The Sandman is a story about stories. Begun in 1989 and finished in 1996, it is one of British author Neil Gaiman’s very first works. Nevertheless, it already contains most of his beloved themes like the importance of stories and archetypes (American Gods) or the absurdity of the struggle between Heaven and Hell (Good Omens). Like other authors of the so-called British Invasion (Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, just to mention the most famous ones) the voice of Gaiman stands out for the complex narratives and the lyrical language. The Sandman is a tribute to storytelling and gives a new voice to old myths and legends.

The classicism meets the post-modern

The main characters,the Eternals, are abstract ideas incarnated in human-like bodies and flawed as much as mankind. The author represents them mixing classical features with modern traits, frequently reversing common stereotypes. Dream or Sandman, the protagonist, is the embodiment of dreams and also the Morpheus of Greek mythology. And yet, he is all but dreamy, as he is depicted as an arrogant, serious guy who often inspires fear. His sister Death, instead, is a gracious lady, always cheerful. She even visits every person at the moment of their birth. A stark contrast to the banality of the Grim Reaper. And, moreover, why not? Why can’t Death try to be as least scary as possible? To be a companion who guides souls on their scariest journey?

The other members of this dysfunctional family – Destiny, Destruction, Delirium, and the twins Desire and Despair – are just as peculiar. Delirium, for example, looks like a red-haired, goggle-eyed girl with fish floating around her. In a somewhat bizarre and incomprehensible way, she still possesses wisdom.

Sandman Stories
Image courtesy of Panini Comics SANDMAN © 1989 NEIL GAIMAN/DC COMICS
TM & © 2020 DC. All rights reserved.

The comic plays with the concepts of the old brought back to the new. The reader will find Calliope locked in the closet of a writer who takes advantage of her sexually, for inspiration. Lucifer who, tired of being a pawn in God’s game, renounces his kingdom to open a club in Los Angeles. A premise that will inspire the Lucifer comic and the famous TV series.

Sandman and the value of telling stories

According to Gaiman, storytelling is a powerful instrument, almost like a magic some people are able to cast. Throughout The Sandman, the reader will find numbers of characters charming others in the act of telling a story. Using lots of different narrators, the author plays with genres and citations. An old Swahili voice tells the legend of Morpheus’ first love during a rite of passage. A sultan tells of when he met the god of dreams in a chapter that seems to come out of the One Thousand and One Nights. Even a cat has her own story, which she shares with her companions traveling around the world.

But Gaiman’s usage of literary and mythological references probably finds its apexes in the World’s End arc. A Chaucerian story where various travelers struck by a storm finds themselves seeking asylum at a strange inn. Inside there, the reader will meet very different creatures: centaurs, fairies, living deads. Each of them is allowed to rest, eat and drink. In return, they just have to tell a story. As Stephen King says in his introduction to the volume:

It is a classic format, but in several of them, there are stories within the stories. Like eggs within eggs, or, more properly, nested Chinese boxes.

Fables among us

Stories, fables, and mythologies mix in the story and become a visual proof of the Jungian concept of archetype. For example, the Moirae, the gods who intertwined the threads of mortal lives, merges with the Eumenides and the witches of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Sandman Stories
Image courtesy of Panini Comics SANDMAN © 1989 NEIL GAIMAN/DC COMICS
TM & © 2020 DC. All rights reserved.

The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon himself will have to deal with the protagonist. In fact, it will be discovered that it was Dream that gave Shakespeare the inspiration. Commissioning him in exchange for two works: The Tempest and, of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Work that the playwright finds himself representing in front of the “real” Puck, Oberon, Titania, and all the fairies. The result is an exquisitely Shakespearean game of mirrors, in which fiction merges with reality.

In a seemingly endless tangle of tales, branching out from everywhere, The Sandman makes the reader understand the importance of stories, dreams, and dreamers. Because without someone who can imagine that things are different, all that remains is a boring reality.

Seventeen years after the conclusion, Neil Gaiman returned to this world with the prequel/sequel The Sandman: Overture. In 2020 Audible produced an audio book adaptation and Netflix is currently working on a series that should be aired by 2021.