Dream On

Neil Gaiman returns to his influential, beloved Sandman

"The most remarkable thing is that Sandman as a comic has been out of print for seven years, and the graphic novels remain perennials," says Karen Berger, who more or less discovered Gaiman, became his editor and launched Vertigo around Gaiman's book. "We've sold more Sandman this year than five years ago, and that's the thing to look at: Neil's gaining new readers all the time, which is pretty remarkable."

Much of that, of course, has to do with his newfound success as a best-selling author--a writer of, ahem, adult narratives without pretty (and pretty disturbing) pictures and characters who speak and think in word balloons. In 2001, he published American Gods, in which the forgotten deities and abandoned myths of American settlers are gathered to do battle against modern gods, among them fast food and the Internet; it won all four major awards offered for works of science fiction. Last year saw the release of Coraline, a frightening "young adult" novel in which a young girl is abducted by mirror-universe versions of her mother and father, who want to keep, and perhaps eat, her. Just last month, Gaiman and a longtime collaborator, artist Dave McKean, published their second children's book, The Wolves in the Wall, about...well, wolves living in the wall.

But Gaiman says he's always had in mind a return to The Endless: He spoke with influential artist Barron Storey about collaborating on a story for the character Despair as long ago as 1996, proposing a book that would eventually become one of the seven "chapters" of Endless Nights. Gaiman says now he returned to the title because Vertigo allowed him to work with artists with whom he'd never collaborated, save one, and because when he quit Sandman in '96 he had yet to tire of the characters.

Panels from the Endless Nights story "Dream," written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Miguelanxo Prado
Panels from the Endless Nights story "Dream," written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Miguelanxo Prado

"Doing Sandman again was like a sort of high school reunion of all your best friends," he says of Death, Delirium, Dream, Destiny, Despair, Destruction and Desire--the seven Endless, each floating around Endless Nights. "You're really nervous that you're going to go back and it's all going to be different, and you go back and there's two minutes of stiffness, and Delirium comes in and says something, and all of a sudden everything's just where it was. Nobody's changed. The very smartest thing I ever did was stopping Sandman while I still loved it. The line that I used at the time was, 'I think I'd better leave while I'm in love.' As a result, the idea of Sandman still puts a smile on my face. I've never once looked up miserably and gone, 'Die, Sandman...' I mean, it's always a delight."

Gaiman insists he had no idea how huge the series had become till it appeared in paperback form and started selling by the thousands--and even then, he believed it thrived only among a boisterous, affectionate cult. After all, comic books in the late '80s and early '90s were not yet the research-and-development departments of movie studios searching for their next blockbuster franchise. They were pages populated by bright, literate men (Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Art Spiegelman) doing serious work (respectively, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, American Flagg and Maus) in a kids medium. Almost always, those titles were greeted with backhanded compliments that stung like slaps: They're comic books for people who don't read comic books. In that environment, Gaiman certainly never expected Sandman to survive longer than it took for it to disappear from the new-issue bins.

"When I started doing Sandman, comics were disposable pamphlets that would come out monthly," Gaiman recalls. "If you wanted to read ones that had come out even a few months ago, and if a lot of people wanted to read it, you might have to pay a couple of dollars. If nobody wanted to read it, you'd find it in the quarter bin--if you were lucky. And certainly nobody ever thought Sandman would have had this sort of strange, cool, cultural impact."

The amazing thing is, most who write about Gaiman now treat him like a "serious novelist" who's biding his time in comics--who's doing Sandman and 1602 to amuse himself till he finishes his next novel or starts shooting his big-screen adaptation of Death. It couldn't be further from the truth: He began in comic books, first as a child lost in a box of dreams and then as an adult who told remarkable stories, and will always work in the medium, no matter how thick his books become and how heavy the shelves groan with the awards they garner.

"I'll talk to journalists that are convinced that I'm a legitimate writer and a legitimate creator and that when I do comics I'm slumming," he says. "To me, it's not like slumming at all. It's like going on this wonderful holiday--going to this magical, brightly colored island, and it's somewhere that I love to go. I can already see myself saying, 'Good, this is really fun spending this time on the island.' And in four or five years' time, I'll come back again."

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