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October 25, 2017

Candy Coloured Clown

by Ross M. Kitson

Given the less than subtle appearance of pumpkins and cobwebs everywhere I go it seemed an appropriate time to post about my re-kindled love affair with perhaps the greatest fantasy-horror series in modern comics: Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman.'

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Back in 1988 one of my old friends gave me the heads up on a limited series by DC comics called Black Orchid, beautifully painted by Dave McKean and written by then newbie Neil Gaiman. The comic tied into the revitalised Swamp Thing series that Alan Moore had been writing, and I loved the in-depth literary style to the work. Gaiman had written only a few things by then (one in Imagine, a DnD magazine from the UK) but presumably impressed DC/ Vertigo enough to be handed over the title, Sandman, to do with as he wished. What he then did was take a tired superhero character and… well, totally mess with the genre.

Image from
It was a great era for comics in the late 80s: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, with the maturing of storylines and topics evident in both the mainstream titles, but also in the new imprints such as Vertigo. To me it is Gaiman's Sandman that stood the test of time, and my comic loving friend convinced me to part with my hard earned cash (I worked in 1989 as a silver service waiter whilst studying A-levels at the time) to buy the first issues of the comic, which I still have tucked away.

Nearly thirty years on, and having dipped into and out of them erratically over the years, I've decided to re-start reading the entire series. Handily now it's collected as a ten book series, and the first two give some idea about the style of the epic series. In the first book, Preludes and Nocturnes, we encounter the protagonist, Morpheus. Chalk-white skin with hair like Robert Smith from the Cure, we discover Morpheus is one of the Endless—a group of deities representing some aspect of being. Morpheus is also named Dream and has siblings such as Death (the coolest character in comics ever), Delerium, and Desire ('D' was a favoured letter in the Endless house, I assume). When we first meet him he is trapped by an arcane ritual and his totems stolen, and the first book involves him seeking them back. This involves encounters with other DC heroes of the time, but after this the series really diverges away from the mainstream DC Universe, explaining away the superhero Sandman (a Jack Kirby creation from the 70s) as a creation of escaped creatures from the Dreaming (his realm).

Image from
(original from Sandman 1: Preludes and Nocturnes)
What Gaiman created with the Sandman went on to be truly epic. Often the story arcs would involve Morpheus fairly peripherally, and not always as a benign character. It becomes clear as we read through that Morpheus has been an arrogant and often callous individual in the past, and many story threads relate to his redemption of past wrongs. Throughout this Gaiman creates a tangible mythology—of escaped nightmares, a novel interpretation of Hell and Lucifer, a dreamscape over which he rules, and the saga of the Endless as well as other traditional mythologies (such as Norse and Egyptian). His work balanced stand-alone short stories with multi-part tales (one being 13 parts), and at the time it really pushed the medium into the quality of mainstream literature. For me, the true skill was how Neil Gaiman brought in aspects of so many genres and wove them into a fresh perspective on mythology and fantasy. The mature aspects of the series, with serial killer crime, and disinhibited murderers, were never so horrific as to distract from the great prose and, importantly, the evolving characterisation. It's no mean feat to achieve this in the comic medium, and it puts the comic up there with some of the modern greats like Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Invisibles.

The Sandman ran to 75 issues, until 1996, and I strayed from the path in the 90s and never finished it. So swearing an oath to the Pumpkin King, I vow to complete the odyssey of Gaiman's first major work and see it through. Of course, Gaiman went on to branch from the comics genre and into many other areas. His books draw upon the themes and style he explored in the Sandman. You can see this, especially in the American Gods book, with the juxtaposition of old gods (from Norse, Egyptian, and Slavic mythology) and new (such as Media), and Anansi Boys, which also featured Mr. Nancy from the former novel. His love of fairy tales given a darker twist is evident in Stardust, and in Coraline—perhaps the scariest children's book I'd read in a long time (and for once a superb film adaptation of a book).

Image from film of Coraline via
I remain glad that Sandman has not yet stepped into the celluloid/ televisual world. That's not me being precious about it, but most who've read the comics agree that it would be hard to capture the nuance and idiosyncrasy of the comics on TV. When I see shows such as Supernatural, Once Upon a Time or Grimm I can't help but see Gaiman's influence in them, and ironically Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural, was once tipped for adapting the Sandman series. To me, it could only work as a series, preferably by HBO, CW or even Netflix. Time will tell, and I'd be surprised if it remains un-filmed.
So wish me luck on my epic journey, and if the post has made you curious why not join me and start reading the collection. Even if you're no comics fan perhaps you'll appreciate the wide-reaching plotlines and the evolution of the talent of Neil Gaiman.

'Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.' : Neil Gaiman: Sandman 6—Fables and Reflections.

Cover of Sandman issue 1 (1989) from

Ross Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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