On August 5th, DC and Netflix are making all of our dreams come true. It’s been over thirty years since Neil Gaiman’s masterwork The Sandman was first called “the unadaptable comic”: a story too grand, too ambitious, too sprawling to ever be faithfully adapted to screen. Now, the impossible has finally been realized—the series is getting a Netflix adaptation and you’re realizing that it’s time to finally dive in. Whether on screen or on the page, you’re ready to experience The Sandman for the very first time. And yet, for a book with such a reverent mythology all its own, we can understand how you might feel a bit intimidated, anxious that you may be missing some sort of clue or context which makes what you’re reading, or soon watching, all the richer.
So, here’s what you need to accept—you absolutely, definitely are. No reader captures every element of The Sandman on their first experience. You’d have to be the writer himself. The Sandman is a book designed to be visited over and over again like a beloved friend, each new meeting enriched and informed by all you’ve learned and experienced since. But we’ll do our best to address some of the most pressing questions you might have here.
Who Is This Sandman Guy?
The original Sandman was a gas mask-wearing crimefighter named Wesley Dodds, a founding member of the original Justice Society of America who first appeared in 1939. He wielded a gas gun which would compel his enemies to tell the truth and put them to sleep. This story isn’t about him.
The next Sandman, Garret Sanford, was created in the 1970s by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon as a superheroic guardian of the dreamworld, whose adventures typically involved two dream-creatures named Brute and Glob. This Sandman was eventually relieved in his duty by Hector Hall, a former member of Infinity Inc. who had been the Silver Scarab before passing on to the dream world. This story isn’t about them, either.
Our “Sandman” is a being who rarely goes by that name. He is better known as Morpheus, ruler of the Dreaming, the shared subreality of all the dreams of all conscious beings who ever are or ever were. He has as many names as there are cultures with stories of dreams. In a very real sense, he is the physical embodiment of the concept of dreaming itself. He is a conceptual being, almost like a deity, but who would never claim godhood. He is Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings. And, despite not being human, he is a being with very human flaws who loves, and loses, and rages at that loss every time. We meet him at a time when he has been brought low and must move mountains to rise again. Morpheus must change, or he must die, and he will make his choice.
Who Are the Endless?
You don’t need to know that just yet. (But look for more on them later here on the DC site.)
Johanna Constantine? What Happened to John?
Johanna Constantine, as she originally appeared in The Sandman, is an 18th century ancestor of the John Constantine you're likely familiar with. One liberty that The Sandman Netflix series takes is double casting Jenna Coleman in the roles of both the past Constantine and the current one. It's symmetrical. (Also, maybe a little bit of a cheeky nod to the multiple variations of the same character that she played on Doctor Who, another show which Gaiman has written for.)
What’s Up with that Raven?
Matthew, Dream’s talking raven (voiced in the Netflix series by Patton Oswalt), actually has a very rich and detailed backstory in the comics that predates The Sandman. He was once Matt Cable, a government agent who would form a complicated relationship with both his assigned target, Swamp Thing, and their mutual romantic interest, Abigail Arcane. Complex circumstances led to Agent Cable’s death presenting him with the opportunity to remain in The Dreaming instead of crossing over, though not as he was. Matthew is the latest in a long line of ravens which have served Morpheus in the past. (You’ll meet another one in the very first episode of the Netflix series.)
But none of this is that important to the story. If you hear Matthew soliloquizing on the man he was, that’s who he used to be. And for more, you can always read Swamp Thing.
Is This Set in the DC Universe?
The Sandman series started before the foundation of the Vertigo comics imprint it would eventually help define. As a rule, Vertigo series didn’t do much interacting with the mainstream DC comics. But as a grandfathered-in Vertigo series, you’ll see certain concepts from the DC Universe make their way into Sandman’s narrative. Take, for instance, John Dee, an enemy you’ll meet in this first season. He was originally Doctor Destiny, a foe to the Justice League of America in the Silver Age.
In the first volume of the comics, Morpheus encounters Etrigan, Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle. And while the story is still not about them, the Sandmen who preceded Dream had roles yet to play. There’s always just enough of the DC Universe in Sandman and its continued spinoffs to make clear that while there’s not very much interaction between the two, there are elements which keep them in touch.
As for the show, all we’ll say is that some of this is there, some of it may not be. But remember, the references are largely incidental and Sandman’s timelessness is rooted in how well it stands on its own.
What Year is It?
The first issue of The Sandman begins after a long absence by Morpheus from The Dreaming, in the year 1988. Unlike most DC titles, but similar to concurrent Vertigo titles at the time, time progressed more or less linearly from there, concluding as the series did in 1995. One of the major differences between the book and the Netflix series is that the absence lasts just a while longer, until our current year of 2022.
All Right, What’s the Best Way to Read this Thing?
Well, the good news is that you can read the first eight issues right now for free on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE. All you have to do is register. That’ll take you halfway through the first season's story, which encompasses Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of the original series’ ten volumes.
But if you’re like us, then you won’t be able to stop there. The Sandman has been collected in a number of Omnibus and Absolute Editions, but in our opinion, those are best suited for collectors and book-lovers who want volumes to cherish after their first go-round. The best way to read The Sandman as a first-time reader is to simply read the numbered Volumes 1-10, which you can find in bookstores, comic shops, libraries and digital retailers. Don’t worry, they’ve been kept in print continually since they were first published and DC recently released 30th Anniversary editions for all of them.
There have also been quite a number of spinoffs and sequels since the original series, but you could read those however you like as long as you read these ten sequential volumes first.
By name, those volumes would be:
- Preludes and Nocturnes
- The Doll’s House
- Dream Country
- Season of Mists
- A Game of You
- Fables and Reflections
- Brief Lives
- Worlds’ End
- The Kindly Ones
- The Wake
I Found This Book Called The Sandman: Overture, Though. Shouldn’t I Read That First?
ABSOLUTELY NOT. In your book-shopping travels, you may encounter a book entitled The Sandman: Overture, a prequel to The Sandman released for the series’ 25th Anniversary. DO NOT READ THIS FIRST! You’ll want to at least experience these first ten volumes, and probably the “eleventh” volume Endless Nights as well, before going back to the beginning with Overture.
I’m More of a Listener Than a Reader. Got Anything for Me?
If you’d like a more auditory experience, the first six volumes of The Sandman comics have already been adapted into a critically acclaimed Sandman audio drama, available exclusively on Audible. The first two volumes of the drama cover Volumes 1-3 and 4-6 of the original comic run, and a third volume is currently in the works. For a medium without images, this Dirk Maggs-produced adaptation of The Sandman is an incredibly reverent and loving translation of the original series. And an all-star cast of actors like James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Gaiman himself elevates the performance to a new level.
Okay, But I’m Still Really Concerned I’m Going to Miss Something
If you’re absolutely determined not to miss a single point—although, as we warned, on your first read you almost certainly will and that’s fine—you might be interested in reading The Annotated Sandman, a painstakingly researched collection with all of the references you could possibly require.
And of course, you can always check into the DC Community, where we’re all happy to address whatever questions still linger and help you discover a deeper appreciation for this rich story. But whether you’re reading, listening or watching for the first time, The Sandman is ultimately a story about stories and imagination. All you actually require before your first Sandman experience are your own senses and an appreciation for a good story.
Because you’re about to experience one of the best out there.
The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, debuts on Netflix this Friday, August 5th. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.