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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’: Dream a Little Dream of … Dream?

Sandman1Article by Kari Maaren.

Neil Gaiman has been popping into view quite a lot recently. His twisted children’s tale Coraline is making it to the big screen this Friday; in the last few years, he has published another children’s novel, The Graveyard Book (2008), seen his book Stardust become a film (2007), co-written the screenplays for the a recent film adaptation of Beowulf (2007) and the original film MirrorMask (2005), and brought out Anansi Boys (2005), the more-or-less sequel to American Gods. Everything is, in fact, coming up Gaiman.

It is therefore – especially in light of his current involvement with film – kind of interesting to travel back a couple of decades and take a look at a work of his that many consider unfilmable. Between 1989 and 1996, Gaiman, in conjunction with numerous artists, brought out the 75-issue comic series The Sandman, which was later published as ten trade paperbacks. Anyone who doesn’t quite believe that Neil Gaiman’s imagination is considerably larger than the whole world should consider giving The Sandman a try. Even people who are incurably suspicious of the comics form may find something rewarding in this intricate, tangled story about stories.

Sandman involves many interwoven plots, but at root, it follows seven siblings, the Endless, who are anthropomorphic personifications effectively created by the collective unconscious. Blind Destiny knows but will not move to prevent the paths of events; Death, bucking stereotype, is a quirky, optimistic Goth girl who loves Mary Poppins; Dream (the Sandman of the title) rules the imagination, while the androgynous Desire enslaves it and Desire’s twin Despair watches it die; Delirium (once Delight) makes a strange sense out of her own madness. The seventh sibling, Destruction, has abandoned his post. The story centres on Dream, who throughout the story becomes unwittingly subject to each of his siblings in turn. Though the comics start off in an Sandman2episodic manner, they gradually solidify into what is almost a classical tragedy as Dream confronts the great oxymoron of his own personality: his seeming inability, as the patron of the unreal and the imagined, to change.

The idea of the rigidity of the human imagination, its resistance to real change and adherence to familiar rules and patterns even in the face of its own destruction, is the hub around which the many subplots of The Sandman revolve. Dream embodies this rigidity, while all around him the stories ebb and flow, constantly shifting and constantly remaining the same. Much of the interest of the work lies in the stubborn, somewhat naive Dream, whose mastery of the world of dream  and nightmare is made more complex by his own bizarre lack of imagination. Dream’s talents take him into the imaginations of others, but he himself often seems unable to dream, and this inability leads him inexorably towards the breaking point: the moment at which he has to change if he wants to keep existing. The question of whether or not he can change becomes the crux of the later books in the series.

While Dream is the story’s unmoving core, the supporting characters weave themselves around him in an intricate dance of horror and romance, mythology and history. Several of them start off as comic relief before being swept up in the frame tragedy; in fact, in many respects, The Sandman is quite a funny series. The cartoonish brothers Cain and Abel act out their own base tale over and over again as Cain continually kills off Abel in various inventive ways; medieval commoner Hob Gadling rashly declares that he refuses to die and finds himself living on indefinitely (though he stops for a drink with Dream once a century); the Norse thunder-god Thor turns up at Dream’s palace as part of a delegation, gets drunk, hits on everyone in sight, and suffers through a god-sized hangover the next morning. Even when the tragedy begins to take Sandman3hold, the humour remains (a highlight is perhaps the perpetually dotty Delirium’s meandering farewell to her soon-to-be-dead nephew in the seventh volume, Brief Lives). Dream’s rigidity allows the stories and their characters to move freely. A multitude of elements flow together in a sea of change held in place, oddly, by permanence.

The many different artists of the Sandman series actually help cement this impression. From volume to volume and sometimes from issue to issue, the styles shift, occasionally radically. Dream appears in some stories in almost photorealistic form and in others stylised, angular, unreal. The crucial volume The Kindly Ones uses mainly a flat, jagged style that becomes almost Picasso-like at times as reality frays around the characters and Dream’s carefully constructed world slowly and inevitably collapses. Brief Lives, which precedes it and which features Delirium in a prominent role, echoes her constantly shifting nature with delicate images that occasionally seem mere sketches, on the verge of falling apart and blowing away. In the meantime, the stories–eventually swept up into one story–hold the art styles together, providing them, again, with an unmoving core around which to weave themselves. Dream’s realm of story once more shows itself imbued with both permanence and change.

If Neil Gaiman ever opens up his twisted mind to public viewing, I expect I’ll buy a ticket. A trip through the pages of The Sandman is probably the next best thing.

The Sandman series is published by Titan Books, both as individual volumes or as a boxset, ISBN: 978-1845763565.

(Sharon Robinson will be reviewing Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – The Graphic Novel on Vulpes Libris tomorrow.)

9 comments on “Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’: Dream a Little Dream of … Dream?

  1. Jackie
    February 4, 2009

    What a nicely done review on books that must be inherently difficult to encapsulate. I like how a lot of attention was paid to the type of art used & how it varied, plus a really good overview of the plot lines. How very original they sound. But I was also interested in how they harked back to ancient stories and the specifics of character. While I think the books are too scary for a wimp like me, I have been curious about the author, so this review was the next best thing to reading him. Thanks!

  2. Kari
    February 4, 2009

    Hey, Jackie…one of the real problems with these books is that it’s almost impossible to encapsulate the plot. I gave you hints of some of the plot lines, but there are many more. Outlining the whole series would probably take about a year. Curse you, Neil Gaiman, and your crazy, crazy imagination.

    Gaiman does use a lot of nightmarish imagery in his work, but The Sandman is not straight horror. It sort of starts off as horror fantasy (with some humour thrown in), then moves further towards fairy tales, finally sliding into mythology with the story of Dream’s tragic relationship with his son Orpheus (here the child of Dream/Morpheus rather than Apollo). Horror elements continue throughout, but the scary bits, which are not so overwhelming after the first couple of volumes, are worth bulling through to get to the rich story material later on.

    By the way, I was amused to see the review tagged as “Fiction: children’s.” The Sandman is not actually a children’s book at all. Just as an example, the second volume features a serial killers’ conference in which the methods of some of the participants are described and illustrated in lavish detail. No…perhaps not so much for children.

  3. Jackie
    February 4, 2009

    I took that label off, Kari, so it didn’t mislead anyone, probably just an accident that box got checked. It definitely doesn’t sound like something for little kids to read. Eeek!
    Gaiman’s imagination must really be strange & convoluted to come up with such stories. It’s good that he has a harmless outlet for them or we might be reading about him for a completely different reason. lol

  4. clom
    February 4, 2009

    a great place to start is the standalone “short stories” like fables and reflections or worlds end (which features one of the most gobsmackingly, heartbreakingly wonderful images i have ever seen in a book before).

    although reading them in sequence is also a great idea.

    there is also a rendering of the young world in F&R with the “endless” represented as tiny childrens characters that also makes me well up just thinking about it.

    i personally have problems with Gaiman’s way with dialogue, and the sandman is no exception, it feels a bit forced, but the manner in which his stories inhabit the reader is something that gives the guy a pass every time.

    it’s proper, serious, adult mythological saga and should be required reading for anyone who is interested in storytelling.

  5. Moira
    February 4, 2009

    I ticked ‘Children’s Fiction’ as a category? Good grief.

    You can definitely put that down to a twitchy finger in too much of a hurry …

    Oh my. 😯

  6. rosyb
    February 4, 2009

    Really enjoyed this, Kari. I am a little mystified by what you describe but I’m interested in the unusualness of this and also the way it works with the imagery. I keep hearing Gaiman’s name everywhere but have never read any. I think that is something I must change.

  7. Jackie
    February 5, 2009

    Knowing how you feel about children, Moira, I wonder if that wasn’t a Freudian slip? 😉

  8. Kari
    February 5, 2009

    Rosy: Sorry about the mystification. I was sitting there last night trying to come up with some sort of actual short plot encapsulation, and I just couldn’t do it. I kept going, “It begins with a magician trying to imprison Death and ending up with Dream instead, leading to decades in which…no, that’s too hard to explain. How about…This is the story of seven anthropomorphic personifications and all sorts of other people as well, mortal and immortal, including William Shakespeare…no, that’s just stupid. How about…” Finally, I decided that “a story about stories” was about as specific as I would be able to get.

    Clom: I love the stand-alone stories as well. One of my favourite is the tale of Hob Gadling, which is actually buried in the middle of The Doll’s House; the way in which Hob steadfastly refuses to learn the moral lesson that seems to be trying desperately to attract his attention throughout is emblematic of the way the whole series tends to buck narrative expectations while drawing on familiar narrative patterns, and the story itself acts as a beautiful encapsulation of the theme of change and permanence. I hear what you’re saying about the dialogue, but it’s never bothered me, for some reason; I actually rather like it. I guess I see it less as “forced” than as “slightly removed from reality.”

  9. clom
    February 6, 2009

    That’s a much fairer way of looking at it. In fact, Gaiman’s dialogue doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve just taken up the cudgel on behalf of the missus who found Neverwhere really frustrating! She can be so cruel!

    Gaiman has just won the Newbury medal which is the US version of the Carnegie with his “The Graveyard Book”. I got it for my 12 year old nephew this year for Christmas and he loved it.

    I love the story of Prez in Sandman. There were a lot of bizarre narrative resonancies in the recent US election and that story!

    The strength of the Sandman lies in the way he parcels stories within stories.

    (Dons library hat) Those curious about giving Sandman a whirl will be able to get them in their library!!

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2009 by in Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: young adult, Special Features and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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