SDCC: Neil Gaiman Spotlights Career, "Sandman" & More

Fans of writer and comic book creator Neil Gaiman gathered in droves at San Diego Comic-Con International for Sunday's Spotlight panel. With many cosplaying as Dream, Death and other members of the Endless, the room broke into wild cheers as Gaiman entered stage, spreading his arms in the air as the crowd applauded.

"Thank you everyone who sat through panels you didn't want to be in to be here," Gaiman said, cracking the audience up.

Gaiman's friend and moderator Jonathan Ross began by discussing Gaiman's prose work, specifically "The Ocean At The End Of The Lane" which recently rose to number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.

"'American Gods' was my first book on the New York Times Bestseller list," Gaiman told the crowd. Though he was happy to be on the list again, the author said "Ocean" actually rose to the number one spot with more books sold than "American Gods."

"Not as many people could read back then," Ross joked.

"It was more personal to me than many of my books because it was meant to be a short story," Gaiman said.

Stopping for cheers after he mentioned his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, the writer explained that he began writing when she left to record an album. Although Gaiman would often not talk to people while he wrote, he discovered his wife went into near-seclusion during the recording of an album -- something illustrated to Gaiman after not hearing from Palmer, other than an occasional text, for weeks.

Palmer isn't a fantasy fan, and as a result, Gaiman said his goal was to write a story about a real-life thing that had happened in a real place, putting in "feelings, because she likes those."

"Then I kept going ... and I sent a message to my editor that said, 'I seem to have written a novel,'" he said.

The story is based on the lane where Gaiman spent his childhood, and the writer said he was surprised when he went back to visit by how changed it was. "They built houses all over it, these fields and strange places I'd walk home through school and these abandoned houses ... all of that stuff was gone, it's just housing estates," the writer said.

While Gaiman was back home, he also asked his father about the old family car, a white Mini-Cooper that disappeared when the writer was a child. Gaiman's father told him they had a lodger from South Africa who had smuggled his friend's money out for them, but instead of putting their money in the bank as they asked, he gambled it all away.

"He came back ... and stole our car and drove down to the end of the lane and killed himself," Gaiman said. "Instead of saying what I should have and go, 'Oh, that poor man,' I said, 'You mean something interesting happened when I was seven and I didn't know?'"

As the audience laughed and the tension broke, Gaiman explained the character at the heart of "Ocean" was essentially himself at age seven. He also expressed surprise that his fans liked the book, as it was a departure from his fantasy work.

Themes of parental distrust are pervasive across Gaimans work, and the autor stated the seed of "Ocean" was planted years ago when he carried his defiant son to bed and suddenly realized he had both become like his parents, yet could still empathize with the unfairness of childhood bedtimes.

"In terms of moments that drove something as an engine, that moment of seeing myself in two different directions at once was the engine that began 'Ocean At The End Of The Lane,'" Gaiman said, adding that he felt it was his most personal book.

Pointing to "Coraline" as the closest to "Ocean," Gaiman said the book was for adults as it ponders childhood memories and feelings. "I don't think I could write it if I sat down and said, 'I'm going to write a big novel and it's going to be about these themes,'" Gaiman added.

He added that "The Ocean At The End Of The Lane" was getting a screenplay written through Focus Films with director Joe Wright potentially onboard. In other movie news, Ron Howard is attached at Disney to adapt "The Graveyard Book" as a live action film and John Cameron Mitchell is slated to do a film of "How To Talk To Girls At Parties."

Whether it's fantasy or fiction, Gaiman's process is roughly the same: he writes in longhand first and then types up his manuscripts. Gaiman bought his first fountain pen to write "Stardust" in a notebook, and he partly handwrites so as not to be distracted by the Internet. A recent addition to Gaiman's longhand library is a new "Neverwhere" story, partly inspired by the radio adaptation of the book with Benedict Cumberbatch. Called "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back," the story will appear in the "Rogues" anthology.

Ross teased the author that Cumberbatch should play Gaiman in a movie about his life, then promised to show the audience a picture of Gaiman's worst haircut as the writer cracked up. The moderator later made good on his threat and showed his picture of Gaiman's hair, pulling it up on his phone, allowing the room's camera crew to project it on the big screen.

"It's like a triangle made of black felt on his head!" Ross said, as Gaiman and he audience laughed.

One of Gaiman's most anticipated projects is "Sandman: Overture," the "Sandman" prequel announced at last year's Comic-Con International. The writer returned to the world of "Sandman" because he wanted to tell the story of the intergalactic fight that exhausted Morpheus and enabled his capture.

"It didn't fit [in 'Sandman'] and thought, I had to tell that story one day," Gaiman explained. Though his proposal to write the story for the 20th anniversary of "Sandman" did not work out, when Diane Nelson came on as President and the publishing company transitioned from DC Comics to DC Entertainment, Gaiman pitched the idea again and got the green light. The first issue releases in October 2013, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the beloved series, and will follow the Dream chapter of "Sandman: Endless Nights" with appearances from Destiny and Death in the debut issue.

However, beyond those two original "Sandman" characters, Gaiman was unsure as to whether more familiar faces might appear.

"There is a plot!" Gaiman said, answering a fan's question about Delirium. "I know more or less what happens, but things like, does Delirium show up, are things I will find out on the page."

Gaiman also praised "Sandman: Overture" artist J.H. Williams III, joking, "We don't have J.H. Williams I and II anymore, we have to treasure him!" On a more serious note, Gaiman said he was constantly amazed by Williams' professionalism and ability to turn around pages of artwork based on the thinnest, and "weirdest," of ideas.

Speaking about a sequence on page three and four of the first issue, Gaiman said he asked Williams to draw Morpheus as a flower, "because we had never seen the dreams of flowers before." However, he also instructed Wiliams to not draw a face, but have it screaming in terror and then dying. "And he did! I said, 'Okay, he can do anything!'" Gaiman said, laughing.

"For me, it's scary," Gaiman said. "It's genuinely scary, because when we wrote 'Sandman' at its height we had a hundred and fifty thousand readers ... since that time, we have sold millions upon millions of copies. Now, I have twenty million people looking over my shoulder in my imagination and going, 'Eh,'" he added as the audience burst into laughter.

Getting back into the swing of "Sandman" was somewhat difficult for the author -- although, the discovery of an old, thrown-away script for "Sandman" #20 that had the same exact problem certainly helped ease his mind. "It was nice to know the characters still sounded like they did," Gaiman said. "I hope it will get faster and easier and [Vertigo senior editor] Shelly Bond will sleep better at night."

Beyond "Sandman: Overture," Gaiman is currently involved in bringing his character Angela over to the Marvel Universe in "Guardians of the Galaxy," saying he hoped "the ways she surfaces in the Marvel Universe ... delights and surprises you."

Although most of the panel focused on Gaiman's solo work, his collaborative novel "Good Omens" with Terry Pratchett was also a topic of discussion -- especially the process by which the duo crafted the novel. Gaiman and Pratchett would write a chapter each, Gaiman writing late at night and Pratchett writing in the morning. This routine, however, would often involve Pratchett calling him at odd hours.

"I'd press the button [on the message machine] and he'd say 'Get up you lazy bastard, I wrote a good bit!'" Gaiman recalled as the audience laughed. "There's lots of cool 'Good Omens' news I'm not at liberty to talk about."

The author spoke with Pratchett three weeks ago when the ailing writer called to ask Gaiman for help with Pratchett's autobiography. As Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Gaiman expected he was about to be asked about a forgotten detail or name, something simple.

"He said, 'Do you remember when we were being interviewed in 1990 in New York, was it 32 street or 33 street we were on and we started singing They Might Be Giants' 'Shoehorn With Teeth?' I said, do you actually have fucking Alzheimer's? You were meant to be calling me up saying, 'Who is this?'" Gaiman said as the audience laughed. "I'm still speaking with Terry and he's as sharp as he ever was."

Some of Gaiman's most high profile work recently have been episodes of "Doctor Who," a show that the writer used to have a nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of.

"I knew Daleks couldn't see red, which worried me because there were red Daleks," Gaiman joked as Ross and the audience laughed. "The mythology of 'Doctor Who' has been part of my inner landscape forever...and it colored 'Sandman,'" Gaiman added. Unfortunately Gaiman had very little time to work on the new show this year, so the writer told the audience it was likely there would be a season nine episode from him, rather than a season eight.

Ross asked if Gaiman would ever collect the poems and short stories he sends out to his personal friends. "There should be another short story collection at the end of 2014," Gaiman said, adding that he was looking through his new material now for pieces to go in the collection.

Wrapping up, Gaiman spoke briefly on his "American Gods" book of short stories, teasing a new story involving the character Shadow. "There is a short story, currently it's got a huge black dog in it and many pagan heads," Gaiman said. He wasn't finished with the story yet, but stated he wants to write "American Gods 2" at some point, but "there has to be three short stories that are written before."

As the audience gave the author a standing ovation, cheering the fan favorite writer, Neil Gaiman smiled and exited the stage.

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