How Neil Gaiman & Sandman Transformed the DC Universe Into Literary Fiction

With The Sandman, Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, Sam Keith, Dave McKean and their numerous creative collaborators created one of most revolutionary and important comics ever written. Its rich story is filled with magic and wonder, yet grounded in reality.

It follows Dream of the Endless, an immortal being whose power dwarfs even those of the gods but who is burdened by an unyielding code of conduct. The story defies genre, weaving together elements of speculative fiction, comedy, history and even road trip stories in an intricate narrative tapestry. On top of that, The Sandman is entrenched firmly within the DC Universe, and it — more than any other comic — transformed mainstream comics into a form of highbrow literary fiction.

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In a 2006 interview with Talks at Google, Gaiman discussed this shift in perspective as he recounted meeting an editor with the Daily Telegraph while attending an exclusive literary party early in his career. Upon learning that Gaiman wrote comics, the editor looked horrified but tried to mask this with some polite questions. Gaiman listed his work, including Sandman, at which point the editor responded “Hang on! You’re Neil Gaiman. My dear fellow, you don’t write comics. You write graphic novels.”

The distinction is subtle but important. Comics have historically been dismissed as lowbrow entertainment. The term “graphic novel” is often applied to comics that address more serious subjects, despite it being a superficial distinction (and misuse of the term). Gaiman acknowledges his success is in part because Sandman‘s monthly issues were among the early comics to be collected in single volumes, making them easier to read. But they were collected specifically because he imbued the sensationalist elements of mainstream comics with philosophical and introspective emotional narratives.

The Sandman was hardly the first mainstream superhero comic to do this. In 1983, DC hired writer Alan Moore to script Saga of the Swamp Thing, a horror comic about a sentient plant monster. The young writer used floral prose and tackled heavy subjects, harnessing genre conventions to explore real-world horrors like spousal abuse and the legacy of plantation slavery. Throughout the 80s, DC editor Karen Berger hired other young writers from the UK whose unique perspectives reshaped American comics, resulting in a period called the “British Invasion.

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This laid the groundwork for Sandman. Berger hired Gaiman while he was still finding his voice and worked with him on a number of pitches before they settled on an idea they both liked. The comic took its name from an old 1930s vigilante who fought criminals with sleeping gas. However, Gaiman did not resurrect this obscure character. Instead, “The Sandman” referred to Dream, the King of Dreams, one of seven immortal beings called the Endless who personify metaphysical concepts. This maximalist series covers so many subjects that it can be difficult to summarize, so its protagonist makes for a good starting point.

In the first Sandman trade paperback, Preludes & Nocturnes, Gaiman describes his first concept of Dream: “A man, young, pale, and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell…deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes: Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”

This haunting gothic character draws inspiration from Japanese art and Greek myths about the god Morpheus far more than his vigilante namesake. He rules over the Dreaming, a magic realm of personified ideas where sleeping mortals travel. But he also inspires the metaphorical dreams of artists, storytellers, and other visionaries. As such, Sandman includes not just other comic characters, but historical figures like William Shakespeare and Emperor Augustus, simultaneously grounding the narrative in history and myth. Of course, Gaiman never hesitated to draw from mainstream comics. Even his versions of the Biblical Cain and Abel were based on their cartoonish depiction in older horror comics, but this syncretic approach actually adds to the work’s literary prestige.

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Its stories can take place anywhere or any time, be it a small-town American diner, a 14th Century English tavern, or the pits of Hell. Sandman‘s Lucifer looks like David Bowie and glibly quotes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. William Shakespeare is introduced as a morose amateur playwright. Other memorable characters include a young trans woman making a life in New York, a woman who has stopped dreaming entirely, and a pumpkin-headed janitor.

While Gaiman’s style is still unpolished in early issues, the major turning point is issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings.” Dream meets with his sister Death, depicted as a manic pixie goth girl enamored with Mary Poppins. The two catch up while feeding the pigeons in New York’s Washington Square Park and then run some errands together (ie., collect souls of the recently departed) but this story is so rich and filled with emotion that one cannot help but fall in love with it.

A number of factors led to the popularity of Sandman, including the collection of its monthly issues as easy-to-read trade paperbacks. It also built upon the British Invasion’s successes. But it is a masterpiece in its own right, blending genres, experimenting with story structures, and featuring absolutely magnificent prose and character writing. The series is among the great works of English literature.

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