Review by Peter Duncan
Audible, the Amazon audiobook subsidiary is now, by some measures, the world’s largest producer and provider of spoken word entertainment. Subscribers are given a choice of over half a million audiobooks, podcasts, and audio dramas from a growing list of publishers and broadcasters. In recent years, they have been creating their own content, including ever more ambitious full-cast dramas, some of which venture in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and comics.
Behind many of these is, Dirk Maggs, the writer and producer responsible for ground-breaking Batman and Superman radio-dramas at the BBC. His ventures for audible include four atmospheric stories set in the ‘Alien Universe’ and an The X-Files adventure that reunited Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in a brand-new adventure.
Maggs has also had a long association with his friend, Neil Gaiman, working closely with him to bring versions of Neverwhere, Stardust and Gaiman’s collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, to BBC radio. The success of these collaborations has led to possibly one of the most ambitious attempts to translate a comic to a different medium to date, and so on 15th July this year, we see the release of a full-cast audio dramatisation of the first twenty issues of The Sandman in a package lasting almost twelve hours.
Telling the story of Lord Morpheus, the personification and ruler of dreams, stories and all that is not real, The Sandman was a unique and critically acclaimed comic that ran for seventy-five issues between 1989 and 1996. What started as a revival of one of Jack Kirby’s final series for DC comics, turned into something vastly different. An experiment in comic storytelling that mixed mythology with horror and the darker side of comic-book culture.
Revered as one of the most sustained sequences of quality and inventiveness in comics, adapting the Sandman to audio was always going to be a difficult balancing act. There are two, potentially quite different, audiences. Fans are likely to judge harshly any deviation from the original comics with voice actors running the risk of alienating fans who may already have very definite views on the voices of the characters.
At the same time, The Sandman was always embedded within the wider DC universe, often playing with the clichés and tropes that were familiar to its readers. How would these go down with the non-comics readers who make up the majority of Audible customers?
Maggs obviously has huge respect for the material. He first approached Neil Gaiman about an audio adaptation almost thirty years ago and he has remained true to the source material throughout. His choice of Gaiman, with his rich syrupy voice, to act as narrator adds an authenticity to the adaption. His respect, even reverence, for the original dialogue means that in some episodes, Gaiman’s story and, words, remain almost untouched.
There has been no skimping on the quality of the cast. The first voice you hear after Gaiman’s introduction and some short credits is that of Anton Lesser, Qyburn in Game of Thrones and an award-wining voice actor best known for his readings of Charles Dickens and his performance as Falco on the excellent BBC radio series. With actors of his calibre, along with names like Sue Johnston, Joanna Lumley and Reginald D Hunter, all playing minor roles, the faith Audible has in this production is shown in their level of investment in talent.
James McAvoy plays Morpheus, a much more animated and vivid performance than I’d expected for the character. The Sandman here is more ‘ordinary, than the cold, detached voice I’d personally imagined when reading the comic. It was a voice that took a little bit of time to get used to but ultimately won me over.
Michael Sheen and Riz Ahmed as Lucifer and The Corinthian are perfectly cast, but it took longer for me to accept Kat Dennings as Death and Taron Egerton as Constantine.
My only reservations on casting come with some of the non-human cast; not so much the actors, but the special effects used to create inhuman voices. The rasping, almost electronic, distortion used on the voices of The Demon, Etragon and other denizens of hell seemed over the top, especially for a series where the forces of supernatural evil seem always seemed more human than monster. Representing the worst of humanity, rather than driving the cattle towards sin.
(Interestingly, since the review copies went out, Dirk tells he toned down some of the voice treatments in the later mixes).
Just occasionally, the acting was also a little over-the-top for me, as if the cast suddenly remembered this was a comic-book adaptation; but in general the strength of the story and the writing were sufficient to pull things back.
Inevitably, with the huge variety in storytelling techniques and styles employed by Gaiman in what was, a groundbreaking series, some stories lent themselves better to audio adaptation than others. The opening set of episodes, dealing with the Sandman’s capture, escape and recovery of his ‘totems of power’, at times fell a little way between a radio drama and a reading and it was in these episodes that my reservations with the voice effects used were strongest. Nevertheless, everything else worked well and the story arc acted, as it did in the comics, as an introduction of what was to come.
The Dr. Destiny sequence, especially the adaptation of the horrible, ‘24 hours’ which is among the most chilling and cruel 28 minutes of audio drama I’ve ever heard, moved things up a gear. Someone once said that they liked radio (audio) better than TV because, “the pictures are better”. Here, the pictures conjured up by the actors are much, much worse than could have been depicted in the comic and all the more disturbing as a result.
Later, the introduction of ‘Death’ in ‘The Sound of Her Wings,’ quickly won me over from initial reservations and was charming, sad and a perfect, palate-cleanser for what was to come.
It is, however, with the last three episodes that the series really hits its stride. ‘Dream of a 1,000 Cats’, a remarkable story told from the perspective of a feline pet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare and his troop of players perform their play to Auberon, Titania and Puck, were favourite issues from the comic and they remain favourites here. It’s difficult not to miss Charles Vess’s art, however.
But it was Samantha Morton’s performance as the tragic, Element Girl, in ‘Facade,’ an adaptation of issue 20 from the original series that really stood-out. It deals with a minor character from the DC universe, a female version of Metamorpho and examines what the real-world consequences of a transformation to an inhuman, immortal, and freakish super-hero would be. This is about self-loathing, desperation and hopelessness and even in its original form was a ‘talking heads’ piece. Perfect for audio.
Audio drama has a lot in common with comics, both are movies for the mind, leaving the consumer to fill in gaps. With comics, the tone of voice and movement is missing, with audio it’s the pictures that are imagined. Perhaps that’s why they are so successful at immersing the reader/listener in a story.
For comics fans who have not dipped their toe into the world of audio drama. This might be a good place to start, and there is so much more waiting for you out there.
For fans of audio dramas who are also fans of comics, this is a must. It isn’t perfect, I would, personally, have preferred a little less reverence for the original comics and something new added from time to time, and there is a very slight tendency to overdoing the voice effects in places, but those are minor gripes. It also took a while to get used to, and it was on a second listening that I really appreciated it. The Sandman was a revolutionary and thought-provoking comic. You either loved it or hated it. If you loved it, I think you’ll love this.
• The Sandman is an Audible original, by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs and is available from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) or from Audible.com/Sandman from 15th July 2020. Told in twenty episodes it is 10 hours, 54 minutes long. Price £32.09, or free as part of a 30-day trial subscription. Monthly subscription price following initial period, which includes one book per month, is £7.99
A box set of the Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman is on its way from DC Comics in September.
Weaving together ancient mythology, folklore, and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision, Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death. The Sandman universe is a master-creation following Dream, also known as Morpheus, lord of the Dreaming – a vast, hallucinatory landscape that houses all the dreams of any and everyone who has ever existed. Gods, demons, mortals, and everything in between. All dreamers visit the Dreaming and have an opportunity to teach Morpheus some surprising lessons.
After being captive for 70 years, Morpheus will have to go on a journey to reclaim his objects of power and bring order to the Dreaming…
Peter Duncan is editor of Sector 13, Belfast’s 2000AD fanzine and Splank! – an anthology of strips inspired by the Odhams titles, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! He’s also writer of Cthulhu Kids. Full details of his comics activities can be found at www.boxofrainmag.co.uk