"The Sandman" was started back in 1989 by Neil Gaiman, and at first glance it was merely a graphic, messy, dark comic book put out by DC Comics to appeal to the more gorey- and occult-minded reader. And for the first few issues, it continued to look that way.

But the attentive reader soon knew better. By the second issue, Gaiman was already introducing Cain and Abel (yes, the Biblical ones) as regular characters in this series; Lucifer Morningstar and the rest of Hell were introduced not long after. The three Fates of Greek mythology showed up early on as well. The first "normal" characters were something else, too: a young lesbian, a druggie ex-girlfriend, an ex-cultist who met the wrong kind of woman. The main character, Dream, was a brooding and vaguely scary gentleman, but his sister Death was downright perky and enjoyable, along with dressing like a Brit goth and keeping goldfish as pets. Clearly, things weren't going to be usual comic-book fare in Gaiman's universe.

Gaiman was using "The Sandman" to tell a complicated story, one piece at a time, and simply chose to use comic books as his medium. Since comic books were and are perceived as "kiddie" entertainment in the United States (in contrast, manga was already a long-established way of doing this in Japan), this took some getting used to. It wasn't until an issue of "The Sandman" featuring William Shakespeare and the entire cast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 that everyone realized what was really going on.

"The Sandman" ran for seventy-five issues, plus a special, coming to an end in 1997. As a whole, it tells a tragic story about a nearly omnipotent "man", a cosmic king, who was limited by who he was, his sense of responsibility and propriety. His pride, long ago, caused him to make certain decisions, and centuries later these decisions came together to cause his unfortunate downfall, even after they had been reconciled for and his aloofness considerably moderated. The tragedy is all the sadder because we know, without a doubt, that if he were put in the same circumstances again he would still make the same decisions.

But it was the characters that made "The Sandman" what it was, and not just the main ones. Gaiman had, and still has, a deep fascination with religion and mythology throughout human history, and just about every major one worked its respectful way into "The Sandman" at one time or another. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the "ordinary people" -- humans who get caught up in the events surrounding Dream and his family, who live through those extraordinary circumstances, and still come out just as human on the other side -- but perhaps a little wiser for the experience. The parity reminds the reader that Dream and his kind are remarkably human in their ways, and that humans can be secretly magical in others.

Together with all of this, Gaiman created an entirely new mythology, one which has lived on long after he has stopped writing "The Sandman" and moved on to other projects. That alone is a testimony to the depth and intricacy of his creation, a proof of how real and alive his people and places were in the minds of his readers.

It's still possible to buy "The Sandman" collected in ten trade paperbacks; the interested reader is encouraged to start at the beginning and go through the series, book by book, with long pauses in between to mull over what has been uncovered so far. I still pick up my favorite "Sandman" stories from time to time, and every time I do I see some other subtlety that I never picked up before. These stories are definitely the sort that are worth keeping.