Assuming anyone following my blog is aware I’ve been working my way through the Sandman Graphic Novels!
Before going any further I better chuck up some warnings both SPOILERS but also TRIGGER warnings for Suicide and Sexual Assault.
I don’t know if there is any particular structure to this post, I’m basically just going to work through my response to the series and discuss my thoughts and look forward to anyone chiming in! Sandman seems to have been published in an unusual spot – late 80s into mid 90s which was just before the internet really took off and a lot of focus on Gaiman seems to be more around his contributions to recent TV shows (American Gods, Good Omens) which bodes very well for the fact a Sandman series is coming, BUT for now it seems like there is relatively little online resources to sink your teeth into if you want to consider Sandman material.
My understanding is that technically Sandman is set in (a?) DC comics universe, there are very brief appearances from DC characters however, I think it would be more useful to say that Sandman is set in a ‘Gaimanverse’ which requires a little bit of explanation. For those who are fans of both, Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett, the two authors were friends and collaborated on Good Omens. They both have a very similar approach to the theology of their world building, although with some subtle differences. Pratchett tends to create worlds on the power of ‘belief’ wherein things exist if people believe in them, and the stronger or more people believing the stronger that thing will be. There are some exceptions, such as DEATH and other entities that appear to be more personifications of various ‘rules’ of the universe. I should add that this typically applies to the Discworld, however if I have my facts straight I think other stories are based on or play on this concept.
Gaiman on the other hand has an extremely similar perspective except that his worlds run on ‘stories’ which morph and change (and die) over time and similar to beliefs can empower or create and destroy. There is a fair amount of discussion of whether Gaiman’s stories are in a shared universe and I think the point of Gaiman’s style is a resounding ‘yes’ but they could change as the stories do. At any rate Gaiman’s Sandman universe is very much a story universe, but similar to Pratchett’s theology, there are a few rules in place as well (more on that later).
Anywho the point of the rambling beginning was just a sort of scene setting for introducing Sandman and his stories.
So the world we experience Sandman in, while often based on Earth (probably because I’m an Earthling, I’m sure there is a Xenomorph busy reading through the Xenomorph version of the stories) is set in a universe where ‘everything’ is real: Heaven, Hell, Faerie, Asgard, children’s stories, adults stories, and so on.
Around (or on-top, or amongst) that is the Seven ‘Endless’ these being Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delight/Delerium. Even with everything and anything being real the Endless are some of the most significant and powerful creatures within this universe – that said its made very clear that there are still ‘rules’ and as I will get onto later, these stories are not really shallow in the respect of whether Odin could beat Oberon, or is Sandman stronger than Lucifer..?
Having a main character be an Endless extremely powerful? being is a very interesting story choice and the fascinating thing is the games that Gaiman plays to keep the narrative interesting – while the first Volume is more of a simple ‘depowered’ type situation where we see Sandman as protagonist, much of the story is told from other characters who have interacted with Sandman, sometimes as an antagonist, saviour, love interest or friend, and like all good stories is not really about our MC overcoming practical barriers and winning the day but the choices of our characters especially Sandyman.
The Story so far.
So now what follows is my attempt to summarize the story of Sandman – please forgive as I’ll probably forget, or completely miss some important points, or fail to succinctly cover the tale – I don’t mean to just provide the blurbs of each Volume, but to try and capture the significance of the events of the tale and try to surmise some insights.
The Story of Stories
Sandman has the most interesting of introductions, obviously he is Endlessly ancient, but our tale with him begins with some occult group ~1930 trying to summon death and instead getting Dream. After pilfering his stuff, they keep him trapped, demanding something/anything for their troubles.
Dream, being a total badass literally just sits in their summoning circle/orbs and stares at them for 70 years until someone accidently scuffs the protection circle.
Its a very unusual introduction on many levels – interestingly though it actually reveals much of Dream’s character even as he just sits imprisoned, we see his stubbornness, and pride, we also in some respects see his lack of personal insight with others. While this may be a harsh take, one feels that a more socially adept character would have talked their way out of the situation much faster. Yet Dream just waits.
The rest of Volume one deals with Dream reclaiming his lost belongings, its a very intense and fantastical tale, and we start to see hints of Dream’s character, that he has been extremely vengeful and petty historically but we also see hints of sympathy develop post imprisonment. Probably the main character point is we’re introduced to a former (try like 10s of thousands of years ago) love interest that Dream pettily doomed to Hell for rejecting him, while we are given little context in this issue the story continues later in the series.
Volume Two continues to follow Dream as he rebuilds his domain, and discovers that some of his creations are ‘missing’ and effectively lose upon the world. The volume contains a lot of significant plots points while also having a pretty bad-ass contextual plotline. The major plot developments are that we learn more about Nada (the lady from Vol 1) and why Dream banished her to Hell, we also learn that Despair and Desire, two of Dream’s siblings are plotting against him. The nature of the plot as is revealed is to trick Dream into killing his ‘own blood’ a disturbing and elaborate plan that involved Desire impregnating a comatose woman, in the hopes that Dream would kill their child. This is where we are introduced to the concept of and Endless spilling their ‘own blood’ being some sort of death sentence, although the specifics are still unclear. We also see later but chronologically earlier Desire lamenting that their plan to attack Dream thus will work eventually.
We also meet Lyta, who (bear with) is trapped in a dream with her dead(?) husband with whom she is pregnant. Unfortunately upon release of the dream Lyts is still pregnant with a child conceived (magically not grossly like Desire) and doesn’t realize her husband was dead the entire time, so sees Sandman as responsible for her husband’s death, and most probably is disturbed by Sandman’s claim to the child as his heir.
This is a useful time to segue a little. One of the fascinating challenges of Sandman is the mystery and many things left unsaid. We are revealed an obvious plot from Desire against Dream, however its not explicitly laid out the whys and wherefores. In Vol 11. we get a (massive like billions of years) flashback where Dream and Desire seem extremely close – Desire is even spoken of as Dream’s favourite sibling. This is due to Desire doing something for Dream to match him up with a lady-friend – but what is super odd is we doing exactly here what this is, but that the Endless are pretty awkward with it and later when said lady-friend hooks up with their home planets sun (don’t ask it makes sense). Dream obviously blames Desire. The general assumption is this the beginning of the animosity between the two, however many questions remain. My current theory is that Desire gave Dream the ability to love others, after all the other Endless don’t seem even particularly interested in romantic relationships whereas Sandman stands out as being particularly unlucky in love, a theme which appears again and again throughout the story.
If this is the case I suspect Desire’s enmity towards Dream is perhaps understood as being something in Desire’s nature rather than having a specific scheme, I believe Desire’s story in Vol. 11 while not specifically commenting on any events of the overall series discussing the nature of Desire as being something like a double-siding nuclear weapon.
Anywho on with the story – while Desire apparently tries to get Dream killed in Vol 2., its fairly ambiguous from then on how involved Desire is in any plotting against Dream, they still have parts to play across the story but no more overt schemes are displayed (personally continuing my theory, I believe that Desire may have played the odd in future events but was more manipulated by Dream than anything)
The next major points from Volume Three is the introduction of Calliope, I won’t dive into the disturbing and sexual tale specifics, but its revealed that Dream and Calliope were once lovers and have a child together. Little is revealed about the child at this point, but by all things sacred they come to play a very significant part.
Volume Four contains one of the more epic sequences. We get a proper meeting of the Endless, where we see more of Destiny probably the most mysterious of the seven, the meeting appears entirely to prompt Dream to do something about his mistreatment of Nada. It’s a fascinating series of events because initially its portrayed as a potential epic battle between Sandman and Lucifer. Instead in a bizarre twist Dream arrives in Hell to find that Lucifer is giving up the job and hands the key to Hell over to Dream. Its a major thematic moment that also mirrors the story of Destruction, a member of the Endless family who left their realm, and story elements that will related to Dream’s later choices.
The majority from the tale from there on out is the bizarre consequences of Lucifer’s choice, and Dream having to hold court to any number of other major entities who want to be given the Key to Hell. It may be worth pointing out at this stage that their is reference to ‘The Creator’ but in this ‘everything is real if there are stories about it’ universe there is no clarity around power hierarchies of specifics of theology (unlike say a show like Supernatural which specifically spells out who is more powerful than who, who goes where, and constantly has to add new all-powerful enemies and strange dimensions to keep creating stories).
With all irreverence intended, the actual decision of who gets to rule Hell is of minor significance, next to the character points of Dream, who finally gets to rescue Nada and at least partially make-good on his past actions.
The next Volume – feels contextually Similar to Doll’s house, focusing mainly on mortal characters having some sort of ‘Dream adventure’ if my memory serves Sandman himself is barely in this tale. An astute of observer will see the same themes being explored that become important in the conclusion, change and dead feature heavily.
Volume (keep track now…) Six is another collection of stand alone stories, most of which are picked out of the past. The significance is mostly around showing Dream’s almost disturbingly cold approach pre-captivity, the most extreme example being to watch his own son get torn to shreds, to later become a bodiless ‘Oracle’ which later on we come to learn has to continue his existence as revered head for thousands of years. While that story is directly relevant to the overarching tales, many of the others address key themes of power, responsibility, and of course stories.
Possible one of the most epic and powerful Collections Volume Seven (Brief Lives) chronicles Delirium and Dream trying to find their missing brother Destruction. Up until this point little is known about Destruction’s decision to leave the Endless, there is implications that Dream is to blame, but that seemed more like Despair’s interpretation. In order to find Destruction Dream must make some rather intense decisions (in this case visit his son, and eventually kill him as per son’s request).
The eventual meeting with Destruction is both fascinating, confusing, but ultimately in fitting with the styles of this tale. There are no real epic reveals, no revelations (other than mildly petty Dream confirming he didn’t drive Destruction away). Destruction discussing his reasons for leaving and declining to return are opaque and philosophical, what I found fascinating is Destruction discussing the two sides of a coin. Interesting because throughout the story Destruction is not seen as particularly ‘destructive’ and its not really ever spelt out exactly what the nature of his persona is, other than mentions of the Heart of Stars being his domain. The suggestion in my mind is that in order to accept things being their own inverse e.g. creation also being destruction one cannot simply be the personification of the one thing.
This has big significance for Dream, as its not 100% clear what his inverse is in this philosophy, he has been shown up to the beginning of this story to be a haughty, cold (yet petty in love) individual focused on his responsibilities. But where to from there?
Of course the conclusion to the story where Dream ends his sons life, finally creates the scenario Desire originally pushed for, where Dream has spilled his ‘own blood.’
Volume Nine, is another collection of stories, however these are more directly connected by the fact the tale-tellers are all gathered at the World’s End by some sort of storm, their tales also relate to what’s about to happen in the next volume. which is of course:
Volume Ten The Kindly Ones, as my individual review covered is an extremely epic story, captured many of the previous stories characters and pulling them into the final story of Dream.
The plot is very intricate and in a cunning twist is quite contextually dramatic, alongside thematic, by which I mean alongside the musing there is a surprisingly amount of violence and suspense, basically Lyta, the woman who believes Dream killed her husband, finds their child missing and also blames Dream. Thusly she sets the ‘Kindly Ones’ on Dream, who zips between encounters apparently seeking the boy in question while trying to manage the attacks of the Kindly Ones.
When it comes to the final showdown, we have quite the twist in store. Rather than procuring the boy to return him to Lyta and prove his innocence Dream prepares the boy as his replacement and effectively suicides in the presence of the Kindly Ones. There is a brief and unusual interaction between Dream and Death, where Death accused Dream of planning this outcome all along, Dream denies this, but somewhat unconvincingly.
I have to confess I found the finale quite shocking to say the least, while the series is older, and Dream’s death was pretty blatantly foreshadowed not only in the earlier editions, but throughout the story of the Kindly One’s, I did kind of expect something like Desire finally hatching a plot, or perhaps the Corinthian, one of Dream’s nastiest nightmares somehow turning the tables on him.
Instead we have a highly ambiguous ending, was Dream in control of the whole sequence of events? Did he at some point decide to simply accept them? Could he see worse futures ahead should he stay alive?
The Character Of Dream
This is probably where things get most convoluted and interpretable. Dream is a fascinating character as we’re effectively introduced to him in the last few years of his ‘life’ when he has in fact existed for(ever) or something. Initially the story of his character seems to be about him changing for the better, from a cold petty being to someone trying to right their wrongs.
But then an alternative vision is that the story is basically Dream getting his affairs in order before ending his life he hasn’t “changed” so much as preparing to end his unchangeable life. Gaiman himself has said the story is about someone who must choose to change or die.
While perhaps not that overtly pleasant the theory does have some strength, e.g. when Sandman is initially captured they are trying to summon Death, so why questions why would Dream appear when Death is summoned?
To circle back to Dream in general, his character to shown to be highly contrary. On the one hand he is shown to be intensely wise, sensible, and with a strong sense of honour and responsibility. Flip that around and he is depicted as disturbingly petty, at times pathetically haughty and strangely naïve to personal interactions – it takes Death to explain that his treatment of Nada was over the top and he should atone.
Atonement aside being unlucky in love seems a fairly consistent theme for Dream, many of his relationships end with being dumped, he is oblivious to the affection an elf gifted to his realm gives him and as already mentioned is pretty brutal when he believes he has been spurned. Its hard to interpret these interactions, especially since on the surface they feel almost like the McGuffin of the ‘Change or Die’ theme rather than a key Theme. Although I think Dream’s relationship woes reflect elements of the change theme, namely his rigidity not only makes him hard to love, but also hard to forgive his loves. Dream himself tells us the essential torment of his existence that he is “I will have no story of my own” (are all the most brilliant quotes highly ironic), which to me lends credit to that Desire gave Dreams the ability to love, however it backfired powerfully.
Gaiman loves writing stories about stories, and in many respects Sandman is the most meta story about. Sandman himself represents the bleak nature of stories – change or die – the whole story could be interpreted as a critique of the idea of “canon” in stories where Sandman represents a desperate attempt to maintain a rigid story, when in reality stories will be retold and changed throughout time.
Another interpretation is that the Endless while contextually representing aspects of reality, their characters represent ways of dealing with existence. Destiny is stoic and accepting, Death sees the beauty in all things dark and light, Destruction tries to run, Desire and Despair are both Schemey and pursue petty goals, Delirium, well goes mad.
Dream dives into taking responsibility for what areas he can and does have an impact on. In Kindly one’s he even admits to Matthew the Raven that his ‘responsibilities’ aren’t exactly responsibilities but more the areas Sandman can have an impact on.
For me the brilliance of Sandman is to have a taste of many aspects of good story-telling, namely having strong contextual stories and thematic elements too. I won’t lie there are frustrations with the tale, but very much intentional frustrations, specific facts that we are not meant to know, a resolution that makes you think rather than breathe a sigh of relief.
One final point is that the nature of comics, having many different artists and styles fits with the trippy dreamlike quality of the story. I initially embarked on a re-read (and in some cases just a first read) of Sandman to refresh before the series came and found myself falling back into the series – its definitely something unique in the story-world and a much appreciated treasure.
So have you read any of the Sandman graphic novels? Any thoughts
I will be back once the series comes to review of course!
Finally I will also give the prequel a re-read as well, I wanted to analyze the original books first and then consider Overture later.