Annotated Sandman Vol.1 – A Great But Sometimes Overwhelming Dream

Well now that the Hugo Award winners have been announced (congrats Psalm for the Wild-Built, we were rooting for you!) I guess it’s time to go back to our regularly scheduled programming which is . . . well any random thing I guess.

Sandman is perhaps not quite so random as a live-action adaptation of the this highly regarded comic has recently been released on Netflix. It looks amazing, and I’ve heard it lives up to the hype from everyone I talk to who’s watched it.

I’m VERY excited to check out the show, but I’m also the type of person who likes to try and read things before they watch it. With books at least, once I’ve seen it on the big/small/any screen, I cannot rid those images from my brain, and so I just imagine everything as I’ve already seen it which, to me, kinda takes away from the experience as it feels a bit like cheating.

Of course there are some exceptions to this rule: Lord of the Rings was WAY cooler as imagined by Peter Jackson than what I came up with on my own (no comment here regarding story as that’s a whole other post). I guess my 11 year old mind just simply lacked the budget to do the story justice . . . Anyway, generally I’ll try to air on the side of caution and read the original format first (although for a lot of series I’m currently reading and loving, like Shadow and Bone, and The Witcher, it was the show (or game and then show) that brought me to the books which I can’t be disappointed by because at least they got me to the books).

Anyway, I (usually) want to experience the story in its original medium first because I feel it gives my own imagination some freedom and a kind of creativity that a movie or show just can’t. There are definitely times (like LotR) when Hollywood does it better, and if that’s the case I’m pleasantly surprised, but if it’s not the case, at least I still have that original memory.

Perhaps as I get more into comic books, I’ll find they’re a bit different considering they are already a visual medium and I’m not imagining things from scratch, but I didn’t want to run that experiment just yet, I just wanted to plow through a highly acclaimed story by a renowned author.

So what did I think?

Right. Back on topic. In general, I loved(!!) The Sandman story, but unfortunately I think the edition which I read actually made it more difficult for me to enjoy. I’ll start with why I’m recommending the comic, and will end with why I will consider a different edition when continuing on.

The Dream Itself

The Sandman itself is absolutely an incredible story. My previous experience with Neil Gaiman has been a bit hit and miss — loved Good Omens, hated Neverwhere, still need to read American Gods — so I was pretty lukewarm on the idea of a Neil Gaiman comic, when my book club proposed the idea. However, I knew the show was coming out, and I would want to watch it, and everything I mentioned above, so I decided just to go for it. We were tasked to read Vols 1-20, and so I requested it from the library, and waited its eventual arrival.

In general, I’ve read very few comics, and what I have read was generally inspired by a book (Wheel of Time: Eye of the World), a movie (James Bond), or a show (Game of Thrones). Exceptions to this are Moon Knight (and I guess now Sandman) which fall into the category of: Rushing to Read a Few Before I Watch the Show.

Generally, everything mentioned above is either not a superhero story, or a Marvel superhero story. In the case of the Marvel stories, I can’t say any were particularly deep or thought provoking (with the exception, maybe, of Lemire’s take on Moon Knight). Mostly they were stories with a lot of action, punching and crime fighting.

The Sandman is apparently part of the ‘DC Universe’ which I have never read any of, but have seen a few movies (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman etc.) Would they be the same? Who knew? Not me.

I had no idea what to expect.

What I found was a deep and thought provoking story. One that exists in single nights, generations, and eons. A story rich in allusion, both to classical myth and comic book milieu. A comic book which considers themes of gender, racism and class.

And a comic book that was equal turns, batty, horrifying (read as genre of horror), funny, and prescient (even though the first issue came out in 1988).

The Sandman himself is a strangely compelling protagonist. Kind of a grim reaper type fellow which gave me major 80’s metal vibes (actual Death is personified as a perky punk girl). Sandman’s job is not to help people into the afterlife, but to protect ‘The Dream’. His methods for doing this are at times moral, selfish, brutal, kind, or in some cases just bizarre.

We understand his motives and goals as much as we need to in order to have a satisfying story, but there is always something behind the curtain which we don’t understand. Always something which seems to make Sandman unknowable, despite how much we learn about him each issue. It’s deeply compelling.

Gaiman also seems to be able to hook us with something new each issue. In some issues it’s the setting (Hell and later a convention — like comic-con — for Serial Killers stand out but there are many great ones). In other issues, it’s the villain, or the theme/social commentary, or some new twist on something we thought we’d seen before. One issue is entirely the dream of a cat. It seems Gaiman really let his imagination run wild, but as a true storyteller, is also able to connect the seemingly disparate stories together in a way which told a larger story.

My only gripe was all the cameos.

Gaiman’s Sandman (I say “Gaiman’s” because as I learned from the Forward, there was a Sandman in DC universe before this, one that’s referenced and shown in several issues) is an intriguing enough character on his own, he doesn’t need the help of a crossover. I understand that this is how comics sell other comics, but I think everything would have been stronger without them.

The Sandman, The Dream, Death, Desire, Lucifer, The Endless, are all rich enough characters and settings with incredibly deep mythology (often pulling from real myths) to exist in their own story without Arkham or the Justice League or any of the other tie-ins (although Constantine seemed to fit into the Sandman milieu as if he’d always been there so he was my favorite cameo).

Anyway, it all combines into a deeply interesting comic which is easy to lose your whole night reading (or blogging about). I highly recommend whether you’re new to comics or a long-time fan. These stories are packed with enough that I feel there will be something for everyone to take away from the experience.

My Issues With the Annotated Edition.

For one, no color. Sandman appears to have been a fantastically illustrated comic, but you would not know it from reading the Annotated Edition. Every panel is black and white, which often obscures some of the artwork, making things unclear or hard to make out. Also, having seen the color editions at my friend’s house . . . they’re just so much more beautiful.

Next, the annotations themselves. Some of them consist of explanations of allusions, or backstories of characters we see on certain pages. Even script notes from NG about what he imagined the scene to look like (the script notes were fun, NG is a weird and interesting dude). Also errors are pointed out . . .

As someone who watches the New Rockstars “Easter Egg Break Down” after every marvel show/movie (I believe Eric Voss never sleeps), I though this would generally be the type of stuff I would eat up in a minute.

Only there was so much information that reading the annotations often took me away from the story completely rather than immerse me deeper in (which I assume is the intention). Honestly, it caused a lot of false starts and trails which felt like they lead nowhere.

For instance, until I read the Forward to the annotated edition from NG himself, I had no idea Sandman was ‘DC Universe’. There was a lot of interesting history of comics in his intro, and the annotator’s opening which got me up to speed quickly and provided a ton of extra context. However, I did not need a single word of that to jump into the ‘text’ of Sandman.

Of course this ‘text’ of The Sandman is heavily referential, as I mentioned earlier, alluding to the mythologies of many cultures, and DC universe history as well. Often times those references were obscured by the artist or author’s intent and also just generally an obscure cut which you’d have to be a big nerd (a term I do not use pejoratively) to know about.

I’ll admit it was a bit fun to see some DC heroes I was familiar with (mostly from movies) appear in the issues, but often times the annotations that accompanied these cameos vacillated between wikipedia length articles, and a single line saying which issue the character first appeared in. Useful I suppose if I want to go back and read those issues some day, or check out a new character, but ultimately, the short annotations were not useful, and the long ones took so long to read that I couldn’t remember where I was in the story. And worst of all, a few contained spoilers!

As I consider this, I think some kind of tags in the beginning like “comics history”, or “Literary allusion” (and of course “spoiler!”) would have been useful at the beginning of the annotations so that the reader could decide whether or not to read the annotation or not. Some were interesting to me, while others were decidedly not, but I eventually just stopped reading them altogether because I could not discern if it would be relevant information for me to know before getting halfway through and then stopping and trying to pick up the pieces of where I was in the narrative.

My final thesis about these annotations is probably this: If you have not read these comics already, then they are likely going to provide too much information for you to really get immersed in the story. When watching the Easter Egg Break Downs mentioned earlier, I’ve realized that I always watch them after I’ve already gone through episode or movie blind once and formed my own theories and conclusions. Then watching the breakdowns can be like getting your score back on a test. Did you catch everything?

I suspect an annotated volume like this could have very much the same fun, if I was already experienced with The Sandman comics to begin with.

So . . . Recommend?

Yes! I whole heartedly recommend The Sandman comic, with the caveat that it may be wise for newbies to the series to find an edition that’s in color, and does not include the annotations. Vols 1-20 are a thought provoking story. Deep, wacky, scary, and even humorous, with a compelling and seemingly unknowable main character. However, this particular edition was a bit difficult to read. Aside from this one gripe, I would highly recommend the book to anyone, and if you’ve already been a fan of The Sandman for quite a while, then perhaps this is the edition for you after all.

Has anyone reading enjoyed this comic? What’s your fav storyline (no spoilers for after issue 20 plz! I’ll get there soon.) Have you tried it with the annotations? What was your experience?

Please let me know in the comments. I’ll see you next time.

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