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The Sandman | Context

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The DC Universe

Comics have existed since the latter part of the 19th century, though only rose to prominence after the Depression (1929–39). Cartoons were typically included along with magazines, newspapers, and other supplements. They were not sold as separate books, unless they were compilations of previous strips as in 1897 with the publication of The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats. It wasn't until Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson partnered with two magazine distributors to form Detective Comics, Inc.—later to become DC Comics—that the modern comic book was born.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age of comics, as known today, began in the 1930s, specifically with the launch of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. Superman ushered in a number of spin-offs and created a genre of costumed heroes with secret identities, including Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. This "golden age" lasted until about 1956, with comics experiencing a surge of popularity with America's entry into World War II (1939–45). It was cheap to ship comics to the soldiers fighting oversees. Nearly 30 percent of the reading material shipped to soldiers were comic books. World War II had an unexpected effect on the future of comics: because of the paper drives during the war, many of the printed comics of the Golden Age were collected and destroyed, thus driving up the price of those existing comics for present-day collectors.

Backlash

After the war, comic sales dropped dramatically. While Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman continued to hold the line of the superhero books, new comics began to climb in popularity. Crime, horror, westerns, and science fiction titles began to rise in popularity and readership during the 1950s, which inevitably led to backlash in the form of Fredric Wertham and his crusade against comics.

Wertham was a psychiatrist who believed there was a link between comics and juvenile delinquency. Though he had no real evidence, he testified at congressional hearings, which led to the comics industry creating the Comics Code Authority in 1954 as an instrument of self-regulation regarding comic content. Because of the rules laid out by the CCA, almost all crime, horror, and dark fantasy comics ceased production or were sanitized to the point of unreadability. Most comic publishers went out of business—either willingly or unwillingly—as a result of these restrictions. Today, the major publishing houses mostly ignore these rules.

The Silver Age

Julius "Julie" Schwartz ushered in the Silver Age of comics in 1956. Under his editorial direction, new origins and updated identities were created for DC's classic characters, putting them more in line with sensibilities of the 1950s. The Silver Age ran until 1970, with most of these characters having survived through today thanks to the retooling.

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age of comics (1970–85) ushered in a wave of younger artists with a more realistic approach to style. Gritty story lines dealing with a hero's failure or characters struggling with personal problems shared space with the usual costumed super-stories. In addition, the CCA relaxed some of its rulings on what content was allowable, leading to a return of horror and supernatural and dark fantasy titles.

These younger creators, like Americans Frank Miller and Garth Ennis and Englishman Alan Moore, took the lead in the years following the Bronze Age. Antiheroes like Miller's version of a grizzled retired Batman in The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore's supernatural Swamp Thing (1982) and his seminal Watchmen (1986–87) defined the new order. Comics took on a more serious, even literary, tone with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel, Maus (1986).

It was during this time that Karen Berger, one of the editors at DC, approached Gaiman to write a revival of a DC title. Neil Gaiman had been working on a pitch for The Sandman and offered it to her. In turn she offered him The Sandman with the caveat he keep the name. He had free rein otherwise to create the character however he liked. Gaiman's sensibility and vision matched nicely with this new dark age.

Inspiration and Influences for The Sandman

Backstory

The character of the Sandman has had several incarnations within the DC Comics universe, though Gaiman's Morpheus is arguably the most famous. The character first appeared in July 1939 in issue #40 of Detective Comics under the name of Wesley Dodds. The next incarnation of the Sandman was in the 1970s with Garrett Sanford assuming the mantle. He worked with two living nightmares (Brute and Glob). Hector Hall became the new Sandman in May 1988 when it was revealed Sanford went insane in the Dream Dimension. In the comic Hall took over Sanford's body. Never a major hit like other DC characters such as Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, the Sandman was ripe for a new take.

Neil Gaiman took a sharp turn from previous versions of the Sandman to create something completely different: a superbeing who wasn't a superhero. Dream of the Endless, the titular Sandman, is a being of immense power who lords over the realm of dreams—governing dreams, fantasies, and stories. He is the personification of a concept, a repository for human ideas. Drawing on myths and archetypes, Gaiman created a universe completely new to DC.

During the run of The Sandman, Gaiman attempted to use characters from the larger DC list:

  • Preludes and Reflections: Wesley Dodds, the 1930s original Sandman; John Constantine from Hellblazer (1993), a con man and mystic with ties to the occult who helps Morpheus find his pouch of dream sand; and Etrigan, a demon Morpheus meets in Hell who was formerly Merlin's demon from The Demon (1972).
  • Members of Justice League International: Martian Manhunter and Scott Free, who help during Morpheus's search for his ruby; and Dr. Destiny/John Dee, who is a former Justice League of America villain who functions as Morpheus's final adversary in regaining his lost tools of office.
  • The Doll's House: Brute and Glob, who were once sidekicks to Jack Kirby's iteration; Jed Walker, who appears in Morpheus's adventure to repair his realm along with Kirby's original take on the dream realm; Hector Hall, another previous version of the Sandman, and his wife, Lyta Hall, who was at one point the daughter of Wonder Woman and then later the daughter of a female superhero known as Fury in another DC comic and time line.

Unfortunately, the problems of using preexisting characters and juggling their histories and time lines made it difficult for Gaiman to do more than mention them. As Gaiman developed the books, he focused more on his own characters and the stories they had to tell. Lyta Hall is the exception. Gaiman changes Lyta to become an integral character in Morpheus's journey.

Mythology

Mythology plays an important role in The Sandman. Gaiman combines elements from Greek, Roman, Japanese, Norse, and British myth and folktales to flesh out a world where they all exist and interact to inform the greater story. His Sandman is the Prince of Stories, encompassing all myths until the collection reads like a meta-myth—a myth about myths. Gaiman draws together all the disparate threads in a tapestry that might make even the Greek Fates, the weavers of lives, envious.

  • Abel: Abel is the son of Adam and Eve in the biblical book, Genesis. He is a shepherd who is killed by his brother, Cain, when God prefers Abel's sacrifice of an animal over Cain's sacrifice of produce. Cain is said to be the first born while Abel is the first to die. In The Sandman Abel is the brother of Cain, the victim in the First Story. He lives in the House of Secrets in the Dreaming, and he is repeatedly killed by Cain indiscriminately throughout the series. He first appears in Preludes and Nocturnes. He also appears in Fables and Reflections, The Kindly Ones, and The Wake.
  • Auberon: Auberon is the French spelling of Oberon, who is the king of Faery in medieval and Renaissance literature. The first appearance of the name Oberon occurs in a 13th-century French epic poem called Les Prouesses et faitz du noble Huon de Bordeaux. The most famous version of Oberon as the king of the fairies comes from British playwright William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595–96). In the play Oberon and Titania, his queen, fight over the possession of an Indian child. In The Sandman Auberon is the Lord of Faerie, husband to Titania, who appears with her in The Dream Country to observe Shakespeare's first performance of the play.
  • Bast: Bast, or Bastet, is the ancient Egyptian goddess of protection and cats. She has a cat head and a human body. Originally she was the goddess of warfare with the head of a lioness in Lower Egypt, but when the two cultures unified, she became the entity more closely aligned with the character in The Sandman series. Cats were highly revered in ancient Egypt due to their ability to kill vermin and snakes, especially cobras. Bast is an Egyptian goddess who visits Morpheus when he possesses the key to Hell in Season of Mists. She claims to know the location of the missing Destruction since she has "eyes" everywhere.
  • Cain: Cain is the firstborn son of Adam and Eve in the biblical book of Genesis and brother to Abel. He is a farmer who offers his produce as a sacrifice to God. When God prefers Abel's sacrifice, Cain kills Abel. God punishes Cain for his crime with a life of wandering and sets a mark on him so no man may kill him. It is because of this mark Morpheus sends Cain as the messenger to Lucifer in Season of Mists, knowing Cain cannot be killed. He lives in the House of Mystery in the Dreaming. He first appears in Preludes and Nocturnes. He also appears in Season of Mists, Fables and Reflections, The Kindly Ones, and The Wake.
  • Calliope: In Greek myth, Calliope, the eldest of the Muses, is the goddess of music, song, dance, and epic poetry. She is the mother to the bard, Orpheus. In The Sandman she is the former wife of Morpheus and mother to Orpheus. She is held against her will by Richard Madoc to provide him with inspiration for his writing and is later rescued by Morpheus in Dream Country.
  • Eurydice: In Greek myth Eurydice is a nymph, a daughter of the sun god, Apollo. On her wedding day to Orpheus, she is pursued by Aristaeus. As she runs from him, she steps on a viper and dies. Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring her back, but when he fails to follow Hades's instructions, she is returned to the Underworld. Gaiman draws on this same mythic story for The Sandman. Eurydice is Orpheus's bride who dies on their wedding night. Her death, and the actions Orpheus takes after it, lead to the death of Morpheus.
  • Eve: In the Book of Genesis in the Bible, Eve is Adam's wife, created by God from Adam's rib. She also bears the brunt of the blame for man's expulsion from Eden after eating from the forbidden tree's fruit. She is also the mother to Cain, Abel, and Seth. In The Sandman Eve is the woman who lives in a cave in the Dreaming with Matthew the raven. She is implied to be Adam's third wife in the tale she tells in Fables and Reflections, which speaks of the creation of Adam's wives. There is no mention of her as Cain or Abel's mother, though. She appears in Fables and Reflections, Brief Lives, and The Kindly Ones.
  • The Hecateae: The Hecateae are a trio of women who first appear in Preludes and Nocturnes. They are seemingly named after Hecate, an Ancient Greek goddess sometimes associated with witchcraft and appearing in triple form. Gaiman draws on numerous incarnations of the triple goddess to create this master myth. This three-in-one idea appears in a number of other myths and religions. In Greek and Roman myth, there are several instances: The Fates, the Furies, and the Kindly Ones. Gaiman uses them in each of their aspects with the Fates being the measurer of lives, the Furies being the punishers of those with blood crimes, and the Kindly Ones being another term for the Furies. The Morrigan in Celtic mythology also contains aspects of the three-in-one. The Maiden incarnation of the Triple Goddess represents birth, youth, and the beginning of things; the Mother represents fertility, life, and sexuality; the Crone represents wisdom, endings, and death. In The Sandman Gaiman uses different aspects of the three-in-one to fit the narrative at the time, though they spend most of the time in the series in their aspect as the Furies. The Furies are an aspect of the three-in-one who punish beings for blood crimes. They attack Morpheus and the Dreaming after he kills his son, Orpheus. They appear in Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House, Dream Country, and The Kindly Ones.
  • Loki: Loki is the Norse god of trickery. He appears in numerous poems of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems, and the Prose Edda, a collection of Old Norse literature. Depending on the source, or the story, Loki can be a helpful ally to Odin and the other gods of the Norse pantheon, or he can be their enemy. In the myths Loki and his children—the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Jörmungand, and Hel—will escape their separate prisons and bring about Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. Gaiman draws on these myths to further his own story, using Loki as an agent of chaos. In The Sandman Morpheus uses Loki and his penchant for trickery to secure his own endgame. When Loki attends the meeting to decide the dispensation of the key to Hell in Season of Mists, Morpheus allows him to remain free of his prisoner and hide his escape from Odin.
  • Lucifer Morningstar: Religions and mythologies differ in their interpretation of the being known as Lucifer. Some Christians believe him to be the equivalent of Satan, though depending on the group, this is open for debate. In Greek myth he was the personification of the morning star. Gaiman takes the more widely held belief Lucifer is a fallen angel who was thrown out of Heaven for rebelling against his creator and works the Christian mythology into his work. In The Sandman Lucifer Morningstar is the first among the Fallen, and the ruler of Hell. Morpheus earns his enmity when he goes to Hell to retrieve his helm in Preludes and Nocturnes. He also appears in Season of Mists and The Kindly Ones.
  • Medusa: In Greek myth Medusa is the mortal sister of the group of three gorgons. Commonly portrayed with snakes for hair, her gaze could turn men to stone. She is killed by Perseus and her head adorns Zeus's shield. While she never appears in The Sandman, her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, are looking for someone to replace her. When Lyta Hall appears during her dream quest for Daniel, she begins to imagine her hair turning into snakes, a reference to Medusa.
  • Odin: The ruler of the Aesir, the pantheon of Norse gods. He has one eye, having sacrificed the other for knowledge, and possesses two ravens named Huginn and Muninn who go into the world and collect information for him. He is fated to die during Ragnarok. Like Loki, Odin appears in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. He is the god of death, knowledge, battle, and the gallows. In The Sandman Odin is one of the supplicants seeking the key to Hell so as to avoid Ragnarok and his eventual death. Gaiman draws on Norse myths and makes them a part of the meta-myth that is The Sandman.
  • Orpheus: In Greek myth Orpheus is a great bard and the son of Calliope. He marries Eurydice only to have her die on their wedding day. Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring her back. His song moves the Furies to tears, and Hades agrees to release Eurydice so long as Orpheus obeys the rules of her release. When Orpheus fails to follow Hades's instructions, Eurydice is returned to the Underworld. Gaiman draws on this same mythic story for The Sandman, though he adds in the Endless, Morpheus's siblings. Orpheus is helped by Destruction and Death to descend into the Underworld against Morpheus's wishes, which leads to the deterioration of the relationship between father and son.
  • Puck: In English folklore Puck is a nature sprite, a demon, or a fairy. He is famed for his mysterious pranks. He is also referred to as Robin Goodfellow. William Shakespeare's Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a servant to King Oberon whose trickery causes a great deal of mischief as he carries out his lord's orders. In The Sandman Puck is another agent of chaos who remains in the realm of men after the Faery court retreats from it. Gaiman draws more from the folklore resources where Puck's trickery is more violent and chaotic rather than Shakespeare's merry prankster to make him a more sinister threat to Morpheus.
  • Thor: In Norse mythology Thor is the god of thunder, lightning, and storms. He wields the mighty hammer, Mjolnir, and is destined to die fighting the world serpent Jörmungand during Ragnarok. Like Loki, Thor appears in the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Thor tends to be one of Loki's favorite people to trick, though some stories have the two allied to protect Asgard and travel with Odin. In The Sandman Thor appears as a dumb brute, functioning as muscle for Odin to keep Loki in line when they visit Morpheus in Season of Mists. Gaiman draws on the legends of Thor's strength and amplifies those of his gullibility.
  • Titania: Titania is the queen of the fairies, though she did not receive this name until Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the play she and Oberon fight over the possession of an Indian child. In The Sandman Titania is queen of the fairies, wife to Auberon, and she may have had an affair with Morpheus. She appears with Auberon in The Dream Country to observe Shakespeare's first performance of the play their characters star in.

Literature

The Sandman references a number of other writers throughout its volumes. Drawing on popular writers from the 1990s as well as much older influences, Gaiman weaves all of literature into his story about the Prince of Stories.

  • L. Frank Baum: Baum was the American author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 14 sequels. Originally published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz tells the story of Dorothy who is uprooted by a cyclone and ends up in the Land of Oz where she goes on a number of adventures with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion to get back to her home in Kansas. Gaiman uses several references to Oz in A Game of You, a story that bears a striking resemblance to Baum's work. In it a young woman is sent far away from her home to travel to meet a mysterious entity that threatens the land with her three companions. In the end Barbie, the main character of A Game of You, decides to take the Dorothy option to get her and three friends home.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer: Chaucer lived in 14th-century England and is considered to be the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. He wrote in Middle English, the language at the time, when most literature was written in French or Latin. He is best known for The Canterbury Tales (1476), a collection of stories told by travelers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Gaiman draws inspiration from Chaucer in both Fables and Reflections when Eve, Cain, and Abel gather to tell stories to entertain Daniel and Matthew, and in Worlds' End. Worlds' End takes place at an inn where people are gathered to wait out a reality storm and so pass the time telling stories, each person taking a turn. Each story is as varied as their narrator and they range in topic widely, just as Chaucer's narrators and subject matter did.
  • G.K. Chesterton: Chesterton was an English writer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is most famous for his Father Brown stories, starring an amateur priest-detective who solves mysteries with his keen observations of human nature. Gaiman has said he read Chesterton a great deal during his childhood. He based the character of Gilbert, the human incarnation of Fiddler's green (a place in the Dreaming that goes missing during Morpheus's captivity), on Chesterton's appearance and affectations.
  • Ben Jonson: Jonson was an English playwright, poet, and actor who lived and wrote in the latter years of the 16th century. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. He is widely considered the second most important playwright after Shakespeare during the reign of King James I (1603–25). Legends sprang up of a rivalry with Shakespeare though a rivalry or a friendship cannot be confirmed. The two certainly knew of each other: Shakespeare's company performed Jonson's plays, with Shakespeare most likely acting in them. Gaiman chooses to embellish a friendship between the two playwrights by having Jonson visit Shakespeare in Stratford when Shakespeare is working on The Tempest (1611). The two appear to have a good-natured rivalry, with Jonson offering his criticisms on various works and urging Shakespeare to return with him to London.
  • John Milton: John Milton was an English poet in the 17th century. His most famous work is the epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), which tells the story of the aftermath of Satan's fall and the fall of man as Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden. One of the most famous lines of the work is Satan claiming, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," which Gaiman uses in Season of Mists. Gaiman's interpretation of Lucifer owes much to Milton, whose Satan reads like a tragic hero in Paradise Lost. Gaiman's Lucifer holds all of the arrogance and power of Milton's Satan, and is still sympathetic and somehow likeable. When Lucifer uses Milton's words to describe his rebellion and attributes them to Milton, Gaiman draws a direct parallel between the two characters to deepen the symbolism of tragic rebellion and outcast Lucifer represents.
  • Alan Moore: Moore is an English writer best known for work in comics, especially the seminal Watchmen (1986). A contemporary of Gaiman's, he invigorated comics with his nuanced stories and antiheroes. Gaiman gives a nod to Alan Moore's Watchmen in Worlds' End. One of the prominent symbols of Watchmen was the smiley face button with the blood drop across the face; in the story "The Golden Boy," a similar blood-spattered smiley face appears. This, combined with a heroic character that fixes and builds watches and clocks, seems designed to draw parallels to Watchmen. With similar themes of deceit, time, and patriotism expressed in both stories, Moore's influence is palpable.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: Poe was an American poet and writer who lived and wrote in the 1800s. Famous for his mysteries and works of horror, one of Poe's most recognized works is the poem, The Raven (1845). A man is visited by a raven during a stormy night and slowly loses his mind as the bird only answers his questions with "Nevermore." Gaiman draws on this well-known phrase by having Morpheus's raven, Matthew, do his own imitation of the raven from Poe's work.
  • William Shakespeare: Two issues of The Sandman concern Shakespeare and two of his most popular plays. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April of 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and had two children with her: a daughter named Judith and a son named Hamnet. Hamnet died while still a child in 1596. Not much is known of Shakespeare's life in the late 1580s, but by the end of 1592, Shakespeare was an established playwright in London. Shakespeare was an actor, writer, and partial owner of an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. After the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I in 1603, the troupe changed their name and became the King's Men. By 1599 Shakespeare and his business partners had built the Globe Theater on the banks of the Thames. Shakespeare continued to spend time in London overseeing his company, though he did return to Stratford to retire.

    Gaiman incorporates Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in his volume, Dream Country. It is a comedy that details the events surrounding the upcoming marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta. The king and queen of the fairies are in a fight over who will keep an Indian boy and four Athenians are chasing each other through the woods while six amateur actors rehearse a play. Through a series of tricks and mistakes, the young lovers end up coupled off, the Indian boy belongs to the fairy king, and the king and queen are reunited. Gaiman makes Shakespeare a character in The Sandman who has made a deal with Morpheus for inspiration for the cost of two plays. A Midsummer Night's Dream is the first of the two plays owed Morpheus and he demands a performance of it for the very creatures the play is about. This performance allows Puck to remain in the human world to cause trouble for Morpheus later in the series.

    The second play, The Tempest, features an exiled magician named Prospero who lives with his daughter after being betrayed by his brother who wished to be the Duke of Milan. Prospero conjures a storm to wreck the ship on which his brother travels and exposes his brother's machinations to the king. Prospero's daughter marries the king's son and they all return to Milan with Prospero giving up his magic for good. Gaiman focuses on Shakespeare's writing of the play rather than the performance of it, as he did with A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is Morpheus's goodbye to both Shakespeare and the readers of the series, as the last issue of The Sandman's run. It serves as Gaiman's goodbye as well.

Publication History and Cultural Impact

The first issue of The Sandman was issued on November 29, 1988, though it was cover-dated January 1989. Throughout the span of its run, it attracted an audience previously unseen in mainstream comics and developed an intense cult following due to its intelligence and interest in telling different stories with characters not seen in the comic universe. It had a huge female readership, especially those who had never read comics before, due in part to Gaiman's portrayal and inclusion of female characters, especially Death. Les Daniels, a comics' historian, called The Sandman a "mixture of fantasy, horror, and ironic humor such as comic books had never seen before." In its initial run it was a critically acclaimed success for DC and its imprint, Vertigo, and remains successful.

The series won numerous awards in its run, including a World Fantasy Award in 1991 for one of the stories collected in Dream Country, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Gaiman won in the Best Short Story category (renamed in 2016 as the Short Fiction category). Due to Gaiman's win, the awards were clarified so graphic novels were not eligible to compete in the short story category. Instead, comic and graphic novels are now considered for the Special Award Professional category and the Short Fiction award is relegated to prose.

The Sandman was one of the first graphic novels to ever hit the New York Times Best-Seller list. It took its place among such standouts of the genre as American cartoonist Art Spiegelman's Maus and English writer Alan Moore's Watchmen. Its influence over graphic novels and the fantasy genre is far-reaching even today. Gaiman's work on The Sandman brought comics to the mainstream, appealing to readers who wanted something more out of their entertainments. Gaiman was also one of the first writers to be allowed to end the series with his departure, a move which opened the door for other creators and artists to do the same. And without The Sandman, there would have been no Vertigo imprint and the subsequent stories it published. Notable writers have written forewords or introductions for several books in the The Sandman series. These include American science fiction and horror authors Stephen King, Peter Straub, Gene Wolfe, and English writer Clive Barker.

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