as the show premieres in London, let’s look at how Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic made it to Netflix

as the show premieres in London, let’s look at how Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic made it to Netflix

While studying for the A level of English Literature in the mid-1990s, I was asked to submit an essay on a text of my choice. I chose an iconic work with themes of eternity and transience, the burdens and benefits of the family and the inseparability of creation and destruction.

But Miss Allsobrook turned down my proposal for Neil Gaiman’s fantasy epic The Sandman, on the grounds that the text was to be a literary work. If you needed some sort of vindication that The Sandman was worthy of an A-grade critical essay, it was provided many times by the critical flattery accumulated at the work in the years that followed.

And today, fans are on the verge of seeing the comic finally hit the screen. On August 5th, Netflix will release its long-awaited high-budget Netflix adaptation with a star-studded cast consisting of Tom Sturridge, Jenna Coleman, Charles Dance, Gwendoline Christie, Taron Egerton, and more.

This isn’t the first time The Sandman has been scheduled for adaptation. Roger Avary intended to direct a version in the 1990s partly inspired by the work of animator Jan Švankmayer. That will simply have to stay in the “what if?” of file comic readers, alongside Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Watchmen.

Jenna Coleman as Johanna, Tom Sturridge as Dream (LIAM DANIEL / NETFLIX)

Jenna Coleman as Johanna, Tom Sturridge as Dream (LIAM DANIEL / NETFLIX)

But maybe now is a better time for The Sandman’s screen debut. The success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations and George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones have developed a global audience for whom high fantasy is not an awkward twist. And we live, for better or for worse, in a pop-cultural landscape dominated by comic book adaptations.

The Sandman is obviously quite distant from the material that makes up the Marvel multiplex machine. Lead actor Sturridge is more likely to deliver wryly wistful remarks than Iron Man-style jokes. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven the value of world building. For viewers engaged in that fictional world, the sense of a persistent universe larger than the struggles depicted in each individual film adds an emotional and thematic weight.

The Sandman may also be seen as an inspiration from the comic book “crossover” lore, but rather than a group of costumed adventurers, he takes his cast from all over world mythology. If Netflix gets to the third main storyline, A Season of Mists, viewers will be treated to the spectacle of Norse, Egyptian and Japanese gods, along with demonic and angelic figures from Christian mythology, who arrive at Morpheus Castle to bid for. possession of the key to Hell – comparative mythology such as Easter egg sighting.

When the first issue of The Sandman appeared in 1989, it was an important part of traditional comic book attempts to improve their cultural standing. This was an ongoing process throughout the 1980s and reached a watershed in 1986 with the publication by DC Comics of Frank Miller’s Return of the Dark Knight and early issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. the two pillars of the revisionist superhero narrative that started the development of titles “for mature readers”. When pioneer DC publisher Karen Berger telephoned Gaiman in 1987 asking him to present a monthly series, she went beyond the doors opened by Miller, Moore and Gibbons, rejecting her initial proposals of Gaiman to revive existing characters, insisting instead that created “someone no-has seen before”.

Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar (LAURENCE CENTROWICZ / NETFLIX)

Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar (LAURENCE CENTROWICZ / NETFLIX)

The Return of the Dark Knight and Watchmen have managed to kill their idols. They argued that the kind of individualistic power celebrated in the superhero genre was, at the very least, problematic and at worst fascist, and could never offer meaningful solutions to the world’s problems. In this sense they remained adolescents. This is not meant as a critique: they were virtuosic entertainments and taunts for readers who had grown up enjoying the bombastic and robust individualism of various super men and women, but had begun to find this ethos less compelling as they grew up.

The Sandman, on the other hand, avoided or ignored involvement with superheroism, revisionist or otherwise. Morpheus is neither hero nor anti-hero. Sometimes, he barely counts as the protagonist. The event that begins the story, the occult ritual depicted in the first episode of the Netflix series, sees him held against his will by an analogue of Aleister Crowley, the Magus, Roderick Burgess (inevitably played by Dance). In The Season of Mists he does not seek the key to hell or make the final decision as to who receives it. He may be immortal and more powerful than the gods, but for much of history he is simply responding to events and fulfilling obligations.

It wasn’t just the de-emphasis on male derring-do that helped The Sandman find an older, more feminine audience. He actively celebrated queer identities, most obviously in the stories with Rose Walker, played by Kyo Ra in the next adaptation. In the comic book The Doll’s House, her flamboyant landlord disguised as Hal is the most sympathetic human character she meets, and later, in A Game of You, we see her moved to New York and counting a lesbian couple among her neighbors and a new best friend Wanda, a trans woman.

Inevitably, from a contemporary perspective, the treatment of such issues in a 30-year-old comic can seem underdeveloped, even crude. There are awkward hints of non-normative identities used as signifiers of a more general oddity, and no doubt if the comics were written today, Morpheus Desire’s non-binary brother would be called “them” rather than “it”.

Mason Alexander Park as Desiderio (LAURENCE CENTROWICZ / NETFLIX)

Mason Alexander Park as Desiderio (LAURENCE CENTROWICZ / NETFLIX)

Gaiman acknowledged this, and while a balanced assessment of this strand of The Sandman must take into account the relative lack of detailed and appropriate vocabulary at the time of its production, a 2014 defense of its treatment of trans characters includes a surprisingly contemporary interpretation. – a strong motivation to emphasize their presence in comics: “I found a lot of the things I saw in the late 1980s from some feminist circles to be really offensive, seeing them dismiss trans women as not real women, and I decided I wanted to put those attitudes in history.

Dollhouse is The Sandman’s second main storyline, so we probably won’t see how these characters are treated on screen yet. But identity is treated as fluid throughout the story, and the presence in the cast list of actors whose gender or skin color is different from that of the comic book characters they will play indicates that this will remain a central theme. With jarring predictability, these casting choices have been met with outrage in some corners of the web, including the nonsensical show of complaints about casting non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park as non-binary character Desire. Gaiman gave these answers a brief attention. As he succinctly wrote on Twitter in response to a criticism that prioritized fairy rhymes over meaning, “Sandman woke up in 1988 and hasn’t gone broke yet.”

One thing The Sandman shares with many of the “mature reader” comics of the 1980s and 1990s is that critical responses tended to praise writers more than artists. But one thing Miss Allsobrook was right about is that comics are not literature. They are a distinct art form and give their best when meaning emerges from the interplay between writing and drawing.

Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian (LIAM DANIEL / NETFLIX)

Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian (LIAM DANIEL / NETFLIX)

Of the dozen artists who brought Gaiman’s characters to life, the one with the strongest right to full co-authorship is Dave McKean, who has provided the covers for every Sandman release. Exquisite draftsman, color copier abuser and early Photoshop user, his fascinating collages function as thematic meditations on the stories they introduce rather than illustrative summaries of their key events, challenging the inside pages to match their achievements and ambitions.

Gaiman was closely involved in producing the adaptation, and if he can capture a fraction of McKean’s visual flair, fans and newcomers should be in for a treat. Miss Allsobrook may also be involved.

The Sandman is on Netflix from 5 August. John Miers is a cartoonist, illustrator and illustration teacher at the Kingston School of Art, johnmiers.com

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