One of the most complicated aspects of the entire “Sandman” series was the fact that Morpheus was not necessary a likeable lead character throughout much of the run. He brooded and sulked for justifiable reasons at the beginning of the series but, for the readers who stuck with him, he sometimes showed a softer side. Morpheus wasn’t what one would characterize as a traditional ‘good guy,’ but he also wasn’t a villain. He existed within a grey area, often playing a role as a cog in a greater machine. He had responsibilities.
When the general arc of Morpheus’s life in modern times wasn’t being explored, Gaiman used the series for asides. ‘Done in one issue’ stories gave him platforms to try out very diverse kinds of stories and those stories were probably the favorites of fans.
My personal reading of the series took place at a time when the internet was well established as a tool for community. That tool helped to crowd-source a way into understanding the Gaiman’s more-obscure references. In imagining all of the nuggets of referential meaning, Gaiman was either a genius or an insanely hard worker or both.
Besides off-shoots like “Death,” Gaiman has returned to the world of character in works created after issue#75. These included graphic novels and prequels such as “Sandman Overture.” Gaiman’s non-linear approach to the original “Sandman” series proved that he could easily find new ways to explore the characters from that series across different moments in time or even space.
Still, Gaiman left certain mysteries up to readers. Since finishing the original series, he skillfully avoided providing answers around some of the loose ends that he left behind in the main series. That said, Gaiman did address a few of those loose end in follow-up works. Regardless, one could argue that the loose ends that some readers might still debate were not the core point of Gaiman’s work.
Explanations of all of the original series’ mechanisms might never be provided but I’d suggest that for most readers that was never the point. Sometimes story elements even felt as though they were veering toward the contradictory. That didn’t matter, since Morpheus’s character arc around accepting responsibility was ultimately what mattered the most.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the “Sandman” series’ original span of 75 issues was when Gaiman made his name as a writer. It was fascinating to watch him develop over an eight year period, moving from an upstart Alan Moore protégé in 1988 to a master storyteller in his own right by 1996. Time and again, he set the reader up to expect bombastic battles or other such epic clashes.
Where Gaiman stood out to readers was in defying those expectations by making those clashes much more cerebral in nature than physical. In doing so, he developed a protagonist and supporting cast that readers fell in love with. If aspiring writers were to take any lessons from Gaiman about how to better-entertain readers, it would be to defy expectations and challenge readers with smart material.
The very best editions of Gaiman’s “Sandman” run at the time of this writing were the “Absolute” editions. The Absolute line at DC Comics has re-presented some of the company’s most-notable series in oversized fashion and the “Sandman” Absolutes might have been their most beautiful editions. In fact, these volumes were perhaps one of the most beautiful collected editions ever of a comic book series.
Besides the appropriately-styled faux-leather exterior, the Absolute Editions presented contents of each issue re-worked with modern coloring. Purists may disagree, but this new coloring work was striking and these versions of the pages have been used by DC Comics in later reprints of the series.
Also included in these editions were all prior collection introductions, sketches, and a Gaiman script from a notable issue in each run of issues that was being collected. Finally, that bonus material also included heretofore rare or un-reprinted short works that Gaiman produced in relation to the series.
The following was a sampling of some of the key pieces of “Sandman” miscellanea that the Absolute editions reprinted:
Graphitti Designs: “A Longer and Stranger History”
Story Artist: Kelley Jones (penciller), Kelley Jones (inker)
A statue of Morpheus was produced by Graphitti Designs in 1991 and Gaiman wrote a letter that appeared on the back of the statue box. That letter detailed the fictitious history of three different statues of Morpheus.
The existence of one statue was first recorded by Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveler of renown but it was lost.
A second statue was given to the explorer Odoric of Pordenone by a Buddhist monk. It was made of Jade and was believed to have ended up in the Vatican archives.
The final statue was of the greatest interest. It was first recorded as being in possession of the Knights Templar in London, but vanished in 1307. It then reappeared as having been in King Henry VIII’s catalogues in the 1500s. It showed up again in 1944 when it was found in a temple crypt during the bombings of London. The fictitious dating of the status put it at having been created in the fifth century A.D. and supposedly located in the British Museum vaults. The statue created by Graphitti Designs was supposedly a copy of that particular statue.
Various Vertigo Comics: “Death Talks about Life”
Story Artist: Dave McKean (penciller), Dave McKean (inker)
“Hellblazer” issue #62, “ Sandman” issue #46, and “Shade the Changing Man” issue #32 all included the same AIDS-prevention short story “Death Talks about Life” that, predictably, starred Death talking in a multi-page monologue to readers. After being oddly dismissive of other sexually-transmitted diseases, Death provided a then-recent overview of HIV/AIDS.
An embarrassed John Constantine assisted with holding a banana to help Death demonstrate putting on a condom. The final notes in the story involved support information and other follow-up resources for readers.
So far as these sorts of public service works went, “Death Talks about Life” wasn’t half bad. Many of the hallmarks of 1990s sex education were touched on and the information was instructive.
Vertigo Preview #1: “The Fear of Falling”
Story Artist: Kent Williams (penciller), Kent Williams (inker)
This seven-page “Sandman” story appeared in the “Vertigo Preview” #1 sampler comic. It centered on an Off-Broadway play director named Todd who was planning on quitting his production.
Todd went to sleep the night before executing his plan and ended up dreaming about an anxiety. Dream encountered Todd on top of a mountain and encouraged him to take the risk that he feared. Todd was shown the next day returning to his production, ready to move forward.
While not a remarkable story, “The Fear of Falling” did provide an adequate preview of Gaiman’s approach to “Sandman.”
Sandman: Midnight Theatre
Story Artist: Teddy Kristiansen (penciller), Teddy Kristiansen (inker)
This lengthy graphic novel was written by Gaiman with Co-writer Matt Wagner. It put a spotlight on the Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodd with Morpheus also playing a role.
Dodd’s interaction with Morpheus in this graphic novel set the stage for Dodd speaking at Morpheus’s funeral in issue #72. That issue came out a couple of months after this graphic novel appeared on stands.
Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #1: “The Flowers of Romance”
Story Artist: John Bolton (penciller), John Bolton (inker)
On sale in November 1997, this issue of the anthology “Vertigo: Winter’s Edge” featured impressive art by John Bolton. It starred a Goat-footed man who had led a long life as a seductress after having been created by Desire.
Desire granted the Goat-footed man one last wish before he would die and that wish ended up playing out on a remote English island. A couple came to spend the holiday on the island but on the first night, the female half of the couple was seduced by the Goat-footed man. The couple left the island soon thereafter.
Bolton’s art in the case of this story was lavish, but one had to question how the story was to be perceived. The goat-footed man appeared to use his own charming aroma and other such tricks to seduce the woman, potentially against her will.
Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #3: “How they Met Themselves”
Story Artist: Michael Zulli (penciller), Michael Zulli (inker)
The 1999 issue of the anthology “Vertigo: Winter’s Edge” contained a 9-page story that featured Desire. It was written by Neil Gaiman with art by Michael Zulli.
In the story, a character named Lizzie in 1862 took a dose of laudanum in despair over her husband’s affair. She had a dream or vision that she was in a train car with a sick woman, her husband, and an unpublished poet. Desire then joined them incognito. Desire sends the group off from a train stop into a property where they each would see their true love. Lizzie and her husband saw themselves in the woods, while the poet saw himself. Lizzie never wakes up from the dream and her husband finds her dead at home. Her husband has promised her in the dream that he would bury his poems in her but a decade later dug them up.
The story was somewhat hard to follow but ultimately tragic. In the woods, Lizzie had seen her husband, herself, and the poet and wasn’t sure after death which of the three she really loved.