The trouble—and delight—of the Sandman comics is how many stories they hold. I don’t just mean that there are the original 75 comic issues and several spin-offs and additions to the series. I also mean that there are a lot of *stories* in there. There are many characters in the series, many plots running here and there, doubling back or halting at varying times.
That may just be the nature of a series which has, for its main character, an embodiment of Dream. For what are dreams but stories? And Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller who was supported by a lot of masterful artists, producing texts that are dizzying and not unlike the TARDIS—bigger on the inside than the outside.
With that caveat, here are 13 of my favorite Sandman stories. I’ve mostly chosen stand-alone story issues, and when I’ve chosen a large story arc I’ve chosen the volume rather than a single issue, so there’s somethings here that you can read even if you’ve Never Read Sandman (hint: Go read Sandman!). They’re more-or-less grouped by publication to make things easier.
1. Issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings.”
This is very early in the series, and it’s where everything began to fall into place, I think. We’re introduced to Death, here, and she’s somehow more cheerful than Dream. She’s beautiful, and she’s comforting–but she’s also a bit spooky.
2. Issue 18, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.”
This one is just really quite fun. Murdery fun, in that same way that cats always seem to be a step away from killing you but are too cute to do it. It’s part of the collected volume Dream Country, the third collection in the series–a of stories totally independent of the series’ overall narrative.
3. Issue 19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In the same volume is this gem. Shakespeare made a deal with Dream: in exchange for inspiration, Shakespeare would write two plays for him. The first of these is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in Gaiman’s tale we see Shakespeare put on the play for an audience that includes Titania, Oberon, and Puck—it is a gift from Dream to Titania.
4. Issue 29, “Thermidor.”
This story is another in a volume of single-issues stories, Fables and Reflections, the sixth collection in the Sandman series. In this story, Lady Johanna Constantine saves the head of Orpheus and ends the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in the process. It’s a dark tale, but a very good one.
5. Issue 31, “Three Septembers and a January.”
This is the mostly true story of a fellow named Joshua Abraham Norton, the only Emperor of the United States. Gaiman based the issue partially on Norton’s life. The story showcases the rivalry between Desire and Dream and, in doing so, underscores the damage that Destruction’s departure caused. It is also collected in Fables and Reflections.
6. Issue 38, “The Hunt.”
This is a sort-of folktale, also collected in Fables and Reflections. An old man tells his granddaughter a story that happened many, many years before. The story concerns a young man who decided to find the beautiful daughter of a Duke after obtaining her portrait and what happens on the way. This is a fascinating one, full of subtle underpinnings in both language and art.
7. Issue 50, “Ramadan.”
This is a tale that made my heart ache, it’s so beautiful. We’re in Baghdad, and the city is a glittering wonderland. The Caliph offers the city to Dream in exchange for its preservation; and like all deals with Dream, like all magic, in fact, there is a cost. “Ramadan” is a fantastic ending for Fables and Reflections.
8. Issue 55, “Cerements.”
This is the final of the tales told by travelers in World’s End, the 8th of the Sandman series. The collection is situated within a frame story–travelers have been driven into The World’s End: A Free House, one of the inns that provides shelter during reality storms. The story is told by Petrefax, who is from Litharge—a city of death that provides multi-cultural burial and death sacraments. His is a tale of tales—he relates three stories he heard during burial rites and rituals, and it works extremely well as a build-up to the final issues of Sandman.
9. Endless Nights, “The Heart of a Star.”
This is from an off-shoot of the original series, a book that Neil Gaiman and various artists collaborated on to write a story about each of the Endless. “The Heart of a Star” is Dream’s story; it is also one of the earliest stories in the Sandman universe. Dream is in love with a star, Killalla, who he brings with him to a meeting in the cosmos. The story takes place sometime just after the universe became habitable, and it allows us to see the beginning of Dream’s rivalry with Desire.
10. The Dream Hunters.
This volume is actually an addition, published three years after the original Sandman run. It is the tale of a Japanese monk and a fox spirit, and it is breath-taking.
11. The Doll’s House (Issues 9-16 collected)
This is the second volume in the series, and it’s where I think the story really begins to find its voice and presence. This collection is held together by Morpheus’s search for the dreams that left during his absence and his efforts to quell the dream vortex that threatens all of Dreaming.
12. A Game of You (Issues 32-37 collected)
Barbie is a divorced woman with a crumbling fantasy world. In the wake of the dream vortex, the Cuckoo is now threatening Barbie’s dream life. The Cuckoo is a monstrous creature, and her antics threaten to spill into reality. And although most people seem to like this one the least, I love it perhaps the most of all the collections.
13. Brief Lives (Issues 41-49 collected)
This is one of my favorites of the collections. It features Delirium on the page more than any other story, and she’s a personal favorite. This is also where we first meet Destruction, the prodigal brother who left the Endless. Delirium enlists Dream to help her search for Destruction, and the quest is both surprising and enlightening.