Approximately eleven months ago, when DC’s New 52 releases were still to arrive on shelves and the Marvel line had halted somewhat in the run-up to Avengers vs. X-Men, I was perusing the local comic haunt’s shelves and found this curious little series called The Sandman. Penned by Neil Gaiman, it was not completely unknown to me. I knew vaguely it had something to do with David Bowie and it had won a lot of awards, consistently referenced as one of those magnum opus works as a highlight of a writer’s career. Since disposable income was more plentiful back then, when my plans didn’t involve saving for an apartment, I picked up the first volume on a whim – coincidentally, around the same time I first picked up The Walking Dead. While that one turned out to be awesome for being a stark, depressing odyssey into the depths of the human soul during a zombie apocalypse set to last for at least the next decade, The Sandman expressed its unparalleled brilliance by going in the other direction.
I would be very hard pressed to do justice to Sandman‘s plot in a few brief sentences, but essentially it’s the tale of Dream of the Endless, one of a septumvirate of ancient beings who have guarded the universe for untold eons as personifications of emotional and existential aspects. Dream, captured by a human wizard as the story opens, starts off as a self-centered, vain, set-in-his-ways entity who slowly learns, through joy and tragedy, what it means to exist and how that existence can touch, and be touched by, those around him.
Yeah, that really is selling it short, but it’s difficult to put down in words what Sandman is ultimately about. It’s one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime reading experiences where it transcends the medium it occupies and presents you with a thought-provoking, utterly unique tale. It’s an amalgam of fairy tales (without all that Once Upon A Time crap), Grimm stories (without the contemporised detective and horrible acting) and Shakespearean influence (without the tedious dialogue that puts me to sleep whenever I read Antony and Cleopatra), meshing together into a moving, flowing narrative far beyond any other, graphic or literary, that I’ve ever experienced.
TvTropes states that Sandman is able to tell any story through any medium, and it really can. It’s got this wonderful ability to pull in varieties of genres – crime, supernatural, romance, drama, comedy, even a bit of sci-fi here and there – and merge them near-seamlessly together into Dream’s series-long narrative arc. While it can seem a bit juxtaposed at times, especially early on when DC characters like Martian Manhunter and Constantine make appearances, it all works in the end.
I’m going to sound gushy throughout this review, since that’s how The Sandman has left me – emotional. It’s such a powerfully-evocative work, through its deft character development and layered but still coherent plot. It’s a story that really gets to you, and not just through the tragedy of Dream as he moves from selfish to self-aware. You really start to care about the other characters, in a way most graphic narratives have to really work to achieve but which Sandman pulls off effortlessly. You’ll feel sad when Rose Walker’s grandmother reminisces about her stolen past in Volume 2. You’ll laugh whenever Mervyn Pumpkinhead vents how frustrating Dream is to right-hand man Lucien, while Dream stands behind him staring disapprovingly. You’ll probably cry, as I did, during the story’s final – and extremely masterful – arc.
And upon its conclusion, you may be left, as I was, with a peculiar sensation. You know when you finish something at a place like, say for instance, high school, with friends who, over the course of a long period of time, you grow deeply attached to. You’ve spent so long with these people, learning them inside and out, moving through triumph and despair and reaching the conclusion of your time together. Once it’s all over, it leaves you with a longing that is different to wanting more from something because it let you down. It’s a longing far apart from that of a desire for the story to continue, however ill-advised such a move would be. It’s not even a longing of missing the people entirely, because experience has shown me that if you work at it, it’s really not that difficult to make the effort to see high school friends if you really want to.
It’s the longing of absent friends, of truly missing these characters, and missing the uniqueness of the particular experience you had with them. It’s what I felt when I read The Sandman‘s final page, and while it was one of the most poignant, appropriate endings for any story I’ve ever read, it left me missing everybody in a way that, despite the fact I can always re-read the story whenever I want to, I will probably feel every time I think about them. Of the Endless themselves – Dream’s stoic poses, Death’s perky, upbeat nature, Destruction’s warrior poet roots, Delirium’s fun and crazy warped persona – and the side-characters – Mervyn Pumpkinhead’s wise-ass remarks, Lucien’s cultured and mannered librarian predilections, Cain and Abel’s constant immortal sibling rivalry – I would miss them all. So much so that I wept for a while after I finished the final volume. We’d reached the conclusion, and while we’d still see each other again it wouldn’t be in the same, special way we had first met.
It sounds really strange and schmaltzy, I know, but the whole experience of reading The Sandman has had an effect on me that no other comic book I’ve ever read – including the Caped Crusader himself – has had before, or possibly ever will. It’s become a part of my graphic library, no doubt, but it’s now become an intrinsic part of how I think about things. Like how Doctor Who made me question mirrors, motes of dust and perception filters, so too has Sandman made me think more about what lies beyond this brief, mortal existence. If I had to choose an afterlife where I could be truly happy and relish the experience, where I could find enough enigma and stimulation to keep me busy for eons as a non-corporeal life-form, I’d choose Sandman‘s. Just send me to The Dreaming, and I’ll never look back.
Sorry, this has all gotten horribly self-indulgent and ridiculously subjective, but that’s the kind of book The Sandman is. It’s not any one genre, or any one interpretation, or any one story – Gaiman himself, in the epilogue of Volume 10, describes it as “a story about stories” (and of course, that’s a summation that does far greater justice than mine did earlier). That’s exactly what it is. It’s a unique, singular narrative experience that cannot be trapped or analysed under any single definition. Well, perhaps except one – it is, truly and utterly, brilliant.
I’m not giving it a score, because it really defies any kind of scoring for me. Like my Top 5, Sandman is way too close to my heart to give an objective number to. All I can say is that there are few comics I could recommend that come close to the level of praise I sing for The Sandman, and nothing I could suggest to you to read could cap the sweet symphony that is, in my opinion, Neil Gaiman’s greatest accomplishment. Go find the books, shell out the cash for the remastered editions, and just read. Even if you’re not a graphic novel fan, it is well worth your time to check it out.
The Sandman is beautiful, marvelous, evocative, provocative, depressing, spectacular, saddening, hilarious, enlightening, moving, multi-faceted and just damn good.
Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Volume 2: The Doll’s House
Volume 3: Dream Country
Volume 4: Season of Mists
Volume 5: A Game of You
Volume 6: Fables and Recollections
Volume 7: Brief Lives
Volume 8: World’s End
Volume 9: The Kindly Ones
Volume 10: The Wake
BEST QUOTE (way too many to list, but if I had to pick one…): “I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing. I am the Universe – all things encompassing, all life embracing. I am hope.” – Dream of the Endless