Please allow me to present some notes I took while listening to Audible’s recent radio-play adaptation of The Sandman, which I discovered earlier this month. I’ve finished listening to “Act I”, adapting the original comic book’s first twenty issues. They map one-to-one onto audio episodes, albeit with a bit of reordering. This post covers the first nine episodes.

These notes neither review nor summarize any of these stories. They simply present my wholly subjective reactions to my first “read-through” of The Sandman in many years, albeit in a non-textual format.

In some ways, even though I feel deeply familiar with the source, this audio production gives me my first ever true cover-to-cover tour through The Sandman, since I read the first half of the original 75 serialized comics out of order. As a teenager living in central Maine in the early 1990s, I could only buy trade-paperback editions of back issues as I happened to encounter them in bookstores, and even then only if I could afford them. So while I started to read the monthly chapters around their halfway point, with the A Game of You storyline, my experience with The Sandman’s initial stories involved buying and reading The Doll’s House first. I wouldn’t read the first story arc (More than Rubies) for another year, and it took me several years to finally obtain and read all the stories published before A Game of You.

As a result, I feel deeply familiar with The Doll’s House, comfortable with all the other early stories, and frankly pretty shaky with everything that happened after that—since for the most part I obtained and read the latter stories not as bound, bookshelf-ready collections, but as monthly “floppies”, none of which survived long after my purchase of them. (Each one quickly binned by my fastidiously tidy mother, or simply lost in one of my annual house-moves.)

Thus, these notes contain far more reaction to hearing the adapted Doll’s House than to any other story. In fact, I have so many notes about that story that I’ll split them into a separate post, after this one.

Overall observations

The acting and audio production throughout this adaptation is superb. I had a great time listening to all twenty episodes, and am eager to hear Act II as soon as I post these notes.

I would recommend this radio play to anyone—so long as they know what they’re getting into. This is a hyper-faithful adaptation of the source comics, starting with the first panel of the first page of the first issue and carrying on from there. It makes no attempt to streamline away any of The Sandman’s more awkward or dated material; it’s all here, performed by professional actors and sound engineers.

That includes way more gory horror than I had remembered, as well as lots of tonally strange references to circa-1990 DC superhero plotlines; the heroes even get guest-star roles in The Sandman from time to time. I do believe that both of these aspects get toned down as the series progresses, but they’re quite prominent in these early stories.

More Than Rubies

My summary to friends in a chat room: “The Batmobile running over an Italian horror movie”. Dream’s introductory storyline is such a mess, in every sense.

I wrote last time about the slow, shaky start with the Golden Dawn-type magicians who capture Dream and then can’t think of anything to do with him, and he responds by literally doing absolutely nothing, for three generations. The rest of The Sandman does build on this base, but it still seems such a weirdly static way to kick off a comic-book saga.

The rest of this first storyline becomes a Clive Barker-style horror tale set solidly within the DC universe, so we get to hang out with Martian Manhunter for a while, and John Constantine gets an entire episode all to himself. Arkham Asylum plays a prominent role, and the script seems a little confused about whether Gotham and New York are the same place or not.

It’s one thing to see all this stuff in the original comics, and understand it as artifacts of Gaiman et al letting The Sandman find its legs over its first several months. It’s quite another to hear every bit of it carefully produced and voice-acted 30 years later, warts and all. Entertaining, certainly, but very strange.

I had the strongest visceral reaction to the episode “24 Hours”, where John Dee (“Dr. Destiny”, on loan from DC’s rogues gallery) uses Dream’s ruby to manipulate the inhabitants of a diner into madness and murder. The original comic book was gruesome fun to read, but listening to it as a well-budgeted audio production, full of professionally acted suffering punctured by extremely specific sound effects, is another matter entirely. I imagined newcomers to the story getting to this part—when we have barely met Dream and no other Endless—and having no idea why they’re being subjected to all this.

The radio play’s more linear presentation than the two-dimensional comics page also clarifies the scale of the global mayhem Dee causes at the same time, with the whole world gone homicidally, apocalyptically insane. It sounds magnitudes worse than Thanos’s “Snap” from the Marvel movies—and yet everything goes back to normal by the next issue. Future episodes lightly retcon all this, suggesting that the effects of Dee’s madness upon the waking world did not extend beyond the diner. (This includes episodes later in this same audio production, again reflecting its ride-or-die literalist-adaptation stance.)

The kindly nurse asking Dee if his messed-up appearance is due to “the Big A” (that’s AIDS, kids) is perhaps the most interestingly dated bit in this whole production, aside from the way the script will literally mention 1989 now and again as the story’s present day.

And then we get to three one-episode stories:

The Sound of Her Wings

My goodness, I had no idea how much Death comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl upon her introduction. Our first sight of her is a spunky goth breezing across mopey Dream in cinematic Washington Square Park, bopping around and quoting Mary Poppins at him before we have any idea who this weird kid even is.

And I say “kid” because I learn from the narration—read aloud, throughout this production, by Neil Gaiman himself—that we are meant to see Death’s human incarnation as a girl in her mid-to-late teens. That’d put her at right around my age when I read these books for the first time, when she absolutely struck me as much older than that! But, I was a very sheltered kid.

This story marks the point where The Sandman starts to find its own voice, apart from all the “DCU” stuff, and it is the story I would show grown-ups in my life when I wanted to impress them with this comic book series that I really liked. It never worked. “I don’t get it,” my dad said. “She just goes around killing people?”

Tales in the Sand

A great story, and in retrospect it shows The Sandman exploring new storytelling modes with a rapidity that must have seemed so wonderfully bracing to those reading the monthlies, long ago.

(Sudden suspicion: was the desert’s “green glass” supposed to be Kryptonite or something? Would hyper-nerds of 1989 recognize a deep-cut DC reference here? I don’t want to know.)

Men of Good Fortune

Another fantastic stand-alone story. Also the first time the Audible adaptation deviates from publication order, placing this before The Doll’s House where it originally served as an intermission within it.

It’s a little uncomfortable living in 2021 and admiring ol’ Hob, whose supernaturally lengthy career contains some amount of implied murder and a full century of overt slave-trading. I know he shows up later in the series, and cannot recall offhand if he somehow pays penance.

When I first read this story, the name “Johanna Constantine” rang no bells for me. How fun to hear her show up here, and better recognize her place in the grand scheme of things. Her presence also shows that Gaiman doesn’t completely divorce The Sandman from the DC universe the moment that More than Rubies concluded—a mistaken idea I held, based on my out-of-order original reading, until I started listening to this audio production.

Technically Death’s second appearance, but the setting constrains her so much (to say nothing of the costuming) that I’m not sure it counts. I actually forgot all about her role here when writing my notes for the later Facade episode, the second story that unquestionably focuses on her.

I’ll get to all that next time.

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