Back in 1989, when DC Comics published the first volume of The Sandman, no one was using the word “woke”. “Politically correct”? Possibly. “Modern”? More likely. But we were decades away from “woke”, and even further from the pejorative connotations the terms holds today.
And yet “woke” is precisely what Sandman was. Part of a renaissance in comics spurred by Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing, and gritty, punkish British comics such as 2000AD, the story of Dream of the Endless, a god-like being who governs the world of dreams and nightmares, is peppered with realistic, well-rounded queer relationships, trans characters and people of colour. It has a non-binary person central to the plot and a leader character that, though depicted as pale and gothic, appears as black to people from black cultures (and green to people from Mars, but let’s not complicate things).
“I wanted to change hearts and minds,” Sandman’s writer Neil Gaiman told the Guardian recently. “I had trans friends and still do, and it seemed to me that no one was putting trans characters in comics. And I had a comic.” At the time, Gaiman was often asked why, when the British comics scene was railing against Margaret Thatcher, he was writing essentially apolitical stories about gods and monsters. His response was always: “Maybe you’ll find that Sandman is more political than you think.”
And he’s been proved right. After decades stuck in development hell (a place presumably overseen by Gwendoline Christie, who plays Lucifer), the crown jewel of Gaiman’s writing career has finally made it to screens with Netflix’s suitably lavish adaption. The Sandman dropped last week to rave reviews and quickly topped streaming platform charts the world over. This time, released into the tedious culture wars and identity politics of 2022, the political angle is far harder to miss, even if that angle is simply “not everyone is white or straight, and that should be reflected, and a person’s character is more than just their gender”.
In a political climate in which people vie to be prime minister by promising to ring fence traditional pronouns and the most famous author in the world willingly alienates swathes of her fanbase with gender-critical views, a show based on super-queer source material that gender-swaps its characters and casts colour-blind was always going to be planting a flag in the ground. It knew it too: when the cast was announced back in 2021, pronouns were added below each name. It would be nice if one day that was automatic and accepted, but we haven’t reached that point yet and producers would have been well aware of the culture war depth charge they were deploying.
It was grimly inevitable that these elements would fire up the troll army. Science fiction and fantasy fandom can be a toxic place, where people feel so passionately about their favourite books and shows that they become spittle-flecked and pink-faced with anger when something doesn’t feel right. Gaiman’s Twitter feed is full of “fans” taking issue with the character of Death being played by a black woman (yet Kirby Howell-Baptiste is completely luminous in the role), or the iconic John Constantine being gender-swapped (producers just borrowed the existing character of Johanna Constantine from elsewhere in the story and merged the two). Even the casting of the non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park as Desire (a character specifically described as being genderless in the comics, who was using they/them pronouns as far back as 1989) has provoked outrage. You could possibly argue that since comic books are a specifically visual medium, fans might hope to see their favourite characters depicted as close to the images on the page as possible. But in a graphic novel like The Sandman that seems churlish and trite. Diversity is woven into the very soul of the story.
What’s remarkable about Sandman is how ahead of its time it was. Gaiman’s elegant tapestry was exploring 30 years ago questions that are now the subject of frothing, 5,000-word Mumsnet rants, extended Reddit posts and monotonous YouTube videos. It’s one of the reasons it became such a touchstone of Gen X storytelling, why it felt so modern and fresh. The new show is doing exactly the same thing. In 1989 Gaiman recognised that there weren’t enough gay people in comics, and fixed it. In 2022 he and other producers on the show realised there weren’t really enough non-white characters in Sandman, so they fixed that too. The spirit is the same: an elegant representation that serves and enhances the storytelling.
In the books and the show, Dream is a member of The Endless: supernatural personifications of aspects of humanity – Death, Destiny, Dream, Despair, Desire, Delirium. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that another essential aspect of our lives is also represented, almost as though it was a member of the family: Diversity.