The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and a few other works of their time showed that the superhero genre and the comic book medium could be raised to a higher level of artistic expression. Neil Gaiman's Sandman realized that potential perhaps further than any work before or since. Although conceived, named, and published like a superhero comic, Sandman was something else, something more. It attracted readers who were never interested in superheroes, and arguably stands still as the high-water mark of the medium.
The central character is referred to as Sandman only rarely, is sometimes called Dream – in Gaiman’s formulation of seven siblings known as the Endless – and in a nod to Classical mythology, is most often called Morpheus. In this threefold naming alone, Gaiman shows his power to blend DC superhero continuity, established cultural and literary tradition, and his own inventions. As the series goes on, Gaiman also weaves literature, history, current events, pop culture, science, and science fiction into his story, and it is his ability to draw on such a vast number of subjects that makes Neil Gaiman himself perhaps the most fascinating character of the series. Gaiman has an expansive world in his mind and his ability to draw upon such a vast array of sources makes Sandman a richer work than all but the rarest literature. The reader is invited to research what his sources and inspirations were, and in the process could inevitably learn a great deal about such wildly different topics as the French Revolution, the history of Baghdad, and demonology and the occult. One of the series’ most remarkable issues is devoted to an exploration of mortuary science, with Gaiman inventing an entire society devoted to funerary preparation. There is simply more effort evident in most issues of Sandman than almost any issue of almost any other series; time and time again, Gaiman pulls off the challenge masterfully, delivering one fascinating story after another.
Structurally, the series' 75 issues tell one long story, with many coherent tales of several issues each woven together with many one-issue tales. The larger arc is that of Morpheus' downfall, beginning with a decades-long imprisonment at the hand of some English occultists, and a complex story, after he regains his freedom, in which he provokes several of his old enemies and gains a few new ones. Many characters on Earth and other realms are sent reeling into tragedies and triumphs of their own as byproducts of Morpheus' own struggles. The plot is ornate and interconnected, with minor cameos early sometimes spinning off into maxi-arcs of eight issues.
Sandman diverges from the superhero genre so early and often that listing the ways in which it breaks from tradition is dizzying, but elucidates both Sandman and the works that came before it. Morpheus is not a hero. He feels a duty to the unique office that he holds, but he is motivated to maintain order, not to utilize his considerable power to eliminate suffering. And there is much suffering in Sandman. There is an astonishing number of murders, rapes, and other acts of cruelty in Sandman, many of which go unavenged. But one of the best characteristics of Sandman is that Gaiman is driven neither to uphold nor mindlessly reject tradition: He does protect the innocent and avenge injustice when the situation and his well-developed character demand that he behave that way. Morpheus is mindful of justice, and at times delivers it, but follows his own motives in each situation, whether this means that he behaves as a hero or watches a crime with total indifference.
While not a cruel being, Morpheus is selfish, and his own shortcomings accumulate throughout the story until they help bring about his undoing. This larger pattern of Greek tragedy is one of Sandman’s finest homages to literary tradition. Misstep by misstep, Morpheus allows his enemies to move against him, and the series’ largest act of justice is that the title character himself ultimately pays for his many sins with his own destruction. And yet, the reader feels compassion for him, even as some of the smallest and most trivial acts of carelessness on his part become the most fatal. After eons in which Morpheus selfishly allowed others to be destroyed, he is ultimately doomed by at least three acts of kindness and obligation, and blamed for at least one crime that he did not commit. A reader cannot read this and not feel; those feelings are frequently beautiful, and frequently painful.
In one of many ways it broke from established tradition, it ran for a finite length and despite commercial and critical success, ended when the writer reached, from a creative standpoint, an ending. Possessing a definite ending is one of several characteristics that Sandman holds in common with other groundbreaking works of its decade. However, while works such as Waid and Ross’ Kingdom Come, Watchman, and other works by Alan Moore show a dark hollowness to superheroes, Sandman neither affirms nor rejects the genre. He follows a course that draws upon worlds of science fiction, myth, literature, history, folklore, dark magic, and – at times – superheroes. He is steadfast neither in embracing the superhero genre nor rejecting it.
Gaiman uses the Garrett Sanford and Hector Hall Sandmen as symbols of the superhero genre gone wrong, too trite to stand up to the grim realities of his larger story. But he also uses the Bizarro concept from Superman comics as a genuinely meaningful inspiration for a transsexual character, and it says much that an observer as gifted in his breadth as Gaiman find a superhero story to be worthy of such a mention. Late in the series, Superman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter, and Wesley Dodds return in minor appearances, affirming that Gaiman never forgot where the creative inspiration for Sandman began. Another comic book inspiration is from House of Mystery / House of Secrets: Gaiman gives more than their due to the storytelling characters Cain and Abel and their associates, brilliantly capturing the dark comedy of the original series, which was itself a world under the DC title that, like Gaiman's work, sometimes crossed over with that of the superheroes, but never matched it in tone.
For me, Sandman is a story of the fall, both a fall in the sense of the ruin of its central character, and the autumn, when night comes early. For its expansive scope, its take on familiar characters, and its tone appropriate to the autumn season, I feel its call every year, and will surely return to read it in its entirety many, many times.