This October finds Neil Gaiman returning to Sandman, the dreamscape series which made his name, with a prequel in tow. If you don’t have the time to make it through all 10 volumes, here’s ten issues you have to get under your belt before the Dream King’s story stretches further back into the past.
The early Sandman issues were all about Gaiman finding his voice and place within the DC world. Cameos by John Constantine and even Martian Manhunter weren’t that out of the ordinary when the series got its start. Gaiman established early on that Sandman’s voice would always be able to speak in different pitches. The series flits about like your own subconscious, strangely uniform yet always different. “24 Hours” was an early assurance Gaiman could get his characters to talk in the darkest tones available to human experience. If you’re going to write a story about dreams, you better know your way around nightmare. And this 24-hour time lapse shows an old-fashioned, friendly diner devolve into total nihilistic horror in a way that’s sure to unsettle even now in its provocation.
Politics rarely figured in Sandman because nothing crushes dreams quite like political corruption. “Thermidor” was perhaps the only place where Gaiman addressed a political dimension to dream and he does it by taking on the French Revolution. It’s an aptly chosen conflict given its birth in hopes and dreams and its eventual denigration into a nightmarish reality.
8. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” Issue #18
Gaiman’s story of anthropomorphic cats represents many of the key points he tried to get through in the entire series. It doesn’t require too much imagination to think cats may dream of a world where humans are their pets. But it typifies one of the main messages of the series: the world of dreams needs to be run by an able and wise master. Dreams are able to inspire hope and break down egos, perhaps the two most necessary yet neglected tasks this world needs to perform.
The best Sandman story arcs were always broken up by a stand alone story or two. Sometimes, like in Season of Mists or Preludes & Nocturnes, the stand alones were the most terrifying moments of the arc. But Gaiman also knew how to lighten the mood while still keeping his philosophical, story-driven senses in full gear. “Men of Good Fortune” introduced Hob Gadling, a recurring character whom Dream meets in the Renaissance and then guarantees eternal life. It’s useful having a character who never dies, as Hob’s appearances in later comics were always whimsical and thought-provoking.
Season of Mists is usually proclaimed the best Sandman story arc and its hard to come up with many valid reasons to debate the point. Lucifer quits ruling hell and gives the keys over to Dream, only to create a maelstrom of inquiry into the nature of punishment, authority, guilt and pain. Gaiman paints his Lucifer how Milton sketches Satan, as mischievously likable and brokenly ambitious. Sandman was never afraid to stare unadulterated evil in the face but Gaiman’s take on hell is more startling for its humanity than fearfulness.
Though there were two issues to follow, this was the chronological end of the series. Hob Gadling returns and is this time visited by Death, Dream’s sister. As Dream’s story drew to a close, Death’s role in it became even more prominent as a character and theme. Mortality figures strong as dreams struggle to survive. Hob is found at the crossroads between complete disillusionment with life and lack of desire to meet his demise. Ultimately, it’s a dream which enlivens his perception of reality and weakens his fear of death. For Sandman, this enlightenment happens often but never as poignantly as here.
Gaiman managed to bend the most ancient of myths to his own story’s will. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is as old, at least, as Ovid’s Metamorphoses but, in Sandman, it weaves itself around the lives of the Endless. The series’ exploration of mythology is often touted as one of its greatest strengths and here it is more explicit than ever.
The best issues of Sandman were an immersive aesthetic experience. “Ramadan” is an Arabic story through and through, right down to the lettering. The juxtaposition between the beautiful Baghdad of the past and the broken Baghdad of the present serves as an important signifier of what Sandman’s main point always was. Stories and dreams are more powerful than reality because they are immortal. This city of the past will never die because it’s immortalized and can grow taller in stature through tale telling.
Dream’s story really came to life when Death showed up. His sprightly sister stands out as many people’s favorite character and her first appearance is where the series first gets to the sublime level of storytelling it would end up maintaining until its final issue. Death is pictured from here to the end of the series as perhaps the most welcoming and kindly force in the series. It’s an interesting take on mortality and its a testament to the power of his series that Gaiman managed to make the most fearful of all enemies a little less terrifying by his depiction.
This issue won a World Fantasy Award and is often cited as the best of the series. Along with mythology and the occasional current event, Gaiman also managed to work Shakespeare himself around his own tale’s finger. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dream was the one to commission the Bard to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Why is this issue number one, not just on this list but so many others? It’s because here Gaiman manages to get all his readers to really believe. Dream had become such a powerful character that no one could really bat an eye when he subordinated Shakespeare to his will. Like in Shakespeare, like in myths, the immortal power of storytelling is what will make Sandman live on for a very long time.