The Sandman, Part 1

Mapping the Dream Country

We owe one of the greatest sea changes in comic book history to the “British Invasion” of the 1980s and ’90s, from the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Watchmen and The Sandman ushered in a new era of comics as a legitimate storytelling medium, not just a shallow arena for tights-clad muscle men secure in their abilities to the point of cockiness.


One main defining differences in Moore’s and Gaiman’s work, compared to the traditional comic, is a sense of doubt in identity. Their predecessors had a security inherent to sailing on a trope (that of near-perfect heroes saving the world through feats of strength and corny dialogue); conversely, The Sandman and Watchmen’s strength is, surprisingly, in self-consciousness and soul searching. 

The characters have this trait, the books themselves carry this trait, and even the authors share that sense of uncertain destiny. This unsure footing is a result of blazing new trails in the strange new country of depth, meaning, and intelligence. The Sandman is adept at portraying the angst-riddled job of searching for one’s self. Gaiman’s graphic novels fight the war of identity on many fronts: interweaving the plight of the characters, the author, and the medium, in a way that defines the identity of all aspects. This article, in two parts, shall examine the various types of identity, and how they are established, within The Sandman.

As would be recalled later during controversies on the Netflix show, Gaiman’s portrayals of Dream and the other endless have been fluid, as primordial beings that transcend godhood.

The Early Days of British Comic Art

Let’s start at the beginning … the very beginning. The history of British comic art is steeped in an environment very different from the narrow constructs of American comics, despite similar origins. British comics suffered a very similar infamy as their American counterparts from the start, an infamy which culminated in the fevered moral disdain of the 1950s and ’60s. As B. Keith Murphy notes, “Even as far back as the Victorian era, newspapers were generally barren of illustrative material, and books which incorporated pictures into storytelling were considered ‘less than respectable’” [ 1 ]. Both countries regarded comics in this way, eventually building to an outrage demanding legislation. 

However, as always happens, disapproval of something leads to rebellion using that very thing. This is the case with British comics. U.K. comics became counter-cultural, subversive, and a big middle finger to those in authority. As Murphy puts it, 

“This change in approach marked a clear departure from the American comics vision. Where American superhero comics were generally morality plays in which the hero represented the virtue of authority, their British counterparts … championed the common man as an anti-authoritarian force” [ 1 ].

While American comics sought approval from authority to alleviate a bad reputation, British comics embraced their anarchic ways even more. This climate was the bedrock of the British comics’ antihero, and the root of The Sandman’s identity. 

The Sandman himself (Morpheus, the titular character) is certainly a far departure from authoritarian paragon of superhero comics. Compared to these gaudy muscular men, Morpheus is visually strikingly different. He wears black instead of bright colors. He is thin and alien in appearance, shifting his own representation as the environment shifts. He is quiet, moody, and elusive to mortals, occupying the realm of their dreams and the still corners of human history. He is not advertised as their salvation—and he never claims to be. He is, poignantly, introduced to us, not through a résumé of superpowers and successes (as so many superheroes are), but as powerless prisoner. He hardly says anything for most of the first issue. When he is finally free, and finally speaks, it’s a far cry from some announcement of greatness. Instead, it’s merely an internal monologue. He thinks, “Home, it feels good to be back … weakened, I clutch a passing dream … First, food … I left a monarch. Yet I return naked, alone … hungry” [ 2 ]

This is not a superhero’s entrance. He scrambles, lonely, humbled, naked, and hungry in a way that we would never be permitted to see a superhero. Also, he is not a god (as the Endless so often have to stress upon humans). The Sandman is a personification of dreams themselves, and just as ephemeral. We don’t know what to make of his identity yet, and we’re not meant to. That’s the beauty of it. 

Changing the Identity of the Sandman

Morpheus’ very inception is a change in identity, not a spontaneous creation. The Sandman is a revamped character from the DC universe of the’30s and ’40s. He was little more than a background character of no real importance; a campy human crusader with a secret identity, gas mask, and a sleeping gas gun. Gaiman changed everything but the most basic concept: the universal and mythical truth of dreams themselves. As Murphy states, “It is in those first few issues of The Sandman that it becomes evident that Gaiman is not playing by the same rules as anyone else … One of the most poignant changes early on is his ability to take flat stock characters from the DC universe and turn them into fully rounded characters that become critical to the overall narrative he is spinning” [ 1 ]. What Gaiman does for such characters, he accomplishes for the entire comic book medium on multiple levels. 

Therefore, Sandman is as much about the internal narrative as it is about the external narrative of Gaiman and his colleagues reinventing the comic book wheel. These narratives weave in and out of their parameters and fourth walls, which is part of why they are so interesting and enduring to the reader. As Morpheus speaks about his confusion over his role and his location in the first volume, he also speaks for Gaiman himself as he paves uncharted roads through the medium. For example, as Morpheus recovers in Abel’s home he says, “I awake in the darkness, too weak even to summon a light. The air is musty, tired, old, it smells of lost dreams and rotten fabric” [ 3 ]. His words can be interpreted as a statement about where the author finds himself in the stale and stagnant “house” of comic book conventions and other worn-out stories he’s attempting to reanimate. Perhaps, even his physical and mental weakness represents the author’s uncertainty as he seeks to cure the stagnation of the oldest stories and a mired expressive medium. At the end of the page, Morpheus states that as he lies there, he primarily remembers. He begins to regain and rebuild an identity from his old story just as Gaiman and his collaborators embark upon the same quest. 

The primary identity of the Dream King (the “Shaper,” as he is sometimes referred to) is an emergent force of creativity. In this capacity, the jaded Sandman is the most relatable to humans, for both have the capacity to invent and shape their world, and both have their limits. The “identity of the creator” theme is fertile ground for Gaiman to exert his own considerable imagination and employ some of the most remarkably complex meta-narratives in comic book history. The stories in which Shakespeare and Morpheus come together are the best examples of Gaiman’s meta-narrative layer cake. These stories deal with a several-tiered depth of meaning. First, there is Morpheus (telling stories on behalf of Gaiman), then, Gaiman’s version of Shakespeare (telling stories on behalf of Morpheus). Meanwhile, all three of them deal with weight of the creator’s burden, bargain, sacrifice, and universal notoriety. In fact, it sometimes becomes unclear who is really speaking for whom, as they meld into a singular personified identity of creative force, beyond any one character [ 4 ]. Joe Sanders (though he is describing all the layers of this story, not just the authorial ones) describes the structure best, saying, “As these attempts to separate ‘levels’ in the story show, the levels resist separation. They want to blur into each other, smearing together roles, personalities, and motives, so that we see the same human concerns from different angles, in different shapes” [ 5 ].

The series has inspired and created spin-offs in the DC Comics Vertigo imprint, audiobooks, and even illustrated storybooks, such as The Dream Hunters, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano.

Complex but Straightforward

The parallels between Morpheus and Shakespeare are obvious, but far from uncomplicated. Both are artists in their own spheres and both suffer from angst over the meaning, quality, and repercussions of what they create. This light of perception reveals flaws and familiarity with the human reader, as well as the human condition. As Sanders observes of Morpheus, “He may be the lord of dreams, but that does not mean he is in control of the process. Rather, he is also groping for understanding, trying to see beyond his personal limits in the only way an individual consciousness can: imagination; art” [ 5 ].

Shakespeare has the same dilemma with personal limits, trying desperately to create art that means something and will persist beyond his own lifespan. This urge coaxes Shakespeare to make a Faustian deal with Morpheus in order to achieve the whole of his inventive capacity; artistic greatness, meaning in his plays, and meaning in his very life. As Shakespeare says in the text, “I would give anything to have your [Marlow’s] gifts. Or more than anything to give men dreams, that would live on long after I am dead” [ 6 ]. Morpheus is only too glad to oblige Shakespeare’s wish, because he needs him to be the instrument of his own creative voice. He ignites Shakespeare’s talents and the bard’s own passionate ambition becomes the gasoline. In this way Shakespeare’s art and message are also Dream’s by proxy, and by an even further extension, Gaiman’s.

The Sandman story, “The Tempest,” is a particularly clear specimen of this Morpheus-Shakespeare-Gaiman meld. Author Joan Gordon expresses the multi-frame construction of the Sandman’s and Shakespeare’s interactions in “The Tempest” by saying, “Prospero’s story is framed by Shakespeare’s, which is framed by the Sandman’s, which is framed by the author’s telling, and the fan’s reading” [ 7 ]. The linchpin here is Prospero, the archetypal conjurer-artist whom Gaiman, Shakespeare, and Dream all see as a reflection of themselves. The common theme is the author’s willingness to break the fourth wall by admitting his humanity and his identity within the text. Prospero’s famous soliloquy shows an artist relieved from the burden of control and the power of creation. Will Shakespeare is coming to the end of a charmed career as well, and when asked by Morpheus if he sees himself in his work, he answers readily, “I would be a fool if I denied it. I am Prosper, certainly …” [ 8 ]. Gaiman winks to his audience, just as Shakespeare does, and for the same reason: to admit his humanity and identity with his character. As Gordon states, “… when Gaiman uses Dream (Morpheus) as a vehicle for himself as a writer it is to remind himself and his audience of the humanity of the author at the same time as it reminds us of the writer’s power to create worlds and control audiences with words” [ 6 ].

In this way, Gaiman, Dream, and Shakespeare are iterations of the same archetype: the magical creator. The entire identity of The Sandman, as a series, revolves around a paradoxical resistance to having a defined identity. Unlike its predecessors in comic book history, the protagonist is meticulously complicated; equal parts fantastic and flawed, powerful and broken. Morpheus also operates as a funnel for the reader’s perception, the author’s personal voice, and a tool for the remaking of the medium outside of the text itself. In Gaiman’s hands, the disposable becomes an epicenter of newly constructed, indispensable meaning. The reader is invited to be a participant in this magical metamorphosis. In all the stories’ destruction and recreation, boundaries of person-hood are redrawn (figuratively and literally) in uncertain and exciting ways, through the characters, creators, and the comic book medium. In the next part of this series, we’ll explore other types of identity through the parade of interesting supporting characters within The Sandman texts.

Images

  1. “As would be recalled later during controversies on the Netflix show, Gaiman’s portrayals of Dream and the other endless have been fluid, as primordial beings that transcend godhood.” Source: https://areajugones.sport.es/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/the-sandman-portada-1080×609.jpg. Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman Omnibus: Volume 2. New York, DC Comics, 1991-1997.
  2. “The series has inspired and created spin-offs in the DC Comics Vertigo imprint, audiobooks, and even illustrated storybooks, such as The Dream Hunters, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano.” Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/comics/what-powers-endless-dc-s-sandman. Gaiman, Neil, et al.  Sandman: The Dream Hunters. DC Comics/Vertigo, 2009. Illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano.

A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.

Resources

  1. Murphy, B. Keith. “The Origins of the Sandman.” In The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, edited by Joseph L. Sanders. Fantagraphics Books, 2006. pp. 3-24.
  2. Gaiman et al. “Sleep of the Just.” In The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. DC Comics, 1995.
  3. Gaiman et al. “Imperfect Hosts.” In The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. DC Comics, 1995.
  4. Gaiman, Neil, et al. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In The Sandman: Dream Country. DC Comics, 1995.
  5. Sanders, Joe. “Of Storytellers and Stories in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” In The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, edited by Joseph L. Sanders. Fantagraphics Books, 2006. pp. 25-40.
  6. Gaiman et al. “Men of Good Fortune.” In The Sandman: The Doll’s House. DC Comics, 1995.
  7. Gordon, Joan. “Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman’s The Wake.” In The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, edited by Joseph L. Sanders. Fantagraphics Books, 2006. pp. 79-96.
  8. Gaiman et al. “The Tempest.” In The Sandman: The Wake. DC Comics, 1995.