The Sandman is a fictional film directed by Neil Gaiman that can only be summarized in a single sentence. It's funny in its simplicity, but strange in its ambiguity.
The Sandman is a great way to describe them: a tale about stories and their relationship to our humanity. Shakespeare appears in it. How does the Martian Manhunter, the mythological figure of Loki, Marco Polo, and Eve from the Garden of Eden, look like? A horror comic that swiftly transforms into a high-concept mythological fantasy comic might fit the bill.
The Sandman is a multifaceted story including pulp horror, mythopoetry, urban fantasy, a goths style handbook, Succession with anthropomorphic personifications, a flawed but genuine attempt to portray queer people struggling for fulfillment and safety in the 1990s, a graphic novel, a collection of short stories, and a work that is associated with the DC Universe.
The Sandman is unquestionably unlikeable at any other time in history, either global or specific to comics. It's worth turning back the clock to examine all of the ingredients that contributed to the greatest cult classic in superhero comics, even if only to answer the question: Why is Sandman so?
The original Sandmans
The Sandman's origins date back to 1939. In fact, Superman was only a year old, and for the first time anyone was ever hired to portray the Man of Steel in costume at the 1939 Worlds Fair in Flushing, Queens, New York. Attendees of the fair could get their hands on a free copy of New York Worlds Fair Comics, and there they saw a new costumed crime fighter named the Sandman.
Wesley Dodds was a wealthy businessman by day, but by night he would scour the streets of New York City in search of criminals, whom he would interrogate and anesthetize with the use of his gas pistol, sprinkling sand over their sleeping bodies as a calling card for the cops. However, the world of comic book superheroes never leaves a story behind when it can be rebooted decades later.
Captain America took a risk this time around, wearing a bright red and yellow outfit and chasing after rogue dreams, then removing them with his magical pouch of dream dust in case they invade children's dreams.
This Sandman only lasted a few days, but a decade later his story was turned into a Wonder Woman story. That story was turned into a story in Infinity Inc., a team book about the retired Justice League of Earth 2.
Hector Hall, the son of Hawkman and Hawkwoman, became trapped in the Dream Stream and took over the roles of the Sandman. Eventually, he brought his wife, Hippolyta Lyta Hall, the daughter of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, into dreams, and the pair conceived a child.
The Sandman's darkened, elongated helm is an interpretation of Dodds' 1940s gas mask, and Kirby and Simon's simultaneous connection of Sandman to actual power over dreams is a departure from the realm of fiction for a much more terrifying one: publishing history.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths
DC Comics' first full continuity reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a formal invitation for comics artists to reinvent and redefine the greatest and oldest characters in superherodom in the second half of the 1980s.
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli sculpted a sweaty, sleazy neon statue of Gotham City that will be remembered until 2022. In his Wonder Woman, George Perez gave the Princess of the Amazons a new origin story that most people would never know existed. Change was in the air, and no reimagining was too wild.
Karen Berger, DC editor, threw herself into this bubbling pot of creative energy. Before the first issue of The Sandman was published, her editorial eye had already fueled storylines like Alan Moore's revamp of Swamp Thing, the first solo series for John Constantine, and Grant Morrisons' run on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, all instant classics.
Berger had already established herself in the world of horror stories that doubled as postmodern twists on the superhero formula. She favored a group of writers from the United Kingdom, who were familiar with American superheroes through the lucrative import trade, but perhaps less adamant about flipping the applecart in the future. At the moment, lets imagine her looking at the work of one of DCs brand-new writers.
This 27-year-old has grown up in the south of England, mostly as a journalist, but with a few short fiction credits. He has also drawn a couple of short graphic novels with an avant garde illustrator friend, bringing together another of Bergers young Brits who left off. Perhaps he would have done more if DC Comics hadnt gone bankrupt.
Berger decides to ask him if he'd be interested in rebooting perhaps the most obscure member of the Justice Society, a character that even Jack Kirby and Joe Simon could not crack. And with the hubris of a 27-year-old, Neil Gaiman said yes.
The Sandman's origins are untold. But its also why it is so vast and difficult to define, both internationally and on big-budget television like American Gods and Good Omens. He isn't a well-known journalist or comic book writer, but his only published work is a biography of Duran Duran.
The Sandman comes into focus once you fix that lens into the mind's telescope. A young writer had no clue if he would ever get a second chance at success, and so he packed every single detail that he liked into the work. Gaimans imagination and prose are the mainstays of his artistic life.
Gaiman, a devotee of gothic horror, offered Berger a major blow. Instead of another Sandman adventure book, he'd write a six-issue yarn about a sentient personification of the human imagination escaping from captivity and solving a mystery. Over the six issues, his character would take a journey through the DC Universe, from the headquarters of the Justice League to the depths of hell itself.
Hed establish that Wesley Dodds desire to become a sleep-themed crime fighter was the result of an accident in the realm of dreams. Then, from DCs own history of gothic horror, hed call in Cain and Abel. Not the biblical figures (at least not at first), but the Cryptkeeper-style hosts of House of Secrets and House of Mystery, DC's midcentury attempts to steal the ravenous audience of Tales From the Crypt.
After the Hellblazer, Gaiman's buddy Alan Moore would borrow John Constantine. The reader would journey to Arkham Asylum and introduce the story's ultimate foe, the Justice League supervillain Doctor Destiny. And just before the climax, wed even get a quick kibbutz with Mister Miracle and the Martian Manhunter at the Justice League International headquarters.
Gaiman's character was only extending his referential palette beyond his initial story arc, as Hector Halls Sandman was inspired by heretofore unknown actions of Morpheus the Dreamlord, as well as themes from Greek myth and literature, and historical figures like Emperor Norton III.
Gaiman created the Dreaming, a realm that contained every thought that the human imagination is capable of conceiving. And, because doing otherwise would have been dishonest, his story treated all of the ideas that include religion, myth, folklore, literature, and superhero comics as equally valuable elements.
Ask a Sandman fan today about his Old Gods Do New Jobs predictions, which Gaiman would expand on for American Gods; the urban fantasy elements that would reappears in Neverwhere; the return of folklore in Stardust; or the almost ineffable rules a la Coraline. All of them are correct.
Gaiman creates a narrative about creation of fiction, self-creation, and history that is, if nothing else, about how creation is a continuous process fuelled by all the fictions and selves we have access to at any moment. The Sandman was also inevitable because he would portray a young artist in the process of creating himself.