Enter the Dreaming again as the blockbuster audio adaptation of “the greatest epic in the history of comic books” continues in The Sandman: Act II. James McAvoy returns to voice Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, in this sequel to the #1 New York Times audio best-seller. Journey into a world of myths, imagination, and terror based on the best-selling DC comic books and graphic novels written by Neil Gaiman (returning as the Narrator), and lose yourself in another groundbreaking, immersive drama adapted and directed by the award-winning audio master Dirk Maggs. In the absolutely packed Act II, the dark fantasy resumes and the Sandman expands into the French Revolution, Ancient Rome, 19th-Century San Francisco, 8th-century Baghdad, and beyond.
The first volume of Audible’s adaptation of The Sandman came out last year, and it quickly became the best-selling and most pre-ordered Audible Original. Not only was it wildly successful, though, but it was an excellent adaptation. It perfectly captured the spirit of the comics while tweaking the story into something new. So, the second volume, The Sandman: Act II, has quite a lot riding on its shoulders. And luckily, it delivers on all fronts. Much like the first volume, The Sandman: Act II is an extremely faithful and deeply enjoyable adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved comics. Adapted by Dirk Maggs, and carried by an extraordinary cast, some excellent sound design, and some of the best storylines in the entire series, The Sandman: Act II is a fantastic listen for both old and new fans alike.
The Story This Time
The Sandman: Act II covers issues 21-40, and issue 50, of the comic, comprising the Season of Mists, A Game of You, Convergence, and Distant Mirrors arcs. So, this time around, Morpheus (James McAvoy) has to find a new ruler for Hell after Lucifer (Michael Sheen) abandons the realm. And Barbie (Laurence Bouvard) returns (last seen in A Doll’s House), entering the Dreaming to fight off a mysterious threat that’s breaking the boundaries between dream and reality. Scattered in between those storylines are standalone tales expanding the world of the Sandman and incorporating various historical and mythological figures. I’ve always felt that these arcs were where the series properly found its footing. So, it’s nice to finally hear these stories come to life in such a magnificent way.
There are two episodes, in particular, which just made my Sandman-loving heart incredibly happy. The first is the very first episode, adapting issue 21 (the prologue of the Season of Mists storyline). It’s the first time we get to see (or hear, I guess) all of the Endless in one room. It’s a dynamic, dramatic moment in the comics and it’s brought to life perfectly here. The other one is episode 9, “Thermidor,” which adapts issue 29 of the comics. It’s the first time we meet Orpheus (Regé-Jean Page). And it might be one of the few instances where the audio version actually works better than the original comic. In this story, Orpheus sings a song – as he is wont to do. And the way Maggs, Page, and composer James Hannigan bring this moment to life is absolutely gorgeous. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.
A Faithful Adaptation
Like the first volume, The Sandman: Act II is an almost verbatim adaptation of these storylines. Maggs lifts the vast majority of the dialogue directly from the comics. He cuts little and adds even less. A Game of You sees the most noticeable changes, though nothing is changed that actually impacts the greater storyline. Mostly, Maggs changes some of the elements of that arc haven’t aged as well as others – most notably some of Wanda’s (Reece Lyons) dialogue, and the way others speak about her. And he also reworks a lot of the narration attributed to Barbie in this arc into narration for Gaiman, who narrates the series overall.
But overall, it’s an impressively faithful adaptation. Perhaps among the most faithful adaptations ever made. And, as a fan of the comics, that’s such a gift. Getting to hear these characters and stories come to life exactly the way they’re written on the page is such a delight. It’s the kind of experience most book-lovers always long for. And it’s genuinely impressive how well these stories work in an audio-only medium, exactly as written.
With that faithfulness comes a double-edged sword. In the quest to change as little as possible, there remains a tendency to over-rely on the narration to bridge the gap between comics and audio. And I get it. Maggs and Gaiman are clearly aiming for these Sandman audios to hew closer to audiobooks than you might expect. I mean, the whole thing genuinely plays like any other audiobook might – so much so that I was able to read the comics while listening to each episode, and the two experiences ended up complementing each other. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Gaiman is a great narrator, and while having so many visual cues described initially annoyed me in the first volume, I found it a lot more welcome here.
However, a lot of the narration continues to feel unneeded. There are moments where the narration will say something, only for the dialogue to repeat it (or vice versa). And that feels kind of clunky. The narration also occasionally breaks up the flow of the scenes, interjecting in moments that don’t really need it. And while I understand the desire to describe so much of the comics’ visuals, I remain unconvinced it’s needed as often as it’s used. Sound effects can do a lot of that work if given the chance. And, to be fair, Maggs and Gaiman do let the sound effects speak for themselves a bit more here. I just wish they’d go even further. But at the end of the day, the narration works far more than it doesn’t. And hopefully, they’ll continue to find the best balance between narration and sound effects in future installments.
A Jam-Packed, All-Star Cast
That being said, The Sandman: Act II is still a deeply enjoyable listen. This is, in part, due to how perfectly cast everyone is. Several cast members from the first volume return for Act II, including McAvoy, Sheen, Bouvard, Kat Dennings, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and more. And all of them are as good as here as they were there. Sheen is deliciously sinister as Lucifer, especially in his scenes opposite McAvoy’s Morpheus. And McAvoy continues to channel Morpheus perfectly, capturing Morpheus’s sense of grandeur, mystery, pettiness, and vulnerability. And while Dennings’ Death didn’t quite click for me in the first volume, I found myself really enjoying her scenes in Act II – especially the ones she shared with Morpheus.
Equally great are the new recruits. John Lithgow and Brian Cox are predictably great as Emperor Norton and Augustus. Bill Nighy and David Tennant are a dynamic duo as Odin and Loki. They both play their characters in their native accents. And they’re both so much fun. Kristen Schaal and Jeffrey Wright round out the rest of the (currently active) Endless as Delerium and Destiny. Both of them are perfect fits for their characters, and I’m eager to hear more from them in future installments. And Regé-Jean Page’s Orpheus steals his entire episode. His singing voice is exactly as majestic as Orpheus’s should be, and his performance turns that episode into one of the volume’s standouts. All of the new additions do a wonderful job, though, slotting in perfectly alongside the returning cast members.
The Sound of Dreams
The sound design from Maggs and his team of sound designers, Wilfredo Acosta, Kirsty Gillmore, Richard House, Tom Maggs, and John Scott is simply genius. There’s honestly no other way to put it. The Sandman comics are known for their visual splendor, but, of course, audiobooks are devoid of visuals. So, Maggs and his team lean on their experience in audio dramas to evoke those same feelings of splendor through sound. And it’s remarkable what they’re able to achieve. They brilliantly bring the world of The Sandman to life, from the unpleasantness and horror of Hell, to the majesty and fantasy of the Dreaming (and its connected lands), to the constant noise of New York City. Everything sounds so fully realized and explored, and there’s so much to hear with every listen. The team packs layer upon layer of detail into the soundscape of The Sandman: Act II. And it’s an absolute feast for the ears.
Equally impressive is James Hannigan’s score. Hannigan continues to bring that perfect balance of emotional sincerity and operatic grandness to his music. Like any good score, Hannigan’s music helps heighten the emotional center while underscoring the heft of the material. It just has this cinematic quality that makes it feel like something you might hear in any Hollywood movie. And combined with the sound design, it’s something truly beautiful to behold. As cheesy as it sounds, the score and sound design really are the things of dreams.
Overall, The Sandman: Act II is as good as, if not better than, Audible’s first volume. It may be a bit too faithful to the source material, missing some opportunities to better tweak the story as an audio-only experience. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy every second I spent listening to it. The soundscape is something truly impressive to behold, as are the excellent performances from this enormous cast. And now that I know what this adaptation is trying to be, it’s easier to just go along with what Maggs and Gaiman are doing. If you liked the first volume of Audible’s Sandman adaptation, you’ll love The Sandman: Act II. And if you’re anything like me, you might even like it more than the first installment. It’s a must-listen for Sandman fans old and new.
The Sandman: Act II comes out on September 22nd, only on Audible.
Updated on September 8, 2021, to correctly credit the entire team sound designers – including Wilfredo Acosta, Kirsty Gillmore, Richard House, Tom Maggs, and John Scott. Originally, only Dirk Maggs was credited. We apologize for the error.
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.