JH Williams III Dreams Big For "Sandman" Prequel

Comic-Con International in San Diego delivered thrills and spills on a seemingly endless amount of new projects this past weekend but perhaps none was more widely well-received than DC Comics' announcement that Neil Gaiman was returning to Vertigo Comics to pen a prequel to his Eisner Award-winning series "Sandman" in celebration of the title's twenty-fifth anniversary.

The video announcement also revealed that the New York Times bestselling author would team with superstar artist J.H. Williams III ("Batwoman") on the miniseries, which is scheduled to be released in 2013.

With more than seven million copies sold in nine different languages, Gaiman's 75-issue series was re-released as a 10-volume set of graphic novels in the 1990s. During its run, "Sandman" garnered 19 Eisner and six Harvey Awards, and is the only comic book to win the World Fantasy Award.

When Gaiman ended the series in 1996, he told British Daily "The Independent," "Could I do another five issues of 'Sandman'? Well, damn right. And would I be able to look at myself in the mirror happily? No. Is it time to stop because I've reached the end, yes, and I think I'd rather leave while I'm in love."

And so he did. But in the video announcement this weekend, Gaiman admitted he always regretted that he never told the tale of what Morpheus was doing before "Sandman" #1 began. This will be that story, and possibly no one is more excited to see it come to fruition than Williams.

When CBR News spoke with the Eisner Award-winning artist this week, his enthusiasm could not be contained, his genuine passion for the project and the source material unrivaled. A long-time fan of "Sandman," Williams easily listed the legendary artists that have previously worked with Gaiman on the series as he spoke candidly about his anticipation and anxiety for the challenge ahead.

CBR News: While Sandman is obviously an awesome gig, will this project affect your run GLAAD award-winning run on "Batwoman"?

J.H. Williams III: Not really. I will have to take a break from doing artwork -- we're finishing up the artwork for third arc right now. There are two more issues to draw of that before switching over to the "Sandman" stuff, but Haden [Blackman] and I will be carrying on as the writing team while I'm working on "Sandman."

[Taking a break from the artwork on "Batwoman"] probably would have been the plan, regardless. Even if I was going to be doing more art on "Batwoman," someone else would have been working on the fourth arc while I was doing the third, so it doesn't really affect the movement of how the stories will be handled, if that makes any sense.

In the video announcement, Neil Gaiman said he was a fan of your work, specifically citing "Promethea" and "Batwoman," but he also said we would see a side of you in "Sandman" that we have never seen before. Are you changing things up for this project?

That's a tricky question because I am always looking for ways to try out new things. Neil knows that and he's going to try and push me into some stuff that we may not have seen before in terms of types of story that I've told in the past.

It's clearly going to be "Sandman," so it's going to be unlike anything I've drawn previously. The closest thing might be "Promethea" but even that book feels dramatically different from "Sandman." It's definitely going to bring out some different things from me. It should be pretty cool.

When you look at the promo piece that was done, you clearly see that there are some different things going on there than stuff I've done in the past, even though other things I've done in the past have a pretty psychedelic aspect to it. But again, that "Sandman" piece does feel different.

I don't believe you've worked with Neil Gaiman before. How did you end up with this assignment?

I've never had the chance to work with Neil before. He's always been someone I've wanted to work with, but I honestly never thought that I would get the opportunity. When he came and did those two issues of "Batman" in the middle of Grant Morrison's run a short while ago, I was very jealous I wasn't able to draw that. Again, it's always something I've wanted to do, but he hasn't been doing much comic stuff lately, so I thought I'd missed my chance.

Then, just less than a year ago, I got an email from [Vertigo Executive Editor] Karen Berger, who I've been talking with for quite a few years. She's wanted me to do more stuff for Vertigo since I did that whole series of covers for them on "Crossing Midnight," and ever since then, we've been wanting to do a bigger project together. Karen sent me an email outlining this "Sandman" project -- and how could I say "no" to that? [Laughs] That's how I got involved. Neil and I spoke shortly after that, and he seemed very, very pleased that I said, "yes."

Are you surprised by the response from fans online and at San Diego, or did you know how big this was going to be?

Everyone kind of thought it would be a big deal, but you never know for sure until you announce it and hear the actual reaction. So while we expected it would be a pretty big deal for folks, hearing those voices in the crowd completely escalate with enthusiasm was very gratifying. It told us that we're definitely getting a lot of people's attention and they're excited to see what we're going to come up with.

"Before Watchmen" has its detractors because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons aren't involved. Do you think the fact that Neil is writing this alleviates those types of pressures or do you think some still fear it is a mistake revisiting this character?

I don't think we're going to get any backlash. There may be some from some long-time "Sandman" fans that may have trepidations because it's been so long, but at the same time, like you said, it is Neil and it is his vision and everyone well knows, because he said it in the announcement, this is a story he's always wanted to tell and has never had the chance to do so.

It's probably come up in past interviews with him about "Sandman" over the years, too, so I am sure a lot of "Sandman" fans have been aware that he's wanted to tell this story for some time. I honestly don't see us having any pushback from people. I think, just by the overall feel I've been getting from fans already, people just have total enthusiasm for this. We're just nervous and hopeful that when they see it, they say, "This is what we were hoping it would be."

Did you read "Sandman" during its initial run?

Oh, yes. Yes. I'm a huge fan of it. It's one of the most tremendous comics ever written. It had such a lofty history with so many great illustrators that worked on it that I feel that I'm in some very good company. I feel a bit daunted by it because I want to be able to bring something new to the visuals that people haven't seen before with "Sandman," but at the same time, I want to stay very true to what "Sandman" is all about from a visual sense.

Let's put it this way: I have all the Absolute editions. [Laughs]

What are you most looking forward to with this collaboration?

We haven't got too far into it, but as far what I am looking forward to, it's just being immersed in what Neil does as a writer. He writes stories unlike many other comic book writers do, and that's going to allow me to be involved and be focused on a type of story that I have not been able to do before. Even though something like "Promethea" gets pretty far out there, there is a clearly distinct different feel from "Sandman" to even it.

I think it's going to be pretty fantastic. Neil's stuff has always got such poetry to it. I think it's going to be pretty tremendous.

Morpheus has been drawn by a number of heavyweights over the years, including Dave McKean, Sam Kieth and Charles Vess -- have you gone or will you go to any of those luminaries for influence or inspiration?

I will probably not go back and look what those guys did on purpose, because I don't want to be colored by what they did. [I prefer to remain] influenced by what they did from my memories. I think if I sat there and tried to study what people did, I think it would probably have too much influence on what I'm going to do. I'm more interested in trying to bring what my mindset can bring to the table for visuals and my perspective on it, but at that same time, staying very true [to the "Sandman" aesthetic].

The one thing that does stick out in my mind about thinking about past artists is that when you look at all of that stuff, there is a quite a range of visual presentation, stylistically. And that's very, very intriguing to me.

If you look at the Mark Hempel stuff as an example, as compared to the P. Craig Russell stuff, you see how dramatically different they are from each other -- and yet, it all seems to work within the context of the stories and the characters. That really has me intrigued as someone who likes to play and manipulate styles and likes exploring where the possibilities are and where we can take things. I think we are probably going to be exploring quite a bit of different things.

It's obviously too early to talk plotlines and story, but can you give us any hint as to what Morpheus was doing before "Sandman" #1?

I can't really talk about the story. It just wouldn't be wise to do so at this point, but I can tell you that it's got one of the most brilliant opening scenes that I've ever read for the first chapter of a comic. The opening scene is very, very beautiful and unique. I'm pretty mesmerized by it. That's all I'm willing to give! [Laughs]

Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III's "Sandman" tale is set to debut in November of 2013.

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