The Reading Room

Exploring Sandman at the OLL

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, transformed from a comic book into a Netflix series, premieres today. Comic fans have long been aware of the complex narrative and the genre bending mix of horror, fantasy, myth, and family drama that comprise Sandman, and have valued it as one of the comics--like Alan Moore’s Watchmen--that exploded ideas about the limits of the comic book genre. 
Characters in Sandman are shown reading books from Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass to It. The Dreaming, the realm of the Sandman, features a library of all the books that have ever been imagined, even the ones that were never written. While we don’t know yet how many of Gaiman’s literary allusions will make it from the text into the Netflix series, we thought that Reading Room visitors would be particularly drawn to the landscape of literary allusions in Sandman. From golden age superhero comics, to children’s literature, to the Bible, to Shakespeare, and beyond, Gaiman’s Sandman draws inspiration and makes reference to a truly staggering range of literary works. You’ll find many of them here at the OLL. 
(We don’t pretend that this list is complete, and we encourage other Sandman readers and watchers to add their own contributions in the comments.)
An Incomplete List of OLL Texts Referenced in Sandman
  • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is fleetingly quoted in the first issue of Sandman. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!), but gets a full issue devoted to it later in the series. The play’s exploration of the liminal spaces of dreams and their eerie mixture of magic, terror, and romance is a clearn inspiration for Gaiman’s series. The comic’s meditations on the corrupting nature of power prompt allusions, later, to Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s work returns more fully in one of the final episodes of the series, which imagines the composition of The Tempest and explores questions of mortality and creativity.
  • The Bible makes frequent appearances in Sandman, particularly the book of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel, who are spending their afterlife in the Sandman’s realm.
  • Also of great importance in Sandman is Milton’s retelling of portions of Genesis, the war in Heaven, and the fall of Lucifer in the epic poem Paradise Lost.  Paired with it is Gaiman’s use of Dante’s Inferno, specifically the wood of the suicides from Canto Thirteen. 
  • Marlowe’s Dr Faustus appears from time to time, and its themes of demonic deals and the human quest for power and knowledge are frequent parts of the narrative. Marlowe and Shakespeare’s rivalrous friendship runs through a few issues as well.                    
  • The Fates appear in various guises in Sandman, often with reference to Aeschylus’s representation of them in Eumenides as the “Kindly Ones” who call for vengeance when family members betray one another. 
  • Chaucer appears as a side character in the running subplot of Hob Gadling, a man who decides not to die and meets with Dream, the Sandman, every 100 years to discuss the experience of immorality.  
  • Thomas Paine appears, as do quotations from Common Sense, in a story that focuses on the French Revolution. The same story also references the myth of Orpheus, whose tragic love for Eurydice is revisited in other issues of Sandman.
As a work of art, Sandman stands on its own. But it can also serve, as does the Dreaming and its mystical library, as a doorway into other tales and other books. We hope you’ll take the opportunity to explore a few while you visit, or revisit, Gaiman’s creation. 


Jon Murphy

Thanks for sharing! I've never read Sandman, but as an avid lover of fairy tales, myths, and many of the works on this list, now I want to!

Sarah Skwire

Jon—it’s spectacular stuff. Let me know how you like it when you get to it!