Friday, June 11, 2004

Neil Gaiman's Sandman

Well, I'm still thinking of comic books. Namely, I am thinking of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. To this day I still think it is one of the greatest comic books of all time. Indeed, the Sandman story "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won the World Fantasy Award for 1991. Although Sandman is set in the same reality as Batman, Superman, and DC's other heroes, it went far beyond previous superhero and fantasy comic books. Quite simply, in the pages of Sandman, Gaiman wrote some of the finest fantasy fiction ever written.

The "Sandman" name had a long history at DC Comics. The original Sandman first appeared in the early days of the Golden Age of comic books, in New York World's Fair Comics #1, July 1939 (issued April 30, 1939). The Sandman was Wesley Dodds, one of the many millionaires during the Golden Age who elected to fight crime. He dressed in a fedora, a gas mask, a cape, and a suit and packed a gun which delivered a gas to put criminals to sleep. Initially, this Sandman met with some success. Unfortunately, with the astronomical growth in the number of superheroes in the Golden Age, Wesley Dodds soon found his popularity declining. The character was revamped and given both gold and purple costume and a sidekick. The creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (the creators of Captain America) were even brought in to work in on the series. None of this helped and the Golden Age Sandman disappeared from comic books in 1944. He would not see print again until the Justice Society was revived in the Sixties.

An attempt at a new character named The Sandman, was made in the Seventies. Although the creation of the legendary Jack Kirby, this new Sandman failed. It was not until Neil Gaiman's Sandman that a character with the name would meet with any success.

While set in the same universe as DC's superheroes, Gaiman's Sandman was as far from a superhero as one can get. In fact, the character never referred to himself as "the Sandman," even though he was obviously that character from folklore. Gaiman's Sandman was Morpheus, also called Dream, one of a group of personifications of various archetypical ideals of the Universe. The other Endless were Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair, and Destruction. As might be expected, Dream was the one of the Endless who governs dreams and other forms of fantasy, such as story telling). His realm was the Dreaming, the world where dreams originate.

The story arcs of Sandman were far more sophisticated than anything previously seen in comic books and were definitely not written for children. Plots of the arcs involved the machinations of Desire (the Endless was a dysfunctional family if ever there was one), Morpheus inadvertently and unwillingly receiving stewardship of Hell, and interactions with various mortals. Beyond the story arcs there were shorter stories, such as the aforementioned "Midsummer's Night Dream" in which Shakespeare's play of the same name is commissioned by Morpheus in return for giving Shakespeare the writer's talent. Another story concerns the idea that cats once ruled the earth!

Sandman lasted for 75 issues, Gaiman having planned the series to have a definite conclusion. In that space of time, it became one of the most successful comic books of all time. The success of Gaiman's Sandman even rubbed off on DC's original Sandman, who was revived in the pages of Sandman Mystery Theatre. Set in the Thirties and Forties, Sandman Mystery Theatre updated Wesley Dodds for the Nineties.

Perhaps there is no greater measure of success than the fact that Gaiman's Sandman gave comic books a new found respect. Individuals who had never read a comic book before eagerly bought copies of Sandman issues and graphic novels. Morpheus' fans ranged from Goths to journalists to college professors. In the end, Morpheus and the Endless became a part of pop culture in the Nineties.

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