Lord of the Dreams

These days, extreme fatigue counts as a worrying symptom - alarm bells are set off each time we cannot seem to get out of bed. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series begins with an epidemic of “sleepy sickness” – people doze off and stay like that for years and dream terrible apocalyptic dreams – making it curiously apt for the times. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Netflix’s adaptation of Gaiman’s bestselling series is set to be released soon. It stars English actor Tom Sturridge as the lead character, Morpheus or Sandman, Lord of the Realm of Dream and Nightmare.

Going by the teaser, the characters in the adaptation match the visual impressions we have of them from the DC comics series, superbly illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, and others. Morpheus, for instance, is that familiar pale, thin, ghostly figure with weary eyes, languishing from decades of imprisonment and trailing inky blue darkness. Gaiman, who is also the series’ producer, has said in a Tweet that his involvement in it is “Much more than American Gods . Less than Good Omens .” The latter is the superhit Amazon Prime series based on the novel of the same name by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It had followed the original closely, with a few clever changes made under Gaiman’s strict supervision.

But unlike Good Omens , TheSandman is a graphic novel with a set of vividly sketched characters and atmospherics that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate into another medium. It begins with Preludes and Nocturnes , where we get to know about Morpheus’ powers by learning what his absence does to the world. After he is captured by a magus in 1916, the world goes into shutdown mode: some people fall asleep and don’t wake up for decades while others stay constantly awake. Written words start fading, for literature cannot exist without dreams. Thus we have our new superhero, who might not be Superman – he is exhausted, almost powerless without his magic tools, and very lonely – but without him there would no writing, and so, no man or Superman. It’s a brilliant meta touch, reminding us why Norman Mailer called TheSandman “a comic strip for intellectuals.”

And this also explains why the series, originally published from 1989 to 1996, has resisted screen adaptations all these years. More than any other work by Gaiman, it is a story about storytelling, progressing languidly by hat-tipping to other works of literature and popular culture, weaving together fragments, which then expand to become stories in their own right. There are constant references to greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, as well as to other members of the DC Comics universe like the Justice League, to pop culture songs like the iconic “Dream a little dream of me.” Gaiman plays around with archetypes, which he borrows from mythologies and folktales. So, the Sandman is that magical person from folklore who puts people to sleep by sprinkling magic dust or sand on them; Death’s brother who visits us every night; the muse of all poets and writers; and the personification of dreams, which birth hope in us.

Unsurprisingly, one of the recurring characters in the series is William Shakespeare, with whom Sandman enters into a pact, giving him endless supplies of inspiration in return for tributes to dreams in his plays. Morpheus is a complex character, poised beyond earthly concepts of good and evil, yet human in his weaknesses. Like Satan at the beginning of Paradise Lost , he is devastated when we first meet him, nursing a bruised ego after being captured by a mortal. In the section, ‘The Sound of Her Wings’, from Preludes and Nocturnes, Morpheus is in the pit of despair: a descent into the subterranean caves of the underworld/ mind remains a motif in the series.

With The Sandman , Gaiman changed the way comics are thought of, enriching it with mythology, classic literature and psychological studies. Incidentally, The Sandman has a disproportionate number of female readers, probably the highest among mainstream comics. That in itself is no mean achievement in a genre we associate with boys and men.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 3:45:37 am |