The Sandman and Psychoanalysis

dave Mockaitis

In 1975, Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published in the film journal Screen. A few years later in 1981, Mulvey published “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel In the Sun.‘” Since the publication of these seminal texts, psychoanalytic film theory has become a force to be reckoned with. Whether or not a film scholar accepts Mulvey’s Freudian and Lacanian position to cinema, one still has to deal with the theory. Among the theoretical insights provided by Mulvey was the idea that cinema provides two different types of pleasure from looking. The first type of pleasure is that of scophophilic voyeurism. This is often the function of sexual instinct and describes how male viewers look at women on the screen. The second type of pleasure detailed by Mulvey is that of scopophilic narcicissism. This is the function of the ego libido, the pleasure of identification, and makes up the comfort zone of the Lacanian Imaginary or the Freudian pre-Oedipal. Mulvey is quick to point out that these two types of visual pleasure interact and overlay each other, yet she also deals with them as dichotomous concepts.

While in “Visual Pleasures,” Mulvey states that her theory is only relevant to film because of the cinematic apparatus, in “Afterthoughts,” she expands her argument to include “popular narratives, whether film, folk-tale or myth.” Mulvey first saw her theory as applying only to the cinematic apparatus because of the spatial arrangement of the theater. The viewer sits in the dark which often fosters a sense of solitude and gazes at a screen. Since the projector is so far behind the seated viewers, the unfolding of the narrative is significant. Not only does the screen seem to display unknowing “people” while the spectator voyeuristically watches, but the physical projection of the image mirrors the psychological process of projecting repressed desires onto the actors within the diegesis. In “Afterthoughts” though, the diegesis becomes less important as Mulvey expands her argument to interrogate the structure of narrative itself. Based on a more detailed reading of Freud’s theory of femininity and an understanding of V. Propp’s Morphhology of the Folktale, Mulvey refocuses her argument more around Freud’s metaphoric opposition of active/passive. A woman then, need not always be subjugated at the cinema, for now it is possible for her to relate to male protagonists and resist the usually fetishized image of the female.

Mulvey’s revision then, opens up the possibility for psychoanalytic film theory to be practiced in places other than cinema. What differentiates this type of theory from basic Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is Mulvey’s attendance to issues of visual media and the processes of identification and fetishization. The comic book, then, becomes a powerful site as it makes use of many similar cinematic conventions. The processes of framing and identification parallel the same film techniques. I attempt then to read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman with Mulvey in mind, analyzing the ways in which the writers and artists make use of scopophilic narcicissism and framing. The workings of cinematic framing become more difficult to conceptualize when they exist outside the cinema. By studying the workings of framing within the comic book, I hope to come to a deeper understanding of the application of psychoanalysis to visual social texts.


In 1988, DC Comics published the first issue of The Sandman. Written by Neil Gaiman, it was his third comic series but his first to really achieve mass popularity (Berger). While it was published by DC, it attempted to break out of the “comics for kids” mold. Employing a vast knowledge of world mythology, art history, and pop culture, Gaiman created what Charles Murray of The Independent has called “a story about story. A myth about myth. A postmodern metafiction with word balloons” (Gaiman Mists back cover). It also became one of the most significant contributions to the genre of “adult comics.” A genre that previously had included only graphic violence and explicit eroticism, now could boast an adult comic without adult themes. Rather, the story of the Sandman is an often intertextual look at late 20th century life. Soon, The Sandman became the anchor for Vertigo Comics, DC Comics’ new subsidiary publisher of “graphic novels.” Combining high quality and often mixed-media art, Vertigo comics are often a bit more costly than DC’s traditional line, yet they often deal with more significant issues than those typically portrayed in DC’s original superhero type comics. The Sandman, and several other Vertigo titles were soon released as trade paperbacks where eight comics are published in a single volume, allowing for the comic to transcend page constraints often imposed on the individual 20-some page comic. This new type of publishing also allowed for the narrative to unwind a bit slower than usually occurs, often imbuing the characters with more depth than traditional comics and giving the writers and artists the ability to create vast, sprawling worlds.

In The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, the first trade paperback including the first eight issues of The Sandman, the reader first encounters the Sandman, who is also known as Dream. A detailed analysis of the first issue reveals many instances of scopophilic narcissism as understood by Laura Mulvey. This type of pleasure in looking comes from the viewer (in our case the reader) and the way in which that reader identifies with the image. This form of narcissism is closely related to the Freudian pre-Oedipal phase or the Lacanian Imaginary, a state that precedes the formation of one’s subjectivity and is understood as a time of fullnes and completeness, what Derrida terms the metaphysics of presence. In looking, Mulvey states that this is a function of the ego libido, and relates this way of looking with how a male viewer sees a male protagonist on the screen. Rather than competition or sexual object, the male viewer sees the male protagonist as an idealized version of himself. The Sandman is a unique character for a Mulvey-type analysis because of his androgyny. Often compared on world wide web fansites to Robert Smith of The Cure, when in the shape of a human being, the Sandman takes the shape of a frail-looking, pale-faced man. Thus, female readers do not necessarily have to shift “restlessly in borrowed transvestite clothes” because the Sandman’s masculinity is neither threatening nor strongly idealized (Mulvey Afterthoughts 33).

In differentiating between the two ways in which types of scopophilia are rendered in cinema, Mulvey makes a special distinction between dimensional types of representation. Fetishizing shots such tend to be unidimensional as they reduce a woman to her constitutive parts. Shots with more depth and dimension to them, then, are used for the processes of identification. These shots require more depth because of the need to create a scene which more closely mirrors reality which in turn creates a stronger capacity for identification among the spectator. “Sleep of the Just,” the first installment of The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, often uses similar types of drawings to create a strong possibility for identification with the Sandman. Although the reader is quite unsure of who the Sandman is and what he stands for, one gets the sense that he’s one of the good guys due to his representation in this way. We first encounter the Sandman on page seven. Up until that point, we are involved in the story of Roderick Burgess, a very rich man. Burgess is involved in summoning Death in order that his life never end. All of the depictions including Burgess and the other characters in the comic are fairly two-dimensional. There is little movement or even facial detail save the actions of Burgess in his attempt to summon Death. However, the reader already knows that Burgess is a shady character from other establishing information. When the Sandman (also known as Dream, the brother of Death) is summoned, it is a powerful scene [figure 1]. He emerges from a circle drawn on the ground with his cape blowing up towards the ceiling. It is a dramatic shot with smoke and dramatic lighting appearing out of seemingly nowhere intensifying the movement in the scene. Also, this picture is the only one so far in the course of the comic which is not contained within a panel. The flowing cape provides an interesting problematization to the understanding of a comic book through film theory. Since a comic book is made up of static drawings, movement becomes much more difficult to observe than it would in a moving picture. However, in The Sandman, the inclusion of elements of movement heighten the three-dimensionality and thus the reader’s possibility for identification with the Sandman.

The representation of the Sandman takes on an air of three-dimensionality in other ways as well. After the Sandman has been summoned and Burgess realizes that it is not Death as he had hoped, the Sandman is imprisoned in a glass sphere [figure 2]. Thus, images of the Sandman show him as well as reflected shadows of the scene outside the sphere. This allows for a much greater degree of depth to the image. Conversely, scenes shown from the Sandman’s point of view result in a flattening of characters. By this point in the comic, the readers have come to invest more in the Sandman’s point of view, and to relate this lack of depth in other characters to the metaphorical lack of depth within their “characters” [figure 3]. On page 30, the Sandman emerges form his glass prison in a whirl of wind, light, and clouds. The Sandman’s head is tilted backwards in a pose of strength [figure 4]. This view also has great deal of movement and color that references a three-dimensionality. Scenes of dark triumph such as this one are common in the series, and it is the specifically dark nature of the triumph that makes the process of identification with the Sandman an interesting issue. The typical comic book fan is often imagined as a teenage male experiencing the hormonal and emotional angst of adolescence. Thus, it makes sense that a lot of the Sandman’s appeal could be related to this dark triumph. It references a strength that does not necessarily remove one from their situation and symbolizes a transformation from angst to power. Sandman is thus an empowering character, and it is this image of empowerment which is created through making sense of filmic processes of scopophilic narcissism.


Perhaps the greatest difference between a comic book and the films theorized by Laura Mulvey comes from the way in which the filmic diegesis differs from the comic book panel. Indeed, there is so much freedom in the comic book panel that it becomes difficult to know whether to consider the individual panel or the complete page (or even double page spread) as comparable to the diegesis. The Sandman masterfully works with different configurations of panels and full page artwork to create a context in which individual panels take on a greater meaning. Scott McCloud points to the way in which panel shapes control the way in which the comic book is read and understood in his book, Understanding Comics. This changes the reading experience and is often responsible for shaping the reader’s understanding of comic time. However, what remains untheorized by McCloud is the dramatic ways in which the borders and framing can connote ruptures not only in time, but in the actual understanding of the narrative. In “Sleep of the Just,” the creative uses of framing and paneling allow for a more contextual understanding of the comic book.

The way in which Roderick Burgess’s house forms a full page frame more graphically represents the seriousness and significance of the actions which are taking place in the house. On the first page of the comic, the reader sees a brilliant blue sky and front porch of Burgess’s home forming the backdrop for the page [figure 5]. On the page, seven panels document Dr. John Hathaway’s arrival at Burgess’s house. Hathaway has come to deliver the last element needed for the ritual. The omnispresence of the house in each of the seven panels suggests that there is something very significant about this landscape. A few pages later, the reader sees the gate of Burgesses house during the night forming the page backdrop [figure 6]. Within the page are four panels which show various individuals around the world. Their placement within the foreboding frame of Burgesses house at night conveys the message that their lives will be changed dramatically. Gaiman follows these characters throughout the comic, noting that indeed their lives have changed because of Burgess’s home. Also, many of the characters and their descendants will form the basis for subsequent issues of The Sandman. The juxtaposition of panels upon larger frames is a tool that has often not been used in the history of cinema. Sometimes, scenes are framed linearly through an establishing shot and then a cut to another scene. However, this is not as obvious as the juxtapositions possible in comic books. Also, the juxtaposition may not be fully understood until one thinks through the movie again or reviews it. Comic books however have the possibility of using these types of juxtaposition to create an atmosphere that does not necessarily hinder the flow of the narrative. Of course, the technology exists for these types of filmic representation, and their use could be an example of the type of representation which Mulvey favors in replacing the style of classical cinema. Although Mulvey’s suggestions often tend to be prescriptive in directing an artist’s choices, this use of framing can be useful. In reading these comic book images, one becomes conscious of the fact that they are not watching reality. In other words, a movie’s use of this type of juxtaposition could make more visible the director’s work, breaking down the illusion of reality afforded by the camera.

A second instance of creative framing comes in The Sandman‘s use of borders. Pages two and four through seven are enhanced by a very intricate border [figure 7]. It resembles ornately carved wood and allows the reader to understand the events taking place within the border as different from comic book reality. On pages four through seven, Roderick Burgess begins his ritual to summon Death. Thus, the border comes to partition this part of the Sandman narrative off as unique, indeed for the reader’s purposes, it is the creation of the Sandman. The border does more though. In addition to separating this part of the comic, it serves to intensify the liminality of these actions. The Sandman is one of the seven Endless (Death, Dream, Desire, Delirium, Destiny, Desruction, and Despair) who reside beyond the mortal realm. In summoning Dream, Burgess is walking a thin line between material reality and the Dreaming, the Sandman’s realm. The border returns later when Dream confronts Burgess’s son about imprisoning him for so long. The Sandman plans to punish him for his actions, as he took over as the Sandman’s keeper after Burgess died. The border again shows liminality as the Sandman is about to make a change in a mortal’s life by punishing Burgess’s son with eternal waking.

What comes from this reading, then, is the fact that contemporary theory of comic books as exemplified by McCloud is not enough to facilitate a complete reading of comic book narratives. McCloud provides an excellent history of the comic book and understanding of the way in which it structures time. However, attention to only patriarchal ideology like Mulvey or time, like McCloud limits the interpretations of texts. Like a great deal of art, part of The Sandman‘s appeal is its ability to play with conceptual and metaphysical understandings of the world. And although art and ideology are always somehow intertwined, to read all art as exemplifying ideology is to remove art’s ability to challenge contemporary assumptions about life and reality. A more rigorous theory is necessary to understand art which attempts to transcend both technological and ideological determinism. Comic books and their history of engaging with topics not necessarily of this world provide an interesting view of art which at once relies on film theory’s understanding of identification yet also surpasses the theory’s grounding in universal notions of a patriarchal ideology. Perhaps when these two modes of theory unite we will in Mulvey’s terms, be able to “conceive of a new language of desire” (Pleasure 3).


Berger, Karen. Introduction. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991. Unpaginated.

Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991.

Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: Season of Mists. New York: DC Comics, 1992.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: A Kitchen Sink Book for HarperPerennial, 1993.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema.” (1975) Visual and Other Pleasures. By Mulvey.

Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)” (1981) Visual and Other Pleasures. By Mulvey.