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Sunday Lounge: Neil Gaiman on writing 'The Sandman' and the new Netflix series

Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking series ‘The Sandman’ is being turned into a Netflix production. The writer speaks to Lounge on the TV series and how he wrote the stories that changed the comics industry

Three decades on from the serialization of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's iconic comics series is now being turned into a Netflix show. (Photo: Getty Images)
Three decades on from the serialization of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's iconic comics series is now being turned into a Netflix show. (Photo: Getty Images)

“I am one of those people, more people know who I am than have read my books,” says Neil Gaiman over the phone from his home in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s talking about The Neil Gaiman Reader. Published in early October by HarperCollins, the book contains 52 pieces from Gaiman’s large and varied body of fiction over 30 years. Comprising many of his short stories as well as some novel extracts, the Reader makes for a good introduction.

Gaiman says it was needed. “One reason that people don’t necessarily read my books is because they don’t know where to start, and all of the books and all of the stories are very different,” he says. That makes sense, since Gaiman, somewhat like Stephen King, is an extremely prolific writer. His novels, like Coraline, Neverwhere and American Gods, are genre-hopping classics, straddling horror, speculative fiction and fantasy. His short story collections are even more varied. What separates Gaiman from King, though, is that he also writes comics—and is the writer of perhaps the greatest of them all, The Sandman.

The epic story of Dream of the Endless is quite certainly what made Gaiman a household name. It’s the series that changed comics forever, fuelling the rise of its more highbrow cousin, the graphic novel. While you won’t find too many comics writers, including Gaiman, using that phrase much, given how it smells faintly of pomposity, what is undeniably true is that The Sandman was more responsible than most in creating the adult, non-superhero comic. Without The Sandman, there would probably have been no Transmetropolitan, no Persepolis, no The Walking Dead…the list could go on. Not only did the stratospheric success of Gaiman’s work make the comic book industry realise that there are countless stories to be told other than Superman and the Iron-Man, it ended up challenging the stranglehold that the duopoly of DC Comics and Marvel Comics had on the industry. As Norman Mailer once said, “Along with everything else, Sandman is a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it’s about time.”

The Sandman ran as a monthly comic between 1988 and 1996, a long run of 75 issues. As the series grew in popularity, DC began collecting them into books. By the time it ended, with Gaiman as popular as a rock star, there were 10 books. Each a classic of visual storytelling, the books have since been collected into box-sets, released in hardcover and annotated versions, and have sold in the millions. In 2020, The Sandman is again in the news. In July, Audible released the first three books in the audiobook format, and it quickly became a best-seller, with a stellar voice-cast of actors of the calibre of Michael Sheen, Andy Serkis, Samantha Morton, James McAvoy, Riz Ahmed and others. “It’s the fastest selling thing that Audible has ever released, in terms of fiction. And Audible were telling us that it outsold even the Harry Potter books on audio,” says Gaiman, with obvious pride. “That is a wonderful thing, and I can’t wait to do more!”

But the even bigger news is that the shoot for the hotly-anticipated Netflix adaptation of The Sandman finally began on 19 October. Season 1 of the show, which will mostly cover the first eight issues of the comics, is expected to be out sometime in 2021. Industry watchers say Netflix is hoping that The Sandman will be as much of a flagship show for the streaming giant as Game Of Thrones was for HBO. But for millions of fans, the chance to finally see their beloved Morpheus aka Dream on screen is fraught with apprehension. Will it do the books justice? Will it be faithful? Will it be true?

“You know, all I can say is that my fears are bigger than anyone, my hopes are bigger than anyone. So far, I am incredibly happy,” says Gaiman. He is an executive producer on the show, “a distant senior partner” as he puts it, and he receives the unedited daily footage from the shoot. “It’s a weird combination of emotions because I get to see the dailies, the unedited filming of what they did the day before, and everyday I am really impressed with what they are doing. But also I keep finding myself overwhelmed by emotion,” he says. The show is being developed by Allan Heinberg, a screenwriter and TV producer.

Gaiman says he’s happy that all the crew members are fans of The Sandman. “There’s a level at which everybody making Sandman is in love with Sandman, everybody. The artists, the VFX people, they are all Sandman fans! And they think they are on the best thing in the world, and maybe they are!”

In 1988, Gaiman was a 28-year-old writer who had dabbled in some journalism, had written a quickie biography of the band Duran Duran, and three offbeat graphic novels, Signal To Noise, Violent Cases and The Tragical Comedy Or Comical Tragedy Of Mr. Punch. For these three, he collaborated with artist Dave McKean, who would go on to design the covers of The Sandman issues. Gaiman got a break when DC Comics asked him to write Black Orchid, a limited series. Impressed with his work, the then DC president, Jenette Kahn, and editor Karen Berger gave Gaiman permission to re-imagine an obscure character from DC’s vast stable.

The Sandman dated back to 1939, when he made his appearance as a hero wearing a gas mask and a trench coat, who sedated criminals with a gun that emitted sleeping gas. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s the character was re-imagined by other DC writers, always in a conventional superhero vein, but with interesting quirks like having two nightmares as assistants, or residing in a Dream Dimension outside the real world.

Dream from a panel in the story Playing House. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)
Dream from a panel in the story Playing House. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)

Gaiman re-imagined the character from the ground up, recasting him as the personification of dreams: “the lord shaper” of dreams and nightmares, of the imagination, of things that never were, presiding over his phantasmagoric realm—the Dreaming. He is one of the Endless, seven beings that lie behind gods and myths and the fabric of reality, there since the universe began. His siblings, Death, Destiny, Delirium, Desire, Despair and Destruction, rule over realms of their own and are an integral part of the story. But narrative-arc is basically about Dream, called Morpheus, Oneiros, Kai'ckul, the Cat of Dreams and many other names by humanity and other beings. A tall, sickly pale being with hair and clothes as black as night, Dream looked like he was a member of The Cure.

Given free rein, Gaiman conceptualised the series as a horror and fantasy title. He wrote for the glory, since there was hardly any money in it. “When I started off writing The Sandman, we were in a world in which critical success and commercial failure were basically the same thing. And I wanted Sandman to be a critical success. And I was young, I didn’t know if I could tell a story a month, or how,” he says. He was daunted but also excited, because he felt he was breaking new ground, working with young and talented artists to bring Dream to life. “I remember imagining Dream, and doing lots and lots and lots of drawings of him, and sending those drawings to Sam Kieth, who then did a whole bunch of drawings, and me picking the one that was sort of closest to the thing in my head, and then Mike Dringenberg coming along and doing some more.” Dringenberg’s Dream was the first glimpse that the general public had of the series, in an advertisement from 1988. “I will show you terror in a handful of dust” ran the caption on the poster, as a ghostly Morpheus loomed, opening his hand to reveal gleaming grains of sand. “I remember that DC Comics had no real idea what I was making. It actually made what I was making very easy to do,” says Gaiman.

It was a heady time in the industry. Gaiman’s friend Alan Moore had already shaken it up with his run as the writer of the DC horror title Swamp Thing in 1987, following that up with Watchmen in 1988 and V For Vendetta in 1989. Art Spiegelman was writing Maus at the same time, and Frank Miller had forever changed the way Batman would be depicted in The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. The misfits were taking over. “It was incredibly exciting! It felt like something huge was changing and that we were changing it. And in retrospect, something huge was changing, and we were changing it,” says Gaiman.

In the late 1980s, nobody was doing comics for money. If you were doing comics, you were doing it for love.

His success meant that Karen Berger at DC (also the series editor of The Sandman) began pushing for more mature storylines, which ultimately resulted in the Vertigo imprint in 1993, with The Sandman as its crown jewel. Until DC retired Vertigo in January this year, the imprint produced such classics as The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, and Fables by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham. “There were so many amazing creators just suddenly going, ‘hang on we can do anything’,” says Gaiman, adding that this was possible because the commercial stakes were not very high. “Even those of us who were doing really well, weren’t doing very well by the standards of the outside world,” he says, laughing. “In the late 1980s, nobody was doing comics for money. If you were doing comics, you were doing it for love.”

One of the things that made The Sandman so compelling was the way it encapsulated an entire culture. Goth styling, outsider horror, deadpan, dark humour, Velvet Underground songs, alternative cultural forms, all came together in a perfect balance in stories that were about gods and monsters, but also about ordinary people going about their lives. The series had LGBTQ+ characters, for example, at a time when almost no mainstream comics did, and the stories had a lot of time for people the world might consider mad, non-normative.

The original cover of The Sandman issue 1, created by Dave McKean. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)
The original cover of The Sandman issue 1, created by Dave McKean. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)

But perhaps that’s not so surprising because despite the story arc’s grand, mythic scope, Gaiman was essentially examining the inner lives of his characters, be they gods or kings or commoners. After all, Dream’s realm is that of stories. “The largest narrative of all is who people are and what our stories are. And what the importance is of stories and storytelling for human beings,” he says. Gaiman is of the firm belief that storytelling is a defining human trait, making us what we are. He says, though, that he wasn’t immediately aware of working in these themes, working as he was on a tight deadline. He just put in what felt right to him.

“I never had the time to stop and think. Which meant that all of the big decisions of The Sandman were gut decisions. Do what feels right,” he says. If he paused too long to think, says Gaiman, then that would mean neither he, nor his collaborators, would earn any money. He needed to finish writing because “an artist who’s sitting at home needs to start drawing so he can pay his rent. And we have a colourist who needs to colour so he can pay his rent. And there’s a letterer, who needs to do some lettering so he can pay his rent. And you have three kids and if you don’t finish, you don’t get to pay your rent.”

Gaiman pauses, then says that he only wanted to put in things he cared about. “There were trans characters in Sandman because I had trans friends and I wasn’t seeing them in comics anywhere. And I was like woah, my friends should be in my comics too. And everything was going in without thought. Which I think is the best way, sometimes, to make art,” he says.

At the time, many criticised The Sandman for not being overtly political like, say, Watchmen or Maus. But that was to miss the point that much of the narrative investigates the nature of power and those who wield it, and the insurrectionist possibilities of the imagination. In one of the most arresting stories from the books, Thermidor from Fables And Reflections, the mythical song of Orpheus brings down Maximilien Robespierre’s rationality-obsessed Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France. In a highlight from book 4, Season Of Mists, Lucifer Morningstar refuses to play God’s game, locks up Hell, banishes its demons and spirits, cuts his wings and becomes a bar pianist in Los Angeles. In another story, Eve, Cain and Abel give alternate histories of themselves that are much more interesting than the ones from the Old Testament. In another story, Three Septembers And A January, we meet of the only “emperor” of the US, one Joshua Norton in mid-19th century San Francisco. In the firm grip of Despair and about to die by suicide, Norton is saved when Morpheus gives him a dream of being a just emperor. Derided by mainstream society as a madman, he becomes a beloved “secret” ruler of an increasingly multi-ethnic city. At the end of his life, when Death comes for him, she says, “I have met a lot of kings, and emperors and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I have met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.”

Apart from Dream, his elder sister Death is probably the most beloved character from the series. In a departure from the usual portrayal of death as a skeletal, silent Grim Reaper brandishing a scythe, Death’s first appearance in The Sound Of Her Wings, issue 8 of the comics, created a stir. A seemingly carefree, petite girl in black jeans and a tank top, with Goth makeup and wearing an ankh around her neck, Death’s appearance completely belied her power. When she chucked a loaf of bread at her brooding younger brother’s head in frustration, it marked an early tonal shift to The Sandman. The first seven issues were unremittingly dark, taking in such subjects as Dream’s 75-year imprisonment in the basement of an occultist, as well as the hellish story 24 Hours. In it, an occultist traps a few people inside a diner, slowly driving them insane, with gruesome results.

Dream and Death have a conversation in The Sound Of Her Wings. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)
Dream and Death have a conversation in The Sound Of Her Wings. (Photo courtesy DC Comics)

Gaiman says the light and benediction of The Sound Of Her Wings was part of a plan. “I wrote the first seven issues of Sandman where you experience lots of different kinds of horror. From contemporary horror to classical horror. And with The Sound Of Her Wings it felt to me like there was a kind of blessing on the comic. And it never quite got that dark again, although there were things like a serial killers’ convention which were really, really dark.” It was a way to create an audience, he says. “I wanted to prepare the readers to go anywhere with me. And we kind of have that as well with The Sandman audio and now again with the TV show. Which is, travel with us. If you trust us through the first season, we can guarantee that it will never get that dark again. But you have also learnt that nobody necessarily gets out of Sandman alive.” By the time readers get to book 9, The Kindly Ones, they do realise that almost nobody really does, which gives both that book—considered by many to be the finest story arc of the series—and the overall narrative its power.

The other great thing about The Sandman is that there are so many wonderful characters, both major and minor. The immortal Hob Gadling, Dream’s raven Matthew, the wisecracking Mervyn Pumpkinhead, the terrifying nightmare The Corinthian, the Faerie Nuala, and in two immortal stories, William Shakespeare himself. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we follow Shakespeare’s travelling company as they perform the play, suggested to him by Dream, in front of a vast audience of the terrible Faeries, and their queen, Titania. It remains the only comic book to ever win a World Fantasy Award. In the second, an older Shakespeare writes his final masterpiece, The Tempest. Again, guided by Dream, Shakespeare now intuits that the story might actually be about Morpheus.

Gaiman turned 60 on 10 November. It’s faintly shocking to think of the perennially boyish Gaiman, seemingly forever wearing a leather jacket and looking impossibly cool and moody with his shock of messy hair, turning 60. But he strides on as confidently as ever into his new avatar as a TV creator. Last year, he helped turn Good Omens, a book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, into a television series. Now there’s The Sandman. What next? “There are a couple of huge television series that I can’t talk about because they aren’t announced yet. And a small movie that I can’t talk about because it’s not announced yet,” he says.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him about a favourite blink-and-you-miss character from The Sandman, a gracious and charming “minor nightmare” called The Borghal Rantipole. Appearing in just a few panels across a couple of books, he vanishes without any explanation, wandering off the pages like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Does Gaiman know where he went? “I loved him. He was so cute,” he says. “The trouble with asking what happened to the Borghal Rantipole is like asking what happened to any of them. They went off stage and they haven’t come back on stage yet.”

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