Sometime in the 1980s, DC comics decided to grow up. Innocent, righteous, brightly-coloured spandex-clad superheroes started to make way for lead characters who thrived best in the shades of gray, and comics were not just for adolescents anymore. Action sequences peppered generously with “bang!” “boom!” and “ka-pow!” were replaced by infinitely darker, grittier, complicated comic books which were now brimming with sex, pain, and violence.
Debuting in November 1988, The Sandman Series is an integral is a part of this comic book revolution. Written by Neil Gaiman with art by Sam keith initially, the series ran to 75 issues and had multiple collaborators, one of the most prominent among them being artist Mike Dringenberg. Sandman was one of the original works that heralded the rise of DC’s Vertigo imprint in 1993, aimed at grown-ups.
Genre-bending riot of creativity
Sandman is not easy to explain. And this is because it is not about any one thing alone, it is not one story or genre. It was, and it remains, a dark, fantastical, fearless genre-bending riot of creative storytelling that spoke to both hardcore comic book lovers and also those who were new to the format.
Sandman, the titular character, is the lord of dreams, Morpheus, who rules over the realm of dreams and sleep. When he is introduced to us in the volume Preludes and Nocturnes, he has been imprisoned for decades, his objects and symbols of power lost, and his realm, the world of dreaming, driven into complete chaos. He makes his way through the many realms of the dead and the living – travelling through reality, consciousness, and time to retrieve what is his, and we get a first glimpse into Gaiman’s powers of dark whimsy and fantastical imagination.
Making regular appearances are Morpheus, aka Dream, are his six siblings – Despair, Destruction, Delight/Delirium, Desire, Destiny and, most popularly, Death. They, as well as the varied characters whom Sandman meets on his journeys, accompany him as he wades through the past, the future, and the dreaming and the real world.
With these characters we travel through time and space, creating stories about dreams and dreaming about stories that infiltrate the reality of those who become part of Morpheus’s turbulent adventures. For dreams here are not just the visions we see when we’re asleep – they constitute our hopes, desires and fears, the dark corners of our brains and the diminishing light that guides us home. In Gaiman’s Sandman, dreams can, and always do, change the course of the characters’ lives as visions get brutally or beautifully entwined with the real and the here and now.
The difficulties of adaptation
So, whether it is Shakespeare who strikes a deal with Morpheus, or Lucifer, looking a bit like a troubled 1980s rock star, quits hell and hands over the reins to Dream, the series is full of strong, powerfully written characters who make frequent appearances in the many volumes.
And this is what makes the newly announced Netflix adaptation of Sandman such a wonderful treat to look forward to. Gaiman is no stranger to successful screen adaptations, with movies like Stardust and Coraline, and mega TV productions like American Gods and Good Omens, all based on books he had authored (and, in one case, co-authored). As executive producer on the two shows, he has helped update the material to the current times, and also kept the vision as intact as possible.
There have however been many failed attempts to adapt Sandman to screen – once in the 1990s, with Roger Avary, and more recently in 2013 with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Each time, the task of translating the epic graphic novel to screen has proven to be much too ambitious. And the elements that make it so still remain intact.
Sandman isn’t linear storytelling, it is fluid and inconclusive as dreams often are, and rich with literature, myths, histories, and legends. It is populated with characters old and new, gorgeous and devious. It has gods, demons, dragons, anthropomorphic ravens and cats, witches, magicians, centaurs, Greek warriors, artists, actors, Cain and Abel and Eve and Adam, scarecrows, children – dreamers, all of them! Translating this epic vivid pantheon to screen is no small task. It does help though, that the volume Preludes and Nocturnes is being adapted into a TV show rather than being packed into a single movie – which gives the creators more room and time to play with the material at hand.
Sandman is also rich in language. The comic book is full of literary references and stunning dialogue punctuating the captivating artwork – it really remains to be seen how this will be treated on screen. One of the most unique qualities of the multiple volumes is that different artists have worked on Gaiman’s scripts, each one imagining Morpheus and the dreaming in their own way. How will it all come together in a video series with one distinctive voice, look, and treatment? Could it be an animated series then – borrowing as much as possible from the rich source material and creating something that is new and also absolutely timeless.
Sandman works endlessly as a brilliant comic book and whatever becomes of the much-much-awaited Netflix series, we can always go back to the print version because, you know, the book is always better.