Sandman Universe begins the Vertigo Comics revival by remembering past dreams

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Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.

This week, it is Sandman Universe #1, written by Neil Gaiman, Simon Spurrier, Kat Howard, Nalo Hopkinson, and Dan Watters with art by Bilquis Evely, Tom Fowler, Dominike “Domo” Stanton, Max Fiumara, and Sebastian Fiumara and colors by Mat Lopes. This one-shot kicks off a major push to revitalize the Vertigo Comics name for its 25th Anniversary by bringing back one of the imprint’s biggest properties. This review reveals major plot points.

The year was 1993, and superhero comics were in the middle of a period of over-the-top storytelling that took the grim and gritty ideas of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and hooked them up to an IV drip of Mountain Dew and steroids. At the same time, the world of alternative comics was making major strides in the mainstream after Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, proving that the art form could have a greater reach and achieve the legitimacy of other forms of entertainment. DC Comics was already publishing a handful of titles that toed the line between these two areas, imbuing superheroes with an avant-garde perspective that brought new depth to established IP like the Doom Patrol, Shade The Changing Man, and The Sandman.

DC Comics editor Karen Berger saw the value of these series and recognized that they didn’t fit the current superhero mold, so she launched Vertigo Comics, a mature readers imprint that would be home to these adult reinterpretations while launching original material from the industry’s hottest writers and artists. For years, Vertigo was the go-to place for high-concept genre comics, releasing hugely popular series like 100 Bullets, Fables, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Scalped, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. These books served as gateway comics for readers who weren’t interested in superheroes, highlighting what the medium could do with different genres.

In the larger cultural consciousness, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is the definitive title of early Vertigo comics, achieving massive success in bookstores as the graphic novel market started to grow. The A.V. Club spends a lot of time exploring The Sandman and its legacy in our Back Issues feature, and the ambition of the series is undeniable, even if the execution isn’t always flawless. Gaiman honors the legacy of previous iterations of The Sandman while crafting something wildly different, giving himself the opportunity to explore classical and modern mythology and the art of creation by introducing a new Sandman who wasn’t a superhero, but an immortal entity named Dream. He’s one of seven siblings, The Endless, that embody fundamental forces of the universe—Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium—and Gaiman, working with a phenomenal lineup of artists, crafted stories that balanced cosmic grandiosity with deeply personal character work that gave the series its heart and soul.

The Sandman ended in 1996, but that wasn’t the end of Dream’s story. Gaiman would return to the concept on multiple occasions, exploring different aspects of Dream and The Endless in miniseries and original graphic novels. Characters introduced in The Sandman gained their own spin-offs by new creative teams, and Vertigo editorial fully understood the popularity of this property, which had a steadily growing fan base thanks to The Sandman’s bookstore and library presence. The Sandman is an integral part of Vertigo Comics, so it made a lot of sense when DC Comics announced that Gaiman would be curating a new line of titles under the Sandman Universe umbrella for Vertigo’s 25th anniversary.

Gaiman has been cool with letting DC use Sandman characters and concepts in other titles. Dream’s successor, Daniel, briefly appeared in Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA. Death showed up in Paul Cornell and Pete Woods’ Action Comics. Most recently, Daniel played a role in the Dark Nights: Metal crossover, a story that directly ties into the current happenings in Sandman Universe #1. Gaiman benefits from letting DC use his ideas, and he’s maintained a positive relationship with the publisher that allows him to maintain creative control of IP that DC owns.

There could easily be a Sandman revival without Gaiman, but by having his involvement, DC lends credibility to the four new books that make up the Sandman Universe. Simon Spurrier and Bilquis Evely’s The Dreaming explores what happens to Dream’s realm in the absence of its current ruler, Daniel, catching up with characters like Lucien the Librarian, Merv Pumpkinhead, and Matthew The Raven while introducing a mysterious new player, Dora. Kat Howard and Tom Fowler’s Books Of Magic reintroduces Tim Hunter, the boy wizard who predates Harry Potter; Nalo Hopkinson and Dominike “Domo” Stanton’s House Of Whispers brings the deities of voodoo mythology into the fold; and Dan Watters, Max Fiumara, and Sebastian Fiumara’s Lucifer sees the fallen angel embark on a quest to find the mother of his forsaken son.

Sandman Universe lays the groundwork for these four new series in a one-shot that has each of the individual creative teams working off of a story by Gaiman, keeping his vision at the core of the line but expanding it with fresh voices. Each of the four segments in Sandman Universe has its own look and feel: The Dreaming is bright and ethereal, but there’s a darkness that is pushing its way into this world. Tim Hunter’s sequence emphasizes the ordinariness of the boy wizard’s life, with a burst of gruesome horror on the final page. The House Of Whispers’ introduction has a lighter tone, and there’s an undercurrent of mischief rather than the gloom and dread that runs through the others. Lucifer’s scene is elegant, grim, and operatic, featuring artwork by two horror superstars pulled from Dark Horse’s Mignolaverse.

The four separate chapters are weaved together by the presence of Matthew The Raven as he tries to find his lost master, building to a final page reveal that brings back a major plot point from The Sandman to drastically raise the stakes moving forward. Simon Spurrier has no shortage of imagination, and both his creator-owned and work-for-hire projects are full of big ideas that challenge genre expectations and push his artists in new ways. As the writer of The Dreaming, Spurrier will be spending the most time with characters primarily defined by Gaiman, and he does impeccable work capturing their distinct voices. Gaiman doesn’t script any of Sandman Universe, but the book ends up showcasing Gaiman’s dialogue skills because Spurrier is so attentive to the cadence, vocabulary, and vocal tics the characters were given by their creator.

Bilquis Evely has been an artist to watch since Dynamite’s Shaft miniseries, where she depicted ’70s New York City and its inhabitants with slick style and specificity. She’s quickly risen through the ranks at DC Comics, where she had the opportunity to lean into more light-hearted, spectacular stories as the artist of Sugar & Spike: Metahuman Investigations, a delightful treat buried in the short-lived Legends Of Tomorrow anthology series and later collected on its own. Her talent deserved a much higher profile project, though, and she got it when she took over for Nicola Scott in the back half of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman run during DC Rebirth.

Evely is totally confident in any genre, whether it’s gritty crime, chilling horror, or bombastic superhero action. But all of her previous books were just warm-ups for Sandman Universe. The massive scope of the Dreaming gives her the chance to play as she creates a world of infinite visual possibilities, delivering page after page of surprises in her layouts, compositions, and designs. There’s incredible care in her linework, but it doesn’t feel overworked or fussy. The first page of Sandman Universe is so intricate that it probably went through an intense process to figure out the composition and fill the Dreaming with strange environmental details, but I would also believe that all of this emerged from Evely’s pen in a visual stream of consciousness. It’s one of those images that takes a while to fully sink in, revealing new treasures as you explore the depth of the page.

The scenes in the Dreaming demand a lot from Evely, and after that establishing splash, she gets to spend two pages in a library filled with literally every book ever imagined. Libraries are notoriously annoying for artists because row after row of books isn’t all that fun to draw, but Evely draws hundreds of books of different sizes in rows, in stacks, and from multiple angles. Mat Lopes then colors each of these books individually, and that level of detail invites the reader to spend more time on each panel while also informing the character of Lucien, the librarian. He knows each book and where it belongs, and the art team putting all that work into making the books distinct accentuates what a feat it is to have such a comprehensive knowledge of a never-ending library.

Sandman Universe has five different artists, but their work is unified by the coloring of Lopes, who alters his palette and rendering to match the shifting visuals of this issue. He plays a key part in the transition out of the Dreaming and into the waking world for the Tim Hunter sequence setting up Books Of Magic, linking Tim’s dream to the chaos in the Dreaming through color. The center of the Dreaming’s crack is colored with deep magenta, the same hue at the center of the dream explosion that jolts Tim awake. There might not be a link, but Lopes introduces that possibility through his coloring. The rest of Tim’s sequence is dominated by beige and gray, working with Tom Fowler’s subdued linework to emphasize the blandness of waking reality in comparison to the vibrant fantasy of the Dreaming. Red is the only pop of color, used for the book handed to him by his red-scarfed substitute teacher, and the pools of blood around his regular teacher, magically hidden from view.

Lopes introduces some pastels into the palette for the lighter tone of the House Of Whispers chapter, then adds lush greens, pink, and blue when the art returns to a more fantastic setting. Domo Stanton’s layouts undergo a dramatic transformation when the action shifts from the New Orleans pier to the spiritual realm of voodoo gods. On the pier, characters are contained within rectangular panels with straight black borders, but the world of Erzulie and Uncle Monday is far more natural and free, with tree branches separating panels and characters bleeding over those borders. Warm and cold color contrast becomes more extreme in the Lucifer story, which has Lopes using a painterly rendering style that enriches the texture of the Fiumara brothers’ linework. That painted aesthetic is especially fitting given that several panels depict classic pieces of Lucifer-centric fine art, linking this comic book to that historical legacy.

It’s a pity that Todd Klein isn’t the letterer of Sandman Universe given that he was such a major force in establishing the overall design sensibility of the original series. That said, Simon Bowland is a worthy replacement, maintaining key components of the original lettering without being totally beholden to Klein’s work. Matthew The Raven’s speech balloons maintain the orange border that Klein gave them, but now have a solid, if unsteady, outline that goes all the way around instead of Klein’s overlapping straight lines.

The lettering and artwork work especially well together in the Lucifer scene, where Matthew has a conversation with the ghost of one of Lucifer’s ravens. The orange of Matthew’s eyes matches that of his speech balloons, and it’s the only warm color in the sea of pale blue that dominates the scene. The ghost’s lettering shares that cool shade, and each bird’s relationship with the environment is reinforced through lettering and coloring.

Sandman Universe ends with one-page ads for each of the individual titles, plus a two-page rundown of the seven other Vertigo series debuting between September and March. This 25th anniversary year has brought a major push to revitalize the struggling imprint, and this is already going better than the last major attempt at Vertigo course correction. In 2015, the imprint launched 12 books in three months, over-saturating the market with books that felt more like pitches for genre TV shows than forward-thinking comic books, none of which achieved the breakout success of the aforementioned Vertigo legends. The creative teams are more interesting and the publishing schedule is less frantic this time around, and the strength of Sandman Universe is a good omen for the future of Vertigo under its current editorial team.

The current Vertigo revival coincides with the end of DC’s Young Animal imprint, which was sold as another imprint but technically fell under the purview of the Vertigo editorial staff. Young Animal was remarkable, and while it wasn’t the commercial success DC hoped it would be, it showed that DC was still able to tap into that original Vertigo spirit of ingenuity and experimentation. Two of the Young Animal launch books, Doom Patrol and Shade, The Changing Girl, were new takes on classic Vertigo titles that had their own unique creative perspectives. Cave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye put a psychedelic spin on a forgotten Silver Age creation, and Mother Panic took a Mature Readers approach to Gotham City by introducing a brutal new antihero foil to Batman. Young Animal would also take part in the Jack Kirby centennial celebration with Bug!: The Adventures Of Forager, a miniseries that led readers on a loving tour of Kirby’s DC creations.

The four main Young Animal titles crossed over with iconic DC properties in the Milk Wars event, a fascinating takedown of corporate media from within the system it’s critiquing, followed by Shade, Cave Carson, and Mother Panic relaunching with new titles that took each series in a different direction. Incorporating a Saga-style break into those series was a risk, and being off the rack and out of the conversation for months ultimately hurt those books. They all end this month, along with Eternity Girl, a miniseries with an essential tie to The Sandman.

Eternity Girl writer Magdalene Visaggio was inspired by Gaiman and Colleen Doran’s The Sandman #20, which took a tragic look at Urania Blackwell, the former Silver Age superhero known as Element Girl. Visaggio created a new character with Sonny Liew that experienced a similar depression with even greater superhuman power, telling a complex tale of self-loathing, identity crisis, and reinvention. It’s fitting that Eternity Girl would end the same week Sandman Universe debuts, and even though there are still two more finales in August, this week feels like the end of the Young Animal imprint as Vertigo takes its first big steps to reclaiming its former glory. The editors are now focusing all their power on strengthening the Vertigo brand, remembering the dreams of the past to forge a new path for the future.