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SYFY WIRE The Sandman

Sandman author Neil Gaiman responds to complaints over Death, Desire casting in Netflix series

By Matthew Jackson
Neil Gaiman

Last week, Netflix's much-anticipated adaptation of The Sandman unveiled a massive casting announcement that introduced the actors playing several major characters in writer Neil Gaiman's epic story, including some of the title character's very important siblings. In the days since, facing hateful backlash to some of those casting announcements online, Gaiman has taken to Twitter to respond to some of the criticism.

Though a dozen different actors were cast in the series as part of last week's announcement, including Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Patton Oswalt as Matthew the Raven, most of the criticism online stemmed from the casting of Death and Desire, two of Dream's (Tom Sturridge) siblings in the group of near-immortal beings known as The Endless.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who is Black, will be playing Dream's witty and wise sister Death, who was depicted in the Sandman comics as white. When some readers took to Twitter to complain about this change for the Netflix series, Gaiman pointed out both that the Endless are not human, and that while he helped create Death's comics look, he never felt her white-ness was somehow essential to her character.

Then there's the somewhat more perplexing complaint about the casting of Desire. Mason Alexander Park, a non-binary actor who uses they/them pronouns, has landed the role of the member of the Endless who, as their name suggests, embodies desire in all its forms. Because of that very particular embodiment, Desire was always depicted as a nonbinary entity (again, not a human being in the first place) who could embody masculine and feminine attributes simultaneously or not at all as they pleased. That's sort of the point, as Gaiman pointed out when more angry tweets came his way. (Some NSFW language below)

Every major fandom, particularly those featuring an adaptation from one visual medium to another, is likely to have people popping up to complain about things like casting decisions, of course. We've seen it with everything from Star Wars to Doctor Who to the people who still resist the idea of making James Bond or Batman a Black man. It's easy to shake a fist and say "This doesn't look like it did in that other thing I like!" when it comes to a character like Death, but Gaiman himself has spoken openly in the past about wanting to update Sandman to make it more inclusive as it enters a new media landscape in the 21st century, and being open to a Death that perhaps looks a bit different is part of that.

As for Desire's non-binary nature...well, not only is that apparent in the original comics, but as Gaiman's fellow author John Scalzi noted, Desire's original nature was a key piece of mainstream exposure to non-binary characters before many people knew what "non-binary" meant.

The Sandman is coming soon to Netflix, and we're expecting more casting news (come on, Merv Pumpkinhead!) soon.