In 1989, a comic book hit the shelves that would change the way fans, critics, and even the indifferent, would view the industry. Its title was Sandman, its hero Morpheus. At the height of its popularity, sales of Sandman rivaled, and frequently exceeded, those of individual Superman or Batman titles, the two reliable top-sellers for its parent company, DC Comics. The series and its author, Neil Gaiman, won praise from critics both within and without the comic book industry; even Norman Mailer hailed it as a literary achievement. Among its many awards, the most notable might be the World Fantasy Award, which no comic book had ever won before, and which—as a result of rule changes after Sandman's win—no comic book is likely ever to win again. The publication consistently sold over a million copies a year and remained one of the most stable modern titles in the speculators' market. The individual issues became so scarce and valuable that DC released collections of the issues in hardback to meet the demands of new readers. The collections have now sold well over three-quarters of a million copies.
Sandman tells the story of a god-like being who is captured by a group of occultists. He freed himself in the first issue, then spent the next six or seven issues re-establishing his rule after decades in prison. The rest of the series continued to analyze a large diversity of issues, unafraid to tackle concepts that had previously been taboo for comic books.
What is most astounding about Sandman's success is that it was achieved in a fraction of the time it has generally taken other champions of the genre to reach high levels of popularity. Sandman ran for under a decade—a blink of an eye compared to Superman's half-century or the X-Men's 30-plus years—and went to a voluntary grave at issue number 75. Within its pages, Gaiman and a host of groundbreaking visual artists floated away from conventional comics with only the thinnest of umbilical cords connecting their work to the mainstream. "There's definitely a level on which Sandman is my creating a superhero I'd be happy writing," Gaiman has said. "One of the things I like best about Sandman is all the wonderful powers he has … and they really have nothing to do with anything. They don't get used much, because he doesn't go around doing things heroically." In fact, the title character—Morpheus, an enigmatic symbol of the realm of dreams—often appears only at the fringes of the tale. Because of the protagonist's unique perspective on reality and history, the stories can be told from nearly any point of view and at any point in human history.
The themes Gaiman chose likewise push the envelope. He reached an adult audience, a demographic that could not have been depended on before the 1980s, and crafted tales for them that featured homosexuals, alternate histories, unreliable narrators, and an intricately told story that began in the first issue and was explored from a multitude of angles. All this was done within stories structured with careful attention to good storytelling, and readers responded accordingly. "Very few people seem to turn around and say, 'This comic has lesbians in it,"' Gaiman reported. "What they tend to say is, 'This comic has really good people in it."'
As one critic has pointed out, "Although Gaiman's talent shouldn't be downplayed, it should be noted that his breed of story owes some of its success to the mood of the times, an environment where stories of coincidence and unseen powers fill a nagging cultural need." Gaiman has often stressed that the conclusion of the story in issue 75, is the same story that begins, despite various digressions, in issue one. In the first issue, Morpheus is stripped of his godhood and forced to re-evaluate humanity, precisely at the moment Generation X is questioning the bourgeois values it has been asked to accept from the generations before it.
What is perhaps most important to the field of popular culture is how Sandman affected the comic book industry. Stanley Wiater and Stephen R. Bissette, in their Comic Book Rebels, say of Gaiman that he is "representative of a new order of creators. Cosmopolitan and nomadic, they successfully maintain their creative autonomy while demanding the respect of their chosen publishers through a clear sense of who they are, what they are worth, and a canny blend of independence and diplomacy." This is revolutionary in that, for most of comic book history, creators who worked for major publishers wrote within the bounds set by their editors and were divested of any right to influence the character created once the individual story was finished. Characters that proved popular would not reap rewards for the creator, but for the publisher who owned the copyright through work-for-hire laws. Sandman, under what was almost exclusively Gaiman's guidance, became so popular that, as Wiater and Bissette note, "The first year of its run led to DC's granting an historically unprecedented (and retroactive) creative co-ownership and share of the character and title, including all licensing and foreign sales—rights and revenue DC had always denied creators."
Gaiman's creativity and sheer storytelling power seemed to increase with the continuing monetary rewards, and Sandman's following swelled. Many retailers have credited Sandman alone with reaching female fans in a readership that had always been largely male. As the comic's fan base swelled, DC saw that there was a great market for comic books written for adults and, in 1993, only a handful of years after Sandman's debut, the company launched Vertigo, a new imprint which has since produced some of the comic book world's most promising titles. Doom Patrol and Preacher in particular have enjoyed success through the high-profile creative atmosphere provided only by Vertigo, and, though Sandman finished its run in 1999, Vertigo guaranteed that its influence would continue well into the future.
—Joe Sutliff Sanders
O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "The Master of Dreams, Lost Loves, Old Gods and Unanswered Riddles." Wizard: The Guide to Comics 9. May 1992, 32-37.
Wiater, Stanley, and Stephen R. Bissette. Comic Book Rebels: Conversations with the Creators of the New Comics. New York, Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1993.