Neil Gaiman may not be a household name (except in his own, we suppose), but chances are good that somebody in your household has read one of his books (Good Omens, American Gods), or seen something written by him for screens both large (Beowulf, Stardust) and small (Neverwhere, Babylon 5). Among those comics and fantasy fans who do know (and revere) his name, his masterwork might still be the early 75-issue comic series Sandman. While initially presented as a horror comic, the complex stories defied easy categorization, and earned a devoted fan base that included Norman Mailer, Tori Amos, and most of the American goth population. As the pop-culture world braces for Comic-Con, Vulture spoke to Gaiman over the phone about the final volume of the Absolute Sandman collection, released just in time for Sandman's twentieth anniversary.
And don't miss Vulture's exclusive sneak preview of the twentieth-anniversary Sandman poster, with art by Jill Thompson, Tony Harris, Steve Leialoha, Mike Allred, Bryan Talbot, and more!
Twenty years later, do you remember what you were doing immediately before you pitched DC on Sandman? How were you able to get almost complete control on a character without having done much comics work before?
I think the main reason that I did it was that nobody really had a clue what I was doing, and that was a very good place to be. I was writing as a journalist. I had just written the first one and a half episodes of my very first American comic, which was this prestige comic-series thing called Black Orchid. And then I got a phone call from [DC comics editor] Karen Berger, and Karen said, "Uh, look, we've had a meeting and we're getting a bit worried. We're looking at this title, and we've got a guy that nobody's ever heard of, doing a comic that nobody's ever heard of, about a female character, and female characters don't sell. We're going to give you a monthly comic, and the whole idea is to raise your profile a bit."
And you suggested Sandman?
I phoned her up a few days later, and I said "What about the Phantom Stranger?" And she said, "No, we don't think he's heroic enough." "What about…" and I listed off characters, and every one somebody owned. And she's saying, "No, no, no." And then she said, "What about that Sandman thing you were talking about? Last time we had dinner, you were talking about a Sandman graphic novel of some kind. So I wrote the outline, sent if off to Karen … they didn't like it. And it sat on her desk, and apparently a week later the forces above asked if they could see the outline and they did like it. And Karen said, "Well, I wasn't really happy with it, but they liked it upstairs, so we're going to go with it."
And that was more or less the outline that became the comic that we know?
That was the outline. My theory on Sandman was that I was doing a comic that would be a minor critical success. Now you have to understand we're talking about a world in which "a minor critical success" for a monthly comic had for as long as I could remember been absolutely and utterly synonymous with "a major commercial failure." So time passed. Sandman comes out. I'm pretty proud of myself — what I've done is that I've plotted it for the first year. These days, in a severe market, if a comic isn't making any money, and you're at issue four, it's canceled. It's as easy and it's as simple and it's as straightforward as that. But back then, DC didn't like losing face. So they tended to give it a year. So I plotted Sandman for twelve issues.
But of course quite the opposite happened.
By issue eight we were selling more than anybody had ever done in the horror-comics context. And I had a free hand in that nobody was quite sure what this thing was and who was buying it. But everybody was very happy about it, and Karen — an editor of genius — decided that far and away the smartest thing they could do was just leave me alone and see what happened, which they did.
You were telling one long story over 75 issues. How did you convince DC to let you cancel a successful comic when you were finished?
Let's say, you know, a writer on Superman leaves, you get another writer. That's how you do it. That's how it's always been, because the ongoing monthly title is more important. This was something I was most worried about. And I began a sort of very lazy dialogue. I'd watched friends of mine fall afoul of DC Comics, and it seemed to me that every friend I ever had that had tried to go head-to-head with DC had failed. In cases of confrontation, DC always won. But maybe it would be possible to persuade them.
When I was asked in interviews if Sandman would continue after I left the title, I would answer, "The truth is, I would not want it to continue after I was done, and if it did, I would end my relationship with DC Comics, with no real hard feelings, and if it didn't, then I will continue my relationship with DC." As we got closer and closer to reaching the end, there came a point where Karen turned around to me and said, "It's probably better to end it when you're done," and I said, "Yeah, probably better."