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When he first appeared in the summer of 1939 (in Adventure Comics #40), the Sandman was only the fourth superhero in comics history, and the third published by DC Comics (then National Publications), after Superman and Batman. However, he did not possess any superpowers. Like Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, Wesley Dodd was a millionaire playboy who put on a costume to confront hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells, armed only with his fists and wits—and a rather handy gas-gun. Dodd’s costume, such as it was, consisted of a purple cape, a slouch hat, a smart suit, and a gold gas mask (necessary because his modus operandi was to gas his foes into slumber with the pull of his trigger). Unusually for superheroes of the period, the Sandman’s elegant society girlfriend, Dian (also Diane) Belmont, knew his secret identity and had a habit of helping him out on assignments, invariably dressed in a diaphanous ball gown.
The men responsible for these early episodes were prolific writer Gardner Fox and the young, but talented, artist Bert Christman. Sadly, Christman left the strip to seek adventure of his own as one of General Claire Chenault’s legendary Flying Tigers, and was later killed while flying over China in the early days of World War II. His replacement was the equally talented Creig Flessel, but despite the strip being one of the best-crafted features of the era, DC decided to spice it up by giving the Sandman a yellow and purple superhero costume and a young sidekick named Sandy Hawkins. A few issues later, the transformation was complete when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, recently defected from Marvel Comics, took over the creative reins (with issue #72) and turned it into an all-action slugfest.
The Simon and Kirby Sandman punched first and thought later, and the strip became a frenetic display of all-out battles and daredevil heroics. Unlike other wartime features, the Sandman and Sandy generally fought organized crime and the occasional Norse god, rather than the Third Reich. The strip was the cover feature of Adventure Comics throughout the war, but its quality suffered when its creative team was drafted (as creative teams often were at the time), and in February 1946, it became one of the first casualties of the peacetime comics slump and lost its place to Superboy. At the peak of his popularity, the Sandman was featured (in both his guises) in comics such as World’s Finest, World’s Fair, and as a member of the Justice Society of America, in All Star Comics; it was the latter group that would prove to be his savior.
While the Silver Age (1956–1969) superhero boom of the 1960s saw a whole range of new characters, it also revived some of the old favorites, and for many years, the Justice Society appeared in an annual crossover with the Justice League of America. Between 1966 and 1974, the Sandman was a frequent member of the Justice Society in those team-ups, though it was always in his earlier, gas-mask costume. The last of those stories revealed, somewhat implausibly, that for many years Sandy had been lurking around, transformed into a giant sand creature. Things got even stranger for our hero when Simon and Kirby created another Sandman (published in January 1974 as the one-shot titled Sandman #1 and later picked up as a brief mid-1970s series), a yellow-suited hero who lived “somewhere between heaven and earth” in a secret hideout where he monitored people’s dreams. Complete with monstrous assistants, Brute and Glob, this Sandman battled the likes of Dr. Spider, the Sealmen, General Electric, and various frog people. Perhaps inevitably, it was just a short-lived experiment but it served, some years later, as the inspiration for yet another Sandman, who premiered in 1989.
This radical reinvention, written by Neil Gaiman, was a fantasy series starring Morpheus (the Sandman of the title, also known as Dream, the Prince of Stories), an angelic-looking girl named Death, and numerous other characters from the realm of dreams. While Morpheus had little to do with previous incarnations of the Sandman character, the comic’s enormous critical and commercial success—Sandman #19 won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991—rekindled interest in the character. The Sandman comic sold more than 1 million copies per year, and Gaiman was heralded as the creator who reignited a medium, with Norman Mailer proclaiming, “Along with all else, Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it’s about time.” This excellence of writing, in fact, attracted acclaimed guest-talent, including Clive Barker, Sam Keith, and Todd McFarlane. Ten Sandman short-story collections have appeared as of 2004; and Warner Bros. has optioned Sandman for a movie. Though the series ended in 1996, Gaiman has returned to it for such special events as the hardback collection Endless Nights (2003), and a number of spinoffs by other creators have also appeared.
In 1993, the original Sandman returned in the Sandman Mystery Theatre comic. This Sandman spin-off series effectively retold the story of Wesley Dodd and Dian Belmont from their very first adventures, and featured guest stars such as Blackhawk and Hourman. It ran for seventy issues—much longer, ironically, than its 1940s forerunner—and ended in 1999 with Dodd and Belmont heading off for war torn Europe. As if that wasn’t enough, yet another Justice Society revival starred an elderly Dodd, still wearing the gas mask, in modern-day adventures, one of which told of how he died. In the 2000s he has been replaced by “Sand” (actually an incarnation of sidekick Sandy!), a gas-masked hero who can transform into his namesake substance (like the Marvel Comics Spider-Man villain also named Sandman); a sure sign of a concept and character durable enough to withstand the sands of time. —DAR