THIS REVIEW OF ‘THE SANDMAN UNIVERSE’ #1 CONTAINS SPOILERS.
By Clyde Hall. I remember a dream of years long past. Of a deadly Cereal convention, and a talking raven. Of a never-ending, though often dysfunctional, family. Of a man driven to imprison death, but who instead captured dream. Of a Fae court as audience for the premiere performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of a feline reverie where cats rule the world and humans are playthings. Of an Element Girl who desires nothing so much as release from life. Of an evil Doctor wielding a ruby of nightmares. Of the Lord of all Dreaming, and the infant son born of mortals but heir to his throne.
If you were struck by the initial graphic story swell of The Sandman in 1989, one that would become a wave of Vertigo a few years later, these are your dreams as well. Never before had we seen anything akin to the travels of Morpheus between the Waking World and the realms of REM, skirting the edges of regular DC continuity while remaining firmly above it. And while Neil Gaiman’s Sandman helped bring about the Vertigo imprint for DC, which in turn inspired more edgy and genre-spanning fare for mature readers, it has also been often emulated. Seldom equaled. The chronicles of the Endless are, fittingly enough, infinite, a richer tapestry of storytelling even than Gaiman’s later American Gods.
Vertigo also owes much to editor Karen Berger’s vision, and her departure coupled with the 2017 launch of her Berger Books imprint at Dark Horse changed the creator-owned comics playing field for the sorts of horror and fantasy provender she helped initiate. The time had come for DC to imbue new life into Vertigo.
Which brings us to The Sandman Universe #1, a return to The Dreaming and to several characters first chronicled there, as well as characters and series which sprang from the momentum of Morpheus’ popularity. The issue heralds four new series for the DC Vertigo line (The Dreaming by Simon Spurrier and Bilquis Evely, Books of Magic by Kat Hoard and Tom Fowler, House of Whispers by Nalo Hopkinson and Dominike “Domo” Stanton, and Lucifer by Dan Watters and Sebastian & Max Fiumara), and laces together all four into the narrative as set forth by Gaiman.
Comparisons likely loom over this ‘what’s old is new again’ approach, in which DC again dusts off a bolt from the blue that generated excitement for them three decades ago and tries to harness some of that lightning again. Why not seek further innovation from new, untapped sources to create the next comics evolution rather than drill deeper into the same well? It’s a valid argument, but in this instance, the material and circumstances lift their efforts to a more advantageous horizon. Gaiman, as the architect of The Dreaming mythos, is still on very good terms with DC and is aboard with the project. And while his Endless Family are not new, they are eternal. So long as there are human beings, their stories may change, may adapt to a shifting reality of the Waking World, but they endure. Lastly, while there is much in this first issue to reintroduce us to our previous dreams and visitations, readers also witness new currents, new watersheds, being established along the river of remembrance.
The wine at the top of this issue’s list is, however, Nostalgia and a heady, velvety vintage it is. The Dreaming’s cast takes center stage as the curtain opens, and it’s as if they’ve never gone away. Which, in context of the series, would be totally appropriate. Mortals change, these characters are forever. Lucien abides over the library of dream stories, Matthew the raven still cracks wise, and where you find Cain with Abel, murder naturally follows. They usher you into the same comfortable reading chair you shared with them the first time your paths crossed. It’s easy to revel in their familiarity.
Daniel, successor to Morpheus as the King of Dreams, may be technically in charge but not in residence as the story opens. But with the Realm of Sleep itself subject to an insidious undermining, it resists in ways that create new foci, new elements, and bring new characters into play. Matthew the raven is sent to find Daniel when other means of communication falter, and he ties the new story threads together. One of those threads is Dora, an unhappy Dreaming denizen misled by its former Lord and eking out a diet of pilfered dreams where she can find them. She’s not concerned with the absence of the Dream Lord Daniel amidst the altering course of their realm, and she still holds a grudge against his predecessor.
Another entwined narrative concerns Tim Hunter, the bespectacled young Magi who’s having the worst substitute teacher day ever when Matthew crosses his path. Yes, today it seems like déjà vu to have a young and inexperienced wizard menaced by a wave of dark sorcery and the shadowy necromancers hastening its coming, but until we get a Books of Magic section added to major theme parks, Harry’s Potterverse and Tim’s world are different enough to peacefully co-exist. Besides, Tim predates him.
The next stop as the raven flies centers on a new edifice that’s risen in the Dreaming to take its place alongside the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets, and it embodies an exciting extension to lengthen the dire shadow cast by both of those moldering abodes. A House of Whispers takes form with a foundation built upon Vodun and the mojo of Americana that sets it apart from its sisters. Matthew is witness to a mortal cast and their story overseers, as rooted in the swampland carnivale as the House itself.
Where Lucifer limps, the Dreamlord is not far afield. That’s Matthew’s reasoning at least when he seeks out the Fallen One as a means of locating Daniel. Unfortunately, Lucifer’s apparently in a fresh Hell of his own machinations and unable to come out and play. Gorgeously rendered, this may still be the hardest sell of the four new titles. Lucifer has been explored in Vertigo offerings more than a little, so expectations will be high for exactly where this new course in his narrative is headed.
While the introductions to our foursome of new titles is sufficient, it’s hard to imagine a reader unversed with the previous Sandman and Dreaming stories jumping aboard cold with this issue. They may like it, perhaps sufficiently to go back and read the collected volumes, but that’s a lot of volumes. It’s doubtful they will appreciate it fully without that background, however.
Gaiman’s framing here is the work of a master craftsman, sure to bring bleary eyes and warm fuzzy feels to those who’ve longed to tread the Dreaming pathways anew. Even more, he seamlessly leads each section (and credit no doubt goes to the editors as well for this) to bring the respective creative teams to center stage while priming them to shine. Only the best of the best can work that sort of magic.
This particular kind of Special Issue has several objectives. To remind us of what was great in the previous tomes, to prepare us for additional sections of that storyline, to excite us with the new elements that will comprise it, and to introduce us to the folks who’ll be shepherding us. The Sandman Universe #1 accomplishes all of that. The realm of Dream is reawakened, the braziers brightly lit once more, and the library ready for new patrons.
Story by Neil Gaiman.
Written by Simon Spurrier, Kat Howard, Nalo Hopkinson, and Dan Watters.
Illustrated by Bilquis Evely, Tom Fowler, Dominike “Domo” Stanton, Max Fiumara, and Sebastian Fiumara.
Colors by Mat Lopes.
Letters by Simon Bowland.
8 out of 10
Enjoy this six-page preview of ‘The Sandman Universe’ #1, courtesy of DC Vertigo!