Dina Reviews: The Sandman Audible Series

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I’ve never made a secret out of the fact that I absolutely love audio dramas. Especially well-written and well-acted audio dramas. And I haven’t made it a secret that, my fatigue with superhero comics aside, I’m also a big fan of the comics medium. What I might not have mentioned is how surprisingly well the two media adapt to each other… despite comics being all visual and audio dramas being all sound, I have listened to a few audio drama adaptations of comics, and they’ve worked REALLY well… most notably the first two Ms Marvel trades, which were just as fun with sounds as they were with pictures.

So I was positively surprised when I found out a couple of weeks ago that Audible had released an audio drama adaptation of the first three storylines of one of the best comic series out there, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have caught that I’ve been gushing about this audio drama for a bit…. and now that I’ve actually listened through it all and had some time to think about everything, I thought I might as well do a proper review of it.

First though… I should talk about the comic a little.

Let’s start with one undeniable fact: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic is an absolute classic. I would have done a Dina Recommends of it long ago, but I sort of imagined that it was well-known enough that I didn’t need to… I mean, this comic was HUGE back in the day… but of course, “back in the day” was more “the 1990s/early 2000s,” so maybe it’s just us old grouches who were born during the last millennium who still know it? Lots of comic fans I talk to seem to not know this masterpiece of a comic, and I have to explain that no, when I say “Sandman” I’m not talking about Spider-Man’s enemy.

That’s a bit of a shame. Because this comic was groundbreaking and hugely influental. We’re talking on the level of Watchmen here.

So what is Sandman? Well, it nominally takes place in the DC universe… but don’t expect to see a lot of the regular DC characters show up, at least not outside the first seven-issue storyarc. Superheroes might make a couple of cameos, and the titular character is very much linked to previous DC heroes called “Sandman,” but the story almost exclusively focuses on gods, creatures of myth and legend, and regular human beings… and the relations between them. It’s a story about reality and fantasy and how they influence each other.

Rather than a superhero story, Sandman is a horror-fantasy (starts out more horror, ends up more fantasy) which tells about Lord Morpheus, also known as Dream of the Endless, or The Sandman. He’s the ruler of the Dream Kingdom, the Creator of Dreams and Nightmares, and the Prince of Stories. He’s one of the Seven Endless, older and more powerful than most gods, and he’s also a kind of a cold and distant jerk who seldom takes an interest in human affairs. But something happens to change all that… and I won’t say anything more about the story for now.

You know how comic companies like DC are struggling to draw in new readers? Well, Sandman DID draw in new readers, and didn’t need company-wide, confusing reboots in order to do it. It simply drew in new readers because it was GOOD. It was frequently recommended and given to people who normally didn’t read comics, and it did a LOT to convince people that comics could, in fact, be intelligent reading that took up more interesting themes than who could beat up who. It was also one of the first comics to prominently feature LGBTQ characters in positive roles without turning them into jokes, stereotypes or mere fetish fuel. The portrayal isn’t ALWAYS the most nuanced compared to what we might see nowadays, but it was FAR ahead of its time.

It was with the approach to comics storytelling that Sandman made its mark on the American comics market. For one thing, it stepped neatly out of the superhero genre and showed many Americans what Europeans and Asians have always known; that comics are more than superheroes. For another… well, it did something almost unheard of for comics, and that was telling a complete, long story.

Ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby got the Marvel Universe off to a start, the American comics industry had taken a bit of a soap opera approach; nothing ever really ended. As long as a comic series sold, it would continue to be published. The creative teams would change, but the series would go in. There would be complete story ARCS, and occasionally there would be a twelve issue miniseries or something that told a complete story and then ended (like the aforementioned Watchmen)… but what Neil Gaiman did with Sandman had never been seen in American comics before: This was an ongoing monthly run that lasted for 75 issues, and during those 75 issues told one long story… split into separate arcs, and with some standalone chapters here and there, but every installment of the comic had some aspect that either brought the story closer to its end or at least gave some hints to where everything was headed… and then, when issue 75 was done and the story Neil Gaiman had wanted to tell was over, the comic ENDED. Even though it still sold well, it did NOT continue with a new writer. The story of Sandman was only those 75 issues (and a couple of specials), and surprisingly DC comics honoured the writer and creator to let the story end.

It was the first time that had happened, but it wouldn’t be the last… in fact, the 75-issue comics run became a bit of a staple in its own right, with series like Books of Magic and Lucifer (both of which were kind of spin-offs of Sandman) also lasting 75 issues. Bill Willingham’s Fables lasted for 150 issues, but it had the same approach; once the STORY was done, the COMIC was done.

Some of the Sandman characters have showed up in spin-offs or limited series, or the VERY occasional cameo in other comics, but the story of the Sandman ended with that 75th issue, so now anyone can pick up the entire collected series and get a complete story from beginning to end.

For decades, Warner Brothers have tried to get a Sandman movie adaptation off the ground, but it never happened. Thankfully, really, given some of the leaked proposed scripts. Warner execs REALLY wanted to exploit the success of the comic but failed to realize what had made it successful to begin with, and so the proposed movie versions totally ruined the entire concept and turned it into a hyper-commercialized bad parody of itself. Think the Michael Bay Transformers movies, only about five times worse. Thankfully, cooler heads (and Neil Gaiman) prevailed, and all the movie adaptations ended up cancelled. It almost became a running gag after a while; Warner would announce that THIS TIME, the a movie adaptation of Sandman would TOTALLY happen, and I’d just go “Yeah, right.”

More recently, there has been talk of making Sandman into a Netflix series. Which probably makes more sense than a movie anyway… a Netflix series would probably work better as an adaptation than a movie would. And Neil Gaiman, who is heavily involved (and who has recently had success with the BBC adaptation of Good Omens) seems enthusiastic about it.

Now, Gaiman has come on board to say that the Netflix series will be more of a retelling than a straight-up adaptation. For one thing, it’ll take place in the 2020s instead of the 1980s/1990s the comic series did, and Gaiman has been quoted as saying “Okay, it is 2020, let’s say that I was doing Sandman starting in 2020, what would we do? How would we change things?” Naturally this has upset some fans… hilariously including a number of fanboys who rage about how Gaiman is selling himself out to the SJWs and forcing diversity… totally forgetting (or maybe not being aware) that the original comic was already HUGELY progressive and diversive for its time. There’s a reason why that comic had and still has a huge female fanbase.

And finally, in my traditional roundabout way, we’ve come around to the main topic of this review: The Audible audio adaptation. Yes, now I’m finally going to talk about that.

Because where the Netflix series will be a retelling, there is one adaptation now that’s VERY loyal to the old comics, and that’s the Audible series. This seems to have been a deliberate move for Gaiman; the Audible series now presents the classic story almost completely unchanged, so that the Netflix series can present it in a new way. It’s actually quite a good idea, especially with Gaiman so heavily involved in both projects.

The Audible series adapts the first 20 issues of the comic to audio form. Which essentially means we’re here looking at (or listening to) the first three collections: Preludes & Nocturnes, A Doll’s House and Dream Country.

Without spoiling things too much:

Preludes & Nocturnes (chapters 1-8) is about Dream, after having been imprisoned against his will around the time of World War I, finally breaks out of his imprisonment after 70 years and returns to the world in the late 1980s, and now he has to relocate his lost tools and rebuild his kingdom, which without him has been reduced to a ruin. As the first Sandman storyline it’s a little uneven, but it’s also the one that’s the most purely “horror.”

A Doll’s House (chapters 9-16) is mostly about a young woman named Rose Walker, who is searching for her lost brother Jed, and whose path keeps crossing with creatures from the dream world, and eventually Dream himself. This is widely agreed to be the storyline where Gaiman really found his feet with the series, and of the three first collections it’s definitely the best overall.

Dream Country (chapters 17-20) is a collection of four short stories; one about the muse Calliope, who is imprisoned by mortals much like Dream was, one about a cat with a large and maybe impossible dream, one about a suicidal superheroine and her meeting with Death, and one about William Shakespeare and the very first performance of his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tales here range from absolutely brilliant to merely okay.

You could take these short descripts and apply them to either comic or Audible without having to change anything. Because the Audible series is almost, but not quite, a word-by-word adaptation of the comics. There are some added descriptions (mostly taken from Gaiman’s elaborate scripts for the comic) and some added dialogue, a few phrases that have been tweaked and updated a little, such as Dreams genderfluid sibling Desire now mostly going by they/them pronouns, and a few things that were only hinted at in the comic are elaborated on a little more here… but for the MOST part, it’s almost completely unchanged from the comic. Kind of confirming my suspicion that the road from comic to audio drama isn’t necessarily that long… and maybe in fact the two are more closely related than it would seem at first.

In fact… the audio drama might occasionally be a little TOO close to the comic. There have been reviewers who complained about how the Audible series didn’t try to update outdated language and wasn’t sensitive enough for a modern audience, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean…. while Gaiman’s elegantly crafted dialogue MOSTLY translates to the audio really well, there are instances where it ends up sounding pompous and stilted, and the characters sound more like they’re monologuing at each other rather than having an actual conversation… even in scenes where that clearly isn’t the intended effect. I think certain scenes could have benefitted greatly from some dialogue tweaks, to make things flow a little more naturally.

This generally isn’t the fault of the voice cast, who with some exceptions deliver BRILLIANTLY. Even if not all the voices are as I would have imagined them, they are for the most part great interpretations. James McAvoy would not have been my first choice for Dream, but he delivers a VERY solid performance, managing to capture the nuances of his personalities really well. He can switch between sounding cold and disinterested, to wryly amused, to PISSED OFF, in the blink of an eye. The standout performance is the one and only time he laughs…. at first he sounds like he’s SEETHING, and then you suddenly realize that no, he’s trying and failing not to laugh out loud.

I was initially less sold on Kat Dennings as his sister Death, but she grew on me. Justin Vivian Bond is a delightfully sultry Desire who switches between sounding more male and more female. Michael Sheen, who played the angel Aziraphale in the Good Omens TV show, here channels David Bowie in playing Lucifer. Taron Egerton sounds a little young for John Constantine, but gets the snarky, easygoing cynisism down pat. Andy Serkis as Matthew the raven was a stroke of brilliance. And I was really pleased to hear Josie Lawrence make a cameo as Mad Hettie.

Some minor characters don’t sound very good, but since they’re minor characters they only have a couple of lines.

The narration is handled by Neil Gaiman himself. Well, unless the episode is narrated by one of the characters in first person… that happens sometimes too. Gaiman isn’t a professional voice actor, but nobody knows this material better than he does, and his narration makes everything feels just a little bit more authentic.

A bit of a complaint here, though: This Audible drama adapts the first 20 issues of Sandman. And while MOST issues make the translation well (and in some case, like Facade, probably works better as audio dramas than they did as comics), there are a couple that… do not. The standout here is A Dream of a Thousand Cats, which was an interesting tale in comic form, but as an audio drama just doesn’t work. It just sounds hokey, and the cats are just theatrical and… not very cat-like at all.

But when it works, it WORKS. A couple of additional strokes were absolute brilliance… like the Little Nemo parody from the Doll’s House storyline. Of course that wouldn’t have worked in audio form, since the parody hinges on capturing Windsor McKay’s old-timey panel layouts and page compositions… so here the segments have instead been turned into a parody of old-timey radio serials, with swelling music and actors who deliver their lines in a bombastic way, and it’s SO GREAT.

All in all, the Audible series has been a great way to relive the first Sandman comics. If you haven’t read the comics, but you want to find out what the fuss is about, then I can recommend the Audible series. It’s GREAT at setting the mood and you get pretty much the exact same story as was told in the comics… if you HAVE read the comics, then I still recommend it, just so you can get to hear Gaiman’s elaborate descriptions and find out how the interpretations of the character voices might add new dimensions to the old story.

And Kat Dennings as Death really does grow on you.