Whenever you stumble across a list of the greatest comic books of all time, there's a 99% chance you’ll find Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series somewhere near the top. Since first hitting comic book stands back in January 1989, Gaiman’s work on The Sandman completely reinvented the way comics were perceived by the public at large.
Alongside other revolutionary comics that came out around the same time — such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus — The Sandman was a series that showed the world comics needn’t be strictly geared towards children. Grittier, darker, but still full of heart and emotion, they can collectively affect people the same way a great book, movie, TV show might. They can shock and horrify you, can make you laugh, cry, or recoil in disgust, but above all else: they can entertain, no matter your age or individual background.
It’s for this very reason that Sandman continues to rank so highly among the comic book community even now, over three decades later. Comprised of 75 issues and with storylines rooted in mythology, history, horror, and fantasy, it’s been widely and rightfully declared one of the best and most important comic books ever written. The success of the original comic has spawned its own intricate universe and, more recently, resulted in an upcoming TV series releasing on Netflix.
With how all-encompassing Gaiman’s fictional universe is, it can be a little difficult knowing the essentials about Sandman — such as who certain characters are or what the overall story of the series is. For those looking to get into the comics, it can also be a little intimidating knowing where exactly to start reading.
Here’s an introductory guide that tells you almost everything you need to know about the Sandman universe.
What’s It All About?
For a better understanding of what the Sandman story is about, it’s helpful to almost think of the comic as one central storyline with a series of interconnected, nonlinear storylines spliced into it. At the heart of the series is Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming, and the personification of every dream and story ever imagined.
Also known more simply as Dream, Morpheus is one of the Endless — a powerful family of siblings that rule over certain aspects of the DC Universe. These siblings include Death, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction (who’s since gone missing from his duties, having grown weary of wantonly destroying everything in his dominion).
In charge of their specific domains, the Endless have existed since the beginning of time. Mythologized as deities in numerous human civilizations across the globe, they have secretly interacted with the world of mortals for centuries.
Though Sandman hops around a lot in terms of its continuity, the central storyline begins in 1916, when a group of English occultists attempts to capture Death in a bid to secure immortality. The magical ceremony soon goes wrong, and instead of imprisoning Death, the occultists instead capture Dream, confining him for the next 70 years.
When he eventually breaks loose, Dream finds that much about the world has changed since his capture, and that his kingdom — the Dreaming — has fallen into disarray. With a number of dreams and nightmares missing or unaccounted for, Morpheus sets about rebuilding the Dreaming, all the while coming to terms with the way the universe has inevitably evolved in his absence.
As the series progresses, the comic takes on an increasingly looser, almost experimental approach to its narrative. One storyline might be interrupted with a few one-off comics following a new character in a new historical time frame. While these issues tend to focus on minor characters, often they’ll involve Dream, Death, or some other main character from the series in a crucial way.
The result is like a comic book version of The Twilight Zone weaved into a fully-formed narrative. However, rather than it being overwhelming or difficult to follow, the joy of Sandman is seeing Gaiman take on new characters, cultures, mythologies, and national histories, folding them together into one massive, cohesive narrative centered around his main character.
Is Sandman Set in the DC Universe?
Yes, it is. Big-name superheroes and their villainous counterparts do occasionally appear, like Martian Manhunter or the fear-obsessed, Arkham-imprisoned Scarecrow. Several DC “occult” characters also appear in somewhat more prominent roles, such as the trenchcoat-clad, chain-smoking magician, John Constantine.
Additionally, the book updates several long-standing characters within the DC universe that had long since gone out of favor with modern audiences. This includes the Dreaming’s resident dark comedic duo of Cain and Abel (from the EC horror-esque anthologies, House of Mystery and House of Secrets) to Destiny, the oldest of the Endless, originally introduced to readers back in 1972.
However, it’s worth pointing out that Sandman is about as far from a superhero comic as one can get. Far more commonly seen are a number of fantastical creatures from folklore and mythology, as well as real-life historical figures.
Shakespeare pops up a few times, with Gaiman elaborating on how dreams and fantasies shaped some of his most famous plays. There’s also Caesar Augustus, Mark Twain, Marco Polo, and Robespierre, all of whom directly interact with Morpheus or his siblings in some way, shape, or form.
Where Do I Start?
Gailman’s Sandman has ballooned into quite an impressive bubble universe over the years since the first issue of the comic was released. For as large and far-encompassing as the series has grown, there are a couple of different avenues you can take when it comes to getting started on the series.
The easiest approach you can take is starting with the Sandman Omnibus Editions — three massive tomes that collect pretty much the entirety of Gaiman’s Sandman series, with a few extra comics thrown in for some additional bonus material.
Alternatively, you can go the Sandman Library route, reading through ten trade paperbacks collected in chronological order.
Lastly, you can try for the Absolute Edition route — a good halfway point between the pricey Omnibus and the Sandman Library collection.
Regardless of your choice, it’s important that you begin with Preludes and Nocturne. Gaiman has written a few prequels — specifically, The Sandman Overture — that comes canonically before this, but Preludes and Nocturnes offers the best introduction to the series, from its very first issue onwards.
Should I Read the Comics To Prepare for the Show?
As with most comic book adaptations, you don’t necessarily need to read The Sandman comics before watching Netflix’s version of the series. Like any movie or TV series based on a comic book, it’s likely some aspects of the TV series will deviate slightly from the comics.
In addition to those relatively minor changes, it’s also a distinct likelihood that Netflix’s Sandman will tweak other aspects of certain storylines to make for a cleaner transition from comic book to a television format.
However, there are also a number of reasons why you absolutely should read the comic. For starters, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s one of the most celebrated comic books of all time and is often considered one of the most influential works in the fantasy genre. If you’re a comic book fan who values your credentials and haven’t already read Sandman, there’s really no better time to start.
If you’re unfamiliar with comics, Sandman can also be an effective bridge into the comic book world, and may even result in you gaining an avid interest in reading more comics in the future or checking out more of Gaiman’s fantastic work. (Any one of his novels are definitely worth reading — American Gods, Coraline, and the amazing short fiction he presents in Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things being as close to perfection as you can get.)
There’s also the added bonus of getting a more nuanced viewing experience from the Netflix adaptation for those who’ve read the books. Just imagine sitting with your friends watching the series, knowing what’s about to happen before it actually happens, or seeing how Netflix’s version of a storyline differs from the original comic.
Plus, if smaller aspects of The Sandman are left out for pacing purposes on the Netflix show, you can also get a better grasp of specific scenes or characters who appear in the comics. (For example, someone unfamiliar with DC or Sandman aren’t likely to know who Constantine, the Corinthian, Dr. John Dee are in the show. If you read the comics, you’ll have that small edge and a bit more understanding about who characters are and what their motivations might be.) And, of course, there's also a Dead Boy Detectives TV series on the horizon…
Of course, you can also be that snooty person in the friend group who goes, “Oh, I think they did such a good job adapting this scene from the original comic, you know — from issue #4, page 12, panel 3. That was such a great moment in the comics. By the way, did I mention I read the original comic?”
What Other Comics Should I Read if I Like Sandman?
If you loved Gaiman’s original Sandman series, there is literally no shortage of comics directly connected to the series for you to flip through. Aside from the original series, there’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters, a four issue comic written by Gaiman that takes on the approach of an ancient Japanese folk story; and The Sandman: Overture, a six issue comic also written by Gaiman that serves as a prequel to the series.
A few years back, DC announced a series of comic books set within the Sandman universe, following new and pre-established characters from the comics. These include The Dreaming, House of Whispers, Lucifer, The Books of Magic, and several issues of John Constantine, Hellblazer. There’s also the manga-style Dead Boy Detectives, the hard-boiled spin-off series Sandman Mystery Theater, and the crossover series, Locke & Key: Hell & Gone.
There have also been a number of miniseries that came out after Sandman, many of which follow characters who originally appeared in Gaiman’s comics. These include Death: The High Cost of Living, Death: The Time of Your Life, and Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold, among others. As I said, there’s no end to reading options available once you’ve started reading Sandman.
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Featured Image Courtesy of DC Comics.