Exit Sandman: Neil Gaiman goes in-depth with Overture, one of 2015's best comics

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Dec 23, 2015

My Neil Gaiman story unfolds like the plot of a performance anxiety dream.

I join a small group of a few journalists to talk to the author in the basement of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to discuss The Sandman Overture Deluxe Edition. Nearly 27 years after he altered the landscape of comics, I talk to Gaiman for nearly an hour about the origin story (and finale?) of The Sandman.

Then I realize the audio is lost when I return home to transcribe the conversation. My audio recorder, so typically flawless in being an unsung companion on my interviews, has failed me. And I’ve nothing left.

Until a few days ago, as I was thinking about the best comic books of the year. Composing a list, The Sandman Overture was a top consideration. Then, oddly, it is through a dream shortly thereafter that I am encouraged to check the cloud for a phone backup. It was a forgotten action, something I never do. But for whatever reason, I recorded a portion of the talk on my smartphone as well.

Such is the nature of dreams; discovery emerges from seemingly nowhere. A bad situation can yield excellent results. And though I would have preferred to publish my chat with Gaiman last month, the end of the year feels perfectly at home.

The Sandman Overture hardback includes the six issues from the series, which launched in 2013, concluded in September and was almost three decades in the making. A superior storyteller of our generation, Neil Gaiman is deservedly acclaimed, and his accomplishments now include this collection that tells an epic yarn about the birth of a galaxy and a previously unheard tale of Morpheus, with The Corinthian, Merv Pumpkinhead, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, Destruction and Destiny popping up for some appearances.

While I would encourage the uninitiated to visit Gaiman’s Sandman story from the beginning (to appreciate all its subtleties, and the new insights provided to familiar characters), Overture, illustrated masterfully by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart, is a high point for the medium in 2015.

What follows is an enormously lengthy, and incredibly insightful, chat with Gaiman. We discuss the inspirations and stories behind Overture, as well as look back occasionally at his earlier work. In a few tangents, we discuss fandom, his trans character Wanda, Jewish mythology and the fear of doing a Phantom Menace on his masterpiece.

Because the deluxe Overture stands out as one of the best comics of the year, I chose to present the talk (one of my favorite interviews this year) in the extensive format because the creator’s words are worth absorbing in their entirety – but it’s easy to skim if that’s your preference.

... Is it ok if I record this?

I don’t mind. I was a journalist. Anything that means you can hear what I say, because you can always make up what you said. That was always my principle as a journalist, anyway.

Is that why you’re no longer a journalist?

Very much so!

Have you re-read it, now that it’s been compiled?

I did. I re-read it about three days ago. I finally got home, because I’d been on the road a lot. My copies were waiting for me, and I broke the cellophane, and sat and read it beginning to end. And was hugely pleased that it made sense. There was that thing that I know what it was like to write it, and to re-read it as I was going on, but the process of reading it beginning to end was completely new. Given it was written over the period of two and a half years, there was a certain amount of relief it was the same thing beginning to end, and it was the same story. And I more or less knew what I was doing as I was writing it.

What surprised you from re-reading it?

How much of what was going to happen later I really did know from the beginning, and set up for in elegant and clever ways. For me, sometimes, writing is a process of knowing what’s going to happen and trying to forget what’s going to happen so it feels surprising when I get there. That was fun. Also, I think, the feeling, when I got to the end, that it had somehow genuinely added to the mythos. There is a certain terror in doing something like this, which I wouldn’t have done on a weird side project. You can get to Sandman #75, or the end of the two-volume Sandman Omnibus, and then read this, and then start again at the beginning. What I wanted was the idea when you started again at the beginning and read through, the story would change. The thing you knew would not now be quite the same thing you read once or a thousand times before. Things that had always been questions, things that had always been left open, that you simply didn’t know, you would know. Knowing that would, I hoped and still hope, make it a richer and deeper experience.

Having said that,

I am familiar – as you are – with people going back to work they did 30 years ago, writing a sequel, and you look at it, and go, Oh god, why did he do that?

It was so good and you’ve now cocked the whole thing up and are tone deaf, and can’t even write these characters anymore, and the Foundation books and Robot books really belonged apart!” You don’t want to Phantom Menace it. There are things where it would be very easy to screw it up, and I really didn’t want to do that, and make something less than what Sandman had been. I wanted to do something that was part of Sandman, that would add to it. When I finished reading it three days ago, I thought I had done that, I go, I think I have done that. If nothing else, you know some of these characters a little better. You have a lot more insight with what was going on with Dream and who he was in Preludes and Nocturnes. Why he did what he did in the doll’s house. Things like that make more sense, I hope.

Since you didn’t want to Phantom Menace it, how many times throughout the years did you decide not to do this?

I was lucky in that there was always one huge storyline that obviously existed, and I knew a lot of things in that I had not told that was absolutely alluded to. Not just alluded to, talked about directly, but no other information was given. If you read the whole of Sandman incredibly carefully, you would have learned, before Sandman #1, he was returning from a distant galaxy in triumph of a sort, tried beyond measure, exhausted beyond everything. But you never knew why. Knowing that story was there, and had been built in, but didn’t belong anywhere in Sandman #1-75. That storyline was one I knew, but didn’t belong in the story that took us from Preludes and Nocturnes all the way to The Wake. Knowing it was there was reassuring. It wasn’t like I was going to have to sit down and make up something to fit in. I knew there was a storyline, I knew what happened – ish. After that, it was details, but the devil is in the details. I never wavered on wanting to do it, which doesn’t mean that -- when I did the deal with DC and said we’re actually going to do this -- that I sat down and said, “Ha ha! I’m going to type this for joy!” Instead, it was the most nerve wracking thing in the world. When I try to figure out how many Sandmans have been sold over the years around the world, it’s somewhere in the tens of millions. Feeling like I had 25 million people with some interest in the matter, looking over my shoulder as I was writing, was absolutely terrifying.

Why decide to do it now?

The 25th anniversary was really the big thing. Part of that was the absolute weird experience of going, I cannot believe that the first issue came out 25 years ago. Part of that was going we should celebrate this somehow. When I started it 25 years ago, all my highest hopes was maybe they wouldn’t phone me at number eight and tell me we were canceled. I figured maybe we’d be a minor critical success, which meant, in 1988, that you would be a major commercial failure. It was pretty much one-to-one. There were the books that sold, and the ones the critics liked that got canceled pretty soon. That was how it worked, and I figured I would be in the latter category. The idea that, 25 years later, all of that work would still be in print, was shocking and glorious – but shocking. In 1988, if you wanted to read old comics, you went to a comic shop and went thumbing through the back-issue bin. If they were things that were incredibly popular, you’d look on the wall, and they’d have $10, $20, $100 price tags. If they were rank-and-file popular, you looked in the quarter bin. That was how you read your old comics. The idea of a monthly comic, not even a fancy limited series, the whole of it in print and available 25 years on was a mad pipe dream.

There is a scene you describe as your favorite bit of writing when Dream is talking to his past selves. Why is that your favorite?

That was, I think, the scene I had wanted to write the longest. By the longest, I mean probably 26 years. I had always known I would do this scene one day where every possible incarnation of Dream was in one huge notion space at the same time. And they would get to interact as the slowly blinked out of existence and eventually get down to one. I was waiting to write that for 26 years, but it didn’t belong anywhere in Sandman. After a while, I became certain it would be in this storyline. The joy of writing Issue #2 is, perhaps the first time ever, he gets a little bit of perspective of himself from the outside. Also, the reader gets perspective on the fact he is not actually a tall, pale guy with dark hair and a big coat; he is something much more weird and primal. The thing I played around with since Sandman #5 onwards is that he changes depending on who you are on how you see him. That would be stressed and become real for the reader, and I think it worked. Normally when I do Sandman, if there’s an artist I’d love to work with, I will bend the story around them. With this, I knew I wanted to do that sequence, and knew I needed somebody who could draw it. Which meant when [Executive Editor of DC Comics' Vertigo] Karen Berger and I sat down at the beginning planning Sandman Overture, a lot of it was who could pull that off and make it work. JH Williams III was our chose and blessing.

How would that scene have been different had you written it 26 years ago?

You know, I don’t know.

The weird thing about Sandman is there are bits of Sandman where I look at it now and go, “How did you write that? Who the hell were you when you wrote that? Where did that come from?”

And there are bits of Sandman which are absolutely the same things and emotions I have now, and I’d write that issue in the exact same way. Trying to imagine how Baby Neil would have written that, I think I would have made it look harder. One thing I liked doing as a young writer was, whenever I’d do anything fancy, I made sure people noticed. If I was doing something clever, I would want everyone to know I was doing something clever. Somewhere in The Kindly Ones, I went I don’t have to do that. I could do clever stuff and undercut it, make it look normal, and then it may actually have more emotional power.

Do you feel like there is more of this story in you?

When you answer questions, they beg other questions. Sometimes when you answer questions and put them down on the page, you go, oh my god, there’s a hole there where a story fits. I have known that The Endless had parents, and who those parents were for a very long time now. If you go back into the body of Sandman and start looking for references to Night and Time, you will find things will surprise you. There was stuff in Sandman Overture that was much harder to wait to write. I thought the wait between coming up with the Serial Killer’s Convention story and being able to fit it into Sandman was bad – two years. This was much, much worse. I definitely still have stories. There are definitely Sandman things I haven’t done. There’s part of me that goes I could do this for the 30th anniversary or 35th; I could do this for the 50th. As long as the voices of the characters are still there it’s fun.

Are there any major story elements that changed radically over time from when you first you had to craft this, to actually sitting down to doing it?

Not really. It is very much the same story it always was. Except being me, I had no idea what happened, I just knew the story. When Dave McKean phoned me up and said he’d do the covers and asked for what happened in each episode, I was like, “But I don’t know that this will make much sense.” I burbled everything in my brain, including, “and he’s going to be wandering with this enormous cat that’s actually him.” All of that stuff was kind of there. The beauty of this is it still winds up growing in the telling. There were things I was looking forward to as the first reader, not as the author. I was so looking forward to his interaction with his parents because I didn’t know what they would be like or how he’d be like with them. Watching him turn into an awkward 14-year old in different ways around his mum and dad was amazing. That fascinated me, and stuff I didn’t know. I was writing it and knew he’d meet his parents, but how that would play out, I was only going to find out when I got there.

There is a simultaneous beginning and ending happening all over this book…

Part of the fun was doing something that was a beginning and ending at the same time. It was like getting some weird piece of piping that allowed you to plug into the end of Sandman and go around and plug it back into the beginning. It is best read after the whole of Sandman has been read but it really takes you straight into the beginning. One of the things I wanted to do with Overture, which excited and interested me, was I loved the idea of not doing what anybody expected.

Sandman was lots of things but if you were to give it some kind of genre box, it probably wanders in and out of dark fantasy, with historical, high fantasy, and other stuff going on. But one place it never was, really, was science fiction. I thought that was really interesting. I love the idea of these huge expanse, grand science fiction thing that’s fundamentally space opera, which I’ve never written. I have never written a space opera, anything with giant space fleets, and planets destroyed. So when I did the The Sandman: Endless Nights book in 2003, I did a short story for Dream that was kind of intended to set up for Overture when I did it. That was Sandman’s 15th, and I figured I’d do Overture for the 20th. For reasons mostly having to do with DC Comics management at the time, it never happened. The incredibly short version it never happened at the 20th was I thought probably at this point I deserved to do Sandman under a slightly better agreement than the one I made at age 26 in 1987. They didn’t, and I said I’d spend my time writing a novel and getting approximately 200 times the money, if that’s ok with you guys. Later, the current management of DC came back, and the contract improved.

Since we’re in a synagogue, has being Jewish at all, or the mythology of Judaism informed you at all as a writer?

When I was 11 going on 12, and for the whole of my twelfth year, every weekend and for my summer holidays, I was sent up to North London to stay with the Jewish relatives, and get bar mitzvah lessons. What was great for me about that was it only took one tiny well-placed question, or show of interest, to get the reverend off the subject of whatever it was I was meant to be doing, and on the subject of obscure Jewish mythology. Basically, between the ages of 11 and 13, I wound up getting a fabulous course in obscure Jewish mythology. Obscure enough you have to go hunting in the Midrash. There are things I was taught I would go looking for later on just because I’d tell people and they’d go, “I never heard that.” Every now and again, I took an enormous amount of pleasure in putting some of those into Sandman. It definitely helped inform a kind of delirious 11, 12-year old worldview in which the world was a very strange and magical place, and half of it was peculiar, glorious stories based on tiny comments of the Talmud, and part of it was DC Comics and the works of Michael Moorcock, and it all blended into this sort of strange morass in the back of my head which is probably the compost from which Sandman grew.

Nerdom, geekdom, fandom has changed a tremendous amount since you started working on Sandman, in terms of visibility. What do you think fandom writ large needs to do these days to be more inclusive?

I think stop shouting at each other is the biggest thing at this point. One of the best things about fandom for me as a young fan, then as a young professional, was it was really, really hard to find your tribe. You would make allowances for the ones you did find.

Finding your tribe, finding somebody else who liked comics, finding somebody else who liked SF, finding someone else who bought ancient, weird, smelly paperbacks just because they had Frank Frazetta covers or whatever was hard. You’d find them and go, “OK, you are not perhaps everything I would have wanted in a friend, but I will embrace you because we have this thing in common.” Now, when it is incredibly easy for people to find each other on this virtual village that the Internet becomes, it is incredibly easy for them to close ranks and go, “We are this kind of fandom; you are too weird, you are not of us, and now we will all gather together and shout at each other.” There was a point some years ago, I think three years ago, maybe four or five, when someone sent me something on my Tumblr feed as a question. I put my answer up, which was just about not hating people.

Essentially the people they were talking about were essentially proto-gamergaters and proto-SJWs long before they had a name. I put up my answer, which was I really think hate is a foolish thing, communication is better, or ignoring people. But the hating, trying to drive people out of town is probably a bad thing. I got letters in saying, “We have a right to hate.” Hate is important to us. We have a right to hate. And we don’t like you for saying we don’t. What was really sad was it was coming from both sides. I wanted to start forwarding them to the other team and go, this stuff doesn’t really work. What works is communication. What works very well is welcoming people in, and was the wonderful thing about early fandom. It didn’t matter who you were or what you were, you were welcomed in because we didn’t have anyone else to talk to about Murphy Anderson’s inking. We had nobody! You want to talk about Murphy Anderson’s inking, you’re going, OK, I have never met anybody like you before, but I am talking to you. And when you do, you discover this person is wonderful. I, coming from relatively sheltered English background, suddenly have trans friends, and people I simply never would have known.

There was a lot criticism later on about the trans character Wanda in Sandman: A Game of You. She represents a tragic trans character…

I don’t see her as tragic. I would see her as tragic if everybody else in Sandman lived, and she was the one who died. I would absolutely go, what a tragic character. Sandman is filled with characters who die. It is one of the things they do; it is practically a hallmark of the series. She died because a) she was the character whose death, emotionally, meant something in that series. And b) because I had learned from my trans friends who were really upset about it, about friends of theirs who were being mis-gendered in death. The fact that people who were one gender were being buried by their family under a name that they did not think of as theirs, and being mis-gendered. I thought, I don’t like that. I just discovered that, and thought it was a bad thing, and decided I’d put that in Sandman. I was going to show that Death thinks that’s bulls—t, too. So that was my attitude on that. Wanda is big and complicated. I have seen as many trans people getting upset about Wanda as I have had trans people coming up to me saying, “I read Wanda and realized who I was, and she gave me the strength to come out and transition.” Mostly, for the first 20 years, what I got was people saying, “I’d never seen another trans character in a mainstream comic. Thank you so much.” I was happy with that. Wanda wasn’t written for any reason other than a lot of my friends were and are trans, and I didn’t see them represented anywhere in fiction … Yeah, I’m still proud of it. Would I write that comic today that way? Almost definitely not.

Over the years as people have come up to asking about the stories that hadn’t made it into a book yet, did you keep them locked up in your head? Or did you tell them what might happen when you got around to the books?

Before there was an Internet, I used to answer people’s questions. Back when we were in the days when I’d do a signing and they’d ask, “So, who is the missing brother,” and I’d say, “Oh, Destruction.” Because that was fine. The most that would happen would be they’d tell their friends. No big deal. I would happily tell people plot stuff that was coming up. Now the whole spoiler culture is such I don’t tell people things because I’ve been burned. So now I just shut up.

How do you avoid leaning on nostalgia?

That’s the first time anyone, when talking about Sandman, has used the word nostalgia, and I think that may break me! I don’t want people to go, “Yeah, that’s what people used to read in the good old days!” You try to write it for now as well as you can. Here, 26, 27 years on, the main challenge is to not write something you’ve written before. All the way though Sandman Overture, if there was a real problem, it was the point when I’d go, “So now I can do this.” And then, “Oh no, s—t, I can’t.” Trying to always not repeat yourself, and be new, is really frustrating. It would be very easy to do the same thing over and over. Then again, that was the nature and joy of Sandman. The stories were always not what they had been. In order to talk about Sandman, you had to talk about the whole. And I hope this is just that whole deeper, he said doing a clever thing with words.

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