clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Doctor Destiny, crazy-haired and naked except for a trenchcoat, stands over a diner full of people he has mind controlled into slaughtering each other over 24 hours, in The Sandman #6, DC Comics (1989).
Doctor Destiny stands over a diner full of people he has mind controlled into raping, cannibalizing, dismembering, and self-mutilating each other over the past 24 hours.
Image: Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III/DC Comics

Filed under:

Sandman is actually a horror comic — and one that’ll give you nightmares

It’s time to talk about the Diner Issue

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

I’ve read DC Comics’ epic The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman with art from dozens more talented people, more times than I can count. And each time, I’m blindsided when I run into The Sandman #6, titled “24 Hours,” one of the most harrowing 24 pages of horror storytelling you can find in the comics format.

The Sandman is famous for how it plays with mythology and history, with characters like the Christian figure Lucifer, Norse god Loki, and the folkloric Robin Goodfellow as recurring characters. It’s sold as the story of the king of Dreams, a flawed immortal coming to terms with his indifference to the mortals he both serves and rules. That’s the story that The Sandman becomes over its 75-issue run.

But when The Sandman kicked off, it took Gaiman and his collaborators a few dozen issues to really wade into the seas of anthropomorphic figures. Until then, they were doing their best to keep a once nearly extinct comic book tradition alive: pulp horror.

Let not the Cryptkeeper fade from your hearts

The creepily-grinning Cryptkeeper offers a selection of EC Comics horror titles to the viewer.
It’s the c-c-c-Cryptkeeper!
Image: EC Comics

Although it seems impossible to imagine in the 21st century, superheroes have not always been the primary force in American comics. After their initial boom in the days of World War II, newsstands diversified into a number of pulpy varieties of fiction — science fiction, crime fiction, regular old “adventure” fiction — and even true crime. (Or at least “true” crime.)

Horror is not the most forgotten lost genre of American comics — that crown goes to the almost entirely lost field of print romance comics — but it’s the only one that the rest of the industry once tried to eradicate.

When we talk about the 1954 senate hearings that indirectly lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, it can be fun to dwell on the salaciousness of Dr. Fredric Wertham taking the stand to say that Batman and Robin were turning little boys gay. It’s less interesting, but just as important, to remember that United States senators mercilessly grilled EC Comics publisher William Gaines over the standard, gory details of horror comics covers in an effort to prove that he was poisoning the minds of children.

As the head of one of the most solvent comics publishers in the industry, Gaines rallied his colleagues to fight outside censorship. Contrary to his intentions, the members of the comics industry’s newest professional association proposed that they create their own strict rules of what content was acceptable in the comic book form, and put together the Comics Code Authority to publicize and enforce them. Gaines left the group in protest, at which point his competitors ratified rules that essentially made his horror comics unprintable.

EC Comics was forced to shutter its three massively popular horror series, The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and — stop me if you’ve heard of this one — Tales from the Crypt.

Welcome to the House of Secrets

Abel waves goodbye, stuttering, as Cain lounges against a gargoyle with a bottle of soda and a straw in The Sandman #2, DC Comics (1989).
Cain and Abel (and Gregory the Gargoyle) in The Sandman #2.
Image: Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith/DC Comics

Thanks to The Sandman on Audible, I’ve had the pleasure of walking more friends and coworkers through one of the comics that taught me to love comics. And if there’s a theme there, it’s that the story is a lot weirder, gorier, and darker than they expected. It’s no wonder there’s some confusion here. To pick one example, Cain and Abel are not how you remember them from the Bible, but that’s because they’re not Biblical references, they’re comic book revivals. The two were the Cryptkeeper-style hosts of DC Comics’ EC-imitating horror anthology series, House of Mystery and House of Secrets.

Readers (or listeners) walk into The Sandman expecting the higher-brow mythopoeic reinvention of American Gods, but what they get is an eager and lowbrow celebration of short horror fiction. And for my money, Neil Gaiman is always at his best in his short fiction.

Gaiman fills early Sandman issues with classic pulp horror framings, aged up only in their details: The magician who summons something he wasn’t prepared to contend with, curses of endless nightmares, struggling artists who sell their souls for success, mortals torn apart by their addiction to magic. Sandman’s first artist, Sam Keith, goes full EC style in his linework, with bugging eyes; lumpy, stretchable faces; and crumbling interiors full of decaying detail. It’s the horror story as parable, in the tradition set forth by Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone and many others.

In The Sandman #6, “24 Hours,” Gaiman, penciler Mike Dringenberg, and inker Malcolm Jones III leave the fifth issue’s cliffhanger dangling wildly in order to depart from the broader plot of their arc. Instead, they spend the entire issue introducing the hopes and flaws of a well-rounded cast of diner-goers. Then they show, in stomach churning detail, how Doctor Destiny uses newfound mind control powers to make them his flesh and blood playthings, eventually reducing them to their basest thoughts and motivations as they self-mutilate and die horribly. It’s no wonder I try to erase the thing from my memory every time I read it.

The Sandman wasn’t alone in keeping horror comics at the front of the pack. Only a few years prior, Alan Moore had stepped aboard The Saga of the Swamp Thing — a character first introduced in House of Secrets — and turned it into a bestselling comic that he used to introduce a little guy named John Constantine, the Hellblazer.

Before that, Marvel Comics took advantage of loosening Comics Codes standards to unleash a slew of horror-tinged characters to its superhero universe, including Dracula, Morbius, Daimon Hellstrom, and, of course, Ghost Rider. Marvel didn’t have to cancel its horror anthology, because it had simply retooled it into a non-horror series. Haven’t you ever wondered why the first appearance of Thor was in a book called Journey Into Mystery?

Today, Joe Hill’s Hill House imprint at DC Comics produced some of my favorite spooky stories of the past year, while Marvel just released the first issue of a new Werewolf by Night series, featuring a Native American lead and Native creators. The long legacy of American horror comics continues.

Next, let’s work on romance comics.

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.