I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series when I was in high school–about five years after the initial run of the comics had ended. This meant omnibus editions, which were the only thing I could find at my library anyway. The series immediately sucked me in with its blend of serialized short stories emblematic of single-creator runs and larger narrative arcs that you can really dig into with collected editions. Spread throughout The Sandman’s episodic stories is the theme that the world is sometimes randomly shit, and we all have to work extremely hard in absurd circumstances to keep our dreams, hopes, and love alive.
The Sandman (the Netflix version) doesn’t hit quite as hard. The horrific realities of life–that it’s sometimes random and unreasonable–were smoothed over for the show. I enjoyed the show, I thought it was well-made, well-acted, well-written. It’s a good show (great at times), and worth watching. But I find it hard to believe that someone will watch the show and understand why the comics became such a phenomenon, why those designs and characters have lasted 40 years, why Gaiman became a such a sensation in sci-fi and fantasy circles, and why to this day people credit Gaiman with literally inventing tropes that have plagued short fiction mags in the decades since.
The Sandman is a great show, but it doesn’t have the same edge that seared the comics into my memory as something that was disturbing and delightful all at once. The comics walked this fine line with a lack of grace and nuance that might have come from Gaiman’s age or might have just happened because it was the early ‘90s and this was a DC/Vertigo comic. An example of this is when Constantine has to go find his ex-girlfriend, who has kept the pouch of Morpheus’ sand. The sand is compared to a drug (sort of like heroin), and his ex counts down from 100 each time before she rubs a little bit more into her skin. She’s shown emaciated and hurting, but in ecstasy. It’s a horrible analogy for addiction, but it shows the wicked duality of this writing — where the fantasy of drug use is made real, but it’s also worse than anyone can imagine. In the show this incident is far less troubling; Constantine’s ex still has the sand, but instead of using it to fuel an addiction, she merely holds it and dreams, losing herself in memory. It is the kinder, softer version of this story.
I don’t need my shows to be nice. I don’t need the Sandman to be nice. There are only a few times where I truly felt that the show was able to balance grim reality with a desperate feeling of unfair circumstantial horror. When Death gathers the baby in his crib, when Jessamy is shot, when Jed Walker gets abused by his foster parents; these are the few moments of random brutality that reminded me of the comics, but in all of these moments, there was still a reservation on screen. They have diverted the horror. Even the diner interlude was less callous than the version in the Worlds’ End collection of the comics. There was still feeling there, a stage-y reservation. Netflix’s Sandman wants to tell us the world is brutal, but the show doesn’t revel in it the way the comics did.
This side-step is well demonstrated when Morpheus goes to Cain and Abel’s home in order to take back Gregory and make himself a little more whole. When Cain says “It’s not fair,” Morpheus only replies, “No, it’s not.” And then he essentially kills their pet. (Funnily enough, in the comics, this is much less disturbing; Morpheus only destroys the brothers’ contracts and not their guard-gargoyle.) But even when playing with unfairness, the show still seeped itself in sentiment. This moment was drawn out, and was framed as a selfless act. Even as a beloved pet is dissolved into nothing, there is something so palatable about this moment. It is easy watching. It makes sense, in a maudlin, sappy sort of way. The series wants you to feel that pathos, but it doesn’t want to disgust you.
The comics demonstrated over and over again that life is shit because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and sometimes that’s just how life works. Sorry, 26-year-old Neil Gaiman says, life sucks. Hope’s out there though, if you can find it. I wanted the show to be like Legion, but it’s far more Lucifer. It’s grounded in a way that the comics never were. Part of this is probably because it had to be, because it’s Netflix; you can’t afford to turn something this expensive into something that explores the mundane, normal, typical horrors of assault, addiction, suicide, and serial killers and just do a tap dance, screaming “that’s life!” as a strange and mercurial god metes out his version of hyper-specific justice. Netflix needs to make The Sandman make sense. And so it does.
At the beginning of the series there’s a bit of voiceover from the Dreamlord as we watch his raven, Jessamy, flying over the realm of dreams. Dreaming is meant to give you a world where you can “face your fears and fantasies.” Then Morpheus says that he must control both dreams and nightmares “lest they consume and destroy” those who dream.
This feels like a fantastically apt description for what Gaiman has done in the series. He has excised the truly nightmarish parts of his creation and left something far dreamier, far more in step with contemporary audiences, and far more digestible. Netflix’s Sandman has had its edges blunted. The hits still hit hard, but they don’t bite into you with quite the same sharp fervor of the original. I will fully admit that to many, this might seem like nitpicking; you can be hit with either end of a hammer and still feel the impact. But to me it was that claw that bit into me, the crunch of horror that I remember, the anger and frustration, the way that upset stuck to the roof of my mouth while reading. I was indignant. I never really let The Sandman go. While watching, I found myself wishing that the show hurt more. It never did.
I fully recognise that the absence of what makes me wistful for The Sandman of the ‘90s is exactly what people love about this version. There is something satisfying about watching a nightmare make sense. What we have in the Netflix series is a wonderful, if sanitised, version of Gaiman’s comics masterpiece. And if we’re going to watch a dream, I don’t mind this one. This show is the product of an enduring hope that this, and every version of Dream of the Endless, will live on for a long long time. It makes sense. Dreams, as Matthew says, don’t fucking die.
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