Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (homo silicanus)

Qcumbers Should Be Thinly Sliced, Placed Between Two Slices Of Well Buttered Bread And Gobbled Up Quickly

Neil Gaiman first came to public attention with The Sandman, a comic book / graphic novel / call it what you will, published by DC Comics between January 1989 and March 1996 . I’ve not read the comic, and I never will read it. I have a blind spot as far as comics are concerned. The continuity bewilders me. I pay far too much attention to the words in the speech bubbles and not enough attention to the artwork. Consequently I often miss important story details that appear in the art but are never mentioned in the dialogue. Probably that’s why the continuity bewilders me. So even though great critical praise was poured upon The Sandman, it remained (quite literally) a closed book to me for many years. I kept hoping that it would be (re)published in a medium that was more accessible to me. But the years went by and nothing happened. It seemed that I was doomed to remain immune to the Sandman’s charms.

And then a miracle took place. The Sandman appeared, almost simultaneously, as both an Audiobook and as a Netflix television series. I’ve spent a lot of time binge listening / binge watching both of them and I’m pleased to report that each incarnation held me utterly spellbound. The Sandman is everything the critics said it was and more besides. It is an amazingly brilliant tour de force.

The audiobook is a dramatic presentation which means that actors take the parts of the various characters and a narrator links the scenes with commentary, exposition and description. Every so often there is a sound effect. The audiobook narrator is Neil Gaiman himself which is definitely an added bonus! Gaiman was also a producer on the TV series and was closely involved with each and every episode. So it is quite safe to say that both these new incarnations of his magnum opus have the Gaiman Seal of Approval.

I’m told that the audiobook is almost a one to one transcription of the original comic so listening to it is the closest I will ever get to experiencing the story as Gaiman originally conceived it. The TV series, on the other hand, does make some quite significant changes to the original, and while these changes might annoy some purists, I think that the final result actually presents a much stronger story. The original publication has a lot of references to the DC Comic universe – presumably because DC was the publisher and therefore I assume that they insisted on stamping their imprimatur on it. Several DC characters have small parts to play in the stories. I think that is a mistake – the naive childishness of the DC universe definitely sits uneasily in the story line. The Sandman is neither naive nor childish. Norman Mailer, of all people, called it "...a comic book for intellectuals". It really has no need of the DC comic links because it stands quite happily on its own merits. The producers of the TV series have recognised this and have expunged all the DC references. They’ve also reordered some of the story lines and omitted or abridged others. In every case I think their decisions were the correct ones. I watched each episode with open-mouthed wonder. I was completely blown away by it

So what’s The Sandman all about? Like most fictions, it’s just a story about people, creatures and supernatural beings going about their day to day business. What makes it stand out from the crowd is how well the characters are realised, how fully rounded they are and how complex, subtle and interlinked the story line becomes. There’s a serial killer called The Corinthian who takes the eyes of his victims, two Goth girls who have the largest collection of stuffed spiders on the East coast, a married couple called Ken and Barbie (surely that relationship can’t last?), a cute baby gargoyle called Goldie and a sardonic raven called Matthew. These, along with gods, fallen angels, demons, black magicians, muses, the mother, the maiden and the crone, you, me and all our friends, have lots and lots of stories to tell.

But underneath the attention-grabbing spectacle of the surface trappings The Sandman is really (if that word actually means anything in this context) about life, the universe and everything. And if you want to say "42" back to me I wouldn’t argue. That’s just as valid a definition of the story’s themes as any other. It’s what makes the story so strong – the whole thing is built up from criss-crossing layers glued together like sheets of plywood. The crossed grains are what gives the structure its strength and what makes it so difficult to break. So you can read into it almost anything that you want – it’s all there for the taking.

Structurally The Sandman as a whole is made up of a multitude of stories, some long and some short, which take place across all of recorded and unrecorded history and beyond. That makes the whole thing rather hard to summarise, of course! All the individual stories are connected to each other, to a greater or lesser extent, and there is a definitely unifying thread holding them together – that thread is Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. He’s one of the Endless, he’s always been there and he always will be. He’s the bridge between the waking world (reality, if you like, though the definition of that is a bit slippery) and the dreaming world. When we sleep we enter worlds that are, more or less, under his control and he populates those worlds with dreams and with nightmares that occasionally leak over into the waking world.  Sometimes Morpheus steps in to control the flow of the narrative, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes the stories are all about him, sometimes they aren’t. But either way, there is always a devil, real or imagined, in the details. Small things that you might assume to be nothing more than bits of business in one story turn out to be of major importance in another. And vice versa as well, of course. That’s quite a tapestry. Or perhaps it’s a quilt.

There is a lot more to the The Sandman universe than just the waking world and the dreaming. Some of the stories take place in other realms and some involve other members of the family of the Endless. Some of the stories happen in places outside the control of any of the Endless – fae, hell (and presumably heaven) and also in the domains ruled over by various panoplies of gods. Perhaps because of this, the overall story arc is chock full of symbolism, much of it lifted wholesale from semi-familiar myths and legends taken from a multitude of different cultures (though the uses to which Gaiman puts his pilferings are wholly original). Furthermore, not content with borrowing everything from everywhere, he also makes a lot of it up from whole cloth as well, just because he can and because it fits the story. At this point I’m tempted to start muttering about anthropomorphic personalisations of archetypes, and I would, if it didn’t sound so pretentious and if one of the anthropomorphic personalisations hadn’t already said something similar in one of the stories that it starred in. Nevertheless that statement is not an entirely untrue summary of what The Sandman presents to the reader / listener / viewer. But despite all the literary trickery, when you get right down to it the stories all involve people (or, sometimes, entities) with whom it is easy to identify, to sympathise with and to cheer for. It’s impossible not to get deeply involved with every single story thread, not to feel elated at the triumphs, not to weep at the tragedies, not to wince at the cruelty, not to laugh at the jokes. Despite the serious nature of the story, it’s full of humour, both overt and covert. Even the bleakest episodes have their lighter moments. "Bugger off!" says one character when questioned about a plot point. "I’m dead!"

I’ve listened to the audiobook once and I’ve watched the TV series twice. Oddly I enjoyed the TV series twice as much the second time around even though I absolutely loved it the first time! I think this is because I knew what was going to happen in later episodes and therefore I could spot little clues that I’d missed the first time. For example, one of the early episodes is set in a diner. Over the course of the story one of the characters makes several telephone calls. One of these calls is to a character who plays a major role in a later episode. In itself that’s not important – it’s perfectly possible to watch and enjoy the whole thing without noticing that little detail (the call takes up only a few seconds of screen time). But once I had noticed it, I thoroughly enjoyed this little snippet of continuity. The whole series is absolutely stuffed full of lovely little touches like that and if, like me, you enjoy playing the game of spot the reference you’ll have a ball.

But be warned, you really do have to pay very close attention to what is going on. I’ve seen several reviews that complain about how incoherent the programme is, how it makes no sense, how it all seems quite arbitrary and lacking in cohesion. I can only assume that these people were watching the show out of the corner of their eye while they were busy doing something else – bookfacing, tok-ticking, instantly gramming or perhaps just chilling out. If you concentrate on the programme and watch it with your full attention, you’ll find that none of these criticisms apply. There are reasons for everything and everything makes sense, though you will often have to wait patiently to find out what those reasons are and where the sense of it all lies – this isn’t a programme for those seeking instant gratification. It’s deep and it’s slow and it’s thoughtful and it repays careful viewing.

The Sandman was originally published in 75 (presumably rather slim) comic books. Later it was republished in ten definitive volumes. The audiobook covers the first five of these volumes and the TV series covers the first two. So both of them have a lot more material to work with if each of them continue to be developed. I for one certainly hope that they do.

Neil Gaiman The Sandman Audible
Neil Gaiman The Sandman Netflix
Previous Contents Next