Watching The Sandman on Netflix (or reading the DC comic) can be an exercise in “spot the reference.” The story hangs together perfectly even if you don’t know that Dream’s raven Matthew is a resurrected Swamp Thing character or that the guy with Shakespeare in the pub is supposed to be Christopher Marlowe — but it can still be fun to trace everything back to its origin.
John Dee? That’s the given name of the dream-controlling Justice League foe Doctor Destiny. Fiddler’s Green? Thats a legendary afterlife realm of British folklore. Those massive gates at the entrance to the Dreaming? A reference to an ancient Greek literary trope with origins in The Odyssey. Cain and Abel? Well obviously they’re Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis, right?
Not right. The primary reference for The Sandman’s Cain and Abel isn’t biblical at all, but something much, much trashier. Something that makes the weird details of their life in the realm of Dreams — the gargoyles, the trinket-filled houses, the macabre cycle of eternal murder — all make instant sense.
Cain and Abel aren’t biblical figures. They’re cryptkeepers.
Recency bias says that American comics have always been a primarily superhero-based medium, with alternate genres like YA romance or horror only finding consistent popularity in recent years. But that’s a big bias. Before the industry went through a post-World War II contraction and wave of anti-comics fervor, the chart topping-est comics were often horror anthologies, particularly the blockbuster series Tales From the Crypt, published by EC Comics.
Tales was so successful that only a year after its first issue, DC Comics began producing its own imitator, House of Mystery. And when EC’s success with Tales spinoffs The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear proved that the market had an appetite for a true glut of pulpy, purple horror anthologies, DC followed up with House of Secrets. By the mid-1950s, however, the Comics Code made all those icky, transgressive horror series unprintable, and EC Comics went out of business.
DC’s House of Mystery and House of Secrets, however, lived on — long enough that the horror fad could come around again 20 years later. Both books caught a second wind in the 1970s, when an EC Comics veteran took over House of Mystery and, among other things, gave it its own version of the Cryptkeeper (you know, the cackling skull/undead narrator who introduces each issue or episode of Tales From the Crypt).
Writer Joe Orlando introduced the tenant, proprietor, and caretaker of the House of Mystery and all its denizens: Cain.
And for House of Mystery’s secretive counterpart, there was the pathetic Abel.
The pair of books — along with a sister series, Secrets of Sinister House, likewise hosted by a wizened crone who called herself Eve — captured an appetite for horror comics, running until the late 1970s and early ’80s. Only a few years later, in 1989, a young writer named Neil Gaiman pitched The Sandman to DC editor Karen Berger, a story that would serve in some significant ways as a tribute to everything DC Comics had contributed to Gothic horror. Cain and Abel — the gleefully grinning, tragicomic hosts of House of Mystery and House of Secrets — were hardly a faded memory.
But in 2022? Or even in the early 2000s, when I was reading The Sandman for the first time? It’s completely reasonable to assume that Gaiman is just taking some liberties with the biblical Cain and Abel, who were given new jobs in the Dreaming. But many of those those little touches — their pet gargoyle named Gregory, their pointed ears, their costumes, and their houses — are straight out of Cain’s and Abel’s comic books.
Later on in The Sandman, Gaiman would allow more direct biblical references to bleed back into Cain, Abel, and Eve, denizens of the Dreaming, as when Dream sends Cain as an emissary to hell, knowing that the mark God left upon him would keep him from harm even among all of Lucifer’s demons. But far and away, Cain and Abel are just their goofy lowbrow selves — with a bit of Gaiman pathos for spice.
The two brothers will always be the proprietors of their houses of Mysteries and Secrets, just as they will always love each other, just as Cain will always murder Abel, and Abel will always return to be murdered again. They are, just as Dream of the Endless, bound by their own natures, a theme that resonates from the first page of The Sandman to the very last.