On Sunday November 9, the twentieth anniversary of DC Comics’ Sandman series was marked at one of Manhattan’s leading cultural centers, the 92nd Street Y, when creator Neil Gaiman was interviewed onstage by acclaimed graphic designer (and comics enthusiast) Chip Kidd. Gaiman and Kidd were introduced to the audience by Karen Berger, the editor of Sandman and now senior vice president at DC. She hailed Sandmanas a “groundbreaking book...that raised the bar for what can be done in mainstream comics.”
Kidd began the interview with some role-playing: “It’s twenty-two years ago. , I’m Karen Berger, we’re in a hotel room, and you are pitching Sandman to me.”
“It never quite happened like that,” Gaiman demurred. He explained that the closest he had come to making a pitch for Sandman was over dinner in England with Berger and Jenette Kahn, who was then DC’s president and publisher. At the time Gaiman was working on his first DC project, the Black Orchid mini-series. Asked “what else are you thinking of doing,” Gaiman replied that he had come up with a “gritty take on the Boy Commandos,” the World War II series created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Over dinner and conversation, Gaiman also mentioned that he had written a page of Black Orchid that took place in a dream, and suggested he would like to “do something” with the Simon and Kirby version of the Sandman from the 1970s.
Berger subsequently called Gaiman after a marketing meeting at DC. Black Orchid was going to be published in the same format as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but it was by “two guys no one ever heard of”—Gaiman and artist Dave McKean—and was about “a character no one ever heard of.” DC was worried that Black Orchid would be its “first big commercial failure in this format.”
To build reader awareness of their names, McKean was assigned to the high profile Arkham Asylum, and DC wanted Gaiman to do a monthly comic. Gaiman suggested “a big long list of characters,” but each one of them—the Phantom Stranger, the Demon, the Forever People, and more—was unavailable for one reason or another. Berger said, “That Sandman thing. Why don’t you do that?” But since Roy Thomas was already using the 1970s Sandman, she told Gaiman to “Just do your own.”
Back in the 1980s, it was assumed that any DC character would exist in the DC Universe, so Gaiman started wondering if his new Sandman “actually is the Lord of Dreams,” why hadn’t he appeared in DC stories before this? Gaiman thought “maybe he was locked up somewhere” and thus conceived the image of the Sandman as “a naked man in a glass box,” waiting for his chance at freedom, which is how the reader encounters him in the first issue of Sandman
When Gaiman sent in the outline for the first eight issues, “Karen wasn’t quite sure about it,” but Jenette Kahn and her second-in-command, Paul Levitz, liked the outline, and gave it the go ahead.
Gaiman confessed ”I started Sandman in a state of absolute delirious terror. I’d written some fiction, not much. But I’d never come up with one story every month.”
Kidd then asked one of many questions that had been submitted over the Internet: did Gaiman have the whole story of Sandman in mind from the beginning? “I knew the shape of Sandman from the beginning,” Gaiman stated, and that he always intended for it to conclude with “The Wake,” which follows the death of one of the major characters. “What I didn’t do is tell anybody,” he told the audience because “I knew what I was trying to do was impossible.” Despite his long range plan, “the only thing I was really concerned with is not getting canceled with issue number 12,” the point at which DC often ended series back then. Later, Gaiman said writing Sandman was “like saying I’m starting in Manhattan and going to hitchhike to Los Angeles. You know the shape of the journey. You don’t know what’s going to happen along the way, or how long it will take.”
At one point Gaiman told the audience, “Sandman was designed around the fact that the word ‘dream’ has more than one meaning.” It can mean the dreams one has when asleep, but it can also mean “dreams as in hopes and aspirations.” And it can also refer to “the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world.” Gaiman concluded, “That’s almost the engine that drove Sandman.”
When asked about upcoming projects, Gaiman told the audience he had news for them. DC had been soliciting The Complete Death, a collection of stories about the Sandman’s sister, to be published next year in deluxe format. “As of yesterday we canceled it. It will come out later in the year in Absolute format.”
But whatever happened to the Death movie? “Death: The High Cost of Living has been in development heck, which is like development hell but slightly more encouraging.” Gaiman recounted how the project had moved from Warner Brothers to New Line to Warner Independent back to Warners and now New Line again wants to do it. “That will probably happen unless it doesn’t.”
Kidd asked about Gaiman’s forthcoming Batman story that will run in Batman and Detective drawn by Andy Kubert. Gaiman said “I was talked into it by Dan DiDio,” the DC Universe’s executive editor. “He did not have to talk terribly hard.” DiDio asked Gaiman to do for Batman what Alan Moore had done for Superman in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” providing a possible conclusion to the series. “It’s my last Batman story.” He revealed, “t starts in a little bar in Crime Alley with Selina Kyle talking to Joe Chill,” the killer of Batman’s parents. “It’s really odd. Really, really odd.”
Were there any Sandman stories Gaiman never got to tell? “God, yes,” he replied. There was one about the dreams of an unborn fetus, which Gaiman decided not to do, fearing it would be misused by opponents of abortion. He “would still love to do” a miniseries about Delirium, as well as Sandman Zero, the tale of the great battle that preceded the Sandman’s imprisonment in issue one.
The last question from the audience was about how Gaiman first became interested in mythology. “I would have been about seven years old when I first picked up Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen because Thor was in it," whom he already knew from the Marvel Comics version. Hence, the “first jab in my veins,” was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s take on Norse mythology, which led him to read first the Norse myths and then those of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Gaiman added that “stories start out as holy,” as myths, reiterating that they are how we explain the world to each other.”
Kidd then concluded the evening by telling Gaiman, “We love what you do, keep doing it, and don’t die.” Gaiman promised he’d comply.