The Sandman was a monthly comic book written by Neil Gaiman, published in 75 issues of 32 pages apiece, from 1989 to 1996. It’s now in print as a series of graphic albums. Wikipedia and other easily found sources can tell you about all the awards and notice and praise it’s gotten, the collected editions in which it’s been republished, the artists who’ve given it visual form, et cetera and so forth; so I’m going to skip those bits.
Sandman is one of those landmark works of imagination that reshape our genre. It’s a story about stories and how they work, but it never feels tiresomely metafictional, or like reading it might be good for you. Its complex structure owes a good bit to works like The One Thousand and One Nights and Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, where one story is a frame for another story, which itself is a frame for a third, which may or may not loop around and reconnect with the main storyline anytime soon. It is nevertheless fitted neatly and painlessly into the very complicated DC Comics continuity, where it does no harm and ties up a lot of loose ends. And you don’t need to know one bit of that in order to enjoy reading it.
The book follows the adventures of Dream of the Endless, also called Morpheus or the Sandman. The other Endless, his siblings, are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium, the offspring of Erebus and Nyx.* Morpheus is the ruler of the Dreaming, and all who are passing through it. If your pantheon has a god of sleep or dreams, he’s that guy. He’s also called the Prince of Stories, and “he to whom Allah has given dominion over that which is not and was not and shall never be.” This fits. Like dreams, stories are mutable but not arbitrary, and though unreal may nevertheless be true.
Dream defines reality in the same way that his sister Death defines life. He’s the ruler of the realm of unreal things. Stories belong to him. Like dreams, they’re mutable but not arbitrary, and though unreal may be equally true or false. They shift, they morph and mutate; and yet when they change, something remains. It’s that thing we’re talking about when we ask whether there’s any difference between a story and the words in which it’s told.
I have a theory about what else is going on in Sandman. I believe it’s meant to be an epic.
That word gets kicked around a lot—epic movie, epic fantasy, epic whatever—but real epics are a literary form. There’s even a set of specs for them. They’re long, and are written in a high style. They have to start in medias res, in the middle of the action, and fill in the backstory using flashbacks. The chronology can be elastic, but the setting in which all this takes place must be enormous. It may include heaven, but it pretty much has to include hell.
The hero, who may have divine or supernatural ancestry, must be almost but not quite invulnerable, have failings as well as virtues, and undertake a task no one else can manage. His weapons must be distinctive, and may, like him, be of supernatural origin. He’s optionally allowed a band of followers—a comitatus, or what we’d now call a personal staff.
A muse must be invoked. Gods and superheroes must interfere in human affairs. There must be journeys, quests, adventures, religious observances, and one-on-one combats with worthy opponents; and these various events must form an organic whole where each part is related to the central theme, and the whole shows us the hero’s world in microcosm.
There must be formal speeches, boasts and flyting, epithets, titles, patronymics (or these days, matronymics), epic similes, prophecies, omens, and a journey to the underworld. The narrative must digress to talk about genealogies, the lives of the gods, and the histories of significant objects; likewise to recapitulate other stories you might not normally think would come into it.
Finally, you get extra points if when your epic starts, your main character is seriously pissed off.
Next installment: Issue #1, “The Sleep of the Just.”
* To quote my husband, “Sandman is a work that manages to bestow coolness on both Hesiod’s Theogony and Prez, and it’s hard to say which of those was less likely.”