This Is Not A Dream" - The Sandman and his creator
By Ian Rennie,
The name Neil Gaiman is not very well-known outside of the world of comics, those who know him outside of comics being aware of him mainly because of the series Neverwhere. The series caused a difference of opinion in its many fans. This difference of opinion is summed up by one of Gaimanís interviewers in the following words: "If someone was a fan of Doctor Who, they love it. If theyíre a fan of The Sandman, they seem to feel thereís a certain element, a certain darkness missing." This sums up the true effect of the Sandman series, both on Gaimanís own work, and on the medium he worked in. Few comics have had the influence on the world of comics that The Sandman has, and none have had the same amount of influence in the literary world as a whole, winning itís writer the HP Lovecraft fantasy award.
The history of the Sandmanís creation is already part of DC Comics mythology, but for those who havenít heard of Neil Gaiman before, it runs roughly as follows: In the mid 1980ís, a young journalist and writer called Neil Gaiman submitted a Swamp Thing short story to Detective Comics editor Karen Berger, who replied thanking him for the submission, but, in a not unpleasant way, rejecting it. This could have been the end of the story, and, in fact, Karen Berger thought it was, until, a short while later, the same idea was pitched at her by the same young journalist. After several further re-submissions of the Swamp Thing story and several other small works, including a copy of a mini-series he had already had published, Violent Cases, it became obvious to Berger that literate and eloquent as Gaiman was, at a crucial stage of his development, the word "Defeat" had been missed out of his vocabulary. Berger decided at this point to forget about Gaiman, and just let him keep resubmitting work, until he gave them something they wanted.
In 1987, Berger went on a talent spotting mission to Britain, to find good, unsigned, but above all cheap writers and artists for DC. One of the writers she spoke with pitched her several good, innovative ideas, for existing characters, and outlined several characters of his own devising. It was only towards the end of this first meeting that she connected the polite but persistent young man she was talking to with the shower of submissions that had found their way to her office. When the initial shock was over, and Berger could see the passion and intensity with which Gaiman talked about his ideas for comics, she signed him immediately. Of Gaimanís three initial suggestions, a series called Black Orchid, a series featuring a character called the Sandman, and a series featuring John Constantine, there were a few problems. Detective Comics already technically had a character called the Sandman, who had been featured in the 1940ís as a kind of sub-Batman crime-fighter, who put criminals to sleep with gas, and left them sprinkled with sand for the authorities to find. For the time being, The Sandman was well known enough to be troublesome if axed, but obscure enough not to warrant a revival. John Constantine, a well known modern DC character, was, at this point, enjoying a renaissance due to the writing talents of Jamie Delano, a DC regular, and Alan Moore, Swamp Thingís main writer. This left only one of the ideas offered by Gaiman, that of Black Orchid. Tying in with both Alan Mooreís revamped Swamp Thing, and the worlds of Batman and Superman, Black Orchid was an intelligent, unusual, but ultimately faintly distant piece of comic work which confirmed that Gaiman, and his artist colleague, the taciturn Dave McKean, were both formidably talented, and had the potential to become full time Detective Comics employees. In fact, this proved to be an unbelievable underestimate of their abilities, both as individuals in the comic industry, and as a creative team capable of redefining the way the world looked at comics.
After the initial publication of Black Orchid - in comic book format in America, reprinted as part of "Shockwave" in the UK, along with Animal Man, Catwoman, and Hellblazer (a story featuring John Constantine, one of the characters Gaiman himself had tried to sell a miniseries on) - Berger approached Gaiman with an offer of another series, but this time one completely of his own devising. Bergerís justification for this was that whilst Gaiman had shown his obvious skill in Black Orchid, it was perhaps too detached, too unconcerned to show his potential. There was perhaps a barrier that stopped a reader getting fully involved with Gaimanís characters. In a series of completely his own devising, Gaiman would have a greater chance of displaying his full ability as a writer. The actual title and subject matter of this new series were undecided, with Gaiman wishing to bring back a series of established but dormant DC characters, but Berger not being keen, reasoning that old characters would not have the creative scope or audience popularity of a completely new idea. Berger instead reminded Gaiman of their first conversation, and his desire to revamp the Sandman. The desire in this respect was not to bring back the Sandman, but Gaimanís musings about setting a story in the mobile landscape of dreams. Bergerís insistence at this point was that Gaiman created a new character. Gaimanís creative mind was set to the task.
In later years, Gaiman would insist that the devising of the character of the Sandman, "Seems less like an act of creation than one of sculpture: as if he were waiting, grave and patient, inside a block of white marble, and all I needed to do was chip away everything that was not him." This might seem, when first considered, to be a faintly pretentious thing to say, as this gives a sense of literally monumental importance to what is, after all, a comics character, but Gaiman is nothing if not serious about his characters. Even before he had placed pen to paper to write the plot outline of the Sandman, Gaiman already had a rough outline in his head, not only of who the Sandman was, but also of who his family were, how he fitted in to the various mythologies he inhabited, referring both to the DC universe, and to religion itself, and of what would happen to him, not just in the initial episode, or the initial series, but in the whole Sandman universe. For those unacquainted with the Sandman, the background to it is roughly like this:
The Sandmanís name is Morpheus, the king of dreams, and one of the Endless. Morpheus is not his only name, at other times he has been called Dream, Lord Shaper, Oneiros, and many other names. The Endless, Morpheusís brothers and sisters are, in order of age, Destiny, Death, Dream himself, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. The endless are not gods, indeed even the gods fall under their powers, for even gods have destinies, even gods die. The endless have, as their name suggests, been in existence as long as there has been existence to be in, indeed, even at the mythical time of the revolt in heaven, when Lucifer fell, Morpheus was there, in Gaimanís own words, "I watched him even then as he fell, his face undefeated, his eyes still proud.". Outside of the mythology, it is Morpheusís job to rule over the Dreaming, the night-time world of everyone in the world. Whilst this may sound like the sandman of fairy tales, a spreader of good dreams and scourge of nightmares, Morpheus is as much the lord of nightmares as he is of dreams. Dreams have, in their way, a huge amount of power, and Morpheus is one of the most powerful of his kin, although not as powerful as his sister Death, a chirpy, gothic lady who is, despite her job, incredibly upbeat.
Gaimanís first Sandman story, published now as a graphic novel by DCís Vertigo label, is, at first glance, fairly average comic fare, a super-powerful being imprisoned by his enemies, who subsequently escapes and seeks revenge. A reading on this level, however provides nothing of the true depth of the Sandman. The basic story-line is than in 1916 an occult group attempts to bind Death, thus gaining effective control over the world. The ceremony performed, however, succeeds in binding not death, but her younger brother, Dream. As Dream, weakened beyond endurance by a force, or forces, unknown, lies within the magic circle drawn by his captors, his tools of office, his pouch of sand, his helmet and his ruby, are taken from him, and he is imprisoned within a magic circle, which itself has a crystal ball mounted around it, so that both his spirit and his body are trapped. In the years following his capture, people begin to fall asleep, not waking up, but eating if fed, in an automaton state, or being unable to fall asleep, staying awake for weeks on end. Dream is perfectly ready to wait out his capture. His captors are mortal, he is not. The house he is trapped in would one day crumble and be destroyed, he would not. Being Endless, and therefore immortal, the Endless have what may be considered by many to be infinite patience. Morpheus knew that eventually he would win through. It is at this point that Gaiman links the world of the Sandman with that of DC, and the original Sandman, claiming that the imprisonment of Morpheus caused the universe to seek a replacement, found in Wesley Dodds, who, instead of sleeping at night, avoids his disturbing dreams about a pale, rake thin man with eyes and hair the colour of liquid darkness, by fighting crime at night, wearing his suit and helmet, whose designs came to him in a dream, and bear an odd resemblance to the tools used by Morpheus prior to his capture. Morpheusís escape was possible due to the momentary slumber of one of his guards, which allows the Sandman temporary access to dreams, and therefore to power, enough power to effect his escape. As Morpheus escapes, in the year 1988, all the eternal sleepers around the world returned to the land of the living, the trauma felt by his absence receding, as the Sandmanís influence returns to the land of the dreaming. Despite being freed from his capture and avenged upon his captors, Dream is without his tools, the pouch, filled with an infinite quantity of the iridescent sand of dreams, his helmet, crafted as his symbol of office from the bones of a dead god, and his ruby, crafted as a tool of power, long before a crust formed on the surface of this planet. This, the first Sandman story, is a tale of Morpheusís quest to recover his tools and trappings of office, with the aid, and occasional hindrance, of a variety of characters, including John Constantine - who is seeming to become a recurring theme in Gaimanís writing - the Triumvirate of hell - Lucifer, Beelzebub and Azazel- and the Justice League of America.
There are said to be two landmark issues when the potential of the Sandman is first shown. The first of these is issue six, titled "Twenty-four hours" which is an unusual, macabre horror story featuring a character called John Dee who has corrupted Morpheusís ruby, and is testing its powers. The reason this story is so special is that what could have been a slightly absurd story of power being twisted towards evil, is transformed, by Gaimanís writing, and Mike Dringenbergís remarkable artwork, into what Gaiman describes as "One of the few genuinely horrific tales Iíve written", this transformation is partly due to the way the storyline is set up, with each of the characters, described by Dee as "Raw material", being detailed, described, and then painstakingly killed by Dee, just because he can. One of the characters in particular, Judy, is given a great amount of detail, and frequently referred to in later books, being associated with characters in at least three other storylines. The other story that set the Sandman apart from other comics was the epilogue to the first storyline, an episode called "The Sound Of Her Wings" which showed Death for the first time, and also began to show the complex nature of Dreamís character, something which couldnít be shown when he was struggling to regain his power. The episode showed that Dream was more than just an almost omnipotent character, he was a flawed, neurotic character who, whilst being painstaking at performing his duties, has no interpersonal skills to speak of whatsoever. This is highlighted by Death, who points out that throughout all of his capture, his struggles to regain his tools of office, even his fight with Dee, he didnít call on any of the family. Deathís reaction to this, referring to Dream as "Utterly the stupidest, most self-centred, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!" begins to show what kind of story the Sandman could turn into, starring a virtually omnipotent character beset by character flaws and neuroses who has to occasionally be kept in check by his more sensible older sister. The important thing about the episode is that very little, in mainstream comics terms, actually happens. Some people die, granted, but they die of heart attacks, heroin overdoses, being electrocuted on accidentally live microphone cables, or cot death, and their deaths are seen as just part of Deathís duties. In the mainstream comics world, with a mainstream writer, this would hardly have warranted 2 pages, let alone a full issue, but in Gaimanís proudly unorthodox world, the issue is very important in a number of ways; in establishing the link between Dream and Death, in establishing Deathís character, and in raising the mood of desolation affecting Dream. It was, coincidentally, at around this point that the Sandman first began to receive the critical acclaim that it has achieved ever since.
The best of the Sandman stories are, arguably, the ones which feature the Sandman the least, for example "A Midsummer Nightís Dream" which won Gaiman a Worldís fantasy award, and was the story of Shakespeareís strolling players performing the first of the two plays commissioned by Morpheus, to an audience of Faerie. Gaiman was here playing with the interesting observation that the two plays that Shakespeare wrote which were completely unsourced - that is to say, no previous telling of the story by a different writer could be found - were "A Midsummer Nightís Dream" and "The Tempest", both of which concerned, in their way, dreams and illusions, and were considered to be Shakespeareís most imaginative works. The unusual idea that Gaiman is suggesting in this piece is that Dream gifted Shakespeare with the ability to write the plays that he knew he could write, if, in return, Shakespeare were to write two plays for Morpheus, "Midsummer Nightís Dream" and "The Tempest".
The Sandman also differs from the conventional comic in its seemingly disjointed nature, best shown part of the way through the "Dollís House" continuity. After three episodes, with all the major characters established, and with Gaiman beginning to move, not necessarily towards a conclusion, but definitely towards an increase in tempo, Gaiman suddenly moves the storyline from the present day to fourteenth century England, and tells an interesting, but in the circumstances completely irrelevant, tale concerning a character called Hob Gadling. Gadling announces to his friends that he has no intention of dying, upon which Morpheus approaches him and says that he must tell him what it is like, arranging to meet him again at the same tavern in a hundred years time. Gadling laughs this off, but is pleasantly surprised to still be alive and in good health at the time of their next meeting. The story progresses in a similar way, the characters meeting every hundred years, and we follow Hobís fortunes up to the present day. The skill that Gaiman shows here is in his use of the different time periods to make oblique references to the past, for example, in 1389, one of the background conversations, concerns a man called Geoffrey, who makes reference to a poem he is writing concerning pilgrims. It is only on the second or third read of this section, that the educated mind will catch this as a subtle reference to Geoffrey Chaucer, who would be writing the Canterbury Tales at this point. It is touches like this, enclosed in the stories in order, according to Harlan Ellison, to make sure "We know how goddam sharp he is", that do most in ensuring the Sandmanís continuing success, even after the finale of the series.
In its wake, the Sandman leaves a number of things: Primarily, it leaves two new comic series, one concentrating on Death, one on the Dreaming, and its myriad occupants, but as well as this legacy in its own medium, The Sandman has changed the way that the mainstream media look at comics more profoundly than any publication since Frank Millerís revamp of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. This is not the only connection between Batman and the Sandman, as The Sandman also seems to be destined for the movies, although Neil Gaiman does not hold out much hope for the resulting product, in which, according to Gaiman, "Theyíre talking about Brad Pitt for the Sandman. Iíve heard that the producerís comments on the latest draft are that it should start off with a big slam-bam fight scene between the Sandman and the Corinthian, and shouldnít there be a love interest?". Despite this apparent setback, Gaiman is optimistic about the future, having just written, with the aid of Lenny Henry, his first television series, the critically acclaimed Neverwhere. Gaimanís other plans for the future include further comic work on a series called Stardust, contracts to write and direct two films, and he is in discussion with ITV about a sequel to Neverwhere, with his condition being that he has control as director, not just as writer. All in all, the future is looking good for the King of Dreams.
The Sandman graphic novels are:
Preludes and Nocturnes, The Dollís House, Dream Country, Seasons of Mists, A Game Of You, Brief Lives, Fables and Reflections, Midnightís Theatre, Worldís End The Kindly Ones, and The Wake, as well as The Sandman book of dreams, short stories inspired by the Sandman.
These are all available from DC comicsí Vertigo label, at around £12-£15
Interview with Neil Gaiman by Ariel, from "The Alien Has Landed", issue three, (©1996 Darren Turpin and Paul Wake, in association with Waterstoneís Deansgate)
Afterword by Neil Gaiman from "Preludes and Nocturnes" (© 1991 Neil Gaiman, in association with DC Comics)
Episodes 1-8 of "The Sandman", from "Preludes and Nocturnes" (© 1988-1989 DC Comics)
Introduction to "Season of Mists" by Harlan Ellison, (© 1992 Kilimanjaro Corp.)