In The '90s, 'The Sandman' Was A Rosetta Stone For Weirdos Like Me

I was around 17 when I met my first punk rock girl, and some of the best advice she ever gave me was to read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Now, after years of stalled-out attempts to adapt it for the big screen, The Sandman is set to premiere on Netflix as a longform dramatic series Aug. 5.

On her garden apartment wall, my friend had an incredible poster of characters from The Sandman playing with kittens. (The same one can be spotted in Roseanne reruns, on Darlene’s bedroom wall). Then there was her little sculpture of a cheery-looking girl dressed in black wearing an ankh pendant and pointy boots, and a matching watch with her face on the dial. I didn’t know anything about the comics, but that poster — and especially the girl, with her wild hair, friendly face, and thick eyeliner with a squiggle in the corner that looked like the Eye of Horus — made me feel shivery and excited and scared, with all of the too-much-ness that lived in my belly coming to the surface of my skin at once. It was like the time my mom took me and my best friend to see New Kids on the Block at Reunion Arena, and I dry heaved in the parking lot. Her apartment was full of things like that, from edgelord-tastic Answer Me! zines and The Hellbound Heart down to where she’d scrawled the lyrics to Hole’s “Pretty on the Inside” on the wall. 

“You should read comic books,” she told me. “Guys like girls who read comic books.” 

This was extremely important to me, both the being-liked-by-boys part and the subtext that by reading comic books I would separate myself from the other girls. While it would take me a few decades to grok that being a girl who wasn’t like other girls wasn’t something to aspire to, it’s certainly understandable how stifled I felt by the buoyantly blonde North Dallas femininity being performed around me at school and in society. I felt at home with my D&D-playing guy friends and my beloved hippies and dearest theater kids, but I longed for something more. Something darker. Something that spoke to feelings of alienation that went beyond mere teenage rebellion — whatever it was that had kept me from sleeping at night ever since I was very young, only able to find solace in the books I’d pile on my bed about girls with silver eyes, headless cupids, or late-night TV.

“The Sandman” was what I was looking for and didn’t know it.

I’ve liked and even loved other comic books, starting with Meat Cake and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac up through The Invisibles, Fables, and the like. But The Sandman was what I was looking for and didn’t know it. Neil Gaiman took an old, obscure comic book character, gave him a family of twisted siblings dubbed the Endless, and let them all loose in a universe chock-full of high and low magic(k), myths, blood, glitter, literature, cinema, any and all religious traditions, tragedy, horror, and the most British black humor. And cats. And Shakespeare. 

In Gaiman’s hands, everyone has a story worth knowing — just as I’d always suspected! As a teenager desperate to know everyone’s dirtiest secrets, I was delighted. As a budding writer, I was thrilled at the prospect of this playground and what it meant was possible for me to try.  Every page was a lesson in audacity and creativity, every frame packed with detail and meaning. “You can do this?!” I marveled. 

It was around this same time that I embarked upon my so-called goth life. I don’t remember the exact chronology, but right around that time, I realized that my nerdiness and anxiety and fondness for things like beds and showers precluded me from a truly punk rock life. I realized that wearing black felt like curling into a cozy blanket — a way to hide and stand out all at the same time. My computer-savvy mom got us a dial-up modem and somehow I found my way to Usenet newsgroups, specifically alt.gothic and alt.gothic.fashion. But more than Siouxsie Sioux or Patricia Morrison or Louise Brooks, I took my fashion cues from Morpheus’s little sister, Death, whom artist Mike Dringenberg had modeled after an exquisite woman named Cinamon Hadley.

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Dream and his little sister, Death, share a moment in “The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.”

Death is introduced in The Sandman near the end of the first trade paperback, Preludes and Nocturnes, which I lugged from my childhood home in Dallas to college and back several times and on to my current home in New York City, not far from where she meets Dream as he feeds the pigeons in Washington Square Park. She’s the star of her own comics mini-series, Death: The High Cost of Living, which — like The Sandman — has been the source of plenty of movie news churn over the years as well. It seems like a no-brainer for Netflix to adapt that too, given how many times I have cried just thinking about this clip of Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death and the old man saying the Shema before he dies. (Gaiman is a Jewish goth like me.)

Since its first issue in 1989, anything related to The Sandman, from that little curly eyeliner squiggle to a T-shirt or a poster, became a secret handshake between sensitive, literate freaks, especially in a place like Dallas, where there was one goth night once a week at a club I was too young to know about or get into. 

The handful of goths I knew IRL were burnouts and bullies, whereas I lied to my parents about sleeping over at my friend’s house and went to Rocky Horror Picture Show after curfew exactly once. (And I don’t think I lasted too long until I ‘fessed up to them.) Instead, I made friends with people on the Internet who I would eventually meet in New York or Austin or similarly far-flung locations, or at the coffee shop in downtown Dallas, where we’d gather to smoke cigarettes and peek at the real-live British punk who worked at the CD store next door. I was as likely to be approached by someone in a flouncy pirate shirt calling out “Death!” in my direction as I was to be cornered by that one guy who dragged a life-sized cross around the streets of Deep Ellum in order to save our heathen souls. 

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Morpheus and Hob Gadling have gone through various personal style transformations over the centuries.

Over the years, I’ve collected The Sandman shirts, posters, figurines, and the Vertigo tarot deck by Dave McKean, along with a whole slew of Gaiman’s books and comics. I can tell you exactly which Death T-shirt I lost in a move: You can buy a “vintage” version of it for a cool $180. Years later, a close friend I was deeply crushed out on gave me her old Death shirt, which happened to be an exact replica of one my punk rock friend wore when we were in high school. I still have it and wear it, though we lost touch long ago. I even have the soundtrack to MirrorMask on an old iPod somewhere around here. There was a time when I was seriously considering a Sandman and/or Death tattoo, and you know what? Never say never. 

In October of 2008, I wore the first Sandman shirt I ever bought to interview Neil Gaiman about Coraline. Our interview was over the phone, so I had to tell him about the shirt. The website for Premiere.com no longer exists, and I only managed to snatch one page of our interview from the jaws of the Wayback machine; the recording itself is long gone. The interview was honestly probably not that good. The first page of it is stilted in a way that makes me cringe, not conversational at all. (This article has some quotes from the rest of the interview, including a little about the Death movie.) The Sandman was no longer my special secret, but talking with Neil Gaiman seemed extraordinary. (And now we’re one degree away on Facebook — talk about a small, weird world.) 

What I realized when I sat down to start rereading the comics in anticipation of the Netflix series is that I don’t think I ever finished the actual comic book series after The Kindly Ones. I may have a copy of The Wake around here, but I’m not sure. The Wake came out as a trade paperback after I was in college, but New York is hardly lacking for comic book stores. So it’s a mystery why I didn’t keep up with it. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. But now, at the age of 45, I have said so many goodbyes. I am not afraid of saying goodbye to a comic book character — or of exploring a new iteration on my television screen.

The Sandman premieres on Netflix on Aug. 5.


John Colin

I am a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. I have spent much of the last ten years, focusing on open source, tech gadgets, data analytics and intelligence, Internet of things, cloud computing, mobile devices, and data management. I'm a senior editor at Mashable's covering data analytics, venture capital, (SaaS) applications, cloud and enterprise software out of New York.

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