Sandman’s Cain and Abel were not inspired by the Bible but by DC Comics

Watch after The Sandman on Netflix (or reading the DC comics) can be an exercise in “finding the reference”. The story ties together perfectly, even if you don’t know that Dreams Raven Matthew is a Risen swamp thing character or that the guy in the pub with Shakespeare is supposed to be Christopher Marlowe – but it can still be fun to retrace everything back to where it came from.

John Dee? This is the first name of the dream-controlling Justice League antagonist, Doctor Destiny. fiddler green? This is a legendary realm of British folklore after death. Those massive gates at the entrance to Dreaming? A reference to an ancient Greek literary trope originating in The Odyssey. Cain and Abel? Well obviously they are Cain and Abel from Book of Genesis right?

Not To the right. The primary reference for The Sandman‘s Cain and Abel is not biblical at all, but something much, much trashier. Something that makes the odd details of her life in the realm of dreams — the gargoyles, the jewelry-filled houses, the macabre cycle of perpetual murder — all make instant sense.

Cain and Abel are not biblical figures. They are crypt guard.

Asim Chaudhry as Abel (stabbed to death) and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Cain (who stabbed him) in The Sandman.

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Recency bias states that American comics have always been a primarily superhero-based medium, with alternative genres such as YA romance or horror only gaining consistent popularity in recent years. But that’s a big bias. Before the industry went through a post-World War II decline and a wave of anti-comic fervor, the comics at the top of the charts were often horror anthologies, particularly the blockbuster series Stories from the Tombpublished by EC Comics.

stories was so successful that DC Comics began producing its own copycat just a year after its first issue, House of Mystery. And at ECs success with stories spin-offs The Vault of Terror and The spook of fear proved the market had an appetite for a barrage of pulpy purple horror anthologies, DC followed suit House of Secrets. However, by the mid-1950s, the Comics Code made all those icky, borderline horror series unprintable, and EC Comics went out of business.

DC’s House of Mystery and House of Secrets, but lived on – long enough for horror fashion to reemerge 20 years later. Both books got a second wind in the 1970s when a veteran of EC Comics took over House of Mystery and gave him, among other things, his own version of the Krypt-Guardian (you know, the cackling skull/undead narrator that opens every issue or episode of Stories from the Tomb).

Writer Joe Orlando introduced the tenant, owner and manager of the House of Secrets and all of its residents: Cain.


The first page from 1972 House of Mystery #209.
Image: Joe Orlando, Bernie Wrightson/DC Comics

And for House of MysteryHis mysterious counterpart was the pathetic Abel.

Abel sits sullenly on a tombstone in a dark graveyard, flashlight in hand while Cain points at him and laughs. On a hill in the distance rises the House of Secrets, silhouetted against the moon. Abel reveals to the reader that Cain tricked him into a snipe hunt in House of Secrets #92 (1971).

The first page from 1971 House of Secrets #92.
Image: Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson/DC Comics

The pair of books – along with a sister series, Secrets of the Dark House, also hosted by a shriveled woman calling herself Eve, whetted the appetite for horror comics that ran through the late 1970s and early ’80s. Just a few years later, in 1989, a young writer named Neil Gaiman proposed The Sandman to DC Editor Karen Berger, a story intended to serve as a sort of homage to everything that DC Comics has contributed to gothic horror. Cain and Abel – the happily grinning, tragicomic hosts of House of Mystery and House of Secrets – were hardly a faded memory.

But 2022? Or even in the early 2000s when I was reading The Sandman for the first time? It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Gaiman is just taking some liberties with the biblical Cain and Abel who got new jobs in Dreaming. But a lot of those little details — her gargoyle named Gregory, her pointy ears, her costumes, and her houses — are straight out of the Cain and Abel comics.

In later The Sandman, Gaiman would allow more direct biblical references to flow back into Cain, Abel and Eve, denizens of Dreaming, than when Dream sends Cain to Hell as an emissary, knowing that the mark God left on him was himself among them would protect from harm all the demons of Lucifer. But by far Cain and Abel are just their goofy, clueless selves – with a bit of Gaiman pathos for spice.

The two brothers will always be the owners of their houses of mysteries and mysteries, just as they will always love one another, just as Cain will always murder Abel and Abel will always return to be murdered again. They are, just like Dream of the Endless, tied to their own nature, a theme that resonates from page one The Sandman until last. Sandman’s Cain and Abel were not inspired by the Bible but by DC Comics

Charles Jones

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