Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
I give in. I like writing serial reviews way too much.
This is one of the most widely recommended graphic novel series I’ve come across, praised by fans of the format and newcomers alike, and often brought up in discussions of how comic books and graphic novels can be both entertaining and thoughtful.
However, those familiar with my take on The Killing Joke can probably guess I don’t hold popularity or acclaim as gospel – these accolades can be problematic if they present an audience with unrealistic expectations before they even experience the material for themself. I managed to avoid nearly any sort of spoiler for this series somehow – for years, I had no idea the titular Sandman was a reference to a minor folklore entity associated with dreams, and instead imagined the series to be about a character that either had sand-based superpowers or just spent a lot of time asleep. I think at least some hint about the qualities of some of the better books would have helped me get through the poorer ones more easily. I did get through them though, and honesty is what I bring, so I won’t cloud my review with too many excuses for my initial response.
I did enjoy the series, technically. If you want to walk to walk away now, there’s my verdict. My overall impression is that it’s kind of like if an acclaimed director had taken one of their better films and instead of releasing the final cut that actually went into theatres, they let a young child take scissors to the reel and do with it what they pleased before it was released to the public. Some issues would naturally arise from that, even if the potential for an excellent work were still there. That doesn’t mean the pieces are without merit, and if arranged a certain way, I think you can get an idea of what the series was going for. I’m torn, then, between liking the series’ potential and disliking much of its execution.
Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes – ***
Part One: I Guess the Protag Is Sexy, If You’re into Necrophilia
As far as openings go, this book is representative of much of the style and presence of the series as a whole, which is what you want out of a first installment. Yet, the reader should be careful in assuming the rest of the series plays out like this novel, because much of what comes across in the initial reading is specific to this installment. It introduces more the themes of the series (and the main character of course), than it does the plot or structure.
The book builds up the introduction to the protagonist, the titular Sandman, gradually, first establishing a dark world where torture, betrayal, and rape are not out of the ordinary, and in which some amateur magicians have accidentally captured a strange being from another world.
Here I have to make my first formal complaint because aside from the casual rape reference (something this series will continue to bring up and handle poorly), there’s also the issue of readability and engagement. The introduction is largely a collection of panels about different characters, some of whom come up later in the story, but most of whom are here to establish the strange happenings related to sleep and dreams after the being is captured. Many of the small technical details, like the font, paneling, and wording of the dialogue and narration, is formatted in a way that may be consistent with the tone of the piece, but does little to immerse the audience in the world. A lot of jargon terms and full names are used, sometimes related to irrelevant characters or objects, which I dislike at the best of times and loathe in introductions.
However shaky the first glimpse of the story and world may be, the main character is a bit of a saving grace. The Sandman, Dream, is the captured being in question and appears almost as an animal or inhuman monster when first summoned, wearing tattered rags and a gas mask-like helmet that obscures his face. All we know about him initially is that he comes from another realm, has some sort of influence over dreams, and is the brother of Death, the otherworldly being the magicians had been aiming to capture. The character is of course human-like in appearance, though drawn in such a way that makes him easily stand out from the other characters in the series, mainly because he’s whiter than a Norwegian in a Starbucks and blessed with the hair of an electrocuted Sim. More importantly, the character is drawn in high contrast so that his eyes are often obscured in shadow, making his expressions difficult to interpret.
Dream speaks infrequently, displaying relatively little personality when he does. His clothing and appearance, both of which change regularly, even from panel to panel, do little to betray his thoughts. Normally this would make the character unbearably pretentious in my mind, but I think what makes him enjoyable to watch is that the lack of emotion is clearly a facade, not unlike that posed by serious characters in other stories who feel they must maintain an image of control and competence. When Dream is caught off-guard, the facade drops and he’s stuck making poor decisions and being ruled by uncontrolled emotions, which of course causes no shortage of self-made problems for him. This means that the character works best when a less serious character is around to call him out on his overdramatic demeanor or provoke him, though unfortunately that seldom happens.
Part Two: Cosplayers and Their Damn Toys
Most of the plot of the first book is about Dream breaking out of a giant snow globe and running around looking for his stage props. I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m not taking this review seriously, but the book makes it far too easy to draw those comparisons; the glass prison is visually impressive, but the macguffins the protagonist has to acquire come together in a convenient trio of increasingly difficult quests. Not that these quests feel particularly difficult for the protagonist even at their most extreme.
I find the moment right after Dream escapes his confines to be the most compelling part of the story, because in just a few pages, he establishes that the imprisonment was torture even for an immortal being, takes rather gruesome revenge on the arguably inculpable son of his captor, demonstrates his magical abilities by wandering the dreams of sleepers, and travels back to his realm, only to find it abandoned and in shambles. That’s a considerable amount of weight placed on a character the audience barely knows, and it serves to quickly humanize him. We immediately get a good sense of who he is, what he holds close, and what can be taken away to upset him. All of these are important to establish early in a story, and The Sandman does it well enough.
After that opening, though, the pace of the story slows considerably and becomes less focused on Dream’s character. We see a bit of the world of the story, a mix of real environments and the broader DC universe, but viewed with a distanced lens where superheroes are just a small component and Dream occupies a sort of god-like position with access to nearly any corner of the universe. The connection the series tries to make with other DC properties is a bit contrived and takes the reader out of the experience somewhat, such as one of the characters staying in Arkham Asylum or Batman and Robin’s cameo appearance. Beyond the cheap references, though, the book also spends a lot of time focusing on new characters who don’t hold much weight in the rest of the story. We see a madman who has stolen one of Dream’s macguffins gruesomely torture the occupants of a small diner, and while horrific, it’s mainly horrific because of the subject matter. We don’t know the victims, and while we mourn their plight, we’re not given much reason to sympathize with them or care about whether any of them survive.
The rote, often effortless quests the protagonist embarks on to restore his magical gear (items that come up rarely in the rest of the series and seem to have little purpose outside of these initial quests) do little for the protagonist’s character either. At one point in the story, one of his items betrays him and eventually breaks, and all it does that give him even more power than he initially wanted from the object. In the end, he gets exactly what he wants, with little effort and essentially no ramifications (for him, anyway). What’s the value in a materialistic quest if there are no consequences for either succeeding or failing, and the journey itself lacks lasting substance for the audience as well as the main character?
Part Three: Sibling Infighting Goes “Bip”
There is one person in this book who is unconditionally enjoyable, and she only appears in the last chapter. Many personifications of the concept of death have arisen over the years, but I might like this one more than most. Even with the usual ferrying of souls into the afterlife we’ve seen a million times, as a character, this version of Death is an energetic subversion of the typical grim reaper archetype. The subversion is fairly simple – rather than embody the gothic dread of death, she embraces life, even wearing an Egyptian ankh on her shirt.
She has a similar appearance to the protagonist, pasty and with hair from a 1980s glam metal band, but her personality couldn’t be more different. For one, she actually has a personality, or at least one she isn’t constantly hiding. She expresses. She’s cheerful and straightforward, and clearly much more in tune with human speech patterns than her brother because she doesn’t bother with his elevated vocabulary or speech bubbles so pretentious they require their own font. At one point she tries to explain the plot of Mary Poppins to the protagonist, who doesn’t strike me as much of a film-goer, even adjusting for how the time he spent in a glass bauble spanned most of the rise of the film industry.
She also throws bread at his face and shouts at him.
I’ve rarely seen deity-like beings portrayed with such an accurate representation of what siblings are like. It’s unexpected, given the tone of the book so far, but it’s a much-needed breath of reality to ground the surreal and dark nature of the rest of the series.
Death isn’t without her complexities either. She leads the protagonist on a tour of what she does, taking the lives of people who die – old people, babies, people ready to go, others cut down in their prime. She is, after all, still Death, and no amount of Mary Poppins is going to change that.
Beyond being a delightful character, she serves a purpose for the protagonist. They talk, and she forces him to open himself up, especially when she takes his bread and throws it at him. This is one of the first times in the book the main character has been genuinely confused, and it serves to show him as a person, not just some mystical being. The expression of humanity throughout this chapter, in either Death or Dream, is necessary levity after how seriously the rest of the plot takes itself.