This article was originally published at DC Comics News on January 13, 2014.
Neil Gaiman’s return to comics with Sandman: Overture has renewed interest in his original comic masterpiece, Sandman. While waiting for the debut of Overture #2 (which continues to get delayed), it’s worth examining the beginnings of the original series. The first eight issues are collected in a volume entitled Preludes & Nocturnes. The series began by laying out a relatively standard plot, following Morpheus (a.k.a. Dream) on a quest to collect his objects of power after having been imprisoned for one hundred years. The first seven issues were well-written and exemplified the potential of horror in the comic medium just as well as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (1). However, it was eighth issue that first defined the series as being something more; a comic book that would still be considered a masterpiece almost thirty years after its debut.
Sandman #8 is the first issue of the series to establish itself outside of the horror genre. Forgoing the horrific crimes of Doctor Destiny or the twisted former friends of John Constantine, it focuses on a single day that encompasses an ongoing conversation between Dream and his sister, Death. By shedding the fantastic illustrations of demons and inter-dimensional planes by Sam Kieth, Gaiman refocused the series on the central character and his relationships. Rather than having clearly defined objectives—like the MacGuffins provided by his helmet, ruby, and pouch of sand—Morpheus is left to discover his, and the series’, central purpose. This lack of obvious direction and general aimlessness not only helps to focus on Morpheus, but also underlines the themes Gaiman is establishing throughout the story.
That story begins by revealing Morpheus sitting alone feeding pigeons. The world continually attempts to interact with him, but he refuses to engage. He ably stops a soccer ball from striking him, but declines an invitation to join in the game. When Death arrives, he offers minimal responses to her prompts and inquiries. On page five, Death speaks a total of one-hundred words, while Morpheus says only three. He is almost entirely immobile for the first eight pages of the book, only moving a single arm to feed the pigeons and catch the ball. Even this interaction with the pigeons is false, as the birds only respond to the bread. Morpheus never observes the pigeons, only his own purpose of throwing bread. This lack of action reflects his state of mind. Morpheus clearly states what has already been made clear on page eight as he tells his sister, “… The quest was over. I felt… drained. Disappointed. Let down.”
The feeding of the pigeons also reflects his previous relationship with humanity. The bread crumbs he tosses to the almost limitless birds around him reflect the sand (i.e. dreams) from which the series derives its name. He provides a necessary function to the birds, representing dreamers, but does not acknowledge the birds in any significant manner. In the same way, Morpheus—a member of the Endless—serves a function as the lord of dreams, but does not engage with those his title affects on any meaningful level. It’s a pretty clear metaphor that displays the status quo which will be altered throughout the course of the series.
In this way, Gaiman establishes the central conflict of both Sandman #8 and the series as a whole. Individual quests (2) are not a long-term driver of the drama and stories on which Dream thrives. They are distractions. Dream’s real antagonist is not the loss of his power or the collapse of his realm, but his desire to find a fulfilling purpose, his need for change.
In response to Morpheus’ confession, Death invites him to join her for a day of work, which means observing all of the lives she must take. Although it’s implied that Death escorts thousands of people into the afterlife during their time together, the comic focuses on three specific characters. These three characters serve as a collection of mini-stories (3) that reflect a cross-section of humanity. An old man, a middle-aged woman, and ungendered baby express the full range of age and gender. Unfortunately all three characters appear to be both white and American (or Western) in nature missing another opportunity to display the diversity of life with which Morpheus interacts.
All three characters reflect different desires in their moment of death. The old man, singing old songs from memory and manages to say Shema Yisrael, a Jewish prayer, before he passes. His final moments reflect a life filled with memories and old traditions. This contrasts with the young comedian Morpheus encounters next. She is killed while successfully entertaining a crowd. Death leaves her with unfulfilled ambitions. The death of a baby, however, creates the darkest composition of the issue. The child has not had the time to cherish old traditions or begin a career. It can only ask, “Is that all I get?” Even the baby has a life filled with purpose though, reflected in the loving mother who is left behind to mourn.
In these moments and the montage of deaths that follow them, Morpheus is forced to confront humanity in all its multi-faceted beauty and horror. In spite of the diverse nature of the three stories, they are connected by underlying themes. All three of the deceased people were left with unfulfilled desires that they had crafted. Whether it was the dreams of fame as a comedian or the simple will to do more, every person was living in a story of their own creation. This ability to create meaning reveals Dream’s problems to be self-manufactured. He is an immortal being of almost infinite power, but has proven incapable of finding the same willpower held by a baby still incapable of speech.
Despite all of his powers, his problems are still those of humanity. Whether it is viewed through the lens of depression, ennui, “the bad thing” (4), or something else entirely, Morpheus’ lack of purpose and distress are entirely relatable. Although all of the people Morpheus encounters have managed to find meaning and purpose in their own lives, they are not reflective of all of people. They are the source of hope for those struggling, though. In the memories of loved ones, an audience, or one’s mother, all of these people found meaning in other people, not in solitude.
When Death returns Morpheus to his starting point, he acknowledges the journey, saying, “You have taught me something I had forgotten.” Morpheus has been confronted by the source of the problems, his very nature, and now has the opportunity to act upon this new information. This is the central narrative of the following sixty-seven issues of Sandman. The change that Morpheus desires is not easy and comes at a great price.
However, Sandman #8 concludes on a note of hope. The final image reveals Morpheus engaging once more in feeding the birds, but now he has thrown his arms in the air. He is no longer merely performing his duty, but is making an attempt to interact with the world around him and find pleasure in his purpose.
(1) Swamp Thing is another example of a comic that began clearly as a piece of horror fiction (with the masterful The Anatomy Lesson), but quickly evolved beyond its genre-fiction status to become a work of literature not defined by established tropes.
(2) There are a great many individual quests within Sandman. Both A Game of You and Brief Lives exemplify many of the tropes detailed in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. However, these quests always serve characters, using the journey to clarify the conflict of wants and needs, and why this conflict matters to the characters in the story. It’s a clear showing of Gaiman’s genius that he can simultaneously denounce the formula of the hero’s journey while showing how that set of structural ideas has been used to such great effect for millennia. In Sandman, stories matter, not formulas.
(3) This is another concept that would become common throughout all of Sandman: collecting sets of stories together in order to craft a larger tale and explore similar themes. In Worlds’ End he uses this same type of device, but spreads it throughout six issues.
(4) David Foster Wallace, who suffered from depression until he chose to take his own life, defined depression as “the bad thing”. It’s a simple phrase that somehow manages to capture the amorphous darkness that those dealing with depression suffer from. It’s an incredibly complex feeling that is difficult to relate, yet this simple phrase does a better job than anything I’ve yet heard in summarizing that felling.