With the return of the Dreaming in “The Sandman: Overture,” this is a great opportunity to look back at how this critically acclaimed series took the comic book industry by storm. Integrating horror, dark fantasy, and all sorts of mythology, each unique tale of the Lord of Dreams defied reader’s expectations about what a comic should be. Since its arrival in 1989, “The Sandman” series became a masterpiece, ranking up there with classics like Alan Moore’s “The Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns. So let’s take a nostalgic trip into the dream world before “Overture” hits shops tomorrow.
I vividly remember being submersed with the short story, “Fear of Falling,” in “Vertigo Preview #1.” The narrative was about a young man hanging desperately from the ledge of a cliff. The Sandman, aka Dream, stands close to the ledge, but he doesn’t help him. Instead, Dream speaks wisdoms of truth that the frightened man takes to heart. Dream teaches the frightened man that it is okay to let go. This was a metaphor about life, how human nature deals with hardships, failures, and loss.
I was in sixth grade when “The Sandman” series started coming out. At the time, being an avid X-Men/Batman reader, I wouldn’t have picked up the title if it wasn’t for my older brother. It was a jolt to the system because this wasn’t about superheroes or mutants fighting evil. At that young age, I didn’t really understand what I was reading (I had to reread Neil Gaiman’s eloquent prose many times to get the hang of it) but I knew right off the bat, it was definitely on another level. As I grew older, I was able to appreciate the little details, such as the serial killer convention in “The Doll’s House,” I missed early on.
Verbose and sophisticated, Gaiman’s writing style was different than anything I was reading at the time. While Dream was the most serious sibling in the dysfunctional Endless family, Gaiman was at his most humorous through Death, Dream’s perky sister. Changing the typical view of the Grim Reaper, Gaiman turned Death into a free and jovial goth/punk rock girl. In tune to mortality and life’s value, Death doesn’t believe that passing into the afterlife is supposed to be a frightening experience.
A special treat for the eyes, readers had an impressive collection of fantastic artists illustrating the series. Among the artists, you had Dave McKean, Sam Keith, and Mike Dringenberg working on the visual style of Dream’s universe. Rather than settling on one artist’s vision, Gaiman used all of them. There wasn’t just one image of Dream throughout the series, but a variety of different interpretations. In one of the illustrations, Dream was portrayed with long hair and his body was wrapped around in a blue cloak. In another depiction, Dream was extremely skinny, wearing a black T-shirt and matching jeans. My favorite version of Dream is the rock star, where he wore a leather jacket and had an ’80s Robert Smith hairstyle.
“The Sandman: Season of Mists” might not be the best in the collection in terms of wit and charm, but it is my absolute favorite. By playing around with Greek mythology, Gaiman retells the tragic story of Orpheus and cleverly twists it. Dream travels to Hell to rescue his lost love and free her from her prison. Expecting a violent standoff, the Dream is surprised when Devil hands him the key to Hell. Tricked by the Devil, Dream now has the realm of Hell at his disposable. Artist Kelly Jones captures such stylishly wide shots of Hell’s desert landscape and skull-shaped mountain ranges. Because Dream has the key to Hell, every religion is after him. In a two-page splash, Jones illustrates the angels, demons, Egyptian goddesses, and Norse gods all arguing with Dream over who should be the new owner of Hell.
The Sandman story that stands out in my mind, and probably most avid comic readers, is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As a stand-alone short, Gaiman explores both Dream’s universe and William Shakespeare’s play. In a Faust-like deal, Shakespeare asks Dream to make his writing and creativity blossom extraordinarily. In return, Dream wants Shakespeare to write two stories written specifically for him; the first is, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
Always the wordsmith, Gaiman plays around with iambic pentameter, mixing Shakespeare’s lines of dialogue with his own articulate prose. This is the type of re-imagination that paved the way for writers Anthony Del and Conor McCreery to push further in their “Kill Shakespeare” series. As part of Dream’s deal, Shakespeare and his theater troupe have to perform in front of the real King Oberon and Queen Titania. Artist Charles Vess illustrates the audience members as faeries, demons, and other fantastical creatures. Puck, more of a psychopath than trickster, is most annoyed that a mere human is playing him. Puck knocks out the actor, steals the show, and recites the last lines of Shakespeare’s play. Sheer brilliance, and this style of melding various mythologies and literary worlds would grow to become commonplace in much of Gaiman’s literature.
In folklore, the Sandman is a mythical figure who brings good dreams to sleepy-eyed children. With his team of artists, Neil Gaiman turned our nightmares and fantasies into an endless playground of epic storytelling and dark imagery. The experience of reading “The Sandman” series for the first time is unique, magical, and surreal, just like a dream from which you never want to wake up.
Editorial by – Jorge Solis