Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – the Endless depths, the epic reach

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

As Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman tv series premieres on Netflix, Matt Wingett reflects on the sprawling comic books containing Neil Gaiman’s modern-day myth cycle, and the deep roots of Neil’s mythic story-telling.

The Absolute Sandman Number 1
one of many entry points for the committed reader

When I first showed The Sandman trailer to a friend a few days ago, he shrugged and told me: “I’ve had it with superhero movies…”

“But it isn’t a superhero movie,” I shot back. “Don’t let the comic book format fool you. This is something far stranger and more wonderful.”

The Sandman, Number 1, first published Jan 10th 1989

Perhaps my friend’s confusion came from knowing there was a DC Comics crime-fighting Sandman in the 1940s who was part of the Justice Society of America… but, as I told my friend, this is not that Sandman.

Neil’s Sandman is The Sandman: the mysterious otherworldly being who leaves dust in the eyes of the newly awake. Neil’s Sandman is richer, deeper and in many, many ways far scarier than even the darkest of superheroes – or supervillains, come to that – though it’s true that both genres have shared roots in the myths and legends of distant and not-so-distant past.

Neil’s stories are born from the night monsters and daytime horrors whispered to children to keep them in check; from the instructive folk wisdom told by forest mothers to protect their wards; from the awe-filled wonder of ancient humans when they first contemplated the nature of death and dreams and destiny; from the shuddering terror felt when encountering the deeply uncanny, from the shamanic trance and the psychoactive delirium of the visionary – and from the despair born of attempts to shed light on the dread unknown.

Gods meet – Morpheus and Bast

It is from this branch of storytelling born of ancient fears and awe at a world-beyond-reason that Gaiman’s Sandman derives. Also known as Dream or Morpheus among other names, The Sandman is the God-King who presides over unbridled imagination-set-free – and whose presence is at times morally ambiguous.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle is not a conventional hero narrative. It is more a vast labyrinth chattering and rumbling with unknown yet half-familiar entities. Here, a human hero or superhero rising to a type of godhood is not the central business of the stories as per many other comics. Instead it is those eternal entities that were always gods, or who were always above and beyond the gods. Yes, human beings become embroiled in their business, but the focus is far different from the hero / superhero story.

Instead, what Neil Gaiman offers the explorer who enters his Sandman story-maze is a long walk through the myth-making potentials of the human psyche. It is a tour de force in different types and modes of storytelling, a journey through history, an epic collection of modern-made legends. It is deep and broad and profound.

The Sandman gives powerful insights into the human condition. It reawakens the superstitious dread that prehistoric humanity once felt at the uncanny nature of the real world and of imagination (which at the time were, and perhaps still are, the same thing). It speaks this truth loudly: the world we live in now is shaped not by rational people doing rational things, but by the creatures of the imagination who lurk in the shadowlands of fable and dream. Some are controlled by a reasoning mind, some wreak havoc in the world, unseen and unrecognised.

Not to overstate things (I hope) but what I found in The Sandman was an epic overview of humanity that I sometimes find in the great religious texts.

The Old Testament (that roughly patched-together mix of secret origin story, histories, supernatural horror, love poetry, tragedy, battles, laments and individual sufferings) is one comparison, though the myth cycle of The Old Testament has at its centre a bulldozing god-monoculture.

Other myth cycles and collections also find their echoes in The Sandman. The strange and wonderful Mabinogion, with its transformations and wild tales is one. The brooding beauty of the Kalevala with its epic of creation, the Greek myths, the Nordic sagas – echoes and memories of these story worlds swirl in the dark pages of Neil’s magical book.

Mythic family feuds are big in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman thus becomes a massive collection of different types of tale and writing, from fairytales in the style of the Arabian Nights, through revenge set-pieces, hero narratives, quests, whimsical alternative realities to much more beyond.

While the books include in early parts an eponymous god-hero on a quest to recover his lost helm and realm, it also includes ordinary people, their lives and deaths – sometimes pointless, sometimes heroic, sometimes tragic.

It’s when the focus shifts from the Endless and other supernatural entities to humanity that a central quality at the very heart of this collection of tales is revealed: compassion.

I admit when I first read The Sandman I did not know what to make of the taciturn Morpheus – a Robert Smith look-alike wandering the realm of the Unconscious delivering and managing the ever-shifting world of dreams. (And if that is not a metaphor for the author, then I don’t know what is.)

But as each story unfolded and took its own course, I was increasingly overawed by something else: by the massive God’s-eye-view of the author, and also by his fellow-feeling.

Stories are told of countless people mainstream society would have considered misfits when it was written: lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transexuals, black women seeking to make a living, a once-beautiful white woman inexplicably deformed, attendees at a sex party, travelling actors bewildered at why they are acting to a strange, fay audience.

Deeply human dilemmas play out in The Sandman

What is really noteworthy is this: rather than the caricatures the popular media at the time liked to make – screaming queens and diesel dykes, freaks and outsiders – in The Sandman, they are shown as exactly what they are: real people. There are homosexuals in loving, stable relationships, a lesbian couple muddling through dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, a transwoman rejected by her home community who (like Holly in Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side) “shaved her legs then he was a she” and moved to New York City, and so many others besides. This collection of tales is something far bigger than a comic book. Somehow, these dreams on the page reveal more about real life than the real life we see before our eyes.

From A Game of You in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

The Sandman is an extraordinary, sprawling work, of which it is possible, perhaps, to say: “All of humanity is here.”

Some of the stories are uncomfortable. Some are nasty. Some are the experiments of a young man learning his craft. Sometimes you get the feeling that Neil read something about a character from history (e.g: an ancient Roman emperor) and in order to internalise what he read, he thought he would simply do a story about it. Sometimes a moment of inspiration, perhaps waking in the night to realise the extraordinary otherness of cats was enough to fire off a whimsical tale – but there is an overall pattern in the stories – a flow to the eccentric byeways and dead-ends, to the loops and reprises of characters and ideas that is genuinely monumental.

Indeed, the leather-style black bindings of my books are no less than that. 3,000 pages of coloured paper – each black slab standing as the doorway to countless possibilities, to infinite worlds.

The Sandman is Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus. Had it been written 4000 years ago, Gaiman would be the visionary God-king of his own realm, adored by his worshippers who look on at him with that mixture of wonder and fear known as awe.

Or perhaps that isn’t then, but that’s what’s happening now.

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