Many comic book lovers consider Neil Gaiman's 75-issue series The Sandman one of the greatest ever. The stories in each issue touch on the realities of the human condition in ways few other comics can. Sandman comics tackle a wide range of subjects, from religion to family and betrayal.
Through the eyes of Morpheus, also known as Dream, readers experience the world from a somewhat detached position. Morpheus watches and gives commentary on the endeavors of everyday humans from the point of view of a superior being. But the way he engages with these people not only highlights their limitations and flaws but also shows his own. Gaiman expertly weaves the pain and torments of a powerful Endless into the mundane stories of regular people, and the result has kept fans in awe since the comic's first release in 1988.
Most of the issues in this series feature remarkable storytelling. But a few Sandman comics stand out from the rest.
Ramadan (Issue #50)
Neil Gaiman has a way of blurring history and myth in his stories, and in Ramadan, this technique shines. He presents a Baghdad that seems at once authentic and magical. He immerses readers in the aesthetics of the Abbasid Caliphate, taking them through the palace and the marketplace, to make apparent the allure of the city. Then readers learn that the Caliph of the city, Harun al Raschid, who also appears in 1001 Nights, worries about the fate of Baghdad. He wishes that the wondrous city would remain forever. So, he summons Dream to make a bargain; he'd sell the city to Dream if he can keep it living forever in people's dreams. The ending of the Sandman comic parallels the state of modern-day Baghdad.
24 Hours (Issue #6)
This harrowing story fully embraces chaos. As the hours go by, the customers at a 24-hour diner begin to act in erratic manners, controlled by the power of Morpheus's Dreamstone. Psychiatric patient John Dee, who escaped Arkham Asylum, managed to get his hands on the relic that holds Morpheus's power and unleashes it on the fellows in the diner. He makes them exhibit their innermost secrets. They play out thoughts that used to live in the dark recesses of their minds, until the diner becomes a carnage of blood and horror. Few issues in Sandman comics series compare to the darkness and gore in this one.
The Sleep of the Just (Issue #1)
Though the first issue in the series, The Sleep of The Just, remains one of the best Sandman comics. It covers 72 years in just a few panels, but the pain and torment of Dream, trapped in a basement, almost doesn't age. Roderick Burgess, in an attempt to capture Death, mistakenly summons her brother Dream, and thus begins the story. The world suffers for decades from sleep-related problems because of the Lord of Dreams' imprisonment. But Morpheus endures. He waits patiently till the time comes to free himself and exert revenge on his captors.
The Golden Boy (Issue #54)
Illustrated by Michael Allred and Bryan Talbot, issue 54 of Sandman comics critiques the American Dream. Dream himself hardly appears in the issue, but a personified version of the American dream fully participates. A teenager named Prez Rickard wishes to become president of the United States someday. New laws in the country permit 18-year-olds to participate in the presidential elections, and soon Prez finds himself in a poll position to win. But throughout his campaign and tenure as president, a figure named Boss Smiley keeps appearing to him. This figure, each time, promises to make whatever Prez wants the most come true, in exchange for servitude. With these scenarios, Gaiman illustrates the temptations of the American dream.
A Dream of a Thousand Cats (Issue #18)
Here, Gaiman presents the world as it might look if cats ruled the world. The standalone story takes readers through the activities of a heartbroken cat whose kittens got killed by her human owner. She develops a hatred for humanity because of how they treat cats. So she wanders through dreams in search of answers till she meets the cat version of Morpheus. He shows her what the world looked like when cats ruled over mankind and tells her that the vision could become reality once again if enough cats dream it. The premise of this story appears simple on the surface, but it demonstrates how dreams can make a real impact on collective realities.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Issue #19)
One of the most celebrated issues in all Sandman comics, this story, itself about a story, weaves reality and dreams into one tapestry. Shakespeare, who first appeared in issue 13, makes a return. In his first appearance, he made a bargain with Dream. He wanted his writings to remain relevant forever. In exchange, Dream asked him to do something which readers now see in his second appearance. He writes and performs a play for the Lord of Dreams and his faeries. The issue pays homage to Shakespeare as one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived and also showcases the price he had to pay for his genius.
The Sound of Her Wings (Issue #8)
Dream's sister, Death, makes her first appearance in this emotional issue of Sandman comics. Dream and Death reunite for the first time in decades, and she tries to lift him from the state of despair he has sunk into. He follows her around as she does her rounds, and readers get a glimpse into a day in the life of Death. Gaiman paints a picture of death's incarnate, not as a hideous skull in a cape wielding a scythe. But as a friendly, compassionate being willing to ease the passage of recently deceased people into the afterlife. The story reflects on the meaning and end of life in a way only Sandman can.
Seasons of Mist (Issue #21)
In this issue of Sandman comics, readers get introduced fully to the Endless family. Destiny, the eldest, calls a meeting of all family members. They gather in the same place for the first time since the comic began, so it presents an opportunity to describe their responsibilities and unique personalities. This issue also presents a glimpse into Morpheus's past, highlighting the relationship he once had with a woman named Nada. Morpheus feels he has wronged the woman by imprisoning her in hell for 10,000 years, so he plans to take her back. When he visits hell again, he learns, once more, that things have changed far more than he can do anything about.
Collectors (Issue 14)
Neil Gaiman has a way of crafting flawed characters and using their situations to explore the darker parts of humanity. In issue 14, these characters come together and interact in a World Convention for serial killers.
This ensemble of the worst people on earth has as its guest of honor one of the most feared villains in the Sandman comics: Corinthian. Dream reaffirms his moral position on the evil wrought by his creations by unmaking Corinthian. He also punishes the serial killers by taking away their ability to daydream.
Cerements (Issue #55)
This issue feels like a weirder version of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Different characters gather at the World's End Inn in the Necropolis and tell each other stories. The stories get stranger and darker with each new teller. Still, Gaiman manages to touch on important topics about executions and who gets to play the role of the hangman. The tale takes on a distinct tone of its own, needless to say, it can stand independent of other Sandman issues.
Calliope (Issue #17)
This story shows men's lengths to achieve their goals or satisfy their ambitions. It portrays characters who have let their desires blind them to their heinous acts. Richard Madoc, a novelist who has hit writer's block, inherits Calliope, one of the Greek muses, from a mentor. The mentor imprisoned her in a backroom for decades and she became the inspiration for the successful novels he had written. Richard Madoc imprisons her too, and finds great success due to her influence. When Dream frees her in the end, he punishes Richard in one of his trademark ways of giving a person an overabundance of what they seek. “You want ideas?” he says. “You want dreams? You want stories? Then ideas you will have. Ideas in abundance.”
Cluracan's Tale (Issue #52)
The customers at the World's End Inn often tell lofty tales. The other customers who listen don't always believe everything they hear. But they make for entertaining tales nevertheless. Readers can enjoy stories like Cluracan's Tale as part of the single stories that don't impact the main narratives.
This episode in Sandman comics pulls readers into a tale told by the faerie Cluracan at the Inn. The story feels simple at first, with Cluracan going on a mission to the Lord's Carnal in Aurelia of the Plains. But, like most Sandman comics, things soon devolve into a complex, strange narrative.
A Hope in Hell (Issue 4)
Morpheus descends into the very depths of Hell in this issue. Upon his escape from his decades-long imprisonment at the hand of Roderick Burgess, Dream begins to pick up the pieces of his life. People have taken his instruments of power from him, and one such instrument, his helm, has found its way to Hell. So the Lord of Dreams goes to meet the Lord of Hell. But things don't go as easily as he expects. The endeavor leads to a battle between Lucifer and Dream, and even though they “fight,” the duel remains one of the most well-executed non-physical battles the comic book world has ever seen.
The Parliament of Rooks (Issue #40)
Seeing Sandman's characters like Dream and other members of the Endless introduced into agelong myths and stories remains one of the joys of this comic. It allows readers to see Neil Gaiman's take on these stories. He retells them in ways that bring fresh perspectives into them and sometimes add to the wider Sandman comics universe. In The Parliament of Rooks, a baby dreams his way into The Dreaming where he meets Eve, Cain, and Abel. They each tell him a story about their past lives, adding another side to the biblical stories we already know. The issue's light-hearted narration makes it an enjoyable read for anyone.
15. Men of Good Fortune (Issue 13)
Men of Good Fortune portrays, at once, ephemerality and timelessness. Through the centuries that the story transcends, it becomes clear that things change, but not very much. When individuals stick around long enough, they see a recurring pattern. Some things go, but the important stuff always remains the same through the ages.
Dream and Hob Gadling witness this as they meet once every 100 years in the same tavern. Dream made Hob unable to die on the condition that they'd meet at the end of every century to talk about their experience in the past 100 years. Their friendship stays strong through the centuries whenever they order a drink and chat, even though many other things give way to the march of time.