The Sandman: The Essential Horror Comic of the ’90s

While The Sandman had plenty of literary aspirations, it was always a horror comic at heart.

When Sandman began in 1989, Neil Gaiman was just another British writer following in the footsteps of the likes of Alan Moore. When it ended, Gaiman had created one of the most enduring long form pieces of fiction of the twentieth century and carved out a niche for himself as an industry giant. Sandman broke barriers and expectations taking comics into a new dawn of possibilities. By creating stories about the nature of dreams, Mr. Gaiman and his team of artists (including luminaries like Sam Keith, Dave McKean, Jill Thompson, Michael Zulli, and more) dared the comic industry to dream bigger.

Sandman transcended so-called industry limitations because it didn’t pigeonhole itself into one genre. Sandman was epic fantasy at its finest, grand in scope and ideas, it was a metaphysical examination on the nature of fiction, and it was, at its heart, a horror story. In a 1998 interview with Hero Complex, Neil Gaiman discussed the nature of horror at Sandman’s beginning, “At the beginning it was a horror comic. Those first eight issues was a sort of horror comic. After that it became more of, I guess, a fantasy tale, but one that allowed me to go off and write about Shakespeare or history.” Yes, after the first eight issues, Sandman morphed into something beyond a horror comic, but the horror roots remained throughout the book’s 75 issue run, a dark sun at the center of a complex and ever changing universe, making Sandman one of the most influential horror comics in history.

Sandman was a unique project in that it explored myths and legends from every angle and iteration. It made the concept of story a character within a story, as all stories live in Dream, the series’ Robert Smith quaffed protagonist. It was a non-linear endeavor, jumping around through time and space as quickly as it jumped around point-of-view. One issue would be told from the POV of Dream, another from William Shakespeare, another from an obscure, almost forgotten comic book character like Prez or Element Girl. 

Not only did Sandman mine horror tropes of modern and classic fiction, it made the horror icons of the DC Universe an important part of the story. For years, DC Comics featured Cain & Abel, the Three Witches, and Destiny as the hosts of their line of horror anthologies. By the time Sandman was published, these characters were all but footnotes, but Gaiman made them integral parts of his mythos. Cain and Abel and the Witches would soon return in other titles, becoming iconic Vertigo staples. While Gaiman weaved his horror legend in Sandman, he made sure the roots of DC horror were never forgotten.

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From the earliest issues of Sandman, the title’s horror roots were evident. In the first issue, Sandman is captured by the magician Roderick Burgess, who, in Gaiman’s story, is a rival of famed occultist Aleister Crowley. The Faustian deal is the first of an endless series of horror tropes utilized in Sandman. Burgess, based in part on seventeenth century real life alchemist, mathematician, and wannabe demon summoner, John Dee, was originally trying to capture Dream’s sister, Death, but ended up with the Sandman.

With the center of a familiar horror story beating, Gaiman spread his tale throughout the DC Universe and real life occult history. The inaugural issue ends, decades later, with Sandman escaping, punishing Burgess’ son with a lifetime of nightmares. The ironic and suitable revenge gives the first issue a Poe-like finality, as the guilty is punished through the destruction of a family legacy.

After Dream’s escape, the first volume of Sandman, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” centered on Dream’s exploration of the DC Universe as he sought his magic totems. This quest took him inside the dreams of DC mainstays like Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle, and even inside the walls of one of DC’s most horrific settings, Arkham Asylum. The very name of the prison for the insane was lifted from the works of H.P. Lovecraft creating a perfect synergy of horror elements from pulp literature and comics.

Before his journey takes him to Arkham, Dream finds himself in Hell, the root point of all supernatural horror tales. In this setting, Gaiman gets to play with horror elements like demons, the damned, and the nature of eternal torment. Most of all, readers are introduced to Lucifer, a character who defies his own archetype and comes off as a multi-layered character where evil is just a small piece of a complex puzzle. He is a sophisticate, an aristocrat, a polite devil (and occasional David Bowie lookalike), who wants to play a game of wits with Dream.

There is no greater horror icon than Lucifer, but Gaiman stretches the genre to shape Lucifer into a new type of horror, a self-aware demon inflicted with ennui. Gaiman ask the question, if the most evil being in creation finds existence meaningless, what chance do the rest of us mere mortals have. At Lucifer’s side was Mazikeen, a demoness who had half her visage rotted and peeled away. In Mazikeen, we see the temptress on one side, the crone on the other, a physical horror who had her once beautiful form transformed into a monstrosity. The kiss shared by Mazikeen and Lucifier remains one of the most enduring and disturbing visuals in the entire series. In The Sandman’s new world of horror, the things that go bump in the night had fears of their own.

This willingness to shake the fabric of myth and legend was seen in Sandman’s next stop, Arkham Asylum. Gaiman took readers to Hell, but now he took them to Hell on Earth, where readers were reintroduced to the Silver Age Justice League villain, Dr. Destiny. Veteran readers knew Dr. Destiny as a classic Justice League villain, but as usual, Gaiman defied convention, and even the most stone hearted comic book reader could not be prepared for what Destiny would do next.

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Wielding Dream’s mind controlling ruby, Destiny experiments on a group of diner customers, what follows is one of the most claustrophobic, harrowing, and visceral stories ever to appear on a comic page. The reading experience is enhanced by the fact that readers were familiar with Destiny: once he was a “safe” villain, going only as far as comic villains go, no different than, say, a Kanjar Ro or an Insect Queen, but now, this familiar baddie from the bygone days of childhood had committed unspeakable acts. Like all great horror stories, Sandman had turned the sacred into the profane, the innocence of the Silver Age into the anything goes carnival ride that was the experimental age, or, as MTV Geek says in this 2012 review, ”the story asks what would happen if you gave a complete and utter lunatic the power of a god?” After the Destiny issue, fans knew that there was no safety net for this series, that the horror was real, and it would not spare the innocent.

The Sandman series became more of a modern Dark Fantasy in “The Doll’s House” rather than the pure horror of “Preludes and Nocturnes,” but there can be no doubt that both classic and innovative horror elements are part of the second volume. Where the story starts out as a modern fantasy quest, there are plenty of stopovers in the protagonist’s (Rose) journey into realms of true horror. Early on in the second volume, Sandman meets an escaped nightmare from the realm of Dreaming, the Corinthian.

If one considers horror to be reality out of control, the Corinthian is the metaphysical idea that pushed reality off the rails. He is a horrid creature, two mouths where his eyes should be and absolutely no morals. The Corinthian is the nightmare archetype, to match the Jungian ideas embodied in other characters like Cain, Abel, Eve, and Fiddler’s Green. When readers see the Corinthian’s gaping maw of an orbital socket they understand a cloud just passed over the sun of the Dreaming. It’s one thing to have the Corinthian exist on metaphysical realm of the Dreaming, but it’s another to have this nightmare made flesh tear into the real world and threaten our all too flesh and blood heroine. In her brilliant look at horror archetypes, author Shannon Appelcline describes the archetype of the devourer, a category that the Corinthian certainly fits, “Some things do not wish to simply murder us, but rather to prey upon us instead. We provide some sort of substance to them, and in this way we are no more than cattle.” For the Corinthian, that sustenance would be human fear.

Along with beings like the Corinthian, there were  contemporary nightmares to focus on. One of the most memorable of these modern terrors was the serial killer convention featured in “The Doll’s House.” Comic fans are certainly familiar with the convention experience, and by applying this joyful community activity to serial killers, Mr. Gaiman showed the horror of his world is just part of the landscape. The examination into the serial killer was given a fresh coat of paint in the fresh idea of a serial killer gathering, or as a 2013 article on this gathering of killers states, “Gaiman offers poignant observations that disturb and fascinate. What do serial killers talk about at a convention? Do they enjoy dancing? What do they like to drink? Indeed, their casual intrigues are some of the most notable moments of the issue.” This casual approach to the serial killer archetype somehow makes them even more frightening. The idea that these monsters get to enjoy their life through play and social interactions contrasts the final state of their victims. The convention shows that nightmare is not limited to the Dreaming.

The nature of horror is change, from the predictable to the uncontrollable, to the mundane to the unknowable. This theme can be seen in the transformation of man to wolf in the Wolfman, from living to dead in the countless zombie films of the past half century, or from man to demon in many films and stories, including DC’s own Etrigan the Demon. The nature of dream is change, from wakefulness to sleep, from reality to dream logic. Horror and dreaming are similar states where a person has no control. When a man dreams, he rolls the dice between metaphysical experiences, surreal experiences, and nightmare, so it was only natural that the natural order of things in the Dreaming was, at times, horror.

Volume three of Sandman, “Dream Country,” was an exploration of the different possibilities of dream. One such story juxtaposes the familiar elements of a super-hero tale with the horror of body alteration and mental illness. The unlikely protagonist of the story was Element Girl, an almost forgotten DC heroine. In the tale, Element Girl longs for death as she grows weary with her freakish metahuman anatomy. Tired of her existence as a super freak, Element Girl ponders suicide even though her powers make her functionally immortal. The tale explores the dark heart of a once innocent genre as Gaiman forces the horrors of self-doubt and self-loathing into the heart of a once innocent symbol of heroism. The story explores the theme of the horrors of everyday life to a being who has been gifted, or cursed, with the extraordinary. It is a poignant and gut wrenching tale that strangely ends on a happy note when Dream’s sister, Death, finally visits Element Girl granting her release. The constant irony of The Sandman is that Dream potentially brings horrors but Death always brings mercy and release.

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The Sandman, being the living embodiment of dream, hands out rich fantasies and nightmares depending on his situation. Dream saves Rose in Doll’s House but willingly inflicts horrors on his own true love, Nada. In volume four, “Season of Mists,” Dream returns to Hell to release the woman he imprisoned there so long ago. Nada’s tragic tale is one of feminist horror as she takes on the role of victim and is tormented for her feminine nature. She is the roll of love, not temptress or vixen, but of a pure love that Dream could not reciprocate. She is the victim wandering in the darkness waiting for the monster to strike, but In Nada’s case, the monster was Gaiman’s protagonist blurring the lines between hero and monster in Gaiman’s world.

These lines are further blurred as Dream is given the key to Hell by Lucifer, who wishes to abandon his duties as Hell’s keeper. What follows is Dream’s quest to find the new ruler of Hell, as horror archetypes vie for the key. Gaiman humanizes them, filling the demons with unfulfilled desire and ambition. They become more than just boogiemen, but dreamers themselves. In fact, the story ends with the greatest monster in world history, Lucifer, the devil himself, sitting on a beach admiring a sunset. By having the antithesis of God studying God’s divine work, the traditional horror role is cast away, informing the reader that the greatest monsters are not always the ones cast in the role, as the suffering of Nada at the usually magnanimous Dream reminds us.

The horrors in Sandman are sometimes friendly, like the Dead Boy Detectives and Death herself, but they never stop being unsettling. Readers want to be Superman or Batman, that is the nature of heroic storytelling, but what reader is not chilled to the core by the Dead Boy Detectives? The reader is drawn to them, feels for them, and roots for them, but no reader would ever want to be them. That is their role in the hierarchy of horror: they may be likable, but they will always remain removed from the reader’s reliability. The same idea of the likable but chilling archetype is embodied in the witch, Thessaly. Like the Dead Boys, Thessaly is every inch a witch, and while she is likable and compelling, she is an incredibly unsettling character, because her character roots are firmly planted in the realm of horror.

Thessaly is introduced in volume five, “A Game of You,” a story that plays with gender identity and societal acceptance of those who dwell outside the accepted moralistic reality of the waking world. The main characters of the story are Barbie and Wanda. Wanda is a cross dresser defined by her birth role of male, but readers of Sandman get to see her in the metaphysical context of the Dreaming and she is every bit a women. The horror she is forced to endure is that her identity does not match up in the physical world and the dream world. In the world of Sandman, even monsters have their place, but Wanda is forced to exist removed from her given role. Her death and subsequent funeral are heart breaking and stays with a reader. Her tombstone, with her male name carved into it for eternity because her own family refuses to accept her identity, is as chilling and as brutal as any vampire, zombie, or serial killer. It is the horror of omission, and it is subtle but as enduringly brutal as any other event in Sandman.

Barbie defies her role as token bimbo and takes a heroes journey, but her greatest asset was Wanda, who was vilified and ostracized the same way monsters are because of her lack of comfortable gender role. Wanda’s horror is that nobody recognized the endless potential within her, or as Gaiman writes, “everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds … not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe,” Wanda’s tragedy is that these worlds were marginalized and deemed impure. In this story, human judgment became the monster as equal to the Corinthian in its destructive power.

“Fables and Reflections” is volume six of Sandman and is an ambitious non-linear look at power throughout history. Each story not only focuses on the nature of power, but also the horror myths of many cultures. Within the confines of these stories The Sandman gives readers takes on classic monsters like Werewolves (The Hunt),demons from many cultures (Ramadan), the Greek version of Hell (The Song of Orpheus), the human horror of the French Revolution (Thermidor), and even a tale set firmly in the DC Universe is not excluded from the dark horrors of those that hunger for power (The Parliament of Rooks).

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“The Song of Orpheus” is particularly embedded in horror tradition as Dream must sacrifice his son, Orpheus. Orpheus’ tale is an ancient myth given a modern spin by Gaiman, one that darkens an already enduring horror tale. Orpheus is forced to endure a beheading and an eternal existence as a sentient head. The trope of dismemberment and decapitation is ripe throughout horror history, and having it be a part of the story of someone so close to Dream makes the use of the body modification horror that much more effective and visceral. In the Orpheus tale and through the victimization of Nada, Dream, like dreams are wont to do, takes on more of a monster role.

Monsters, as Appelcline says, are “an easy formula — an easy way to create both feelings of horror in the face of evil and feelings of powerlessness in the face of power. It’s an easy way to marry subtext and text in a well-known and accepted way,” and aren’t dreams a place where we often feel powerless and fearful? The creator of that state must be defined by the uncertain roles of dream. In Sandman, at times, the very nature of Dream is the ultimate horror, or as Rose Walker puts it in Doll’s House, ”If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think we know is a lie. It means the world’s about as solid and as reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don’t even want to think about. It means that we’re just dolls.” If horror is manipulation of accepted reality, than the nature of dream is the master manipulator, the sleeping Satan that cannot have a stake driven though its heart and will not wilt to holy water.

It’s this dichotomy that makes Dream so fascinating. He can be the being saving Rose from the serial killers, or the monster that turned Nada into the eternal victim. His family, the Endless also exist in a series of dichotomies, the most disturbing being Delirium. Delirium takes center stage in “Brief Lives,” from Sandman volume seven. In “Brief Lives,” Delirium and Dream go on a heroic quest through modern America to find their lost brother Destruction.

Delirium fits the horror archetype of the broken girl, her every utterance a reminder of a horrific tragedy that forever altered her being. Delirium was once Delight and something so bad happened to the once giddily happy girl that she is now a Dadaistic amorphous creature barely held together. She is the consequence of being a victim and a constant reminder that even hypothetical beings can know suffering. The quest takes Dream and Delirium to the dark corners of America, and Dream must reconcile with the horrors that betook his son Orpheus. In this story, Sandman is a caretaker for Delirium but also still the monster responsible for what happened to Orpheus, two opposing natures that he must rectify if he and his little sister are to find Destruction.

The apotheosis of any effective horror story is finality or death. In Sandman, the last three volumes, “World’s End,” “The Kindly Ones,” and “The Wake,” are meditations on the final nature of death but also the immortality of stories. In “World’s End” a group of travelers are stranded in, another horror trope, a strange inn. There, the stranded travelers tell tales to pass the time. The first story, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is clearly in the grand horror tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. In the story, a man who believes himself to be living in a world dreamed up by a slumbering city. The old Lovecraftian technique of a reality that exists just beneath the surface of the accepted reality is on full display, giving the reader a sense of chilling unease, the last story in World’s End (Cerements) focuses on the burial rituals of many diverse cultures allowing the reader to feel the inevitably of death.  

The penultimate arc of Sandman, “The Kindly Ones,” explores literary horror traditions by combining the structure of an ancient Greek tragedy in the context of a modern graphic novel. The ancient Greek play writers were no stranger to visceral horror. One reading of Oedipus the King or the Bacchae and modern readers will understand where horror tradition stemmed from. From images of anatomical atrocity to tales of human suffering, the Greeks pretty much created many traditions that still endure in horror literature. In the Kindly Ones, we see modern comic book imagery (like casting the Three Witches of the Bronze Age DC horror titles in the role of the Greek chorus) and uses the classic literary monsters  (the Kindly Ones, or the Furies) as the means of punishing Dream for his many transgressions, particularly the death of Orpheus.

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The Kindly Ones appeared in the Oresteia as vengeful spirits that exist to destroy those who spilled familial blood. They play the same role in Sandman, horrific beasts that are forces of nature. Their existence is one of pure literary terror as they fulfill the role of the unstoppable creature that the protagonist cannot hope to survive. Their very existence speaks to a level of darkness in both literal and fictional reality, the all-consuming entropy that all must face. Throughout the Sandman series, Lyta Hall played a peripheral role, an obscure and almost forgotten super-hero, the Fury; Lyta blames Dream for the disappearance of her son, Daniel. Lyta, a being that once existed in the black and white world of super-heroes, lashes out at Dream for making her suffer the loss of her child. Through Lyta, Gaiman inserts a character that was not created to exist in a world of cosmic horrors. Her insertion into the dark story spells Dream’s end, as Lyta, the heroic Fury, summons the Kindly Ones, the literary Furies to devour their intended victim. Having spilled the blood of his only son, Dream is the right victim for the ancient horrors, and is devoured by the beasts. Soon, Dream is reborn in Lyta’s son Daniel, signaling the rebirth of Dream and a new beginning for the endless cycle of stories.

Sandman was many things; it was a balance between hope and horror, dreams and nightmares. It was an examination of how stories have potential to inspire or to scare, to carefully deconstruct the best the world has to offer or serve as a warning of the monsters that lurk in every shadow. As a celebration of story, Neil Gaiman and a host of brilliant artists offered readers all kinds of horrors, from the ancient Greek monsters, to devouring myths from every culture, to modern serial  killers, to contemporary comic book horror hosts, Sandman cast its dark shadow throughout the entirety of the horror genre. Of course, Sandman was more than just a venue for scares; it was a loving tribute to the art of story and the nature of the subconscious, but horror was the glue that held the world of Sandman together.