The accolades for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman have been piling up for years, gaining the series a well-earned audience and catapulting it to the top of many a “Best Graphic Novels” list. But this slumberific tale sat dormant on my shelves for years, waiting patiently for the right time to escape and plop right into my hands. Much like the series’ main character, The Sandman was biding its time. And just as Dream escaped the prison of his captors when the opportunity struck, so too did I pick up the book and finally begin my journey into the land of dreams. In anticipation of Netflix’s adaptation, I finally saw fit to read The Sandman, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
Roderick Burgess, an occult-obsessed mage, plans to imprison Death. He weaves a complex spell that takes years to complete in his attempt to do so, and he ends up trapping Dream, one of Death’s siblings. The Endless, beings of incredible power who can control vast aspects of reality, are notoriously difficult to pin down, but Burgess succeeds in capturing Dream, even if he had a different target in mind. In trapping Dream (who we later learn is named Morpheus), Burgess also steals the being’s helmet, pouch of sand, and ruby. Unsure how he can tame or otherwise use Morpheus, Burgess keeps the being imprisoned until his eventual death. Then, Alex Burgess, Roderick’s son, takes over the operation. Alex simply leaves Morpheus imprisoned without interfering. One day, a guard sleeps on the job, and Morpheus escapes after 70 years locked up. Significantly weakened, Morpheus sets out to recover his relics and rebuild his realm.
The Sandman Volume One: Preludes & Nocturnes tells the story above and beyond, serving as an introduction to the world in which Morpheus and The Endless make their homes. The story spans our reality and various others, including Morpheus’ realm, which rotted and decayed during his 70-year stint in the hedge mage’s trap. If this first volume, collecting issues 1-8 of the original comics run, is any indication, then The Sandman will earn a place among my all-time favorite graphic series.
While the first story arc primarily reads like a fetch-quest, it sets the tone and introduces the wider world of characters that will pop up throughout the series. Morpheus visits hell and matches wits with a demon to earn back his helmet. He teams up with John Constantine–a DC comics staple–to retrieve his sand pouch. And he battles with a powerful human lunatic to win back his ruby. The story of this first outing, though simple in plot, is told beautifully through dialogue and masterful artwork.
Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III lend their artistic prowess to Preludes & Nocturnes, crafting some of the most vivid imagery I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel. Through Morpheus’ eyes (and the eyes of his enemies), our world takes on a horrific sheen. People can be monsters, and that fact is on full display here, particularly in John Dee’s arc as Morpheus attempts to retrieve his prized jewel from the man. The art of Sandman has sharp, horrific edges and the colors give the world a dark aura that permeates every page. Sandman’s tone and art mesh together exquisitely, forming a visual world that feels like a perfect vehicle for the stories within.
All the while, Morpheus is a commanding yet aloof presence, often taking the time to observe and think before he acts. He takes a measured approach to his problems while radiating cool factor, and it’s a refreshing archetype. Whereas many comic book heroes strut around with bravado, Morpheus prefers stillness. He acts when ready, and he waits for the power of dreams to open up new solutions instead of making impulsive decisions. Morpheus’ unique approach displays fully when he’s plopped into a quest with another character. People of our world—even those with supernatural powers themselves—seem put off by Morpheus. When other cast members interact with Morpheous, there’s a distinct tension to those moments, a “wait-and-see” sheen over the whole scene. While one character may feel urgency for his or her quest, Morpheus prefers to watch, listen, and strike at the prime opportunity. The dissonance is palpable, and it makes reading and viewing scenes containing Morpheus and a temporary sidekick all the more gripping. Will the rookie do something impulsive and throw Morhpeus’ strategy aside? Or will they be so crippled with fear that they allow the Sandman himself to solve the problem in his own way?
Another striking aspect of Preludes & Nocturnes is Gaiman’s afterword. In it, he says these are some of his weakest Sandman stories. Imagine my surprise, then, after reading them all in one sitting, when I discovered his thoughts on the tome. If these are the worst Sandman stories available, then what’s to come must be the stuff of legend.
Whether you’re picking it up because of the Netflix adaptation or just discovering The Sandman on your own, now is the time. Preludes & Nocturnes is an exquisite collection of stories, and if Gaiman is to believe, the tales to come are even better.
Rating: The Sandman Volume One: Preludes & Nocturnes – 9.0/10