Audible’s exclusive audiobook version of The Sandman is a well-produced, fascinating experiment. That’s fitting, given that the original story — a comics series about the king of Dreams — was also a weird experiment.
Back in 1988, up-and-coming comics writer Neil Gaiman was offered the chance to reboot the Sandman, a classic DC Comics superhero who never quite made it big. The resulting juggernaut of a series, illustrated by more than two dozen artists over seven years, was a masterclass in mythopoetic storytelling, with barely any superheroes in it at all.
The Audible version is a remarkably faithful adaptation that keeps virtually every line of dialogue and narration from the first three volumes of The Sandman, while adding only what was minimally necessary to replace the comic’s imagery. I found that accuracy delightful, often pulling down the original comics off my shelves to check against them as I listened.
But it’s also the audiobook’s biggest weakness. The Sandman in audiobook is an adaptation where nothing has been lost in translation, except the opportunity to make a story about eternal stories more timeless.
The Sandman (audiobook) adapts the first three volumes of the complete 10-volume set DC Comics has been printing for decades now. This includes the comic’s opening arc, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” in which the King of Dreams is imprisoned, escapes, and recovers his artifacts of power; the second arc, “The Doll’s House,” in which he seeks out several rogue dreams who escaped his realm in his absence; and every one of the chapter-long stories included in those two volumes and the third.
Along the way, we meet a sprawling cast of characters, including a handful of Dream’s siblings, the Endless — members of a family of anthropomorphic personifications of ideas that start with the letter “D.” John Constantine, William Shakespeare, Lucifer Morningstar, and even a few superheroes and villains show up as well.
The audiobook itself is beautifully produced, and from the casting announcement, it should come as no surprise that the voices are, on the whole, extremely good. I was particularly pleased by Taron Egerton as John Constantine, Bebe Neuwirth as the Siamese Cat, and, of course, the chocolate-voiced James McAvoy as Dream. Ironically, the biggest sore thumb in the cast is Neil Gaiman himself, in the role of the Narrator.
I’ve listened to plenty of Gaiman’s audio work before, from books to short-story readings to radio plays, and enjoyed them. But in The Sandman, where each chapter kicks off with a Doctor Who-like musical fanfare, and actors are crying and hissing and roaring, his storybook monotone sticks out. I wanted a narrator to do more, well, illustrating with his tone. Ironically, the task of illustrating The Sandman has never fallen to Gaiman before.
Fortunately, Gaiman isn’t always the Narrator, and even when he is, the audiobook still has lovely stretches of achievement. The whole opening arc comes off great — the cameos from John Constantine, original Sandman Wesley Dodds, and superhero Mister Miracle are bright highlights. The series also shines in adaptations of Sandman’s single-issue tangent tales, like that of the accidental immortal Hob Gadling, the dreams of cats, and the original 1605 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It may seem odd to call The Sandman (audiobook) an adaptation. Audiobooks are, after all, translations: readings intended to preserve an unaltered text. But The Sandman isn’t a book, it’s a comic book, and its audiobook isn’t just translating textual words to spoken ones. It’s an adaptation masquerading as a translation — it’s a product of writers and audio artists making choices about how to present purely visual information. It would be a disservice to the many artists who crafted the comic to pretend otherwise. The flaw of the audiobook is that it’s an adaptation where the creators don’t make enough choices.
And that flaw is nowhere more conspicuous than in its word-for-word reproductions of The Sandman’s casual violence against queer people and women. These are plot-inessential background elements that easily could have been softened or diminished for a 2020 adaptation.
Take the character of Judy, a doomed lesbian woman on the outs with her girlfriend, who appears in one issue only. Did we need to keep the detail that the first queer couple in the story is physically abusive? Did we need the multiple fleeting, florid references to the brutalization of queer, underage, male sex workers? Did we need to create an audioscape of a man “nervously” raping the muse Calliope? Or to painstakingly, without edits, retell the plot-inessential one-shot story “Facade” — the moral of which can be read as “Suicide isn’t tragic if you’re freakish enough”? And could we have taken a second look, perhaps, at the suggestion that “it” is just as appropriate a pronoun as “he,” “she,” or “they” for Dream’s genderfluid sibling, Desire?
I would love to hear audio productions of later arcs of The Sandman, like “Season of Mists,” in which a conclave of gods petitions Dream for the keys to Hell; “Brief Lives,” in which Dream takes his little sister Delirium on a cross-country road trip to find their lost brother Destruction; or the tragic, never-ending story of Dream’s son, Orpheus.
But I’ll firmly pass if that means we’re going to be revisiting the “A Game of You” arc without any considered updates made to the character of Wanda, a trans woman whose identity is denied at every turn — including by a god of the feminine! — until she dies along with most of the cast and her bigoted family buries her in a suit and with a short haircut, under a stone with her deadname on it.
The Sandman was written and set between 1988 and 1996, and was undoubtedly informed by contemporary events like the AIDS epidemic in America and England. Its treatment of queer people as sympathetic victims, rather than deserving ones, can be seen as progressive in its time. In that context, it’s perhaps easier to dismiss the comic’s use of homophobic statements as villainous chatter, easier to file its depiction of queer lives as often brutish and short under the umbrella of “contemporary realism.”
But the Sandman audiobook is a fresh new creation, and the choice to re-create inessential instances of rape, homophobia, and queer tragedy — especially when working directly with the series’ original writer — simply reads as callous. Gaiman himself has said that he would change aspects of the comic if it were written today. Audible’s edition doesn’t.
If I’m being blunt about this, it’s out of love; a deep affection and nostalgia for The Sandman and the quality of its storytelling when the series is at its greatest. Gaiman and his collaborators — a murderer’s row of industry giants like Kelley Jones, Colleen Doran, Chris Bachalo, and more — crafted one of the very best stories about stories that the canon has ever seen. I want that story to live as long as possible.
In The Sandman, stories birth gods, shape worlds, and confer immortality in ways both supernatural and perfectly mundane, even historically accurate. If the series has a secondary theme, it is that immortal things — whether they are stories, gods, superheroes, lucky humans, or even the so-called Endless themselves — cannot resist change. In fact, one of the audiobook’s only improvisations is an opening intro that includes Gaiman’s own unofficial summary of the story. “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.”
And I just wish the Sandman audiobook had decided to change.