The Sandman Reader I: Preludes & Nocturnes

Getting “Sandman” rolling as a series and finding its tone was a struggle for Gaiman. The original “Sandman” proposal that was contained in the first Absolute Edition collection gave readers a glimpse at that struggle. It seemed to heavily reference or pay homage to 1970s DC Comics Horror-related characters. This was an era when DC had some Crypt-Keeper-like characters lurking around for their anthology titles. Also, there was a Jack Kirby and Joe Simon take on “Sandman” in the 1970s as an unrelated superhero that would be integrated into Gaiman’s work.

The first few issues that Gaiman produced were very heavy into fantasy, setting up the rules behind the broad mythology that he created. Those rules were not initially very clear but became clearer as the series gained its footing. Beyond this fantasy realm, Gaiman still relied heavily on pre-existing knowledge of DC’s horror universe for readers to fully appreciate what he was trying to convey.

Sandman #1: “Sleep of the Just”

January 1989

Story Artist: Sam Keith (penciler), Mike Dringenberg (inker)

The first issue of “Sandman” began in the year 1916, with a magician trying to become immortal by kidnapping Death. That magician was Roderick Burgess, and his plan ended up backfiring on him.

Burgess had been aided by a man named John Hathaway, as Hathaway had possession of a book called the Magdalene Grimoire. Hathaway had offered Burgess the use of the book in the hope that a captured Death could be forced to return his dead son, Edmund. Soon after a cultish ceremony got underway, it became clear that Burgess mistakenly summoned Morpheus (aka Dream) instead of Death.

Morpheus was then imprisoned in Burgess’s basement while the impacts of his capture were shown to readers as being far-reaching. Ellie Marston, Stefan Wasserman, Daniel Bustamonte, and Unity Kincaid all fell into a coma-like sleep.

Numerous key events then unfolded over the next several decades. Not long after the capture of Morpheus, Hathaway ended up committing suicide while still in despair over his son’s death. Burgess’s son Alex pieced together Morpheus’s identity while Morpheus remained imprisoned and grew increasingly angry.

As time marched on, a second in command named Sykes and a mistress named Ethel Cripps left Burgess. The pair then traded Morpheus’s helmet with a demon – later identified as Choronzon – for protection from Burgess. Sykes received an amulet of protection in exchange.

In 1936, Cripps left Sykes and stole the amulet. When Sykes was then left unprotected, he was killed by Burgess. Burgess himself died as an old man in 1947 while still trying without success to get the captured Morpheus to help him cheat death.

Alex Burgess then took over his father’s operation with his lover Paul McGuire. Alex tried without success to strike a deal with Morpheus, who continued to mostly remain a silent captive. As further decades passed, Alex fell deeper into unhappiness amid increasing cultish activity. The entire time, he blamed Morpheus for his increasing life troubles.

The story came to a head in 1988 when a wheelchair-bound Alex smudged the confinement circle around Morpheus with his wheelchair’s tire. When Morpheus then appeared to die, Paul went into the glass dome holding Morpheus to check on the prisoner, and Morpheus used the opportunity to escape.

Morpheus did not let Alex off the hook, though. Rather, he came to Alex that night in a dream and cursed him with ‘eternal waking,’ which caused him to experience an endless series of nightmares. The effects of this punishment eventually put Alex into a coma. It would be many, many issues before Alex or Paul factored into the series again but they would return.

With Morpheus free, some individuals who had spent decades in coma-like sleep states began to wake. One case was Unity Kincaid, who had the memory of giving birth to a baby girl. Unity and her descendants would later factor into a story arc called “The Doll’s House.”

References were made in this first issue to Morpheus being part of the “Endless” family and readers would eventually meet the different family members.

DC Comics’ historical “Sandman” superhero Wesley Dodds was given very brief acknowledgment, and his relationship with Morpheus would be explored in detail many years later in the special “Sandman: Midnight Theatre.”

Roderick Burgess was based on the British occult personality Aleister Crowley. The general timeframes of their lives intersect, with Crowley explicitly mentioned in the issue.

Sandman #2: “Imperfect Hosts”

February 1989

Story Artist: Sam Keith (penciler), Mike Dringenberg (inker)

The next several issues then involved the newly freed Morpheus reclaiming his lost artifacts and rebuilding his ‘kingdom.’

Issue #2 introduced several characters who would compose Morpheus’s staff throughout the series. First were Cain and Abel, the tragic brothers featured in DC Comics’ “House of Mystery” horror series. Morpheus found them at the literal House of Mystery with the gargoyle Gregory and the staff members helped Morpheus regain energy from an old letter signature.

Morpheus used his newfound energy to travel to the extra-dimensional realm called ‘The Dreaming.’ This place would serve as Morpheus’s home and a primary location throughout the entire series. Once there, Morpheus found his castle-like living area to be in a state of disrepair.

While assessing the situation, Morpheus was filled in on recent events by his librarian Lucien. Of most immediate concern was the loss of Morpheus’s articles of office.

To fully restore his realm, Morpheus would need to gather three powerful items. First, his pouch of sand would need to be retrieved from John Constantine and Morpheus would visit him in issue #3. Per its mention in issue #1, his helm was with the demon Choronzon and that item would be pursued in issue #4. Finally, the ruby was with the Justice League and its retrieval would take place amid the events in issues #5-#7.

As part of a plan to retrieve those lost articles, Morpheus visited the three witches known as the Hecate. The trio gave him misleading answers about the location of his articles, but he was able to deduce the truth about their whereabouts.

Not to be overlooked in this issue was a story thread that focused on John Dee, the super-villain known to longtime DC fans as Doctor Destiny. Dee had been locked away in Gotham City’s famous Arkham Asylum. He briefly appeared in this issue but would increasingly factor into later issues. Sharp-eyed readers of the Dee segment would notice that Dee’s physician was Roger Huntoon from “Saga of the Swamp Thing.”

Readers would also note that Cain and Abel were not the only former horror anthology hosts featured in this issue. Lucien had hosted the DC comic “Tales of the Ghost Castle” and the witches had been in “Witching Hour.” The witches were an odd lot in that they were sometimes treated as a trio and other times treated as a three-in-one entity.

Other characters of note included the Fashion Thing, a character who first appeared in the DC universe in the late 1960s and who would show up in brief cameos throughout the series to reflect fads of a given time. The Biblical Eve also appeared as a Raven Woman, and she would pop up again in later issues.

Sandman #3: “Dream a Little Dream of Me”

March 1989

Story Artist: Sam Keith (penciler), Mike Dringenberg (inker)

The quest for Morpheus’s artifacts began in issue #3 when Morpheus teamed up with John Constantine to find his pouch. At this point, the knowledgeable occultist Constantine was a star in his own right for DC Comics, and he appeared in a long-running series for the company.

Constantine had bought the pouch and given it to a former girlfriend named Rachel. Unfortunately, when Morpheus and Constantine visited Rachel at her home, they found her in a withered form. In fact, the home had been overrun by beasts of ‘The Dreaming.’ Morpheus retrieved his pouch from within the home and mercy-killed Constantine’s still-alive girlfriend by putting her to sleep.

Readers were already knowledgeable of Rachel’s plight because of a creepy opening sequence that showed her grasping for the pouch while in bed. She was not an entirely innocent character (who is?), having sold some of Constantine’s possessions to pay for her drug habit. She had only been able to stay alive due to being in contact with the pouch.

After Morpheus had retrieved his pouch, he allowed Rachel to die after giving her a dream that involved having a happy ending with Constantine. At least that was the case in her mind. Constantine had been the love of her life.

Constantine had not been entirely surprised by the visit from Morpheus, as he had been warned of Morpheus’s return at the beginning of the story by the two-hundred- and seventy-three-year-old Mad Hettie. Of course, he remained skeptical until Morpheus appeared before him. Hettie would play a large supporting role in Gaiman’s later mini-series “Death: The High Cost of Living.”

Morpheus did give Constantine a reward of sorts for his help, curing him of an ongoing problem with nightmares that he had been having over the prior decade. Those nightmares had been the apparent aftereffect of an exorcism gone bad.

Sandman #4: “A Hope in Hell”

April 1989

Story Artist: Sam Keith (penciler), Mike Dringenberg (inker)

To retrieve his helm in issue #4, Morpheus traveled to hell to meet up with Lucifer.

Morpheus was escorted to Lucifer soon after arriving at the gates of hell, but hell was not as Morpheus might have expected it. One would have assumed Lucifer to be the ruler of hell, but he had lost control of it.

Instead, Lucifer ruled a divided hell with the demons Azazel and Beelzebub. With little assistance from any of those rulers, Morpheus used sand from his pouch to track his helm to the demon Choronzon. It was then fully revealed to readers that Choronzon had been the demon in issue #1 who had bartered for the helm with Sykes.

Possession of the helm was settled through Choronzon dueling wits against Morpheus, with that match involving Choronzon and Morpheus each taking on identities against one another. Choronzon eventually became a force capable of destroying the universe and Morpheus defeated that force by becoming the idea of hope. Hope was the only thing that remained after all was destroyed.

Upon winning the battle of wits, Morpheus received his helm, but Lucifer threatened to keep him in hell. That turned out to be a poor threat though, as Morpheus pointed out that he held great power in hell due to its residents all dreaming of heaven. Morpheus was then allowed to leave hell, but Lucifer vowed revenge for what had been an embarrassing confrontation.

Along the way through hell, Morpheus met Nada – a former lover whom Morpheus did not choose to free from hell. Readers learn more about Nada in issue #9. At this point, all that readers knew was that Nada had been stuck in hell for ten thousand years and that Morpheus had done nothing to free her from that situation.

John Dee was again briefly mentioned in this issue, with his mother having passed away. Dee received from her the amulet that had protected Sykes for a time from magic.

Sandman #5: “Passengers”

May 1989

Story Artist: Sam Keith (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

Having reclaimed his pouch and helm, Morpheus still needed to recover his ruby, but that task would take another three issues. The resulting mini arc of a story started in issue #5 with John Dee finally moving from a background plot into the forefront.

John Dee managed to escape from Arkham Asylum and brandished a pistol that he used to force a woman named Rosemary Kelly to drive him away from Arkham. Kelly initially resisted but Dee gained sympathy from her by sharing how his mother’s recent death motivated him to escape.

Dee then gave Rosemary some background information on his former identity as the scientist/super-villain Doctor Destiny. He talked about Morpheus’s ruby and having briefly owned it in the past before he was captured by the Justice League. In the time that Dee had possessed the ruby, he had used science to alter it so that only he could use it.

Rosemary just so happened to be a nurse and she guessed that Dee might have contracted AIDS, but he was not aware of the disease. In any event, the vehicle containing Rosemary and Dee headed toward the town of Mayhew on the outskirts of Gotham City.

Elsewhere, Morpheus visited the headquarters of the Justice League in search of his ruby. He received help from Mister Miracle and, more significantly, the Martian Manhunter, who recognized his mythological stature on Mars. Tracking the ruby, they first reached the League’s former satellite base and then a storage facility in Mayhew.

The issue ended with Morpheus claiming the ruby at the storage facility in Mayhew but then having an odd reaction to it that rendered him unconscious. The ruby’s rejection of Morpheus had occurred because of Dee’s aforementioned modifications to it.

Soon after, John Dee arrived on the scene with Rosemary. He killed Rosemary and claimed the ruby for himself, then headed to a local diner while under the impression that the end of the world was coming soon.

An odd bit of trivia in this issue involved a reference to the 1973 Frank Zappa music album “Over-Nite Sensation” that parodied horror films. That title was shown on a theatre marquee in Mayhew, playing alongside George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”

Issue #5 marked a visual shift with Mike Dringenberg replacing Sam Keith as the series artist. Dringenberg’s style offered a distinct contrast to Keith’s boldly exaggerated aesthetic, better suited to the narrative’s evolving tone

Sandman #6: “24 Hours”

June 1989

Story Artist: Mike Dringenberg (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

The title of issue #6 lent itself to its story structure since it covered the twenty-four hours that occurred inside the diner where John Dee had ended up at the end of the prior issue.

The diner contained several patrons and workers who readers met in turn. One character was the writer/server Bette Munroe, who was in a relationship with a widowed man named Marsh. Eating as a customer was the scorned lesbian, Judy. Garry and Kate Fletcher were also patrons, a local couple with money. Finally, there was a relatively unknown man named Mark.

Dee used the power of the ruby to trap everyone inside the diner. Their capture was subtle, though, and most did not realize that they were manipulated into staying put. Dee was also capable of remote control over people, as evidenced when he instructed children on a television program to harm themselves by slashing their wrists, and they disturbingly complied.

The diner prisoners grew agitated five hours into their captivity but still did not leave. Dee then manipulated the captives into experiencing their most-wanted desires. That manipulation continued with his inciting conflicts and forcing confessions. He later staged an orgy in the diner, followed by an odd request that the captives predict the future. Unfortunately for Dee, they predicted his pending death.

One of the more emotional revelations late in the story involved Marsh’s alcoholic wife who had been driven to drink by her knowledge of the affair that he was having with Bette. An even crazier twist was Marsh’s confession of having solicited sex from Bette’s estranged prostitute son.

The issue wound down with Garry and Mark being forced to fight to the death in the eighteenth hour of captivity and Judy later gouging out her eyes. The captives were all dead by the twenty-second hour. Morpheus finally showed up at the diner in the twenty-fourth hour, but readers would have to wait until the next issue to witness his confrontation with Dee.

As one might gather, this was a remarkably dark and grim story. However, Dee was firmly established as a force of evil, as the circumstances that he oversaw in the diner more than set in the minds of the reader that he was evil incarnate.

Sandman #7: “Sound and Fury”

July 1989

Story Artist: Mike Dringenberg (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

The story arc involving Morpheus’s artifacts wrapped up in issue #7 with Dee facing off against Morpheus for possession of the ruby. The ruby, created by Morpheus to manipulate the ‘fabric’ of dreams, had been modified for use by Dee, as mentioned in prior issues. Morpheus was shocked to discover that Dee had used the ruby for evil purposes in the diner. He then unsuccessfully tried to barter with Dee for the ruby’s return.

Dee rejected the offer and focused on battling Morpheus. Morpheus eventually lured Dee into the Dreaming realm, where Dee’s use of the ruby caused nightmares for people back on Earth.

Dee’s overuse of the ruby’s power ended up cracking it, though. The destroyed ruby unexpectedly transferred its power back to Morpheus, who assumed a giant form and easily captured Dee.

Morpheus returned Dee to Arkham Asylum for incarceration. To clean up Dee’s mess, Morpheus granted pleasant dreams to all the dreamers on Earth.

Sandman #8: “The Sound of Her Wings”

August 1989

Story Artist: Mike Dringenberg (penciler), Malcolm Jones III (inker)

Issue #8 presented a stand-alone story, acting as a coda to the first seven issues and reflecting on Morpheus’s journey thus far. This was a landmark issue as it marked the first appearance of the then-modern version of Death.

The story began with Morpheus contemplating recent events in a park, possibly Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York. Death appeared while Morpheus watched a teen named Franklin play soccer. Upon seeing his sister, Morpheus admitted to Death that gaining revenge on his captors had been unsatisfying.

Morpheus then accompanied Death as she made visits to many people around the world. These people who were claimed by Death included a fiddle player named Harry and a comedian named Esme.

During those visits, Morpheus pondered why people feared death more than dreams, despite death being a certainty of life. The story concluded on a melancholy note with Death claiming a baby from a crib and also claiming the teen Franklin after a car struck him.

Morpheus’s time with Death served as a meditation on their purposes as members of the Endless. Morpheus seemed to reconnect with his purpose now that he was freed from captivity.

Death had a surprisingly ‘normal’-looking human appearance, an iconic look reflecting a brighter side of the ‘goth’ scene of the era. Amid her casual clothing, she wore an Ankh from Egyptian mythology, ironically a symbol of immortality.

Readers of various editions of “Sandman” collections should note that DC Comics collected the first eight issues as “Preludes and Nocturnes.” This title originated from the next story arc being collected first in trade paperback format, making issues #1-8 a ‘prelude.’

Readers would notice a tonal shift starting in issue #8. This tone would continue to develop in the next story arc as Gaiman’s original horror-centric vision for the series evolved into something broader.

D.S. Christensen
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