Sandman grew out of a proposal by Neil Gaiman to revive the 1970's Sandman series by Jack Kirby. Gaiman had considered including characters from DC Comics' 'Dream Stream' (including the Kirby Sandman, Brute, Glob, and the brothers Cain and Abel) in a scene for the first issue of his 1988 miniseries Black Orchid. While the scene did not make it into later drafts, Gaiman soon began constructing a treatment for a new series. Gaiman mentioned his treatment in passing to DC editor Karen Berger. While months later Berger offered Gaiman a comic title to work on, he was unsure his Sandman pitch would be accepted. However, weeks later Berger asked Gaiman if he was interested in doing a Sandman series.
Gaiman crafted the new character from an initial image of "a man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell, waiting until his captors passed away [...] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes." Gaiman patterned the character's black attire on a print of a Japanese kimono as well as his own wardrobe. Gaiman wrote an eight-issue outline and gave it to Dave McKean and Leigh Baulch, who drew character sketches. Berger reviewed the sketches (along with some drawn by Gaiman) and suggested Sam Keith as the series' artist. Mike Dringenberg, Todd Klein, Robbie Busch, and Dave McKean were hired as inker, letterer, colorist, and cover artist, respectively. McKean's approach towards comics covers was unconventional, for he convinced Berger that the series's protagonist did not need to appear on every cover.
The debut issue of Sandman was cover-dated January 1989. Gaiman described the early issues as awkward, for he, as well as Keith, Dringenberg and Busch, had never worked on a regular series before. Keith quit while working on the third issue; he was replaced by Dringenberg as penciler, who was in turn replaced by Malcolm Jones III as inker.
Sandman became a cult success for DC Comics and attracted an audience unlike that of mainstream comics: half the readership was female, many were in their twenties, and many read no other comics at all. By the time the series concluded in 1996, it was outselling the titles of DC's flagship character Superman. Gaiman had a finite run in mind for the series, and it concluded with issue 75.
Sandman was initially published as a monthly serial, in 32-page comic books (with some exceptions to this pattern). As the series quickly increased in popularity, DC Comics began to reprint them in hardcover and paperback editions, each representing either a complete novel or a collection of related short stories.
DC first published "The Doll's House" storyline in a collection called simply The Sandman. Shortly thereafter, the first three volumes were published and named independently and also collected in an eponymous boxed set. (Death's debut story, "The Sound of Her Wings" from issue #8, appeared both at the beginning of The Doll's House and at the end of early editions of Preludes and Nocturnes, creating overlap between the first two volumes. This overlap isn't present in newer editions.) Further collections would then be released shortly after their completion in serial form.