I have discovered the existence of a radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, the epic punk-gothic fantasy that originally ran as a monthly comic book from the late 1980s through the middle 1990s, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by many. As I write this, I am only forty minutes into the first 12-hour installment, which was released without my noticing in July 2020. I feel like I can already see the whole shape of it, and I have to write some stuff down.

Look, first of all: I already love this so much that I feel personally, somewhat uncomfortably pandered to. The Sandman is a very important work to me. I followed the story real-time for the later two-thirds of its monthly run, guided to it as a teenager by the new and strange voices I found on dial-up online comics forums. My very first, very awkward in-person fan experiences happened at a Sandman book signing my dad patiently drove me to, in a city four hours from home. (And it was at this signing I bought all the early chapters I’d missed.) In a real sense I cemented much of my young-adult personality around this slowly unfolding fantasy, even though I was far too sheltered and naive to appreciate any of the literary, mythological, or rock-and-roll references that it builds upon.

(Friends, its original comics-run had a letter column, which I am positive I wrote to, perhaps multiple times. I did discuss every month’s new issue at 1200 baud with that little forum of online fans, which Gaiman himself would visit from time to time. I coded a Morpheus NPC with a crude AI script on a MUD that I hung out on; he’d swan around and stare at you silent judgment, mostly. I tried to get a favorite philosophy professor into the book; he politely demurred. I never took up an ankh as accoutrement, but I did wear mostly black for many years. And so on.)

Just minutes into listening to this new adaptation, I felt amazed, delighted, and slightly worried to discover that it begins at the beginning: with the saga’s slow, awkward start as an early 20th century “weird fiction” pastiche, peppered with cameos from second-stringer DC Comics superheroes. The Sandman’s original, lengthy prologue features page after page of Aleister Crowley-style magicians holding debased rituals in gothic mansions with the title character technically present but barely having any lines at all—and, so far, this radio-drama adaptation positively luxuriates in acting out every single panel of it, not feeling any hurry at all to introduce us to the protagonists. I can’t help but wonder what a listener unfamiliar with the source material would make of this sleepy pace.

And I love every minute of it, so far. The Sandman collections I own are all packed away right now, so I’m left to rack my memory for the next, very different, and often extremely strange places the story goes as soon as it jettisons those silly wizards and the Endless finally take the stage. I wonder how much this work’s adapters commit to making it a circa-1990 period piece, modulo the parts set in 19th century San Francisco, or the Garden of Eden, or the recycled pages of a DC pre-code Vault of Horror knock-off. Will Matthew the Raven be there, and will his actor get his crinkly word balloons right? My goodness!

I came across this new play through a bus-stop poster advertising its second installment, which Audible just recently released. Because it has the title The Sandman: Act II, I thought it might be an audio-only sequel to the printed comics. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned about its role as an adaptation, the twelve hours of prior content, and the fact that the first act is—as a Halloween gift—free, for a time.

It doesn’t surprise me that I missed its arrival in mid-2020, and for reasons beyond all the distractions afoot then. The Sandman strikes me as a deeply Generation X-anchored work: younger than the Boomer fantasy franchises that continue to receive one pop-culture retread after another, but too old to generate fresh conversation in modern online venues I inhabit. And this why I, who often feel like I occupy this same in-between gravity well, feel pandered to. But I’m going to put my headphones back in now, and get back to enjoying it. If I have more to say about it, I’ll say it here.

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