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‘The Sandman’ and ‘Paper Girls’ Are a Different Kind of Comics Show

Two new series from Netflix and Amazon, respectively, take a more unorthodox approach than the traditional superhero story

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The Sandman is, in the technical sense, a superhero story. Back in the late 1980s, DC Comics commissioned then-obscure writer Neil Gaiman to build a monthly series around the title character, a minor figure introduced a half-century prior to Gaiman’s reboot. Over 75 volumes, though, Gaiman built a mythology of his own, incorporating references that ranged from Paradise Lost to Norse mythology. Dream of the Endless may supposedly share a universe with the likes of Batman, but Gaiman’s cerebral fantasia feels completely separate, drawing on a different source of appeal.

This Friday, the first filmed adaptation of The Sandman premieres on Netflix. In the 30-plus years it took to bring Gaiman’s vision to the screen, popular culture has totally transformed. (For one thing, The Sandman is now a 10-episode, likely multi-season series on a streaming service, not the major studio movie as initially planned.) When the series was first published, comics were so looked down upon that acclaimed exceptions had to be rebranded as “graphic novels,” even when they came from institutions like DC. Now, comics and their interconnected, episodic stories are the blueprint every studio seeks to emulate.

Against the backdrop of the MCU and more mainstream offerings from DC, The Sandman still stands apart. As superhero comics—and even non-superhero comics, like The Walking Dead—have evolved into the most profitable franchises in entertainment, they’ve also had something of a trickle-down effect, allowing stories with more unconventional themes to make it to air. For three seasons on FX, Legion made itself the trippiest, vibiest Marvel project yet. AMC’s Preacher embraced writer Garth Ennis’s open blasphemy. The Umbrella Academy, a sort of steampunk riff on the X-Men conceived by My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way, has become one of the top-rated original series on Netflix. Green-lighting The Sandman feels like a clear attempt to replicate the latter’s success.

The Sandman arrives just a week after another comics adaptation more intimate and idiosyncratic than the genre’s tentpoles. Like The Sandman, Amazon’s Paper Girls reads like a doubling down on a successful strategy. One of Amazon’s biggest hits is The Boys, an anti-superhero saga based on a comic by Preacher’s Ennis and artist Darick Robertson that’s exploded into the kind of blockbuster property it so shrewdly parodies. Paper Girls has a radically different tone and themes, but one can see why Amazon deemed it a decently safe bet.

Still, as a supernatural coming-of-age show initially set in the 1980s, the clearest analog for Paper Girls is Stranger Things. It’s possible that the Netflix sensation encouraged Amazon to invest in the original comic, like how Game of Thrones serves as an obvious precedent for The Wheel of Time. But writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang began releasing Paper Girls in 2015, one year before the premiere of Stranger Things. Both stories are simply riffing on the same reference points, including Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Stranger Things is more of a composite; Paper Girls adds time travel while gender-flipping the roles of its protagonists.

Paper Girls has its fans, but the show faces nowhere near the pressure bearing down on The Sandman, a comic series that helped alter the trajectory of its entire medium. You can sense the ensuing caution both in front of and behind the camera. Unlike American Gods, an embattled production canceled by Starz after three seasons, Gaiman has been deeply involved in the show from the start, including the casting of key roles like Dream (Tom Sturridge) and his older sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). (Gaiman also serves as co-showrunner for the limited series Good Omens, based on the novel he authored with the late Terry Pratchett.)

Perhaps relatedly, The Sandman hews closely to the framework of its source material. A movie would have to pick and choose which elements of the story to keep in the mix; a show can keep the comics’ digressive, anthological feel while saving some runway for presumptive future seasons. The Sandman’s first 10 episodes cover the same ground as the original’s first two volumes, with individual chapters often tracking neatly with one or two specific issues.

Like most actual anthology series, this structural fidelity can have mixed results. The Sandman has some semblance of an overarching plot: first, Dream’s quest to recover his powers after his decades-long imprisonment by an amateur occultist; then, the subtle tensions between Dream and other immortal beings, including his siblings—Destiny, Desire, and Despair—and Lucifer Morningstar, the fallen angel played in the show by Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie. But the stories are frequently stand-alone, with some more compelling than others and little connective tissue besides Dream himself. An episode that follows a centuries-long friendship showcases the creative potential of Gaiman’s cosmic scope. Another set in a diner drags on endlessly with no apparent purpose. When you press play, it’s hard to know which version of the show you’ll get.

Some strengths and weaknesses are consistent throughout. The visuals, unfortunately, are the show’s Achilles heel and most glaring shortfall compared to the comics. The original Sandman included indelible images like a woman with a half-rotted face, or the King of Dreams shrouded in shadows. Here, they’re replaced by the hokey CGI that marks many Netflix shows, displaying a surprisingly tame sensibility. American Gods had its faults, but it got gnarly and graphic in a way The Sandman never seems comfortable with—and that may be essential to conveying the essence of the text.

Without much help from their surroundings, that task falls to the actors. Here, at least, The Sandman gets it right. Outfitted in the black trenchcoat, combat boots, and shaggy haircut that make him look—not coincidentally—like Neil Gaiman, Sturridge conveys the ethereal quality that makes Dream convincingly inhuman. He also imbues the character with the detachment, arrogance, and solipsism that render Dream, for all his power, a flawed and tragic figure. Howell-Baptiste, too, gives Death the friendly face that marks Gaiman’s inventive spin on the Grim Reaper. Going forward, The Sandman can fine-tune almost everything except its title role. It’s a good thing that starts in a solid place.

Compared to The Sandman, Paper Girls takes far more liberties with its main story. Our heroines still, per the title, deliver newspapers in suburban Cleveland—at least until they get caught up in a war between far-future timelines that abruptly transports them to the 21st century. But showrunner Christopher C. Rogers—cocreator of Halt and Catch Fire, another ’80s nostalgia piece, with Christopher Cantwell, also an executive producer on Paper Girls—and his writers identify and pursue their own interests. Like The Sandman, Paper Girls can’t quite replicate the transportive feel of a format liberated from the laws of physics. But it also doesn’t try as hard to do so, instead focusing on the emotional, rather than logistical, fallout of fast-forwarding to your own future.

The quartet consists of Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), the shy newcomer; Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), the brash tomboy; Tiff (Camryn Jones), the confident geek; and KJ (Fina Strazza), the rich girl bullied for her Judaism. On Erin’s very first night with the crew, they’re somehow catapulted to 2019, where she comes face-to-face with an older version of herself, played by the stand-up comic Ali Wong. Bear in mind, this is a show in which Wong gets to pilot a mecha-style giant robot, if that’s what interests you. But it’s also a show in which the younger Erin expresses blunt disappointment in how her life will turn out: as a lonely paralegal living in her dead mother’s house.

Paper Girls wrings maximum impact from these encounters between past and present, which require more nuance than special effects. Mac tracks down her older brother, who sees a second chance at a relationship cruelly cut off; Tiff confronts the limits of her relentless ambition; KJ gets a glimpse of a freer, more independent life that thrills but largely terrifies her.

Held up against such personal trials, Paper Girls’ larger tug-of-war struggles to hold our interest, even if Adina Porter and Jason Mantzoukas are clearly having fun as the villains chasing our heroes through time. Still, it’s refreshing to see a comics show that leans into what flesh-and-blood actors have to offer—even if that means veering away from the spectacle that so many shows have been chasing. Not all ambition equates to big set pieces, and not all comics shows have to echo the Marvel model.