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A Playboy Conversation with Neil Gaiman about ‘Sandman: Overture’ and What Haunts His Dreams

A Playboy Conversation with Neil Gaiman about ‘Sandman: Overture’ and What Haunts His Dreams: Kimberly Butler

Kimberly Butler

From the moment Sandman appeared in 1989, it was clear it was a different kind of comic book series. For 75 issues, Sandman’s creator, Neil Gaiman, explored a rich, mythological world where the most entrancing and terrifying dreams came to life in every panel. The collected editions of the limited series were New York Times best sellers, and Sandman quickly earned its place as one of the most respected and iconic graphic books of all time.

The tale told in Sandman begins in 1916. Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, has been summoned and imprisoned by the leader of an occult group. After more than 70 years in captivity, Morpheus escapes, but the world has suffered from his absence, and he must deal with the consequences. But how did Morpheus come to be captured? Gaiman answers this question in his latest collection, Sandman: Overture, which hits stores today.

To celebrate the release of the first new Sandman book in nearly 20 years, Playboy spoke with Gaiman about the legacy of the series, his hopes for an upcoming film adaptation and the things that go bump in his night.

Sandman was your first comic book series, and you once described the early issues as “awkward.” What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that if you have enough chutzpah and confidence, people will follow you anywhere, and if you seem to know what you’re doing, people will assume that you do. All fiction is fundamentally a confidence game: You are persuading people to believe things that they know are not true and to shed real tears over the tragedies and deaths of people who do not exist. Your confidence is the most important thing of all because if you believe in your characters, other people will, too.

DC Comics

DC Comics

The experience itself helped you gain confidence as a writer.

It did. Sandman was a giant course in trying to understand the story. I started out with lots and lots of theories about stories, but by the end of Sandman, I had reduced my definition of a story into anything that keeps the readers turning the pages and doesn’t leave them feeling cheated at the end.

What fascinates me about Sandman: Overture is I’m creating something that is designed to plug in—to literally plug in—to the awkward beginning of Preludes & Nocturnes. I hope in some ways it actually makes Preludes & Nocturnes a little less awkward. If you’ve read the entire series followed by Sandman: Overture, then I like the idea that if you come back and reread Preludes & Nocturnes, it’s going to feel a little different. There’s a deeper motivation, and there are reasons for doing things that you might now understand.

If you had to pick just one, what would you say is your favorite issue from the entire series?

Sandman #50: Ramadan, drawn by the amazing P. Craig Russell. Craig’s art was the most beautiful of any issue, with the exception of Sandman: Overture. We did something that shouldn’t have worked—an Arabian Nights story that ends up on the last page dragging you into the Baghdad of the first Gulf War.

The comics coming out in the 1990s were very political, and when Sandman came out, people used to grumble that it had no political content. Now I think it does. We were the first people to be boycotted by the American Family Association, and I’m still proud of that one. It was the first comic with a trans character as a heroine. I could list all these things that Sandman did first—some of it has now become a bit clichéd, and some of it is still out on the edge.

When the troops went back into Baghdad in 2003, I found news articles referencing Sandman #50, and I thought that was really weird. Then I thought, maybe we were political after all.

DC Comics

DC Comics

For many people, Sandman was their first introduction to comic books. What do you think accounts for the growing interest in the medium over the years?

I think it’s partly the fact that there’s a lot more out there now. When I came on the scene, preadolescent male power fantasies were the main thing, and it was just starting to move beyond that. At the time, the joy of writing Sandman was that it was a comic intended for the entire human race. It had lots of women in it because a lot of the people I knew were women. I wanted to write about women and men, so why shouldn’t I? Very soon after its first release, I would have large, unwashed gentlemen come up to me at conventions, thrust their hands into my hands and say, “You brought women into my store. I’d never seen women coming into a comic store, but now they buy that comic of yours, Sandman. Thank you, thank you.”

I love that, as far as I can tell, we’re absolutely heading closer to gender parity with people buying comics. It always seemed insane to me that you should have a medium that was mostly read by males. There’s nothing intrinsically male about a comic. We have so many amazing women writers and artists of comics, and more are coming on the scene. I think it’s fabulous.

Superhero movies dominate at the box office, but we’re not seeing comic book stories about women make it the big screen. What do you think can change that?

The biggest thing is that comics are always culturally way ahead. The plotlines you see on the big screen today are essentially the comics of 25 or 30 years ago. Twenty-five or 30 years ago in Hollywood, people would tell you fantasy movies do not sell, that science fiction was a dead medium, and the last thing they would make was a comic book movie. Comics just went off ahead.

As more women—artists, writers and readers—came into comics, they demanded stuff. It’s going to be the same way in Hollywood. I think women are less likely to put up with a lack of women. People ask, “Why is it that all the A-list directors are men?” There actually are absolutely fantastic A-list women, but nobody talks about them. Whenever I’m working on something like the American Gods TV show, I always ask, “Can we have some women?” This is a great list of men, but are there any people without penises that we can put on our list?

DC Comics

DC Comics

You mentioned the upcoming television adaptation of your novel American Gods on Starz. I heard the film adaptation of Sandman might be going into production next year. Is that true?

I don’t know. There’s a saying in Sussex I would hear when I was a little boy. Old men would tell me, “I’ve lived too near the woods to be frightened by an owl.” Since about 1995, people have been telling me that we’re probably a year away from the Sandman movie. We just need to get the script in, get it polished and we’re ready to go. I think it may well happen, and I hope it’s good when it does. But in the meantime, I’m not going to buy the popcorn for the premiere.

What is the heart of what you hope to see in a film adaptation?

If I ever get to see a film adaptation of Sandman, I’d like to see a sense of wonder—that moment when you realize, Oh my God, that’s Dream. That’s what he looks like.

I’ve been sent a couple Sandman scripts over the years that were such Hollywood action movies, and I’m glad to say none of them ever got made. When I saw those scripts, I thought, Oh no, why would you make this beautiful thing into that? It’s so much better than that.

I’m assuming Sandman will be a movie because it’s one of the jewels in DC Comic’s crown. But the things they’re doing with television these days, from Breaking Bad to Doctor Who, I think you could do with Sandman as well.

What haunts your dreams?

Libraries, attics and corridors. I have dreams where I’m always aware that there are other people in these rooms, but I never see them. I just hear them occasionally in the distance, and by the time I’ve reached the room, there’s nothing there but a piece of paper or a footprint in the dust.

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