The Sandman Universe: Review of the First Volumes…

When Karen Berger was building DC’s mature readers imprint that would become Vertigo, amongst the first titles – and surely the flagship – was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Gaiman contributed other works including the stunning Books of Magic limited series which similarly played with and within the magical realms of the DC universe and of world mythology. Hitting its 30th anniversary – and with a Netflix series in development – Vertigo have brought back The Sandman as a ‘Universe’ curated by Neil, with four books and teams establishing the line: The Dreaming, Lucifer, The Books of Magic, and House of Whispers.

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The first collections are now available – each beginning with the collaborative Sandman special written between Gaiman and the series’ writers – but what are they like?

Si Spurrier has the helm of what’s effectively the core title THE DREAMING. He’s demonstrated his capacity to conceive and articulate the abstract, in X-Men Legacy quite aside from elsewhere, so a solid choice. Daniel, lord of the Dreaming, has left his realm and cracks in its semi-lucid reality are appearing. Spurrier does a stellar job capturing much-loved characters – Lucien the librarian, Matthew the raven, Merv Pumpkinhead, Cain and Abel and a new version of Eve – who have their own reactions to the emerging predicament. He’s then concocted Judge Gallows and the enigmatic Dora to variously antagonise and assist the existing cast, both entirely worthy additions. On the art side we have Bilquis Evely who’s more than equal to the task of making Spurrier’s abstractions relatable with crisp detailing, and many hats must go off to Matt Lopes colouring also.

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Neil selected Dan Watters for Lucifer, a major character and subsequently written as a solo series by Mike Carey running as long as the original Sandman sequence, and now adapted on Amazon Prime. Dan had proven his ability in contemporary horror-fantasy with his and Caspar Wijngaard’s Limbo and his plot and characters fit seamlessly in style with Gaiman’s original narrative. He establishes a sense of grand metaphysical laws and loopholes and details that allow for the drama of great beings – Lucifer here – to be brought low, and the hidden possibility of them emerging from their travails.

Like many Sandman arcs, the story unfolds between real and liminal worlds and the experiences and pathos of humans and higher beings. Watters’ draws from Shakespeare’s the Tempest, the concluding motif and issue of the Sandman, as a thematic link, and his conceptions and delivery of Sycorax and Caliban and human protagonist Detective Decker – alongside that of Lucifer and antagonist Stingy Jack – are painfully joyous. It’s superbly rendered in visceral glory by the brothers Fiumara, and yet again elevated by Dave McCaig’s colouring in differing, perfectly chosen palettes. It’s just bloody great.

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Tim Hunter is to be the most powerful wizard of all time – but good or evil? Kat Howard and Tom Fowler’s Books of Magic overwrites the 90s spin-off and successors. It begins in Tim’s school with Rose (the female aspect of DC’s dual-gendered Dr Occult who appeared in the original) as his teacher and not just of the regular curriculum. Part of me was looking for a slower start, indulging the original theme of wonder though with threat likewise lurking; but Kat’s probably right in getting stuck in with magical cultists attempting to kill him. With chronic sleeping problems exacerbating frustrations of school and magic it’s a more angry Tim we read, though Kat’s interpretation and delivery is flawless.

There’s also a lovely surprise appearance by Mad Hettie and the return of Yo-Yo the owl. And of course there’s a little stop in the Dreaming… Tom Fowler’s on pencils and inks and excels in bold, confident depictions of characters and use of space in composition to create depth in scenes mundane and arcane, and Justin Boyd’s colouring brings both uniquely alive.

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House of Whispers by Nalo Hopkinson and Dominike Stanton is the new addition to the mythos, and an apposite and joyous one it is. We’ve seen entities of so many cultures enter the narrative tapestry of the Dreaming and Nalo introduces a cast of vodou loa to it. Mistress Erzulie, feminine loa of love, is our lead with the equally splendid Uncle Monday as the supporting male character. Enter Erzulie’s nephew Shakpana, loa of plague, whose problematic arrival causes Erzulie’s houseboat to shift from its native realm to the Dreaming. On the human front Latoya and Maggie have just shared their relationship with Latoya’s younger sisters – and Maggie has found Shakpana’s journal which, being unwritten, belongs in the Dreaming. When Shakpana attempts to work out how they have it through an unauthorised possession of Latoya, a spiritual pandemic begins, of souls being displaced to the Dreaming – Latoya’s and those she infects.

Like much of the Sandman – and similar to Watters’ Lucifer – Nalo works with the signature of flawed mortal experience of love and pain alongside the endearing kindnesses and uncompromising cruelties born of nature or necessity of the divinities of the piece. She demonstrates effortless command of the mythos, and finesse in characterisation and plot-craft. Dominike “DOMO” Stanton’s art reminded me a little of Marc Hempel’s on the Kindly Ones volume of the Sandman, having an economy of detail while being entirely expressive and focusing attention on impactful pivotal panels; and again superb colouring, here by John Rauch, with choice palettes and contrasts.

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The underlying narrative the creators weave through these first arcs is that something is establishing itself as a new and perhaps dominant power in the Dreaming: but what is it and what does this mean for existence as we know it? We’ll have to wait for the next volumes to find out…

A last note before signing off that DC have elected to return the original urban occultist John Constantine to the mature readers category under the Sandman Universe, also being written by Mr Spurrier – absolutely cannot wait.

All round fabulous work and kudos to all.

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You can check out more on The Dreaming and Lucifer on our June highlights and on The Books of Magic and House of Whispers on our July highlights here…

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