The Sandman (DC Comics Modern Age)

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Cover of The Sandman #1, by Dave McKean.

The Sandman was a comic book series, written by Neil Gaiman and published by DC Comics from 1988 until 1996, becoming the flagship of DC's Vertigo imprint, and kept in print as a series of ten graphic novels. It is widely considered one of the most original, sophisticated and artistically ambitious comic book series of the modern age. By the time the series concluded, it had made significant contributions to the artistic maturity of comic books and had become a pop culture phenomenon in its own right.

The protagonist of Sandman is Dream of the Endless, the immortal anthropomorphic personification of dreams and storytelling. He is known by an array of names, most often Morpheus, but also Oneiros, Lord Shaper, the Prince of Stories, and, very occasionally, "the Sandman". He is one of a family of seven siblings known as the Endless, all of whom personify some conscious experience: the others being Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium and their missing brother, whose name is initially not revealed.

Gaiman has summarized the story of the series as “The king of dreams learns one must change or die and then makes his decision.” The character's haughty, often cruel manner in the stories set in the past is somewhat softened by his years of imprisonment: but how far can a being as old as the universe change? An important theme of the series is that of rules and responsibilities: whether imposed from without or self-imposed, are we slaves to our obligations, or can we lay them down and walk away?

Most storylines took place between the Dreaming, Morpheus's realm, and the waking world, with visits to other domains such as Hell, Faerie, Asgard, and the realms of the other Endless. Many used the contemporary United States of America as a backdrop. (The DC Universe was the official backdrop of the series but well-known DC characters and places were rarely featured after 1990). However, Gaiman occasionally told stories involving Morpheus and his family set throughout world history.

Unlike most US comic books, The Sandman existed almost completely outside the superhero genre. The first third of the series somewhat conformed to the horror genre, but it later bloomed into an elaborate fantasy series, incorporating elements of classical and contemporary mythology.

Also unlike most comic books, The Sandman did not feature a regular illustrator. Instead different artists were hired for the duration of a storyline, or for a single issue. Aside from co-creator Sam Kieth, artists who illustrated a significant number of issues include Colleen Doran, Mike Dringenberg, Marc Hempel, Kelley Jones, Jill Thompson and Michael Zulli. Their styles ranged from cartoony expressionism (Hempel) to detailed, delicate realism with a hint of the Pre-Raphaelites (Zulli).

Each issue featured a cover created by Dave McKean. McKean’s approach combined painting, photography, pencil and ink drawings, collage, digital art, found objects and even sculpture, resulting in distinctive, often abstract or surreal, images.



The Sandman was first published as a 75-issue comic book series with one special edition. Issues were more or less published monthly and most were 32 pages.

Since its conclusion, The Sandman has been published in a series of ten collected editions, which have never been out of print. They are as follows:

Preludes and Nocturnes

(collects Sandman #1-8, 1988-1989)

In the first issue of Sandman, Roderick Burgess, a British magician, captures Morpheus with a magic spell in 1916. Burgess keeps him naked in a glass bowl, agreeing to release him only in exchange for immortality. Morpheus is stubborn and silent. After Burgess’ death, his son Alexander becomes Morpheus’ captor. In 1988, Alexander accidentally breaks the magic circles encasing Morpheus. Morpheus is freed and punishes Burgess by trapping him in an everlasting nightmare.

In the next few issues, Morpheus tracks down magic tools that were taken from him upon his capture. The stories in this book conform more to the genre of horror than any other book in the series. The story "Twenty Four Hours" is particularly disturbing. Preludes and Nocturnes utilizes previously existing DC characters more than any other volume. It features appearances by popular DC figures, such as John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter. Several characters revived for this volume, such as Cain and Abel and Lucien, would become fixtures in the series and be regarded primarily as Sandman characters.

Sandman #8 introduced Morpheus’ older sister Death, an attractive young goth girl very different from traditional personifications of death, who would become one of the series’ most popular characters.

The Doll's House

(collects Sandman #9-16, 1989-1990)

Morpheus tracks down several nightmares who fled his realm during his imprisonment and also deals with a “dream vortex” that exists within a young American woman named Rose Walker. Morpheus knows that Walker, as the "dream vortex" will draw all the stray nightmares towards herself, or be drawn towards them, and decideds to use the vortex to track down his errant creations. Eventually Walker will become the center of the Dreaming and cause it to collapse upon itself; and Morpheus considers killing her to prevent this from happening.

A previous, short-lived Sandman series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the mid 1970s is referenced in this volume. Simon and Kirby's Sandman was an otherwise unnamed hero who operated out of a place called the "Dream Dome," and was assisted by two grotesque "nightmare monsters" named Brute and Glob. Although Simon and Kirby's Sandman does not appear in Gaiman's story, several other elements of the series are referenced, including the Dream Dome (revealed to be a small and neglected corner of the Dreaming) and Brute and Glob. Simon and Kirby's Sandman has been replaced by Hector Hall, who had previously been a member of the superhero team Infinity, Inc. under the name Silver Scarab. Hall, who had been killed several months previously in Infinity, Inc., and his still-living wife, Lyta (a.k.a. Fury), have become puppets of Brute and Glob, who are revealed as two nightmares formerly under Morpheus's employ, and who have recently sought refuge in the dreams of Rose’s younger brother, Jed. Morpheus returns Hector to the realm of the dead, and claims Lyta’s unborn child as his property because the child was gestated in dreams. This story will have a significant effect on the series’s concluding chapters. Another issue features a convention for serial killers.

This volume also introduces Hob Gadling, a 14th century ex-soldier who has decided to be immortal because "death's a mug's game" (either that, or Dream and Death are listening and decide to give him what he wants), as well as the family feud between Dream and his androgynous sibling Desire.

Dream Country

(collects Sandman #17-20, 1990)

This volume contains four independent stories. Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, chronicles Morpheus’ creative partnership with William Shakespeare and was the first and only comic book to win a World Fantasy Award. One of the stories deal with the dreams of a cat! Neil Gaiman exploits the mysterious ways of the feline kind to weave a magical tale of horror and fantasy.

Season of Mists

(collects Sandman #21-28, 1990-1991)

Dream travels to Hell to free a former lover he condemned there thousands of years ago. He finds Hell empty and Lucifer preparing to abandon the realm. He gives Dream the key to Hell. Afterwards, several deities from various religions travel to The Dreaming to bargain for the key. The high point of this story is the characterization it imparts to the Sandman. It shows a more human side of the hero, who makes mistakes and is reluctant to own up to them, of a person battling his own ego to do what is right. This collection marks the point where Gaiman all but gave up the horror genre for more sophisticated fantasy.

A Game of You

(collects Sandman #32-37, 1991-1992)

Barbie, a New York divorcee (originally a minor character in The Doll's House), travels to the magical realm that she once inhabited in her dreams. Among the ten collections, this volume is perhaps the least connected to the others. It is about gender, identity, and childhood fantasies, and introduces Thessaly, a millennia-old witch who is important in later stories.

Fables and Reflections

(collects Sandman #29-31, 38-40, 50, and Sandman Special #1, 1991, 1992, 1993)

This volume is a collection of stories set throughout world history. Sandman #29-31 and 50 were originally published under the banner “Distant Mirrors” and deal with kings and rulers. Sandman #38-40 were originally published under the banner “Convergences” and were inspired by fairy tales. The Sandman Special #1 assimilated the myth of Orpheus into the Sandman mythos.

Brief Lives

(collects Sandman #41-49, 1992-1993)

Morpheus’ loopy kid sister Delirium convinces him to help her search for their missing brother Destruction, a quest that results in tragedy for many of those who assist them. Eventually, Morpheus turns to his son Orpheus to learn Destruction’s whereabouts. In exchange for this knowledge, Morpheus grants his son the mercy of death, an act that will lead to Morpheus’ undoing. Many fans consider Brief Lives the best Sandman storyline.

World's End

(collects Sandman #51-56, 1993)

A “reality storm” strands travelers from across the cosmos at the “World’s End Inn.” To pass the time, they exchange stories. This volume was inspired by Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Kindly Ones

(collects Sandman #57-69, 1994 - 1995)

The longest and most complex Sandman story arc, The Kindly Ones, was meant to mirror a Greek tragedy. After killing Orpheus, Morpheus becomes prey to The Furies, avenging spirits who kill those who spill family blood. They (or possibly Dream) employ the tricksters Loki and Puck to kidnap Lyta Hall’s son, Daniel. Thinking Morpheus is to blame, Lyta seeks out the Furies and joins them in a quest to murder Morpheus. They rampage through the Dreaming, killing several of its inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Morpheus orders his servants Matthew and The Corinthian to rescue Daniel.

Morpheus considers various ways to repel the Furies, but to save the Dreaming from further damage he agrees to let his sister Death take him to her realm. Afterwards, Daniel materializes into an adult and becomes the new King of Dreams.

The Wake

(collects Sandman #70-75, 1995-1996)

In Sandman #70-72, characters from throughout the series converge in the Dreaming to mourn the loss of Morpheus as Daniel adjusts to his new role. The final three issues are stand-alone stories. Sandman #75 concludes the story of Morpheus’ partnership with William Shakespeare.

Other Books and Series

Because of the amount of critical acclaim Sandman received and because of its commercial viability (at the time of its conclusion, it was DC’s best-selling series), a number of spin-off volumes have been produced. Fans disagree about the quality and legitimacy of these volumes but it is generally agreed that those written by Gaiman are the best. Here is a list of the more important ones:

  • Death: The High Cost of Living (1993), a three-issue, Gaiman-penned mini-series starring Morpheus’ older sister
  • Death: The Time of Your Life (1996): another three-issue, Gaiman-penned mini-series, also featuring supporting characters from A Game of You.
  • The Sandman Book of Dreams (1996), a collection of prose short stories featuring the world of The Sandman in some way. It contains work from some notable contributors, among them Caitlin R. Kiernan, Tad Williams, Gene Wolfe, Tori Amos and Colin Greenland. Publisher DC Comics allegedly imposed restrictive terms on contributing authors, leading to a few authors withdrawing their stories.
  • The Dreaming (1996 - 2001), a monthly series set in Morpheus’ realm but featuring none of the Endless. It was written and illustrated by a variety of writers and artists; Caitlin R. Kiernan wrote the largest number of scripts for the series.
  • The Sandman Presents (1999-2001): a series of miniseries by various authors and illustrators featuring secondary characters from The Sandman, such as The Corinthian and The Furies.
  • Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999): a prose novel that incorporates a so-called Japanese folk tale into the Sandman mythos, written by Gaiman and featured illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. It is not actually based on any exisiting Japanese folklore, but rather incorporates elements of Chinese and Japanese folklore and mythology.
  • The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender (2000), a non-fiction work providing extra information about the series. Its first section discusses the ten Sandman collections sequentially, analysing their meaning, explaining some of Gaiman's myriad references and sometimes providing information on the writing of the comics. It also features a lengthy interview about the series with Gaiman himself.
  • The Little Endless Storybook (2001), a one-shot comic book which depicts The Endless as toddlers and follows a tiny Delirium as she attempts to find her dog Barnabus, written and illustrated by Jill Thompson
  • Lucifer (2001 - present): a monthly series written by Mike Carey continuing the story of Lucifer’s retirement.
  • Sandman: Endless Nights (2003): a graphic novel with one story for each of the Endless. They are set throughout history but two take place after the final events of the monthly series. It was written by Gaiman and featured several illustrators.
  • Death: At Death’s Door (2004): a manga-style graphic novel, written and illustrated by Jill Thompson, showcasing Death’s activities during Season of Mists. This may be part of a series of manga novels starring Death.


The Sandman was one of the most widely respected comic book series of its time, both within the comic book industry and the general literary world. A few years prior to Sandman, works such as Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Maus by Art Spiegelman conferred a new respectability on comics, but no unlimited series has ever gained as much acclaim as Sandman. This helped prove comic books could be a legitimate art form within the format comic books were usually published, as series with no preset number of issues.

The Sandman also demonstrated that a comic book series does not have to be a superhero series to be successful. Along with Alan Moore’s stint on Swamp Thing, Sandman helped establish the genre of "sophisticated suspense," a genre which is meant for older readers, includes elements of horror and fantasy, and tackles controversial topics. In 1993, the success of Sandman inspired DC comics to launch the Vertigo imprint, which specialized in this genre and published some of the most acclaimed series of the 1990s including Preacher and Animal Man.

The Sandman also strengthened the importance of the writer in comic books. Before Sandman, writers were often overshadowed by superstar artists such as Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee. Gaiman became one of the most popular comic book creators of the era (launching his career as a novelist) and DC did not dare to continue The Sandman after he felt the series had come to a suitable conclusion. Most often popular, corporate-owned comic book series continue long after the original creators have left (which is several decades in many cases).

In addition to its impact on comic books, The Sandman became a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. The series was mentioned in songs by Tori Amos, Alice Cooper and others, Sandman posters can be seen in the background of the sitcom Roseanne, and Extreme Championship Wrestling star Raven is fond of wearing Sandman T-shirts. Dave Sim parodied the characters (Dream became "Swoon", Death "Snuff" and so on) in his Cerebus the Aardvark. Sam Kieth also parodied the character Death and Sandman fans in his comic, The Maxx.

Because of its dark, often macabre style and pale-skinned characters, Sandman has become very popular within the goth subculture.

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