I recently finished listening to the Audible adaptation of Sandman, the acclaimed comic book series that put Neil Gaiman on the map (thanks in no small part to contributions from artists such as Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg, and Dave McKean). This new full cast audiobook collected the first 20 issues of the 75-issue story (not counting the various spinoffs). I'd read the entire original series before — which is genuinely deserving of its renown — but I was intrigued about how such a stunningly abstract story could be rendered through audio. The all-star cast made it sound all the more worth it. (That, and, well, it'd been about a decade since my last re-read, and as long as the entire universe is utter fucking shambles, it felt nice to revisit something familiar that was still challenging in its own way.)
But ultimately, I was a disappointed with my listening experience. Not because of the story itself, which still holds up, and offered plenty of new details for me to discover; in all honesty, if you've not read Sandman, and are intrigued by the idea but don't want to read a bunch of graphic novels, I would still recommend this audiobook. As someone who had been previously exposed to these stories, however, I couldn't help feeling let down — not by the writing or the story or the acting, but by the act of adaptation itself.
While the dialogue and narration from the comic remained intact, this Audible adaptation addressed the change from a visual medium by having Neil Gaiman write and narrate some new descriptions the visuals that would otherwise be rendered in the comic. In other words: I just got to listen to Neil Gaiman tell me (in exquisitely detailed prose, as he is wont to do) what the comic book looked like. As a result, the Sandman Audible adaptation felt less like an adaptation and more of an accessible version of the story with audio descriptions for people with low vision.
To be clear: I applaud any such effort to be inclusive of people with different disabilities so that we all might enjoy the same stories. But I'm fairly certain that was the original intention of this adaptation. Which made me question: what was the point, exactly? Certainly it helped the story reach a new audience; it is a best seller, and I can't fault anyone for trying to get their story out there. But as far as "adaptation" is concerned, there didn't seem much consideration into how the story might change across mediums. Which is particularly disappointing, seeing as it's literally a story about the Lord of Dreams; if anything, an audio version of Morpheus's tale has even more of an opportunity to manipulate the reader's imagination.
Don't get me wrong — comic books are capable of some uniquely wonderful narrative tricks that simply cannot be rendered in other mediums. But the opportunity to have Morpheus's story delivered directly through your ears and into your mind feels like such a perfect opportunity to breathe new life into Sandman. Instead, it was just … a description of the comic book. (Which, again: is fantastic, and worth reading, if you haven't.) That, to me, is a squandered opportunity.
All that being said: I worry that my disappointment in Sandman was the result of skewed expectations set up by another full-cast audio adaptation of a dark fantasy comic book series. I loved Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke & Key when I read it* as a comic, for example. And when I heard there was an Audible adaptation of that book, I was similarly intrigued, and decided to check it out.
Five years later, whenever anyone asks me for an audiobook recommendation, Locke & Key is still the first thing that comes to my mind.
Like the Sandman audio graphic novel, the Audible adaptation of Locke & Key features a full cast. But what sets it apart is the sound design. I wish Amazon was better at crediting the directors and audio engineers for these things, because they are especially deserving of accolades in this case. The Locke & Key Audible adaptation goes out of its way to transform the comic book's fantastic visuals into truly immersive soundscapes. Conversations are given a physical place in the Keyhouse, to help the listener understood who is where at any given time. Monsters and demons and magical powers are given their own associated audio cues — effectively rendering Gabriel Rodriguez's art as sound. Some of the dialogue is changed; characters have to be a little more explicit about some things, by necessity. But the Locke & Key audiobook embraces the art of adaptation, and lets this new medium transform the story. It's a different experience than the comic — as it should be! But it's still personal and immersive, just in a different way.
There's also the fact that: comic books are a visual medium, where artists contribute as much or more to the story than the writers. With Locke & Key, I could feel the presence of Gabriel Rodriguez, as much as I could hear Joe Hill's words. Sure, it wasn't quite the same as his drawn artwork, but at least his contributions were considered, explored, and presented to the listener, even in a different form. By comparison, hearing Neil Gaiman in his own voice describe the visual artwork of Sandman in such exquisite detail made the artists feel extraneous. Their moody contributions are crucial to the original comic — but you wouldn't know it from the Audible adaptation.
And that all makes me wonder: what's the point of adapting a graphic novel into audio after all? Is it disability access in the form of audio descriptions** — or is it meant to be something more transformative?
(Coincidentally yet totally unrelated, the Sandman and Locke & Key comics will soon be having their first ever story crossover soon, too.)
| Sandman on Audible
| Locke & Key on Audible
*I fondly remember binging the entire series in 2 days over Christmas at my in-laws' house, and absolutely bawling my eyes out by the end; my mother-in-law looked at me, then looked at my wife, and said, "Your husband's been reading comic books on an iPad for 2 days straight and now he's crying. Is this normal?" The answer, dear reader, was and remains, "Yes."
**Disability access is important, too. But I feel like it's a different category than simply an "audiobook adaptation." I may be wrong, and I'm happy to be corrected on this point.