The thing about the first trade of The Sandman that always impresses me is how Gaiman put together a string of eight issues that all connect in telling a larger story, while simultaneously having nearly every issue work as a standalone story. Since most of my comics reading experience is with various X-Men books, which are highly serialized and rarely feature issues that could be read independently of the context surrounding them, I really appreciate that stylistic difference (even if it’s probably as much a product of when The Sandman was written as who was writing it).
Issue 3, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” is the first case of Gaiman centering a story on a different character from Dream. Here we follow John Constantine (pronounced Con-stan-tyne), a rather prominent DC character who operates on the magical end of the comic story spectrum (he apparently has a live action television show that’s running at the moment, though I don’t know anything about it besides the fact that they did indeed make sure he was blond in this adaptation, unlike the delightfully bad Keanu Reeves action movie that came out about a decade ago), as his day-to-day operations (which are incredibly vague and probably only make sense to people who were following his own title at the same time this story was published) get interrupted by Dream following up on a lead about where his pouch of dreamsand has gotten off to.
This is an interesting inversion, because we know all about what’s going on with Dream up to this point: he’s been imprisoned for seventy years, and now he wants to reclaim the objects of power that were taken from him, and Constantine is his first stop. Still, none of that plays into this story here; we get oblique references to Dream’s imprisonment through the ramblings of an immortal homeless woman that Constantine knows, but the plot as presented keeps Dream’s appearance to Constantine largely unexplained. I don’t have any familiarity with the Hellblazer comics, but I imagine this story feeling like it could be tucked into that series as a one-off where Constantine’s larger concerns get interrupted by this strange pale man who shows up with little explanation demanding that Constantine help him find his bag of magic sand before disappearing just as suddenly once the task’s been completed. It’s a John Constantine story featuring the Sandman, not the other way around.
Beyond that innovation (which Gaiman will employ more often in the future, though with original characters rather than existing ones) this is a very straightforward horror story. Constantine gets pulled into a supernatural mystery that happens to involve an ex-girlfriend of his, and things gradually escalate in weirdness until he and Dream are standing inside a house infested with dreams that have been eating people and turning them into fleshy wallpaper. Visually, the story isn’t terribly interesting until it gets to the pages of humans smeared on walls (Sam Kieth, who was the primary penciller for the first five issues, is at his best when he’s doing surreal landscapes and contorted faces, but his more mundane subjects always strike me as kind of lackluster).
All in all, this is very much still early days for the series, and Gaiman’s clearly experimenting with the tone of the book here. Nothing hugely exciting happens over the course of the story, and the most important plot point for the larger arc, Dream’s recovery of his sand pouch, is a minor concern. On the bright side, the issue finishes with a promise that the next story will be about Dream’s adventures in hell, which is precisely the kind of landscape that Kieth can have fun with.