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Fundamental Comics: Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes’ and the Rise of Modern Classicism, Graphic Literature, & Realistic Myths in Comics

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.


*In addition, we are deviating slightly from the series’ format to accommodate the writer’s uniquely personal engagement and reflection on the first eight issues of Sandman entitled collectively, “Preludes & Nocturnes.” – Ed.

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Penciller: Sam Kieth (#1-5); Mike Dringenberg (#6-8)
Inker: Mike Dringenberg (#1-4); Malcolm Jones III (#5-8, with special thanks to Don Carola on #6)
Colorist: Robbie Busch
Letterer: Todd Klein
Cover Artist: Dave McKean (for trade paperback collected edition)
Assistant Editor: Art Young
Editor: Karen Berger
Publisher: DC Comics imprint, Vertigo
Publication Date: January – August 1989
No. of Issues: Volume 1 (#1 – 8)


Okay – let’s start at the beginning.

I know this is heretical to write here on Fanbase Press, but I was never a fan of superhero comics growing up.  I preferred Batman to Superman – the former was darker, more interesting, and had the better villains. (C’mon – Solomon Grundy? Mister Mxyzptlk?? Bizarro Superman???)  Batman was a deeply messed up man fighting psychopaths in the seventies; Superman was a god-like alien who used those powers to foil bank robbers and villains that just seemed beneath him.  Like Muhammad Ali versus your grandma – not an interesting fight but amusing in a juvenile way.

I enjoyed Master of Kung Fu and some of the less familiar heroes, but my jam was horror comics – House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Marvel’s Dracula – where I lived happily.  The local library had bound editions of some of the old EC titles – anthologies of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear.  If you were too young for R-rated movies, these comics gave you the best in horror and gore.  

Then, I went off to college.  I met a group of friends.  Cliched though it is, one handed me Watchmen and said, “Best thing you’ll read in college.  Seriously, it will change how you look at literature and life.”  And it did.  Right around this time, DC had announced its new Vertigo line, publishing V for Vendetta.  I began to read comics again hardcore.  

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Reception Upon Release

One Friday morning in Fall 1988, I walked into my usual comic emporium.  There was a new poster on the wall.  A black-and-white illustration of a guy with his hair hanging down in front of his face, a Robert Smith-looking ghost, his upraised hand holding a small pile of something.  “I will show you terror in a handful of dust.”   Funky font below: “Sandman: He controls your dreams. Coming in November.”  Okay, you have my attention, Vertigo.  Who’s this guy Neil Gaiman?  (Please remember, true believer, this was before Neil Gaiman was Neil Gaiman.)  Back then, he was just the guy who took over Miracleman from Alan Moore and had done an interesting Black Orchid one-off).

The Sandman was previously a comic book hero in the Batman mold, first unleashed on the public in 1939.  Wesley Dodd, wealthy man about town, close friends with Bruce Wayne, Lamont Cranston and Britt Reid, no doubt, donned a green business suit, a fedora, a gas mask and a trench coat to fight crime with a gas gun (that sprayed sleeping gas) along with his sidekick, Sandy.  Gaiman was offered the opportunity to play with any of DC’s back catalogue of characters to develop a new book, and he took the idea of the Sandman in a different direction.  (Canny readers will spot Dodd in the first issue of Sandman).

I knew all this because, as I mentioned above, I like the lesser-known heroes.  So, seeing an advertisement for a book called The Sandman that also misquoted T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust…”) intrigued me, and I was more than willing to spend my meager work study money on this book.

Come November, no book.  Come December: “Hey Todd,” points at poster, “Whenzthatcomingout?”  It was an omen.  The book tried to be monthly but didn’t always succeed.  If monthly, it would have taken six years to complete.  It took seven and a half.  Still, I bought it the day it was released in January 1989 and sat down in my dorm room to read it.  Then, read it again.  Then, I met with my friends for dinner to discuss it, then read it again.

We didn’t know at the time it would be a seventy-five-issue story arc divided into ten sub-stories.  We didn’t know about Death or The Endless or what a god Neil Gaiman was.  But we learned, over the next seven years, by Gaiman, we learned.  

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At the time, the buzz was uniformly positive.   If memory serves, both industry publications and the guys at that comic book store in Lewiston, Maine, all said the same thing.  This one is different.  This one is special.  This one promises to be something more.   This first storyline was interesting and different.  It was obviously a horror comic, and yet the Martian Manhunter showed up in an issue, as did the occasional other DC superhero.   Noted especially was the book’s gift at blending, at collaging, at taking stories, characters, archetypes and themes from a variety of sources and placing them coherently in the same narrative.  Initial reviews were glowing and positive.  By 1991, issue 19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.  Eisner Awards began to pile up around the book.  In 2005, IGN declared The Sandman as the best Vertigo comic ever.  From first review to last issue, Sandman was universally praised as an intelligent, creative, mature comic as unique as its creator, who went from the guy who wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Guide to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to NEIL GAIMAN!  GUYS – IT’S NEIL GAIMAN.

If the book got love when it first came out, it has rock star-level devotion now.  Endless Nights was the first hardcover graphic novel to appear on the New York Times bestseller list.  The Guardian, The New York Times, NPR, and major literary journals celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Preludes & Nocturnes back in 2009.  Indeed, NPR stated Sandman “helped establish and grow the marketplace for comics aimed at adults, and remains one of the most literate, imaginative and intricately plotted accomplishments in long-form comics storytelling out there” (see Glen Weldon’s November 18, 2009, NPR article, “The Inevitable Post About Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’).

The Plot of The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes

Let’s start with the first arc, eventually called Preludes and Nocturnes. The first eight or so issues introduce the storyline, the characters and set up the raison d’être for all that follows.  In “Sleep of the Just,” set in the second decade of the twentieth century, 1916 to be precise, Roderick Burgess, who was clearly modeled after Alistair Crowley as a pop-magician/Satanist/self-styled wickedest beast of the apocalypse, attempts to summon Death.  Instead, he snags the eponymous Sandman, also known as Dream of the Endless or Morpheus (though we won’t learn much of this until later), and Burgess isn’t sure who he has captured.  The Dream King’s helmet, ruby amulet and pouch of sand are taken from him and eventually sold and lost, setting up the first story arc. (He needs to recover these three items.)  He exists, a naked man in a sealed glass bowl until accidentally freed in 1988 by Alex Burgess, the son of the now-dead Roderick.  (Morpheus curses him with “eternal waking” for keeping him imprisoned after Roderick’s death – he exists in a nightmare from which he wakes up every few minutes into a new nightmare).  

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In “Imperfect Hosts,” the second issue, Dream returns to his kingdom, meeting Cain and Abel, the residents and hosts of the title and of House of Mystery and House of Secrets, thus tying Sandman into the larger DC horror universe.  Dream begins to gain back some of his strengths and powers but is severely weakened due to his lengthy confinement.  The dreamlands have fallen apart in his absence, and several nightmares have escaped into the world.  He visits the three wyrd sisters to find out where his tools are.  “Dream a Little Dream of Me” brings in John Constantine (“I ought to introduce you to the big green bloke.  You’d like him.  He doesn’t have a sense of humor either.”).  Dream seeks his bag of sand and Constantine had it, except it was stolen.  Turns out the stuff is like an addictive drug and one of Constantine’s exes stole it.  The panel of her naked, in bed, covered in sores, high from dreaming and yet clearly an addict near death is as terrifying as any of the supernatural elements.  (This is one strength of Sandman: Despite being a fantasy narrative, so much of it is grounded in real human experience.)  Constantine’s price for helping to get the bag back is for Dream to give Rachel (the ex) a good and gentle death, so she will no longer suffer.  Dream wishes to punish her as he did Burgess, but instead ensures she dies peacefully and happy.

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Then, issue four.  Seriously, “A Hope in Hell” is what convinced my circle and I that this book was something different, something amazing, and that this Gaiman guy may be the promised one.  Sandman goes to hell, meets Etrigan the rhyming demon and Lucifer.  He must engage in a battle of wits and imagination with the demon who has his helmet.  The battle is intense, and then the only thing I’ll spoil is that Sandman wins (obvi), but not in a way you’d expect.  It was brilliant, and it set up a lot that was to follow.  We had no idea in those early days how much Gaiman was setting up.  He was playing a long game while the rest of us were playing Pac-Man.  

The next three issues told a more complete story, “Passengers,” “24 Hours” and “Sound and Fury,” showed the escape of Dr. John Dee, evil magician, from Arkham Asylum.  He gets the ruby, which he once controlled while Dream was imprisoned.  He ends up in a 24-hour diner where he tortures the people inside.  “24 Hours” remains one of the single most disturbing books I have ever read.  We are introduced to the staff and patrons of the 24-hour diner.  Dee begins to manipulate them.  The events in the diner are detailed hour by hour (“Hour 9: Conflict Reveals Character”; “Hour 17: Confession and Penance”). They confess their worst sins to one another (as the waitress nails the hand of a truck driver she occasionally dates to the counter, he casually tells her about the time he spent in prison with her son: “You could have his ass for a pack of cigarettes.  Bette?  I did.”).  They hurt each other, physically and emotionally, all to entertain Dee, who looks like a decaying corpse himself.  Last panel: Dream enters the diner.  It is his only appearance in the issue.  An entire issue devoted to building up the evil of the adversary and humanizing these all-too-human people with their failings and hopes and secrets as they are slowly destroyed, in which the eponymous protagonist shows up only on the last page.  “Sound and Fury” recounts their battle and the final triumph of Dream, now fully restored.

The cap on the arc is the eighth and final issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” in which we meet Death.  With this issue, Gaiman changed the DC world forever.  Everybody loved Death.  She was fun, she was funny, she was sexy as hell.  I knew women who dressed like her, wore makeup like hers. Death changed the game.  It was also a profound game changer for the series.  Death is the fun one; Dream is sullen and emo.  He goes back to his room to listen the The Church and Sisters of Mercy alone; she puts on “Walking on Sunshine” and insists we all sing along. This is also the issue that introduced the concept of the whole family: Death, Dream, Destiny, Desire, Despair and Delirium (formerly Delight) and the missing brother, eventually revealed to be “Destruction,” who quit because he didn’t want to be in charge of destruction anymore, so he lives off the grid with a talking dog named Barnabas.  Please note, none of this is given out in the book in this info-dump form.  It is slowly revealed over the course of dozens of issues.  We also learn Desire and Despair are twins, although this is not the first Despair, there was another who somehow was destroyed and a new one created.

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Analysis and Reflections on Modern Classicism, Graphic Literature, & Realistic Myths

Why is the series essential?  Why is it so good?  Space does not permit me to list every single reason why. If you have not yet encountered The Sandman, go and buy all ten bound story arcs, and if you have read it, why, you should go back and reread them. (Oh, and by the way, you should.  Seriously.  It’s that good. I have a friend with two sets – one for him and one he lends out to create new addicts.)  Let’s start with: because it took the work Alan Moore had begun in Swamp Thing and exploded it through the DC university, into ours, and all over world culture.  Let’s start with those Dave McKean covers; every one of which was a goddamned work of art!  Profound, evocative, brilliant, nuanced, and terrifying (though often I couldn’t put in words why).  Let’s start with how Gaiman radically transformed storytelling.  How he wrote a profoundly referential text that you don’t need to understand a single reference in order to get it and yet every reference you understood make the text and images resonate on multiple levels.  It was an unashamedly smart book that embraced myth, popular culture, and people in a manner we can only describe as Gaimanesque.  All us writers want to be Neil Gaiman, but only Neil Gaiman is.  And it was dark.  Vertigo was meant to be a horror-esque, or at least darker line of comics, and Gaiman looked at Hellblazer and Swamp Thing and said, “Hold my lager.”

Perhaps more than all, I admire The Sandman because it is a giant tapestry.  When one is up close and in the thick of it, looking at the individual moments, they seem complete and one is lost in this giant narrative that seems to be open and flowing freely in different directions.  When one closes the book having read the last page of “The Wake” (Get it, the last arc of The Sandman is “The Wake,” referring both to a vigil for a person who has died but also what happens at the end of sleep – Gaiman is more clever than we deserve!), you see the pattern entirely, the wub that he and his artists have woven – how complete, contained, and final it is.  Stepping back, away from the minutiae of individual moments, one sees the grandeur of the cosmos and the narrative that has been created.  

This is also a tapestry governed by rules and with a lengthy history.  The seven siblings are collectively known as “The Endless,” as even though they themselves can be destroyed, another will rise to take their place, as the concepts are endless, even if the god-like beings are not.  They have great power but are still limited.  Learning about this world, seeing it play out, and seeing a throw-away comment from the tenth issue come into play and be of major significance in the fifty-third issue is also a great part of the fun.  It is a narrative that rewards repeated reading.  More than anything by Johnathan Franzen or Umberto Eco, more than House of Leaves, The Sandman is an extraordinary tapestry of a narrative, intricate and comprehensive in its plotting and unsparing in its reconnection of details.  Every character is a complete being, nuanced and believable:  Rob Gadling, the man who will live forever (“Death is a mug’s game”), Nuala the Elf, Rose Walker, Gilbert, Mervyn Pumpkinhead, even Richard Madoc, the writer-rapist of muses1 – these characters are all complete people, not plot devices to allow Dream to do things.  Like the best of authors, Gaiman knows people better than we know ourselves, for better or worse.  He also knows myth, literature, and fantasy better than most as well, and it makes for a beautiful, brilliant series.

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Weldon argues that the central question of The Sandman is “How can a man (or technically, in this case, the anthropomorphic incarnation of Imagination) grow beyond the man he has always seen himself to be?”  It is an epic tale, told realistically, believably.  We follow Morpheus, who at times is not likable, who at times reminds us he is not cool, or our friend, or even necessarily just.  We watch him learn about himself as he grows and develops as a person.  Even more, Gaiman sets up little, seeming throwaway moments in Preludes and Nocturnes and especially in the follow-up, The Doll’s House, when then pay off in The Kindly Ones and The Wake.  Reading The Sandman when it first came out was kind of like being a character in The Sandman; the elusive creator dressed in black is sketching out grand designs, and you won’t even see the pattern until it is complete, and when you finally do the only possible reaction is to gasp at the enormity, complexity, and genius of it all.  Plus, once we hit issue 75, the story ends.  It ends with the words “Wake up,” the first words of Preludes and Nocturnes.  DC could have started a book with a new writer about “The further adventures of Daniel, the new Dream,” or The Sandman: The Next Generation.  But the comic was so iconic and so connected to Gaiman’s voice that 75 was the end.  Which is not to say that was the last of the Sandman.

Not to mention the children, step-children, and cousins of what-Neil-hath-made.  Death gets her own books. The Endless are a spin-off. The Dream Hunters and other Sandman stories are subsequently birthed into the world.  Not to mention analytic and historic works such as Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion and Alyssa Kwitney’s The Sandman: King of Dreams.  If one wishes to fangirl or fanboy out over Dream and his family, the merch is there and endless.

What follows Preludes and Nocturnes are a series of interrelated tales, leading to the great confrontation between Dream and the furies, those goddesses charged with punishing those who spill the blood of their own family.  Gaiman has taken Greek myth and writ it large, believable, and with an appearance by the Martian Manhunter.  Some arcs are full narrative, such as the road trip-cum-serial killer hunt turned metaphysical mystery “The Doll’s House,” “Season of Mists,” in which Lucifer gives Dream control of Hell, “A Game of You,” in which dreams go looking for the woman who stopped dreaming them, and “Brief Lives,” in which Dream and Delirium take a road trip to find their missing brother.  Some are anthology arcs – individual stories that link up the world of dream, such as “Fables and Reflections,” “Dream Country,” and “World’s End,” the last of which uses the narrative wraparound of the titular pub being a place where various people have come to sit out a “reality storm” outside.  They each tell their tales, one per issue, and all seem to involve encounters with the dream king.  

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That’s yet another thing that makes this book remarkable.  Entire issues go by with just a passing appearance by the presumptive main character.  It reminds me of nothing so much as a classic Chinese novel, like The Water Margin or Journey to the West, in which there are sections of the over two-thousand-page story in which a hundred pages are spent telling another story or series of stories apart from that of the main character(s), and the story is both more richer for the digression and also more complete, as what we learn from the digression ultimately will shape and reform the main narrative.

If you are a visual fan, you should be reading The Sandman.  I cannot think of a comic before it in which font and color of the dialogue matter and are part of the story.  Morpheus’s dialogue is white on a black background, indicative both of how inhuman and dark we might imagine him sounding and that even his voice is different than that of others.  Each page is a work of art.

Relevancy Today

The Sandman has won a ton of awards.  Film and television versions have been in development hell since the nineties.  It officially turns 30 years old this month.  It has aged well.  Gaiman has introduced minor characters gone for a long time and made them relevant.  He introduced myth and classical culture into comics in a way they never had been before.  He made them realistic.  He wrote them with a literary flair.  (Indeed, I have attended many Shakespeare conferences in which The Sandman is discussed.  Even wrote a book myself [shameless plug: Shakespeare and Youth Culture, from Palgrave.  Still available on Amazon, End shameless plus] with a chapter on The Sandman and Shakespeare, arguing that the problem with the Shakespeareans is that they just read the two issues with Shakespeare as a central characters, and miss out on the big picture that Gaiman creates in regard to exploring the relationship between author and his creations and inspirations.  The Sandman is also read in its own right in the academy as one of the best novels (forget graphic novels) of the twentieth century.  It is also, however, one of the best graphic novels, as well.

We cannot overstate its importance, alongside Watchmen. [Tangentially, many of those academics I mentioned think The Sandman is actually a better text than Watchmen; it builds on that seminal book, but also (arguably because it is several times longer) able to be subtler, nuanced, and drawn out in its narrative arcs.]  It launched Neil Gaiman and his work into the world.  It also has profoundly shaped horror, dark fantasy, and all Vertigo books that followed it.  It was the benchmark by which all books that followed would be judged.

The Sandman is relevant not only for its influence on the industry and on us egghead professors and its ongoing descendants.  The original remains relevant because it simply is one of the best stories out there.  So much so that there is an annotated version, an absolute version, a set of high quality reprints to go in the vault with the Zapruder film and original Lassie episodes.  It is simply the best comic you will read.  Period.

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Other Points of Interest

Don’t just take this geek’s word for it.  It was one of five graphic novels to make Entertainment Weekly‘s “100 best reads from 1983 to 2008,” ranking at No. 46.  Norman Mailer praised it.  As noted above, for its twenty-fifth anniversary, every major media outlet sang its praises.  The world has embraced The Sandman as the great, literary graphic novel.  

But who cares what everybody thinks?  Read it yourself.  Everyone has their favorite moments.  Everyone has the characters they individually glom onto.  If Gaiman has a gift (and he has a ton), one of the best is just setting up the little moments when the world shatters with a single sentence.  Like when Dream is being pursued by the Furies, and must remain in the Dreamland to stay safe, and is summoned by Nuala, a young elf he has helped and who has unrequited love for him.  “I am here,” he tells her when he arrives in Elfland.  “Are you in trouble?” She asks him.  “Yes.  I suppose that I am.  However, as long as I remain in the Dreaming no real harm can occur.”  A panel in silhouette: “My Lord,” she says, “You are no longer in the Dreaming.” Close up of his eyes: “No…I am not…”   Chilling.  And pure Sandman.   He goes because he promised her he would come when she summoned; she calls because she does not want him to be hurt.  That’s pure Greek tragedy right there – in the interests of protecting him she inadvertently does the only thing that could lead to his death.  His reaction is so underplayed, so muted and yet tragic.  For me, those are the best little moments in the whole series.  Someone realizes something and we watch the pieces fall, not always as we thought they would, and with a minimum of histrionics.  Go read issue 8, if nothing else.  Dream follows Death around at her job.  A baby that dies in it’s crib asks her, “That’s all I get?” when it dies.  Funny, yet sad and chilling.  

I’m most likely preaching to the choir by this point. If you have read this far, it is because you are already in the cult of The Sandman.  In which case, hail, my sisters and brothers.  May Murphy bless and keep you.  You, me, and Rob Gadling should meet back here at Fanbase Press one hundred years from today.  After all, dying is mug’s game.  And if he truly is Dream, Daniel will join us, as well.  Until then, just writing this piece has made me realize it has been too long. (In fact, writing it has been too long, since every time I pulled one of the books off the shelf to check to make sure my memory was right or a name was spelled correctly, I would get pulled back in and read until I forced myself back to the keyboard.  It’s that good.)  In fact, thanks for reading this, but the call of Neil is too strong.  

He opens the book again, this time to the first page.

“Wake up sir, we’re here” (June 6th, 1916. Witch Cross, England)

“Already?  I must have dozed off…”

“Good afternoon, sir.  Welcome…”

And Sandman begins again.

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1. A writer kidnaps a real muse (an honest-to-goodness Greek goddess) and when she is freed by Morpheus, he gives Richard Madoc, who had currently held her (She was passed through a few authors over the century.) the gift of eternal ideas. He can never stop running out of ideas, but he can also never get them down in time before the next idea strikes. It is so perfectly Greek, so terrifying to we writers, and yet the list of ideas the cursed writer begins to recite reads like a summary of Neil Gaiman short stories. The one that also stood out in my memory was, “A man inherits a library card to the lost library of Alexandria.” I just imagine the story that comes from that. That was the strength of The Sandman – it was evocative. Even the throwaway lines suggested worlds and ideas beyond.

Kevin Wetmore, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor


Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University.  His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.  For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.


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