As more and more comics get adapted into other mediums, there has been one classic story left notably on the page: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a sprawling dark fantasy that explores humanity through the eyes of a dysfunctional, immortal family known as the Endless.
Since it first hit shelves in 1989, the comic has gained worldwide notoriety and is a prime example of the medium's maturation—but in the eyes of Hollywood, it's proven itself to be one of the most difficult properties to get onto the screen. But that's set to change this summer as the book's long-awaited Netflix adaptation finally premieres on August 5. So to get you ready for a show that's more than 30 years in the making, here are eight facts about The Sandman to prove it’s not a dream.
1. Neil Gaiman originally wanted to write a Phantom Stranger book for DC Comics.
When editor Karen Berger initially approached Neil Gaiman to work for DC Comics, he originally pitched a story about the Phantom Stranger, a mysterious, immortal figure with no verified origin and an array of cosmic powers. The Stranger debuted in 1952. It was exactly the type of character Gaiman would have been perfect to write for, the publisher passed on the idea.
The company did, however, accept Gaiman's other pitch for Black Orchid, a modern take on an even more obscure superhero from its back catalog. (So obscure, in fact, that Berger asked “Blackhawk Kid? Who's he?” when the pitch came up.) The miniseries debuted just months before the first issue of The Sandman. Gaiman did eventually end up including the Phantom Stranger as a major character in his 1990 Books of Magic series.
2. Gaiman's Sandman wasn't DC's first version of the character.
Another pitch Gaiman presented to DC was an updated version of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Sandman from the ’70s. This character could enter people's dreams and protect them from nightmares with the help of his two minions, Brute and Glob. But this Sandman had coincidentally just been revived in the pages of the comic book Infinity, Inc. and was off-limits. However, Berger liked Gaiman's take on a character who lived in people’s dreams so much that she told him to “just keep the name and go have fun.” The result was a brand-new character with the Sandman moniker.
DC’s history of Sandmen extends back even further than that, beginning with a pulp detective version from the 1930s. This Sandman (real name Wesley Dodds) fought crime with a gas mask and a sleep gun and was part of the Justice Society of America, the first “super team” in comics. As the continuities between the characters became more entangled, elements of these alternative Sandman stories found their way into Gaiman’s Sandman and vice versa.
3. The Sandman draws heavily from Greek mythology.
In addition to taking inspiration from the Sandman concept found in European folklore, the comic also takes many of its cues from classic Greek mythology. Morpheus, the book's exceptionally brooding main character, is based on the Greek god of dreams of the same name who is also the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep. But Morpheus is just one name the character goes by—he's also referred to as Dream, Oneiros, Kai-ckul, and others throughout The Sandman's 75-issue run.
4. Sandman's Lucifer was inspired by David Bowie.
Gaiman hasn’t been shy about admitting who he based the famous fallen angel on, saying, “Yes, the young, folk singer-period Bowie was the inspiration. I imagined Lucifer as a junkie angel, and young Bowie was the closest we got.”
From the Morningstar’s very first introduction in Sandman #4, he embodies the visage of the iconic rockstar—first by sporting David Bowie’s distinctive mop of curly blonde hair, and later by emulating Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona. Gaiman was adamant that only Bowie’s likeness would suit Sandman’s King of Hell, even going so far as to insist to artist Kelley Jones, “[If] it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie.”
5. Sandman #19 won a World Fantasy Award—and controversy ensued.
Established in 1975, the World Fantasy Awards celebrate fantasy fiction with prizes for novels, novellas, short fiction, and several special categories. In 1991, Gaiman actually had two works up for consideration: Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett, lost out for Best Novel while The Sandman #19—titled "Midsummer Night's Dream"—took home the prize for Best Short Story.
Apparently, not everybody was happy that a comic book won such a prestigious award, and the rules were changed immediately after to exclude comics from the short fiction category, making Sandman #19 the first and last one to win. Comics are, however, still eligible under the Special Award category.
6. Hollywood has been trying to adapt Sandman since 1991.
More than a few attempts have been made to get a Sandman movie or TV series into production, with Warner Bros, HBO, and New Line Cinema all putting versions into development since 1991. Despite the interest in adapting the comic, the potential projects were constantly plagued with scheduling conflicts and creative disputes.
Gaiman, having read numerous scripts over the years, claimed one screenplay by writer William Farmer was “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” It's said to have turned Morpheus into a villain who was also Lucifer's brother.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Sandman finally broke free from the comic page in the form of an Audible exclusive, multi-part audio drama. Upon its release, it received praise (and some criticism) for its faithful recreation of the first three volumes of Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country. In it, James McAvoy voices Morpheus and Kat Dennings plays his sister, Death.
7. A Sandman TV show finally became a reality at Netflix, and Neil Gaiman is very involved.
When a Sandman TV show was officially announced at Netflix in 2019, longtime comic fans must have been relieved to see Gaiman's name attached as a producer and co-writer. In addition, he was joined by comic-to-screen veterans Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman) and David Goyer (The Dark Knight ), who are both credited as writers and executive producers.
"For the last thirty-three years, the Sandman characters have breathed and walked around and talked in my head. I'm unbelievably happy that now, finally, they get to step out of my head and into reality. I can't wait until the people out there get to see what we've been seeing as Dream and the rest of them take flesh, and the flesh belongs to some of the finest actors out there," Gaiman said, in support of the initial casting reveal.
Actors on the project include Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, Patton Oswalt as Matthew the Raven, Stephen Fry as Gilbert, Mason Alexander Park as Desire, and Tom Sturridge as Dream/Morpheus. The series will debut on August 5, 2002.
8. There were more than 1500 auditions for the role of Dream.
Casting a show like Sandman is a lengthy process, and Gaiman believes that he personally saw at least 1500 auditions for Dream/Morpheus alone. If you think that's a lot, the author added that, "I hesitate to imagine how many [casting director] Lucinda Syson and her team have seen."
Tom Sturridge—who was eventually chosen for the iconic role—recognized the lengthy and uncertain process as something unavoidable, saying, "It was entirely necessary, because this is a character who is so utterly beloved—by me more than anyone. That requires you to spend time with a human being to discover if they can live up to the dream you have of who he is."