when Destiny abducts a woman and forces her to drive to the location of where the ruby is stored. After saying farewell she is shot in cold blood. In issue 6 – 24 Hours – Doctor Destiny unleashes the power of Ruby by giving people false dream. Set in a diner over the course of 24 hours Destiny exposes their most inner secrets until by the end they have all murdered themselves or each other.
In issue 7 – Sound and Fury – Dream battles Destiny in his turf the Kingdom of Dreams. Dream prevails only when the ruby is destroyed and its power returned to Dream. Issue 8 – The Sound of Her Wings – is somewhat of a standalone epilogue. Dream is confronted by his sister Death – introduced as a perky self-confident Goth girl. Death attempts to cheer up Dream and reminds him of his responsibilities. Their thoughts turn on why humans fear the sunless lands of death. Dream reminds her of the magician from the first issue. His attempt was to gain immortality by controlling Death. This epilogue pulls no punches as it shows Death taking everybody at random will – from infants to adults.
Why it is so great
Having read this first volume I am glad that I did. The story is typically Neil Gaiman. With Dream he manages to create a convincing ‘shadow’ world in which we see the authors impression of how our world truly works. Dreaming is a weird concept. We all do it, animals dream, but what is it’s purpose? In A Song of Ice and Fire sleep is described as a ‘little death’ by the red witch Melisandre. In the Sandman the abduction of Dream causes the world to become unhinged. People either do not dream, or dream too much or have constant nightmare’s.
All a consequence of the absence of Dream. In fact, his abductor’s son Alex complains about not having had a decent night’s sleep in decades after taking over after his father’s death. Alex cannot cajole Dream into a response, the latter is silently biding his time until he can escape. And so it is tragic as Alex fears releasing Dream because of what the latter probably will do. Yet, Alex is also slowly dying without getting what he wanted thus defeating the purpose of the abduction.
I could go on and describe how the author manages to bring about such a brilliant story blending many themes. And it is true that the author does do that: from biblical references to mythology and touching on current social issues. This first volume with its eight issues essentially contains eight nearly self-contained stories. In these stories we see many one-time characters and each has a touching, but often dark story. The Sandman underpins tragedy with graphic depictions of violence thanks to illustrators Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcom Jones III.
I am particularly reminded of issue 6 which is set in the diner. It features a lesbian girl who has had a difficult moment with her friend. What starts out as unspoken opinions by the diner’s patrons ends up in insult of homosexuality by the end of the issue. This shows the distinction between inner thoughts, spoken thoughts and their perception by others. For me that is what The Sandman is trying to tell me – we have multi-layered consciousness. Though it may mean something else to you.
A regular review of The Sandman
As there are over a dozen volumes part of the complete The Sandman collection I think I will make this a monthly thing. Every month I will read and review a volume. I am not certain what to do with volume 0. On advice I did not start out with that issue, but I might just review it next month anyway. I hope you enjoyed this little foray into The Sandman, enough to pick it up yourself. As a reminder, after spending nearly two decades in development hell The Sandman has been picked up Netflix. Neil Gaiman will also produce along with David S. Goyer. Considering last year’s adaptation of Good Omens was nothing short of brilliant this is excellent news.