The first issue of The Sandman must have been a curious sight to behold on the racks among the superhero books. Dave McKean’s cover, an impressionistic painting of a ghostly face staring with whiteout eyes, photographed with a collage of items on the either side, instantly announced The Sandman as something unique compared to the popular DC and Marvel comics that loudly proclaimed their wares. While his fellow comic writers such as Alan Moore, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison put their own spin on superheroes, injecting a punk, satirical ethos springing off their work on British sci-fi anthology comics, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman charted its own path, drawing its characters not from the DC universe but from the annals of history and mythology.
The eponymous Sandman is Morpheus, the personification of Dreaming. His siblings, the Endless, embody other facets of existence, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destiny. The first story starts with Morpheus imprisoned for decades, then escaping and retrieving the objects that give him powers. Initially starting as a horror-adjacent title set in the DC universe featuring DC characters, The Sandman bloomed into a sprawling fable spanning across time, and sometimes space, often careening towards convention only to defy it.
Like many fans, I discovered The Sandman in my teens and I had never come across anything like it and haven’t since. It feels un-categorisable, existing in a genre of its own. Despite many derivatives, there haven’t been any substitutes or capable claimants to its throne.
Such a thing is, of course, difficult to adapt into the rigid form of Hollywood cinema, or even streaming television. That didn’t stop a bunch of stillborn attempts over the years — the most infamous being a bastardised screenplay commissioned by A Star is Born producer Jon Peters in the ’90s, which died an ignoble death after being torn to shreds in a geek blog.
The comic books fandom has had a checkered relationship with Netflix after some middling adaptations of beloved geek properties. That disappointment even spawned a popular meme: an artwork diminishing in quality as it went from the source material to Netflix adaptation, the latter a barely recognisable version of the original. When Netflix announced it would be adapting The Sandman, fans were understandably worried despite Gaiman’s involvement.
The first time it was adapted into another medium was under the aegis of Gaiman himself. Directed by audio drama veteran Dirk Maggs, the terrific Sandman audio drama was a faithful transmutation of the source material with an A-list cast featuring James McAvoy as the titular character. Meanwhile, another one of Gaiman’s books, Good Omens, was adapted into a warmly received Amazon Original. Gaiman was heavily involved in the production of the show, and he ascribes its success to him finally getting the Sandman gig.
Now that the show is out, The Sandman seems to have been, for the most part, positively received. In broad strokes, the show remains faithful to the original plot, making minor changes to ease its transition into a stand-alone web series. The casting, which angered some right-wing quarters on account of its diversity, is terrific. Its cannot be categorised, and its genre-agnostic nature feels unique in the streaming landscape. The fans who fell in love with the comic book seem to have embraced the live action adaptation. For me, at its best, it is everything I wanted a Sandman adaptation to be, and at its worst, it’s inoffensive. What it lacks is bite.
In the comics, Gaiman brought artists like Mike Dringenberg, Charles Vess, Jill Thompson, Colleen Doran and others whose styles and storytelling radically differed from the usual superhero fare. Some of them, such as Sam Kieth, went on to influence the frenzied style that became a hallmark of ’90s comic books. Considering how visually ambitious the comic was, the show feels relatively uninspired. Granted, a comic book page is far more malleable than film but, other than a few nifty sequences, it leaves one wanting. A show about dreams should feel more like one, and the comic definitely did.
The Sandman was progressive for its time, featuring a lesbian, a transgender woman and a non-binary character. The show preserves that heritage by casting people-of-colour as characters who were white and women as characters who were men in the original, and they’re all terrific, but it left me wishing it was telling stories that would feel radical now as they did back in the ’90s. The show’s greatest strength and weakness is that it sticks close to the script. The comic felt dangerous; it felt transgressive. The show seems to be slightly more squeamish when it comes to violence and horror. All the sex is unsexy, all the violence neutered and distant. A sequence where a character barely escapes assault felt terrifying on page but feels maudlin on screen. “24/7”, based on the infamous Diner issue, while still effective, feels dull in comparison to what was originally on the page.
Friends and family who haven’t pored over the books like I have seem to be quite taken with this adaptation. Other fans, too, have been far more effusive with their praise. I have to admit, even with caveats, that it’s a better adaptation than I’d expected. The Sandman’s first season covers the first two major story arcs, where the comic still hadn’t found its way. It’s the next few stories that make The Sandman what it is. If Gaiman and his team are allowed true creative independence, we could be in for something really special.
Featured image: DC Comics