The Sandman finally comes to the screen on Netflix this month with writer Neil Gaiman adapting his own timeless comic book series. Gaiman’s voice from him forged an elaborate secondary world that continues to draw new readers to this day. But as the Netflix series’ staggering visuals attest, The Sandman would be nothing without the contributions of many great artists.
Many great comic book artists like Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell, and Dave McKean participated in The Sandman’s iconic run in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Each contributed their own unique artistic voice to the larger whole, making stories their own and creating indelible images the streaming series calls back to.
Sam Keith inaugurated The Sandman in 1989 along with Gaiman, but his contributions ended with issue six. Still, Keith’s distinctive art style, drawing heavily on influences like Bernie Wrightson, gave the series the same dark, moody quality that horror comics like House of Mystery evoked in the 1970s.
That makes sense as The Sandman leaned heavily on characters and concepts from House of Mystery, including Cain and Abel. Keith went on to create TheMaxx for Image Comics in the early 1990s, among the best indie comics ever made.
Kelley Jones’ idiosyncratic art style with exaggerated features and heavy blacks helped make several iconic Sandman story arcs. I have contributed to Season of Mists and Dream Country, where his unusual geometry lent well to the slightly off-kilter dreamscape. His Dream of him also stands out, a lithe, dark creature often buried in robes.
Jones also numbers among the best Batman artists ever, with his Dark Knight instantly recognizable for his enormously tall bat ears on numerous covers and interiors in the early 1990s.
Shawn McManus drew key story arcs including Fables and Reflections and A Game of You. His unique style of him, contrasting thick dark lines often with very thin and clean lines, creates a jolting but captivating visual language. He crafted many iconic Sandman moments, including the touching final sequence featuring Wanda and Death from The Sandman #37.
McManus also contributed to several Sandman spinoffs over the years, including The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales and Thessaly, Witch for Hire written by fables creator Bill Willingham.
Marc Hempel pencils the penultimate arc in the series, The Kindly Ones, running from issues #57-69. Hempel counts among the most unique artists in the entire run, with thin, flowing lines that render the characters in very stylistic ways. Scraggly and sharp lines compete often in the same body, producing something truly remarkable.
Hempel’s work almost verges on Art Deco in its construction, especially in issue #69, where Death finally comes for her brother Dream in the series’ most haunting and moving sequence.
Gary Amaro contributes sparingly to the series, drawing sometimes only pages in select issues, in particular from World’s End. But his pages of it rank with the best in the entire run. His realistic art style contrasts heavily with the more avant-garde styles of other artists, lending his issues a particular weight. That becomes most obvious in issue #56.
He pencils a spectacular sequence in the issue’s middle, where patrons at an unusual tavern witness an extraordinary procession foreshadowing a grim future for Dream. Amaro also contributed to other DC titles like The Books of Magic.
Choosing the best Sandman artists proves difficult, but little doubt exists about Charles Vess’s place in the conversation. Vess contributed his highly detailed and intricate drawings to several key issues, including the landmark “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from issue #19, which is the first and only comic book to ever win the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction.
Vess also capped the series by drawing The Wakethe final sequence of the 75-issue saga that pays homage to Morpheus and introduces a new Dream in his son Daniel.
Colleen Doran’s importance to The Sandman reflects in many ways. She provided some of the visual inspiration for Thessaly the witch and also contributed to major story arcs like A Game of You. Doran blends many different sensibilities in her work, including manga influences that make her work pop in either color or black and white.
She also showcases a talent for expression, a rare gift that creators like Alan Davis, among the best X-Men artists ever, share. Her immersive style of her makes the surreal world of Sandman eat alive.
Chris Bachalo made his comic book debut in The Sandman #12 but arguably his greatest contribution to the franchise comes in two mini-series featuring Death. Death: The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life both feature his quasi-animated style, leveraging anime-like lines with heavy blacks that make his Death truly distinctive among many great ones.
Bachalo contributes to many great runs at DC Comics and Marvel, including the best Doctor Strange comic storylines ever, as well as many more including the X-Men and Spider-Man.
Father Craig Russell
P. Craig Russell’s intricate, elaborate linework embellishes numerous stories with the saga. I have contributed to Fables and Reflectionss, as well as the memorable “Ramadan” story from issue #50, where his scrupulous detail brings to life ancient cityscapes and starscapes in lovely detail.
His detailed style, often using watercolor, gives the series a timeless quality far beyond the current fashion in comics at the time. Russell also provided the art for several subsequent spinoffs including Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters.
Jill Thompson lends her wildly inventive style to numerous arcs within the series. Her use of watercolors defines her superhero art and carves out a new path entirely within the Sandman series, especially in her work by Ella in Brief Lives, running from issues #40-49. She also did various issues in other arcs, including Fables and Reflections.
Thompson created an entirely new world within Sandman when she painted the Lil’ Endless in “The Parliament of Rooks” in issue #40. These doll-like versions of The Endless ultimately earned their own mini-series which Thompson illustrated.
Dave McKean’s extraordinary, avant-garde covers for the series made it immediately stand out on comic book shelves in 1989. His use of mixed media and interpretive images proved breathtaking for a genre largely locked into conventional norms. His work by him, which dorns every cover in the series, remains as new today as then.
Though McKean does not share any creative credit for Sandman, it’s impossible to imagine the character or the series without him. His visual language of him remains synonymous with the series thirty years later and likely always will.
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