Bring Us A Dream: What Sets Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ Apart?
Making its debut on November 29, 1988, author Neil Gaiman's The Sandman ran for seventy-five issues, and by its conclusion in 1996, it had sucked in several audiences that typically didn't read comics, including academics, bibliophiles, and even comics' hardest get; women. What is it about The Sandman that makes it such a crossover success?
The term "graphic novel" is an imperfect one. Though the generic label might be the best one we have for big comic books (and that's debatable), it's applied as a blanket classification for any slightly long comic with a thickish cover. Ideally, if we're going to use the term at all, it should probably denote a kind of density, not just in page count, but in subject matter and technique.
It's a label that one never has to question with The Sandman. Not only is it the highest-selling graphic novel series of all time, it's one of the best examples of what the term "graphic novel" should actually imply. Intricate, nuanced, and mature, with a cast of dozens; a long-form, cohesive graphic story exploring themes crucial to the human experience. An impressive feat, especially considering that the main character is the personification of an abstract idea.
Dream is one of The Endless, a family of anthropomorphized forces that includes Destiny, Desire, Death, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium. In addition, there are gods and goddesses, demons and angels, faeries, characters plucked from history and fable, living dreams, talking ravens, and so on. Initial contact with the concept should be enough to drive off readers who don't care for fantasy, but the genius of the book is that it's really only a fantasy when it wants to be.
The Sandman is a story about stories, and that simple conceit is enough to give the book license to tell any kind of story. A common knock on the book is the lack of a long-term artist on the title --- besides Dave McKean on covers, who is certainly a major reason for the comicbook's appeal; nothing beats eye candy --- but that's actually one of its greatest strengths. Working with different artists, Gaiman goes on excursions through story form that borders on the anthropological. The book takes in high fantasy, low fantasy, sci-fi, modern horror, baroque horror, romances, road stories, revenge stories, the myths and fables of several cultures, and it does so with more stylistic flair, depth of reference, and homages than the average grad student can decipher.
What makes this approach so brilliant, apart from appealing to readers uninterested in superhero comics, is that Gaiman truly understands all of the stories he's telling and re-telling. He knows what myths and dreams and archetypes have to tell us about ourselves; he speaks symbolic languages learnt from Campbell and Jung. Among the primary themes of The Sandman are the necessity and danger of dreams and dreamers, the power of stories, and the struggle for freedom from forces both external and internal.
These themes and motifs are recited through cultural story structures and the comics form so subtly that one barely notices the connective tissues linking everything to the overall narrative; that intricate and deliberate plot revealing itself in the periphery. And despite the constant presence of the fantastic, The Sandman somehow stays grounded in the mundane. There are as many regular people in the series as there are gods and goddesses; stories deal as much with the pain and conflict of real life; and among all the big concepts about myth and meaning are bad families, dying friends, and broken relationships.
Comics had a big moment of mainstream exposure in the late 80s, after which they could have easily sunk back into relative obscurity; but The Sandman was one of the few books that held the world's attention. It began in 1988, hit its stride around 1990, and consistently improved until its conclusion, each arc throwing new layers on this singular story. It defined the Vertigo aesthetic for at least a decade, inspiring not only numerous spin-offs, but arguably the imprint's entire tone and approach.
Years after it ended, though, The Sandman hasn't been diminished. Only Gaiman has contributed anything substantial to the core characters, and he's done so sparingly, in The Dream Hunters, Endless Nights, and Sandman: Overture, and each has been great; Overture in particular is brilliant. Reprints of the original series still sell something like six figures every year, and people outside of comics are still popping in to tell us just how good it is.
We don't need them to tell us, but it's still nice to hear.