I don't know how it happened, but I can guess. I was in college at the time and just didn't have the opportunity to keep up with the comics all the time, especially new ones featuring a never before seen character. I think I had a pull box at a shop back in Harrisburg (well, actually on the other side of the river, but close enough), but I obviously didn't get my butt in gear enough to put the best comic ever published on my pull list, so while I got the first issue of The Sandman, I missed issues 2-4. I rectified that mistake by first getting every other issue in the run of the series, but in 1991 I bought the trade of the first 8 issues, Preludes & Nocturnes.
By now I'm sure everyone of discernment and refinery is well aware of the opening story line of The Sandman. Still, for those neophytes to the wonderful world of Gaiman literature, a synopsis.
The Sandman is Morpheus, or Dream, of the Endless. His siblings are Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destiny (the only one seen in the DCU prior to this series) and Destruction. Only Death is seen in this opening arc, and that in the epilogue.
The Sandman is the ruler of dreams, which are corporeal manifestations. In 1916 he's captured by an Englisman who styles himself a Daemon King. He wasn't the intended target, though. Death was. Nonetheless, he's imprisoned and his three sources of power, a bag of never depleted magical sand, a helm and a jewel are taken. The three items are stolen by a member of the Daemon King's order. The helm is traded to a demon for protection from harm. The jewel and the protection are later stolen by the thief's girlfriend and the sand somehow ends up in the possession of John Constanine (aka Hellblazer) from whom it is stolen by a junkie girlfriend.
In 1986, 70 years after his capture, The Sandman escapes his imprisonment when the son of his original captor unknowingly breaks the plane of the magical circle containing him. The Sandman exacts his revenge on the son, trapping him in a constant series of nightmares from which the son awakens only to discover he's in another nightmare.
Having invested too much of himself in the three objects of power, Morpheus must track them down to regain control of the dream realm. He first contacts the three fates, Maiden, Mother and Crone. They allow him one question each, which he uses for each of the three missing items, receiving only partial information to locate those items. This scene contains one of my favorite references, as the fates jokingly discussing the many names by which they have been known, and their most recent ones from DC's horror comics of the '70s, say they might as well be called Diana, Mary and Florence. A Supremes reference! Excellent.
Morpheus first pursues the bag of sand, with the aid of John Constantine. It's relatively easily recovered once John realizes who stole it from him. The former girlfriend is in a much deteriorated state from her many years using the magical sand for an endorphin rush. Next comes recovery of the helm. This involves a trip to Hell and our first meeting of Lucifer Morningstar in this series. The elaborate rites of decorum, the triumveriate rule of Hell, and the creatively depicted demons are phenomenal. A plethora of story lines that run through not only this series but the eventual Lucifer series draw their first breaths in this one issue. Suffice it to say that Morpheus retrieves his helm in winning a battle of word play and wits with a duke of Hell. The loser receives the sort of reward you'd expect in Hell, but he'll be seen again later in the series.
The retrieveal of the last item is possibly the best known, and certainly the best remembered stroy in this arc. The jewel had fallen into the possession of John Dee, better known as Dr Destiny. He had used it to manipulate other people's dreams in his quest for power and wealth, but he'd been severely damaged in his battles with the JLA. When the story picks up he's in Arkham Asylum, but escapes after the protection amulet his mother stole from the guy who stole it from the Daemon King is sent to him after his mother dies. He goes to a self storage unit in a town called Mayhew to retrieve the jewel. Through this point he seems largely pathetic, but when he kills the woman he carjacked to get there, it's clear Dee is very far gone. Just as he's retrieve the jewel, Morpheus shows up and tries to recover it for himself, but Dee has altered it over the years and it rejects Morpheus, rendering him unconscious.
Dee proceeds to a diner and spends 24 hours torturing the six people who come in. This is the most horror of the 8 issues. There are disturbing images in other parts of the story, but this part is really horror at its best. Really, I'd call it suspense more than jump out at you kind of horror. Just what is Dee going to inflict on the people next? Will any of them survive the encounter? How deep is the psychosis from which he suffers? The answer to the last is pretty damn deep. And, while his actions are concentrated in the diner, ripples are felt around the world, as disturbing acts occur with increasing frequency under Dee's influence.
In the end, Dee attempts to seize all of Dream's realm when Morpheus returns to challenge him again for the jewel, but in his attempt Dee destroys the jewel, thinking it will destroy Morpheus. Instead, that act returns the power from the jewel to Morpheus, restoring the last of his dispersed power. Dee is returned to Arkham and the people from the diner will, in one way or another, factor into future stories.
The epilogue not only introduces Death, a now well known goth girl image, but also brings to the fore Dream's frequent bouts of melancholy and recrimination. Death is the sibling on whom he relies in these moments.
So that's the short version. Really. There are a lot of other elements to the story. Cain and Abel. Eve and ravens. Gregory and Goldie. Lucien. Mr Miracle. Numerous people who suffered sleeping sickness during Dream's imprisonment. All of these seemingly small moments in the story create the beginnings of many future stories, intertwined and interwoven with great thought and care.
The covers by Dave McKean for each issue are painterly, memorable, and evocative of the stories within. But the interior art by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcom Jones III does something really great. It revives the art of the EC days and the art of the old House of Mystery and House of Secrets stories from the '70s. I haven't read a lot of the EC era comics but those old House stories were frequent fillers in bags of 4 comics for $.50 that I'd find at a local convenience store when I was a kid. The covers were ripped off, but the stories were intact. These were often accompanied by Sgt Rock, The Losers, Weird Western Tales and other such minor league staples of the late '70s and early '80s. Fond memories, indeed. And the art in this opening arc, especially the first 7 issues, relies heavily on that influence, to grand effect. The 8th, epilogue issue takes on the style that would predominate through the rest of the series run and was more...goth? Something. Can't quite put my finger on it. It's the style I remember more when I think of the series, dominating the run as it did, but I'm glad they used the style they did in the opening arc. Really, a great kick off to a great piece of literature.