How Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman' Got Me Through My Teenage Angst

I first met the Sandman in Midtown Comics. I was 15, and I made a habit of hanging out on 40th street, in the shadow of the New York Times building. There was The Drama Book Shop, where I would linger over the expensive prints of Shakespeare plays; the noodles and bubble tea place; the 99 cent store where I would buy underwear and tic tacs; the sex shop that I always hurried past quickly, with my eyes on the ground. But my true paradise was at the end of the block — Midtown Comics, the two level behemoth of a comic book shop, where I first picked up The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes.

As a fantasy junkie, I had already read and reread some of Neil Gaiman's books ( American Gods and Good Omens were my particular favorites). And I already liked comic books (I read Thor for the mythology, and The Fantastic Four for the dysfunctional family drama). And here was a comic book written by Neil Gaiman! What could possibly be better than that?

A few hours later I finished the book, put it down on the floor, and stuck my head between my knees to stop the waves of nausea. I had never, in all my years of reading superhero comics and teen-appropriate "dark" fantasy, encountered anything half as disturbing. Nothing like a man nailing his own hand to a diner counter, or a hallway made of writhing human remains, or a two-page illustration of a pit of demons drawn in stomach-churning shades of pink and gray. I was repulsed. I was disgusted. I had to run back out and buy the second volume right away.

It's hardly revolutionary to say that Neil Gaiman's Sandman is good. It has been hailed as a masterpiece of the comic book medium for years. The series is so popular with teenage girls, in fact, that female fans have become their own cliche. As one New Yorker article put it: "Internet critics deride Gaiman’s fans as 'Twee ‘Bisexual’ Goth Girls with BPD'—borderline personality disorder—'who are drama majors and who are destined to become cat ladies.'” Because, like all media that is consumed and enjoyed by teenaged girls, Sandman must be ridiculed — God forbid young women ever genuinely like something without being mocked for it.

I was repulsed. I was disgusted. I had to run back out and buy the second volume right away.

I was blissfully unaware of these nasty comments, though, so I fell head over heels for the brooding Sandman (or Morpheus, Dream, Oneiros, or Kai'ckul, as he occasionally styles himself). The first volume may have been a straight up horror story, but there was a hint of where the series was headed. The final chapter, at least, introduced Death: Dream's cheerful older sister, who stops by to pull Dream out of his moody slump.

As I worked my way through the next nine volumes of Sandman, I became acquainted with all of Dream's siblings: Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and whacked out little Delirium (my hands down favorite). I traveled through the dreams of various women and cats, met the ancient Norse gods and the Devil himself, took a road trip with a talking raven, encountered an immortal stripper capable of destroying men's lives with the sheer beauty of her dancing, faced the Furies and visited the World's End. The books evolved far beyond fantasy horror. There was a plot at times: the arcs of Dream escaping imprisonment, trying to find new management for hell, tracking down his lost brother, and (spoiler alert) sealing his own grim fate. But mostly the books roamed freely through time and space. Gaiman's greatest strength as a writer, after all, is soldering various myths, genres, and worlds together into one singular fever dream of a story.

His style is syncretic — Loki and Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream kidnap the baby of a DC superhero. Dream dates (and gets dumped by) aliens, Greek muses, and witches. And yet all of it is sewn into the fabric of our waking world. I was hooked.

I forced Sandman on my friends. I wrote my own mythology mash-up stories. I doodled the characters all over my high school notebooks. Dream's scowling visage popped up behind algebra problems, and all my Social Studies notes where illustrated with a beaming Death, escorting historical figures into the great beyond. This was partly because the characters were fun to draw, with lots of inky shadows and a mop of black hair. But there was also something in Sandman that spoke to my sullen teenaged soul.

When we move out childhood into hormonally charged, teenaged confusion, most of us give up on certain fantasies. We accept that there's no Hogwarts letter coming, no magical land at the back of the wardrobe. We go from enchanted childhood into grimy adolescence. We learn to live with the low-level anxiety of reality. But Sandman offered a different path: it wasn't the pure giddy fantasy of childhood, or the reality-bounded fiction of adulthood. It was something in between, a place for the heightened emotions of teenager-dom to flourish — it was gross, melodramatic, and unapologetically imaginative.

It wasn't the pure giddy fantasy of childhood, or the reality-bounded fiction of adulthood. It was something in between, a place for the heightened emotions of teenager-dom to flourish — it was gross, melodramatic, and unapologetically imaginative.

Dream, after all was a perpetual adolescent, always moping and sentencing his ex-girlfriends to hell. Whenever he sulked, his dream-realm would have rain for weeks. He was a being of inconceivable power, but he still bickered with his siblings and made petty decisions (see: banishing his ex-girlfriends to hell). The books personified the real facts of life, giving Death a perky smile and Destruction a pet dog. It was unconventional storytelling, a story about the nature of storytelling, and it rose above the comic book cliches to bring us Greek tragedies and overblown Shakespearean dramas. It perfectly encapsulated the growing pains of stumbling through your teenage years as a young person full of contradictions and angst and pretensions and hope.

The Sandman series was like your cool friend who wore ripped fishnets and listened to underground rock, but who would still get excited about your thesis on Ovid. When I reread the books now, I cringe at some of the passages that once felt oh-so-deep, but mostly I am struck by how much it holds up. Yes, maybe Delirium's babbling and Dream's harumphing carry a little less weight now that I am more emotionally stable and less likely to spend all day in my room blasting The Mountain Goats and being annoyed with my parents. But there's still something cathartic about reading a book that embraces our angstiest selves.

It said, Oh, are you angry for no particular reason? Here's a nightmare man with mouths for eyes. And somehow, that made things feel a lot better.

Because that was really what appealed to me so much about the King of Dreams and his strange cohorts. The books embraced the larger than life angst of growing up. It didn't try to cheer you up or teach you a lesson. It said, Oh, are you angry for no particular reason? Here's a nightmare man with mouths for eyes. And somehow, that made things feel a lot better.

Perhaps the best metaphor for adolescence in Sandman is how Sandman itself came to be: Back in the day, Neil Gaiman pitched a new comic recycling a minor DC character called "The Sandman," a superhero from the early '70s. He was told to keep the name, but completely reinvent the character, and so he transformed the hokey costumed hero into the wholly different, more complex Dream. He created something nuanced and darker (and definitely more angsty). And what's growing up, if not riffing off of something fairly simple and wholesome and creating someone far more scary and complicated?

So thank you, to Neil Gaiman and his Sandman, for giving us a beautiful, brilliant, dangerous mess of comic book series. Thank you for giving me such a weird and uncomfortable world to sulk around in from ages 15 to 18. I'm sure I would have made it to adulthood without you, but I know I wouldn't be half as interesting (and I wouldn't have nearly as many nightmares).

Images: Phil! Gold, Steel Wool, - HOGRE -/Flickr; Giphy (2)