A Life Lived In Dreams
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer Alasdair Stuart takes a look at Vertigo’s The Sandman‘s 30th anniversary…
The Sandman remains Neil Gaiman’s finest hour and this year, that finest hour turns 30. 30 Years is a long time to dream but The Sandman is a book unlike any other, even from the incredible run of Vertigo titles it formed part of.
The series, which began in 1988 and ran for ten initial volumes, follows Morpheus, also known as Dream. One of a group of siblings called The Endless. His siblings include Death, Destruction, Destiny, Delirium and Desire. All of them a family as dysfunctional as any you’ve seen. All of them a curious kind of immortal. All of them Endless.
That foundational idea, so simple and yet so deep, sets you up for an epic unlike anything else DC have ever produced. Dream loses everything, regains it, tracks down recalcitrant and escaped Dreams and Nightmares, visits another galaxy, continues to try and understand humanity and makes one of the few mistakes not even his people can survive. It’s intensely literary, literate and complex storytelling that waltzes gracefully along the line between fantasy and horror, sleep and wakefulness.
And best of all, it never once takes itself as seriously as its lead does.
Gaiman pulls the rug out from under you a couple of issues in by showing Dream to be just like us. He’s moody, impetuous, prone to operatic emotional bursts. He’s also a victim as the story begins; wounded and imprisoned for decades by an English occultist. The way he deals with that imprisonment is a blisteringly elegant piece of storytelling that first shows us Dream as fallible and then as something very far from human. In turn that tells us the most important thing the book can tell us; that this is a ride that changes style andtone constantly and we need to be paying attention.
So straight away Gaiman sets up this pushme/pullyou of Godlike power and terrible impulse control. Over that he layers an element of the alien that the series orbits increasingly closely. Dream is not human for all his imperfections. He’s callous, cold, uncaring. Dream sees us at our best and worst and he sculpts that even as it in turn sculpts him. The price we pay for that is bad dreams. The price he pays for that is, in the end, the ultimate one.
Then there’s the supporting cast that are slowly faded up around him. Matthew the raven, his trusty sidekick. Lucien, head librarian of a collection that bibliophiles would die for. The Corinthian with his quick wit and quicker blade and terrible, terrible eyes. And my favourite, Fiddler’s Green who is either a place, a man, a legend or all three. Along with Dream’s family and the various humans he encounters they establish the world as something that we all see at 3am. Recognisable, real and at the same just a little skewed.
This sort of foundation of character is rare in any form of storytelling but to have it matched to the constant invention that Gaiman, Dringenberg and co brought to the book is all but unprecedented. Even more so given the array of artistic talent that worked on the book over the years. Yoshitaka Amano, P. Craig Russell and JH Williams III are all recent additions to the club, with Williams III turning in career highlight work on Overture, the prelude volume. The core series saw consistently excellent work from Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Colleen Doran, Jill Thompson and many others. All brought something unique to the table and made the book the most diverse, interesting, oddest title on the Vertigo slate.
Others clearly agreed, given the series became a franchise of sorts. Lucifer, especially the Tom Ellis, LA Nightclub owning variety of the Morningstar, first appeared in the Sandman. Other spin offs include the Dead Boy Detectives whose unique brand of undead Famous Five-like sleuthing is as terrifying as it is perky. Gaiman returned to the world himself more than once, including the novella The Dream Hunters illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. Best of all, Dream, or rather a later version of him, would occasionally pop up in the mainstream DCU. Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s epochal JLA run features an especially lovely guest appearance by him.
But why is this the book that has continued to resonate for decades, it’s influence always expanding even as it obstinately refused to step off the page and onto the screen? Because unlike stablemates like Preacher, there’s no real TV or movie-friendly hook here. Dream is an immortal, inhuman master of an endlessly mercurial force. No wonder early versions of the always in development Hell movie script had him in costume, punching nightmares.
It’s interesting then that Gaiman himself has returned to the series. A couple of years ago, Overture was released. Essentially volume 0, it picks up on a passing reference in the series’ first issue to Dream returning from a battle. That battle is what makes him weak enough to be captured and leads to everything that follows. The end is the beginning. Dream logic once again.
Especially as now the book is all set to begin once again. The new range begins on August 8th with The Sandman Universe, a one-shot plotted by Gaiman and written by Nalo Hopkinson, Kat Howard, Si Spurrier and Dan Watters who then spin off into their own titles. Those include House of Whispers by Hopkinson and Dominike Stanton, the return of Books of Magic’s Tim Hunter by Kat Howard and Tom Fowler and The Dreaming’s own residents taking the stage for Si Spurrier Bilquis Evely. Most intriguingly perhaps, Dan Watters and Max and Sebastian Fiumara are producing a new Lucifer sees that sees Hell’s former lord hunted and in the wrong town, and body, at the wrong time.
I have no idea how the new books will shake out but I have high hopes. Not just because The Sandman is such an endlessly mutable property but because of the sheer calibre of the creators involved. After all, if you’re going to hire some professional Dreamers, hire the best. Morpheus would expect nothing less.
The new Sandman Universe starts on 8 August with a oneshot and then four new books following with Gaiman plotting the oneshot.