If you’re a comic fan (which I expect you are, given that you’re reading this), then you’ve probably heard of The Sandman. Written by Niel Gaiman in 1989, The Sandman initially ran for a total of 75 issues. It has since become one of the most highly regarded graphic novels out there, now boasting the addition of a prequel and spinoff series. Published by DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint, this mind-bending series is actually an extension of the DC Universe and is littered with references to Gotham City and its most famed inhabitants. With hoards of loyal fans, The Sandman is a comic title that will prick up the ears of the entire community.
However, this review is written from the rare perspective of a Sandman newbie – yes, I know, I’m very late to the party here. But with the highly anticipated Netflix live-action series on its way, and given that it’s practically heresy to call myself a Niel Gaiman fan without having read The Sandman, it was high time I knuckled down and gave this big, bible-sized comic a go. And after dedicating a weekend to it, I can safely say that it’s garnered all this praise for a good reason.
Now, just for clarity: I will be reviewing The Absolute Sandman, an edition of the story in which all 75 issues of The Sandman series are comprised into two large consecutive volumes. This review is the first of two, discussing Volume 1 of The Absolute Sandman.
Now, to say that The Sandman is surreal would be a bit of an understatement. The experience is bizarre. It’s packed to the brim with enough malleable meaning to make your head spin. It is entirely ungrounded and meant to be so.
It centres around the character of Morpheous, a name plucked from Greek Mythology, referencing an Ancient Greek deity who manifested himself within dreams. Gaiman’s aptly named Morpheous, also known as Dream, Lord Of Dreams, or the Sandman, is one of seven siblings in a family known as The Endless. He commands the Dreamworld, also known as ‘the Dreaming’, which mortals enter during sleep. He ensures its safety, upkeep and proper function. However, when Morpheous is captured by an occultist demanding power and immortality, his absence causes the Dreaming to fall into disarray, opening an outpouring of chaos that transcends the world of dreams and bleeds violently into reality.
The Sandman blends together a bizarre concoction of genres, from theological and historical fiction to contemporary urban fantasy, Gothic legend and, at times, all-out horror. It sounds chaotic, and it is. But it works.
What’s particularly interesting is how The Sandman uses mythology. From Christian and Wiccan, all the way back to Ancient Greek and Egyptian, Gaiman gathers a wealth of ecclesiastical doctrines, interweaving them in such a way that allows them to feasibly co-exist without bending their lore beyond reasonable interpretation. This opens up a world of infinite possibilities within The Sandman’s lore. With a sizable cast of characters pulled from a rich variety of myths and legends, I look forward to seeing how their lore within The Sandman Universe is further developed.
In terms of story structure, the first half of The Sandman is somewhat disjointed. After the initial introductory chapter, detailing the imprisonment of Morpheous, the story follows an episodic format, with each chapter branching out in an entirely different direction from the last. It almost feels like a globe-trotting story that explores not only the far corners of the world but the multiple metaphysical realms that exist within The Sandman Universe. However, the entire volume is peppered with references to previous chapters and further foreshadowing their influence in the future, suggesting that many of the episodic storylines are interlinked. Whether or not this will come together in the second volume will be interesting to see.
All of this is told in the familiar, flamboyant hand of Niel Gaiman, a writer who, if you’re reading this article, you’re more than likely familiar with. One of the most notable things about The Sandman script is its carefully crafted character voices. From the elegantly measured tone of Morpheous himself to the deranged ramblings of Arkham inpatients, all the way to the mundane chatter of bored and ever-daydreaming diner waitresses. No matter how small a character’s role, each one is given a uniquely charismatic voice, whether they are made to be big and bold or only distinguishable in how ordinary they are. The care taken over the character work is essential in making this graphic novel easier to follow. To put it simply, a lot happens in this comic, and it can, at times, start to feel a bit convoluted. In a story structure such as this, each character must be memorable, a demanding feat in which I think Gaiman succeeds pretty well.
Gaiman’s diversified, lyrical script is further complimented by the manifold of distinctive artwork. The art in Sandman: Volume 1 was co-created by several illustrators, all of whom showcase a distinct yet subtle flair. The ever-changing artistic style in The Sandman is meticulously understated, seamlessly weaving between techniques and colour palettes to suit the overall tone of the panel. This provides the comic with an extremely fluid atmosphere, reflecting the story’s overarching theme (the exploration and fluidity of dreams) as much through its artwork as it does in its script. In terms of aesthetics, I don’t know how else to describe it other than horrifying but beautiful.
From what I’ve read of it so far, Niel Gaiman’s The Sandman has set itself up to be one of the most ambitious comic series I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a fair few. The towering storyline and perplexingly juxtaposing structure of incongruity and harmony, hosting a rich lore drawn from the historical, the mythological, the theological and the metaphysical, Volume 1 has set the stage for something big. And now that I’m starting the second leg of my Sandman journey, I look forward to seeing what the payoff might be. Wish me luck!
Volume 2 review of The Absolute Sandman coming soon – stay tuned!
Have you read The Sandman? And how do you feel about the upcoming Netflix adaptation? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!
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