Whether or not you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book series featuring multiple artists ahead of Netflix’s upcoming series, you already know about The Sandman‘s realm. You go there every time you dream. And sometimes during your unconscious journey, if you’re lucky—or very, very unlucky—you even meet that land’s ruler. Not that you will remember your encounter. The moment you awaken his memory fades into oblivion like sand falling through your fingers. But the story of Morpheus is not limited to just one place. Nor is it limited to just one time or even a single dimension. The Sandman‘s tale is a trip through imagination itself, where anything is possible. But despite its ephemeral nature and supernatural main character, The Sandman‘s story—one that combines history, lore, legend, and myth—is profoundly human.
You just won’t know exactly what story it is telling until the end. And that’s the best way to experience The Sandman.
Neil Gaiman Brings Dream to Life
DC Comics’ first Sandman character, the Golden Age superhero Wesley Dodds, made his debut in 1939. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby then brought another Sandman, Garrett Sanford, to comic shelves in the ’70s. And in 1988 Hector Hall briefly took up the Sandman moniker. But those mortal characters have little to do with the Sandman of Neil Gaiman’s comic that ran for 75 issues from 1989 to 1996. (Gaiman returned to the series in his 1999 novella The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. He then completed the story with The Sandman: Overture, a prequel series published between 2013 and 2015.)
Every version of the Sandman exists within DC Comics continuity. But Gaiman’s iteration stands as the only true Sandman. The others simply received a small portion of the legendary Sandman’s powers during his prolonged absence during the 20th century. (We’ll get to that.)
The true Sandman is also known by many names. Some call him Morpheus or Oneiros, while others know him simply as Dream. But no matter his moniker, to every conscious entity throughout the universe he is the Lord of Dreaming. For his realm—the realm of dreams, nightmares, imagination, and stories—is called The Dreaming. It’s an infinite place of possibilities where Morpheus rules absolutely. Its library, just one of many parts found there, holds every book never written. (A concept I assure you haunts the person who wrote this sentence.)
Morpheus is not a singular being, though. Nor is The Dreaming the only realm of its kind. He is one of the seven Endless, a group of frequently bickering siblings who each rule over their own kingdom. And they are both simple and hard to define.
Who or What Are the Endless?
The Endless are not invincible, but they are essentially immortal. They are older and more powerful than gods and will exist until “this universe” is near its end. That’s because each is the physical manifestation of an aspect of life itself. They include (from oldest to youngest):
- Despair (Desire’s twin)
- Delirium (formerly Delight)
While Morpheus is Lord of the Dreaming, each member of the ageless Endless rules over their own domain. (Their names mostly speak for themselves.) But they are more than just a tangible representation of a natural force of life. They aren’t just ideas or concepts personified, either. They literally are those ideas. Morpheus is dream. Death is death. (Hence the “simple and hard” part of describing them. Their nebulous existence makes it inherently impossible to fully understand what they are even when you know what they are. It’s like trying to understand infinity.) The Endless can also go anywhere they like, including into the real world alongside mortal beings. And in Morpheus’ case, they can fall in and out of love with those beings.
(FYI: You do not want to fall in love with the mercurial Morpheus. A broken heart is often the best outcome you can hope for when your romance goes south.)
Despite their nature, the Endless are like most families. Each member plays their role and each relationship has its own dynamic. Some members are what you might call difficult or troublesome. Meanwhile others are loving and understanding. Sometimes it depends on which two siblings are interacting. They all have long, complicated pasts and don’t always get along or love each other as much as they do others. That’s why they argue, undermine, and sometimes even flat out hurt one another. With the exception of the kind and gentle Death, they are not even comfortable entering their siblings’ realms unless necessary. They do have an easy way of contacting the others, though. Each domain contains a gallery with individual sigils of each Endless. If one holds another’s symbol they can call out to that sibling.
When someone or something destroys/kills a member of the Endless, they return to resume their spot alongside their family. And yet, they are not entirely the same being they were before.
The Endless also change in appearance depending on who is looking at them. (Minus Destiny, who is almost always depicted as a blind man wearing a robe with a heavy book chained to him.) But Morpheus most often appears as a tall, thin, pale man with black-blue hair. His dark eye sockets also have glittering light and stars.
But to label him or any of the Endless as a specific race or species is to completely misunderstand what they are. (Same with calling their sister-brother Desire a man or woman. Desire is truly androgynous and can be one or the other from moment to moment, just as they can be neither and both, even at the same time.) The Endless have no cultural or racial identity, nor even any true form. They’re the same being whether they appear as a person or a cat. They belong to every living thing, for they are the Endless wherever life is found. And that includes on planets where life existed long before it did on Earth.
Bu how did Delight become Delirium, you might ask? Also, what does it mean to be Destruction? And what does Despair’s past tell us about The Sandman? Some questions should be explored rather than answered. Is that because they’re more fun to learn about on their own? Or because they are spoilers? Yes.
Okay, But What Is The Sandman Actually About?
There are two ways to answer that question. The first is to ruin the entire story, since it’s not clear what overarching tale Gaiman and the artists are telling until the very end. There’s an ultimate plot that ultimately ties everything together—even elements that seemingly had no connection to anything else—and it does so in an unexpected and moving way that instantly invites a re-read. But that’s only one reason telling you what The Sandman is about will ruin it. The other reason is because it’s not about a singular story at all.
That’s because at its core The Sandman is a story about stories. And great stories can exist simply for the sake of existing, not because they need to be part of something bigger. So while The Sandman ultimately arrives at a destination put in motion at the onset, it’s truly the journey to the end that matters. That journey hops around time, planets, dimensions, historical moments, mythology, and legend. It features characters from Lucifer and Angels to Shakespeare and Caesar Augustus, the Furies and Odin to fairies and witches, and anything else people have ever imagined. It features places both real and wondrous, as well as dreamy concepts come to life alongside nightmares made flesh. (Especially the Corinthian, who wears sunglasses to hide his true form… until your last moment.)
The Sandman is about stories of all kinds, and therefore it’s about everything everywhere. Often that journey involves visiting Morpheus’ The Dreaming and the real world. But you’re just as often to also travel to all the places in between, too. And while we can imagine what a trip to Hell might be like, some of those places are more of a feeling than an actual location. That’s why trying to easily distill what The Sandman is all about is to like trying to put a cloud in a jar. Only the jar might not actually exist. Or the cloud. Or you.
But that’s just the first way to answer the question. I’ll let Neil Gaiman himself tell you the second: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” You might prefer that far more pithy assessment, but Gaiman did note that “leaves quite a lot out.” And he ain’t kidding. He didn’t even mention Matthew the talking raven or Merv Pumpkinhead.
Is There Anything Concrete You Can Tell Me About The Sandman?
The canon (let’s be honest, retconned) reason the world of DC Comics had superheroes called Sandman before introducing Gaiman’s actual Sandman of legend is because Morpheus spent most of the 20th century imprisoned. The superheroes of the same name merely acquired some of his powers while he couldn’t use them.
During his imprisonment The Dreaming remained without its ruler and Morpheus’ castle and domain fell into disarray. Some sections of his realm vanished entirely. And a few of his subjects even went out on their own in direct defiance of their master. (Some with good intentions, others with nefarious motives.)
Without the King of Dreams around the mortal world suffered suffered greatly, too. Some individuals became trapped in their dreams, while the fates of others were so terrible they defy description. (But hoo boy do they make for an entertaining comic horror volume!) Because while the Endless can’t truly die, they can neglect their realms, which hurts every living thing. The Endless can get lazy, disillusioned, or even spiteful. One of Morpheus’ siblings completely abandoned their realm, too.
Morepheus’ time locked away is the start of this story and frames the entire world of The Sandman, even when that world starts exploring stranger places and ideas.
(If you’re still looking for even more specifics, though, check out everything we know about Netflix’s upcoming adaptation.)
So Is The Sandman a “Vibes” Story?
No. As you can tell, The Sandman is hard to explain in a traditional sense. It has to be experienced if you wish to fully understand it. But it’s so much more than just the feeling it evokes. It’s about what we want from life—both good and bad—and why. It’s about growth and living with the consequences of our decisions. And it’s about understanding how we make sense of existence with the stories we tell ourselves.
And for a moody, often dour, frequent pain-in-the-ass tangible manifestation of dreams come to life, Morpheus is far more human than he seems at first. Even though he wishes he wasn’t.
That’s why the best way to approach The Sandman is the same way you approach your dreams: let it come to you.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.