If you’ve found the new Netflix series The Sandman to be the stuff of dreams and/or nightmares, you should know that you’ll get lot more of both in the source material.
Neil Gaiman’s sweeping fantasy series, first published in monthly comic-book form between 1989 and 1996, was long considered unfilmable. That wasn’t just because it would require so much imagination and special-effects wizardry to bring its magic to life: Month by month the series added up to a staggeringly complex work, with interlaced storylines that take ages to pay off. You get the impact of Greek tragedy as the short stories form an epic whole. The core story spans 10 collected volumes, not counting additional prequels and spinoffs.
The first 10-episode season released by Netflix appears to be a hit, so there likely will be more to come. If you can’t wait and want to dive into the books, here are a few things to know going in.
The title character of The Sandman, Dream of the Endless, aka Morpheus, is a cold-natured, spooky, emo-attired guy who conducts a lot of conversations by glowering. Actor Tom Sturridge does a fine job in the role, but he’s left to fill silent moments when Dream doesn’t speak or emote.
When Sturridge has the faintest scrap of emotion to work with, he does quite well. When he doesn’t, his character just seems to be waiting. On the page, with artists adding otherworldly nuance and a smidge of narration, Dream’s silences speak volumes.
The first few dozen pages of the Sandman comic seem to pay tribute to the mostly forgotten genre of horror comics. The scenes where Dream recovers his pouch of sand from an unfortunate human who’s become addicted to its contents is far more grisly than the TV version.
The sequence where demented character John Dee torments the inhabitants of a diner is tough stuff in the show; in the books, it’s so disturbing that even some devoted fans will skip past it when re-reading. But Sandman’s tonal palette is large, so don’t let this stuff convince you it’s just a horror book.
It introduces a lot of characters, and it does so much more quickly than the books – which paradoxically has the effect of slowing down the action, because you spend so much time getting to know new people.
But the series also accelerates some storylines that take volumes to play out on paper, and escalates one villain, The Corinthian, into the role of a major plot driver.
This seems like a smart move: It gives the 10-episode run a clear antagonist and a distinct main arc, while discreetly setting up many other potential TV-season arcs.
One of the wild things about The Sandman books is the way nothing happens without consequences. What seem like trivial decisions by minor characters in the beginning turn out to have momentous weight in the end. Darn near everybody you met in the series has a much larger, richer story in the books.
Yes, the roster of minor characters who aren’t so minor includes William Shakespeare, seen in the series as a young playwright of dubious talent, talking to Christopher Marlowe in a tavern scene.
The relationship between Dream and Shakespeare in the comics results a particularly enchanting tale, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented to Faerie folk.
At the end of the series, Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer is looking pretty dissatisfied with the whole ruler-of-Hell gig. Maybe this means a second season will venture into one of The Sandman’s funniest storylines: Lucifer quits and leaves the keys with Dream, effectively making him the landlord.
This turns out to be a huge nuisance when a ragtag variety of gods show up wanting to lay claim to this desirable expanse of supernatural real estate.
(In case you didn’t know, the TV series Lucifer, in which the devil decides he’d rather play piano in a jazz bar, is based on a related Sandman storyline.)
In the series you get a good look at Death, a brilliant portrayal of Desire by Mason Alexander Park, and a glimpse of Despair. That leaves Delirium, Destiny and Destruction still to be introduced – and a lot of explaining to be done about what the Endless are and what happens when a supposedly changeless entity starts changing.
“He talks about stories, my brother,” Desire says in one of the entire series’ most brilliant asides. “Let me tell you the plot of every one of his damned stories. Somebody wanted something. That’s the story. Mostly they get it, too.” – Lawrence Specker/al.com/Tribune News Service