At the Vertigo "Sandman" 25 Anniversary panel, part of San Deigo Comic-Con International, fans dressed as Sandman, Death and the other Endless filed in to hear Neil Gaiman and his creative team speak about the book and the upcoming "Sandman: Overture."
Moderator and DC Entertainment Head Of Marketing John Cunningham kicked things off by introducing the man of the hour, Gaiman, and his fellow panelists: Executive Editor of Vertigo Shelly Bond, cover artist Dave McKean, artist Sam Kieth, letterer Todd Klein and "Sandman: Overture" artist J.H. Williams III.
Entering to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, Gaiman smiled at the audience before taking his seat. Cunningham told the audience they were going to look back on the past twenty-five years beginning by displaying the very first in-comic ad for "Sandman." Showing the cover image and pages for the first issue, Gaiman told the crowded room he loved the fact the ad changed his original copy, which was "I will show you fear and a handful of dust," a T.S. Elliot quote.
"DC called and they said, we have to change it in case T.S. Elliot sues," Gaiman said as the audience laughed.
Gaiman also recalled how DC wanted to raise Gaiman's profile before he printed "Black Orchid" as they were worried no one would by a prestige-format book about a female character. After pitching a series of characters to do as a monthly comic to establish himself, Vertigo's Karen Berger suggested he take Sandman.
"She said, but don't do it with the Kirby Sandman, make your own up," Gaiman said. "I wrote a pitch, sent it to Karen, she didn't like it," he continued as the room cracked up. However Jenette Kahn and Dick Giordano loved it and gave him the greenlight.
As for the artist, Gaiman said that they called Kieth and "Had to convince you it wasn't a prank call," Gaiman recalled as the artist laughed.
"We all had to make it up as we went along," Gaiman added, pointing over to McKean who said he photographed almost ever element on the cover.
"They had to be big...everything had to be scaled to the objects I found because there was no photoshop," McKean said.
McKean then recalled flying to San Diego years ago and someone dies on his plane, and as they were waiting to board the plane again he say a girl dressed as Death walk by him off the plane.
"The difference between you and I is...I would have gone, maybe?" Gaiman said.
"The fundamental difference," McKean deadpanned as the room cracked up.
"I didn't want to go in the direction of superheroes. It looked enough like a superhero to fool the unwary," Gaiman said, adding, "So I wanted to make him look like a rock star." Using Pete Murphy, Bono, and Bowie as references they then put together the look for Morpheus.
"Alice Cooper is convinced to this day Sandman is based on him," Gaiman said as the audience laughed.
"I don't know if they had decided on the name Morpheus yet but I decided his balloon shape should be amorphous," Klein said, adding that the black and white inversion was done after he lettered.
"I had a crush on Peter Murphy so I said I have to read this comic," Bond recalled as the audience laughed again. She then remembered meeting Gaiman on her first day on the Job at Vertigo, hanging out with him in the hallway.
Williams told the room that he was looking for a new project to take up when they came to him with "Sandman: Overture," and said "A Dream Of A Thousand Cats" was the Gaiman story that made him a fan.
Looking at a slide of Death Gaiman said in his original outline he spoke about Death and the idea of playing with the "fundamental sexism of language.
"I knew when I said Dream was Death's younger brother, everybody would assume Death was male," Gaiman said.
While Gaiman originally wanted to pull visuals from the Velvet Underground Keith convinced him to go with a design based more off his friend, a softer character design.
The audience applauded when they showed the image for "Doll's House." McKean said that there was actually talk of taking him off the book because he had two other artist jobs at the same time, so he went home and spent "16 hours making covers because [Berger] couldn't turn them down!"
Looking at "Dream Country," which Cunningham credited with being the story that began to change the way comics were received. Remembering going to Comic-Con when the issues were coming out, Gaiman met Charles Vess and told the artist he wanted to work with him, convincing him to with the "Midsummer Night's Dream" story.
"It was the script that took the most rewriting because Karen didn't know what it was," Gaiman said, adding that he had to go back in and give it a heart and concentrate more on Hamnet. Gaiman also remember winning the World Fantasy Award for best short story, "And then they met in the night and changed the rules so that couldn't ever happen again," Gaiman said as the room hissed and booed.
However, Gaiman said that there was a "sea-change" at DC and the comics scene was starting to change. "People would come up to me and shake my hand and go, 'You're Neil Gaiman! You brought women into my store!'" the writer said as the room laughed.
Speaking about "A Game Of You," Gaiman and McKean said editorial had a minor freak-out over the fact Sandman was not on the cover and they thought readers would be confused. "We said, don't worry, they'll find it!" Gaiman laughed.
Looking at the cover for "Brief Lives" Cunningham read his favorite line from the story. "By that point Todd hated me because he had to do forty or fifty different lettering styles...I don't think Delirium's would have looked like that if you knew how much she was in it," Gaiman said.
"I remember saying, let me know if these are reoccurring characters," Klein said as the room laughed.
Gaiman then recalled a fan bringing him a picture of Death with no clothes on, done by Jill Thompson. Later when he spotted her walking around, "I said, I say the great picture of Death naked and it was great! And she went red," the writer said as the room cracked up. Gaiman then offered Thompson the job for drawing on "Sandman."
"Distant Mirrors," the highest-selling issue of the comic, Gaiman sheepishly admitted it was done without a finished script. "I was halfway through it...I read what I'd written," Gaiman said, and the artist stopped him halfway and said he would draw it from the story-prose style story he had written rather than a regular script.
"When 'Sandman' was being published I was getting criticized for not being a political writer ever," Gaiman added. "Exactly a decade after that cover was published the American troops went into Baghdad I saw articles popping up with that image from the comic."
"I was political after all!" Gaiman joked.
Jumping to the final issue, Gaiman said he didn't originally plan to have Shakespeare in the book, "That was simply based on the year, that's what 1589 gave me."
But after writing Shakespeare's two-play deal in the comic Gaiman realized the first had to be "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"It was only as 'Sandman' went on that I realized the last one of all had to be 'The Tempest,'" Gaiman said.
This brought the panel to "Sandman: Overture" and another round of wild applause from the audience. Gaiman explained when he was writing "Sandman" there were stories he came up with that didn't fit, particularly one that shows what happened before Sandman was captured and imprisoned in the first issue.
"There was a text piece I did that said he was exhausted...and easy to capture," Gaiman continued, "But nobody knew except for me what happened."
Originally planning to do it for the 20 anniversary, it didn't happen then but later pitched it to DC to coincide with the 25 anniversary. The room burst into cheers again at the image to McKean's variant cover to the story.
Gaiman joked that the biggest difference between the prequel Morpheus and the "Sandman" Morpheus was, "He has much longer hair."
The panel brought up the first pages of "Sandman: Overture," an image of Morpheus in flower shape. "That's the sort of thing you tell artists to put them in their place," Gaiman said as Williams and the audience laughed.
"I'm loving working on this," Williams said as they turned to the next page where the Morpheus flower with fire behind him.
Gaiman then turned to Kieth and asked him how it felt to have been part of a story that "has not gone away."
"It's like being in the first fifteen minutes of 'Citizen Kane,'" Kieth said as the room laughed. "Like it or not, 'Sandman' will stay with you if you draw it. I feel so proud when I do 'The Maxx' because I'm carving something out for myself." Kieth added that he was blown away by the success and embarrassed that they had to convince him they weren't pranking him in that first phone call -- and that he wished he had done more.
"You created the look, you created the feel," Gaiman said as the audience cheered and applauded, Cunningham ending the panel on that high note.