A few weeks before Netflix’s The Sandman, adapted by original author Neil Gaiman with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, premiered on the streaming video platform, I checked the first graphic novel in the series out of my local library. Though such an aside might seem pointless, hold on for just a moment…
This television series comes after nearly three decades of attempts and false starts by multiple talents to adapt the DC Comics property. Upon original publication in January 1989, Gaiman was the youngest of the so-called British Invasion comic artists and the title seemed like the crescendo for a group that, alongside American contemporaries like Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller, almost overnight had reinvigorated and revitalized a sputtering American industry. Alan Moore, John Byrne, Chris Claremont, and finally Gaiman came to symbolize an entire generation that turned the old-fashioned funny books into “the graphic novel” and placed them onto the New York Times Bestseller List. Hell, no less than Norman Mailer sang Gaiman’s praises!
The Sandman was a bold, daring title for several reasons. In narrating the adventures of Lord Morpheus, an anthropomorphic rendition of dreaming, Gaiman fused high philosophical contemplations with genre-bending horror and fantasy tropes. On any given page, readers could get a hearty dose of Hermeticism, Jungian archetypes, references to the Bard, and more, all delivered in the type of dinginess William S. Burroughs would have felt at home in. Though not all analogies are perfect, The Sandman was really equivalent to Sandinista! by The Clash, a shameless, ecclectic, completely unprecedented and proudly-bizarre work that tried to run through each and every possible technical improvisation imaginable in the particular mode of art utilized by the creators.
This first season adapts issues #1-16, or the first two graphic novels. After escaping a century of confinement by an evil magician (Charles Dance), Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) sets about rebuilding his kingdom, the Dreaming. (Trust me, this seemingly-absurd scenario in fact opportunes a panoramic tour of the fictional universe, with many contemplations of deep philosophical questions along the way.) During one episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” Morpheus accompanies his sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), during a day on the job collecting souls, including some rather touching moments, like when an elderly Jewish violinist successfully pleads for an extra minute of life so he might recite the Shema prayer and go to Heaven. In this sense, the series is successfully meaningful.
There’s also no denying that, after 25 years of repeated fumbles, accidents, and misfires, Sandman is one of the top adaptations of a DC property ever produced. Ever since the 1997 release of Batman and Robin, a queer-camp film that was far too ahead of its time, various franchise properties originating with DC have been hit-or-miss. Warner Bros. Discovery, who owns the publisher, has a catalog absolutely littered with triumphs and travesties. Their animated division had repeated victories with characters like Batman, Superman, and (eventually) the entire Justice League. But I was never able to warm up to their nighttime programs like Smallville or The Flash, which always felt like Beverly Hills 90210 in spandex. In this sense, Christopher Nolan’s two hits and one miss with the Dark Knight trilogy were admirable. But afterwards, their cinematic projects, like Superman Returns, 300, Watchmen, and the dour Zack Snyder-verse trilogy, have been unmitigated disasters. As recently as this week, David Zaslav, the new President/CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, has been trying to recalibrate and recover from fiascos inherited from previous studio leadership, such as the ongoing slow-motion car accident otherwise known as actor Ezra Miller’s public self-immolation, which threatens to scuttle any hope of success for WB’s summer 2023 tentpole adaptation of The Flash (which itself was supposed to be a soft reboot for their floundering superhero mega-franchise following the likewise-bizarre antics of Zack Snyder!) The fact Sandman was able to avoid what is looking like a curse upon so many contemporaneous properties is notable. (Could part of this be due to the fact that it is self-contained, lacking any connections with other DC characters from titles like Batman, who made cameos in the source novels?)
But I likewise cannot avoid the unfortunate recognition that, after nearly thirty years, The Sandman feels so undeniably mainstream.
When Gaiman’s original periodical was published, it was a near-revolutionary aggregate of impulses and tropes connected together into a subversive and taboo formula, including a revival of gory horror comic methods that had been successfully censored into oblivion by McCarthyism, normalization of queerness and free love, and the burgeoning Eighties Goth music scene so feared by Culture Warriors like Tipper Gore. The original comics bore a forbidding FOR MATURE READERS warning label and eventuated the creation of an entire adults-only DC sub-label, Vertigo Comics.
But in 2022, almost every American shopping mall has a Hot Topic store where you can buy mass-produced Goth apparel (and those lacking such access have the store’s website available over their smartphones), the Saw and Hostelfranchises have so desensitized contemporary viewers that Gaiman’s set pieces seem quaint, and the openly gay Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg shares family pictures of his husband and infant child on Twitter. (Hell, in order to maintain some semblance of edginess, the writers opted to pepper the scripts with a plethora of curse words that were never in the original books!) Gaiman likewise has moved from the margins of fantasy he was occupying 30 years ago, back when the genre was dominated by Tolkien and his various bastard rip-off progeny. Just as with Phillip K. Dick in sci-fi, Neil Gaiman’s quirky, passively-humorous manner is now a dominant fantasy prose style. Along with the admirable gesture of multicultural casting, these tropes in sum total don’t have the vibe of an anarchic fantasy, instead it just feels like a projection of ideals held by most Progressive Democratic voters. (I will say, however, that the power dynamics inherent with white character actors addressing Black women actors performing as subordinate players is a tad noticeable and uncomfortable.)
Furthermore, it is hard to ignore that a minor change in setting has really not complemented the story. Consider the aforementioned episode featuring Death, “The Sound of Her Wings.” The original issue gravitated around Washington Square Park in 1989, the pre-Giuliani days, back when Lower Manhattan still had grimy, dingy feel where punks, queers, artists, bohemians, and other outcasts had a significant presence. Morpheus and Death are collecting souls from a place that many perceived back then as hell on earth.
By contrast, the 2022 episode is set in a London that seems to have been decorated by the British tourism council, with every nook and cranny being scrubbed bright. The impact is noticeable and detrimental because these souls are not vacating a terrestrial nightmare. This feels doubly damnable because, in the wake of tragedies like the Grenfell housing complex fire, harsh austerity, and the upsurge of racist xenophobia catalyzed by Brexit, it seems that London is rapidly beginning to resemble New York in the Eighties!
What does it mean when the subversive and dangerous art of thirty years ago is so gentrified it becomes the mainstream of liberalism? This is why I mentioned getting that graphic novel out of the library. During the ‘90s, it was a taboo for librarians to hold any comic book subscriptions in their periodical stacks, let alone those with an Adults Only warning label; now, I can find multiple sets of the entire Sandman graphic novel series across the Rhode Island public library network!
Gaiman’s original books included a few different cameos by Shakespeare. Several years ago, when I took a class at community college on the Bard, it was impossible to ignore that Hamlet, Othello, MacBeth, and Julius Caesar retain a subversive edge after half a millennium. Perhaps it is utterly absurd to try comparing some of the greatest plays of Western history with comic books. But I likewise am challenged to find the truly lasting and powerful elements of the story that makes it timeless. There are brilliant flashes that contemplate and subvert storytelling and character archetypes. But while Hamlet will always speak to a sense of social alienation and Brutus to the contradictions of civic duty in the face of authoritarianism, Lord Morpheus just looks like an average high school mallrat. There is nothing necessarily frightening or even transgressive in the character’s rendition, instead he seems utterly normal.
Gaiman is a skilled storyteller, no doubt, and his original publications are still quite engaging after all these decades. But this adaptation is unfortunately unable to tap into that same vein. Its high production values inadvertently have negated that which made it so amazing in the first place, the outlandishness that stemmed from its independent, anti-corporate streak. Unlike The Clash, who signed to a major label so to expand their artistic potential (and in so doing, drove the record label executives absolutely insane by intentionally under-pricing Sandinista!), this feels more like that painful Ramones record produced with Phil Spector, End of the Century.