Dream On

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

Neil Gaiman, father of a dysfunctional family of seven immortals known as The Endless, never had any intentions of abandoning his children in 1996, when he stopped telling their tales in the pages of the most celebrated and deified comic book of the past 20 years. He merely needed to let his creations, among them the dour Dream and frisky Delirium and playful Death, move out of the house and out of his head so he could clear space for other dreams and nightmares, which he would soon enough turn into British television shows and best-selling, award-winning novels and beloved books for children. He always knew he would return to Sandman, the comic book he began writing in 1987, and that when he began again, he wouldn't be writing only for himself but for millions who had consumed his myths and fairy tales and horror stories during his time away. With them in mind, he had but one goal when commencing to write his latest batch of Endless tales.

"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."

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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.  

"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.

"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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