Dream a little dream: Neil Gaiman on the 20th anniversary of ‘The Sandman’
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EXCLUSIVE: The first of a three-part interview with Neil Gaiman on the 20th anniversary of his signature comics work, ‘The Sandman.’ The writer says it’s like awakening from a dream. ‘It is has been wonderful and baffling and inspiring.’
In late 1988, a strange new comic book written by a British newcomer named Neil Gaiman hit the shelves with a singular style and rhythm. The protagonist of ‘The Sandman’ was no superhero at all; he was the Lord of Dreams, a tall, willowy and haunted figure, both magical and deeply flawed, who for the next 75 months would challenge the ambitions and limitations of a monthly comics series. This is the first of a three-part interview with Gaiman reflecting on that 20th anniversary as well some of his other key works in comics and beyond, among them ‘American Gods,’ ‘Coraline’ and ‘Stardust.’
GB: It’s great to get to finally talk to you. I’ve been enjoying and admiring your work for many years now.
NG: You know it’s funny, you don’t think you’ve been doing it for very long and then you get e-mails from people who say, ‘I’ve been reading you since I was in school,’ and they have real jobs. It’s at that point where you find myself in lines signing things for people who weren’t born when you wrote them. And they are waiting in line and holding their babies. It is very strange.
GB: I’m sure the 20th anniversary of ‘Sandman’ is another one of those things that has you looking back with some amazement and, I’m sure, some measure of pride.
NG: It really does. And certain amount of bafflement as well. People have such amazing 20/20 hindsight and a lot of the questions. I’ve been asked by people who seem to always pre-suppose that I knew exactly where we would be now. And it gets to the point where you’re having to explain to them, ‘No, no, I didn’t know it would be like this.’ For example: Graphic novels these days, the collections of comics tends to harbor around eight issues.
That was something that began really with ‘The Sandman’ No. 1. When I explain to people that the reason that the first story, ‘Preludes and Nocturnes’ was eight issues long was because back in those days DC Comics didn’t like canceling things before they gave them a year because it made them look bad. So they used to give things a year -- which meant that I was pretty sure that I would be getting my phone call at issue eight letting me know, ‘No, we aren’t going to be doing this, the book is canceled.’
GB: Was there a particular reason you expected the ax so early?
NG: If you were a betting man, up until that point in ongoing comics, critical success was completely synonymous with commercial failure. The two were so utterly hand-in-hand. With ‘Sandman,’ we were getting the critical success but we weren’t getting the commercial failure. At issue No. 8 we were selling more than anything comparable had sold for 25 years before that. At that point, I let myself starting dreaming of this world, in which I was actually going to tell this whole story.
It was another six or seven years before I could get DC Comics to agree that it would stop the ‘Sandman’ monthly comic book when I stopped. Again, it simply wasn’t heard of. Batman didn’t stop when Bob Kane or Bill Finger stopped doing it. ‘Fantastic Four’ didn’t stop when Stan Lee stopped writing it. That simply wasn’t how comic books worked. There were so many ways that I was wandering around as a guinea pig. I was also very, very pragmatic about existing in a world in which everything was disposable. That was the joy of comics, wasn’t it? Nobody was doing their PhD on me back then. Nobody was publishing books on symbolism in ‘The Sandman.’ All of this, it has been wonderful and baffling and inspiring.
NG: When I began doing ‘The Sandman’ if you wanted to read an old story, you found a comic book shop and rummaged through the back-issue bins. That was how we did it. The idea of a world in which the entire story is not only collected, but, in every month and every year that goes by, it sells more than it ever did before -- that was more or less inconceivable. And it’s completely redefined everything. If you think of it in these terms: I was a 16-year-old comics reader in 1977 and the idea that I would have been reading a comic that would have been first published in 1957 and ended by 1965 and that it would have been relevant at all, that would have been a really strange idea back then.
GB: It introduced a new relevance for comics creators and the opportunity to reach a different and far wider audience over time. It must be pretty wonderful for you to realize you were an integral part of all that.
NG: It’s lovely. And one of the things is it wasn’t just me. It was me and Frank Miller with ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons with ‘Watchmen’ and Art Spiegelman with ‘Maus’ -- they were also these periodicals collected into graphic novel form and, like ‘The Sandman,’ they’ve never been out of print. They stick around. What’s marvelous is now, 20 years on, the whole of ‘The Sandman’ has been reissued in this enormous format. On one hand it’s gorgeous and it’s leatherbound and it’s wonderful that all of the errors and the coloring mistakes have been fixed -- which makes me very, very happy -- but on the downside each volume weighs over seven pounds. So I watch people turn up at signings carrying four books. This is 36 pounds of books. I just feel so guilty...
GB: Well, consider the fact that you’re introducing the long overdue era of physically fit comics fans...
NG: Yes! No longer will there be jokes about people having sand kicked in their faces on beaches. They just have to carry around a set of ‘The Sandman’ around with them for a while.
GB: One of the great things about ‘The Sandman’ was that the visual representation of the character changed according to the dreams and settings around him and, of course, with the changing cast of artist collaborators. Can you talk a bit about that?
NG: It was really one of those whole ‘lemons to lemonade’ things. Initially, the plan had simply been that I would get some artists and they would stay with us in the same way that Dave McKean did all of the covers or that Todd Klein lettered all of the things. I wanted an art team that would be consistent. We started out with Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg. And Sam just felt uncomfortable. He said this just wasn’t right for him and he quit, which I think was really sensible for him. He did the first five issues. Then Mike Dringenberg took over and he was absolutely fabulous. He added a layer of realism to everything. But Mike, after about a year or a year-and-a-half, really couldn’t cope with deadlines and he couldn’t cope with doing a monthly comic. So he pretty much retired completely from comics at that point.
It was around then that we had to get people to fill in, and I started realizing that was an enormous amount of power one could get from finding the right artist for the right storyline. So I started trying to do that. ‘I’ve got this story and it’s got a lot of women in it. Who draws women realistically?’ ‘I’ve got a story in which everything is very, very huge and grand opera, over-the-top. Wouldn’t Kelley Jones be great?’ It was a really interesting way of approaching the stories. I became like a kid in a candy store. There are so many amazing artists out there and I could get them all. ‘The Sandman’ had become something that people liked to do. It became a book that people in the comics industry and the comics art form were reading.
GB: It was the essential comic-book series of that era, clearly, but more than that it seemed completely separate and distinct from what was going on in mainstream monthly comics at the time...
About three years away from the end, there was a complete implosion in the comics world. it was after a couple of years of absolute madness. I remember being taken aside by a comics dealer in Hawaii and being told that ‘Sandman’ wasn’t really popular for him at his store because there business was selling comics as investment items in boxes of 25. [Laughs] I remember feeling morally outraged at this. The idea that someone was essentially selling something as an investment item that should have been a story -- and, obviously, by selling them in boxes of 25, they were never going to be worth more than people paid for them. It was all going to be worth a good deal less. I remember thinking, ‘This will all last until the first of these kids brings the first box of 25 back to a comics store and says, you know, ‘How much will you pay for it?’ and they say, ‘Kid, we got hundreds of those in the back.’'
GB: You can’t really have an investment collectible when you have zero scarcity...
NG: Yes, exactly. So in the 1990s, briefly, we had comics selling in the millions but they weren’t selling in the millions to millions of readers. I watched the entire comics industry go into free fall -- except for ‘The Sandman.’ We were only selling one copy to each person but each one of them was a reader and wanted to know what happened next. One month, we are No. 80 or No. 90 on the top 100 and we’re selling 100,000 copies and the top-selling books are selling 1.5 million. And then two years later, we’re outselling ‘Superman’ and we’re outselling ‘Batman’ because they’re selling 80,000 or 60,000, and we’re now selling 120,000 because we actually picked up readers. By the end of ‘The Sandman,’ it was the No. 1 comic, which is again a very odd sort of thing. How did we do it? It was all about the story. It was always about the story.
GB: You said you fully expected DC Comics to cancel ‘The Sandman’ early on. But as the series did endure and thrive, I’m curious how the title character changed for you. I would imagine, for instance, that the work of the artists on the series might tilt your image of him. Can you talk a bit about that?
NG: I can, although the joy of Sandman and Morpheus himself, the central character, is that he really doesn’t change. In many ways that is the tragedy of ‘The Sandman,’ a character who, if only he could change, he would have a story with a much happier ending. And ‘The Sandman’ is a tragedy. An incredibly upbeat tragedy and a tragedy from which many lessons can be taken.
Also, bear in mind that this is a story that covers over 2,000 pages and given that every script was about 10,000 words, you’re looking at a quarter-of-a-million words of script. What really tended to happen with ‘Sandman’ is it always took me longer than I expected, and it was also bigger than I expected. I was like somebody who decided to hitchhike from Los Angeles to San Francisco -- you know the shape of the journey but you don’t know which little towns you are going to get stuck in or where something is going to break down or where you’re going to be riding on some elderly fruit truck that can’t make it over 40 miles per hour. You know the shape but you don’t know the nature of the journey. And then there’s always the weather.... I was astonished that it took 75 issues. I think when I began I thought I would finish that story about 30 issues in. That’s mostly because the idea of 36 issues, the idea of writing something for three years, continuously, was terrifying. As it was, it took more like eight. If I had known that going in, I wouldn’t have had the bravery to even try it.
-- Geoff Boucher
READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW:
PART TWO: Neil Gaiman on the ‘British Invasion’ in comics: ‘Alan Moore got to be the Beatles...I was Gerry and the Pacemakers.’
PART THREE: Gaiman discusses his Hollywood dreams for ‘The Sandman’ as well as his disappointments with ‘Stardust’ and anxieties about the February release of ‘Coraline.’
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All artwork courtesy of Vertigo/DC Comics. Photo of Neil Gaiman in Manhattan in 2007, by Jennifer S. Altman for the Los Angeles Times.