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Dreaming 101: The Beginner’s Guide to the Sandman Comics by Neil Gaiman

Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.

The Sandman
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  • Photo Credit: DC Comics

In 1988, Neil Gaiman wanted to bring several characters from DC Comics' 1974–76 series The Sandman into the first issue of his limited series, Black Orchid. The characters never ended up making it into the miniseries, mainly because they ended up in a different series; but Gaiman drafted a proposal to revive the old Sandman series anyway, and pitched it to DC editors. 

To his surprise, the pitch was accepted, with one catch: Gaiman could keep the name, but had to create an entirely new Sandman character. 

The following year, the new series launched, and proved to be ground-breaking. Gaiman brought more mythology into the character and the series than the typical superhero construct, while also managing to weave continuity with the previous two Sandman storylines. The story spans more than its titular figure, introducing us to complex narratives with interesting characters. 

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It was one of the first graphic novel series to make the New York Times Best Seller list, continues to top “Best Of” lists, has won numerous awards, and has influenced both the graphic novel industry and the fantasy genre in general.

The series ran for 75 issues between 1989 to 1996. It’s been published in multiple editions, has inspired several spin-offs, was recently adapted into an audiobook, and is currently in development as a Netflix Original

If you’re new to Gaiman's mythological world, or want a refresher, we’ve compiled everything newcomers need to know about the Sandman comics. 

What is Sandman about?

When Gaiman first came up with his version of the Sandman, he created Dream, a young, pale man with strange eyes and dark hair. Dream goes by many other names throughout the series, depending on which character he encounters. Considering he’s one of the Endless—a group of ancient and powerful beings who have existed since the dawn of time—it makes sense that he would have accumulated a number of identities. More on that in a bit.

The story begins in 1916, when a group of black magic occultists attempt to master resurrection and gain immortality. Their goal is to capture Death, ensuring that no one ever dies again. Instead, they capture Dream, and while they recognize he is one of the Endless, they are only sure he isn’t Death. Afraid of retribution, they trap him inside a crystal dome and unwittingly create a sleeping sickness epidemic around the world.

Over the years, various members of this group learn they have captured Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. They attempt to get him to call Death, but Dream refuses, biding his time. The years make his captors careless, and eventually Morpheus escapes. He punishes his captors and manages to return to Dreamland, where he discovers all that has gone wrong while he’s been captive.

The first part of the series follows Dream as he attempts to gain control of the Dreaming world along with recovering his diminished powers. While the focus of the series is on Dream, this is a sprawling dark fantasy story with many different side stories woven into the main narrative. 

We meet many characters from mythology, history, and the DC Universe; each recognizable but given a unique twist to fit within this world. It’s a surprising and immersive story that will keep readers turning the pages in anticipation of where it will take them next.

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Okay, but who are the Endless?

The Endless
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  • Photo Credit: DC Comics

The Endless are essentially an ancient, eccentric, and powerful family of siblings. They each represent a core essence of humanity and rule in their respective domains. Dream is the personification of all stories, dreams, and ideas. From there we have Destiny, Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delirium, and Death.

Each sibling has their own realm. Destiny lives in the middle of his garden hedge maze and carries a book that lists everything that has happened, is happening, and ever will happen. Desire lives in a giant flesh-and-blood statue of themselves and is known for their manipulative streak, along with a long-standing rivalry with Dream. Several of the siblings have their own unique stories and introductions, so we won't go into too much detail here, but we will talk more about Death. 

Death is a young goth girl who is anything but the fear-inducing grim reaper in robes. Of all the Endless, including Dream, Death is the most personable of them all. She’s friendly, kind, and personable, and is the closest sibling to Dream. She's outgoing partially because she has to spend one day every century living and dying as a mortal, so she wants everyone who dies to feel like they’re seeing an old friend. 

If there’s a breakout character of the series, it’s Death. She was so popular, she ended up with not just one, but two spin-off series of her own. But we’ll talk about that in a minute.

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Sounds great! Where do I start?

The comic itself is pretty straightforward. There are 75 issues that have been repacked into several collection over the years. There are ten trade paperbacks, seven absolute editions, three annotated editions, and three omnibus editions.

It probably makes the most sense to start with the omnibus; as we’ve mentioned, this series is immersive. But we understand that tackling a book with over a thousand pages can be intimidating, so grabbing the first trade paperback, Preludes & Nocturnes, or The Absolute Sandman Volume 1, may be less daunting. 

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Of course, that’s assuming you want to read in publication order. If you prefer to read chronologically, in 2013, Gaiman wrote The Sandman: Overture. 

The graphic novel is an epic overview into Dream’s origin, spanning from the birth of the galaxy, and goes into more detail about how Dream’s powers were weakened, leading to his capture, and kicking off the events in the rest of the series. 

While it’s the beginning of the story in many ways, it’s written more as a companion to the series. Many of the references, insights, and answers lose their punch without the knowledge gained from reading the series first. 

It may be tempting to want to grab the annotated editions for the same reason: all the answers, all the context. But the sheer amount of literary, mythological, historical, and general DC Universe references may be overwhelming and pull a newcomer out of the story. 

However, if you’ve read the series before, the annotated editions are a delightful addition to an already immersive story. On each page, and sometimes by panel, there are notes, quotes, and insights. This is an awesome edition for collector’s and fans, not so great for a beginner.

You mentioned spin-offs?

There are roughly ten spin-offs, and honestly, we may have missed a few. Some are considered additions to the Sandman world, while others are simply new stories featuring Sandman characters. And not all of them were written by Gaiman, though the titles featured under The Sandman Universe Presents label were by writers approved by him.

In 2003, Gaiman wrote Endless Nights, an anthology featuring a standalone story for each of the Endless siblings. This is considered part of the Sandman canon, and many fans see it as essential reading. It’s included as Volume 11 in the 30th Anniversary trade paperback reprinting, is part of The Absolute Sandman: Volume 5, and was released in the third omnibus volume in 2019.

Gaiman also wrote two of the spin-offs featuring Death. The first, Death: The High Cost of Living, is a three-issue miniseries exploring Death’s day as a mortal. The second was, Death: The Time of Your Life, featuring two characters from the original series. 

In 1999, Gaiman wrote a novella, The Sandman: The Dream Hunters which was later adapted and rereleased as a comic miniseries. Gaiman also co-wrote Sandman Midnight Theatre, a single, standalone story following a specific event in the series.

Under The Sandman Universe Presents title there are even more spin-offs. For instance, The Dreaming takes place entirely in Dream’s domain and ran for 60 issues

Lucifer, which incorporates one of the more powerful beings in the DC Universe, ran for 75 issues. Dead Boy Detectives ran for twelve issues. Books of Magic initially ran for four issues but was picked up again and is still ongoing. House of Whispers, which has has 22 issues, and Hellblazer featuring John Constantine, are both titles expanding the Sandman world.

What about other DC crossover worlds/characters?

Arkham Aslyum Sandman

This story does take place in the DC Universe, so we see a lot of crossover characters: John Constantine, the Justice League International, Martian Manhunter, Scarecrow, Green Arrow, and Hawkman, to name just a few. 

We also see a few issues with Arkham Asylum—yes, that Arkham Asylum. The series also depicted Hell as introduced in Alan Moore’s 1972 Swamp Thing, but it introduced the Hierarchy with Lucifer, Beezelbub, and Azazel. 

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As mentioned before, there were two previous Sandman series prior to Gaiman's. Gaiman referenced them both in his series, explaining their storylines in the context of his world. 

The prophetic dreams of Wesley Dodds (1939-1942), were explained as reality’s attempt to fill the dream void left after Dream’s capture. And Garrett Sandford, the character Gaiman initially proposed to reinvent, was said to be two nightmares trying to manipulate a human into creating a new version of Dream whom they could control. 

This means that not only do we see other DC Universe characters throughout the series, but Sandman characters make their way into other DC comics both before and after this series. It’s part of what makes this series so much fun for both Gaiman and DC fans, and as you make your way through the various spin-offs, you’ll find even more crossover in and around this world.

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Can I watch it somewhere?

Sandman started to be shopped as a film as early as 1991. Since then, it’s bounced between movie and television studios so many times, that as recently as 2018 many fans believed they would never see either. 

However, in June 2019, Netflix announced it was moving forward with adapting the series into a show. They’ve since announced an all-star cast, and Gaiman posted on Tumblr in August 2021 that they had wrapped filming on the first season. 

While Netflix has given us some delicious teasers, so far, they haven’t confirmed when the first season will be released. Until then, you’ll find us catching up on the series, reading all the spin-offs we can get our hands on, and enjoying the audiodrama adaptation

We hope to see you there.