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"Please, God," he would say to whomever was listening, "don't let me fuck up." Gaiman, on the other end of the line from his Minnesota home, laughs when recounting his muse.
"I'm very, very, desperately proud of it," he says of The Sandman: Endless Nights, a hardback graphic novel being published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint this week. For the collection, a sort of family album in which each of The Endless is given a separate tale, Gaiman has assembled seven renowned artists, some of whom have never worked in comics. They are, as his editor at Vertigo says with a publicist's flair, Gaiman's "dream team."
"I just feel like I actually did the thing that I started out to do, and I don't think people are going to be let down by it," says Gaiman in his soft English accent. "That's the main thing, which may sound silly, but when you've done something like Sandman, which stands as a misbegotten monument, the main concern certainly becomes not to fuck up."
It is not hyperbole to say that Gaiman's return to Sandman is perhaps the most significant event in comic books this year--save, perhaps, for the cinematic adaptation of Harvey Pekar's glum autobiographical series American Splendor, which has rendered an underground icon a mainstream figure. If there is a constant theme in Gaiman's work, it's the exploration of unseen universes that co-exist with our own--what lurks on the other side of the locked door we can't open, what unfolds in the subconscious during our sleeping hours, what transpires in the tunnels that run beneath our feet.
If you have never heard of Gaiman, rest assured there is a world populated by fanboys and Goth girls where he is a superstar, a rock-and-roller brandishing a pen instead of a guitar. It is in this world where the publication of a new Sandman collection has been anxiously awaited since its creator looked elsewhere for his amusements and inspirations. (He's also writing an eight-part series called 1602 for Marvel, a sort of time-warp tale featuring the company's best-known characters in Elizabethan England drag.)
His original Sandman, which spanned the origin of the universe through present day, was a sprawling, moving, eerie and disquieting epic sold for two bucks a pop. It blended new myths with old legends, commingled manufactured fables with recorded history. Sandman--written by Gaiman and illustrated by an army of artists who offered a universe populated by gods and monsters, Shakespeare and serial killers and even the occasional superhero--would become legend, especially to those who found in Gaiman an author who made their own dreams substantive and tangible.
As much as Gaiman wanted Endless Nights to delight old fans welcoming back distant friends, he wanted it to be accessible to those newcomers. Some of the stories take place in distant lands centuries ago; some occur in the present. One opens up before the universe has even formed; another might be unfolding after it's gone. But it's a remarkable collection not only for the stories but the artwork--the conventional comic-book work of P. Craig Russell and Glenn Fabry, as well as the haunted abstractions of Barron Storey and Bill Sienkiewicz. "Coming back to it seven years later, I didn't know that I wouldn't mess it up until it was all done," Gaiman says. "But I had some wonderful artists, and I like to think they brought out the best in me."
In the seven years since he stopped writing Sandman, the title has become a franchise for AOL Time Warner-owned DC: There have been myriad spin-offs, a hardback Sandman Companion that dissects each panel of each page, the illustrated narrative Dream Hunters, even a Quotable Sandman collection. It has also taken on the baggage of myth among its acolytes, who discovered the title either at the comics shops or at bookstores, where the paperback collections continue to sell by the hundreds of thousands each year. Gaiman's return is especially fortuitous for Vertigo, which celebrates its 10th anniversary as a separate imprint this year. It might well be the first comic to hit the best-seller list since Art Spiegelman's Holocaust story, Maus, more than a decade ago: A buyer for the Borders chain told The New York Times on Monday that he's ordered the same number of copies of Endless Nights as he did the latest novel by best seller James Lee Burke.