“The Sandman” Book Review

November 11, 2008


The 20th anniversary of the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is this year. In recognition of that and as a continuation of my “10 Great Examples of Comic Book Literature” thread, I now offer my “Sandman Book Review.”

Norman Mailer called The Sandman, “a comic book for intellectuals,” and he was right.

As I find myself writing in a lot of these pieces, Neil Gaiman is a brilliant British comic scribe (like I’ve said of Alan Moore and Garth Ennis). But he’s more than that, he’s a brilliant writer of not only comics but of novels, short stories, poems, children’s books and screenplays. The Sandman is what first gave him a name in the industry and that series also has the honor of producing the first comic issue to receive the  World Fantasy literary award for “Best Short Story.”

Sandman  very well displays what comics are capable of doing. For all you non-traditional comic readers, for everyone that jumped into the medium with books like Moore’s WatchmenThe Sandman is the next stop for you. It’s a cross-genre fantasy epic that covers more ground than one would think possible. It’s high literature, ranks up there with the best classic prose work you can mention short of Shakespeare. It’s illustrated by a slew of variously styled artists. It originally ran as 70 issues which were collected in 9 volumes and a sort of “epilogue” book was released years later, Endless Nights. Recently those original 9 volumes have been collected into 4 massive, coffee table sized hardcover’s that are priced at 100 bucks a pop, so grab those up if you’re wealthy.

The Sandman follows Morpheus, more commonly referred to as “Dream.” Dream is one of “the endless,” all of which are siblings. Dream’s brothers and sisters are: Destiny, Death, Destruction, Despair, Desire and Delirium (Delirium is somewhat like Tori Amos’ persona and it’s intentional). The Endless have existed since time began and although Dream is the central character of this story the others play important roles as the story progresses.

As I said it covers multiple genres. You may very well be scared witless by the roadside diner carnage in issue #6 (which appears in volume 1, Preludes and Nocturnes).  In that story Gaiman pushed the envelope on what was expected fare for “mainstream” work at that time. It’s scary not because of what the villain does but because what the humans are actually capable of. Equally scary is the Corinthian, the serial killer spawned out of nightmares who shows up in volume 2, The Dollhouse.

But it’s not all scary. Volume 3, Dream Country is a short volume collecting a few short stories including the award winning issue about William Shakespeare (the Bard also makes an appearance in the very last issue of the series in volume 9, The Kindly Ones).  “Ramadan,” which originally appeared as issue 50 in the series is collected in volume 6, Fables and Reflections, another collection of Sandman short stories. “Ramadan” is a middle eastern fairy tale about ancient Baghdad complete with vibrant colors in the mythic Arabic style. The whole of volume 8, World’s End is basically an otherworldly version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

My overall favorite volume of this epic is probably volume 4, Season of Mists. In this part of the story, Dream travels to hell after being goaded into guilt by his sister Death for imprisoning a former love in the underworld for thousands of years. Once there, however, he finds that Lucifer has a plan for him.

As the overall epic moves from start to finish it progresses into a tragedy. Early volumes are primarily horror based or DC universe-referential. As things move into the middle arcs it’s much more epic and fantasy based, and as the later volumes tie up the theme of a supernatural Shakespearean Tragedy appear. Along the way we experience thrills, chills, dark humor, absurdity, heroics, poetry and an array of amazing art. Gaiman uses different artists for pretty much every story in the series and they all have drastically different styles which fit the different types of tales. Gaiman himself sums up the entire story by saying, “The Lord of Dreams must change or die, and makes his decision.”

If you enjoy The Sandman, try Gaiman out in a few of his other mediums. Fragile Things is an excellent collection of short stories. American Gods is an entertaining novel. Coraline is a very nice, eerie dark fairy tale for children and adults alike. Stardust is a fantastic fairy tale film that Gaiman wrote the screenplay for.

I also realized that I’ve made the claim numerous times that “this shows what the medium is capable of doing,” in my various comic reviews on this site, but that most of those series have focused on the fantastic and the highly imaginative forms of fiction. There will be reviews of Maus and Understanding Comics in this top ten thread, but if you’re looking for something right now that’s based in reality, a very person and place driven dramatic and artsy work, please do not hesitate to check out Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly. I’ll refrain from doing a full review of it now because it will be reviewed in detail in my upcoming “Best of 2008” piece, but I will say that the art alone is some of the absolute best I’ve ever seen. In attention to detail and focus on real-life locations and detailed expressions of characters, it’s a joy to simply look at. The writing is superb as well.

One last note, if you scroll to the bottom of the site here you can click on the different categories I’ve place my articles into. If you click on “comics” you can read the original “10 Examples…” and the reviews of those selections I’ve completed so far. Thanks for reading.


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