The Sandman: The Essential Horror Comic of the ’90s

When Sandman began in 1989, Neil Gaiman was just another British writer following in the footsteps of the likes of Alan Moore. When it ended, Gaiman had created one of the most enduring long form pieces of fiction of the twentieth century and carved out a niche for himself as an industry giant. Sandman broke barriers and expectations taking comics into a new dawn of possibilities. By creating stories about the nature of dreams, Mr. Gaiman and his team of artists (including luminaries like Sam Keith, Dave McKean, Jill Thompson, Michael Zulli, and more) dared the comic industry to dream bigger.

Sandman transcended so-called industry limitations because it didn’t pigeonhole itself into one genre. Sandman was epic fantasy at its finest, grand in scope and ideas, it was a metaphysical examination on the nature of fiction, and it was, at its heart, a horror story. In a 1998 interview with Hero Complex, Neil Gaiman discussed the nature of horror at Sandman’s beginning, “At the beginning it was a horror comic. Those first eight issues was a sort of horror comic. After that it became more of, I guess, a fantasy tale, but one that allowed me to go off and write about Shakespeare or history.” Yes, after the first eight issues, Sandman morphed into something beyond a horror comic, but the horror roots remained throughout the book’s 75 issue run, a dark sun at the center of a complex and ever changing universe, making Sandman one of the most influential horror comics in history.

Sandman was a unique project in that it explored myths and legends from every angle and iteration. It made the concept of story a character within a story, as all stories live in Dream, the series’ Robert Smith quaffed protagonist. It was a non-linear endeavor, jumping around through time and space as quickly as it jumped around point-of-view. One issue would be told from the POV of Dream, another from William Shakespeare, another from an obscure, almost forgotten comic book character like Prez or Element Girl.

Not only did Sandman mine horror tropes of modern and classic fiction, it made the horror icons of the DC Universe an important part of the story. For years, DC Comics featured Cain & Abel, the Three Witches, and Destiny as the hosts of their line of horror anthologies. By the time Sandman was published, these characters were all but footnotes, but Gaiman made them integral parts of his mythos. Cain and Abel and the Witches would soon return in other titles, becoming iconic Vertigo staples. While Gaiman weaved his horror legend in Sandman, he made sure the roots of DC horror were never forgotten.

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