The sand man finally hits the screen on Netflix this month with writer Neil Gaiman adapting his own timeless comic book series. Gaiman’s voice forged an elaborate secondary world that continues to attract new readers to this day. But as the Netflix series’ stunning visuals attest, The sand man would be nothing without the contribution of many great artists.
Many great comic book artists like Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell and Dave McKean have participated in The Sandman iconic run in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Each brought their own unique artistic voice to the larger whole, appropriating stories and creating indelible images that the streaming series recalls.
Sam Keith inaugurated The sand man in 1989 with Gaiman, but his contributions ended with number six. Still, Keith’s distinctive art style, drawing heavily on influences such as Bernie Wrightson, gave the series the same dark, brooding quality of horror comics like House of Mystery mentioned in the 1970s.
It makes sense like The sand man leaned heavily on characters and concepts from House of Mystery, including Cain and Abel. Keith then created The Maxx for Image Comics in the early 1990s, among the best independent comics ever made.
Kelley Jones’ idiosyncratic art style with exaggerated strokes and heavy blacks helped make several Sandman story arcs iconic. He contributed to Mist Season and Dreamland, where its unusual geometry lent itself well to the slightly offbeat dreamscape. His dream also stands out, a supple, dark creature often buried in robes.
Jones is also among the best Batman artists of all time, with his Dark Knight instantly recognizable for his extremely tall bat ears on many early 1990s covers and interiors.
Shawn McManus drew key story arcs, including Fables and Reflections and A game of you. His unique style, contrasting thick dark lines often with very thin, clean lines, creates a jolted yet captivating visual language. He created many iconic Sandman moments, including the touching final sequence featuring Wanda and Death from The sand man #37.
McManus has also contributed to several Sand seller fallout over the years, including The Sandman Presents: Taller Tales and Thessaly, witch for rent written by Fables creator Bill Willingham.
Marc Hempel draws the penultimate arc of the series, The good ones, from issues 57-69. Hempel is one of the most unique artists in the entire series, with thin, flowing lines that render the characters very stylistically. Sleek, clean lines often compete in the same body, producing something truly remarkable.
Hempel’s work almost borders on Art Deco in its construction, especially in issue #69, where Death finally comes for his brother Dream in the series’ most haunting and moving sequence.
Gary Amaro contributes sparingly to the series, sometimes drawing only pages in selected issues, including The end of the world. But its pages rank among the best in the entire series. His realistic art style stands in stark contrast to the more avant-garde styles of other artists, giving his issues particular weight. This becomes more evident in issue #56.
He draws a dramatic sequence in the middle of the number, where patrons of an unusual tavern witness an extraordinary procession heralding a bleak future for Dream. Amaro has also contributed to other DC titles like books of magic.
Picking the best Sandman artists proves difficult, but there’s no doubt where Charles Vess fits into 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 to win the World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction.
Vess also capped off the series by drawing The alarmthe final sequence of the saga in 75 numbers which pays homage to Morpheus and introduces a new Dream to his son Daniel.
Colleen Doran’s importance to The Sandman is reflected 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 mixes many different sensibilities in his work, including manga influences that make his work stand out in color or black and white.
She also exhibits a talent for expression, a rare gift shared by creators like Alan Davis, among the best X-Men artists of all time. His immersive style makes the surreal world of Sand seller revive.
Chris Bachalo made his comic book debut in The Sandman #12, but arguably his greatest contribution to the franchise is in two miniseries featuring Death. Death: the high cost of living and The time of your life both feature his near-animated style, taking advantage of anime-like lines with heavy blacks that make his death truly distinctive among many greats.
Bachalo contributes to many great runs at DC Comics and Marvel, including the best Doctor Strange comic book stories, as well as many more, including the X-Men and Spider-Man.
Father Craig Russell
P. Craig Russell’s intricate and elaborate line art embellishes many stories with the saga. It contributes to Fables and Reflections, as well as the memorable “Ramadan” story from issue 50, where its scrupulous detailing brings ancient cityscapes and starscapes to life with lovely detail.
His detailed style, often using watercolor, gives the series a timeless quality far beyond the current fashion for comics at the time. Russell also provided the art for several later spinoffs, including endless nights and The dream hunters.
Jill Thompson lends her wildly inventive style to many of the show’s arcs. Her use of watercolor defines her superhero artistry and charts an entirely new path in the Sandman series, particularly in her work in Brief Lives, running from issues 40 to 49. She has also done 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 eventually earned their own illustrated miniseries. by Thompson.
Dave McKean’s extraordinary, cutting-edge covers for the series immediately made it stand out on comic book shelves in 1989. His use of mixed media and interpretive imagery proved breathtaking for a genre largely locked in conventional standards. His work, which graces every cover of the series, remains as fresh today as it was then.
While McKean shares no creative credit for Sandman, it’s impossible to imagine the character or the series without him. Its visual language remains synonymous with the series thirty years later and probably always will.
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