While studying for 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 had to be a work of literature. If I needed any sort of confirmation that The Sandman was worthy of an A-level lit essay, it has been provided many times over by the critical acclaim for the work in the years that followed.
And today, fans are on the verge of seeing the cartoon finally hit the screens. On August 5, Netflix will release its highly anticipated big-budget Netflix adaptation with an all-star cast including 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 intended to direct a version in the 1990s partly inspired by the work of animator Jan Švankmayer. That you just have to stay in the comics readers’ “what if?” files, next to Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen adaptation.
But now might be a better time for The Sandman’s screen debut. The success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations, and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, has developed a global audience for whom high fantasy is not an embarrassing turn-off. And we live, for better or for worse, in a pop cultural landscape dominated by comic book adaptations.
Sandman is, of course, quite distant from the material that makes up the Marvel multiplex machine. Lead actor Sturridge is more likely to deliver wry melancholy observations than Iron Man-style wisecracks. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown the value of world-building. For viewers invested in the fictional world, the sense of an ongoing universe larger than the battles depicted in a single film lends emotional and thematic weight.
The Sandman can also be seen as drawing on comics’ tradition of “crossovers”, but rather than a group of costumed adventurers, takes its roles from across the world’s mythology. If Netflix makes it to the third major story, A Season of Mists, viewers will be treated to the spectacle of Norse, Egyptian and Japanese gods, along with demonic and angelic figures from Christian mythology, arriving at Morpheus’ 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’ efforts to improve their cultural status. This was a process that had been ongoing throughout the 1980s, reaching 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’ Watchmen, the twin pillars of revisionist superheroism storytelling that kick-started the development of “for adult readers” titles. When pioneering DC editor Karen Berger called Gaiman in 1987 and asked him to pitch a monthly series, she pushed further on the doors opened by Miller, Moore and Gibbons, rejecting Gaiman’s initial proposals to revive existing characters, insisting instead that he create “some no. – one has been seen before”.
The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen succeeded by killing off their idols. They argued that the kind of individualistic power celebrated in the superhero genre was at least problematic and at worst fascist, and could never offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems. In this sense, they remained youth. This is not meant as a criticism: they were virtuosic entertainments and provocations for readers who had grown up enjoying the bombastic rugged individualism of various supermen and women but had begun to find this ethos less compelling as they grew older older.
The Sandman instead sidestepped or ignored engagement with superheroism, revisionist or otherwise. Morpheus is neither hero nor anti-hero. At times, he barely counts as a main character. The event that kicks off the story, the occult ritual depicted in the first episode of the Netflix series, sees him held against his will by an Aleister Crowley analog, 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 may be immortal and more powerful than gods, but for much of the story he simply reacts to events and fulfills obligations.
It wasn’t just toning down masculine derring-do that helped The Sandman find an older, more female audience. It actively celebrated queer identities, most obviously in the stories featuring Rose Walker, played by Kyo Ra in the upcoming adaptation. In the cartoon The Doll’s House, her flamboyant cross-dressing owner Hal is the most likable human character she meets, and later, in A Game of You, we see her moved to New York and counting among her neighbors a lesbian couple and a new best friend. Wanda, a trans woman.
Inevitably, from a modern perspective, the treatment of such issues in a 30-year-old comic may seem underdeveloped, even crude. There are uncomfortable whiffs of non-normative identities being used as signifiers of a more general queerness, and no doubt if the comics were written today, Morpheus’ non-binary sibling Desire would be referred to as “they” rather than “the”.
Gaiman has acknowledged that, and while a balanced evaluation of this part of The Sandman must take into account the relative lack of a detailed and appropriate vocabulary at the time of production, a 2014 defense of his treatment of trans characters includes a strikingly modern—Hear’s motivation for to highlight their presence in the comics: “I found a lot of what I saw in the late eighties from some feminist circles really offensive, seeing them dismiss trans women as not real women, and decided I wanted to put those attitudes into the story .”
The Dollhouse is The Sandman’s other big story, so we probably won’t see how these characters are treated on screen just yet. But identity is treated as fluid throughout the story, and the presence in the cast of actors whose gender or skin color is different from that of the cartoon characters they are supposed to portray indicates that this will remain a central theme. With scathing predictability, these casting choices have been met with outrage in some corners of the web, including the frivolous spectacle of complaints about the casting of non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park as the non-binary character Desire. Gaiman has given such answers briefly. As he succinctly wrote on Twitter in response to criticism that prioritized inane rhyme over sanity, “Sandman woke up in 1988, and it ain’t broke yet.”
One thing that The Sandman shares with many of the “mature reader” comics of the 1980s and 1990s is that critical reactions tended to praise the writers more than the artists. But one thing Miss Allsobrook was right about is that comics are not literature. They are 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, abuser of color copiers and early adopter of Photoshop, his beguiling collages function as thematic meditations on the stories they introduce rather than illustrative summaries of important events, daring the interior pages to match their achievement and ambition.
Gaiman has been heavily involved in the production of the adaptation, and if it can capture a fraction of McKean’s visual flair, fans and newcomers alike should be in for a treat. Even Miss Allsobrook might be interested in it.
The Sandman is on Netflix from 5 August. John Miers is a cartoonist, illustrator and lecturer in illustration at the Kingston School of Art, johnmiers.com