Netflix’s The Sandman Explained: What Is the DC Comics Adaptation?

Between the long-running Arrowverse on The CW and HBO Max’s growing library of superhero shows, you might think there’s no room left for new series based on DC’s massive comic book library. You’d be wrong. Netflix is now tackling one of the most critically acclaimed DC titles of all time through its adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Thanks to Netflix’s Tudum event, we’ve finally gotten our first look at footage from the new series and seen Tom Sturridge as Morpheus for the first time. The sequence shown is a painstaking recreation from the original comic.

Only time will tell if Netflix can do justice to this dark, fantastical saga of dreaming mortals and all-powerful gods. For now, here’s everything you need to know about The Sandman and its comic book origins. These are the topics we cover here:

  • Netflix’s The Sandman Explained: The Basics
  • The Sandman: The Endless and Their Powers
  • DC’s Sandman Universe
  • The Sandman: The Road to Hollywood

Netflix’s The Sandman Explained: The Basics

The Sandman (not to be confused with the Spider-Man villain) revolves around a powerful entity known as Dream or Morpheus (though he has many other names, too). Morpheus is the living embodiment of dreams and a member of a family known as The Endless. Morpheus is nearly as old as existence itself, coming into being when the first lifeforms began dreaming, and he both draws strength from dreams and has the ability to shape them to his will. However, as Morpheus learns over the course of the series, even a being as ancient and powerful as he must learn how to change or face certain doom.

The Sandman is a series with ties to the DC Universe, particularly heroes like the Justice Society’s Wesley Dodds, John Constantine and Element Girl. However, Morpheus rarely concerns himself with the affairs of ordinary heroes and villains. Most of his battles involve mythological gods, supernatural creatures and even Lucifer Morningstar.

The Sandman also introduces a realm known as The Dreaming. The Dreaming is home to Morpheus’ castle and serves as the nexus of all dreamtime. This realm also plays home to characters like Morpheus’ librarian Lucien, his pet raven Matthew, groundskeeper Merv Pumpkinhead and brothers Cain and Abel, who live in the House of Mystery and House of Secrets, respectively.

As Morpheus learns over the course of the series, even a being as ancient and powerful as he must learn how to change or face certain doom.

The Sandman: The Endless and Their Powers

Dream is one of seven members of The Endless, each of whom embodies a different aspect of existence. The family also includes Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium. The Endless are immortal and predate nearly all lifeforms in the universe. They’re also among the most powerful beings in the DC Universe, especially inside their respective realms.

Art by Frank Quitely. (Image Credit: DC Comics)

As powerful and long-lived as they are, The Endless are hardly omnipotent. Each has certain limitations. Destiny, for example, is blind and permanently tethered to his book, which records all that ever was or will be. Morpheus can draw power from the dreams of mortals, but that doesn’t stop him from creating sigils and artifacts to amplify his powers.

The Endless can be captured or even killed, assuming their enemies are sufficiently clever and prepared. The very first issue of The Sandman opens with Morpheus being summoned by a cult and held captive for decades. Meanwhile, there have been two incarnations of Despair, and Delirium was once known as Delight before some unknown tragedy changed her forever.

The Endless can even abandon their duties and live among mortals. Death spends one day every century as a normal, human girl, and one of the major storylines in the series involves Dream and Delirium hunting for their missing brother, Destruction.

DC’s Sandman Universe

The original Sandman comic was created by writer Neil Gaiman (also well known for fantasy stories like American Gods, Coraline and Good Omens) and artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Keith. That series ran for 75 issues between 1989 and 1996,  and chronicles Morpheus’ journey as he escapes decades of confinement, tries to rebuild his kingdom in The Dreaming and faces the most difficult challenge of his long, long existence.

However, the Sandman saga extends far beyond that one series. Gaiman’s mythology for the series draws from various existing pieces of DC lore, including the two preexisting superheroes called Sandman, Wesley Dodds and Hector Hall. Other supporting characters like Destiny and warring brothers Cain and Abel also predate the Sandman saga by a number of years. Even Morpheus’ trusty raven Matthew is a reincarnated character from Saga of the Swamp Thing. In addition to referencing existing DC characters, The Sandman is notable for working in many characters from world mythology, religion and literature.

The Sandman has inspired numerous spinoffs since concluding in 1996. Some of these, like Sandman: The Dream Hunters and The Sandman: Overture focus directly on Morpheus, while his sister Death has starred in books like Death: The High Cost of Living. Other books like Lucifer and The Dreaming are direct spinoffs of the core Sandman series. The characters even occasionally appear in DC’s superhero titles, most recently in 2017’s Dark Nights: Metal.

More recently, DC published an entire imprint called “The Sandman Universe” aimed at continuing where the original series left off. This imprint was supervised by Gaiman and featured several interconnected books like The Dreaming, Lucifer, Books of Magic, House of Whispers and John Constantine: Hellblazer. One book even features a crossover between The Sandman and IDW Publishing’s Locke & Key.

The Sandman: The Road to Hollywood

The Netflix series is just the latest development in a decades-long struggle to adapt the series from comics to screen. Efforts date at least as far back as 1996, when Roger Avary was attached to direct and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wrote a screenplay based on the first two storylines from the comic, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House.” More recently, David Goyer became attached as producer alongside both Gaiman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with Jack Thorne writing the script. However, the movie adaptation stalled again in 2016 after Gordon-Levitt dropped out over creative differences and Eric Heisserer was hired to rewrite the script.

New Line also had plans to delve into the Sandman mythos with an adaptation of Death: The High Cost of Living. Gaiman wrote a screenplay in 2007 with the intention to direct. But for various reasons (including the 2007 WGA strike), that project also stalled out. Both projects are among the many DC movies that never came to be.

Instead, DC’s focus in recent years has shifted to a television adaptation. James Mangold first pitched a TV adaptation to HBO in 2010, and later Eric Kripke became attached to a potential adaptation at Fox. Now Netflix is the one to finally bring this adaptation to life. In June 2019 Netflix announced it had given a straight-to-series order for a Sandman adaptation. The first season will run 11 episodes and is executive produced by Gaiman and Goyer, with Allan Heinberg (co-writer of Wonder Woman) serving as showrunner.

The cast of The Sandman includes Tom Sturridge as Dream, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian, Charles Dance as Roderick Burgess, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Patton Oswalt as the voice of Matthew the Raven.

Audible debuted its own Sandman adaptation in 2020. This audio drama features the voices of James McAvoy as Dream, Kat Dennings as Death, Taron Egerton as John Constantine, Riz Ahmed as The Corinthian and Gaiman himself as the narrator. Gaiman revealed the Audible series is meant to be a more faithful adaptation of the comics, whereas the Netflix series will update the mythology for a 21st Century setting.

That being said, it’s clear from the first teaser trailer for the Netflix that the show will initially be a very direct adaptation. As Netflix’s own comparison video shows, the dialogue in these shots is almost identical to that in The Sandman #1:

Ironically, Netflix has also become the home to Lucifer, a series based on the Sandman spinoff comics that originally debuted on Fox in 2016. However, we’re not expecting the two shows to be connected, both because of rights issues and because Lucifer tends to downplay the more fantastical elements of the DC source material in favor of a police procedural approach. The Sandman will introduce its own version of Lucifer Morningstar. Similarly, Sandman’s presence on Netflix makes crossovers with other DC series on The CW or HBO Max unlikely.


Jesse is a mild-mannered writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.

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