While studying for my English Literature A-level in the mid-1990s, I was asked to submit an essay on a text of my choice. I went for an iconic work with themes of eternity and transience, the burdens and benefits of family and the inseparability of creation and destruction.
But Miss Allsobrook rejected my pitch for Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic The Sandman, on the grounds that the text needed to be a work of literature. If I needed any sort of vindication that The Sandman was worthy of an A-level lit crit essay, it has been provided many times over from the critical adulation heaped on the work in the years that followed.
And today, fans are on the brink of witnessing the comic finally making it to the screen. On August 5, Netflix will release its much-anticipated, big-budget Netflix adaptation with a starry cast featuring Tom Sturridge, Jenna Coleman, Charles Dance, Gwendoline Christie, Taron Egerton and more.
This isn’t the first time The Sandman has been slated for adaptation. Roger Avary had intended to direct a version in the 1990s partly inspired by the work of animator Jan Švankmayer. That one will just have to stay in comics readers’ “what if?” files, next to Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen adaptation.
But perhaps now is a better time for The Sandman’s screen debut. The success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, have developed global audiences for whom high fantasy is not an embarrassing turn-off. And we live, for better or worse, in a pop-cultural landscape dominated by adaptations of comic books.
The Sandman is of course quite distant from the material that makes up the Marvel multiplex machine. Lead actor Sturridge is more likely to be delivering wryly melancholic observations than Iron Man-style wisecracks. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated the value of worldbuilding. For viewers invested in that fictional world, the sense of a persistent universe larger than the struggles depicted in any single film adds emotional and thematic heft.
The Sandman can also be seen as drawing on comics’ tradition of ‘crossovers’, but rather than a group of costumed adventurers, takes its cast from across world mythology. If Netflix gets to the third major storyline, A Season of Mists, viewers will be treated to the spectacle of Norse, Egyptian and Japanese gods, alongside daemonic and angelic figures from Christian mythology, arriving at Morpheus’s castle to bid for ownership of the key to Hell - comparative mythology as Easter egg spotting.
When the first issue of The Sandman appeared in 1989 it was an important part of mainstream comics’ attempts to enhance their cultural standing. This was a process that had been ongoing throughout the 1980s, and reached a watershed in 1986 with the publication by DC Comics of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and the first issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, the twin pillars of revisionist superhero storytelling that kickstarted the development of ‘for mature readers’ titles. When pioneering DC editor Karen Berger telephoned Gaiman in 1987 asking him to pitch a monthly series, she pushed further at the doors opened by Miller, Moore and Gibbons, rejecting Gaiman’s his initial proposals for reviving existing characters, insisting instead that he create “someone no-one’s seen before” .
The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen succeeded by killing their idols. They argued that the kind of individualistic power celebrated in the superhero genre was, at the very least, problematic and at worst fascistic, and could never offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems. In this sense they remained adolescent. This isn’t intended as a criticism: they were virtuosic entertainments and provocations for readers who had grown up enjoying the bombastic rugged individualism of various super men and women, but had begun to find this ethos less convincing as they had grown older.
The Sandman, instead, sidestepped or ignored engagement with super-heroism, revisionist or otherwise. Morpheus is neither hero or anti-hero. At times, he barely counts as a protagonist. The event that begins the story, the occult ritual depicted in the first episode of the Netflix series, sees him held against his will by an Aleister Crowley analogue, the Magus, Roderick Burgess (inevitably played by Dance). In The Season of Mists he neither seeks the key to Hell nor makes the final decision about who receives it. He might be immortal and more powerful than gods, but for much of the story he is simply responding to events and fulfilling obligations.
It wasn’t just de-emphasising masculine derring-do that helped The Sandman find an older and more female audience. It actively celebrated queer identities, most obviously in the stories featuring Rose Walker, played by Kyo Ra in the forthcoming adaptation. In the comic The Doll’s House her flamboyant cross-dressing landlord Hal is the most sympathetic human character she encounters, and later, in A Game of You, we see her relocated to New York and counting among her neighbours a lesbian couple and new best friend Wanda, a trans woman.
Inevitably, from a contemporary perspective the treatments of such issues in a 30-year-old comic book can seem underdeveloped, even crude. There are uncomfortable whiffs of non-normative identities being used as signifiers of a more general strangeness, and no doubt if the comics were being written today, Morpheus’s non-binary sibling Desire would be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘it’.
Gaiman has acknowledged as much, and while a balanced evaluation of this strand of The Sandman must take into account the relative lack of a detailed and appropriate vocabulary at the time of its production, a 2014 defence of his treatment of trans characters includes a strikingly contemporary-sounding motivation for emphasising their presence in the comics: “I found a lot of the stuff I was seeing in the late Eighties from some feminist quarters really offensive, seeing them dismiss trans women as not real women, and decided that I wanted to put those attitudes into the story.”
The Doll’s House is The Sandman’s second major storyline, so we probably won’t get to see how these characters are treated on screen just yet. But identity is treated as fluid throughout the story, and the presence on the cast list of actors whose gender or skin colour is different from that of the comic characters they will portray, indicates that this will remain a central theme. With grinding predictability these casting choices have been met with outrage in some corners of the web, including the nonsensical spectacle of complaints about the casting of non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park as non-binary character Desire. Gaiman has given such responses short shrift. As he wrote succinctly on Twitter in response to a criticism that prioritised fatuous rhyming over sense, “Sandman went woke in 1988, and it hasn’t gone broke yet.”
One thing that The Sandman does share with many of the ‘mature readers’ comics of the 1980s and 1990s is that critical responses tended to heap praise on the writers more than the artists. But one thing Miss Allsobrook was right about is that comics aren’t literature. They’re a distinct art form and are at their best when meaning emerges from the interplay between writing and drawing.
Of the dozens of artists who brought Gaiman’s characters to life, the one with the strongest claim to full co-authorship is Dave McKean, who has provided the covers for every Sandman publication. An exquisite draughtsman, colour photocopier abuser and early Photoshop adopter, his beguiling collages work as thematic meditations on the stories they introduce rather than illustrative summaries of their key events, daring the interior pages to match their accomplishment and ambition.
Gaiman has been closely involved in the production of the adaptation, and if it can capture a fraction of McKean’s visual flair, fans and newcomers should be in for a treat. Even Miss Allsobrook might be into it.