Probably everyone reading this knows, at least by repute, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
The Golden Age Sandman also has a certain rep simply by virtue of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon working on him. The earlier Golden Age version, when he wore a business suit and a gas mask, became retroactively memorable thanks to Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre.
The Bronze Age Sandman? Not so memorable. Or at least, not memorable in a good way.
This character debuted in 1974 in a one-shot by Simon and Kirby. “General Electric,” a Japanese WW II veteran with an electronic head, is secretly plotting against the U.S., using animatronic dolls he’s designed to kill, kill and kill again! A young orphan, Jed, who lives with his fisherman grandfather ,has one of the dolls, which puts him at risk. Fortunately the Sandman — apparently the Sandman of folklore, though they don’t spell it out — intervenes to stop General Electric, ultimately taking him down with his hypersonic magic whistle (think the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver amped up by about 50).
This goofiness is actually typical of Joe Simon’s storytelling in the Bronze Age. But for whatever reason (Kirby’s art? The famous Simon/Kirby team reunited? People who, like me, picked it up out of curiosity at anew superhero?) Sandman sold very well. So well that DC launched a series in 1975 (in those days it took a while to get sales figures). Michael Fleisher and Ernie Chan took over story and art but kept the tone as much like Simon and Kirby as possible (Kirby returned starting in #4). The Sandman, accompanied by the living nightmares Brute and Glob, battled various oddball threats intruding on people’s dreams, with Jed invariably dragged into peril at some point.
I bought the entire run, probably because I’d already bought #1 and I was obsessively completist in those days. I don’t remember really liking it, and rereading recently I don’t discern any hidden depths or charm. If my age had been single digits when it came out, I’d probably have loved it, so maybe that was the market they were shooting for. Judging by the letter columns, that wasn’t the readership they were getting and by the sixth and final issue, they’d acknowledged the magic whistle was too much of a deus ex machina; they were going to work harder on putting the Sandman in real peril.
At the same time, it looked like they didn’t want to shake things up too much. The last couple of issues had Jeb going to live with bullying, abusive relatives and their fat, selfish, bullying son. It definitely felt like they were still trying to appeal to a young audience. The final issue does have one funny moment, in which Dr. Spider warns the White House that he’s ready to use the Sandman’s whistle to blow up Washington; instead of terror, everyone just laughs him off as a crank.
#6 would have been the end of the Sandman. But then Roy Thomas worked General Electric and Sandman into his run on Wonder Woman. Up to that point there’d been no sign Sandman belonged in the DC Universe at all, but now he was part of it. WW #300 revealed he was actually Garrett Sandford, a psychologist tossed into the dream dimension to save the president from nightmares. Unable to return except briefly, he set up shop as the Sandman. In Thomas’ later series, Infinity, Inc., the son of the Golden Age Hawkman, Hector Hall, assumes the Sandman role and takes his wife Lyta (daughter of the Golden Age Wonder Woman) off to dwell with him in the “Dream Stream.”
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman got rid of this pretender to the throne, revealing Glob and Brute were two of Morpheus’ creatures who’d run rogue and set up their own pocket dream universe. Sandford, then Hall, had just been dupes (I don’t remember why). Morpheus sent Hector’s soul into the afterlife, though he eventually returned to become Dr. Fate for a while. Lyta, despite being a good character, got much worse used: she gave birth to Daniel, who replaced Morpheus as the incarnation of Dream, and nobody found anything interesting to do with her after that.
General Electric appeared a couple of years back in DC’s Young Animals imprint so who knows? Maybe even the forgotten Sandman will put in an appearance some day. But I won’t feel bad if he doesn’t.
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