Gaiman’s Sandman series has some of my favorite comic book characters. Even those who appear briefly in the comics tend to be memorable—sometimes, actually, they are the most memorable.
What we arrive at in the Sandman series is almost a character study of Dream of the Endless, but it’s as much told through the other characters as by Dream himself, perhaps even more so. We see how dreams themselves, and their embodiment in the Sandman, reflect and refract the world around us, how they change things.
And from the beginning there is a sense of interconnection. The first few comics in the series have large jumps in time and in place, but there is the underlying thread of what being without dreams–without Dream, who is imprisoned–is doing to humanity and what Dream’s isolation is doing to him.
Many characters, in particular each of the Endless, have their own fonts for speech bubbles, and this adds an approximation of a tone of voice to them–something particularly indicative of the emphasis on characters in the series. It is the characters who are at the forefront of the comics. And so, here are some of my favorites:
1. Sandman, of course.
Sandman has many names–Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros . . . And he is many things. By turns loving, brash, quick-tempered, melancholic, and intelligent, Dream is a complicated hero of a complicated story. We see the character change dramatically over the course of the comic series, and it’s both beautiful and tragic.
Another of the Endless, Delirium is a later incarnation of her earlier self, Delight; she is the youngest of the Endless. Much of what Delirium says seems like nonsense at first—stream-of-consciousness at best, completely losing threads of conversations at worst. But there is a wisdom in her, for all that. If we listen, she has much to tell us.
Death is the second eldest of the Endless—only Destiny is older. She is the antithesis of traditional Western embodiment of death, and a welcome change. She’s so kind! She’s funny and a little bit dark, but mostly Death is nurturing and long-suffering, here with us until the last thing dies and she locks away the universe, her job done.
Ok, so I’m trying very hard not to fill my list with the Endless, but they’re great characters! Destruction is one of the Endless, but he abandoned his post and his realm sometime around the seventeenth century. When we do see him, he’s taken up painting and has a talking dog named Barnabas, and he seems quite happy. Destruction gives us a very, very different picture of being Endless.
5. Mad Hettie.
Mad Hettie is one of a few characters who, though mortal, are incredibly long-lived. She was born in the early 1740s, thus she would’ve been 247 during the events of Preludes and Nocturnes. She survived by hiding her heart from Death, and she’s quite a clever old tramp.
6. Hob Gadling.
Hob is another of the extremely long-lived mortals. He and Dream meet once each year in a tavern for drinks. Hob doesn’t die—because Hob just doesn’t. He simply decided not to, and Death spares him at the request of Dream, whose annual meetings with Hob become the stuff of legend.
Matthew is Dream’s raven, chosen after he dies in his sleep and decides to stay with Dream. Matthew is sometimes crude and often incredibly irreverent, but he has an under-lying streak of loyalty to Dream so strong that he would’ve died for him.
7. William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is—well–Shakespeare. He appears in a few of the Sandman comics, most notably the acclaimed “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare made a deal with Dream: inspiration in exchange for two plays. We see what that costs him–and what it pays him.
8. Johanna Constantine.
Johanna is a mortal, and an incredible one. It is she who steals Orpheus’s head from its resting place for Dream—and ends the French Reign of Terror in the process. She goes looking for the Devil and the Wandering Jew, who are said to meet in a tavern once a year, and finds Dream and Hob Gadling there. Probably related to John Constantine, but either way, she’s fantastic.
Thessaly is the last of a long line of witches. She is cold and proud, and very very old—older than her Grecian name belies. Thessaly and Dream had an affair that happened off-page and ended very badly, apparently. Thessaly always seems in control of her situation and is an incredibly powerful character.
10. Rose Walker.
Rose is a mortal woman, the granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, one of a group of characters who fell asleep for the duration of Dream’s captivity. Rose is a dream vortex, and she’s also revealed to be the grandchild of Desire, who was trying to trick Dream into killing a family member.
Gilbert is a portly fellow who is actually a place. He’s Fiddler’s Green, a dreamland that wanders out of the Dreaming in the absence of Dream. He helps Rose Walker during her quest to find her brother. He’s a lot like G.K. Chesteron, and that works to his advantage.
He’s just…Grand. He also looks like David Bowie, and that’s rather fantastic. Lucifer is an enigmatic character, and when he abandons Hell, all bets are off. I haven’t yet read the comic spin-offs with his character, but they’re on my list.
I’m ending this list with the talking dog, yes. Barnabas is Destruction’s companion, but he becomes Delirium’s protector and companion. He is sarcastic, perceptive, and loyal.