On Friday at San Diego Comic-Con, we got the chance to participate in a conversation with Neil Gaiman about all things Sandman, and the upcoming Sandman: Overture limited series. Here, we present highlights of Gaiman's remarks, along with a first look at interior pages from Sandman: Overture #1!
"Sandman started being published in November, 1988 – with a cover date of 1989, just to confuse everybody and make it very unclear what our 25th anniversary year would actually be. It ran until early in 1996 and in that time, it helped create the imprint that was Vertigo, it won a bazillion awards. Every award you could win for writing comics, and one that you COULDN'T win for writing comics, which was the World Fantasy Award in 1991 for best short story, The Sandman #19, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'…We won, me and Charles Vess, and then they changed the rules the following morning to make sure it could never happen again. Which is kind of nice, it made me feel unique, and also a bit like they'd closed the stable doors not after the horse had got out, but after the horse had got out and won the Kentucky Derby.
So DC Comics have always been fantastic about Sandman. They let me finish it at a time when the idea of a monthly comic – that at the point where we finished, was outselling Batman and Superman – could just finish because the writer said the story was over, was unthinkable. And they let me do that. And I guess they were proved right in that because the graphic novel collections, the ten volumes of that Sandman story have been in print for twenty-five years, and they sell more year-in year-out, and now have also been collected in these beautiful Absolute Sandmans for the last few years… And we're doing Annotated! And we're doing a giant Sandman Omnibus, so that you can carry the whole thing around at San Diego, and get even more upset that you didn't spot me the entire four days to get me to sign them, but you have carried around something in the region of seventy pounds of book with you!
…In 2003, which was the fifteenth anniversary, I came back and did a book called Endless Nights – which was, I believe the first DC Comics original graphic novel to actually get on to the New York Times bestseller lists, back in the days before they just had a separate list for graphic novels. It got onto the one with all the hardbacks on it, which was kind of nice. And now we're coming up to twenty-five years! At the time when I would have thought that everybody would have completely forgotten about me and Sandman. And the world is even more excited and interested then… The internet seems to have made it somehow more relevant and more exciting, and Sandman is still here and so am I.
About four years ago, when Diane Nelson took over as head of DC Entertainment, she and I began talking about what I could do. And I said I'd really like to do a 25th Anniversary story. I said 'there is one Sandman story that I never got to tell', and – there are more than one that I never got to tell, stories that never got told – but there's one big story of what happened just before [Sandman Vol. 1, Preludes And Nocturnes] began…the first thing that happens [in Preludes And Nocturnes] is Morpheus, the Sandman, the lord of dreams, is captured in England by a black magic organization and kept prisoner for seventy or eighty years. And we learned, as the story went on, that he arrived there exhausted. He arrived dressed for war. He'd come from somewhere very very far away. And that was why they captured him so easily. But I never told that story. And in the whole story from here to Sandman #75, that story never got told because it never needed to be told. But I always wanted to tell it, and it's deep, and it's very weird. Diane agreed that we should do it, and I'm pretty fortunate in having worked with two wonderful editors so far on the book: Karen Berger, who was the founding editor of Vertigo, who I've worked with since 1987, and Shelly Bond, who became assistant editor of Sandman in 1993, and so has been working on Sandman with me now for twenty years.
We had an incredibly short list of artists we were going to approach to draw it. And the incredibly short list of artists we were going to approach to draw it is standing just here [gestures], this is J.H. Williams III. And he was our short list. We asked him, and he said yes. Which was really good, because we didn't have anybody else!
And we have, together, started work on this very, very strange book. And it's fun! I'm enjoying it to no end. I was a little afraid when I started writing it, whether the characters were still there in my head, and whether they'd still sound the same, and what they'd do, and… They're all there! They definitely sound like themselves.
The joy so far, and for J.H. and myself it's still early days in this thing, is every time I ask him to do something impossible, he does it. Page three was the first time I gave him something impossible to draw. I thought: 'something impossible to draw, why not? Can you give me a large plant, and I'd like the petals to form a sort of a face. But you can't draw a face! It has to be proper petals. It can't have a face, because it's a plant…and he aced it! I ask him to do impossible things, and he does impossible things.
When I started doing Sandman, I didn't know if anybody would be interested. I was basically writing it for me, and I was writing it for my editor Karen, and I was writing it for the artist, and I was writing it for Dave McKean, who was doing the covers. I was sort of pleased that Todd Klein, who did the lettering, was reading the scripts and I'd get messages from him saying 'I really liked that script'… That was the people I was writing it for. And very quickly, I found that I was writing it for about 40,000 people. And then writing for 50,000 people. And then writing it for 100,000 people. And then I was writing it for 120,000 people, and that was still nice, still okay and there was a level on which, again, the world population is huge, and there's 120,000 people who know about my comic, and that's…a tiny, tiny sample of the population, an explainable thing. But it made me happy.
And then the years have gone by. And the graphic novel collections have sold more and more with every year that's gone by, and we put out the Absolute collections and they sold to different people…but the upshot of all that is twenty-five years after I started writing a comic that I didn't know if anybody was going to read, and I thought would probably be cancelled…but now, it's all changed! Now I'm doing it for millions of people. And in my head, they're all looking over my shoulder while I write.
The truthful thing about Sandman is, in some ways, when we wave words like 'prequel' around, we confuse the issue. Because Sandman as a story stretches approximately from four billion years ago is the first one [in Endless Nights], and goes approximately 'til 2003/2004. When we get the Daniel story, the last thing of all in Endless Nights… In Sandman itself we go from mythical times to Roman times to French Revolutionary times… It's not like we have a timezone, and we're saying 'now we're going before that'. Because we've already been before that. What we're doing here is telling a story that happens in 1916. And parts of this story happen away from 1916. There are some parts that are happening now, there are some parts that are happening a long long time ago, that may actually turn into the very first of all Sandman books. So I don't think of it as a prequel. I just think of it as 'that Sandman story that I would've loved to have told. I couldn't have told this story in Sandman #1-75. Because really, the volumes of Sandman, it is a story. It's occasionally a little bit lumpy and a little bit odd, but it is one thing. If this had been there, it would have been a bit of a large stone or a pothole. This isn't about the story of Morpheus' capture, how it changed him, the kind of change-or-die, Kindly Ones story. This is something else. This is about how some weird s*** happened a long way away, and some bad stuff happened a long way away, and how he had to sort it out whether he wanted to or not."