I had heard over the proverbial grapevine that The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman (writer of the films Stardust and Coraline) was an excellent graphic novel, so on one of my regular visits to the fantastic geek-Mecca that is Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue I picked up the first volume, then the second on my next visit, and then the third.
Then I just gave up trying to space them out and bought the whole remainder of the series from Amazon, and devoured them within a few days.
It’s one of the most astonishing, wonderful, imaginative, collection of tales I have ever read. To (probably mis)quote one of the introductions, “If this isn’t literature, nothing is.”
The central figure (I would say protagonist, but often he isn’t) is Dream, Lord of the Dreaming, Prince of stories; the very personification of the act of dreaming itself. The idea of dreams is at the very heart of The Sandman – the tales are often fantastical and nonsensical, but at the same time have a truth to them, a resonance that’s undeniable. There’s horror and humour, profundity and absurdity.
Neil Gaiman is the kind of person whose writing both simultaneously makes me want and not want to become a writer; his tales are so fantastic that it makes you fall in love with story-telling, but simultaneously despair that you would never be able to arrange words as wonderfully and as eloquently as he, or touch on so many themes, or make such excellent historical and mythological illusions, or have so many dazzling ideas.
The story has an overall arc and theme, summarised by Gaiman himself as:
“The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Twisted alongside that main tale are squabbles with his family the Endless, his brother and sister personifications, e.g. his older brother Destiny, older sister Death, and the particularly antagonistic Desire, who is simultaneously male and female and the tales of the lesser beings who come into contact with Dream and the rest of the Endless, like the cat who dreams and learns that once cats ruled the world before the dreams of men revised history, or the man in the Middle Ages who learns how to live forever, and meets Dream once a century for a drink in the same pub, or the Roman emperor Augustus who is told to pretend to be a marketplace beggar once a year.
The writing I literally could not have more effusive praise for; it is utterly magnificent. However, this being a graphic novel, writing is only half the story, which is part of the wonderful richness of the medium; there’s the art.
This being a very long series there are a number of different artists who’ve worked on this series, so there might well be some you enjoy, some you won’t. There are some incredibly standouts; the work of P. Craig Russel in the story “Ramadan” is breathtakingly wonderful, for instance. Overall, they do a really good job of embodying the strange world of Dream.
I really couldn’t recommend The Sandman highly enough. Anybody who knows me can ask and I’ll lend you the first volume. Or second or third, and the stand-alone set of stories, Endless Nights; alas, that’s all I have with me.
All that remains to be said is that I really, really want Neil Gaiman to write an episode of Doctor Who. He’s British, he’s a fantastic writer, it needs to happen.