Tag Archives: popular culture

Summer of Sandman: Favorite Places

Gaimain’s Sandman series is built as much in image as in word, the artistic renderings of characters and places adding texture and depth to the story–as is the nature of a good comic series. And the material is what Gaiman and the artists excel at: constructing fantastical worlds.

We are always aware of *where* we are in the series. Setting matters, and it’s exquisitely rendered. Sometimes, the space is terrifying: it’s the depths of Hell or the worst of nightmares. But sometimes it’s beautiful, intoxicating, and uncanny. Here are some of my favorites in the series:

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

1. Fiddler’s Green.
Fiddler’s Green is both a place and a person (you’ll find him as Gilbert on my list of favorite Sandman characters).  As a place in the Dreaming, Fiddler’s Green recalls the maritime folklore of a place for sailors, a beautiful, pastoral resting place for those who’ve sailed the seas.

2. Dream’s Library.
As a book lover, there are few things in the world of the Dreaming that have more pull for me than Dream’s library. Inside the library are all of the books that have been dreamed but never written, and they are cared for by Lucien. I’d love to pick a cozy chair and just read and read and read.

3. World’s End: A Free House.
In the frame story for World’s End, travelers are drawn to a mysterious inn and, like Chaucer’s Canterbury travelers, they begin to tell tales. The inn itself is a sheltering place during reality storms–this one ushered in by the death of one of the Endless. The array of people and the old-world feel make this one of my favorite spots in the series.

4. The Boarding House.
In The Doll’s House, the second Sandman collection, we spend much of our time in a boarding house with an eclectic set of inhabitants: the dream vortex Rose Walker, Gilbert (aka Fiddler’s Green), the Havisham-like Chantal and Zelda, Hal (who is both the landlord and a nightclub performer), and Barbie and Ken. The boarding house works as a way to bring together a diverse and fascinating set of characters.

5. Faerie.
We don’t actually see much of Faerie, but what we do see is beautiful. It’s largely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Titania as its queen and gift-giving as its currency. Like the best of faeries, the realm and its inhabitants are magnetic and dangerous.

6. The White Horse.
In 1389, Dream met a man named Hob Gadling who swore never to die . The White Horse became their annual meeting place. We see the place change, take a few new names, and eventually deteriorate, reminding us of the breadth of the story and the longevity of the enigmatic Hob.

7. Dream’s Castle.
Dream’s throne room is beautiful—and so is the rest of his home. It’s guarded by a gryphon, a wyvern, and a hippogriff, and it is the heart of the Dreaming. Like its owner, the castle is but an aspect of dreams, if a beautiful one.

8. Death’s Apartment.
Death is perhaps the most human of the Endless, and though we don’t see her domain, we do see her apartment. Yes, Death has an apartment. There’s a floppy hat collection, goldfish named Slim and Wadsworth, and a big comfy couch. It sounds a lot like a place I’d want to have coffee.

9. Barbie’s Dream World.
Barbie is one of the residents of the Boarding House. Later in the Sandman run, in the collection A Game of You, the rich fantasy world that Barbie creates in her dreaming takes front and center. Barbie’s dream world is a fantasy land threatened by the villainous Cuckoo and inhabited by some of the most interesting characters in the series.

10. The Soft Places.
Soft places are spots where the boundary of dreaming and waking are malleable. They are places where Marco Polo can encounter inhabitants of the Dreaming, where historical figures meet dream figures and nothing is terribly certain.

11. The House of Mystery.
The House of Mystery is both in the Dreaming and the waking world, somewhere just north of Louisville. The architecture of the house and its interior change from time to time. It’s the home of Cain, and it sits close-by The House of Secrets, the home of his brother Abel.

12. The House of Secrets.
The House of Secrets is the domain of Abel, and like his brother’s home, it exists both in the Dreaming and the waking worlds. The house moved itself to the other end of the graveyard where The House of Mystery sits, and the two houses are mirror images of one another.

13. The Garden of Forking Ways
This is Destiny’s realm, and we’re not there often—but when we are, it’s phenomenal. Blind Destiny walks the labyrinthine paths of the garden continually, and there seems to be no end to its paths.

Summer of Sandman: Favorite Stories

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.

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

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.

Summer of Sandman: Favorite Characters

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:

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

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.

2. Delirium.
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.

3. Death.
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.

4. Destruction.
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.

6. Matthew.
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.

9. Thessaly.
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.

11. Gilbert.
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.

12. Lucifer.
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.

13. Barnabas.
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.