DC Comics, Mystic Librarians, and the Devil
For part two of our breakdown of Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman, let’s go deep into the comic’s lore and discuss some fundamental changes to certain characters and to the entire universe in which this story takes place.
The DC Comics of It All
The Comic: When Sandman began publishing, there were no alternative, adult imprints of DC Comics. As such, Sandman takes place squarely within the larger DC continuity, sharing a universe with Batman, Superman, those lantern guys, those twins with the magic rings, and Jason Momoa. That connection is especially pronounced in “Preludes and Nocturnes,” which involves the Justice League and trips to Arkham Asylum. Major Sandman characters originate from other DC comics, including Dream’s raven, Matthew (who began life as a Swamp Thing character that Gaiman resurrected after Alan Moore killed him off), his brother, Destiny, and dream-folk including Lucien and the incarnations of Cain and Abel that appear in the Dreaming. The connection to the larger DC universe grew more and more tenuous as Sandman progressed, but even by the final volume, there were still cameo appearances by a caped crusader or two.
The Change: While DC characters that Gaiman folded into Sandman are still a part of the Netflix show, any other connection to the DC universe is gone. We see Superman and Static Shock cartoons playing in the background of multiple scenes, making clear that this show is set in the real world and we shouldn’t expect to see larger than life fantastical creations like Superman or Wonder Woman hanging around.
What It Means Going Forward: Losing the larger DC continuity shouldn’t affect the Sandman show in any meaningful way. Gaiman never warmed up to writing within a shared universe, and so Sandman grew further and further away from its DC roots as it continued. That said, even as its own distinct branch of the universe, Sandman did trade in a bit on its human characters knowing and accepting that they lived in a magical, fantastical world. It’s hard to express too much disbelief in whatever cosmic chicanery is happening when Superman is a regular fixture of the evening news. The human characters on the show don’t have that same unspoken buffer, which could impact the way certain stories are written and played.
The Comic: Originally a supervillain created decades before Sandman, John Dee, under the name “Doctor Destiny,” possessed a magic ruby that he used to control the dreams and nightmares of his victims. There was probably a bid or two at total world domination—you know, classic mad scientist stuff. Sandman retcons Dee’s history so that he became the son of Roderick Burgess’s mistress, born long after she abandoned the Magus. Driven insane by his possession of Dream’s all-powerful ruby, Dee was eventually foiled by the Justice League.
By the time Sandman catches up to him, Dee is an emaciated, skull-faced lunatic in Arkham Asylum whose only goal in life is to reclaim his precious ruby. Dee escapes Arkham, kills the innocent woman who gave him a lift, retrieves his ruby, and promptly goes on a rampage. He uses the ruby’s reality-warping powers to sadistically torture a diner full of innocent people before driving them to self-mutilation and suicide in “24/7,” one of the most terrifying and disturbing issues of any comic book ever. He then turns his attention to wreaking chaos and horror across the globe and the Dreaming. In a final bid to kill Morpheus once and for all, Dee destroys the ruby and unwittingly restores its power to the Dream King. Morpheus ultimately takes pity on the wretched Dee and brings him back to Arkham, unharmed but now totally, permanently (at least for a while) powerless.
The Change: As played by David Thewlis, Dee’s supervillain histrionics are exponentially turned down. He’s able to pass himself off as a functioning, if odd, person, at least until the ruby gets mentioned, at which point the lights go out in Thewlis’s eyes and he can only focus on the gem. As with the other villains this season, Dee is allowed to be a bit more sympathetic than he was in the books, with added depth and shading and more opportunities to better articulate their worldview. In Dee’s case, that’s a pathological aversion to lies and half-truths, stemming from his con-artist mother’s constantly shifting identity.
Rather than being an unrelated boy born to Burgess’s mistress years after she left him, Dee is now Roderick Burgess’s bastard son. In fact, it is Roderick’s demand that Dee’s mother abort the child that results in the scattering of Dream’s artifacts to a variety of different hosts.
As in the comics, Dee ends the story returned to prison, though this time Dream places him in a seemingly permanent slumber. Defeating Dee now functions as the completion of Morpheus’s revenge against the Burgess family, with both heirs left suspended forever in sleep.
What It Means Going Forward: Don’t expect to see much of John Dee again, but do expect to see plenty more stories about fathers who fail their sons and sons terrified to fail their fathers. If Sandman is at its core a story about change on levels both macro and micro, about how one era gives way to another, then kings and princes and fathers and sons are the lens through which Gaiman continuously illustrates these notions. The alterations to Dee’s backstory don’t change the narrative very much, but the changes place the character in a thematic group he wasn’t in before. The mercy Morpheus shows Dee now stands in stark contrast to the way he has handled other misguided sons reaching beyond their means and abilities.
The Comic: Dream’s most steadfast and devoted servant, Lucien is the keeper of the Dreaming’s infinite library, which contains not only every book ever written but also every book that has yet to be written. You know that novel you have in the back of your head, that you’re sure would be great if you could just find the time to write it? It exists in this library and Lucien’s probably read it. And he has some notes.
Despite his loyalty and capability, Lucien can’t help but cut a somewhat ridiculous and hapless figure, forever misplacing and losing track of various volumes from his charge. Dream may task Lucien with keeping the Dreaming running when he needs to run an errand in the waking world, but that’s the extent of delegation that Morpheus is comfortable with.
The Change: Lucienne’s (Vivienne Acheampong) position and role within the Dreaming is largely unchanged, but she’s just a bit more on the ball than her comic counterpart ever was, cool and collected where Lucien was often overwhelmed. The other dreams treat Lucienne as the de facto ruler of the Dreaming, a state of affairs that Morpheus knows about and deeply resents.
This comes to a head in the second half of the season when Dream and Lucienne engage in a brief feud, climaxing with Dream reprimanding Lucienne and ordering her back to the library. Shortly thereafter, a repentant Dream apologizes to Lucienne and even goes so far as to place her in charge of the Dreaming while he busies himself creating new dreams and nightmares at the fringes of the realm.
What It Means Going Forward: Lucien does not “feud” with Dream. It goes against every fiber of the librarian’s being to challenge his king, so much so that only the literally apocalyptic events of “The Kindly Ones” prove to be enough to trigger Lucien into finally giving Morpheus a piece of his mind. And while Morpheus can sometimes be coerced into admitting error (it just requires thousands of years of personal growth), he would never stoop so low as to actually apologize to one of his servants.
An assertive Lucienne and a chastened Dream are fundamentally different characters from the ones depicted in the comics, and it could have consequences for virtually every single story the show’s might tackle next.
If nothing else, Lucienne’s capability brings one of the subtextual questions of Sandman right out into the text: If the Dreaming can function without Dream, then what is the point of him? If the realm doesn’t need him, then why does he continue to rule? And if Lucienne is able to keep the Dreaming going, then wouldn’t everyone be better off with her in charge rather than the moody, temperamental Dream?
The last scene between the pair may not seem especially momentous, but it is quietly one of the most striking departures from Gaiman’s text. It remains to be seen if the show will quietly downshift away from the implications of that scene, or if they will continue to turn into the skid and let Lucienne evolve into an entirely different entity from Lucien, with an entirely different relationship with Dream. The ripple effects of such a change would have repercussions for the entire saga.
The Comic: When Dream arrives in Hell in search of his lost helmet, he is surprised to learn that Lucifer is no longer the sole ruler of the pit, but instead splits the kingdom with the demons Azazel and Beelzebub. Dream challenges unctuous demon Choronzon to a battle of wits for ownership of his helmet, which the Dream Lord wins thanks to the power of hope (so it is a strategy). When Lucifer attempts to threaten Morpheus with imprisonment within Hell, Morpheus challenges Lucifer with the immortal line, “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” A furious Lucifer allows Dream to leave, but swears to one day destroy him.
The Change: The Triumvirate stuff is jettisoned completely, with Lucifer Morningstar presented as the lone lord of Hell. Beyond that, Lucifer’s role is largely unchanged, save that it is Lucifer who enters the challenge against Dream—you don’t hire Gwendoline Christie to be Lucifer and then have her stand off to the side while someone else has the big contest against the leading man.
What It Means Going Forward: Having it be Lucifer who personally loses to Morpheus doesn’t really change their dynamic—Lucifer dislikes Dream regardless—although it does go a long way towards underlining for new audiences that Lucifer’s scheming against Dream isn’t just your standard issue Devil stuff. No, Lucifer truly, specifically hates this fucking guy.
The larger question surrounding Lucifer’s role in Sandman has less to do with the show itself than the fact that Sandman got beaten to the screen by its own spin-off. The fallout of Lucifer’s grand scheme to defy God and doom Morpheus became its own comic series, entitled Lucifer, and Lucifer got turned into a very popular TV show, which was also entitled Lucifer. Does Sandman bite the bullet and re-tell a story that was already explored across multiple seasons of a recent, very well-liked show?
The final scene of this season explicitly cues up “Season of Mist” as the next arc, so it’s hard to imagine the show breaking too far away from that text. But it wouldn’t surprise me if show-Lucifer gets a far more definitive ending than the comic book incarnation, who was free to enjoy further adventures that TV has already exhausted.