Neil Gaiman never remembers his dreams. They are devoured by his imagination before consciousness can reach them. If he has one recurring dream, it's of a house. "I think it's always the same house," he says, "but I don't think I've ever visited the same room twice. And the house continues for practically forever, and it's, you know, not really a house at all--it's a life ." It doesn't seem to be the house of Gaiman's childhood in England, or the house he lived in outside London before he moved to the United States, or even the old red-brick Victorian house he lives in now, an hour outside Minneapolis, that looks like it could be from a dream. The glass gazebo in back, where the hill begins to slope into the woods, could be from a dream as well. Isolated, incommunicado, there Gaiman writes about dreams all the time--not his, because he doesn't remember his, but yours, because yours he remembers before you have them.
He writes about them in a comic book. "The Sandman," published by DC Comics, is Gaiman's rapid-eye almanac of a "place" called The Dreaming. This is a landscape of psychic rather than physical borders, with a topography as amorphous as mist. It's a little like a five-dimensional chessboard, time being the fourth dimension and memory the fifth, over and across which all of us move every night. Every night each of us returns to the Dreaming in our most primal form, perhaps as the little boy or girl we once were and never completely left behind, perhaps as a cat we once held or a raven that once perched outside our window, perhaps not as an animate object at all but a particularly lovely knoll, green and shady, that we saw as a child for only a few moments. Perhaps as a long-buried secret about ourselves that we never knew or wanted to know. But sooner or later in The Dreaming, we bump into him . He's never actually called the Sandman. The more classically bent would prefer to know him as Morpheus; to the populists among us, his name is just Dream. At any rate, he runs the joint.
Well, not really. Neil Gaiman runs the joint, and over seven years and nearly 2,000 pages he has moved over and across The Dreaming in seemingly every direction at once, teetering on occasion but never toppling. An open-ended epic, the narrative, and the stories within it, and the stories within the stories, move from the atriums of ancient Greek myth to the veldt of African folklore, from the French Revolution to modern-day Manhattan, from the tale of a man who has decided never to die to the bodiless head of Orpheus begging someone to kill him, from Shakespeare making the terrible bargain that will transform him from hack to genius, to Thomas Paine muttering in his jail cell about the ideal that betrayed him, from a novelist who locks his muse in his attic, defiling her for black inspiration, to a convention of serial killers in the American South with a guest of honor who swallows people's eyes. Literate and sophisticated by any measure, let alone that of comic books, "The Sandman" is complex to the point of labyrinthine, non-linear to the point of vertiginous. Reading the whole thing, the reader wants to lay out all the pages in a field somewhere, and look at it from the vantage point of a bird circling overhead.
Besides being the best monthly comic book in the world, "The Sandman" is also one of the most popular. Many of its most devoted fans are people who don't otherwise read comics, and it has won not only the praise of literary big shots ("A comic strip for intellectuals," Norman Mailer declared a few years back, "and I say it's about time") but more prizes than Gaiman can find room for in his house, including four straight Eisner awards--the comic book Oscar--and the World Fantasy Award, the only time this has gone to a comic. Immediately afterward, the World Fantasy people changed the rules so such an outrage could never happen again. "Sandman" has inspired college doctorates and songs by Metallica and Tori Amos, it is the primary text for classes on myth at the University of California, and a film is in the works to which Gaiman has offered his blessing though nothing else. Gaiman claims, and DC does not dispute, that the Sandman is the company's third-most popular character after Batman and Superman, and at L.A.'s Golden Apple store it is consistently DC's best seller; in college towns it sometimes outsells "X-Men," published by DC rival Marvel Comics and the single biggest title of the last 20 years. The entire run of "Sandman" has been collected in deluxe bound volumes (start with "Preludes & Nocturnes" and "The Doll's House"), with comments by Stephen King, Clive Barker, Mikal Gilmore, Peter Straub and Gene Wolfe genuflecting before Gaiman's brilliance. . . .
Enough, you must be saying at this point. Enough, Gaiman may well agree. Because this fall, with issue number 75, he is quitting the magazine that he has written since December, 1988. This happens all the time in comics, blazingly successful writers burning out on a book and handing it off to someone else. Except this isn't the case. Gaiman isn't burning out, and he isn't handing the book off to anyone, and in defiance of the universal corporate law that says no one is irreplaceable, DC has made a creative decision flatly in conflict with its profits. It is killing "The Sandman" off and closing The Dreaming down.
Like many people who live in the world of their imaginations, Neil Gaiman doesn't quite seem to belong in the real one. A little lost in his big red-brick Midwest house, still sleep-disheveled at noon and tending the baby until his wife Mary gets home, he yearns for England "only about 90% of the time." The first thing he wants to show you is the garden in back, recounting its various vegetables with that inexplicable enthusiasm for gardens to which the English must be genetically disposed. More dishevelment abounds. Shambling around the house, he knocks over stacks of old comics looking for one in particular; upstairs in the TV room, he rummages among the rubble of videos for an obscure Czech fantasy to put in the VCR. "Lorraine will kill me," he shrugs, surveying the new mess. Lorraine Garland has graduated from being Neil's assistant to serving as the all-purpose Gaiman family managing the schedule and answering the telephone and returning messages and helping to tend the three children. Picking up everyone's comic books.
Watch Gaiman long enough and you'll notice he reminds you of someone, and then of course you realize it's the Sandman himself, allowing for the liberties taken by the 33 artists who have visually interpreted the character over the years. On the Sandman, for instance, Gaiman's dark unruly hair is a detonation of black smoke that makes him look like that guy who sings for the Cure; but then Gaiman cultivates a rock-star persona of his own, always dressed in black and never appearing in public without a leather jacket and sunglasses. He's a lot funnier than the Sandman, but then everyone's funnier than the Sandman. Charming and charismatic, affable and gracious, at once warmly empathetic and distantly ironic, Gaiman can also seem a little full of himself at first; when his celebrity suddenly rose five years ago, he came to Los Angeles on a promotional tour and brashly held court for a bunch of sullen journalists at a restaurant on Melrose shaped like a hamburger. In fairness, it wasn't his idea. One doesn't write something as absurdly ambitious as "The Sandman" without at the very least a sense of mission. He's cheeky without ever being brash, and eventually the cheek gives way to a more nuanced sense of proportion about his life and work, inevitably followed by an outburst of outright self-deprecation: "Remember," he reminds you when the discussion gets a little inflated, "I write comics .
"I remember once at a party running into the editor of the literary page of a major newspaper." You can already tell that, pushing back in his chair behind the desk of his office, he really likes telling this story. "And he was asking me what I did, and I said, 'I write comics.' And I could see him turn off--it was like, This is somebody beneath my nose. 'Well,' he said, 'which comics do you write?' and I told him this and that, and then I said, 'I also do this thing called 'Sandman,' and he went, 'Wait, hang on, you're Neil Gaiman!' He said, 'My God, man, you don't write comics, you write graphic novels .' And I suddenly felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn't a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening.
"I loved comics when I was growing up," Gaiman says, "and I never saw any reason why they should be considered inferior. I thought they could have as much power and passion and elegance as any other medium." At the age of 9 he read his way through the entire children's section of the Sussex library where his mother, a pharmacist, and his father, the owner of a vitamin company, would drop him off on their way to work. "When I finished the children's library," he remembers, "I moved on to the adult's library. I started at A." Some of his favorite authors were C. S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock and a Virginia writer named James Branch Cabell, whose strange oeuvre presently occupies three shelves in Gaiman's office. "Ghosts, space," Gaiman sums up his childhood interests, "anything indicating the imagination," and when his teen years coincided with a new wave of science-fiction writers as incorrigible as they were literary, Gaiman's own sensibilities crystallized. His heroes included Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, all of whom went on to become Neil Gaiman fans, sometimes littering the covers of Sandman books with blurbs or composing those effusive introductions.
The first stories Gaiman wrote, around the same time he was at the local library lost between A and Z, were about a day in the life of a penny; a professor, his young assistant and their pet white mountain lion; and an alien Gaiman distinctly remembers looking like a frog, with a spaceship he distinctly remembers looking like a football. At the age of 20 he sold his first article to a small newspaper--a review of a 10cc concert--stepping in for a rock-journalist friend who couldn't make the gig. Over the following years he wrote features about science-fiction for "Time Out," "Punch" and "Penthouse," while submitting short stories to anyone and everyone. Waiting for success, it crossed his mind that perhaps he had no talent, "a conclusion which," he says, "for reasons of arrogance I declined to believe though, looking back, it now occurs to me there may have been more to it than I thought."
He really didn't have so long to wait: Within a few years he was writing comics on both sides of the Atlantic. If part of success' secret is timing, Gaiman's was about to prove perfect. He came along just as American popular culture was mid-whiplash on the subject of comics. While in Europe and Japan comics have long been read by everyone from proles riding the Metro to intellectuals in cafes, in the United States the form had been mired for 50 years in the adolescence of its audience, and the not-entirely unfounded biases of grown-ups who think nothing of watching one inane TV sitcom after another but assume that comics are beneath them. Then in the early '80s appeared a book called "American Flagg!" written and drawn by Howard Chaykin. Set in a future bluntly polarized between authoritarianism and anarchy, "American Flagg!" was comic-strip Godard in its visual density, frantic energy, jagged jump-cuts and subliminal story logic. For the next several years there was a renaissance in American comics, led by hip, smart writers and artists usually from England or the more disenfranchised pockets of American society, who had come of age with comics but brought along with them everything else they had come of age with as well--the excitement of movies and the passion of rock 'n' roll and the influences of novelists from Dostoyevsky to and Orwell to Chandler to and Pynchon.
"We were suddenly in a world," recalls Gaiman, "where comics could be as good as anything. It was simply another medium with its own set of strengths and its own set of weaknesses. You could have words and pictures counterpointing each other, and you could get to a level of complexity that might be difficult in a film, for instance, because in a film you have no control over time, whereas in a comic you can go backwards and forwards " In a blur rushed one landmark after another: Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing"; Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's "Love and Rockets"; Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus"; Jamie Delano's "Hellblazer"; Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," which resurrected Batman from camp and turned him into a multizillion-dollar phenomenon; and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epochal "Watchmen," with its not-very-pretty conclusions about why we need supermen, and how the childish innocence of that need curdles to something pathetic and fascist.
Then the renaissance ended. Looking back, it's surprising how abruptly it ended. Inspiration gave way to the frustration and fury that the best writers and artists felt from dealing with the creative limitations, commercial demands and corporate bureaucracy of the mainstream--which is to say DC and especially Marvel, the monster of the business. Most notably Miller and Moore veered sharply toward the margins, where they would not have to accommodate a market still driven by 14-year-old boys, and where other gonzo geniuses, led principally by the Hernandez Brothers, were waiting. The work they have done there, like Miller's noir "Sin City" and Moore's Jack-the-Ripper saga "From Hell," has been as exhilarating as it is subversive. But on the margins of the business, it remains.
In the late '80s, after other people kicked down the doors, Neil Gaiman happened to wander through. He found he practically had the mainstream to himself, as well as a new market created over the preceding few years that wasn't just 14-year-old boys. The first project that got him attention in America was "Black Orchid," a bold if not entirely successful metaphysical title influenced by "Swamp Thing." After that he went on to "Miracleman" and "Books of Magic," the graphic novels "Violent Cases" and "Mr. Punch," and the particularly fine "Signal to Noise," about a dying filmmaker. As well, he co-authored "Good Omens," one of those novels published from time to time with lots of words and no pictures whatsoever. No one, however, including Gaiman, would contest that "The Sandman" is his masterpiece, and almost immediately he began testing the boundaries of what he could get away with.
"You can sort of see in the earliest stories," points out artist Dave McKean, who has done the fabulously spooky, id-wracked covers for every issue of "Sandman," "that when he first started out there was just this expectation of, Well, I'm doing this thing for this huge company, and this is the sort of thing they usually do, and you can only go so far. And then I think very quickly Neil decided, Well, why? Why shouldn't I just do what I want?"
He did what he wanted. If at first Gaiman didn't know exactly what that was, within a year he knew in meticulous detail. A comic book script is not unlike a movie script, except that the writer is also the director, giving directions to the artist that may be loose or specific, depending on the comic and the writer and the artist. Gaiman's scripts, which often run 40 pages or more for a 24-page, 135-panel story, are precise down to describing not just the action in every panel but often how large and dominant the panels are, what's in the foreground and what's in the back, what the overall visual tone of the page is, what the characters look like, and what the juxtapositions are between image and dialogue
While he has breezily broken comic book traditions right and left, writing narratives that spiral back into each other from the proximity of years apart (the seed for the upcoming final issue, number 75, was laid back in number 19), it may be that Gaiman's most daring creation has been the main character himself. Dream is a willfully unlikable master of ceremonies. His brooding mystique not withstanding, he is pompous and morose, harsh and utterly self-absorbed, bound to a code of honor ("the rules," he calls them) as capricious as it is mysterious, and he has all the social tact of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" cranked to maximum volume at a baby shower. His conduct tends toward the extreme. Having banished the love of his life to eternal torment in Hell for nothing worse than simply being wiser than he, he never considered the malice and injustice of his action until thousands of years later, when his sister finally pointed out how rather horrid it all was; at that point he turned the waking and dreaming universe upside down to rectify the matter. Hell, Heaven and everything in between are still sorting out the mess. He has no sense of humor whatsoever; in 69 issues, unless it was with a subtlety that would make Noel Coward look like Sam Kinison, he has never made a joke, let alone a witticism or an aside that might be considered vaguely sardonic.
Of course, he did have a rather lousy stretch there for the first 90 years or so of the 20th Century. An Aleister Crowley sort, trying to conjure and trap Death in his cellar in 1916 England through black magic, got his spells crossed and snared Dream instead. This happened in "Sandman" No. 1. There in that basement, Dream waited, a prisoner for decade after decade while all over the world people slipped into a dreamless sleep, sometimes for their whole lives; the evidence of the 20th Century, from human lampshades and the Cultural Revolution to Richard Nixon's presidency and Michael Jackson's new CD, is that the collective subconscious has been out of whack ever since. No sooner did Dream escape his predicament than he ran into its intended captive, Death, who happens to be Dream's big sister, the one with all the free advice on how her brother should conduct his affairs. Lively and level-headed, in her tight black leotards with her pixie mouth and wanton hair, Death is as unsettlingly appealing as Dream is a pill, not a god or a ghost or a demon but, like her brother, an Endless, one of seven siblings--along with Destiny and Destruction and Desire and Despair--in eternity's most dysfunctional family.
From her first appearance in "Sandman" No. 8, Death threatened to run away with the comic. She became so popular that not only did she make frequent return appearances but even had her own graphic novel, "The High Cost of Living" (with another, "The Time of Your Life," to come next year). Gaiman immediately understood that Death was a creation he had to make discriminating use of: "I've always tried to treat most of my characters as though I'm paying them," he notes. "Death is a superstar. She costs a lot." Soon enough, however, the spotlight was stolen from both Dream and Death by their littlest sister, Delirium, a cloud-addled punkette with green and pink hair who walks an airborne goldfish on a leash and is accompanied by a yammering dog named Barnabas--"George Burns," as Gaiman says, "to Delirium's Gracie Allen." Delirium trills on and on in musical non sequiturs that, in the midst of all their surreal nonsense, contain unexpected bits of poetry and revelation.
Death and Delirium only partly account for the extraordinary appeal of "The Sandman" to female readers. In a market that is 90% male, Martha Thomases, DC's publicity manager, guesses that nearly half of the book's readership is female, something that Golden Apple's manager Tony Edwards confirms. To some extent this is a function of age: 18 years, when kids start to outgrow other comics, is about when Gaiman's readership starts; and the maturity of the comic, as well as the emphasis on fantasy rather than fistfights, particularly appeals to young women on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood. Distinctly adult not so much for its sexuality and violence, though there is some from time to time, but for what it demands of the reader, "Sandman" portrays adult matters (such as sex and violence) in a fashion as unsensational as it is unsentimental, with sometimes ruthless consequences. All of this speaks to female readers and more mature male readers who are drawn to the moodiness of the stories as well as the insight Gaiman invests in all his characters, so many of whom, along with Death and Delirium, are young women, or girls aging faster than they want to. Among male writers in comics, only the Hernandez brothers write women as well.
Gaiman plainly values and believes in the archetypal myths that Frank Miller and Alan Moore smashed in the late '80s. "That's the reason," suggests rock 'n' roll singer Tori Amos, who wrote the songs "Precious Things" and "Tear in Your Hand" after reading "Sandman," "that people are waiting for the next issue. Neil is giving myth back to them. Some of them know it, some of them don't." Amos discovered Gaiman five years ago when she stumbled on "Calliope," the story of a Greek muse abducted from Mount Helicon in the 1920s and locked in a room by a desperate, washed-up writer. For years, used and deceived and lonely, Calliope waits heartbroken for the freedom that has been promised to her and which, she finally realizes, will never be delivered. "Writers are liars , my dear," her captor finally explains. "Surely you have realized that by now?"
"We don't remember our myth anymore," Amos says. "And what is myth? It's just truth that has happened and that we've forgotten, but that's still happening now." Gaiman's reconstruction of comic book myths has wound up something very different from Batman or Superman. Dream may be the most morally neutral comic book hero ever, defined neither by righteous revenge nor nihilistic fury nor messianic purpose, creating nightmares as easily as reveries because, in the Dreaming, there has to be both. "The Sandman" is not about heroism or justice or redemption; Amos thinks it's about "wholeness," about fragmented, busted-up people finding their common bond and becoming cohesive. But given the melancholy that pervades the book, it is also about loss. A sense of loss has gripped the comic from the beginning, when Dream lost his freedom within the prison of that English cellar. Ever since, it's been one loss after another: loss of faith, loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of certainty, loss of identity, loss of the past, loss of the soul, loss of our dreams every time we wake, with Dream the agent of all our life's losses, until Death transacts the last and greatest loss of all.
Almost from the beginning of "The Sandman," there were rumors the end was near. By Issue 20 Gaiman began suggesting in interviews that he would be finished with the story by Issue 40, "and then as I got on I said, 'Well, it isn't going to be done by 40,' and then I said, 'Well, probably 50.' And then, when we got into the early 50s, I started saying, 'Well, if we're still going by issue 70, I'll be very surprised.' "
He finally killed Dream in Issue 69, with so little theatrics one had to read it twice to realize it happened. "I think I knew all along I was going to kill him off, but I didn't know if I would have the guts when I got there. So I built escape holes and trap doors. All through the structure of 'Sandman' there are dozens of trap doors, to get me out of it if that really wasn't where I wanted to be when I got there." It was Gaiman's idea that DC Comics simply discontinue "The Sandman" when he was finished. Gaiman doesn't legally own the character; some version or other of the Sandman dates back to the 1940s, having gone through three or four incarnations before Gaiman created his. At first the company flatly rejected the proposal, before acceding to Gaiman's wishes. No one in the business can recall something like this ever happening: a major company making a purely artistic decision that will lose it money. "When someone has created such an outstanding and phenomenal piece of work as Neil," says DC executive editor Karen Berger, "it would be counterproductive for us to just say the hell with you and we're going to do whatever we want."
In other words, it apparently occurred to DC, that Gaiman himself is a potentially more valuable commodity than "The Sandman" will ever be. At the annual Comics Convention in San Diego in July, the line of people who brought their posters and books and comics for him to sign snaked through the cavernous convention hall out into the lobby; scheduled to last an hour, the signing was still going on after two, when Gaiman finally had to tear himself away for another commitment. At an event called "Spotlight on Neil Gaiman," with the aplomb and command of a brilliant monologuist, he regaled a standing-room-only, turn-away crowd for 90 minutes with Tales of Gaiman. These included the story of his first comics job, offered him by a guy in a bar who claimed to own a company that Gaiman finally discovered months later didn't exist; and his encounter, at the age of 15, with the stunned school career counselor who could only greet the boy's announcement that he wanted to write comics with the reply: "Have you ever considered accountancy?" For his convention performance Gaiman dressed in his customary black, though the leather jacket and the shades came off soon enough, and he laughed as much as everyone else when the first question from the audience was, "When you look in your closet in the morning, how many colors do you see?"
This year's comic convention came in on the heels of the outgoing Harley-Davidson convention, whose attendees hadn't yet all roared out of town. At the hotel next door, comic conventioneers mingled with Harley conventioneers, and you didn't have a lot of trouble telling which were which; the comic people were the geeky teen-age boys in shorts and backpacks. Inside the convention hall, aisles and aisles of booths and booths selling and buying and promoting comics were overrun with costumed superheroes and superheroines, some of them fans and some bountiful models hired to tuck themselves into flimsy red Vampirella outfits and hope that with one wrong move they didn't come spilling out, an epiphany the geeks awaited rapturously. The comic convention also had a startling and inordinate number of people in wheelchairs, for whom flight into a comic book world of the physically superempowered might be more than just a diversionary escape. In contrast to the rest of the convention, Gaiman's fans were older and punkier--painfully shy college girls dressed in Death clothes who silently thrusted their books in front of the author for a signature and perhaps a heart-fluttering word or two. Gaiman's star status as he walked through the hall was obvious even to those few who had no idea who he was. "Are you Tim Burton?" someone wanted to know.
In a medium where the story inside has always been written around the cover that sells the magazine, and where the superstars have always been illustrators (or illustrators who incidentally happen to be writers, too), Gaiman's superstardom is anomalous. The only other name comparable--besides Stan Lee, who revolutionized the business at Marvel around the time Gaiman was born--is that of fellow Brit and mentor Alan Moore. Ten years ago Moore was in a position similar to Gaiman's before the business made him nuts, or at any rate nuttier than he already was, which is reportedly pretty nutty. If Gaiman is in danger of anything, it's a marketplace that's willing to turn his endless creative energy into a brand name; like Stephen King or Clive Barker, he's already plastered across the covers of other companies' comics, such as "Neil Gaiman's Lady Justice," "Neil Gaiman's Mr. Hero" and "Neil Gaiman's Teknophage," with the truth of Neil Gaiman's actual involvement to be found in the credit box inside, which reads, "Based on a Concept Created by Neil Gaiman." Soon it will be, "Based on a Fleeting Notion Neil Had One Day Sitting Around His Gazebo Watching the Squirrels Frolic in the Woods," or "Based on a Whimsy Neil Himself Didn't Take Particularly Seriously for More Than Two or Three Seconds."
When someone at the convention asked if he ever finds himself writing "for the wrong reasons," Gaiman could still truthfully answer, "Not yet." But he would be the first to admit that none of his upcoming comic projects suggest a passionate purpose on the order of "Sandman," and most are, rather conspicuously, "Sandman" offshoots: the second Death novel, a Delirium miniseries, a series called "The Dreaming" that will be another of those things Gaiman "conceives" without actually writing. Beyond the comics, spoken-word CDs and songs for a local folk group and a TV series for the BBC, which currently absorbs most of his effort and enthusiasm, as well as all the admirable time and money he contributes to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for fighting censorship. By his own admission, a passionate purpose isn't what he's looking for at the moment: "Something I can finish by tea time" is the way he puts it. Gaiman's future is now as open and invisible as the Midwest night, with its fleeting fireflies providing the only glimmer; and lately, talking on the telephone with his 1-year-old daughter in his arms, he almost sounds weary--a little at loose ends perhaps, and depressed by the recent death of his early science-fiction idol Roger Zelazny. He is intelligent and insightful enough to suspect that, whatever the triumphs of the future, he will probably never have more fun than he's had the last seven years; he will probably never have a better dream.
Counting off the latitudes and longitudes, stranding himself smack in the middle of the New World, Neil Gaiman hides out there. Whether he hides not only from the loopy past and the frenzied present, represented by tremulous teen-age girls dressed in black with Delirious hair, but also from the insomnia of the future, where there is no more dreaming and one writes for the wrong reasons, only he can say. Yearning for England as he does only 90% of the time, he misses the Old World's layers of age and meaning, forced on top of one another by the constraints of space. "In America," he says, "if you want to find something, you get in a car and drive. In England, you go down into the ground, through a thousand years." His new series for the BBC, "Neverwhere," takes place in two Londons: one the London of daylight and wakefulness, the other a shadow London that exists underground, under the feet of all the somnambulists above. So in a sense nothing has changed; going down into the ground, going down into a thousand years of dreams, Gaiman is still exploring the subterranean side of consciousness, and the Sandman isn't dead after all. But now, having finally awakened from your dream, he is left to dream his own.