Neil Gaiman has famously summarized The Sandman with a single sentence. “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” It’s a funny little statement: poignant in its accuracy, mysterious in its vagueness.
Another good way to describe The Sandman is: “a story about stories and their relationship to our humanity.” William Shakespeare appears in it. So does the Martian Manhunter, the mythological figure of Loki, Marco Polo, and Eve — like, from the Garden of Eden? If you want a third stab at a description, “a horror comic that swiftly turns into a high-concept mythological fantasy comic” could fit the bill.
The Sandman is many things: pulp horror, mythopoetry, urban fantasy, a superhero reboot, a goth’s style handbook, Succession with anthropomorphic personifications, a flawed but earnest attempt to portray queer lives struggling for actualization and safety in the 1990s, a graphic novel, a collection of short stories, and a work that’s canonical with DC Universe.
The one thing you can’t say about The Sandman is that it could have happened at any other time in history, either global or specific to comics. With the first cinematic adaptation of this supposedly unfilmable magnum opus premiering on Netflix, it’s worth turning back the clock to examine all of the ingredients that went into the biggest cult hit in superhero comics, if only to answer the question: Why is Sandman… like that?
The original Sandmans
The story of the story of The Sandman begins in 1939. Superman was just over a year old — in fact, the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, New York, was the first time anyone was ever hired to portray the Man of Steel in costume. Attendees of the fair could get their hands on a free copy of New York World’s Fair Comics, and in its pages they met a new costumed crime fighter called the Sandman.
By day, Wesley Dodds was a wealthy businessman, but by night he donned a gas mask to prowl the streets of New York City in search of criminals, whom he would interrogate and anesthetize with the use of his gas gun, sprinkling sand over their sleeping bodies as a calling card for the police. As the Golden Age of comics came to a close in the 1950s, Dodds’ stories petered out. But the world of comic book superheroes never leaves a story behind when it can be rebooted decades later.
And in 1974, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby — the creators of Captain America — took a spin on reviving the Sandman. This time around, the hero wore a bright red and yellow costume, and prowled the “Dream Stream” in search of rogue nightmares, dispatching them with his magical pouch of dream dust lest they invade the dreams of children.
This Sandman only stuck around for a few issues, but a decade later his story was folded into a story in Wonder Woman. Even later, that story was folded into a story in Infinity Inc., a team book about the grown children of the retired Justice League of Earth 2.
And in that story, Hector Hall — son of Hawkman and Hawkwoman — became trapped in the Dream Stream and took over the duties of the Sandman. Eventually, he brought his wife, Hippolyta “Lyta” Hall — the daughter of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor — into dreams as well, where the two conceived a child.
These two characters both have their influences on The Sandman. For example, Dream’s black, elongated helm is an interpretation of Dodds’ 1940s gas mask, and the linking of Sandman to actual power over dreams comes from Kirby and Simon. But for the next stop on our tour of major Sandman influences, we’ll need to leave the realm of fiction entirely for a much scarier one: publishing history.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths
The second half of the 1980s at DC Comics was defined by big swings. The company’s first full continuity reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a formal invitation for comics creators to reinvent and redefine the biggest, oldest characters in superherodom.
In Batman: Year One, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli carved a sweaty, sleazy, neon statue of Gotham City that remains definitive even in 2022. In his Wonder Woman, George Peréz gave the Princess of the Amazons a new origin story that endures to this day. John Byrne transformed Lex Luthor from mad scientist to corrupt industrialist so seamlessly that most people would never know he hadn’t always been a rich jerk. Change was in the air, and no reimagining was too wild.
Into this bubbling pot of creative energy stepped DC editor Karen Berger. By the time the first issue of The Sandman was published, her editorial eye had already fueled storylines like Alan Moore’s revamp of Swamp Thing, the first solo series for John Constantine, and Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and Animal Man — all instant classics.
Berger had already made a name for herself in the realm of horror books that doubled as postmodern twists on the superhero formula. Additionally, she favored a stable of writers from the United Kingdom, creators who were familiar with American superheroes through the thriving import trade, but perhaps less precious about flipping the applecart. In a few years, those interests would come together in her very own publishing imprint, DC’s legendary Vertigo Comics, but at the moment, let’s imagine her looking at the work of one of DC’s brand-new writers.
This 27-year-old grew up in the south of England, and he is primarily a journalist, but with some short fiction credits. He’s written a few strips for the British comics anthology 2000 AD, and a couple of short graphic novels with a rather avant garde illustrator friend. He’s also got a few issues of Marvelman under his belt, picking up from where writer Alan Moore — another of Berger’s young Brits — had left off. Maybe he would have done more if Marvelman’s home magazine hadn’t gone out of business. His only work for DC so far is a miniseries that combined botanical horror (including a Post-Crisis revamp of Poison Ivy) and a sort of travel tour of DC Comics characters from Swamp Thing to Lex Luthor.
After considering all of this, Berger decides to ask him if he’d be interested in pitching a reboot of perhaps the most obscure member of the Justice Society, a character that even Jack Kirby and Joe Simon couldn’t crack. And with the hubris of a 27-year-old, Neil Gaiman said yes.
That’s the story of how The Sandman came to be. But the story of why it encompasses so much and is so difficult to define isn’t complete without its writer. Today, Neil Gaiman is an internationally known novelist whose bestselling books have been adapted into award-winning movies like Coraline and Stardust, and big-budget television like American Gods and Good Omens. It’s difficult to picture him as an up-and-coming journalist turned comic book writer whose only published novel is a biography of Duran Duran.
But once you fix that lens into the telescope of your mind, The Sandman comes into focus. A young writer had no idea if he’d ever get another chance at success, and so he packed every single thing that he liked into the work. The Sandman never attracted a single characteristic artist collaborator — artistically, its steadiest throughline was Gaiman’s imagination and prose.
A voracious reader of fantasy and a devotee of gothic horror, Gaiman offered Berger a very big swing. Instead of another Sandman adventure story, he’d write a six-issue yarn about a sentient personification of the human imagination escaping from captivity and solving a mystery. Each issue would have the arc of a gothic horror story, and over the course of the six, his character would make a travel tour of the DC Universe, from the headquarters of the Justice League to the depths of hell itself.
In the very first issue, he’d establish that Wesley Dodds’ urge to become a sleep-themed costumed crime fighter was the result of an upset in the realm of dreams. Then, from DC’s own history of gothic horror, he’d pull in Cain and Abel. Not the biblical figures (at least not at first, although later Gaiman would allow a bit of Genesis to bleed back into them) but the Cryptkeeper-style hosts of House of Secrets and House of Mystery, DC’s midcentury attempts to steal the ravenous audience of Tales From the Crypt.
Next, from Saga of the Swamp Thing, by Gaiman’s buddy Alan Moore, he would borrow John Constantine. Following the Hellblazer, Dream of the Endless would visit hell itself, peopled both by biblical Lucifer and DC’s own Etrigan the Demon. From hell the reader would go to a hell on earth — Arkham Asylum — to introduce the story’s ultimate foe: the Justice League supervillain Doctor Destiny. And just before the climax, we’d even get a quick kibbutz with Mister Miracle and the Martian Manhunter in the headquarters of the Justice League International.
As The Sandman’s success guaranteed its life beyond its first story arc, Gaiman only expanded his referential palette. He resurrected Swamp Thing character Matt Cable as Matthew the Raven. He revealed that Hector Hall’s Sandman was brought about by heretofore unknown actions of Morpheus the Dreamlord, as were a number of Shakespeare’s plays, characters of Greek myth and theater, elements of English folklore, movements in classic literature, and historical figures like Emperor Norton III. The series’ penultimate arc draws in Lyta Hall, daughter of Wonder Woman, and her dream-conceived baby, and also featured Lucifer Morningstar, Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the mythological Loki, and the Furies of ancient Greece.
In The Sandman, Gaiman created the Dreaming, a realm that contained every idea of which the human imagination is capable of conceiving. And, because to do otherwise would have been dishonest, his story treated all those ideas — religion, myth, folklore, theater, literature, superhero comics — as equally useful elements.
Ask a fan of Sandman about the series today, and they might say that what they like about it is the Old Gods Do New Jobs ideas, which Gaiman would expand upon for American Gods; the urban fantasy elements that would crop up in Neverwhere; the love of folklore evident again in Stardust; or the creepily inventive dream worlds full of nearly ineffable rules a la Coraline. All of them are right.
In Sandman, Gaiman creates a story about creation — creation of fiction, creation of self, creation of history — that is, if nothing else, about how creation is a continuous process fueled by all the fictions and selves we have access to at any moment. It was inevitable that The Sandman would also be a portrait of the young artist in the process of creating himself.