When a lot of people think of comics, they think of superheroes. The format covers just about every genre imaginable, but its the superhero stories that are best known, for the most part. They tell tales of regular people doing extraordinary, superhuman things.
With Sandman, Neil Gaiman does the opposite. He takes things that aren’t just superhuman, but abstract concepts, like death, destiny, and dreams, and personifies them. Superhero comics are about humans turned something else; Sandman is about something else turned human.
The story follows the Endless, a family of these personified concepts, each of whom rules their own kingdom outside the boundaries of space and time, as we know it. There’s Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium (formerly, Delight), each with their own vivid personality and responsibilities to the mortal realm.
As the title suggests, the series focuses primarily on Dream, ruler of the realm of dreams and nightmares. Preludes and Nocturnes opens in 1916, with a magician attempting to gain immortality by capturing and imprisoning Death. His efforts fail, however, and he ensnares Dream instead. Some 70 years later, Dream finally manages to escape, and sets about to recover three artifacts that were stolen from him: a helm, a ruby, and a pouch of sand.
Exisiting outside the mortal realm, Dream (and the rest of the Endless) can travel to any place, and any time – and that’s the real beauty of the Sandman series as a whole. It’s not locked into any particular setting, so Gaiman can, and does, explore everything from history and well-known literature to pop culture and completely outlandish, made-up worlds.
Case in point: across Preludes and Nocturnes, Dream has encounters with John Constantine from DC Comics’ Hellblazer series, he travels to Hell to face off against Lucifer in a battle of wits, and he visits Arkham Asylum of Batman series fame to cross paths with Doctor Destiny (John Dee), a villain from the Justice League. Later issues see him acting as a muse for Shakespeare, searching for nightmares that have escaped the Dream Kingdom and taken refuge inside the mind of a young boy, convening with deities from all manner of mythologies and religions… nothing is off limits.
This would all be for naught without compelling characters at the centre, and Sandman certainly doesn’t disappoint. Preludes and Nocturnes doesn’t overstep its bounds by trying to cover the entire Endless family, instead only introducing two key players, Dream and Death. Dream is a brooding, quiet soul with a focus on his duties and and more than a striking resemblance to The Cure’s Robert Smith. Death, his older sister, is almost the polar opposite: warm, happy-go-lucky, and always there for her little brother when he finds himself lost.
Though Dream is the star of the show, for me, Death is the real standout of Preludes and Nocturnes. Not only is she such a lovely and empathetic character, she’s so far removed from the common, monstrous depiction of the character. This isn’t a Death to fear and try to elude, but one who looks after you, one that you embrace wholeheartedly when your time is up. “You get what anyone gets. You get a lifetime.”