Gaiman Talks "Sandman: Overture," Creative Process, Serial Storytelling & Movie Hopes

Late last week, DC Comics held a special press event at its New York City offices, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and the launch of Vertigo's "Sandman: Overture" miniseries by Gaiman and artist J.H. Williams III.

Gaiman was on hand to discuss the new series and answer questions, with DC providing a selection of cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery, custom-decorated in Sandman-printed icing. The publisher also displayed a test printing of the $499.95 "Sandman Omnibus: Silver Edition" and showcased copies of all the variant covers for "Sandman: Overture" #1, plus an advance of the Special Edition of "Overture" #1, packed with bonus features and scheduled for release on Nov. 27.

Gaiman started the conversation by discussing his decision to return to serial comic books with "Overture," and why he chose this format for this project instead of structuring it as a graphic novel.

Neil Gaiman: I liked the idea of doing a comic book again. There are things that you can actually only do in a serial, and I kind of missed them. And also, I was fascinated now, because people who've read "Sandman" and who've read "Sandman" as a book, completely forget that when it was coming out, you were having to wait a month or more to find out what was going to happen next, that I was going to be toying with you and doing things that you weren't expecting and that there were going to be cliffhangers. Cliffhangers don't mean anything if you get to the end of the cliffhanger and you turn the page and you keep going. You barely notice that it was a cliffhanger. I kind of just really liked the idea of doing one of those again.

The last "Sandman" to actually be published as a make-you-go-down-to-the-comic-store-and-buy-it comic came out in...early '96. So, it's been seventeen years, now -- that's an entire generation of comics fans who have no idea, even if they've read "Sandman" -- and a lot of them have, because the magic of "Sandman" is, these books have been in print forever. But none of [these readers] have actually experienced the joy of going down to the comic store, getting to the end of an episode of "Sandman" and going, "What?" and then going, "When's the next one out?" and then going, "NO!" and that used to happen regularly.

That's kind of the amazing thing about serial fiction, which originally existed in pretty much every form of fiction -- when Dickens was working, it was novels. Now it's something that really only exists, that serial storytelling thing, in comics and on TV. It seems to be fading away, in some ways, even on TV, because now that you can Netflix or whatever, you get your instant gratification of a season. You don't even get that, "Oh, my God -- we have to wait a week to figure out what's going to happen" anymore. The end-of-season cliffhanger is a thing of the past. I loved the idea of giving people that back.

On the other hand, I had sworn a huge and mighty oath when I finished "Sandman," that I would never do another monthly comic unless it was fun, and unless I wanted to, and unless, most important of all, it was limited. I liked the idea of something with a beginning, a middle and an end that wasn't seventy-five issues away.

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Gaiman described his feelings when sitting down to write this new series, and whether he was nervous or excited to return to these characters.

It was terrifying. It was really, really scary. It was mostly really scary because - at the beginning of writing "Sandman," nobody expected anything. All I wanted was not to be canceled. Back then, DC Comics had a really nice system, where they would give you a year to save face for everybody. So I knew I had twelve issues, and I loved the fact that I had my twelve issues. That was great! All I wanted was not to be canceled at the end of issue twelve, not to get the phone call.

Back then, I wasn't nervous. Nobody was looking, nobody cared. Since then, "Sandman" has sold millions upon millions upon millions of graphic novels. You have a generation that grew up reading them, and then a younger generation that got infected. Now, I will do signings and it's kind of weird that I'll be signing copies of "Sandman" graphic novels for people who were not born when the first issues came out.

Every time I sit down and write anything for this, there are a hypothetical thirty million people looking over my shoulder. So, yeah, it's probably the scariest thing I've ever done.

On the other hand, the characters do a lot of the work for me. It's always been the joy of "Sandman," and it's the thing that I was really scared would have gone away -- and it hadn't gone away. It didn't go away! I know what they sound like, and you shut up and you listen and they say things. People used to [ask] who was my favorite character to write for, and I used to say Delirium. Because she did her own dialogue. All I ever had to do was give her a straight line, and then shut up, and then write down what she said, and it was easy. I haven't yet reached her -- I'm hoping she will show up in one of these, because I've missed her.

On whether or not the character would be Delirium or Delight if and when she appears in Overture, Gaiman responded:

Without wishing to give too much away, while you may see some stuff from a very, very long time ago when she was Delight...pretty much everything that's happening is happening in 1915. Although, having said that, the next issue starts with eight pages of Daniel in 2013 -- just to confuse everybody!

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Regarding the original run of "The Sandman," Gaiman was asked when he first felt that the book had found its audience, and he could begin to stretch out and experiment with his storytelling.

It was after issue #8, going into issue #9, that everything changed. I was reading the mail as it was coming in -- a FedEx envelope would arrive with all of the mail that had come in, and you'd get a dozen or two dozen things, and the only thing I could be completely certain of from the mail was, the most popular thing that I'd done in the whole of that first run of "Sandman" was "A Hope In Hell" -- [issue #4 when Morpheus] goes to Hell, he challenges Lucifer, and everybody wanted the return match. That was the thing that they loved. I finished issue #8, and I go, "Okay, I have two choices. I have this story in my head called 'Season Of Mists,' and he's going to go back to Hell, he's going to challenge Lucifer. And it's all the stuff I know everybody's going to love. And I can do that now, or I can do this thing called 'The Doll's House,' that I have no idea if anybody is going to like but me, and I can kick it off with an old African folk tale."

There was a path that lay before me, and I felt, one way, I get to change everything, if it works. And the other way, I give the readers what they want -- but it felt like it was the wrong way, so I didn't do that. Instead, I did "The Doll's House," and it was another year before I got to "Season Of Mists." But by that point, I felt like, yes, I really own this thing.

Also, by that point, nobody knew what to expect! Which was the great thing about "Sandman." It's like nobody was reining me in. Because [Laughs] nobody knew what I was doing! So they couldn't say, "Can you make it more like this, or like that."

Gaiman then addressed whether or not he felt "Season Of Mists" would have worked as well if it had come first.

Put it this way: People would have loved it, but I wouldn't have loved it as much. It was, at the time, in my head, I looked at friends of mine -- and I will name no names -- who wrote comics and who were writing essentially the same comic over and over and over again... It was, financially, incredibly rewarding for them, and spiritually and emotionally it seemed very, very draining. I sort of made the call back then that I would go the way that, essentially, was counter-intuitive. It was weird. I remember one comics writer saying to me that this person had figured out that in order to make it pay, you had to write -- you could not spend more than twenty-four hours writing your comic. I was at about the point where I was taking three and a half to four weeks every month to write "Sandman." I wasn't doing anything else at that point, and I was still convinced that my way was right. I played the long game, but the funny thing was, I had no idea it was the long game! All of the stuff, the idea that you'd have that, the beautiful silver thing there, [gestures toward the Sandman Omnibus Silver Edition] was still many, many years in the future.

Neil Gaiman Explains "Sandman: Overture" #2 Delay

Asked if, given the finite canvas of a limited series, is he finding a way to work in the same sort of detours and asides that appeared in the original series, either when J.H. Williams sends back the art and he sees something that inspires him, or as the characters speak to him, Gaiman enthusiastically replied:

Oh, that's going on all the time! J.H. draws something, and I go, "I CAN USE THAT!" which is, of course, the wonderful thing about writing comics.

I do have a tendency to detour, I know this. And I also have a tendency for things to grow in the telling. Given that when I started "Sandman," I was telling people that it was going to end around issue #30. And then I told people it would probably end at issue #50. And then I got really careful of my phrasing, and I started saying, "Well, if it reaches issue #75, I'll be surprised." And given that the only comic series I've done since, over at Marvel, were a six-issue series that went up to issue 8 and a six-issue series that went up to issue 7 -- which is actually kind of fun, when you look at the covers -- 'number one of six, number two of six, number six of seven.' My tendency is to always diverge, and so on and so forth. At this point in the storytelling process, all I can say is, Right now, I'm still on track, and right now, this is not a "Sandman" that has a -- I don't know. "Shtick" is the wrong word, but it definitely became a thing that I did, [when I] was halfway through a "Sandman" storyline, I would normally do an issue that was completely unrelated but thematically, absolutely what we were doing. This won't have one of those, but it will have lots of feeding off the glorious things that J.H. has done.

You know, it's still me writing it, with the same head that I had -- I have not managed to change heads in the previous twenty-five years. It's still me, it's still "Sandman." I was incredibly amused by reading one online review where somebody quoted, I don't remember which line it was, but a line from the story, and said, "Oh, my God -- this is kind of peculiar, Gaiman's self-reflexively describing his writing within the story!" and I'm going, "Yeah, that's something I've been doing since 1988." "The Kindly Ones," every first panel of every issue is a description of the story that you are reading so far, within the story, in context of -- old ladies talking about knitting, mostly. So that's the kind of stuff -- I don't know if I could keep it out if I tried. It's going to be about story, and it's going to be about the nature of story.

The only thing that I will say that's kind of fun in this, is there are things I've been sitting on for twenty-something years, where I'd go, "Well, I wonder if this is the time to reveal that thing?" And I'd go, "Well, no, it might be more fun one day up the line." Some of those things are now getting paid off -- and I have no idea what people's reactions are going to be to those. I can't even say what they are, because I don't want to give too much away -- but one of them is, basically, the fold-out at the end of issue #1. One of them is the last page of issue #2. There's things that will leave people going, II didn't know that -- how does that work?"

Gaiman addressed if he could envision himself returning to "Sandman" again in the future, after this series concludes.

I can't see any reason why not, is the honest answer. When I stopped doing ["Sandman"], I stopped while I still enjoyed it. That was hugely important to me, and people thought I was mad. They were saying, when "Sandman" #75 came out, and there were lots of interviews when that issue came out, and people would say, "Well, why are you stopping?" And I'm saying, "Well, I still love it, which seems like a really good reason to stop." I've never yet got up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and gone, 'Ah, fuck, I have to write 'Sandman' today." It's still interesting and exciting, occasionally it's scary, often it's baffling and frustrating, but it's always -- the challenge of doing something that you love and trying to do it well.

I do not ever want to get to the point where I don't love "Sandman." Part of that, for me, it the idea that I can go away. I can do a hundred thousand other things. I can write novels. I can write children's books. I can work on a big book of myth. I can teach. I can make TV. I can do all that stuff, and then, ten years from now or fifteen years from now or whatever, Shelly [Bond] will take me out to lunch and say, "Let's do it again." And I will go, "OK," and we'll do it again.

As long as those characters are still in my head, it's genuinely fun. As long as Morpheus still sounds like Morpheus -- which is, unfortunately, so much more than just printing his lettering white-on-black in the word balloons.

Gaiman also offered thoughts on the joy of returning to writing comics after working in other media.

What I miss most, writing anything that isn't comics, is silent panels. The joy of being able to write silent panels is actually one of the things that -- there were just a couple of them in ["Sandman: Overture"] #2, where I felt so thrilled, because it's the one technique -- there are many techniques that you can do in comics that you can't do in other things -- but it's one of the few things that is just pure and pristine. Because nothing is said, and you're looking at a character from outside, and in some ways it's just a beat. But in other ways, you are having to suddenly think about what they are thinking about. You are forced -- the silence of the panel forces you to contemplate, to react as a reader in a way that you couldn't if it was prose, because I would still be talking. You don't just get that discreet moment and that beat of silence. It's a comics-only thing, and I loved having that back.

What I enjoy most about film is, it's happening in real time, or a semblance of real time, and you are sitting there, watching stuff happening, which I love. And unable to control, at least initially, the speed with which it happens, the way the information is coming in that is being doled out to you by the filmmaker. I love that.

In novels, I think what I love best is that [as a writer] you are giving the reader 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks and you're essentially handing them raw code. You are saying, "Now, your job is to build the world." And you say, "This happened in New York," and suddenly the reader does this pencil sketch of New York in their head -- and now, you're going to fill that in. The feeling in prose that you're doing something that is absolutely collaborative -- it is, very much, a collaboration between you and the reader.

Comics give you a weird kind of collaboration, in that you're providing static images and you're providing written lettering, and the person reading it is animating. For me, with "Overture," the joy was going, "OK, what can we do that is unique to paper?" When I was doing "Sandman," over the years, I think there's probably, in those seventy-five issues, there are maybe five double-page spreads. I was incredibly sparing with them. Even going to a full splash page was something that we didn't do unless I could justify it. Double-page spreads were for places where, "[We're] really working up to this thing, and we're going to turn the page, and you're going to see a full-size sea serpent -- and Michael Zulli is going to draw it and Dick Giordano is going to ink it and it is going to blow your socks off!" Those things worked because they happened so rarely. So, I remember phoning up Shelly [when planning out "Overture"] and just saying, "OK, I want a double-page spread -- and I want to know how big we can make it!"

Shelly actually had to go off and work it out, and she sent me various prototypes and dummies so that we could figure out how to do this -- the fact that it looks so easy and natural took a ridiculous amount of work. I love the fact that we've never done anything like that before in "Sandman," but it is something you can do with paper, and it actually allows us to put -- how many are there, thirty seven? There's thirty-something, I've forgotten how many. [Shelly Bond offers the number thirty-eight] You can put thirty-eight different Sandmans in there. [Gaiman holds up the fold-out spread] Including, I don't know if it's giving too much away, but I can promise that in issue #2, we will meet the owner of these hands.

Finally, Gaiman spoke on the ongoing possibility of Sandman being adapted for film or television.

You know, for years and years, it wasn't [a possibility]. What tended to happen a lot in the '90s, was the point where Warners would get relatively close to making a "Sandman" movie, and then somebody would get relatively realistic about the fact that the film would not be PG-13, really, and that it would be incredibly big and expensive, and that meant that it could never really be made -- or the sequence of films that you would need to tell The Sandman would never get made. I think things like the Dark Knight films kind of changed that, just how dark and how big you could get. And I also think that the fact that, when I used to go for meetings at Warner Brothers, the top execs there didn't really know who or what "Sandman" was, and they weren't really interested. But the nervous juniors that would actually bring me the bottles of water when I arrived and would get me to sign their comics on the way out -- they knew. They are now running the studios, all of those people. We didn't move -- the mainstream came to us.

With "Sandman," now, it is rare that I run into a director who doesn't want to do "Sandman." I know, I'm at the point -- in 1991, I went for a meeting with a President of Warner Brothers Pictures, when "Sandman" was still ongoing, and she said, "So, 'Sandman' movie!" And I said, "Yeah, please don't do it." She said, "What?" I said, "Look, I'm writing 'Sandman,' it's going to be a huge distraction -- can we just let me do my thing?" And she said, "Never in my entire tenure at Warners has anybody ever sat at the desk and asked me not to make a movie." I said, "Well, I am," and she said, "OK, we won't make the movie," and I said, "Great!" So that killed that for a few years.

Then, in 1996, [Ted] Elliott and [Terry] Rossio did a script, Roger Avary was signed up to direct it -- that started going south about the point that Roger showed Jan Å vankmajer's "Alice" to the higher-ups at Warners and explained that the stuff in the Dreaming would feel a bit like that. And he was asked to pack his desk and leave. [Laughs]

It's true! And then Jon Peters was working on the script, and versions of the Peters script got bad enough that at one point, I more or less had to throw myself under a bus and kill that. It was terrible. Now, I don't think we're in that world. What I've been saying for the last five or ten years is that sooner or later someone is going to come along for whom "The Sandman" is as important as "Spider-Man" was to Sam Raimi, or "Lord Of The Rings" was to Peter Jackson. It's these people who, their point of view is, they were put on this Earth to make this thing. And they will make it. All I hope is -- I think it's inevitable, is where I'm going with this. I hope it's good.

But I think we're getting to the point where -- the era of "Howard The Duck" is long way behind us. We hope. On the other hand, that 1998 script, which began, his first line was, "As if your puny weapons could harm me, the mighty lord of dreams, The Sandman," and then he attempts to throw a punch and fly -- and falls down. And it just got worse from there. I'm glad that never got made. That could have been a Howard The Duck if it had been. So, A) I think it's inevitable, B), I hope it happens when the time is right. I think a Sandman movie is going to be too expensive for anybody to make a lousy movie at this point. But I also kind of hope that when they do make a movie, it won't be safe, whatever it is.

And [a TV adaptation] would be cool too. I would absolutely watch the HBO "Sandman." On the other hand, I would happily watch Tom Hiddleston or Benedict Cumberbatch as the Dream Lord in the movie. Or somebody else, who's yet to graduate -- as long as they've got good cheekbones!

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