Aug 4 2009 10:30am

Re-reading Sandman: An introduction

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.”

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an American editor of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a fan writer, essayist, blogger, teacher, and moderator.

Megan Messinger
1. thumbelinablues
Finally, you get extra points if when your epic starts, your main character is seriously pissed off.
Mênin! :-)
2. DemetriosX
I'd have to say that Prez is way, WAY less likely. At least the Theogony has some sort of internal consistency and makes sense within the belief system of its intended audience. Plus, it isn't tainted by any possible connection to Mike Curb.
Bill Siegel
3. ubxs113
always wanted to read Sandman but never got around to it. This will provide a great reason to start!
4. MSG
Awesome. I've been meaning to re-read Sandman for awhile now so I will definitely be following along.
5. jefff
I am a big fan of Mr. Gaiman. However, I only recently "discovered" that he wrote the Sandman series - embarassing! I just finished reading the first Sandman graphic novel and enjoyed it immensely.

I am looking forward to your insights.
Irene Gallo
6. Irene
I'm hurrying to finish reading Sandman now for the first time so I can re-read with ya'll. Can;t wait for this series. Thanks Teresa!
Alejandro Melchor
7. Al-X
I've been meaning to re-read something (despite my to-read pile is still looking at me accusingly), Sandman is a great idea! It will also remind me which of the novels I'm missing that I borrowed from someone and foolishly gave back :)
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
Fantastic selection for a re-read! What's the plan --- one issue per week? I'll be reading along.
Pablo Defendini
9. pablodefendini
Finally, an excuse to read through my Absolute editions all the way through, and not just pick out and oogle at my favourite stories on lazy Sunday afternoons. This is gonna be so much fun!
Rikka Cordin
10. Rikka
oh. dear gods. yes.

I have been waiting for a Sandman reread to come along ever since they started doing rereads on this site.

Thank you, Tor, for fueling my addictions.
David Goldfarb
11. David_Goldfarb
There's an aspect to Sandman that doesn't get talked about much in anything I've seen. It took me a long time to understand it, but now it seems obvious to me.

One key to it is set out in "Worlds' End", where travelers are telling stories under a circumstance that turns out to be directly linked to Morpheus. "There aren't any women in these stories," says Charlene Mooney. "...We're just pretty figures in the backround to be loved or lost or avoided or obeyed or...whatever."

The larger narrative of Sandman, by contrast, overflows with women. Look at who the protagonists of the story arcs are, other than Dream himself: Rose Walker, Barbie, Delirium, Lyta Hall. (And then there are Thessaly, Nuala, and Death.)

(Remainder enciphered in ROT13 for spoiler protection. To decipher, use rot13.com or other online tools.)

Zbecurhf unf n ahzore bs eryngvbafuvcf orsber uvf pncgvivgl, naq gurl nyy raq onqyl, cerpvfryl orpnhfr ur vf hanoyr gb gerng jbzra nf crbcyr. Ybbx ng ubj ur qrnyg jvgu Anqn: vg jnf nyy nobhg uvz, fur jnf whfg na bowrpg.

Nsgre uvf pncgvivgl ur punatrq (gubhtu sbe n ybat gvzr ur jnf va qravny nobhg gung), creuncf ersyrpgvat gur punatr va gur fgnghf bs jbzra va Jrfgrea fbpvrgl naq yvgrengher. Cebzcgrq ol Qrngu, ur fbhtug gb eryrnfr Anqn; ur gevrq n eryngvbafuvc jvgu n jbzna zber rzcbjrerq naq vaqrcraqrag; ur yvfgrarq gb Qryvevhz naq urycrq ure. ("Lbh'ir arire ncbybtvmrq gb zr. Lbh whfg npg yvxr lbh xabj fghss V qba'g xabj gung znxrf rirelguvat lbh qb bxnl.")

Hygvzngryl, ur pnzr va pbasyvpg jvgu na nepurglcr bs srznyr cbjre, naq tenqhny punatr cebirq vafhssvpvrag. Abguvat yrff guna qrngu naq erovegu fhssvprq.
Torie Atkinson
12. Torie
@ 11 David_Goldfarb

Not to be the spoiler police as this is a re-read, but can we try to avoid spoiling major plot points of the end of the series in the introductory post?
Bruce Baugh
13. BruceB
Oh, good, I'm looking forward to this.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
14. pnh
Spoiler problems aside, David Goldfarb does make an excellent point. I suspect TNH will either address or digress into this subject at some point.
David Goldfarb
15. David_Goldfarb
While I definitely tend towards the spoilerphobic side (as PNH can attest) I can't help thinking that a work which has been a hugely popular modern classic for more than a decade is not so much in need of protection.

That said, if some admin wanted to ROT13, say, the last paragraph, I wouldn't object.

I've had that mini-essay brewing inside for quite a while; this seemed like a good place to post it. (At that, I tried to keep it brief.) If it spoiled anything or even just bored anybody, then I apologize.
Brendon Roberts
16. saunterasmas
Oh good timing.

I'm rereading these at the moment and up to volume IV.

i'm also reading the "The Sandman Companion" alongside. I didn't even understand half the references on my original read.
zaphod beetlebrox
17. platypus rising
@ 11 David_Goldfarb

I've actually pointed a guy who has only recently rediscovered comics after 30 years to this introduction. And I don't think we should assume anyone who has heard about Sandman but has yet to read it knows anything of the plot. You could easily edit your essay and cut the spoilers.
Andrew Willett
18. AndrewWillett
Oh, this is going to be a gas. Re-reading Sandman is always a fine time, and I'm looking forward to getting our hands dirty as we take it apart. When do we start with the first issue?
Brian Koonce
19. nikkiro
I must respectfully disagree with the suggestion that the Endless were the children of Erebus and Nyx. They are the personifications of ideas and concepts, and as such their origins are never explained.
David Goldfarb
20. David_Goldfarb
You know, I actually didn't realize that you could edit your own comments...the "remember me" function has never worked properly, and usually when looking at things here I don't bother to log in. So, okay, I've taken the later portions and put them in ROT13.

I agree with nikkiro's disagreement: while Death and Sleep were children of Erebus and Night in Greek myth, I think the Endless are products of the universe and not anybody's children. Gaiman is playing with Greek myth but also casting a wider net. As I type this I'm sitting in an airport waiting for a (late) plane to take me to Anticipation; perhaps I'll get the chance to ask him about it.
21. neuroticninja
Fantastic set up to the re-reading of this much-loved title. I completely agree with your assessment that it is an epic as well. I am definitely bookmarking this page and may start re-reading my Sandman collection as well. Nothing quite like it.
22. skinnyiain

I think the major spoiler that Torie was talking about was the one in your second paragraph - where you mention an event that precedes the telling of tales in World's End. Maybe that sentence should be rot13d as well...
zaphod beetlebrox
23. platypus rising

I don't think it's necessary to ROT13 that much- what bugged me was the last part of the sentence beginning with One key to it is set out in "Worlds' End", . If you cut that and a similar comment towards the end for me the rest of the essay can remain uncrypted.
Torie Atkinson
24. Torie
@ 22 and @ 23

That's the one sentence I was referring to. I think Mr. Goldfarb's point is excellent and valid and doesn't require that one sentence, a huge spoiler, to make it. The rest is fine and doesn't need to be ROT-13.
David Goldfarb
26. David_Goldfarb
Oops. I forgot about that bit. Okay, I've rephrased...the new version makes the point less strongly but is also less of a spoiler.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
27. pnh
Coming soon on Tor.com: "Re-Reading David Goldfarb's Remarks about Sandman."
28. Jenny Creed
Yaay. Sandman is my favorite book, and Gaiman my favorite author. A nice way to discover this site I think.

You mention Erebus and Nyx as the parents of the Endless? An interesting idea. I've been wondering for a while who that voice in the catacombs under the Necropolis is and what "The First Circle" refers to. . . I'll be looking forward to see if you have any ideas.
Sam Kelly
29. Eithin
Sandman is doing roughly what Heinlein tried to do with his "World of Myth" concept in the later shelfbusters, but in much more detail and much more competently, and informed by decades of postmodernist theory as well as literary history beyond sci-fi.

One of the big questions it asks is not just whether the centre can hold, but whether centres - preeminent narratives, unbiased points of view - are meaningful ways to look at the world at all. "Gura jung qvrq? Jub ner lbh zbheavat?" "N chu-cbvag bs ivrj."

The first time I encountered Gaiman's work was when I picked up A Game of You in the library, and sat there for an hour and a half to finish it, then took it home to read all over again. Quests, magic, dreams, choice & self-determination...
Daniel Cole
30. zaldar
so is this going to happen or not...if so on what schedule..been a bit now and nothing has happened.
Stefan Raets
31. Stefan
Yes... I don't want to seem impatient, but well, I'm eager to get started with this. :)
Serge Mailloux
32. SergeBroom
I wonder.

Could "Sandman" happen today? I go to the comics store every week, but I find that there are less titles I'm interested in. When the scene is dominated by the depiction of huge breasts, and bymulti-title crossovers that don't change a darn thing, would anyone notice the Sandman or even his cute sister?
Liza .
33. aedifica
David Goldfarb @ 11 etc: Thanks for ROT13ing, I haven't read any of Sandman yet--just the "Death, the High Cost of Living" spinoff. I'm happy not to have been spoiled!
34. AliceBentley
Serge @ 32: Sandman was just as unlikely when it came out as it would be now. But at least if it came out now, it would have it's earlier incarnation to point to as a success.

There were plenty of shops that didn't carry the early issues - too far out of their target market - and only brought it in once demand was high. Then there were shops like mine, that enthusiastically embraced it as a way to introduce comics to book readers who would not have previously been interested.
Mary Dell
35. marydell
TNH @prime: YAY!!! This is going to rock.

David Goldfarb @11: Very interesting take on the series...I like it.

Serge @32: The stuff on the shelves was just as bad back then - that was the heydey of Rob Liefeld (http://progressiveboink.com/archive/robliefeld.html for a sampling of the worst) for example. If Sandman happened today it wouldn't be as big a change for the genre, since the genre currently reflects various changes wrought by Gaiman, but I think it would be a very hot seller.
36. kiptw
By a run-of-the-mill coincidence, I've been re-reading the Sandman volumes I have and contemplating having the rest. Lord knows what sort of effect this series of articles may have on my wallet.
Serge Mailloux
37. SergeBroom
AliceBentley@34... "...a way to introduce comics to book readers who would not have previously been interested..."

Back when "Sandman" had been coming out for maybe a couple of years, the fans in my hometown used to make faces at my enjoying comics. Then I brought up "Sandman", which made them realize that not all comics are about guys in metal underwear who spend most of their time beating the crap out of each other.
Serge Mailloux
38. SergeBroom
marydell @ 35...

Yeah, most of the stuff back then was less than impressive. But, at the same time, I seem to remember that there was more willingness among the mainstream comics publishers to try stuff that was different. Look at "Sandman" and DC's "Swamp Thing". Marvel had the Epic line, and they published "Moonshadow".

On the other hand, there ARE comics coming out today that are anything but run-of-the-mill. They may not be published by the big publishers, they may be hard to spot, but they are out there.

Which reminds me that I should probably re-read "Strange Girl".

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