This week saw the 20th anniversary of the release of the first issue of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's now-classic fantasy series that rewrote the rules of mainstream comics more than once in its' 75-issue run. Without Sandman, we may never have seen comics like Fables, Y: The Last Man or The Invisibles... but on the other hand, we probably wouldn't have had to suffer through the CGI Beowulf movie, either. To celebrate Morpheus' 20th birthday, we look at five ways in which entertainment is different because of comics' favorite dream god.It may sound like hyperbole to say that The Sandman changed the face of entertainment, and it is, to an extent - but there's no denying that Sandman changed the face of the comic book industry, and that comics are one of the more dominant forces in pop culture these days (Don't believe me? My friends Iron Man and The Dark Knight may be able to convince you). The series also made a star out of writer Neil Gaiman, allowing him to step into the roles of screenwriter and New York Times-bestselling novelist, and also inspired careers for people as disparate as Tori Amos and writer G. Willow Wilson. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here're the five ways in which I think that Sandman changed the worlds we watch, read about and imagine today: It Brought Mainstream Comics Into The Mainstream Culture. By 1988, American comics were gaining a measure of critical acceptance thanks to the now-near-mythical trifecta of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus - but it took Gaiman and Sandman to bring together the populism of the former two and the gravity of the latter to create a series that Norman Mailer called "comic strip for intellectuals." Gaiman's creation of a comic that had the pop-cultural cache of coming from the same publishers as Superman and Batman, yet relied more on highbrow myth than knowledge of the history of Krypton, and asked more of its readers than just the ability to tell men in tights apart, unknowingly capitalized on a trend for baby-boomers to look for more depth in the medium of their youth. By following his own interests and obsessions, Gaiman accidentally created a comic that was familiar in format (32 pages, color, monthly), but unfamiliar in the most thrilling way to readers who wanted something more. It Wasn't About Superheroes. Primarily amongst the ways in which the series was unfamiliar was its lack of superheroes as we'd come to know them. Yes, superheroes appeared in the series on occasion, but the series abandoned the tropes and cliches of what most people considered mainstream comics to be (while, in turn, bringing in and building on a lot of influences from long-forgotten or indie comics), proving to publisher DC Comics that a comic aimed at an adult audience, without a superhero lead, could not only sell, but gain critical acceptance akin to Watchmen or Dark Knight. Without Sandman, there would have been no Vertigo imprint at DC, and series like We3, The Invisibles, 100 Bullets, Y The Last Man, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, User and many, many more would never have seen print. (There's a side argument to made for the success of Sandman being responsible for American publishers continuing to bring British writers like Mark Millar and Warren Ellis into the industry, and those writers' influence on superheroes being directly responsible for the success of movies like Iron Man and X-Men, but I'm not sure that's one I'm willing to make here. However, it's definitely there if you want it...)
It Took Urban Fantasy Out Of The Genre Ghetto. With his liberal use of sources, Gaiman may not have been breaking all-new ground with his mix of magical realism and myth and the world we know (I am still surprised that Jonathan Carroll never pointed out that the fifth "book" of Sandman, "A Game Of You," is pretty much his own novel Bones Of The Moon with some minor additions), but the high profile nature of the series - especially as it continued, and started garnering praise from Mailer, Stephen King and many others - exposed people to a use of fantasy tropes that avoided elves and goblins - Well, except when it didn't - and integrated it into their lives before television shows like Buffy and The X Files did so on an ever larger scale. It Reintroduced The Auteur Comicbook Theory. For the first time in mainstream history, when the series creator left a successful ongoing regular book, the book left with him; even Alan Moore's groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing had been followed, the next month, by a new writer. This was, in part, because DC had learned from the mistakes that had driven Moore from the company, and was eager to keep Gaiman around for future projects - and, to that end, had actually granted him a certain amount of say over where and when the characters could be used again in future projects. The lack of a second writer to ruin the series' good name - or, possibly, outshine Gaiman's run on the character - has given the series two particular qualities: Firstly, a definitive ending, and secondly, the knowledge that this story was firmly and distinctively Gaiman's. (To that end, the new Sandman: The Dream Hunters miniseries that commemorates the series' birthday feels "wrong," in a way, because it's only adapted from a Gaiman story, as opposed to being 100% written by him.) It Looked Nothing Like Other Comics. Outside of its groundbreaking qualities in terms of stories, it's impossible to ignore what cover artist and designer Dave McKean brought to the series. His covers, whether they were paintings, constructions, early experiments in the use of Photoshop or whatever were as important to the series as Gaiman's writing - and each one changed the perception of what a comic cover could look like even more. Taking influence from fine art and contemporary design, McKean threw out the conventions of what makes a comic book cover (The title character must always be on the cover, the logo must always be in the same place) to create beautiful pieces on a regular basis... and confuse people who thought they knew what comics were supposed to look like.