Enter The Sandman – how Neil Gaiman’s flagship comic came to Netflix

While studying for my BA in English Literature in the mid-1990s, I was asked to submit an essay on a text of my choice. I opted for an iconic work on 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 Gaimanfantasy epic The sand man, on the grounds that the text had to be a literary work. If I needed some kind of justification that The Sandman was worthy of an A-level critical critical essay, it was provided many times from the critical adulation heaped on the work in the years that followed. .

And now, fans are about to see the comic finally hit the screens. On August 5, Netflix will release its highly anticipated big-budget Netflix adaptation with a star-studded cast featuring Tom Sturridge, Jenna ColemanCharles Dance, Gwendoline Christie, Taron Egerton and more.

This isn’t the first time The Sandman has had to be adapted. Roger Avary had planned to make a version in the 1990s partly inspired by the work of animator Jan Švankmayer. This one will just have to stay in the “what if?” comic book readers. files, alongside Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen adaptation.



Jenna Coleman as Johanna, Tom Sturridge as Dream (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)


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Jenna Coleman as Johanna, Tom Sturridge as Dream (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)

But now may be a better time for The Sandman’s screen debut. The success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones has developed a global audience for whom high fantasy is not an embarrassing option. And we live, for better or worse, in a pop-cultural landscape dominated by comic book adaptations.

The Sandman is, of course, quite a distance from the hardware that makes up the Marvel multiplex machine. Lead actor Sturridge is more likely to deliver ironically wistful observations than Iron Man sarcasm. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated the value of world-building. For viewers invested in this fictional world, the sense of a persistent universe larger than the struggles portrayed in a single film adds emotional and thematic weight.

The Sandman can also be seen as drawing inspiration from the comic book “crossover” tradition, but rather than a group of costumed adventurers, draws its cast from world mythology. If Netflix arrives at the third major storyline, A Season of Mists, viewers will be treated to the spectacle of Norse, Egyptian and Japanese gods, alongside demonic and angelic characters from Christian mythology, arriving at Morpheus Castle to bid on the ownership of the key to Hell – comparative mythology as the spotting of Easter eggs.

When the first issue of The Sandman appeared in 1989, it was an important part of mainstream comics’ attempts to improve their cultural status. This process continued throughout the 1980s and reached a turning point in 1986 with the publication by DC Comics of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and the first issues of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, both pillars of the revisionist superhero. storytelling that kickstarted the development of titles “for discerning readers.” When pioneering DC editor Karen Berger phoned Gaiman in 1987 to ask him to start a monthly series, she pushed the doors opened by Miller, Moore and Gibbons further, rejecting Gaiman’s initial proposals to revive the existing characters, instead insisting that he create “someone-we’ve already seen”.



Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar (LAURENCE CENDROWICZ/NETFLIX)


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Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar (LAURENCE CENDROWICZ/NETFLIX)

The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen succeeded by killing off their idols. They argued that the type of individualistic power celebrated in the superhero genre was, at the very least, problematic and at worst fascist, and could never offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems. In this sense, they remained teenagers. This is not a review: it was virtuoso entertainment and provocation for readers who had grown up appreciating the rugged and explosive individualism of various super men and women, but had begun to find this ethos less compelling as they got older. .

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The Sandman, instead, avoided or ignored engagement with superheroism, revisionist or otherwise. Morpheus is neither hero nor anti-hero. Sometimes he barely counts as a protagonist. The event that begins the story, the occult ritual depicted in the first episode of the Netflix series, sees him held against his will by an analogue of Aleister Crowley, the Magus, Roderick Burgess (inevitably played by Dance). In The Season of Mists, he does not search for the Key to Hell or make the final decision as to who receives it. He may be immortal and more powerful than the gods, but for much of the story he simply reacts to events and fulfills his obligations.

It’s not just the de-emphasis on male bravery that has helped The Sandman find an older, more female audience. He actively celebrated queer identities, most evidently in stories featuring Rose Walker, played by Kyo Ra in the upcoming adaptation. In the comic strip The Doll’s House, her flamboyant transvestite owner Hal is the friendliest human character she meets, and later, in A Game of You, she is seen moving to New York and counting among her neighbors a couple of lesbians and her new best friend. Wanda, a trans woman.

Inevitably, from a contemporary perspective, the treatments of these issues in a 30-year-old comic can seem underdeveloped, even crude. There are uncomfortable whiffs of non-normative identities used as signifiers of more general weirdness, and no doubt if the comics were written today, Morpheus’ non-binary brother Desire would be called “they” instead. only that”.



Mason Alexander Park as Desire (LAURENCE CENDROWICZ/NETFLIX)


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Mason Alexander Park as Desire (LAURENCE CENDROWICZ/NETFLIX)

Gaiman has acknowledged this, and while a balanced assessment of this installment of The Sandman must take into account the relative lack of detailed and appropriate vocabulary at the time of its production, a 2014 defense of its treatment of trans characters includes a surprisingly contemporary – a sonic motivation to emphasize their presence in the comics: “I found a lot of things I saw in the late 80s from certain feminist circles really offensive, seeing them dismissing trans women as not being real women, and I decided I wanted to put those attitudes into history.

The Dollhouse is The Sandman’s second major storyline, 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 the comedic characters they will play, indicates that this will remain a theme. central. With overwhelming predictability, these casting choices have sparked outrage in some corners of the web, including the absurd spectacle of complaints about the casting of non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park as the non-binary character Desire. Gaiman gave such answers lightly. As he succinctly wrote on Twitter in response to a review that favored dumb rhymes over meaning, “Sandman woke up in 1988, and he ain’t gone broke yet.”

One thing The Sandman shares with many “mature reader” comics of the 1980s and 1990s is that critical responses 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 interaction between writing and drawing.



Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)


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Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian (LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX)

Of the dozens of artists who have brought Gaiman’s characters to life, the one who most claims co-authorship is Dave McKean, who has provided the covers for every Sandman publication. Exquisite draftsman, abuser of color photocopiers and early adopter of Photoshop, his alluring collages function as thematic meditations on the stories they present rather than illustrative summaries of their key events, daring the interior pages to live up to their achievement and their ambition.

Gaiman was closely involved in the production of the adaptation, and if she can capture a fraction of McKean’s visual flair, fans and newcomers alike should be in for a treat. Even Miss Allsobrook could be in it.

The Sandman is on Netflix from August 5. John Miers is a cartoonist, illustrator and lecturer in illustration at the Kingston School of Art, johnmiers.com

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