The Sandman Connection: How Vertigo’s Flagship Title Crossed Over With the DCU
With today's news that Death -- the pallid, parasol-toting embodiment of the End of All Things from in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" -- will be crossing over with Paul Cornell's Lex Luthor story in the pages of "Action Comics," it looks like DC's making an honest attempt to bring at least a few Vertigo titles into their core universe.
In recent years, this is something that hadn't been allowed, with the stated reason being that the company didn't want to cross over their super-hero titles with the more Mature Readers fare of the Vertigo line -- an argument that doesn't really hold much water anymore when one of the most important DC stories of the decade involved Dr. Light raping the Elongated Man's wife on the Justice League satellite.
Even so, having one of the most definitively "Vertigo" characters showing up in a book that's been straight-up superheroics for 72 years is a pretty big deal, although it's not exactly a new idea. Despite the clear delineation of the titles, a lot of the flagship Vertigo books have their roots in the DCU proper. Both "Swamp Thing" and "Sandman" even started as DC Universe books, complete with the same logo that ran on the Superman comics.
The fact of the matter is, "Sandman" has its roots in the DC Universe, and this isn't the first time they've been explored.
For starters, there's "Sandman" itself, which -- despite its eventual evolution into something more distinct than the mid-'90s punch-ups that it shared shelf-space with -- was essentially a super-hero story from the start. Gaiman's Sandman (or Morpheus, or Dream if you prefer) was as much a legacy hero as James Robinson's Jack Knight in "Starman." Both of them are closely tied to a Golden Age legacy character (Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman, appears in Gaiman's first arc), and both stories end up eventually encompassing other versions of their legacy.
Even more than that, though, that first "Sandman" arc is a super-hero comic. For all its Mature Readers influences, it's the story of a super-powerful strange visitor from a mystic dimension who breaks free from being imprisoned and then goes to get his super-equipment back, and then goes to fight Dr. Destiny, a Justice League villain. It doesn't get more super-hero than that.
The Revivals of Urania Blackwell and Destiny
But it doesn't stop there. Like Alan Moore did with "Swamp Thing," which played with everything from the Demon to the "House of Mystery" and "House of Secrets" versions of Cain and Abel to Roy Raymond: TV Detective, Gaiman brought in plenty of pieces of the super-hero comics, from the '70s Jack Kirby Sandman to Element Girl, an obscure supporting cast member from "Metamorpho" who hadn't been seen since 1966.
Even Destiny of the Endless was a pre-existing DC character who had cropped up in various comics during the Bronze Age:
And despite the shift to being a comic that was about stories rather than super-heroes -- or maybe because of it -- Gaiman returned to these ideas at the end:
When Clark Kent, Batman and the Martian Manhunter show up at your funeral, I don't think there's any getting around the fact that you're living in a super-hero universe. Also, while it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, I'd like to take a moment just to say that I love this panel. Superman griping about his crazy Silver Age dreams and the Martian Manhunter getting all huffy about never having had his own show? Fantastic.
"Sandman" In the DCU: Death Tours the Universe
But it wasn't all a one-way street: The DC Universe drew on "Sandman" as well, albeit far less often. The first and probably most notorious was in Cary Bates, Greg Weisman and Rafael Kayanan's "Captain Atom" #42, where Death appeared alongside Jack Kirby's version of death, The Black Racer:
I've read that Gaiman was not at all happy with this, in that Bates and Weisman characterized her as just an aspect of death rather than the whole gothity shebang, but I'm not sure if that was really the case or if it got blown out of proportion or what. Either way, it makes sense to me; Comics -- stories in general, in fact -- often have multiple characters standing in for the same concept, and this way Vertigo fans get their "Sandman" version and I get a dude that travels through space at lightspeed on skis while wearing a suit of red and yellow armor. Everybody's happy!
Similarly, she showed up in a very, very tiny cameo in "JLA/Avengers," posed on a cosmic chessboard opposite Marvel's Death:
Also appearing in that grouping is Hela, the Norse (well, Norse-By-Way-Of-Marvel-Comics) embodiment of Death, as well as Deadman, who seems like the odd man out, as he's just the earthly representative of Rama Kushna.
Death's not the only one who's made the rounds, though. Dream himself appears in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's "JLA" #22 and 23, even getting a spot on the cover:
It's a great story, and one where Morrison manages to pull of equal parts "Sandman" and "JLA," in that it's as much about the nature of dreams and the idea of super-heroes as a metaphor as it is about Superman punching out Starro the Star Conqueror. It's good stuff.
Dream makes one last DCU appearance as I know of, in the early issues of "JSA," where the '70s Kirby Sandman is tied into Dr. Fate by way of Gaiman in a story involving alternate dimensions, mysticism, rapid aging, the Golden Age Fury, and mind-control. Suffice to say that it's a little complex. After that, it's pretty much it until now, but what's important is that the groundwork is already there.
It's always been there, and it's never really left, save for a seemingly arbitrary decision that's now getting a few very welcome cracks in it.