The art of adaptation: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic beginning with #8, more than 30 years ago now. It was pitched as an introductory issue for new readers, a catching of breath after a hectic opening storyline for the series, and simply featured the godlike Dream, the lord of the night, catching up with his sister, Death, as she goes about her duties. It’s also one of the best things Gaiman’s ever written, humane and heartbreaking. 

It’s exactly the sort of story I’d worry about seeing turned into Netflix “content” in this age of comics being adapted for everything.

I shouldn’t have worried. 

Episode 6 of the new Gaiman-endorsed Sandman series, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which adapts that eighth issue and another classic story, is one of the best bits of TV this year and greatest feats of comics adaptation I’ve seen. (I’m not alone in this slightly hyperbolic verdict.)  

“The Sound of Her Wings” walks the tricky line between rote recitation and making the story come to life. Pairing it with a take on Sandman #13, a stand-alone story of a man who’s granted immortality by Death and his once-a-century meetings with Dream, is a masterstroke. “The Sound of Her Wings” episode becomes a sweeping meditation on what gives life and death meaning, even if you’re an immortal being, on the little triumphs and failures that make up the time we get. 

Even though I’ve read these two comics so many times I practically had them memorised, the gorgeous adaptations still left me a choked-up sentimental fool at the end. 

Adaptations are funny things in comics. I still remember the giddy thrill of simply seeing Batman fight the Joker on the big screen in 1989, or of watching Spider-Man swing past actual skyscrapers. Us comics nerds were famished for any recognition in those long-ago pre-extended universe times, for any hint of seeing characters come to life. (This is probably why I actually saw the Howard The Duck movie in cinemas.) These days, dozens and dozens of comics are being adapted to different mediums, and novelty alone isn’t enough. 

But not every adaptation works. The 2009 Watchmen movie felt spot-on in a few ways, yet strangely hollow in others. It felt a bit like a cover version of the graphic novel, never quite capturing what makes Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story soar. 

Often you’ll get a mix-and-match of great comic book stories into film – Avengers: Infinity War takes elements from Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, and weaves a different tale around them. The Winter Soldier took a lot from Ed Brubaker’s excellent Captain America comics, but was a fairly loose actual adaptation of them. 

We’re starting to see more and more comics movies and films going beyond superheroes – which can only be a good thing. Some of them swing and miss – that Preacher series didn’t do a thing for me – but we still get gems like Sandman, Paper Girls, Resident Alien and Sweet Tooth. 

“The Sound of Her Wings” immediately had me running back to re-read the comics for the 500th time or so. In the end, I feel like an adaptation should be a guide, a pointer towards the source, rather than seen as an attempt to improve on it. 

I’d never say Sandman the series supersedes the comics it faithfully adapts, but it certainly complements them in ways I’d never … well, dreamed. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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