Superfluous. That’s the word for it. How else to describe this Sandman review, two decades late and a mere sprinkle atop its high pile of awards and accolades? I obviously got into this game late, and might’ve stayed unenlightened for much longer if not for TJ. He started me off with Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman’s 2003 follow-up to the series, which features gorgeous art by Milo Manara (“What I’ve Tasted of Desire”) and Frank Quitely (“Endless Nights”). But apart from Desire’s story, nothing else gripped me in this collection, and I disliked the overdone portraits of Despair. Preludes and Nocturnes provides a much better read. By turns horrifying and intriguing, it introduces the dark world of Sandman through a retrieval quest that wraps up satisfyingly, despite a few rough patches that appear, at most, awkward amid a deftly handled overall arc.
It all goes uphill from there. Perhaps most obviously, Sandman is an adventure epic that draws heavily from existing mythologies. Gaiman dexterously constructs a world that supports, reinvents, and deconstructs other myths, some of them the average reader will never have even heard of—until now. We see Thor, gallant and heroic in the Marvel movie, drunk out of his mind and making not-so-subtle references to the size of his hammer. It’s all wildly entertaining, and surprisingly accurate. Even then, Gaiman was not afraid to take on grand scales, an impression I felt most strongly when Lucifer abandons his realm in Season of Mists. I remember staring at that two-page spread of Hell’s main gate and thinking, Holy, this is something else. And it is. Subsequent issues make certain of that. A Game of You marks a turning point in my reading not only because of Wanda, but also because of the subtlety with which Gaiman handles the volume’s themes. He could have easily described the Cuckoo as pure evil, but instead calls such moral demarcations into question: “She acts according to her nature. Is that evil?” By the end of that fifth volume, I stopped liking Sandman. I began to love it.
For all the adventure it provides, the most important conflicts in Sandman aren’t physical, but rather internal, emotional, existential. In The Doll’s House we see the solitary Morpheus striking up a once-a-century friendship with Hob Gadling, and in Dream Country we discover a moment of self-doubt in our usually assertive protagonist: “Have I done right, Titania? Have I done right?” Dream of the Endless is not human, but he is after all man-made (a trope dreamed into existence), and the few glimpses we are allowed into his unerringly humanlike core are made all the more poignant by their rarity. But it is not only Dream whose psyche we explore. Sandman provides us with a plethora of characters who come alive within the span of a few panels. Not least of these are the Endless, among whom Death is the most popular. The conversations between her and Dream comprise some of the most memorable in the series: a socially inept brother and his sensible older sister—who just happen to be incarnations of the universe’s most recurring echoes.
Brief Lives presents more of these fascinating characters, indeed portrays different sides of them; it’s a real family affair. There is just so much humanity in this, in my opinion the best of all the volumes. For the first time it is not external factors that drive the story, but the Endless themselves: Despair and Delirium, who long for the company of their brother; Dream, who denies change even as he undergoes it; Destruction, who has understood the brevity of all lives; Orpheus, whose only hope is to die. “Father? I wish that things had been otherwise.” It still makes me want to cry, remembering it. Intelligent, subtle and painfully human, Brief Lives showcases the best of Sandman. The adventure arc isn’t as well-defined as in Preludes and Nocturnes or Season of Mists, but here we delve into another kind of conflict altogether. Gaiman is preparing us for the ending.
From Volume VII onwards, it becomes apparent that Gaiman knows where he is taking us. The script included in Dream Country reveals him as a conscientious writer; still we are startled by his grasp of continuity, the way he refers to previous episodes and makes sense of them, long after we have moved past that point. The Kindly Ones, for example, forces Morpheus to consider the same choice that, at different times, plagued both Lucifer and Destruction: “Perhaps this is the ultimate freedom, eh? The freedom to leave…” All this looping back in time and theme gives Sandman the enviable quality of possessing an entire universe of stories, which Gaiman takes full advantage of this in his story collections. Fables and Reflections ranks as my favorite of the three. Bursting with myth and history, it demonstrates the sheer flexibility of the Sandman universe, the extent to which stories can be bent and altered, recast and retold, depending on one’s vantage point. The last story, “Ramadan,” is absolutely marvelous, but I am not unique in this opinion. Like everyone else, I adored the whole concept, of preferring to burn permanently in memory rather than flicker brightly for a while then fade into nothingness, into an Ozymandias-like obscurity. Of course, P. Craig Russell’s stunning artwork also makes the story a standout.
It is to my everlasting regret that I did not grow up a comic book fan. Watchmen I did read, but it is only upon perusing Sandman that I understood comics as a collaborative medium, dependent on its artists as much as on the writer. And the artists who worked on Sandman are truly brilliant. Several panels have lodged themselves in my memory—Morpheus feeding a flock of pigeons, flowers sprouting from Orpheus’ blood, Destruction under a sky of stars. I also appreciated the artistic risks they took, in the stylized outlines they employed in The Kindly Ones, in the calligraphy-inspired shapes and text of “Exiles.”
That story belongs to the tenth volume, the last of the Sandman series. After the emotional exhaustion demanded by The Kindly Ones, I just felt so empty, reading the testimonies in The Wake. But every so often I would come across a word or a phrase, and I would suddenly feel like crying, like I’m mourning the death of someone I knew. It’s not at all an eloquent way to put it, but—he just felt so real. They all did. I laughed at Merv’s antics, wept for Wanda, grieved for Fiddler’s Green. “Why?” we ask, despite ourselves. “Why?” Matthew asks, echoing our voice of unreason. Lucien, always the wise one, repeats the answer we already know: “Sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And, in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he could let himself change.”
I have read many Gaiman books. Most of them I have forgotten, save for a few gems—Coraline, The Graveyard Book. But it is only with Sandman that I stumbled again on the same magic I first encountered in Stardust, this time to an even greater degree. Here Gaiman does not simply weave a story, but puts together a wondrous world of characters, choices, possibilities. Which is why The Wake comes as a dreaded but inevitable thing; painful, but necessary. Closing that final book feels like ending a chapter in your life. A chapter in which you grow to be more human, find more fullness in life, make room for more sorrow in your soul. What do we say in the face of all these emotions? Even in this, Gaiman beats us to it. We remember the last page of A Game of You, in which Wanda’s death leaves nothing more to be said, nothing more to do except to move on. “And if there’s a moral there, I don’t know what it is,” Barbie says, “save maybe that we should take our goodbyes whenever we can. And that’s all.”
The Doll’s House
‘Love belongs to desire, and desire is always cruel.’
One night, enough of them dreamed. It did not take many of them. A thousand, perhaps. No more. They dreamed… And the next day, things changed.
‘The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted.’
‘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.’
Season of Mists
‘We do what we must. Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all.’
‘Innocence, once lost, can never be regained.’
‘I think Hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.’
A Game of You
His cloak was blowing in the wind like a patch of midnight, and his eyes glittered like twin stars.
‘I don’t think home’s a place anymore. I think it’s a state of mind.’
Fables and Reflections
‘It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt.’
‘You shouldn’t trust the storyteller; only trust the story.’
‘We write our names in the sand; and then the waves roll in and wash them away.’
‘You should have gone to her funeral to say goodbye… It is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.’
‘You can choose your friends, my love. You can’t choose your family.’
‘It’s the mystery that endures… A good mystery can last forever.’
‘It is unwise to summon what you cannot dismiss.’
Some things are too big to be seen; some emotions too huge to be felt.
‘There are things not in your book, [Destiny]. There are paths outside this garden. You would do well to remember that.’
‘I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence… They’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments.’
‘We do not always accomplish what we set out to do.’
There are just some places where the sky seems so much bigger.
The Kindly Ones
‘Don’t they ever learn?’ ‘They can’t. They’re part of the story, just as I am.’
‘It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.’
‘How many times can life hit you? When do the blows start to hurt? When do you just…stop?’
‘[Love] makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like “Maybe we should just be friends” or “How very perceptive” turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love.’
‘I used to think [death] was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay.’