Along with The Sandman, Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, Sam Keith, Dave McKean and their many creative collaborators have created one of the most groundbreaking and important comic books ever written. Its rich history is filled with magic and wonder, but grounded in reality.
It follows Dream of the Endless, an immortal being whose power eclipses even that of the gods but who is burdened by an unyielding code of conduct. The story defies genres, weaving together elements of speculative fiction, comedy, history, and even road trip stories into an intricate narrative tapestry. In addition to that, The sand man is firmly rooted in the DC Universe and, more than any other comic, has transformed mainstream comics into a form of nerd literary fiction.
In a 2006 interview with Talks at Google, Gaiman discussed this shift in perspective when recounting meeting an editor with the The telegraph of the day while attending an exclusive literary evening early in his career. Upon learning that Gaiman wrote comics, the editor seemed horrified but tried to mask this with a few polite questions. Gaiman listed his work including Sand sellerat which point the editor replied “Wait! You’re Neil Gaiman. My dear friend, you don’t write comics. You write graphic novels.”
The distinction is subtle but important. Comics have always been dismissed as lowbrow entertainment. The term “graphic novel” is often applied to comics that deal with more serious subjects, although this is a superficial distinction (and an abuse of the term). Gaiman acknowledges that his success is partly due to the fact Sand sellerThe monthly issues of were among the first comics to be collected into a single volume, making them easier to read. But they were collected specifically because he imbued the sensationalist elements of mainstream comics with philosophical and introspective emotional narratives.
The sand man wasn’t the first mainstream superhero comic to do so. In 1983, DC hired writer Alan Moore to screenplay Swamp Thing Saga, a horror comic about a sentient plant monster. The young writer used floral prose and tackled heavy subject matter, exploiting genre conventions to explore real-world horrors like domestic abuse and the legacy of plantation slavery. Throughout the 1980s, DC editor Karen Berger hired other young writers from the UK whose unique perspectives reshaped American comics, resulting in a period called the “British Invasion”.
This laid the foundation for Sand seller. Berger hired Gaiman while he was still looking for his voice and worked with him on several pitches before agreeing on an idea they both liked. The comic is named after a former vigilante from the 1930s who fought criminals with sleeping gas. However, Gaiman did not resurrect this obscure character. In place, “The sand manreferred to Dream, the King of Dreams, one of the seven immortal beings called the Infinites who personify metaphysical concepts. This maximalist series covers so much it can be hard to summarize, so its protagonist makes a good point departure.
First Sand seller Pocket Trade, Preludes & NocturnesGaiman describes his first concept of Dream: “A man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell… deadly thin, with long black hair and strange eyes: Dream. He was. That was who he was.”
This haunting gothic figure draws much more inspiration from Japanese art and Greek myths about the god Morpheus than from his vigilante namesake. He reigns over the Dream, a magical realm of personified ideas where sleeping mortals travel. But it also inspires the metaphorical dreams of artists, storytellers and other visionaries. As such, Sand seller includes not only other comic book characters, but historical figures like William Shakespeare and Emperor Augustus, simultaneously grounding the narrative in history and myth. Of course, Gaiman has never been shy about drawing inspiration from mainstream comics. Even his versions of the Cain and Abel Bible were based on their cartoonish depiction in older horror comics, but this syncretic approach actually adds to the work’s literary prestige.
His stories can take place anywhere and anytime, whether it’s a small American diner, a 14th century English tavern or the pits of hell. Sand sellerLucifer looks like David Bowie and casually quotes John Milton lost paradise. William Shakespeare is presented as a morose amateur playwright. Other memorable characters include a young trans woman making her life in New York, a woman who has completely stopped dreaming, and a pumpkin-headed janitor.
While Gaiman’s style is still unpolished in the early issues, the major turning point is issue #8, “The Sound of His Wings”. Dream meets her sister Death, portrayed as a maniacal pixie goth girl in love with mary poppins. The two catch up by feeding the pigeons in New York’s Washington Square Park, then run a few errands together (c. this.
A number of factors have contributed to the popularity of Sand seller, including the collection of its monthly issues as easy-to-read paperbacks. He also built on the successes of the British invasion. But it’s a masterpiece in its own right, mixing genres, experimenting with story structures, and featuring absolutely gorgeous prose and character writing. The series is one of the great works of English literature.
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