The 10 Best Issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
The Sandman’s legendary seventy-five-issue run is considered not only one of the best comic book series of all time but one of the greatest stories ever, period. For many, it was the first piece of art they were intensely interested in (myself included). Neil Gaiman’s sweeping mythical epic about the King of Dreams, Morpheus, is truly about everything, as his personification of dreams played on every facet of the word, touching on both the visions we have when we nod off, and the longing wishes and aspirations that ultimately consume us.
There is nothing Gaiman leaves untouched, integrating everything from the religious, mythological, and literary into his ravishing tale of an amorphous dreamscape and its contemplative, brooding, and exacting master. Like his central subject, Neil Gaiman gives us more to dream about with every turn of the page.
With this monumental comic finally receiving a big-budgeted adaptation on Netflix (with Gaiman’s approval and supervision), It’s the perfect time to soak in the very best of what the series has to offer.
Here are the ten greatest issues of the Dream King’s majestic and awe-inspiring fable:
10. “The Parliament of Rooks” (Issue #40)
What do babies dream about? I’ve always suspected that toddlers have the best dreams and finally here’s the proof. Baby Daniel lucidly dreams his way to “The Dreaming” and its house of secrets. He’s told three tales by Eve, Cain, and Abel about their lives before they came to Dream’s domain.
All these stories are wholly familiar, but they are made refreshing and vibrant by Gaiman’s clever revisions and Jill Thompson’s vivid illustrations. Eve’s story about Adam’s three wives is a high point as it brilliantly recontextualizes the biblical classic while introducing the adorable L’il Endless, cartoon-like baby renditions of Morpheus’ siblings. It’s one of the series’ more lighthearted offerings and one of its most reliable.
9. “The Sleep of The Just” (Issue #1)
The one that started it all is arguably the greatest opener in comic history. All-encompassing in its scope yet deeply intimate, this opening issue takes us through the experiences of people who either can’t sleep, sleep all day, or experience “waking dreams”.
In 1916, British occultist Rodrick Burgess and his “Order of Ancient Mysteries” attempts to summon and imprison Death, but accidentally trap her brother, Dream, instead. Morpheus is locked away for seventy-two years, wreaking irreversible damage on the waking world. His unwavering patience helps him escape, allowing him to seek revenge against his captor in a devilishly inventive way. Its story grabs you in the opening panels and never lets go, unleashing a world of mythos that still captivates the mind today.
8. “The Wake: An Epilogue-Sunday Morning” (Issue #73)
Though this was the antepenultimate issue, it would be the chronological end of the series. Fan favourite Hob Gadling returns and is greeted by Dream’s sister, Death, who helps him overcome an existential crisis centered around a disillusionment with life and a listless desire to meet his end. Mortality has always been intrinsic to the survival of dreams, but no more is it apparent than in the series’ closing chapter. It’s an issue that owes its emotional power to everything that has come before, but once you find yourself here, don’t be surprised to feel a swelling in your chest that is only heightened by the exquisite full-page art.
In the end, it is a dream that reinvigorates Hob’s lust for life and diminishes his ultimate fear of death. In its final moments, what emerges is a combination of gratitude and bliss that poignantly realizes the enduring quality of Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus.
7. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Issue #19)
“Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ash, and forgot.”
Many will shudder to find this gem of an issue so low on this list, but its lofty status is a testament to Gaiman’s virtuoso. Considered one of the greatest short stories ever made, it’s the only comic to ever win a World Fantasy Award (the rules were subsequently changed to prevent another comic from winning).
Earlier in the series, Shakespeare wishes to “give men dreams that would live on” long after he dies. Morpheus strikes a deal with him, granting him extraordinary writing abilities in exchange for something, the details of which we finally discover in this issue- a play he must write for Dream. He and his traveling troupe are enticed into performing it for actual fairies that are famously part of the show.
In this mesmerizing issue, Gaiman and artist Charles Vest beautifully depict the refractional relationship between life and art, reality and fantasy, while basking in the enduring power of storytelling. In Shakespeare, Gaiman not only finds an analogue for Dream, but himself, showcasing the true cost of genius and the sacrifice it takes to deliver a story for the ages. As we all know, Shakespeare did fulfill his wish to grant everlasting dreams, but with this issue, so does Gaiman.
6. “Ramadan” (Issue #50)
Sandman is, at its core, about the immortal power of stories, and its greatest issues reinforce that concept in spades. Ramadan is such a story, but one that is immersed in a grand aesthetic. Here we are submerged in the beauty of Baghdad, where a Caliph strikes a bargain with Morpheus to ensure his city stands the test of time. Dream honours his end of the deal, but drains the city of its enchanting magic (flying carpets and all). While on the surface, the city crumbles, it does survive forever, in stories passed down from generation to generation.
Gaiman’s poetic beauty and inherent love for storytelling are on full display, with it being elevated by an art style that lovingly presents it in the form of an Arabic manuscript. This is among the very best of The Sandman’s great collection of standalone tales.
5. “A Hope in Hell” (Issue #4)
This is often the first issue where prospective fans begin to realize they are reading something much more introspective and utterly different than a traditional comic. Here, Morpheus finds himself in Hell. In pursuit of his magical helm, he faces down a horde of demons and their king, Lucifer. Once he locates the demon possessing his powerful artifact, a memorable battle of wits and metaphorical concepts ensues.
The “battle” is unlike anything you’ll ever see, forgoing typical explosions and brawls, It’s a barrage of thought-provoking writing, kaleidoscopic visuals, and meaty existentialism. When Morpheus finally says, “I am hope”, your jaw will drop in the realization of the magic you are witnessing on these panels.
The issue also features one of the series’ greatest closing lines. Lucifer confronts Dream and asks, “what power have dreams in hell?”. He promptly responds, “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of heaven?”. Truly powerful stuff.
4. “Season of Mists: Chapter 2” (Issue #23)
It’s hard to find words besides “great” to describe this issue because it’s practically the comic incarnation of it. This is another story that features Lucifer, but since we last saw him, he’s a completely changed figure.
After the terrific buildup of Morpheus planning his return to hell to rescue his scorned love Nada (who he wrongly left there ten-thousand years ago) and all the dread involved with opening those demonic gates, he not only discovers her cell empty but finds the entire population of Hell missing. Dream confronts Lucifer and he simply responds that he’s quit and freed everyone that was imprisoned.
Lucifer views his fall from heaven not as a moment of rebellion, but as an act of God that was simply destined to be played out. Now having decided he’s done with his lot in life, he locks the gates of hell, gives Morpheus the keys, and asks him to cut off his wings. We are left with a truly unique vision of the afterlife and a figure who now must decipher what to do with this abandoned dimension and the various Gods and Goddesses who will try to lay claim to it.
3. “The Sound of Her Wings” (Issue #8)
Dream’s story truly found new life when his sister, Death, entered the fray. His show-stealing sister is a spry figure who has gone on to rival even Morpheus’s iconic status. Acting as an epilogue to the first arc, Dream, having completed his quest to restore his kingdom, accompanies his sister on her regular route of beckoning people to the afterlife. Gaiman’s pleasant and relatable incarnation of Death is not only a welcomed departure from the tired bones in cloak depiction but an ironically life-affirming portrait of mortality and a sense of purpose.
This would be the first showcase of Gaiman’s brilliant ability to reinvent and challenge the preconceptions of our most well-known stories and figures. Here he manages to transform the darkest, most foreboding, and natural of enemies into a wholly loveable and thought-provoking entity.
2. “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” (Issue #18)
Gaiman’s story about anthropomorphic cats dreaming of a world where they ruled over mankind is quite possibly his most human. It follows a collective of local felines that have gathered to hear a Siamese preach. Her message? To dream of a world where humans are their pets.
After her kittens are taken from her and killed, she searches for the meaning behind her human master’s cruelty. While asleep she meets the Lord of Cat-Dreams who details an age when cats were the dominant species and humanity trembled with fear. For the world to go back to what it was she must inspire a thousand cats to share her dream. While on the surface it sounds odd, this tale embodies one of the key messages of the series: Dreams have an inherent duality; they can instill hope and shatter egos. Which is something even the greatest of us have yet to accomplish.
Armed with Gaiman’s profound sense of heart and wit, this issue widens the thematic and emotional scope of the comic, as it makes everything out to be a product of dreams. Perhaps we too are living in the dream of some creature yet to wake from its slumber.
1. “Men of Good Fortune” (Issue #13)
“I’ve seen people and they don’t change. Not in the important things.”
The book’s greatest issue is also its sweetest. It begins in the late fourteenth century, in a medieval tavern where Dream and Death come across a man boastfully claiming he has no intention of dying. That man is Hob Gadling, and Dream tells him if he really doesn’t want to die, they should meet again in this tavern in one hundred years.
What commences is a metaphysical ode to friendship that explores how time changes civilization-with it not truly changing all that much. It’s fascinating to see the complaints of the late fourteenth century uncannily fall in line with those of the late twentieth. But as Dream and Hob greet each other in the same tavern every century, we slowly begin to realize that as time goes on, friendships are one of the few things that truly endure. In a sense, what Gaiman posits is that friendships exist for the sake of… well, friendships.
Much like the enduring power of dreams, friendships, and storytelling, Sandman is a singular work of art that will live on long after we pass into that unfathomable unknown. But for now, let’s keep dreaming.
- Prabhjot Bains