This year, one of the all-time classics of modern Western comics turns 30. Created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, and Dave McKean, The Sandman is the story of the enigmatic, god-like being Dream. Dream is one of the Endless, seven deathless concepts that define the universe.
Dream is, as his name suggests, the lord of Dreams, and he is often joined by his siblings: Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium (see a pattern?). He’s both utterly alien and endearingly flawed, and the Sandman series encompasses his battle to regain his kingdom, The Dreaming, the lives of the dreams that live there, and what family squabbles are like when you and your siblings are seven immortal concepts.
To celebrate the anniversary, DC is launching four new titles set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s classic series. We’ll have more details of those books as they become available, but in the meantime, there’s a question that needs to be asked: With a series like this that’s got such a huge web of spin-offs, where do you start?
Welcome to The Dreaming, folks. We’ve got you covered.
PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES
The original first volume of this series hits the ground running. Or rather, exhausted and near powerless as Dream, also known as Morpheus, is captured by a human occultist. Preludes and Nocturnes follows Morpheus through his imprisonment on Earth, his vengeance on his captors, and his journey to get his powers back.
It’s a great but odd read, especially given how closely it sticks to the DC universe. John Constantine plays a role in the story and a well-known Justice League villain is a vital part of the closing issues. It feels, especially given how the story goes, like an unusually good pilot episode — not quite sure what this is all about yet, but definitely heading in the right direction. That’s reflected, too, in the departure of Sam Kieth of The Maxx from the art team after five issues.
All this being said, the measured way we’re introduced to Dream’s world is perfect for new readers and the book expertly walks the line between fantasy and horror from the very first page. Plus, the closing issues — and Death’s first appearance, in particular — are extraordinary work, even 30 years on.
THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE
Illustrated by J.H. Williams III, Overture fills in arguably the one gap in the overall Sandman story: Why was Dream so badly injured that he could be captured by Roderick Burgess back in the first issue of the original series? Williams’ art is, arguably, the best in the Western comics industry and his elaborate yet elegant pages fit Gaiman’s story like a glove. The Overture story itself isn’t entirely essential — after all, the series launched fine without it 30 years ago — but it’s a nice addition for existing fans. Also, and more importantly for our purposes here, Overture is a flat-out brilliant on-ramp for newcomers to experience the beginning of the series in an entirely different way.
The Sandman has a flotilla of spin-offs and they’re all surprisingly great places to start with the series. In particular, Lucifer, as he appears in his self-titled TV show, was born here. Dream’s interactions with the King of Hell lead to Lucifer's quitting and moving to L.A. to star in two of his own comic series, both of which are excellent. We’d recommend starting with the Mike Carey-scripted run, especially if you’re a fan of the TV show. It’s absolutely in line with that, albeit far darker and more overtly horrific than most of the show so far.
The Dreaming was an anthology series that starred the denizens of Dream’s kingdom. Characters such as iconic and terrifying living nightmare The Corinthian, the adorable Matthew the Raven, and Cain and Abel, all of whom are vital parts of the main series, get plots to themselves here. Better still, the series is peppered with occasional visits from The Endless. As a result, it’s a bit of a backdoor into the universe. Getting to know these characters first will give you a baseline understanding of the main series that should really help while diving in.
There are several mini-series and graphic novels focusing on the Endless themselves. The best of these include The Dream Hunters, written by Gaiman and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D fame, in a carefully constructed folk tale starring an earlier incarnation of Dream. Endless Nights sees Gaiman and an army of great artists telling stories about each of the seven Endless.
Finally, the two Death-starring miniseries, The Time of Your Life and The High Cost of Living, explore the effect Death has on those around her and the consequences of her choice to be human once a century. These two are especially good in-roads to the Sandman universe as supporting characters here recur throughout the main series. Plus, Gaiman’s take on Death is one of the two great approaches to the character in modern genre fiction and we think she and her colleague from Terry Pratchett's Discworld would get on very well.
It's fitting that there are multiple ways to enter the world of The Sandman. After all, we dream of different things every night but, ultimately, end up back in the real world by the next day. Regardless of whether you try these approaches or wait for the new books, The Sandman is a classic and there’s never been a better time to discover or return to it. It may seem intimidating but, trust us, this is a series of dreams and nightmares you want sticking with you.