Call for Comments: Mr. Sandman Bring Me a Dream

From Mav: Well, today is the day that I don’t think I ever believed would happen. There’s a Sandman TV series premiering on Netflix. It’s not that I’m surprised that there COULD be a Sandman TV series or even that someone would want there to be a Sandman TV series. Quite the contrary, it seems like a perfectly obvious and natural thing to do… TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO! It just surprises me that there’s a Sandman show on Netflix today. As I write this, I’ve not yet watched a single episode… and of course I will. But just conceptually, the idea of doing a Sandman show seems both super late and at the same time, maybe super timely. I think this is because Sandman is by design, timeless (or endless?).

What I think is fascinating about Sandman is that it is, perhaps more than any other intellectual property, it’s own wholly unique fandom. That is to say that if someone tells me they liked Harry Potter, I can say “hey, have you read Lord of the Rings?” or if they say they’re into Star Trek, I can say “have you tried Battlestar Galactica.” Maybe they will like those things maybe they won’t, but it’s a reasonable thing to try. That doesn’t seem to work with Sandman. In fact, Wayne and I have talked about how important Neil Gaiman and Sandman were to the 1990s success of comic book shops as being seen as legitimate literature outside of just superhero funny books. Sort of. Because Sandman fans weren’t comic fans per se… or at least weren’t necessarily comic fans. They were fans of this singular unique thing. And they were anything but singular and unique. There’s like this picture of the Sandman fan as a 1990s goth, dressed like Dream and Death… and certainly those people were there. But there was also just this whole crossover of completely disparate readers from different social and culture groups. For seven years, there were people who would come into comic book stores around the world, JUST to buy Sandman and nothing else. And then after January 23rd, 1996, we never saw any of them ever again.

And now, they’re back… 26 years later! And in some ways it’s like no time has passed. Even though, it obviously has.

And we’re sort of picking up right where we were in both the good and the bad. Even before the show dropped (and remember, as I write this, I haven’t seen any of it yet), we’ve had a string of people complaining about casting choices, mostly about it being “too woke” with the gender swapping of certain characters and the producers daring to cast people who weren’t white… and Neil Gaiman himself continuously stepping in to basically say Sandman was always about being woke you fucking idiots. But the thing is, those people were there 30 years ago too! I remember them! For all the good Gaiman was trying to do there were always people… almost willfully misinterpreting it… or were they? The author is dead and all that.

And maybe that’s part of the charm of Sandman. How did it become its own little microculture? And what are the ramifications therein? What makes it so popular? Did you read it before? Are you watching it now? Give us your thoughts on Sandman in general and the show so we can talk about it.

From Wayne: I started reading The Sandman with the first issue. It was post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight Returns, and I was really in the mood for more adult-oriented comics. It certainly wasn’t the first, and it did have ties to the established DC universe. Still, that first cover grabbed my eye. I was probably primed for something like this. I had been reading and enjoying Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s Swamp Thing, and this looked similar. Neil Gaiman was not yet a name to be reckoned with in the comics industry and beyond, but I had read his issues of Miracleman after Moore left that title and liked what I saw there. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what Sandman became.

I wasn’t immediately blown away. I liked it a lot, but it took a little time for the series to really reveal what was going on. Gaiman has said he wrote the first story arc kind of expecting it to be cancelled before he got rolling. The first few issues do read kind of like a mini-series; they’re self-contained and you could stop at the end of that arc. But in retrospect it’s easy to see the seeds he was planting for everything that came after. Once Death appeared and the concept of The Endless was introduced it never slowed own. And who didn’t love Death at that time? She looked exactly like a tiny Goth girl named Carrie I knew back then.

And Mav is right… somehow, this comic book that was only sold in comic book stores, a notorious hive of gatekeeping fanboys (#notallcomicbookstores), found an audience of readers who were not representative of typical comics fandom, mostly in the days before the internet connected us in a hivemind. And they were rabid fans.

While Moore and Miller are given a lot of credit for moving comics into the realm of more adult themed fare than it was usually credited with, I think Gaiman is much more responsible for elevating the conversation. While Watchmen and Dark Knight were dark and well-thought out, Gaiman made Sandman part of the much larger stream of classic literature and art. His influences came from a different place, not bounded by superhero tropes in the same way these other works were. While the others were a deconstruction of something that had gone before, Sandman was using the building blocks of literature and mythology and art and music and classical Romantic motifs to create something new. It was, and I am certainly not the first to say this, a story about the nature of stories. For myth to survive it must transform to speak to newer audiences. Wrapped in the pop cultural symbolism of its time, Sandman was a new mythology for a modern age, built of the bedrock of what had gone before.

It was also, in many ways, a symbolic autobiography of a storyteller, a meditation on what it means to give life to the imagination. Morpheus is an avatar of Gaiman and the entire saga reflects his experiences and obsessions of the time. One of our guests for this episode has given this idea way more thought than I have, but it’s something I want to explore.

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