Neil Gaiman's Sandman: a primer for the new Netflix show

If you’ve seen that Netflix has announced an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s breakout hit Sandman, it’s probably through the lens of having heard a collective squeal of delight from goths and geeks alike. But what is Sandman, and why is this such a big deal?

If you’re new to the DC Universe’s most miserable cosmic entity, we’ll try and get you up to speed right here…

What is Sandman?

We’ll start with the easy one. Sandman was an ongoing comic series written superstar author Neil Gaiman, when he was merely British comic book writer Neil Gaiman. A horror/fantasy epic about Dream, his twisted creations, and his dysfunctional family the Endless (Death, Desire, Delirium, Destiny, Despair… and one other…), it shows how they interact with humanity in a variety of ways throughout the life of the universe. And if that sounds grandiose, that’s because it is, in an “encompasses all of human (and often non-human) experience” way.

From the immortal who meets with Dream once every hundred years to Death harvesting souls with an impeccable bedside manner, from a war for control of a Hell abandoned by Lucifer to a tragedy at a serial killer convention, there’s a lot going on in all of Sandman. It’s like an anthology of everything Goth.

Further than that, Sandman wasn’t just a good story – it changed the medium. If you’re the sort of person who picks up comics and reads them in collections, well, that’s probably Sandman’s influence too. As one of the formative comics of the Karen Berger-headed Vertigo line, Sandman pioneered the idea that ongoing comics series would live longer in the bookstores as six-eight issue collections than as monthlies on the newsstands.

In short, it’s kind of a big deal.

What is happening with the TV version?

After years of false starts and a number of unproduced TV shows and movies, Sandman has finally landed at Netflix. Gaiman – who refers to himself as “a retired showrunner” following the completion of Good Omens – will be co-writing the pilot, but no scripts have been produced yet. We can only hope that his influence on the script does justice to what is arguably his finest contribution to literary culture.

Previous versions of Sandman – which may or may not inform the upcoming one – include a 1990s movie version by Roger Avary and Jon Peters, a 2010 TV version for HBO by James Mangold, a 2011 TV version by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, and a long-stalled 2013 film project produced by David Goyer and Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a script originally by Jack Thorne.

Still, the popularity of Gaiman’s other creations-turned-shows American Gods and Good Omens has clearly left Netflix hungry for a piece of the action. And if you’re going to pick anything to adapt, Sandman is undoubtedly the one with the most potential. Allan Heinberg will be showrunning, so fingers crossed it gets more than a Netflix two-seasons-and-out.

What will we see?

As a story collected in 10 volumes, the first season of Sandman is not going to be able to adapt the whole thing in one go – nor would most fans argue for that. One of the beautiful things about Sandman is that the concept works both as a long-running epic about Dream’s tribulations, and as simple, one-off stories about the members of the Endless touching the lives of others. Gaiman confirmed that the initial season arc will be to adapt the first volume – Preludes And Noctures – plus “a little bit more”.

Expect, then, to see the main story of Dream escaping mystical imprisonment after a century or so and going on a quest to recover his totems of power – a pouch of sand, a helm, and a ruby – as well as visiting a former lover he damned to hell, engaging in a battle of wits with Lucifer, and visiting his sister, Death.

But on a smaller scale, we might also see adaptations of Thermidor, in which Morpheus influences the French Revolution, or A Dream Of A Thousand Cats, in which we learn what our feline friends imagine when they sleep (spoilers: it’s not very nice for us) and perhaps even A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a story in which Dream (first) encounters Shakespeare that won Gaiman & Co. a World Fantasy Award. If any single issue is guaranteed to get an adaptation in Season One, it’ll be Sandman #8, a story titled The Sound Of Her Wings, in which Dream’s sister Death is first introduced.

Is this a DC Universe thing?

The answer here is: sort of. Technically, yes, the characters and events of Sandman take place in the DC Universe, although it’s often hard to notice that. Whether this will be reflected in the TV show is doubtful, though it COULD result in some fun cameos if the rights line up. John Constantine was a recurring figure in Sandman’s mythos for one, and a newly-announced Constantine comic series is even branded as a Sandman spin-off…

Perhaps more interestingly, Lucifer – a TV show currently owned by Netflix – is based on the comic version of Lucifer that originally spun out of Sandman and into his own comic series, having abandoned Hell. It’s hard to do Sandman without including Lucifer in some capacity, so one question hangs in the air: will Tom Ellis reprise his role on Sandman? It’s far, far too early to say. But if you’re a fan of Lucifer, cross your fingers now…

How can I read Sandman?

If you’re interested in reading Sandman – and you absolutely should be because it’s one of those series that absolutely lives up to the hyperbole – there are a number of ways to do so. The main series is collected most commonly in ten trade paperbacks, numbered Volumes 1 to 10. Frustratingly, Volume 1 is the ropiest of them all but once you get halfway through that it starts to become really good. It’s worth persevering.

A “Volume 0”, Sandman: Overture, forms a prequel to these ten volumes, while the original graphic novel Sandman: Endless Nights presents stand-alone tales of The Endless, best read after the main series. Sandman: Dream Hunters is a stand-alone prose story which has been adapted into a comic, while Death got two series of her own available as collections: The High Cost Of Living and The Time Of Your Life.

If you’re only going to read ONE book, Fables And Reflections (Vol. 6) is the one to try – it’s a collection of several stand-alone stories that don’t rely on the ongoing story to make sense.

So, fingers crossed the TV show does this justice. And even if it doesn’t, well, let’s not worry too much. The comic still exists, after all, and that’s more than good enough.


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