The Sandman on Audible Review: The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

It's been 30 years since the first issue of The Sandman hit comic book stores. The series was [...]

It's been 30 years since the first issue of The Sandman hit comic book stores. The series was written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a long line of talented artists over its 75-issue run. The series, which inspired the creation of DC's mature reader Vertigo Comics imprint, has resisted adaptation for decades. For such a seminal work of comics, a fundamentally visual medium, to get its first adaptation in an audio format comes as a surprise. And yet, today sees the release of The Sandman audiobook, available exclusively on Audible. The project has veteran director Dirk Maggs, who worked with Gaiman on full-cast audio adaptations of his prose novels, and who has had a storied career in the audio drama business. On top of that, Gaiman and Audible brought on an all-star cast to voice The Sandman's characters, with James McAvoy taking the lead role as Morpheus, accompanied by Riz Ahmed, Kat Dennings, Michael Sheen, Andy Serkis, and others in supporting roles.

The audio version of The Sandman is a faithful recreation of the comic book's story. Over 20 chapters, the audiobook tells the stories found in the first 20 issues of The Sandman comic book series. The comics-to-audio process follows the same playbook as if this were an audio adaptation of a prose novel. Dialogue is lifted straight from the page, and Gaiman's notes and descriptions for the artist that he put into the original Sandman comics scripts set the scenes and explains the action.

Experiencing the story in a new format, as someone already familiar with The Sandman, was fascinating and had me resisting the temptation to pull down the Absolute Sandman volumes and re-read the series in its entirety. The voice cast does a stellar job with dialogue intended at times to be more explanatory than performative or to compliment a visual than to stand alone. McAvoy brings an abundance of emotion and humanity to Morpheus when he could easily have interpreted the king of Dreams as cold, distant, and monotone.

Maggs' audio direction and the sound engineers' work on the series is similarly solid across the board and shines during moments of dreaming, when the landscape and genre may change instantly. There are some scenes where the audio approach falters. It's hard to recreate an homage to Little Nemo in Slumberland without visual queues, but it does try admirably to communicate the spirit of it. Similarly, the narration -- provided capably by Gaiman -- can't capture Elemental Girl's strange appearance from the story "Façade" the same way the original artwork can. On the other hand, the elegant music and soundscape enrich "The Sound of Her Wings," the first appearance of Dream's sister Death, illuminating Dream's emotional arc through the story in brand new ways.

In preserving the story of The Sandman, the audiobook also feels of its time in certain respects. It's what you expect once you realize that this is as close to a traditional prose-to-audiobook transition as possible. These early Sandman stories have more of a horror vibe than later issues, where Gaiman went more mythic with his storytelling. The tale "24 Hours," in particular, is a brutal listen, where residents of a small town, including one member of an abusive lesbian couple, become trapped in a diner by a supervillain who drives the entire group insane and to physical violence.

LGBTQ+ characters, in general, are presented as sympathetic victims. Presenting queer character at all in a mainstream comic book was progressive in the early 1990s, and most of the mortal characters in these first Sandman stories become victims of some sort regardless of their sexual orientation. Equal opportunity victimhood isn't as forward-thinking in 2020 as it may have seemed back then. Later, there's a recreation of sexual violence in the story "Calliope," that is, at best, unsettling to an unnecessary degree.

But while there are elements that have not aged well, that isn't to say that these stories are without worth. For example, despite the assault scene, the tale of "Calliope" -- that of a superstar author and self-proclaimed feminist who is committing such crimes as these behind closed doors -- feels, unfortunately, more relevant today than it did when it debuted. Gaiman may revise this material in the process of bringing The Sandman to Netflix, but here it's presented without alteration, for better or for worse.

The Audible adaptation also doesn't shy away from Sandman's early connections to the DC Universe, with characters like John Constantine, Scot Free, and the Martian Manhunter showing up. The Sandman later grows more distant from DC's superhero characters. These appearances may take newcomers by surprise, but they shouldn't be too hard to take in stride.

Audible's Sandman does an admirable job of replicating the magic of The Sandman using sound and performances by incredible actors. For those non-comics reading Gaiman fans -- particularly those who are unable to read comics -- that want to experience the story that launched the author's career, the Audiobook adaptation is a gift. For those already familiar with Morpheus's saga, it's an exciting new way to experience the story, with successes and flaws all its own, that may reignite longtime fan's interest in the source material. While not every aspect of The Sandman has aged well, it's still an astounding work of storytelling worth experiencing and revisiting again and again. Having listened to all 20 chapters of The Sandman that are now available, I'm more likely to pull down those hardcover Absolute Editions to re-read the story than to put my headphones back on for another listen. And yet, I remain eager to see what the next installment of The Sandman's Audible adaptation brings.

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