It’s nighttime. You travel through the rooms in your home, which looks like an underground cavern with burning torches attached to lugs in the carved walls of the cavern. It doesn’t seem strange because you know it is your home. This is how it has always been. Without warning, something starts chasing you, and you run away from it through all the mysterious caves that make up your house until you reach a dead end. You cling to the wall waiting for this thing that haunts you to catch up, and you see that it is your 11th-grade literature teacher, but she is shorter, her nose is a little different than you remembered, and she has four hands with jagged claws instead of fingers. She tries to catch you, but just before her fingers/clamps catch you, You jump through the window of the house that is now on the top floor of a sky-rise building, and this feeling of falling, so familiar, comforts you as you plunge into the unfamiliar.
And then, as the old cliché says, you wake up.
Dreams are a fascinating thing in which everything can and cannot happen simultaneously. No wonder humanity is enchanted by its mere idea and tries to give it a face and strange interpretations since nomadic tribes told each other campfire tales. Because it is much easier, and some would say – comforting, to believe that a supernatural being sows the dreams in our heads when we go to sleep. After all, what gives us more meaning or maybe even power? Is it possible that we are important enough for the gods to bother interfering with our dreams, or is it just an involuntary electrical activity of the brain designed to reboot our head while sleeping? It is much more comfortable to believe that there is an entity like Morpheus – the Greek god of sleep and dreams, or Braxta – the Lithuanian dream goddess, or in later folklore – the Sandman who casts sand in the eyes of the old and gives them dreams, as first appeared in Hans Christian Andersen s story “Ole Lukøje” From 1841.
It was into this black hole that entered Sandman, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking and chain-shattering comic book series published between 1989 and 1996. Gaiman took all these gods and myths and dressed them in black T-shirts. The main hero of the comic is, as you might have guessed, a dream in itself, or more accurately – the physical manifestation of the idea of the dream, which goes out on a long odyssey that begins with its incarceration and ends with – well, you will have to read how it ends.
This wasn’t the first time I read this series, nor the second or third. But unlike the first few times, when I swallowed the books and just wanted to consume the story in its entirety, during this read, I took my time and, for over a year, read it in what was probably the most in-depth and attentive reading session I have given to this work. Starting from the first panel, featuring an ominous British mansion, to the ink-filled feather that stains the page on the panel that seals the series.
I first encountered Sandman when I was in high school, just at the age and time when dark horror stories with unquestionably gothic-looking heroes can capture the heart of a boy who seeks his place in the world and feels no one truly understands him (or in other words, any teenage boy), let alone if said teenage boy just discovered the darker side of the 1980s. I could not believe that comics could be so dark. Suddenly Morpheus appeared in front of me in all its dark splendor, with violent and terrifying horror stories (“24 Hours,” or “The Collectors,” for example, which are supposed to send a chill in the back of anyone who read them and knows what I’m talking about), but also with black and cynical humor that help releasing some of the tension and cold sweat.
Neil Gaiman slowly draws us into this story and lets us gradually become acquainted with our protagonist and the extensive mythology he has developed around him, but at the same time, he throws the reader into the deep waters from the first page when the dream master is captured and imprisoned by Roderick Burgess, a modern-day wizard from the likeness of the infamous Alistair Crowley. Like Odysseus and like many other protagonists before him, dream sets out on a journey – physical and spiritual – that will change the lives of everyone he meets along the way, as well as his own life, over ten volumes that the only way to describe them is – perfection.
At first glance, the reader may think this is an anthology of stories only related to each other thanks to their main protagonist, as is often the case in classic comic book series of superheroes fighting every issue with a new monster or a supervillain. However, Morpheus is not a superhero, nor is it a classic comic, but the beginning of something new. If the large comic book publishers were used to exhausting their heroes as much as possible and publishing endless series of monthly comic books, Sandman’s case would be entirely different. In this case, it is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Even if it sometimes looks like you are reading a side story that is not related to the main narrative of the series, you will probably find later that it is meant to give you a different perspective on the world of dreams and its ruler. Or maybe the publishers decided to give the artists who worked on the main narrative an extension on the deadline because, in the end, this is a booklet that should have hit the stands in real-time every month, and believe it or not, it’s a lot of work.
Throughout the story, we are exposed to dream as he was before he was imprisoned, when the only thing that motivated him was the desire to meet his obligations, while his relationship with humanity was at best lukewarm. The master of dreams in front of us in this story is a person (or rather – a physical manifestation of an idea) who had suffered a trauma and understood that something in him must change to adapt to the new world. This is expressed not only in his attitude toward humanity but also in his attitude toward himself and his perception of his role in the world. We learn that our hero is imperfect or error-free, which may make him more human or less supernatural and bring him closer to the physical, to the possible. To the familiar.
If it all ended here, that would be more than enough, but among all the horror and dark fantasy so identified with him lies a love letter written by Gaiman to the world of DC comics, where he combines characters and stories from this world in a way tailored especially to the book’s dimensions and presents them In a way that you could not imagine them before. Neil Gaiman does not ignore the story of Wesley Dodge, the original Sandman from the golden age of comics in the 1940s, who would fight criminals wearing a mask and anesthetize them with gas, but incorporates his story into this story so cleverly and it is imperceptible that Dodge’s story is not only logical but self-evident. He is giving the same gentle treatment to Hector Hall, another DC comics character that was known in the early years of the 1980s as Doctor Fate, but also as the Sandman.
I am sorry, did I say a love letter to the world of comics? I meant the written word as a whole because when you have a main character who accompanied the world from the moment the first creature closed its eyes, why not bringing it together some characters you would like to meet yourself? And who better to meet the Prince of Stories, if not William Shakespeare – Mr. Stories himself, whose plot line corresponds with significant stations in the story of dream (and one of those encounters, in the story ” A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was the first comic – and if I am not mistaken, the only so far – ever to win the World Fantasy Award for Short Stories), to the Crescendo in the final masterful issue in which Neil Gaiman says goodbye to his protagonist in the most brilliant way imaginable in a story that lies within a story in a kind of self-conscious recursion that refers to the meta even before the meta was aware of its existence.
In conclusion, and if it was not clear from all the superlatives written here so far, this is a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece
Five sweet dreams and one particularly monstrous nightmare
The Sandman / Neil Gaiman / Vertigo Comics
And Then I woke up
And another PS
I have so much more to say about this comic and its effects on today’s popular culture, but in our day and age, I doubt a quarter of the readers have come this far, and it’s a shame to exaggerate in words that will never be read. Maybe one day, I will write a second article in the series.