They say if you want to bore someone, tell them about your dreams.
But for Neil Gaiman, the world of dreams was everything to his hugely popular comic The Sandman, gaining a legion of fans since it began in 1989.
The Sandman follows Morpheus, the lord of dreams and one of the 7 members of The Endless – an eternal family who each embody an aspect of life and have existed since the universe began. They are, alliteratively, Dream, Death, Destiny, Despair, Desire, Delirium, and Destruction. The story begins with Morpheus escaping from a 70-year imprisonment and quickly trying to rebuild his kingdom of The Dreaming, that amorphous realm of the subconscious from which all our dreams come from, which has fallen into disrepair in his absence.
The idea for Sandman sprung from DC Comics editor Karen Berger offering Gaiman the opportunity to write an ongoing series during the British Invasion of comics. Gaiman had, at the time, only written a few comics, including shorts in 2000 AD and a Black Orchid miniseries for Berger. And while Sandman was originally decided on as a way to revive the Joe Simon/Jack Kirby ‘70s series of the same name, Gaiman’s idea was completely original.
Gaiman and a rotating cast of artists created a larger narrative arc about Morpheus’ growth as an individual, moving away from being a cold and distant lord to someone keely aware of his own shortcomings. But … I don’t want to talk about the main story of Sandman. While it may dictate the larger plot of the comic and bring about its poetic end at 76 issues, Sandman is about much more. Something a lot harder to nail down.
I know. Great basis for a video.
Sandman is one of the most praised and influential comic books of the modern era, but I’d be lying if I said I loved it all. Really, my level of enjoyment of Sandman is all over the place from arc to arc, with the first few arcs nearly making me drop the book entirely in my first readthrough. Sacrilege? Maybe. But I feel like Gaiman was still finding his voice and figuring out what he wanted to say with his series. The experience of reading Sandman is seeing a writer understand what his series is about.
Specifically, we see Sandman move from being a horror comic, one where flesh and bone are torn apart in the real world, to a fantasy focused on the nature of stories. Where dreams, tales, history, and hopes all blend together in an exploration of how we either change because of, or are destroyed by, our dreams, both literal and figurative.
While those first few arcs pushed me away, what brought me further into Sandman were the short stories. These one-off tales of dreamers in every sense of the word coming into contact with Morpheus and his realm.
These short stories illustrate the breadth and depth of the world of Sandman but were actually born out of a belief that the series would be cut short. Gaiman has confessed that he plotted out the first 8 issues and stopped because he figured the series would sell poorly and be cancelled, leading to 12 issues total being published. And to fill out those 12, he’d simply write 4 short stories. That, of course, didn’t happen. But therein lies the origin of Sandman’s short tales.
In total, there were 20 issues that told standalone stories disconnected from the main narrative of Morpheus throughout the entirety of Gaiman’s Sandman, give or take a few if you decide to include the supremely disturbing 24 Hour Diner or a few other less connected issues couched within a larger story arc, like the really bad Dead Boy Detectives one off. Each of these brings us into the life of a new character, each coming into contact with their dreams in some way and being changed in the process.
The characters that populate Sandman’s short stories encapsulate every type of hero. Everyman. Classical. Tragic. Anti. Byronic. And everything in between.
The universe seen in Sandman is filled with gods, mythology, religions, beliefs, historical figures, and relationships that are sometimes only hinted at. While some of these shorts will inform the larger narrative in retrospect, each can be enjoyed on its own.
An imprisoned muse giving life to an abuser’s stories. A fairy tale that meets family history. Marco Polo accidentally stranded in a Dreaming Soft Place. These are stories of stories giving meaning to life’s tragedies and victories.
And in the most narratively important short, “The Song of Orpheus” in The Sandman Special #1, Gaiman uses the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to cast a different light on both a well known story and Dream himself. The inescapable tragedy of this myth will ultimately bring about more tragedy. The story is inescapable. It has existed before us all and will outlast us.
Gaiman intends to show us that dreams in Sandman are created from a fabric of surreality and, in doing so, equates them with the storytelling process.
As we go further into the book, we find that the process of creating dreams takes effort, like construction. The Dreaming is a place that is constantly in flux, both due to magically appearing and disappearing aspects, but also because of its physical labor. We see that monotony through supporting characters like Mervyn Pumpkinhead. A pumpkin-headed janitor who talks like a stereotypical New Yorker and has no time for the silly, romantic notions of story. He just does his job. And really, that’s what telling good stories takes – hard work, time and effort. You can romanticize the notion of fantasy all you want, but no good story simply appeared on its own.
Then again, dreams do.
How someone chooses to classify the meaning of their dreams – random memories, nonsense, visions – often comes down to their worldview. But dreams are the byproduct of our subconscious forming abstract narratives that only make sense in the moment.
“None of us exist in a world that is the same world that any of the rest of us live in,” said Gaiman in a Fresh Air interview around the time of Sandman Overture’s publication. “The world that’s important is the world behind each of our eyes, which is something that none of the rest of us can access.”
And here lies the fantasy of Sandman.
The dreams and dreamers of Sandman exist within a wider world of shared subconsciousness. And there’s something both comforting and terrifying to know that the stories we experience when we’re asleep aren’t just confined to our own heads.
The dreams of Sandman exist within a larger social consciousness and in this idea of dreaming we can take comfort in knowing we’re not alone. But if we see the dreams of Sandman as metaphors for the act of creating and sharing stories, we see how the act of partaking in stories, even at different times and locations, is to understand each other. And in telling each other stories, we can connect these unique worlds that live in each of us. Which is why for someone like me, who rarely if ever remembers their dreams, but is obsessed with the nature of story, The Sandman becomes more compelling the further it pushes into metanarrative.
In his 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” Marshall McLuhan described comic books as “a world of inclusive gesture and dramatic posture.” In this, he defined comics as a cool media, requiring readers to actively engage in their storytelling to fill in the blanks. As opposed to film, a hot media that allows us to passively participate through simply viewing.
“The modern comics strip and comic book provide very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in space, of an object,” said McLuhan. “The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines.”
In Sandman, we are both storyteller and audience. The active readers of a cool media giving it the heat necessary to function and the passive receptor ingesting stories of all forms.
Each of these short stories speak to their readers in different ways. The terrifying, the comforting, and the haunting. No two readers’ experience of a text as wide-ranging as The Sandman will be quite the same. And is likely why I began to love all of Sandman as a whole when I drew near its tragic end.
Stories create a knowable order and satisfying conclusion to the random chaos of life. They create a literal narrative thread for us to hold onto in the storm of our lives.
In their novel “Supergods,” fellow comic writer Grant Morrison writes, “Writers and artists build by hand little worlds that they hope might effect change in real minds, in the real world where stories are read. A story can make us cry and laugh, break our hearts, or make us angry enough to change the world.”
One of the great things about the short stories of Sandman is that Gaiman and company make us keenly aware that we are experiencing a story, with these shorts sometimes even having a story told by the people within said story. The result is the pleasure of experiencing story and being keenly aware of its facets.
There’s no arc that greater personifies this than the 6-part World’s End, which sees travellers from across time and reality stranded at the titular inn during a Reality Storm. To pass the time, each guest tells a story about something that happened to them or someone they know. Often, these stories contain more stories being told. The act pushes the reader deeper and deeper into fiction only to pull them back out level by level.
Stories are dreams. Enjoying a story is to allow someone else to invite you into their dream and believe its reality.
Everything in Sandman is a dream. Dreams both literal and metaphorical.
“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”
Stories allow us to envision a path for our lives that we will never, or can never, take for ourselves. To exert control over reality itself and shape it to our will. With a story, we can teach ourselves lessons we’re often too stubborn to learn. Achieve victories too weak to win. Find romance too dull to live out.
Which is to say, “Without dreams, there could be no despair.”
“Sandman was fundamentally designed around a pun. Or if not a pun, it was always designed around the fact that the word dream has more than one meaning,” said Gaiman. “And there are dreams in the things that we close our eyes at night and go mad and experience. And then there are dreams as in hopes and aspirations, and dreams as in the stories that we tell ourselves that make sense of the world.”
As a fantasy writer, many of Gaiman’s stories center around people getting whisked away by fantastical worlds they thought were fictional. A city under London. A divided faerie world. Gods that live because of our belief. Gaiman’s fantasies often pull from ancient myths either well known or forgotten that spring to life and consume the protagonist. Often, the heroes of Gaiman’s stories succeed because they give themselves over to the story. The story itself is more powerful than any living being. And whether it’s scary or funny or tragic, it works out right in the end.
To pull from another of Sandman’s single issues, The Hunt,
The protagonists of Sandman’s shorts are all propelled by a dream. A cat who wants to rule the world. A man who believes he’s the emperor of the U.S. The only good president of the United States – sadly, in an alternate reality. A woman seeking freedom and adventure on the high seas. These characters have hopes and desires and all stand in contrast to Morpheus himself – whose Greek name literally means “the maker of shapes.” In Sandman, those shapes are dreams. But as a member of the Endless, Dream has no dreams. He simply is. And as he is, he is subject to the unavoidable rules that state his being.
As revealed by long-lost brother Destruction, The Endless are ideas and repeating motifs who embody the elements of life. Destruction has chosen to not be Destruction anymore, but destruction continues in the world. Likewise, when Dream was imprisoned, dreams continued, just in a more haphazard way. Yet Dream must always be Dream. The story dictates it.
Morpheus himself is a stern, unknowable, unchanging figure. This of course is the impetus of Sandman’s tragedy, but it also means that The Sandman is the calm center at the eye of the hurricane of dreams that blows about the many characters that come in and out of this narrative.
And it’s in two dueling storytellers that we see Gaiman the author reflected.
Morpheus is clearly meant to look somewhat like Gaiman, as well as Robert Smith of The Cure. And as the ultimate author of all the stories found in Sandman, he shares an omniscient perspective with Gaiman. Destiny may know the fates of everyone with his book, but Destiny is a reader. Dream is the creator.
The other storyteller is William Shakespeare. Yes, that’s a pretty big boast for someone to make. “I’m just like Shakespeare, you know!” But Shakespeare, who appears in three of these standalone stories – “Men of Good Fortune,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “The Tempest,” which closes out Sandman, is a reflection of what Gaiman found himself dealing with at the time of the comic’s publication.
Shakespeare’s dream is to be talented enough to inspire the dreams of others and in doing so live beyond the end of his own life. He strikes a bargain with Morpheus to write him 2 plays based on fantasies. In return, he is able to create great stories.
“Writing ‘Sandman’ for me was the most intense period of my life because the fictional characters were more real to me , as anything else that was happening,” said Gaiman. “I was spending more time with them than I was with my own family.”
In reflecting on his life as a playwright in The Tempest, Shakespeare confesses,
“It always felt like the price of being a writer,” said Gaiman, “was that you would even in the most terrible moments there was a little phantom version of you sitting on your shoulder with a notebook going ‘I could use this.’”
These are dreams overtaking real life. The same as the desire to have our lives fit into the knowable constraints of a story. There are no 3 acts in life. Some of us are given 10. Some barely reach 1. You simply get a lifetime. No more. No less. Yet as a living breathing person, Shakespeare still experiences a life of choices and dreams that Morpheus himself never could. In Sandman’s final issue, our Lord of Stories reveals to Shakespeare and the reader why he needed the playwright to craft The Tempest for him.
Unlike Prospero of The Tempest, Morpheus can never renounce his duties.
Coming to the end of this video, I realize that I’ve really said nothing about what actually happens in these stories. This hasn’t been an explanation of what Sandman is, or a power ranking, or the so-called “complete story” of Neil Gaiman’s work, as is what seems to clog the plumbing of so-called ComicTube these days. But a video detailing the story of a story about stories so that viewers wouldn’t have to read that story seems like the opposite of what Morpheus’ tale means. Or the point of any story really.
Trying to explain the meaning and importance of your dream to someone else is a lot like making a YouTube video about a comic book. You can point out all the metaphors, craft, and significance you want, but it might be lost on someone else who hasn’t experienced it for themselves.
And maybe that explains not only the beauty and frustration of making this video, but also of reading Sandman. Which stories speak to you are really the same as which dreams stay with you.
But to connect with a story is to see the same dreams and hopes and worlds housed within you reflected within someone else. And to experience that brief, endless beauty of understanding the world. Even if you forget it when you wake up.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
- The Tempest
Additional Footage: Salvation – https://vimeo.com/224205444
13 – Men of Good Fortune
17 – Calliope
18 – A Dream of a Thousand Cats
19 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
20 – Facade
29 – Thermidor
30 – August
31 – Three Septembers and a January
38 – The Hunt
39 – Soft Places
40 – The Parliament of Rooks
50 – Ramadan
Sandman Special #1 – The Song of Orpheus
Vertigo Preview #1 –
51 – A Tale of Two Cities
52 – Cluracan’s Tale
53 – Hob’s Leviathan
54 – The Golden Boy
55 – Cerements
56 – World’s End
74 – Exiles
75 – The Tempest